• Richard Scrimger

travel thoughtfully


It's 1:00 Ethiopian time which means 7:00 am, and I am getting ready for breakfast and then my gig. I've been here a few days now and am starting to get the hang of it. For instance, service. You can't do it yourself. There's a chef station in the breakfast room, and a guy in white who whips up a great spiced omelet for you, but you can't carry it to the table. You make an I'll take it gesture, and he shakes his head. A pompous guy in a tux points to a demure waitress, who takes the plate from the chef, ducks her head at you and leads you to your table. She brings you coffee one pot full at a time. (Looks like a standard metal pot but does not spill -- that's impressive). She has to make the first pour, then ducks her head again and leaves and lets you finish. If you want to take food or drink upstairs to your room -- well, forget it. I tried to carry my last cup out of the restaurant a couple days ago and was chased down the hall by an old guy with a tray shouting, Mister mister and looking really unhappy. I tried to explain my situation to him and he tried to explain his situation to me, and he won because he simply would not allow a guest to carry anything. We marched to my room, him in front with the tray and me behind looking sheepish. It wasn't about money -- I offered but he shook his head and marched away. I don't really like being waited on but it's not my country and I'm not going to insist. Maybe this is a way to deal with unemployment. Everyone gets a little something to do. Like the ladies I saw sweeping the walk in the courtyard of the ministry where I am teaching. I was early yesterday (rare for me) and the sessions started late, so I was able to observe them for almost 45 minutes. There were three of them with brooms and dustpans. The first swept a small section of walkway, the second scraped the leavings into the dustpan and slid them carefully into the third lady's bucket. Then they switched jobs and moved on. I watched in fascination. The tiled walkway was maybe as long as two first downs and no wider than a residential sidewalk. Someone with a leaf blower would have finished in a minute or two. After 45 minutes these ladies were less than half way down the walk. This is not me making fun of primitive ways of working. Not at all. A leaf blower is never a better answer. I did feel some initial frustration at observed inefficiency -- very similar to my feeling last year watching a large road crew take an entire week to dig up and then fill a hole in my street. (Their work to chat ratio was lower than the sweepers, and the project was completed at umpteen thousand times the cost and mess.) But the three women seemed to be enjoying themselves, and the work was so dogged and painstaking and plain weird to me that it wasn't long before I was hypnotized. Got me pondering on the importance of efficiency. Why do we care so much? What is there about the finishing that matters more than the doing? Maybe there is something to be said for driving slowly through life... But now of course I am running late and have to hurry if I'm going to enjoy my omelet and coffee. I'd order room service but I am afraid of how many people would show up.

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Richard Scrimger | scrimgerr@gmail.com | Toronto, ON, Canada