Wednesday, October 13, 2010

51 - Bread And Circuses

Dire Dawa road traffic
Inside the 14-seater minivan bus, level 2 (less crowded than the cheaper level 3 but not as 'luxurious' as the more expensive level 1), waiting for it to fill up the remaining six seats for Dire Dawa. Outside in Harar's dusty dirt bus 'station,' a man is teasing a blind beggar - with virtually just the whites visible in his horribly twisted eyes; the bully pulls at a box the poor sod is holding; now he snatches his stick, threatens further manhandling. And the others hanging round do absolutely zilch. This is definitely not cricket. So sharp bangings from muggins on the windows put an end to the circus. Then a bulb flickers on in my head. What if the beggar has come to expect such daily joshings and perversely enjoys them?

Further meditation is curtailed by the arrival of a final passenger, and muggins reverts to making eyes with a baby on its mother's back outside. The van won't start, of course, and cohorts have to push it to ignition. We stop after five minutes to fill up with petrol; this time the driver gets out and pushes it to the cusp of a slope, jumping back just in time.

The Natives Are Getting Ugly

All I'm doing it trying to have another photo op, this time with Haile Selassie's old palace in Dire Dawa, and a couple of policemen outside have suddenly come down with a bad attack of St. Vitus dance. They're raising their feet, flailing their arms, and making it most manifest that my Robert Capa moment is zehr verboten. As is photographing any signs of poverty; the masses are now screaming at me when I raise the digital in the direction of a row of beggars (and they are legion) lying in the dust near a health centre.

Beggars outside dental clinic
Stealth shot towards palace gates

Dire Dawa (pronounced dirEduhwuh) is literally a railway town, a service centre when the French laid the Djibouti-Addis Ababa tracks a century ago. It's a remarkably pleasant place on a semi-arid plain, an hour's ride from, but lower and quite a bit hotter than Harar, though still balmy, green and flowery enough to deserve the title of garden city. In fact the locals call it Queen City of the Desert. It has masses of grassy roundabouts with tree-lined avenues spoking out diagonally, the ubiquitous green broken by splashes of red, yellow and orange from the blooms.

Equally ubiquitous are the tuk-tuks, onomatopoeic three-wheel open-side taxi carts working on motorbike engines and weaving in between pedestrians, goats and the occasional loaded camel. Muggins has splurged out, treating himself to the best hotel in town – huge corner bay-windowed room with a/c (not needed), fan, hot water, TV etc, even if in need of a bit of paint and other touchings up, all for $40.

Dire Dawa station
The Dire Dawa Choo-Choo

It's all rather sad. The railway that gave birth to the town hardly functions any more. This was the journey that Evelyn Waugh took from Djibouti to Addis Ababa to cover Haile Selassie's coronation in 1930 for The Times, etched later into immortality in Scoop. Now it no longer runs to Addis at all and is very degraded; there only seems to be one train from Djibouti every seven to 10 days or so, although there are some local routes.

Time for an aperitif (tea) at a pavement cafe in the station square opposite the nondescript yellow building with its blue lettering. An ebullient Frenchman, married to an Ethiopian, who spends part of his time in Dire Dawa and part in Toulouse, is my Deep Throat on latest intelligence. A train from Djibouti is due in at noon, he informs me; it may be an hour or two late but it's worth waiting for the sight - 'quite an experience, quite a commotion,' quoths he. Westerners are advised not to take it, he adds; it takes longer than the bus, 14 to 20 hours or even more, and is swarming with robbers, bandits, ne'er-do-wells, rapists, paedophile priests, the taxman, the abominable snowman and Uncle Tom Cobley and all.

Locomotive in station square with 'AIDS' flags
Little Knell

The siren tolls the knell of noon-time day/At 3 it tolls again for post-noon play. Well, just in case you forget to take your siesta. As for muggins, it's flash back time to the London blitz, ready to dive for the shelter. After the siren-bracketed hiatus it's back to the station. There's no sign of the Djibouti bullet train but visits to and, what's more, photographs of the station and tracks are mysteriously not verboten, once you get a pass from management. The line is single track, but there are numerous ones here in the station and yard, all overgrown with grass. Broken down carriages from third to first class, goods wagons, burned out old locomotives, others crashed, haunt the tracks. A true railway graveyard.

Back at the station cafe just before twilight; not a sign of my shinkansen from Djibouti - no train, no crowds, no pre-arrival bustle, no nothing, just a few kids playing football outside the closed iron gates. The only thing that even smells of rail transport is an old grey locomotive stuck on an island in the middle of the roundabout as a memorial to what once was, with two AIDS campaign flags flapping from it. Aha, those red-pink bows might not be for AIDS; they could be beer adverts since they're also on the sides of a beer van. It's getting darker and darker; a huge beer bottle-flanked screen has lit up with local news and adverts.
Station platform
An official looking person standing near the railway headquarters building knows nothing of any train from Djibouti in the next 100 years. A local train may be coming in at 4 a.m. tomorrow if it feels like it, but that's the only thing they have on their horizon. So much for my Deep Throat! He must have laryngitis. Now it's almost totally dark: The curfew tolls the knell of parting day/The lowing herd wind slowly o'er the lea. Except that this time the lowing herd are tuk-tuking tuk-tuks zigzagging all o'er the black tarmac.

Tracks and broken down trains
Third class
First class
No need to raise or lower the toilet seat
These trains have seen better days
And these
Run into the ground

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