In the winter of 2011, I took a trip to the North East Indian states of Assam, Arunachal Pradesh and Meghalaya with three friends from college. In the crazed frenzy of the inevitable pea-brained machismo that occurs when four men travel together, I did not document that trip in any way. And though it remains one of my most eventful travels, all that’s left are wisps of recollection, surfacing every now and then, like lint from the pockets of a long forgotten coat.
C stripping to his underwear on the mountainous highway; flirting with altitude sickness courtesy my obdurate rejection of sweaters; Suraj’s mother’s rice wine, consumed in one lusty swoop; the long silent walk with Samarth on the night of Diwali as Tawang went to sleep and fireworks sounded like tired gunshots; the to-this-day-mouthwatering memory of food at Mon Valley Restaurant.
The undulations of vivid memory have since been starched clean by the banality of the everyday. I wish it weren’t so; I wish I had some record. But retrospective wishes are just regret spelt another way. And who has time for that?
I’m in Ethiopia now, for work. It has been three weeks now, with another two to go. And though I’ve made every effort to remember all that I can, I’m beginning to sense the foreboding forgetfulness creep in. The memory of 2011, or lack thereof, has spurred something. Besides, Dagar has all but put a gun to my head in her efforts to make me write ‘something… anything’. And since she has guns at home…
This is it.
I know of few better segues into travel writing than talking about local culinary culture, especially alcohol. It helps that the very essence of intoxication is to loosen the tongue, among other things. Ironically, my guide to Ethiopian inebriation was the teetotaler Guddissa (Gud) – a mild-mannered, god-fearing gem of a guy who had done some market research for a beverage manufacturer. (lazy writing)
Anyway, given that this is a work trip, my foray into the world of Ethiopian ethanol was through the docile gateways of beer. And, given that this is a public blog, that is all I’ll be talking about – beer.
Writing about beer, one soon runs into the adjectives wall. There are only so many transferred epithets that lend themselves elegantly to a drink as pedestrian as the beer. Hence the decision to personify beers. Here, then, are the character sketches of the various Ethiopian beers I’ve guzzled:
Bedele is a mature man, late 30s – mid-40s. A weather-beaten face, like tanned leather, he seldom laughs, but often has a wry smile he doesn’t care to explain. He will not humour you for the sake of being nice. Not that he’s a bitter man; he’s simply too tired for the games we play. Lest you should picture a Clint Eastwood-esque hero, no, Bedele doesn’t support the NRA. Bedele is stoically difficult in any confederacy of conservative dunces. Otherwise a nice, liberal man whose company bears fruition given enough patience and attention.
Well loved, the Saint is a simple man, simplistic even. Cordial, polite, courteous to a fault, there isn’t much I can say against him. Therein lies the problem. There is no complexity to him. No shades of gray. A man who has nothing to hide has either not lived or is dangerous. The Saint is dangerous for his lack of having lived. He doesn’t know the mores surrounding social dos. Doesn’t know when to say when. No wonder he’s a hit among the youth.
Meta is the dilettante. Feigning character and depth, Meta is a mix of political ideas and pop culture snippets hastily crammed, ready to pour forth at the slightest trigger. His eagerness to impress is his undoing. Meta comes across as obnoxious to me. The kinds who will hijack a conversation, throwing everything at it, stripping it of nuance and taste.
Dashen is dating the Saint. She’s petty and frivolous, a perfect match for his monocled worldview. In her late teens, slim of build and of brains. It takes a special desperation to enjoy her company. Nothing that puts me off, really. It’s just that she violates the line between childlike and childish too many times. A few minutes into conversation with her, and there is nothing as bland and insipid as the things she has to say.
I really like this guy. The kind you’d like to invite home to watch the World Cup. Charming, funny, and unpretentious – most important trait this. Harar does not hold strong political views, and does not fake positions on matters that he is ignorant of. He is unapologetic about his ignorance, but has an earnest eagerness to learn new things. Easy-going is the best cliché that fits him. He’s unlikely your 4AM friend – that’s Bedele – but Harar is the man to call for adventures big and small.
She’s seeing Harar, and they’re a couple to go on a double date with (if you are into that sort of a thing). Amber has an astringent sense of humour. She’s easy to talk to, has no airs, and, unlike Dashen, isn’t desperate to please. She can hold her own in conversations about the state of the world, though I wouldn’t go so far as vouching for the quality of her reading list. She’ll grow into a fine woman. Though a good sport, she likes the occasional weekend alone at home.
We haven’t met. She is the kind of person who sits next to you on a long bus ride, and you, being yourself, don’t initiate conversation. But she does. And she is pleasant to talk to, has just enough interesting anecdotes to keep you engaged through the bus ride. The bus stops for dinner, and you eat at the same table (notice how she’s vegetarian). She asks if you smoke; you don’t. Back on the bus you chat for a while more. You both get off at the same stop. You thank her for her company, she says it was nice to meet you, you part ways, you do not exchange numbers.
On my very last day in Ethiopia, on a rainy day in Addis Ababa, at an unknown restaurant called Santorini, just by the Greek Embassy, I met the Doctor. A handsome man, he commanded the attention of everyone in the room immediately. He spoke with casual authority and grace, in voice of lustrous timbre. We spoke for close to an hour about Indian and Ethiopian cultures, the EPRDF, and the Ras Tafari movement. As we said our goodbyes (I had a flight to Delhi in a few hours), we mutually expressed regret at not having met earlier. Such a shame…
And thus I finished my Ethiopian sojourn. Back in New Delhi now. Back to Budweiser, Carlsberg Elephant and, on bad days, Kingfisher or Wave.