Thursday, 13 May 2021

Short story: Christmas in Addis

Short story: Christmas in Addis

Christmas in Addis is a festive short story by Rev Canon Kevin Davies, of Langtree Team Ministry.

FELICITY was well into her sixties when I met her, just retired from a good innings as a primary school teacher.

She and a friend were on the same plane and, as it turned out, we were all on the same tour.

A college friend and I had decided to travel off the beaten track while we were still fit enough and we’d booked a pilgrimage. We were due to fly out to Ethiopia the day after Boxing Day.

“We’ll get two Christmases,” Paul said to me. “Ours and theirs. Ethiopian Orthodox Christians have their Christmas day on January 7. They call it Genna. It is a more devout festival than our Christmas — more to do with God than gifts. It’s a very Christian country.”

Our departure from Heathrow was on an early evening flight with Ethiopian Airlines. Paul and I were lucky enough to sit near a window.

We were taxi-ing to the start point when, under the glare of the floodlights on the taxi-way, I saw a solitary suitcase on the tarmac. It had perhaps fallen unnoticed from a baggage handler’s train.

The confident pink of the suitcase struck a notable discord with the vulnerability of its situation.

“I hope there’s nothing essential in that,” I said, nudging Paul and pointing. He shrugged.

“Have you noticed how the really experienced travellers somehow manage to travel with hand luggage only?” he said. “There’s a good reason for that.”

It wasn’t until we were at the baggage carousel at Bole International Airport, some seven hours’ flying time and a further three hours in time zones later, that we had occasion to recall the pink suitcase.

Two ladies from our flight were the last waiting. They were looking worried.

“Can we help?” asked Paul.

“My case hasn’t arrived,” one replied.

Unthinkingly, I casually blurted out: “It wasn’t pink was it?”

With tears from one of the ladies, which led to coffee and introductions, the tour leader went off to fill in one of those long airport forms about missing items.

“You’ve got your passport and money, haven’t you, Felicity? And your handbag?”

Her friend, who was older, introduced herself to Paul and I as Margaret.

Felicity, for her part, was settled by the coffee but still concerned for her loss.

“How will it get to us?” she said. “We’re going to be moving around from place to place. They’ll never find us.”

“You know, Felicity,” said Margaret. “I’m sure you can get a toothbrush in the hotel and you’re welcome to share my
toiletries.

“It’s warm enough here in the day for a T-shirt and you’ve got the jacket on your back for the evenings.

“Let the airline worry about the suitcase. It’s only stuff. We’ll all help you out. Let’s focus on the adventure of today. We’ve got another plane to catch in an hour.”

This much was true. We were due in Bahir Dar that afternoon. A twin-engined turbo prop seating about 120 was waiting on the tarmac. We’d had to check in our baggage again and go through security twice. This was a complicated process.

The flight itself was a short hour-and-a-half to the north of Addis, skipping along at about 15,000ft.

Felicity and Margaret chattered away in the seats in front of Paul and I. There was so much to see out of the windows.

Soon a great expanse of water came into view.

“That’s Lake Tana,” said Paul. “Biggest body of fresh water in Ethiopia. About 3,500 sq km. Source of the Blue Nile.”

The lake got larger and larger as we came into land, with the approach to the airport coming in over the water. The terminal was modern and the tarmac unworn. In contrast to Bole at Addis, Bahir Dar airport was quiet. Ours was the only plane in sight. The solitary vehicle in view was a brand new bright red fire engine which pulled up alongside us and then, having decided we were not on fire, slowly moved away again.

The plane taxied to a stop almost outside the terminal and it was only a short walk across the tarmac.

We were out of the airport in under half an hour and unloading at the Jacaranda Hotel a half an hour after that.

A few people went out for a walk but, after almost 18 hours of non-stop travel, Paul and I decided to eat in the hotel and then turn in.

The guides had told us to expect a prompt start in the morning. We were going out on Lake Tana.

So it was that at 8.30am the following day, our group was deposited on the quayside at the port of Bahir Dar.

The sun was already warm, the sky a light azure blue, and not a breath of wind stirred the water of the lake. A yellowish heat haze had already begun to blend with the early mist out on the water.

Waiting for us on the quayside was a large motor boat, looking for all purposes like it had come straight from the set of The African Queen. It was a solidly built little iron ship, perhaps about 20m in length, with upper and lower passenger decks.

“How on earth did they get that here overland and how long ago?” remarked Paul.

The 20 or so of us in our group trooped aboard and were amazed to discover that the boat was just for us, as it cast off almost immediately.

“I’ve never had a private charter before,” I said to Margaret as the two ladies settled on seats nearby on the upper deck.

The boat headed out into the lake, roughly bearing north north-west, and very rapidly the shoreline and buildings of Bahir Dar receded and then disappeared as we entered the morning mist that was still present over the deeper water.

The mist was thin, so that an area of about 50m of bright water in any direction was visible around the boat. Nevertheless nothing further away could be seen.

The morning sunlight was scattered in all directions by the mist around us, making it shine with a brilliant whiteness that sent us rummaging in our day bags for sunshades.

The surface of the lake was as flat as a mill pond, the only disturbance being our wake as we passed. Aside from the noise of the engine, there was not a sound to be heard.

Felicity joined me at the deck rail. We were quiet for a good few minutes. The white light, the calm water, the feeling of being both in motion and in total stillness was something very new.

“How are you doing this morning?” I asked eventually.

“Okay, I think,” she replied. “Do you know where we are going? I lost my programme with my suitcase, so I am a bit at sea...” She paused. We smiled at the same time at the irony of it.

“One of the islands in the lake — there’s a monastery there,” I replied. “It is about three hours on the boat, so we can settle in and enjoy it. I’m sure the sun will burn off the mist before long.”

“I rather like this mist and the bright light,” she said. “Something about the mystery of a brand new day and not being able to see everything all at once, or know exactly what you’re going to encounter. Yet still shiny and good and new.”

A pelican, solitary and stationary on the water, gazed at us as we passed, interlopers in his realm.

The mist did eventually clear, revealing us to be alone, out in the vastness of the lake. Other bird life could be seen, causing much interest among the birders of our group.

Near the appointed hour trees appeared first out of the haze followed shortly by the land to which they belonged. We were arriving at the island of Dek.

The little iron ship tied up at an old stone jetty. A man with a gun came down and spoke to the ship’s captain, who gave him some money.

Our guide reassured us that the gun was probably a rifle dating from the days of the Italian occupation and most likely the ammunition that it used was long since spent.

“Imagine if the parking attendants in Oxford were allowed to carry rifles...” Paul mused out loud.

Our guide explained that many of the oldest monasteries in Ethiopia had valuable artefacts and ancient manuscripts and had taken to hiring armed guards as a deterrent against theft.

“There’s still a deep suspicion of outsiders in some remote areas,” he said.

Seeing our worried faces, he added: “But not here. They welcome visitors at the monastery of Narga Selassie, you’ll see.”

It was so. A smiling priest admitted us to the beautifully painted round church and then insisted on showing us the church’s treasures — ancient codices and a large silver holding cross.

“He will bless you,” said the guide.

We dutifully queued to kiss the large cross, which was then touched on our heads and sometimes shoulders, much in the same way the Queen bestows a knighthood.

After the tour came the silence. Our group was invited to sit outside in the monastery compound for half an hour in the beautiful warm sunshine.

Once we were quiet, the birds sang. In fact they whooped, cawed, screeched, cheeped and squawked. But even in this cacophony, the silence was profound.

“It reminded me that even in the din, if your heart is in the right place, you will know what peace is,” Felicity said later.

Our stay at Bahir Dar lasted for just a couple of days. Enough to see the Blue Nile Falls, to walk through harvested fields of millet in the setting sun and to become familiar with a couple of Ethiopian staples — wot, which could be anything from a thick mush of lentils to a chicken stew, and its complement, injera. This is the Ethiopian equivalent of bread, which they eat with everything. It is soft, like a pancake, textured like a flat crumpet and sourdough-like in taste.

Another internal flight took us due east to Lalibela.

“This is the highest place on the tour,” said the guide. “The town is about 8,000ft above sea level and the monastery above even higher, so you’ll need to take it easy for the first day as you won’t be used to the
altitude.”

“That’s over twice the height of Ben Nevis,” added Paul, not very helpfully.

“Will we get altitude sickness?” Margaret asked.

“Almost certainly somebody in our group will,” said Paul, again not at his most helpful.

Sure enough, it was Margaret herself who ended up debilitated with headaches, nausea and the odd nosebleed. It seemed the logical thing for Paul and I to offer to accompany Felicity while we were out and about.

If anything, the thin air and brilliant light made the mountains all the more spectacular.

One special day involved an early trek up to the mountain plateau high behind the small town and a cliff path to a rocky promontory offering a huge panorama across the world.

We were so high that the curve of the earth could be seen, along with the darkening of the sky above, as the atmosphere thinned to space. It was like flying but with your feet on solid rock.

The small monastery of Asheton Maryam was carved into the promontory, its 12th century church like, the others in Lalibela, hewn in one piece out of the old red sandstone.

Yellow-turbaned monks sat quietly outside around the compound, some reading their prayer books, others intent on their mobile phones.

Felicity, on seeing this, checked her phone and then looked at me amazed.

“I’ve got a signal,” she exclaimed, showing me.

Sure enough, there were four bars.

“More than I get at home,” I muttered.

We looked around for a mast but there was no sign of one.

On our walk down the mountain we were tailed by a group of junior age boys who, once they realised that we did not need any help with our bags, nor that we were going to give them any more than the odd sweet, were happy to trail us, sometimes skipping or running ahead, sometimes disappearing for a while behind.

For them the steep path was no obstacle, the thin air no handicap. They ran up the mountain as effortlessly as down it. They were led by a tall youth in a
T-shirt and jeans, who commanded them with short words and a gentle manner. The younger boys adored him.

Being Christian here was part of the fabric of life; all the boys wore crosses, some wood, some metal. Some had small tattoos on wrist or forehead.

When the mountain path reached the road we headed into town and, on looking around, we saw that the boys had melted away.

The next day we were to visit the churches of the town.

Lalibela is world famous for its ancient churches, which were commanded by a great Christian king to be cut from the rock in one piece at around the same time as the Normans were cutting the stones of England’s cathedrals.

What we were not prepared for was the darkness. From the brilliance of high daylight we would descend into the rock, removing our shoes to enter, and be plunged into almost total blackness.

Here and there the odd shaft of light would cut through from the outside. From a world where all was bright and visible and so, one supposed, knowable, you stepped over the threshold into the mystery.

Priests held custody of icons, relics and sanctuaries. Holy Crosses were illuminated by candles. High pillars gave the effect of supporting the roof until you realised that they were all one and the same rock. The pillars were the roof, the walls, the very floor under your stockinged feet.

There was a feeling of being completely encompassed, surrounded, suspended. Even the air held its breath.

Again we sat. Our guide explained a few things and then invited us to pause, and sit, and pray if we wished.

Some moved in front of the icons. Felicity went to a rough stone bench over to one side. I sat a discreet distance from her, far enough to give her space, but close enough to be able to tell you what I heard.

I don’t know if I was meant to hear it but, on reflection, I think I probably was. For what happened changed me, too.

I did not notice anything at first. But after a few minutes one’s eyes grew accustomed and the darkness was not quite so black.

Felicity was not alone any more. Someone was now the other side of her. It was the tall youth from the mountain track.

A moment of alarm faded to confusion as I heard him speak gently to her. He used her name.

“Felicity,” he said.

“How do you know my name?” she asked.

“I have always known you,” he replied, in perfect English.

“I saw you under the beech tree in your garden, where you have a hammock and like to look at the clouds.

“Now you’ve made this journey to see me and I am glad. I am very glad.”

It was the way he said “I am very glad”.

It was a world-making affirmation of goodness and love. Felicity said nothing, but fumbled in her pocket.

I, too, needed to search for a handkerchief for I felt as though the piano tuner had instantly adjusted every single string to find notes and chords as yet unplayed.

There flooded into my soul the most inexhaustible joy and delight at being known, met and loved, even here, so far from anywhere I might call “home”.

We stumbled out over the threshold of the church into the white, bright daylight.

Stooping to recover her shoes, Felicity looked at me enquiringly, wondering without words if I had seen, if I had heard, the same as her. I nodded.

“I thought Christmas was to be in Addis,” I said.

“No, not at all,” she smiled. “Christmas is right here, right now.”

And she meant it.

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