Posts Tagged ‘Pilgrims’

No Room at the Inn

March 24, 2010

Hidar zion, 2001. It was dark by the time the pilgrims passed the ruins of the Queen of Sheba’s palace. Though they were still several miles from the church, already a ghostly procession of shrouded pilgrims crowded the road. Footpaths and donkey tracks merged with the highway like tributaries, and the pedestrian river swelled as they approached the gates of the city. The caravan slowed to the pace of the foot traffic, until it seemed they were being driven not by their motor but by the forward momentum of religious fervor. In this way they entered Axum.

They turned down a narrow alleyway, descending against the rising tide of marching devotion. Rough chunks of stone from when the street was paved, perhaps centuries ago, protruded from the uneven earth. On both sides of the road candles flittered inside hanging plastic bottles, improvised lanterns casting feeble light into the open storefronts. Shadowy faces beckoned to them.

They enquired about lodging at the cluster of inns in the district around the bus terminus, but there were no vacancies. The last guesthouse they visited was like all the others, a lively restaurant and bar in front and two rows of identical rooms facing each other across a bare courtyard in back. Like so many buildings in the city, the structure had been left in a permanent state of incompletion, a way to avoid the tax collector by saying the building was not yet finished. An uncovered flight of rough concrete stairs ascended to the bare roof, where rebar grew like isolated clumps of bamboo, suggesting the columns that might one day frame a second floor of rooms. The rooftop offered a flat, open space, slightly removed from the festive clamour of the bar below. The pilgrims spread their tarp, and there they made their beds for the night.

They were four: The Russian, The Woodsman, The Angel, and The Southerner. All were lifelong wanderers who had come to Tigray only recently, for the vigil. Penniless upon arrival, as vagabonds often are, they had taken the only work they could find: assembling and overseeing the new wormhole to America, the experimental conveyor that, when operational, was expected by seemingly all the local populace to deliver the refugees of Abyssinia directly, if slowly, to the future. It was there, on the site of the portal’s Shire terminal, that the pilgrims had met.

In Axum, having claimed their rooftop bedstead, the foursome descended to the labyrinth of the town’s pedestrian passageways, where the flow of native devotees heaved them towards the church. The final approach evoked ecstatic soldiers marching down the Champs-Elysée, past the Arc de Triomphe, and into the heart of celebratory Paris, a carnival of costumed pilgrims parading along a wide boulevard, past ancient monumental obelisks, and into the churchyard where they would rejoice in silent vigil.

Two thousand years ago Axum was the world’s first Christian kingdom, and the Church of St Mary of Zion was its political and spiritual capital. Destroyed by Ahmed Gragn the Left Handed and his Muslim army from Harar in the 16th century, the present incarnation was conceived and created by Emperor Fasiladas in the 17th century. The church is the Holy of Holies, the womb of St Mary, and the sanctuary of the Ark of the Covenant and the Ten Commandments.

The churchyard was an ethereal vagabond camp: bodies, thousands of them, squeezed side by side and heaped one atop the next one, all cloaked in the same thin, white gauze. Many stood, prayed, a thin wax candle in one hand and an Amharic bible in the other one, their stance turned towards the octagonal church at the center of the yard; others slept, occupying more than their share of horizontal space. Priests, wearing high, ornate crowns and rainbow robes, peddled icons, incense, and prayer cards; enterprising hawkers sold groundnuts, sweetbreads, and water by ladle. Traversing the yard was an act of balance and contrition, big, awkward footfalls meant to land in one of the ephemeral openings of bare earth but often hitting instead a covered hand or even head. Live song, solo and unaccompanied as the call to prayer in a Muslim land, blared from scratchy speakers mounted to the underside of the church’s eaves. But for the candles and the warmth of so many bodies huddled together, the night was dark and cold.

Sometime before dawn, the Patriarch appeared on the steps of the church, last in a procession of senior clergy. Unlike his more colourful subordinates, his robes were all black, he wore only a simple round cap, and he carried a tall silver staff in his bejewelled right hand. Supplicants pressed inward to see their pope just as his bodyguards fanned out to secure him safe passage. The priestly processional filed once around the church in an anticlockwise direction, ascended the vestibule stairs, and retired from view. The churchyard fell silent, looking suddenly disordered and deflated.

Leaving the vigil, the streets were as crowded as they had been before but now with a chaotic, directionless scramble of people. In fits and starts, the four expatriates clambered through the swarm, surprised to find that its composition was changing though it was not in any way thinning. As they put more distance between themselves and the church, they bumped up against fewer of the pilgrims’ shrouds and more of the revellers’ baubles; religious chanting faded out and tinny dancepop faded in. A German stumbled past them wearing a cowboy hat from the American west, the only other foreigner they saw in Axum. They were bisecting the heart of the city’s entertainment district, where the secular side of the carnivale still raged.

Back at the inn it was impossible to sleep. They had only their tarp to lay between them and the cold, hard concrete of the rooftop and nothing at all to separate them from the icy night sky. One by one they sat upright, blowing into their hands and rubbing their arms. Mostly to distract them from the cold, they made conversation, irregularly at first, but then with growing pleasure. Lifelong solitary wanders all, they were a naturally taciturn lot and knew little about each other. That night, agreeing that it would help to fill the time until morning, they told how they came to be in Tigray.

The Russian’s Tale
Before speaking she reached into her backpack for the bottle of vodka she had carried with her from Almaty.

That there’s anything left to share should tell you I was separated from my backpack. Three long weeks, they were.

I had taken the third class carriage, a truly vile way to travel, but working for peace is not the lucrative business its grand name suggests it should be. I am told we passed a magnificent herd of rare bactrian camels, but I am sure it was only the first class passengers whose windows were clean enough to see them. Despite the mass of humanity in our uninsulated boxcar, it was bonechillingly cold. Opening a window was unthinkable, and the glass was coated in a dark, greasy film, a byproduct, along with alarming rates of lung cancer, of the Russian fondness for unfiltered cigarettes and lax public health laws. The car was ancient, and evidently it had not been cleaned since whenever it had been demoted from a more popular route to this forgotten stretch of desert line. For a few hours around midday the interior passed quickly through its dawn and its dusk, a brief afternoon twilight that did little to slow the drinking and cursing of my compatriots. For the rest of the long day the only light was from a bare bulb which dangled loosely in its socket in the ceiling and flickered on and off with the rolling of the car. I sat alone on the floor in a corner space I had claimed by bribing a balding man with ear hair so dense he needed no cap. I passed the time by reciting Dante to myself in the original Italian, the last lines I remember from what my Neapolitan father once taught me. Conjuring the descending rings of Hades helped to keep me mentally warm.

Though the platform in Urumchi offered nothing worth eating or drinking, the chance to stand free and salute the sun was reason enough to debark when we stopped there. I had stepped outside the tiny brick station, partly to exercise my legs after such cramped inactivity and partly to seek a food item not derived from a yak, when the train whistle blew. I had ample time to squeeze back into my cattle car, but as I dashed back through the station two large, stonefaced men in identical black overcoats and mirrored sunglasses blocked my way.

Ticket, ticket, they kept asking me for my ticket. It is absurd to think that such urbane ruffians are the train station security at so remote a station, but that is exactly what they claimed to be. My ticket I had left on board, clipped to the outside of my backpack, a way of staking my prized floor space should a conductor pass while I was not there. My protestations did nothing to part the impassive men blocking my way, and I watched helplessly over their shoulders as the train – and my vodka – rolled away.

Uighers, one would think, could have accumulated the culinary secrets of all of Asia’s great cultures, taking with them in their millennia of migration the earthy aromas of the Mediterranean and the delicate stews and sharp salads of the Persians and mixing them both with the spicy variety of the Chinese. But in the Gobi, where nothing grows, warmed yak’s milk is the finest, and indeed the only, indigenous cuisine.

The disappointing food aside, the three days I passed in Urumchi were like a prison sentence commuted. It is the only place where I have been able to lie with my back to the ground and see nothing by sky above me, not a rock, not a tree, not a building, only sharp blue sky. After the claustrophobic confinement of the boxcar, the infinite sky and unblocked horizon felt like liberation.

With the heavy chest so often associated with anxiety, I boarded the next train out of town – and the chase was on. My backpack had a three day headstart, but after Urumchi the train line did not branch again until Islamabad, the end of the line for trains originating in Almaty. I knew where my bag was going; it was a matter of catching up with it before my belongings were distributed to the distant cousins and in-laws of whoever runs the lost and found in Islamabad. I simultaneously laughed and cried as I envisioned what would happen to my vodka once it was discovered by the Mohammedans. What sort of cocktail would it become? A Molotov, most likely.

The next stage of the line traced two sides of an immense mountain triangle, up one side of the Karakoram Range and down the other side. The ride was even less sufferable without my backpack to insulate me from the cold, hard floor of the car. Many times I wanted to stand but trying to maintain a steady footing as the train yawed and pitched over the uneven terrain was like surfing on the back of a bullyak. I was beaten and bruised by the time the train shuttered to a final stop in Islamabad.

I limped to the lost and found, housed behind a series of cobwebs under the main floor of the old terminal. A portly mound of black polyester greeted me in a shrill, rapid cackle which I’m sure was meant to berate me for having lost my bag in the first place. The witch, neutered by her shapeless garb, flung open one of the two doors behind her. A careless wave of her hand granted me license to enter and take whatever I pleased. Emerging, my frown divulged the absence of my backpack. She harrumphed wickedly at my loss.

In defiance I reached for the second door. She lunged to stop me, heaving her girth between me and the handle, but I even with my hobbled bones I was too quick for the old hag. I threw open the door and there, in the only beam of light that penetrated the catacomb, was my backpack.

Except it wasn’t mine. On the surface it looked identical to the one I had lost in Urumchi, but inside it was full of nothing but gaudy multicolour umbrellas. They were the most garish greens and blues and reds, with golden embroidery and bushy tassles. And they seemed to have countless deliberate little pinpricks, like they might be someone’s idea of a novelty gag.

A business card was tucked into the backpack’s one outside pocket: Holey Umbrellas, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. I smiled when I saw it. Not because of the silly pun, but because it’s never taken much of an excuse to inspire me leave here and go there. I’m always looking for a sign, and this seemed to be a good one. That evening I was on a steamer to Ethiopia, a backpack full of umbrellas my only baggage.

As if to confirm that she had indeed found her own backpack in Addis Ababa, she waved her bottle of vodka gleefully in the air. And poured herself another tot.

The Southerner’s Tale
Most men dream of visiting Zion one day, but I…I have come from there. D’ya know it? The national park in Utah?

My buddy and me, we were there a few years back, stopped for some scenery and cheap camping while we were driving his old clunker – the Silver Bullet, he called it – across the country to meet his girl. That thing was old, but she ran just as fast and smooth as that Ethernopian fella everybody here’s all crazy about. Hell, he’s pretty old too, ain’t he?

Come to think of it, I wonder if some of these Ethernopians aren’t faster than your average old jalopy. I don’t mean to disrespect my buddy’s car cause he loved the thing. He did that funny anthropomorphisizing where a guy calls his car like it’s a gal. It never made sense to me cause he had a mighty fine girl and it always seemed to me a man would have to be pretty desperate to be fantasizing about his car like it’s a woman. But gosh damn these Ethiopians are fast, aren’t they? Fast cars and fast women. Gosh damn.

Where was I? We were driving into Zion on the prettiest summer afternoon the sun ever showed human eyes. I don’t exactly know what Zion means, but I know it’s about God and the Bible and heaven and the promised land or something like that. I bet the name has something to do with all those Mormons running around out there, like sometime ago they tried to convince people they really were living a little closer to God than the rest of us. You know those Mormons can marry more than woman to just one man? It’s their religion, can you believe it? Catholics get fish on Friday, and the Mormons get polygamy. The world just ain’t fair sometimes, you know?

Anyway, I don’t know why they call it Zion out there, but they wouldn’t be wrong if they did it because it’s so pretty. You drive through a long tunnel to enter the park. When you go in, you’re just on the highway. But when you come out, you’re in Zion. The sun was shining just right, lighting up all the rocks and cliffs real dramatic like. Down below us was a rushing river, but we were on a road way up the side of this cliff, see? Like a snake slithering its coils around a tree trunk, that’s the way this road was wrapped around the mountain.

You know, I still remember what we were listening to when we drove into that park. It was a record called Mermaid Avenue, and it’s always been my favourite ever since. Sometimes I wonder if I like it so much just because my mind somewhere in the way down subconscious always remembers that view whenever I hear it. It’s good, don’t get me wrong. I’d like it anyway. It’s Wilco, you know them, right? They did that other one with the trucker call signs for a title. Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. YHF. Always wondered what they hell they were trying to say with that one. I’m digressing again, aren’t I?

Our plan was to do some camping, some way backcountry camping. Being such responsible young men…yes, I was young not long ago, Angelface. It’s experiences like the one I’m trying to tell you that made me look older than I really am. I’ve lived, you see? Not everyone can be so young and pretty and fresh forever like you can, ok?

Being responsible, anyway, we talked to a ranger before we started humping into the park, and he told us to be extra careful cause it had been a real dry summer out there and there just wasn’t much water to be found. I guess even the promised land has its hard times, huh?

Well, we got way out there in the park and I’ll be damned if that ranger hadn’t been telling God’s honest truth. We carried some drinking water with us, of course, but hell, we were through all that by the end of the very first day. To make matters worse my buddy, he had blown out his knee coming down one valley and into the next one. We weren’t moving so fast, you see, and we didn’t know when or where we might find something to drink. That ranger, he had told us where we should find some water, but either we missed the spring he was trying to tell us about or it had gone totally dry by the time we passed it. I like to think it was just dead and dry when we walked past cause there just ain’t no way two thirsty hikers are gonna step right over a stream of water without noticing.

I don’t remember how long we was out there without nothing to drink, but I do remember crystal clear how my skin started flaking like I had the worst dandruff all over my body and how my lips cracked and how they were bleeding cause they were so dry and chapped and how my head hurt so bad it was more like a delirium than your normal ever’day headache and how my legs felt like they was flooded with that lactic acidosis stuff, all heavy and throbbing and whatnot. You see, I’ve done some running too. I ain’t no Ethernopian, but I know what it feels like to hit that wall, and that’s what my legs felt liking walking through those mountains in Zion. Damn, we shoulda known not to go trespassing on God’s land, not two sinners like we were.

Finally we found a spring that musta been dripping its last drops. It was this dirty, brown, soupy, mess of mud, but it was all we had. If we’d’a been carrying a cheese cloth we maybe coulda squeezed a useful glass a water outta that puddle, but who the hell goes camping with a cheese cloth? So you ever sucked mud through a dirty t-shirt, Angleface? Naw, I bet you ain’t, not with such a pretty kisser like that. It just wouldn’t be right, wouldn’t make no moral sense, and I gotta feeling God’s looking out for kissers like yours. Well that’s what we did, we squeezed mud through a dirty t-shirt just like squeezing lemonade from a rock.

Distracted once again, he paused to untie the flannel bandana which contained the few items he cherished, always knotted to the end of a whittled stick thrown over his shoulder. As though reminded by his story that he was thirsty, he produced the flask of bourbon he carried with him. Having lost his train of thought, he jumped to the end of his narrative.

…and I figured shucks, Ethernopia’s a desert, right? That’s where they’re always having all them droughts and famines, ain’t they? Seems like a pretty good place for a guy who’s decided he likes the scenery where there ain’t much water. Yup, sounds like just the place for me. And so here I am.

Another swig from his bourbon signified that he was finished speaking.

The Angel’s Tale
She opened her mouth to speak, but it was not words that came out. It was sweet, mellifluous music, the sound of flowing honey, a language unknown to mortal men and women, yet somehow they understood her. She glowed as she spoke, and the travellers squeezed into the perimeter of her miraculous warmth. Time ceased to pass, and in what seemed like an instant of osmosis they knew her story.

…a test…to feel…to know what it is to be mortal…a team of angels earthward bound…under the watchful eye of my father…down mother nature’s grande teton…nighttime by halo(gen)…thirst, hunger, fatigue…blinding white light…weak heavy steps…so cold inside me…so sunburnt my skin…even my lips!…the weight of human need piled high and carried on my back…my food, my clothes, my bed, everything!…it was all so unangelic…all so new and exciting…the camaraderie, the triumph, the joy…and looking back, a different pair of footprints where mine should have been, the footprints of my father…and on my back, where I had carried my pack of human frailty, I got my wings…

They woke, as though from a trance. She was sipping a thick, golden ambrosia of Ethiopian honey wine. Each of them wondered the same question, the one left hanging at the end of her unfinished story. But before any of them could ask, she answered:

Because it is written.

The Woodsman’s Tale
His upper body disappeared into a bottomless trunk of supplies. After a bit of noisy shuffling he emerged with a bottle of fine gin, a supply of citrus fruit, and a handcrank juicer. As though studying a master craftsman the others watched as he fastidiously mixed the perfect martini, which he sipped with surprising decorum through his coarse beard and cracked lips.

I was in Chicago when Wilfred Thesiger died, and I happened to read his obituary in The Guardian:

He affected generations of young travellers, hopelessly romantic maybe, who still follow, knowingly or not, in his giant footsteps. The spirit of this most quixotic, puzzling officer, gentleman and explorer will continue to be handed down from questing generation to questing generation.

The next day I withdrew from my classes, trading my textbooks at the campus store for a copy each of every volume in stock by Wilfred Thesiger: The Life of My Choice, The Danakil Diary, and My Kenyan Days. I have been following – knowingly – in his giant footsteps ever since.

I started with My Kenyan Days, journeying alongside the explorer through much of Samburuland. Most recently I have come from the Lorian Swamp in the deserts of Kenya’s northeastern territory. It was an ungoverned outpost during the colonial era. Today it is no less lawless.

I hired two Borana trackers, brothers, in Archer’s Post. Paul seemed unfit, and James looked frail. Paul had a deep, persistent hack, probably from the chain of cigarettes he smoked. James was skeletal, and squashed by the weight of the supplies which he gamely carried on his back. A party of three, we set out on foot down the left bank of the Ewaso Nyiro river.

It was the rainy season, and the river had flooded its sandy banks. In many places we had to trudge through the chocolate water, scanning nervously for hippopotamus. Chronicling the environment as had my literary guide, I photographed an ambitious goliath heron struggling to ingest a young crocodile, reminding me of the classic cartoon of the stork swallowing the frog which in turn is strangling the stork. We stalked a small herd of buffalo for an afternoon, occasionally jogging to equal the pace of their long, swift stride. Outside an unimpressive collection of riverside huts, a party of feisty women hollered and waved seemingly to drive us away; we looked behind us and saw the women actually were shooing a resolutely advancing elephant bull. By night we slept out, safe inside the thorny fence of a village manyana. Lions bellowed in the distance.

One midday, from where we were resting under an acacia growing on a slightly elevated bend in the embankment, we saw two men approaching in haste from the northwest. Through my binoculars I could see clearly that they were carrying assault rifles. Little patrolled, Kenya’s deserts are notoriously populated by bandits and poachers, and we did not wish to encounter members of either crooked club. Hoping they had not seen us, we scrambled down the bank and into the river.

All day, all night, and all the next day we hid in the vast papyrus swamp, chased by the outlaws. They called to us repeatedly, but not trusting them we retreated into denser vegetation. The iron stalks that were our cover became our captivity, an infinity of impenetrable prison bars in every direction. Young shoots and old detritus buried in the muck were bayonets piercing our feet with every step. When our pursuers approached we submerged ourselves in the soup, using broken reeds as breathing straws. Once, while trying to be as still and silent as I could, I was tormented by a python wrapping and squeezing its muscular coil around my thigh. The men, relentless in their hunt, were nearby; I could hear their excited calls as they advanced and pounced on what they must have assumed to be one of us but what later investigation proved to be the bloated corpse of a crocodile victim. They continued, and with some effort I freed myself from the serpent’s tangle.

On the evening of the second day we could hide no more, and they caught us. Though I speak not a work of Borana, I could understand by their tone and gestures the content of their friendly but ouraged greeting: “Goddamn fellas, why you be runnin’ away like that?” they seemed to say. Looking up from where they were bent double catching their breath, Paul and James recognized familiar faces, their younger brothers. “We been chasin’ you fools for three days. Mom says come home. Pop had to go to town and you have to watch the camels.” Of course, I have no way of knowing exactly what was said or how it was said, but after the intensity of the chase through the swamp it was anticlimactic as “Dr Livingstone, I presume.”

By the time we returned to Archer’s Post I had finished My Kenyan Days. As you can see – he waves the cover of a paperback volume through the air – I have started The Danakil Diary. Like Sebastian reading The Neverending Story, I am anxious to live the adventure.

From their rooftop, they had an unobstructed view of the rising blood-orange sun, fully severed from the dusty horizon. Scanning the town below them, they saw thousands of last night’s pilgrims sleeping wherever there was open space to lie down, their white shrouds their only blankets. From afar the city looked like it had been toilet papered by the intoxicated revellers, who were themselves sprawled comatose between the more comfortably and deliberately laid pilgrims. Many of both types of celebrants were stirring already, and the sea of humanity that had flooded Axum the night before was now emptying as its tributaries flowed in reverse.

As though flushed with the drainage, the four foreigners loaded their caravan and returned to Shire. There was nothing to keep them in Tigray any longer. Wormholes are naturally unstable, and theirs had vaporized during a violent altercation between an Ethiopian and an Eritrean, matter and antimatter colliding and annihilating everything. Rumor was that it had materialized in western Tanzania, where all four of the travellers had been many times before and where none were too eager to go again.

They said goodbye without sentimentality, their tales continuing independently until they may meet again. The Woodsman has disappeared into the Himalaya; The Russian is studying yoga along the shores of the Mediterranean Sea; The Southerner and The Angel have recently reunited near Lake Victoria, and they are engaged to be married. The wedding will be somewhere between heaven and Appalachia.

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