Drinking… and television

posted in: Ethiopian project | 0

To begin with the most obvious: coffee.  This is what I drink to start my day, usually at the Film School, though the one pictured is at a pleasant local café.  I don’t know why it was accompanied there by a small pot of burning charcoal, which seemed to serve little purpose.  It wasn’t unpleasant, rather aromatic, but still a bit strange.  It is always served in tiny cups, with two or three spoonfuls of sugar, and always right to the brim; it takes a steady hand to take the first sip without spilling any.  It is frequently accompanied by a sprig of some herb, which you dunk in it, to give it a hint of something… herby.

There are other coffees available.  I did have a macchiato somewhere a bit more upmarket (though that too was served in a small glass), and I imagine if I lived in a more cosmopolitan area of the city they would have the more usual range on offer.  (I did spot a Starback’s near here, with a familiar, but subtly different, logo.)

I was, however, surprised to discover that tea is almost as popular. It is served in small glasses, disgustingly sweet, but without milk.  But when I ran out of the teabags I had brought from home, and bought a packet here, I was pleased to discover that it was as good as at home (or even a little better) so I am not suffering from withdrawal symptoms.

To move on to alcoholic beverages, on a night out with Biruk, he introduced me to a popular Ethiopian beverage, made from honey.  I had the sweet version, not unlike a sweet sherry, though he told me there is also a drier, stronger version… which I declined.  Its most striking feature is that it is always served in a distinctive bottle, closer to something you might find in a chemistry lab, with a round bowl and a long straight neck, around which you hook your fingers.

My usual drink, however, remains beer.  I tend to ask for Habesha, because I like the Ethiopian-style cartoon face on the label, but I have tried several others (when the mini-market ran out of Habesha) and they all seem pretty much the same: standard 5% lager.  But then, I reckon they all taste the same in England too.  No connoisseur me.

The other drink here, and most ubiquitous of all, is bottled water, contributing to the empty plastic bottles you see everywhere.  They do provide some sort of pittance for the young boys (and one very old lady) seen collecting them in enormous plastic sacks, but that is scant compensation.


If I hadn’t resigned myself to accepting whatever happens with the rehearsal schedule, I might have found today very frustrating.  In my head, today was supposed to be dress rehearsal day, in preparation for two performances.  But we are now down to one performance, and as yet no set, no music, costumes for the whole cast a work in progress…  But we did manage another run-through – with some small improvement.  Probably the most interesting thing about today was the arrival of a TV film crew.  They shot some film of me conducting a warm-up, playing zip zap boing, doing some character work, and then shooting a couple of scenes from the play, which actually went quite well.  And then Alazar, Binyam and I were interviewed… though in my case I delivered a speech, there being no-one there with good enough English to ask me questions.  I suppose I have to hope, since I am here on a tourist visa, that some sharp-eyed immigration official doesn’t happen to catch me on whatever obscure channel it might or might not appear.

October 31st 1983

posted in: The way back | 1

Oro Bay harbour

Joe was already up + away to work when we stirred ourselves, but after breakfast we packed our belongings (now including one extra pair of shorts, + 3 shirts, donated by Katie) + loaded them into the car ready to go into town.  On the way, tho’, Katie took us on a tour of the plantation, + tho’ her commentary wasn’t very informative, it was stil interesting to see the housing developments, the row upon row of tree, + the offices, where 5 years before there’s been just bush.  Katie is a terrific talker too, tho’ not all of it is the sort of thing that is of much interest to us.  There is a hell of a lot of internal politics within the company, + tho’ she pretends to be uninterested in such things, it is easy to tell that she is a seasoned + experienced in-fighter.  There is much talk of seniority, of what wives are expected to do, + of what wives refuse to do, + I think that for all her derision + scorn, Katie revels in it.

She took us then to Popondetta city centre, which wasn’t a centre at all, of course.  Like Moresby, if you weren’t told it was there, you could easily miss it.  Our first stop was at the NGFA shipping office, where Katy knew some people, + the guy there, Lance, a Kiwi, was very helpful, thjo’ Katie did rather bully him into being so.  He rang the Police for us, to report in after the Trail, which saved us some time + effort, but on the shipping front the news was much less good, since it seemed there was  no boat to Lae until Thursday.  This left us with the problem of where to stay, since there is only one hotel in Pop, that is a dump, + it costs 100K a  night.

We did a little bit of shopping, mainly for surgical stuff to patch up our feet, + then Katie drove us out to see a friend of hers, a young Anglican missionary called Father Timothy.  We had tried to ring him, but had only succeeded in locating another fellow who had been less than enthusiastic in his welcome.  So Katie took us out to Timothy, a bridge friend, it seemed.  It took us a little while to track him down, but we finally did so, + Katie was finally able to unload us.  I’m sure she had enjoyed fussing over us,   but enough was enough.  So we said goodbye + promised to write.

Tim (I think the Father Timothy bit was half for the benefit of the locals + half a sort of joke) was very nice, but not really able to do much.  A local priest had been ordained bishop yesterday, so they were absolutely swamped with people.  I wish we had been able to see it actually, as it had evidently been quite some spectacle, with thousands of people present, many of them dressed in traditional costume.  We shared some lunch, + chatted about various things – the problems of missionary work in PNG, travel in Africa – + then Tim suggested we travel out to Oro Bay, the port to Popondetta, this afternoon.  There was a chance there might be a boat a little sooner, but even if not, Oro Bay was a  nicer place to spend a couple of days than Pop, especially since he would give is a letter of introduction to one of the nurses at the hospital there.  There was a chance, he told us, of staying in a spare house there.  So we said tentative farewells to Tim, + stationed ourselves on the road.

Within 20 mins, luck smiled on us again, for who should come driving along but John, (Jim’s boss at HOPPL) + Jim, driving along to Oro Bay in John’s Range Rover – a far more comfortable ride than we’d anticipated.  They had business to see to at the port itself first of all, where HOPPL has huge storage tanks for the palm oil, but that took only 20 mins or so, + then they were good enough to seek out the hospital for us, + deliver us into the hands, not of Sister Nancy, for she was away, but her assistant, Sister Annette.  She was very kind, tho’ she was busy, but provided us with tea + cake, before showing us up to the vacant house.  It was not, however, as we had anticipated, a rude villager’s shack, but had been the doctor’s house when the hospital had had a doctor, + tho’ dusty + dirty now from neglect, it did have running water (tho’ not for drinking), electric light when the generator was running – 4 hrs every night ) beds, chairs, crockery.  It was a huge place, even with a fridge + cooker, tho’ neither were connected, + it was a crying shame it was now unoccupied.  An empty house, that has been well-used, is so sad.  Where are those people now?  The house is now earmarked for the use of a maintenance man, but it seems they can’t attract, or haven’t been allocated, one of those either.

For our meal, Val + I finally had the sausages + beans I’d bought at Kokoda – we’d pre-cooked the sausages at Katie’s place to help preserve them for their travels.  And in the evening we paid a social call on Annette + Nancy, passing a pleasant hour or 2 with them.  Nancy has been in PNG for 23 years now, her current function being as principal of the training centre, situated at the hospital, for  nurse aids + assistant post-orderlies (these latter being a sort of low-level barefoot doctor, living + working in the villages.)

Picked our way home in the dark, managing to slip in the mud more than once, + then I finished reading the Sunday Telegraph that Timothy had given us, a mere 2 weeks out of date.  Nothing seems to have changed back home, nothing at all.  Tho’ Sir Ralph Richardson has just died, which saddened me.  Tho’ I have no doubt some future great actor-knight has just been born.  Births + deaths, hatches + dispatches.  We then climbed, for the first time ever, under a mosquito net, but either because it was old + holey, or unable to cope with a double bed, or not hung properly, it was almost entirely useless for is professed function.

Falling on our feet, volume 2. Several times, so it would seem, with thye ex-pat community giving us a helpful nudge or two. And then even more so at Oro Bay clinic, which was remarkable. Serious apologies over the lack of photos of any of our benefactors – Katie and Joe, Father Timothy, John and Jim, Sisters Annette and Nancy – not a single photo of any of them. It was the ex-pat community in PNG that took care of us virtually throughout, but it did seem to be more difficult to take photos. I think they were more formal occasions back then, while now, when everyone has a phone, hence a camera, in their pocket, and they get used far more regularly.

Costumes… and some observations

And so we have arrived: production week.  I feel surprisingly relaxed about things.  I don’t know if it is because I have mellowed; at one time I would have been in a state of high nervous tension at around this stage.  But I seem to be able to adopt a far more que sera attitude nowadays.  It is, after all, only a play.  And looking at events around the world does lend a greater sense of perspective.

I arrived early (I may be more relaxed, but I still need time to pace and think.)  But as the others began to arrive, so did the rain, with heavy grey clouds on all sides.  And this is at a season when, so I have often been assured, it does not rain.  Huh!  We retired to the classroom, and waited for the rest to join us.

Binyam and his wife Beza turned up bearing bags with various costume items.  Beza had made costumes for both sets of twins, and though they may have been a little bright and shiny for my taste, but they were traditional in style, and certainly served the purpose of conveying the twins’ similarity.  The Prince too had a splendid embroidered cloak, but everyone else was in their normal modern garb, so I tried to put across to Binyam that they all needed to look as though they existed in the same world.  I was not expecting Beza to magic up costumes for everyone, but thought it likely that they could manage for themselves items with a more traditional feel. And, though I could not be sure what Binyam was saying, it seemed the message was conveyed, and that they would bring in such items tomorrow.

With the sun having come out and dried the terrace, we returned there to rehearse some of the physical scenes that they were not yet getting right, and then attempt a run-through.  They almost remembered the structure, with just the one big glitch, and in general I was pleased – It was an improvement on Saturday.  Still no flats, more costumes to come, no sound… but all that for tomorrow.


Some other observations.  I have realised that I may have given a slightly misleading impression of Addis Ababa.  Understandably, I have focused in my more general blogposts upon those aspects of life here which are different, more exotic – the poverty, the traffic, etc.  But Addis is not a medieval throwback.  Sure there are battered taxis and minibuses, and occasionally herds of goats, but there are also modern saloons, pick-ups, SUVs, just like everywhere else.  And there is a clear middle-class, smartly-dressed office-workers and the like.  They may not be paid as much as they ought, but that’s a normal situation too.

But Ethiopians do like to pride themselves on their exceptionalism.  They are the only African nation never to have been colonised, and they have a proud and ancient history, with a civilisation roughly co-existent with the Greeks.  And, as I discovered today, their own unique way (I think) of measuring time.  I had had my suspicions of something of the kind, with frequent confusion as to when rehearsals were starting, but today I was told of their own clock, which starts when they and the sun rise, in other words six hours behind ours.

I knew already that their calendar was different too; I had been here for their new year in September.  But what I didn’t know is that they have thirteen months; twelve of thirty days each, and then a religious holiday for five days (during which, apparently, they are not paid… though they do still have to pay rent.)  And actually, when you think about it, both ideas have a modicum of sense.  Having every month the same length is a sensible way of organising things, instead of our confusing mish-mash, explained by a rhyme.  And why should our day start in the middle of the night, when most people are asleep.  Regrettably, I can’t see the rest of the world changing, however sensible it might be, but Ethiopia seems quite happy to tread its own path.

October 30th 1983

posted in: The way back | 0

A day which illustrated our usual ability to fall on our feet when we have to.  Not that things began well.  We were up early, packed + on our way out at 7.10.  On our way to the corner that I’d been told was the best place to pick up a PMV, another guy told us he was waiting for one too, so we waited there, by the shop.  Sheltered in the doorway from the drizzle, + sure enough a PMV came along fairly soon.  Everybody rushed to climb aboard, but having heavy packs, we were a bit slower, + by the time we got there, it had zoomed off again, leaving us behind.  All we could do was look at each other bemusedly, then return to the shelter of the shop, + wait to see if there was another one – local opinion was pretty divided on the subject.  One guy who came along told us he had a letter in his house from the others, + he went off to fetch it, but we never saw him again, so never received it.  And then another bloke told us that if there were another PMV, the best place to pick it up would be down at the corner, the place we’d been going to go first of all, so we hobbled off there.  Val’s foot was in a dreadful way by this time, so as we were  now right outside the hospital, she went in, only to emerge 20 mins later with it heavily bandaged.  Chatted for a while there with Arnold + Russell, 2 local guys who seemed drunk but were very anxious to help us if they could.  We decided ultimately tho’ to give up for the day, return to the guest-house, + try again in the morning.  It was very likely that, today being Sunday, there’d be no more traffic.

Val put my boot on over her bandaged foot, and we started to hobble back to the guest-house.  Val was very slow, of course, so I sent her on ahead while I went to the shop + bought us a pack of frozen sausages, a tin of baked beans, + a couple of cokes.  When I got back to the guest-house, Val was standing outside the museum next door, chatting with a white lady.  She was English, as it turned out, but living out here.  Her husband Jim (he was over at the memorials) worked for the Commonwealth Development Corporation, who were setting up a big palm oil industry in the area.  Katie was very nice, + offered us a ride to Popondetta, in the back of their pick-up.

We accepted, of course, but it was quite a ride.  The road was very bumpy in places, + Jim drove very fast, so that on several occasions we were flung into the air.  What it would have been like in the back of the PMV with 6 or 7 others, I shudder to think.  It made for an exhilarating ride tho’.  The nicest thing about it was that all along the road, whenever we passed anyone, they would wave, so of course one had to wave back.  It made me feel like royalty… except that royalty rarely travel in the back of a pick-up.  We were driven to J + K’s house, 10 miles or so before Popondetta,  but this was much as expected, since they had mentioned giving us a cup of coffee.  When we stopped tho’, that invitation was upped to an invite to stay the night.

The house was an absolutely fabulous place, set in the middle of a sort of upper-class housing estate on which the senior executives of the place lived, but even if it hadn’t been, we would have had no hesitation in accepting.  Katie took Val under her wing, + they got busy on the washing, while Jim + I shared beer, chocolate + conversation.  Then, when Val + Katie had done their stuff, we had lunch – bacon, egg, + tomato.  Beautiful!

The afternoon was passed lazily, Val spending much of it languishing in the bath, + then we all went down to the club grounds, just a couple of hundred yards away, part of the estate.  They had a pool there, so Jim + I swam a little.  He’s a remarkably fit man, particularly in view of his age – he’s close to retirement – + easily outswam + outdived me.  Not that that is much of an achievement in itself.  He then played tennis with his boss + boss’s wife.  I would have enjoyed playing myself, particularly when I saw the standard was a little below mine, but everybody else was in whites while I didn’t have any gear, + in any case it was clear that some sort of traditional ritual was in progress, + it wasn’t my place to intrude, so I sat + watched.

When we returned, it was my turn to languish in the bath, + then it was dinner.  Another couple had previously been invited, Sue + Andrew, but they were very nice, + we all drank, + then ate, rather too much.  S + A had been invited round to play bridge, but K + J dropped out, so the rest of us played, tho’ not very well, me partnering Sue.  Katie watched on, while Jim read his sailing book, while the rest of us stumbled along cheerfully – not the way I envisaged the day at the beginning.

So, as I say, falling on our feet. At the time, we knew nothing about the palm oil industry, though of couirse we are now aware of the ecological damage. Evidence of this was there at the time, however – shown in the accompanying photo – though I can’t remember the circumstances. Clearly we were, once again, deriving benefit from having a white skin… though, as we wereto discovere, it had its downside too. Bit for the time being, especially after the privations of the past week or so, we were enjoying being trated royally… and in more ways than learninga regal wave.

Street commerce

posted in: Life in Ethiopia | 2

It is obvious that Ethiopia is suffering from economic woes.  There may be tall glittering skyscrapers and other fancy modern buildings, but at their base are often tin-shack shanty towns.  There are thousands more buildings under construction, but the vast majority show idle building sites, the country unable to afford the steel, cement, marble to complete them.

One response to this is that just about everywhere is overstaffed.  Every shop, every restaurant has far more workers than there is work for them to do, which leaves many standing around with little or nothing to do.  Security is one area which occupies a huge number of people; just about every business seems to have two or three people stationed on the door.  Even the small slightly more well-stocked mini-market that I sometimes frequent has either one or two people stationed on the door, a couple of metres away from the checkout.  And their major function is to take the receipt I have just been issued with, and scrawl a line across it in biro before I can exit.

Even so, there are simply not enough jobs to go round.  On the corner of the street by the Arat Kilo roundabout is a long noticeboard, entirely filled with closely printed notices (in Amaric script of course, so I cannot guarantee what they say), but it always has a crowd of people scanning it avidly, making notes on their phones.  It seems that the challenge for many of those who cannot find jobs is to make a living on the street.  At its most basic level, this means selling things.  There are displays of various items laid out on the street; books, kitchen implements, hair grooming products, small tables with a range of sweets, tissues and the like.  And for those without what are presumably more or less permanent pitches, there are masses of people selling single items: plastic storage boxes, ear-buds, shirts, whatever.  I only have a partial view, but I have yet to see a sale being made.  The ones I have most sympathy for are the people carrying a pile of some twenty or so books.  They do tend to make a beeline for me when I am spotted drinking juice outside a café, somehow extricating from the pile without losing the lot, the titles they think I will be most interested in: Amaric for Visitors, and the more inspirational From A Shepherd to a Surgeon.  I fear that neither tempt me.

One of the groups of pavement tradesmen that are most numerous are the shoe-shine boys (and men, and – yesterday I spotted – two young women.) I had supposed this to be a dying art, now that the majority of shoes worn are not leather, but actually they have seized the opportunity to demonstrate their versatility, taking on trainers, cloth shoes, white pumps…  There are too many of them, of course – there must be thirty that I pass on my daily walk – but actually they do seem to do pretty brisk business.  Middle-class Ethiopians take a real pride in their appearance, and this includes their shoes.  And with the state of the pavements in Addis, this must mean regular cleaning. I decided to have my own trainers cleaned, and was very much impressed by the care and attention they received.  First the laces were removed, (quite an achievement in itself, seeing as there was a long-standing and tightly pulled knot in one of them, which my man took little time to deal with), then they were washed and scrubbed, then brushed.  The laces themselves were then washed and squeezed dry, before being laced back again, and my shoes re-tied.  It was clear that there was some pride taken in doing a good job.  I thanked him, paid the standard 20 Birre fee, and then gave him a few more coins before taking his picture, already at work on the next customer.

Oct 29th 1983

posted in: The way back | 1

Our very last day on the Trail, but also the day we finished, so I may as well describe the whole day.  Awoke early with the help of the alarm clock, + set about cooking our breakfast + packing by candlelight.  Even so, by the time we were ready to leave, it was later than we wanted it to be, about 7.15 or so.  It should be an easy day today, out to Kokoda, just 13 kms, provided we could manage the 2 river crossings OK, but we wanted it all to be over + done with.  It was also very dismaying to see the rain still coming, down, but we couldn’t sit around all day waiting for the rain to stop – we had to be off.  Not a particularly auspicious start to the day when we encountered the goats of Isurava almost immediately, but we survived the encounter, + were soon trudging our way thro’ the mud away from them.

The river crossings were both a piece of cake, in fact – all that worrying for nothing, + from then on it was just a case of keeping on going, mostly down, until, with huge relief, we came upon the village of Hoi.  This was a new village, not marked on our 1973 map, but very attractive, with lots of grass in the central area (I should explain – nearly all the villages we encountered were built to a similar system, houses on stilts, usually thatched with palm + with plaited bamboo walls, grouped around a central area.)  We could only find 2 boys in the place, everyone else, they told us, being at church (Seventh Day Adventist is very strong in all the villages), but they supplied us with paw-paw + we rested for a while.  The sun was out by now, + was fiercely hot, so we sat in the shade.

And then on, the final push, the last 5 kms.  From here on, there were groups of huts every few 100 metres, and our itinerary, with such a wealth of landmarks after the previous paucity, no longer seemed to make sense, but we asked the way whenever we could, + were kept moving in the right direction (with wildly improbable estimates as to the time it should take us.)  The last 2 or 3 kms were very difficult – we were on a road by now, + it was going as it should thro’ a rubber plantation, but it seemed to stretch out forever beyond us, + Val in particular was really suffering with her foot by now.  However, we made it, dragged ourselves to a convenient couple of benches under cover, + therefore cool, + shed first our packs, + then our boots.  Bliss.  We were in a disgustingly filthy state, so Val hobbled to a nearby standpipe to commence washing body + clothes, while I sought out a shop, + bought us a coke each.

We were then approached by a local fellow who offered us the local guest-house, complete with running water, for just 2K each.  We accepted immediately, + lugged our filthy selves + things there.  The place was, in truth, a bit of a hole – it was filthy, one of the 4 beds had no mattress at all, + another one in such a disgusting state we almost hesitated before putting our packs on it.  But it provided shelter, light + running water, 2 of the beds were respectable, + we had the place to ourselves, so it suited us admirably.  Thee water, in truth, was a bit on + off, depending on who else in the area was using the supply, but we managed.  Val was somewhat immobile by now, so she sat on the bed, + did her best to sort out our packs – basically this meant emptying them completely + spreading the contents around the room – while I performed the more mobile tasks.  Prime among these was doing my best to remove as much mud as possible from our clothes.  The socks seemed impossible – no matter how many times I rinsed them, I simply turned the water to instant mud, so eventually I left them soaking, + went out to look around + buy provisions.

Wandered over first to the War Memorials – they have 3 main ones, for Australians, for native carriers, + for all soldiers killed in the campaign, which just shows the changing consciousness as one grows further from war.  I then went shopping, being sent on a bit of a wild goose chase  but ultimately worth it, buying a can of meat, a can of green beans, + a couple of beers.  I tried desperately to buy potato of some description, but without success.  It was, nonetheless, a feast.

Soon after, Val was asleep, but I had found some energy somewhere, + stayed up for quite a while longer, doing various chores, and then writing a little addition to a letter Val had started to her mum.  I nearly started writing some of this, but decided I really should get some sleep, so lay down with the Walkman, + listened to that.

One thing I’ve forgotten – news of the other 5.  They had stayed in the guest-house the night before, + had, we’d learnt, caught the PMV in the morning.  While I was out, more news – a young, well-spoken lady gave me a note from June with her address, plus the news that they were on a boat to Lae tonight.

One enormous mystery is what happened to October 28th, which seems to have disappeared entirely. I have gone over the entries in both the4 diary and the letter, but can only surmise that Val somehow dropped a day off in her day by day account. Which doesn’t seem to me to make a great deal of sense, but perhaps it needs more careful reading.

But we were done, we had made it, and we felt pretty well satisfied by the achievement. We certainly enjoyed even the relatively squalid conditions of the hut, which seemed luxurious in comparison with what we had experienced over the last few days. And now we were on the north coast of New Guinea, with more towns to explore.

Rehearsal blues

posted in: Ethiopian project | 0

However frustrated and depressed I might feel after a rehearsal – and I am frequently both – I am generally able to pick myself up and arrive at the next in a cheerful and positive mood, and with a plan of action… however much that is immediately derailed by events (chiefly the late or non-arrival of key actors).  So I should not have been surprised when two of the twins, one from each pair, on whom the heart of the play relies, were not able to be there on Thursday morning.  We were forced to focus on the prologue, in which they are not involved.  Since this is the section of the play with which they are most comfortable, it was scarcely a priority; on the other hand, none of it is exactly over-rehearsed – a considerable understatement – so it was useful nonetheless.And we could also pay more attention to the ending, for although this contains the final revelation, in which all four twins appear on stage at the same time for the first time, it does involve just about everyone.  It had not been a great rehearsal, inevitably slow, clumsy and stilted, but at least we had not wasted our time.But if Thursday was disappointing, Friday was worse.  When, eventually, everyone had arrived (they do come from all over the city, so this is always a problem) we attempted a run-through (or at least a stagger.)  As usual, the prologue was fine; not great, but fine.  But as soon as we moved on to the meat of the story, relying upon the rapid interchange of the four main characters, it fell apart almost immediately.  Atala missed her first cue while fetching a drink of water, Abraham flew into a rage when his on-stage partner failed to show and stormed off stage in a huff, and the whole cast started shouting at one another (in Amaric, naturally), and even Yohannes- wonderful, rather brilliant Yohannes – kicked a plastic pot in sheer frustration.I think I may have been the calmest there, and called them all off-stage to go for a debrief in the classroom, where they could all regain their composure and I could talk to them.  It was unfortunate that we needed Alazar to open the room, for he then took it upon himself to conduct an inquest, give them a bollocking, and then conduct a long discussion.  At least, that is what I was pretty sure what was happening; since it was all in Amaric, I could only wait for them to finish before regaining some control.It was clear that they did not know the structure of the play, and I promised to provide a scene list for the next day.  But I also did my best to reassure them that this was not the disaster they feared, that I had experienced far worse (true), and that we had time to sort it out.  And then we went back out onto the terrace and stumbled through, with me intervening to tell them who was on next, and where from.  And somehow, we got to the end of the play.One of the things that had been agreed was that we needed more rehearsal time, and so it had been arranged that we would all come in today, Saturday.  I gave out the promised scene-lists, but as we were at first missing the main characters in the prologue, we began with the section immediately following.  I did have to be a little stern at this point.  They had become accustomed, whenever any scene that they were involved in was finished, to congregate in the café area.  This meant that they nearly always missed their cue, and also relied on me to tell them when to get on stage.  They were never going to learn the play this way, so I insisted that they remain in their places backstage, ready for their cue.And once we made it to the end of the play, we went back to the beginning and started again (not as draconian as it sounds – the whole thing only lasts thirty minutes.)  And this time they got all the way through the whole play (almost) without any intervention on my part.  And bits of it were OK… which was a massive improvement upon yesterday.  And it gave everyone – the cast, Binyam, me – the hope that just maybe it might be alright.


My daily walk

posted in: Life in Ethiopia | 0

Not every day perhaps, but most; a step by step account of the trip from apartment to Film School:

First important step is remembering to double-lock the apartment door before going down the nine flights of stairs.  I forgot once, having rehearsals on my mind, but remembered at the bottom of the stairs… so had to plod back up.  Then out through the yard, past the guard-dog on a chain (permanently, I fear.)  He’s not scary at all, but goes absolutely bananas whenever a stranger comes in, but has an excellent memory, for after one encounter he just carries on dozing.

Along the dusty track lining the valley, with the concrete drainage pipes stacked up on the side, then around the corner and past the mini-market, before a sharp right turn and up the hill to the main road.  It is on this stretch that I nearly always meet the family in the photo above, sitting on the ground in the same spot.  I have developed something of a relationship with them, the oadies smiling and waving, while with the little girl we have developed from lots of hellos and bye-byes, to high fives, to dancing, to a hug, to showing me her drawing book.  One of the things I like most about them is that none of them have made any indication of wanting money… and as a consequence I gave them a relatively generous donation recently.

Then turn right at Angla Burger on the main road, past my favourite ATM – it always says Good morning or Good afternoon Mr C D Walters, and offers a larger maximum amount – then picking my way along the broken pavement, past the ranks of shoe-shine boys, (and men.)  Then past the swanky new News Agency Office, with the beautifully tended flower bed outside, and then the almost derelict old News Agency offices next door, and weaving through the permanent line of cars queuing to get into the petrol station.

A bit of a hike to Arat (Four) Kilo roundabout, to cross the major road coming into it, almost (though not quite) like a natural – wait for the merest gap, then step out and keep moving, rather than playing will he/won’t he with the motorists (while I at least am always keeping a wary eye out for the ones who quite clearly are not going to stop.

And then it is just another couple of hundred yards to the Film School building, entered via an unprepossessing door at the side of a shop selling embroidered cloaks, and up the 89 steps to the top floor.  At which point, I regain my breath, then treat myself to a biscott, a delightful plain savoury roll that I dunk in my coffee.

Art, culture etc

posted in: Life in Ethiopia | 0

I have ventured out very little in Addis.  During the week I am involved with rehearsals from morning till mid-afternoon, and that leaves little time for exploring.  And though I have tried to organise trips to other parts of the city (and beyond) at the weekends this has had mixed success.  So apologies if this is very much a partial view, and I am leaving out some spectacular works of public art.

For the most part, art seems to be largely confined to large statues or structures in the middle of roundabouts.  Arat Kilo’s has a large obelisk in the centre; another I have seen has the usual sort of statue, some ruler or other on horseback (though this is the only evidence I have seen of horses in Ethiopia.)

Other than that, I have visited one of the larger, older museums, as part of an organised tour, during my reccy trip here in September.  Its prize exhibit some bones from the skeleton of Lucy, proclaimed as mankind’s oldest ancestor (though I am sure the Cradle of Mankind in South Africa says much the same thing.)  I prefer my history to be rather more modern, closer to something I can relate to, so I was not overly impressed.  The rest of the exhibits were sparse and a little random, and the whole place was old-fashioned and a bit shabby.  It has now faded from my memory; a few pots, some depictions of rulers, some paintings, and Haile Selasse’s open top automobile.

That same toyur took me to one of Addis’s many parks, high up on a hill overlooking the city, but actually it was not much more than a viewpoint, and as it was an overcast day…  But the park did include the much photographed 3D construction of the word E HIOPIA, with the T deliberately omitted, so that it can be completed by a person with their arms outstretched.  Ethiopia is not complete without its people, you see.

At one time, Val and I did think that it might be possible to walk down through the city, using its parks as green “stepping-stones”, and on one of my first days here, I did make my way to the nearest, Friendship Park (it seemed quite the adventure at the time, though I now know it to be just down the road.)  I soon discovered the drawbacks to this plan: first of all, it costs 100 birre to get in; secondly, each park only has one gate, the rest of the perimeter guarded by a high fence.

Despite the fact that the only gate said vehicles only, it was the only way in, so I marched through, only immediately to be surrounded by three security men.  They were smartly dressed in suit and tie, so I hoped this indicated some level of education, in particular some English.  No, none.  But they searched my bag and discovered my small, compact camera, and it was firmly indicated that these were not allowed, or at least incurred a hefty charge.  What about my phone?  Phone OK.  I did attempt to point out the absurdity of this rule, since most phones are also cameras, but it seemed rules were rules.  It appeared that the park was a popular venue for graduation and wedding photos, with professional photographers bearing large cameras and larger lenses, and that my little camera automatically fell into the same category.  In the end, I had to submit, and left my camera in their care.

The park was impressive in many ways, with attractive walkways and gardens, and a really impressive children’s playground.  But apart from a lively game of football on the all-weather pitch (available for hire), the place was almost deserted.  There were installations which came to life as you passed, playing recorded music, a maze of aromatic herbs and grasses, a café, and all of it immaculately tended (in contrast to the mess and mayhem outside… but I was one of the very few to appreciate it.

The two huge peacocks pictured, guarding the entrance to some or other government building, were my favourite pieces of art, and are but a short walk away from where I live.  On my trip around the city with Biruk, we came upon an almost companion pair of birds, two enormous doves, complete with olive branches in their beaks.  But Biruk unformed me firmly that it was forbidden to photograph these, as they marked the entrance of the Ministry of Defence.

October 27th 1983

posted in: The way back | 1

Val’s letter extract, Day 6

“The next morning we slept later to get enough rest, and when we had breakfasted, packed up our wet things, and tramped off into the mud, it was obvious that we wouldn’t catch up with the others.  The rivers were swollen, and we sat for an hour by a crossing until a native lady came down the trail on her way to her garden.  And of course, it was embarrassingly easy to cross once she showed us where the stepping stones were.  But she had the advantage that she had been crossing that same place since she was about five.

Although our packs were becoming lighter, we were getting more tired with each day – the rainy season has started early this year, and every day the clouds build up and the rain sets in.”


In the broadest sense, from the smallest to the biggest, thereby hoping to leave out as little as possible.  The very tiniest were gnats (no, not mosquitoes),+ we only noticed these in one small area, along the wettest part of the track, just north of the Kokoda Gap.  They weren’t annoying, but hung in a cloud in front of one’s face.  Next up were the mosquitoes proper.  These, we had been warned, would make our lives a misery, but in fact they were very little problem at all – barely noticeable even.  At the beginning of the Trail, we had regularly smothered our faces + body with Rid, but soon were using the stuff very sparingly, since not only did we not really need it,  but especially when mixed with sweat, made one’s body very slimy.  And on the face, it soon ran down into eyes + mouth – revolting.  Leeches were the other thing we’d been warned about, but for ages there was  no sign of one – it was almost disappointing.  Not to worry tho’ – on Day 6 we were really in the wet, + leeches started to appear, fortunately mainly on our boots, from which they could be flicked off.  Extraordinary things, like thin little worms with their noses up in the air, sniffing the breeze.  And 2 of them were lucky enough to get their teeth into English flesh.  One slipped down under Val’s sock, + another latched himself onto a blister of mine the following morning, when I was wandering around in flip-flops.  One’s first reaction was of paralysed revulsion at this fat black slug, tucking away  happily on one’s blood, but one resists the temptation to swat at the thing, douses it liberally with salt, + it curls up + drops off.  The next animal we hadn’t heard mention of at all, but it succeeded in disturbing us intensely during both the first mornings.  This was the wasp, or it may have been bees – we disagreed about it at the time.  At both our first 2 camp sites, we were plagued by them, + the second morning both Val + I were stung, tho’ the pain soon went away once the stings were pulled out (suggested bees, I suppose.)  I became totally paranoid about the things – just one of the many aspects of the Trail provoking fear in me.  Next animal was far more pleasant – the butterfly.  There were thousands of these all the way along the Trail, + many of them were incredibly beautiful, my favourite being a huge one with sky blue + black markings.  They were also very tame, + at several places they would rest on one’s clothes or body.  Next animal is the chicken, seen (+ more, heard) in every village.  The cockerels would crow from 2 am until right into the afternoon, annoying Greg in particular.  But strangely, we were never offered eggs, + they never seemed – not that we saw much of it – to be a part of their regular diet.  Dogs were also a part of every village – pretty scrawny specimens they were too – + curiously we even saw a couple of cats, tho’ what practical purpose they could serve in village life I wouldn’t know, except possibly the control of vermin.  The only wild animal we saw was a cus-cus, sitting in a tree.  A very furry + huggable creature he looked too, a sort of cross between a racoon + a koala, with big brown eyes.  He was quite aware of us, + curious too, tho’ also clearly he wasn’t going to allow us to come too close.  Towards the end of the Trail, in an old Isurava village, abandoned, we were told, because of disease, there lived a flock of goats, presided over by a big old ram.  As we walked thro’, I was approached by one or 2 of them, curious no doubt, but when Val tried to shoo them away, she was given a not so gentle butt from the old feller. It was only when we were in the guest house at Kokoda that we read in the visitor’s book that he’d given similar treatment to several others, including, I was delighted to read, Terry.  The only other animals we saw were cows, also at Isurava, so we thought they might have similarly aggressive tendencies.  Fortunately, they didn’t.


Generally speaking, we all survived very well.  The worst thing that befell any of us was that June had some badly infected toes (there’s new boots for you) so bad that she very nearly was forced to fly out.  Luckily for her, she was able to exchange her new boots in the next village, Efogi, for a pair of sturdy sandals.  Terry, and to a lesser extent Heather, had upset stomachs caused by eating under-ripe paw-paw, + that key Terry up + on the move for our night in Efogi.  Other than that, we all, more or less, suffered the same things: blisters, cuts from grass + thorns, stings from nettles.  Terry + I both developed a nappy rash from climbing back into wet shorts, but that was nothing too serious.  I managed to keep twisting my right ankle, which has always been weak, but luckily it was never too violent.  Both Val + I survived very well indeed until the last day, when suddenly everything started to go wrong.  Val had allowed grit + small stones in her socks to sandpaper away the underside of her toes, so that she was hobbling the last couple of miles, + I felt a pulled muscle in my thigh, plus a curious loss of circulation in my arms.  We were also, I need scarcely add, very very tired, so that the last couple of miles, altho’ easy, seemed to stretch on + on.

                    So what was it like?

Hm, difficult to say, but a few random thoughts.  There weren’t, except for the one occasion in Kagi, fantastic views – the forest cover was just far too dense for nearly all the time.  There weren’t thousands of war relics lying around – it hadn’t been the sort of campaign to leave large pieces of hardware, too much time had gone by, + too many people had been through before us.  But to have walked the trail in peacetime, + then to imagine doing the same under enemy fire, was just remarkable.  I’ve never been so wet with sweat my entire life, especially during that first day.  I’ve never worked so hard physically for a sustained period – carrying the packs (weighing at the beginning 17 or 18 kilos each) up those hills was destroying – at times I had to count to 50 as I walked to keep myself going, + then take a rest.  Generally, Val coped a little better than I.  Going across some of the river crossings almost paralysed me with fright (as it did Val) so much so that I would wake in the morning with the familiar dull ache of apprehension if I knew that there was one lined up for the day.  About the only cause for pride is that I got across them anyway, on one or two occasions even carrying Val’s pack for her.  The highlights, as I remember them, are: washing sweat, dirt + fatigue from the body in an icy mountain stream.  The best were so good I would just lie there for 10 mins at a time.  Only in the last couple of days when the rains came were we deprived of this pleasure.  Arriving at a village – that was always marvellous, no matter how long or how short a time we had been walking.  Looking out at the valley below Kagi at sunset.  Eating soup in the tent the day we walked over Kokoda Gap, our tent pitched under the shelter for added warmth, the rain beating down.  The worst things were: walking, sliding + falling over in the rain just an hour before that, with darkness on its way.  Climbing into cold wet filthy clothes in the morning.  Crossing rivers, + thinking about river crossings to come.

This is about as good a summary as I could hope to provide, so I will add nothing.  And my feelings about the whole thing have not altered in all that time.  In truth, we were never in danger, and scarcely got lost, quite an achievement for the likes of us.