Have your summer travels been short on adventure and exoticism? Then accompany Tahir Shah on his latest excursion into the truly bizarre. Shah has previously searched for flying Incas and trained as a sorcerer in India. Now, he's gone through Ethiopia looking for the storied biblical gold of Solomon, and he's written it up in his new book, In Search of King Solomon's Mines. I won't tell you what he learned about Solomon's gold, but I will reveal another of his discoveries.
Shah found the modern equivalent of locating ancient treasure, an alternative dream of fabulous and unending wealth. This is the contemporary version of finding a seam of gold at your fingertips, of falling into a cave filled with Solomon's emeralds. According to Shah's narrative, it is a vision of heaven on earth, a myth that combines Eden with everlasting riches. It is the Ethiopian obsession with America.
Shah, accompanied by a local man named Samson who is obsessed by the devil, meets a seemingly endless succession of people who have endowed America with magical properties. They assemble curious bits of lore, study maps when they can get them, even try to keep track of how deep the Rio Grande is at various times of the year, in hopes of someday swimming across it. There are many variations on the theme that America offers freedom and opportunities, or that you can achieve wealth "for free."
Shah's story will make you feel better about your own travel headaches. Next time you're having an airport hassle, or are standing in a way-too-long car-rental line, you can think of him. He went through Ethiopia by train (leaking roof, stripped of lighting fixtures), Jeep (only one brake pad, unable to turn off engine unless facing downhill), bus (one driver arrested miles short of the destination, another suffering a urinary infection that required him to stop every few minutes to urinate in the bushes), Land Rover (jammed in with two dozen other passengers) wild mule (don't ask), even by camel in a salt caravan.
He spends a night in jail, too, suspected of being a spy. How does he get out? Here's what happens: The military commander of the region comes to Shah's cell to interrogate him. He wants to know all kinds of things about Shah and his journey, but most of all the commander wants to know this:
"Are you from America?"
"No," answers Shah, who is an Englishman of Pashtun descent. "From England."
"I want to go to America," replies the commander. "Can you give me any advice?"
This is not the first time Shah has been asked this question, and he hastily scribbles a list of suggestions (which have included marrying an American and swimming across from Mexico). The commander asks if he can do anything in return. "You could open that," says Shah pointing to the cell door. The commander snaps his fingers and Shah and Samson are free.
In a rare moment of comparative luxury, Shah checks into Lalibela's Sheba Hotel. Lalibela, where whole churches have been hewn from solid rock, is surely one of the world's most amazing places, though the hotel is empty. It is, in microcosm, an image of the frustrated wealth Ethiopia might be enjoying if not for a recent history of war and tyranny. Anyway, Shah writes that,
When I asked the clerk for my room key, he toyed with it, unwilling to end our conversation.
"I see from the register you're from America," he said.
I replied that I was.
"Ah, I am going to America."
"When beautiful Ursula sends me the ticket and the visa."
"Ursula, beautiful Ursula!"
"Yes, but who is she?"
Ursula, it turns out, was a tourist from Texas who promised the clerk the ticket he was waiting for daily. "When," asks Shah, "was Ursula here?" "Eleven years ago."
Ethiopia is a remarkable country. Believe it or not, some Ethiopian ethnic groups are even more hospitable than the peninsula Arabs across the Red Sea, and Shah tells a story of being served a cup of tea that demonstrates the depth of the nation's kindness. (He also has a story about ordering a cup of coffee, which in Ethiopia can mean first roasting the green coffee beans to the customer's satisfaction. The process can take hours.) In any event, many Ethiopians are engrossed in their country's long and often startling history, and apparently it isn't hard to find people with theories about Solomon and his gold.
Indeed, there's a whole subculture of gold mining that has been going on for, apparently, millennia. Shah visits a large illegal mining "collective" and provides a portrait of a kind of hell. In one scene, he and Samson are in a makeshift "bar" where miners drink hooch warm from the still. Tigrayan prostitutes who serve the camp arrive (they take credit), and one of them sits near Shah and asks, ""You go America, tomorrow?" Confused, Shah says no. The woman sneers and turns her attention to a man who starts caressing her while whispering, "America, America." In fact, America both is and isn't there. What's floating in the air is meaning. Here's the punch line:
The next day more women ask Shah if he's going to America. Then some kids inform him that it's nearly time to go to America. When? Any minute now, they tell him. Eventually, Shah becomes aware of a commotion in the camp. The Tigrayan women are mobbing a stall filled with stuff. "There were lipsticks and handbags, blankets and bedsheets, leather footballs and French aftershave, silk shirts, Swatch watches and cartons of 555 cigarettes." It's the weekly visit by a man peddling contraband from Djibouti. "He goes from mine to mine selling this rubbish," explains Samson. "Instead of saving their money these foolish people come here, to America."
America? exclaims Shah. Samson points to the crude board above the stall. In Amharic, it read, "America."