Friday, July 31, 2009

Ethiopia, Korea and Djibouti

What is your memory like? Is it an organized place where you can readily retrieve any file you need at a moment’s notice – subdivided by sights, sounds, smells et cetera? Or is it more like mine, wherein it seems as if I stand on a modest height in the middle of a junk-yard. From here I can often see the specific memory I wish to retrieve, but just as often must rummage around through the heaps – peering under the theme-song from “The Courtship of Eddie’s Father”, past the cake I had for my 7th birthday, and around the minimum alveolar concentration of methoxyflurane (0.2%) to find what I want. I know it’s all there, but it’s often impossible to lay a hand on it at a moment’s notice.

Thus when I look back at the highlights of this busy week, they seem to me as a jumbled, riotous kaleidoscope of sights, sounds and tastes. The demands of narrative however would be ill-served by presenting them to you thus, I reckon, so come along and let’s do this in order.

Tuesday night we assembled to bid a final farewell to Christian, the departing French general surgeon. Now, those of you with more linear memories may well recall that we had made our “adieus” in a past entry, but as it happened at that time, the topic of L’Étoile-Kokeb came up, and it was decided that nothing would do but that we all meet again one last time for an evening there. As Christian’s flight was Wednesday morning, Tuesday evening was decided on – and off we went into the bathwater warm Djiboutian night. We stopped first at Pierre-Emmanuel’s house at the French hospital for a chat over the obligatory pastis, and then headed tout ensemble into the heart of the city. It was full dark as we parked on a side street off the central square. We were immediately met by enterprising young men who insisted on the honor of watching The Mystery Machine while we dined – recompense to be decided later. This by the way is always the case in Djibouti – sometimes the, uh, attendants are there from the beginning and just as often they show up only when you are about to leave, insisting that unknown to you they were watching your car the whole time, preventing only through their vigilance and good stewardship the direst of fates for your vehicle. We always pay them a few coins, dismaying the French – but we’re Americans after all, and far too simple creatures to be appropriately skeptical. Well, let’s leave the van there in any case.

Why L’Étoile-Kokeb? The restaurant, whose names mean “star” in both French and Amharic, is an Ethiopian restaurant where the food – either Ethiopian dishes or fondue – is tasty and plentiful, and the service is accompanied by a floor show. As listed on the laminated programme music and regional dances from 11 of Ethiopia’s distinct cultural groups (did you know that there are 84 indigenous Ethiopian languages?) were to be performed. In the event, the entertainment was provided by two musicians – playing the krar, a type of 6-stringed lyre and the kebero, a large hand drum – and a male and female dancer. The music sounds a bit alien to at least these western ears, as it uses a unique pentatonic tonal system, but the rhythms are immediately appealing and are made more so by the dancers. Each of the 11 dances involved a costume change and often different props. I am alas but an indifferent student of dance so shan’t be able to describe to general satisfaction the grace and vivacity of the dancers. Suffice to say then that we were entranced by their agility and finesse, charmed by their evident enthusiasm, and impressed by their fortitude. Despite the ceiling fans, the nine of us were warm just sitting. How the pair were able to gyrate, shimmy, twist and gesture for the hour or so of the performance without being visibly fatigued was a matter for wonder.

Anyway, the evening was a great success. The food was lovely – I shared Ethiopian style food, served on injera – the large sourdough pancake/flatbread made of teff flour - with Paul, the new French surgeon, while at the other end of the party beef and cheese fondues were the call. Delicious and plenty, but I’ve described both before and shall not bore you further. We finally waddled out after a couple of hours. We thanked (and tipped) the dancers and musicians, and made our au revoirs and mutual pledges of hospitality in France and San Diego before slipping our indefatigable vehicle attendants a few hundred Djiboutian francs and heading home. And that was just Tuesday.

Wednesday evening was an altogether different affair. The Republic of Korea ship Choi-Young (DDH) pulled into port on a training cruise, with 122 South Korean Midshipmen aboard. The Korean Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral Ok-keun Jung, flew in to meet her and a gala reception was to be thrown aboard the vessel. At 1800 therefore, clad in my summer whites (some day I’d like to meet the genius who decided that white shoes would be a cute idea for a Navy uniform and pelt him with the 10 or so useless, uncleanable pairs I’ve accumulated in 20 years), I picked my way through the dust and gravel, and through the fierce heat of the fleeing Horn of Africa July day, to the bus waiting outside the air-terminal here on base. There I joined about 20 other service members as we waited for the bus arrangements to be finalized – that is for a bus with functioning AC. This ultimately accomplished, away we rumbled. The Choi-Young was docked in a part of the port I hadn’t visited before – through the commercial section of the docks and cranes to the military docking area. Through the bus windows the scene was that of a post-apocalyptic science fiction film – weathered machinery, cranes, crates and containers lit or sunk in shadow according to the whim of the harsh sodium lights.

The Choi-Young when we reached her was draped in lights, with a red carpet leading to the gang way, and side boys standing by to render military honors to the arriving guests. The military niceties were executed to perfection, and we were ushered by immaculately uniformed crew members through the passageways (the cleanest shipboard spaces I have ever seen. Ever.) to the aft helo deck, where a brightly colored and lit awning transformed the deck into a reception hall, and the immaculate hangar into a buffet line. We arrived and were all greeted by tables of smiling, eager, respectful midshipmen and officers. They were by turns charming, deferential, funny and informative. Their eagerness to please, pride in their ship and pride in their service made cynicism utterly impossible. I was ushered to bar and buffet, the dishes sweetly explained – with cautions about the hotter ones. Recommendations were made for the condiments which would best compliment my soup, and my rough skills with chopsticks praised beyond their meager degree. It was already a lovely evening when the entertainment started. We were treated to music performed by a small band and by a quite junior enlisted sailor with an American Idol-ready voice. The music selection was startling at first: “Tonight” from West Side Story, “Besame Mucho” and then a spirited rendition of “Funiculi Funicula” by the Midshipmen’s chorus. It was a bit surreal at first – standing on a Korean ship, in a French- speaking African country listening to Italian popular music…but as I said, the pride and joy evidenced made any response but honest enjoyment impossible. There was a too brief performance of Korean music as well – a 4 piece percussion group with an amazing 5 minute piece that wrung more rhythm, melody and emotion from drums and gongs than I would have thought possible. The evening wound down about 9 p.m.. The breeze, which had made the evening bearable, had ceased at about 8 30, and as reluctant as we were to say goodbye to our hosts, the thought of that air-conditioned bus was a considerable inducement. A wonderful night.

The last part of the week was given over to the visit of General Ward, the 4 star head of AFRICOM, here on a visit to his largest asset on the continent. He brought a team with him that included the AFRICOM surgeon. We spent a busy morning touring the local hospitals and other exotic locales like the city dump – long story, I’ll tell you more of some time. Last night an evening social and dinner in honor of the General and his team here in the little common room of the “White House”. The general seems like an awfully nice guy – a characteristic I’ve observed of most Flag officers (Generals and Admirals), likely because so much of their success depends on their ability to inspire loyalty in other folks.

And that brings me (via a 2 a.m. call for a contract worker with severe asthma) to today. Whew! I hope you won’t think me a dull fellow if I say that the chance to stay in tonight and watch Firefly reruns on my computer sounds like bliss. There is doubtless much more to be mined from the experiences of this very rich week, and I look forward to revisiting them as summer stretches on - for my edification and your possible amusement. Tonight though that is it.

Pictures of Ethiopian dancers, and some Korean cadets with a possibly recognizable US Navy guy.

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