Home Is

Wildfires in the further reaches of El Dorado county mean that the sky is dusty, with the mountains of the Sierra Nevada obscured; so the beginning and end of each day are a symphony of watercolor. John Muir described this range as “so luminous, it seems to be not clothed with light, but wholly composed of it, like the wall of some celestial city” (p 35). I wake up early each morning, often with the sun, a layered pastel sunrise over the Range of Light, far in the distance, as my jetlagged brain bolts awake. It’s usually an hour of reverie before my nephew wakes up, sometimes just a pitter-patter beeline to his parents’ room; other times he snuggles next to me on the sofa and I read to him, usually mixing up words and receiving his corrections. After nearly two years in Rwanda, I’m home, and not sure when I’ll be back in the Land of a Thousand [Much Greener] Hills.

Home is a strange word for me to process. I’ve never lived in my brother and sister-in-law’s foothill house, where I’m currently staying – for my purposes here, I would define “lived” as a place where I’ve passed a definitive period of time. I spent two weeks on this sofa in December, but they had only been in the house for a short time at that point, having moved here a week before I left last year for my second stint in East Africa. Thus, stay is more apropos than live for my current existence as a middle-class vagabond. When you ask Rwandans, and indeed many other Africans, where they live, they often respond with stay – “I stay in Kimihurura.” I grew up in another town, a vastly different environment an hour away, but it’s a place that now tends to feel like anything but home; so, I stay here.

Home isn’t adventurous, but home is good. It’s mornings with my sister-in-law and the kids, watching my niece feed milky Cheerios to the dog. I argue with my brother on the porch, drinking Sierra Nevada pale ales to an evening cicada chorus. Janice and I talk ad nauseam about Myers Briggs; Alex and I get Thai food and he explains Pokemon Go and Snapchat; Janette knows to buy Mission tortilla chips and nuclear orange nacho cheese sauce; my grandmother hugs me with tears in the inner corners of her eyes. Home for me is people – a small group of them, a weirdly constructed tribe. It’s no longer a place.

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I can already feel the creep of wanderlust to go back out, coupled in the exact instant with intense relief to be home again.”No one had forewarned me, however, that if you live abroad for any good while, the notion of home is permanently compromised. You will always be missing another place, and no national logic will ever again seem fully obvious to you” (Solomon, 2016, p 15).  It’s a contradiction of sorts, that I can both miss being in Rwanda and be relieved to be free of the experience.

And maybe this is an essential step in the travel experience, the final step: going home after rewriting who you are, what you know, what you think, even what you believe, based on what you have undergone while outside of your literal and geographic comfort zones. “Travel is an exercise in partly broadening yourself and partly in defining your own limits. Travel distills you to a decontextualized existence. You never see yourself more clearly than when immersed in an entirely foreign place” (p 20). And coming home makes all of this obvious, slams you in the face with reverse culture shock and a churning mass of emotions that I can’t pick apart. In equal measure, it allows distance so you can start to process, to pick apart, to better understand.

Andrew Solomon, in his recent book recounting twenty-five years travelling as a writer focused on art and culture, struggled with this idea of change, preferring to believe that travel hadn’t shifted his values, but made him hone in more vividly on those he found to be the most meaningful: “travel taught me how to relate to disparate people with incongruent values, and, thereby, how to be contradictory myself” (p. 33).

It’s hard to explain all of this to people at home; it’s even harder to answer questions about your experience. It’s impossible to refine months or even years of life to a few sentences, especially for me, long-winded, overly reliant on dry history, and not always able to tell if I’m being asked questions out of interest or obligation. You realize too that people often don’t know what questions to ask you – a shared awkwardness that seems to often result in people saying, “so, how was Africa” and my response being clipped into platitudes – because how do you respond? Maybe this is the aspect that can become the most separating and alienating – most dramatically in the first weeks after you get home, before you’ve again acclimated. To see your country, your home from outside: and then return and be among people who haven’t necessarily had that privilege (and I do think it is a privilege). You coil back into the comfort of communicating with people who understand your experience: what Solomon terms displacement, the “forgiving homeland, a thing held in common with others” who understand your personal contradictions (p. 11).

Muir advocated a different form of travel – through mountain passes, rather than foreign countries, claiming rocky corridors and “mountain mansions” will cure whatever ails you as they “kill care, save you from deadly apathy, set you free, and call forth every faculty into vigorous, enthusiastic action.” He dramatically claims that “few places in this world are more dangerous than home” (p.113). While I understand his point – that we can become complacent, remaining only in our homes and never venturing forth – I can’t quite agree. True, after traveling, to come back and expect that who you as left is what you return as – ultimately, this can’t be possible. But to see yourself, and see how you’ve changed, I would argue that you must come home to see yourself back in your initial context. Live large, Muir – let those of us who can’t process in the moment some time to process on a porch in your mountain proximity.

Whatever it is, whatever I’ve become, whatever I’ve lost, whatever I’ve learned, it is good to be home. Because when I travel, I find more value for what my home is and who my home is: defining it more specifically and allowing those details like images to lodge in my brain for recall on future adventures.

 

Muir, J. (1985). The mountains of California (originally published 1893). New York: Penguin.

Solomon, A. (2016). Far and away: Reporting from the brink of change: Seven continents, twenty-five years. New York: Scribner.

 

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Brazier on the Floor: Mekelle, Ethiopia

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Brizaf

Brizaf isn’t home when we arrive at the compound: an oblong-shaped courtyard with rooms that open onto a grapevine and brick pile, a cooker for injera housed in a sheltered corner. Hannah is greeted by Meron with a bright, luminous face and twin braids that begin at her widow’s peak and wind back around her scalp. It has been months – Hannah has been in another part of Ethiopia, and her Mekelle family has missed her dearly. We take a seat in the house – one room, but not so cramped – and wait for Brizaf to arrive.

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Meron fanning the flames of the brazier, gomen (cabbage) cooking 

This is my second trip to Ethiopia this year; the first was for the Fellow program’s midyear conference held in Addis Ababa in March. This time, I’m on Hannah’s farewell tour, saying goodbye to the disparate places where she worked during the 2014-2016 fellowship cycles. First to Arba Minch, found in Ethiopia’s deep southlands, green crags of the Western edge of the Great Rift Valley; followed by a night in Addis and a flight to the opposite pole of the country, Mekelle (also spelled Makele or Mek’ele, among others) far closer to the contentious border with Eritrea, once unioned with Ethiopia.

Brizaf has come back home, her son Unael beside her. She greets Hannah with effusive hugs and kisses, shakes my hand and kisses me four times – double the Italian style – and forces me into a seat on the sofa. We are banned from any form of work to help her in preparing the food: thus, today is a lesson in Ethiopian cooking and hospitality, to watch the food that I’ve eaten for a week be prepared in front of me, with the loving cook squatting in front of a charcoal brazier on the house floor.

We brought cabbage, tomatoes, onions, and potatoes – the base of the cuisine. Meron works from a cutting board, a worn object with a deep center divot, chopping the cabbage into strips, her knees on either side. On the brazier, a two-tiered cooker with fire in the lower cavern heating an open, upper bowl where a pot is nestled among black and grey charcoal chips, everything is smoldering. In the pot, an inch of oil bubbles with pinches of chopped garlic, tomato, and onion – Brizaf, the overseeing chef, checks Meron’s work and stirs in the gomen (cabbage), settles the lid on top, and sets her daughter to the task of fanning the brazier fire.

In Ethiopian cooking, there seem to be two primary spice foundations – red or yellow. It reminds me of New Mexico roadtrips, where every dish ordered requires either red or green peppers, and waiter follow your request with that question, “red or green?” For today’s gomen, the base will be yellow: alicha, a mix of tumeric, cumin, and ginger, enflamed as needed with hot peppers.

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Alicha, a spice blend of tumeric, cumin, and ginger

The second base – red – is found in another dish for today’s lunch: silsi, an oily, oniony fire blended with pulped tomato, garlic, and Ethiopian magic. The red is berbere, a mix of spices that lies at the root of nearly every dish. Each cook has his or her own berbere blend, consisting of dried and ground chili peppers, garlic, ginger, and basil, and a collection of spices local to the Horn: korarima, rue, nigella, and fenugreek.

Today’s meal could be a fasting one – in Ethiopia, fasting refers to vegan food, instead of absolute abstinence. Sudan might be the most Muslim place I have visited, but Ethiopia is the most Christian – practiced in the orthodox variety, with dogma infiltrating everyday aspects of life (the definition, after all, of Orthodoxy). Menus list “fasting” items separate – always the vegan accommodation. When the gomen is finished, Brizaf starts the shiro, spooning the ochre-colored powder from a Quaker oats can. Shiro is ground chickpea and spices, a powder mixed with water and oil and sometimes, if you have the means, onions and tomatoes. She mixes it slowly with oil and berbere, scrapping the powder from the edges of the pot as it boils and bubbles, thickening like like an orange edible lava. Americans, sometimes we forget – oil is not just for taste but needed calories, especially when your diet consists of injera and gomen and berbere. In my photographs, the finished shiro comes out smooth, silken, deep orange.

 

I follow Hannah to arrange my plate: unroll injera, the bread base. Injera is made from tef, a local grain, mixed with water and allowed to ferment for a period before being cooked on a smooth, hot surface – the cooker from the yard, with a space beneath the griddle surface for open flame. The result is a vehicle for both arranging food and a getting that food to your mouth – no utensils, just torn strips of injera to pick up gomen and shiro.

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Lunch plate: injera base, with shiro, gomen, and silsi, clockwise from 12

 

Brizaf continues her hospitable chores as we eat. She is a woman of the village, now settled in one of the largest Ethiopian cities. Her forehead sweeps back from her brows, crossed by a thread-like braid, Tigryan style. A chain from one side of her forehead to the other, gathered at the middle, demonstrates her status as a married woman. She is tattooed as well: a faint circle between her brows and spaced chains on her neck. Meron makes a plate to split with her brother, and gives the first bite – a pocket of injera with shiro, silsi, and gomen in a happy mass – to her mother. Brizaf’s hands are busy – she’s begun the coffee ceremony, roasting green and pale brown coffee beans in a small pot. She shakes them like popcorn, popping and darkening and calls after her daughter, who roots through the curio cabinet for fancier cups – a  prerogative for guests.
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Coffee ceremony, beans roasting

As with Ethiopian coffee tradition, a full spread is laid: beans roasting in a pot on the brazier, a smaller incense burner pipping with charcoal and a stick of incense, small china cups and saucers that resemble espresso cups. Coffee is an ancient ceremony in Ethiopia, outpacing the Italian occupation and the West’s obsession with the beans. She shakes the smoking pot, beans now roasted black, for us to smell – the beans almost oiled black and deep brown. She puts the jebena – the round bottom traditional coffee pot – onto the brazier coals as we finish our lunch, the oil of silsi coating our fingers.

We drink cups of coffee, three in total, stirred with sugar. Throughout, Hannah uses her Tigrinya and Brizaf speaks to us – sometimes through her older son, able to translate, often through smiles and phrases we cannot understand.

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Cup Number Three

There are moments, though, that we speak the same language. She laughs as Hannah takes photos of her son and shows them to him, his bashful smiles becoming peals of laughter. I show her pictures of my niece and nephew, 4 and 2, dressed in their Easter best and she smiles and kisses my phone. It’s the universality of the human experience, that we don’t always need the same language to communicate. She speaks to us with her food, we speak to her by our enjoyment of it: the heart of hospitality.

Much love to Hannah for always explaining Ethiopian ways to me.

Peace,

LC