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Into Ethiopian Air

Today, 400 miles north of Addis, the rock-hewn churches of Lalibela are like nothing else on Earth. (Lalibela was one of the original 12 of the now 800 UNESCO World Heritage Sites.) Like figures that Michelangelo saw trapped in blocks of marble, Lalibela's free-standing churches were cut right out of rock -- as if, my guide whispered dramatically, they had been waiting there since the first moment of time.

Ethiopians know their country is poor, but their pride in a nearly infinite past remains intense, and in fact if Tigist Bekele had wished to, she could have wiped the floor with Stefano Bonizzato. She could have gone back before Lucy all the way to Genesis, Chapter 2:13, where six verses after God creates Adam out of dust, a river flows out of Eden and encompasses "the whole land of Ethiopia." Eve, one might note, is not created until nine verses later.

Street scene in Addis Ababa
Street scene in Addis Ababa
A street scene in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. (Alexei Dmitriev)

Molten Metal

On Jan. 6, the day before Ethiopian Christmas, some high school kids tried to help me get a ticket to Harer, but when they gave up, I managed on my own and was back in the bus yard at 4:30 a.m. for the 6 a.m. departure -- the only Westerner among several thousand Ethiopians searching for the right bus out of hundreds of unmarked buses. At 5:30 a.m. I was slumped in my seat when two of the boys from the day before climbed on board and handed me a Christmas present -- a battery-operated fan for the 12-hour trip toward the Somalian border. They said their names were Alexander Oliver and Mohammed, and they wished me a good trip. I thanked them, and suddenly they were off the bus.

I wish I had moved faster and had called them back, but by the time I was down the steps, they were gone. Two ragged Ethiopian boys had an idea that had taken their imaginations. They had pooled their small savings and had bought a gift for a nameless stranger, and then three hours before dawn on Christmas morning they had crawled out of bed -- it was bitingly cold at over 8,000 feet -- and had met up in a teeming bus yard to search for an American man they would never see again.

In its day, Harer was the greatest center of Muslim learning in black Africa, and today Islam's fourth-holiest city still holds 90 mosques. There is also the Arthur Rimbaud House. By the age of 22, the 19th-century poet was sick of Europe and of art itself ("One evening I sat Beauty on my knees; and I found her bitter, and I injured her"), and he went to Aden and then Abyssinia, where in Harer he abandoned poetry, contracted syphilis and became a gun runner. His high poetry and powerfully low life inspired Picasso and Bob Dylan, and some believe that because of him, Jim Morrison faked his own death and vanished into Ethiopian air.

At the Rimbaud House, you read of the poet's wish to "drink alcohol as strong as molten metal," but my 17-year-old guide, with lounge-lizard charm and good English (English study is required in the schools), said he preferred chewing khat. When he looked me over, he got me somewhat wrong, for although in my day job I teach Henry James novels, the first thing he asked was if I wanted to buy a gun.

He said his father was dead and he never saw his mother, and he didn't seem to mind. He said he lived alone and made enough money for khat and girlfriends, and when we passed an AIDS billboard, I asked if they used condoms. He replied that no one wants to eat candy with a wrapper on it.

We ran into Shibru, from the morning's bus, and when he asked my guide if he still went to school, the boy said he had to work "to eat." But when Shibru got him talking, he admitted plans for a cell phone by summer and then a video camera. When my guide glanced back at me, he said that the Dutch trust him but not the Americans. Yet he said he likes Americans and loves to speak English. Dutch, he said, is a throat disease.

When he asked me to give him financial support at school, I said I wouldn't. But I wanted to give him something useful, and so I thought about how he could make Americans trust him more. "Carry a book," I suggested.

"A book!" He took it in and liked it. "In Amharic or in English?" he asked. When I said it should be in English, he listed the titles he had back in his room. After we had settled on "Treasure Island," he began to look worried. "Do I have to read it?" he asked. I paid him for the tour, and when I gave him a good tip, he flashed a dazzling smile.

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