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Published: April 6th 2010
Stamping a passport and writing down the name and number of its holder takes half an hour. Or at least it does in Ethiopia. Once Radek and I had yawned our way through this process we jumped on a truck heading from the border town of Metema to Gonder, our preffered destination. Yawns were soon replaced by laughing and shouting as Radek and I, in the open trailer, hurtled through the Ethiopian contryside, a land of beer, gorgeous women and crazy people. Within 15 minutes of the journey's beginning I had my top off, a beer in hand and had already been told by a voluptuous girl that she loved me. People waved and children came running towards us screaming variations of 'you, you, you, give me money, give me birr, you, you, you, faranji (white person), faranji, faranji, give me money, give me pen, give me ball'!
Soon we were joined in the trailer by men carrying Kalashnikovs, bags of coal and a cow and her calf. Frightened at the whole situation the mum was pooing and weeing everywhere which made the surface so slippy that the poor calf could not stand up and fell over right in his mum's mess. We were also (at some point on the journey) joined by a thief as my Ipod was stolen out of my bag (Mum: don't worry. I can claim it on the insurance (I think) and it has taught me to keep a closer eye on my belongings. I know it was a Christmas present but I'd rather they steal that than my camera, diary or passport. I have also been forced to improve my singing voice). Radek and I purchased another St. George's beer for seven Birr (about 40p) and we continued crashing through the countryside which became greener and greener the deeper into Ethiopia we travelled.
A potentially journey-changing moment occured on this lorry. As the lorry struggled slowly up a hill we passed four cyclists. Four white cyclists. A couple of them grabbed on the lorry to be pulled a long and we chatted for a couple of minutes. From England, they are cycling from Cairo to Cape Town and I spent much of the rest of the journey debating over whether or not it is a better or worse way of travelling through the continent than that which I had chosen. More on this later.
Arriving in Gonder at 4, Radek and I paid 35 Birr each (£2) for the 'presidential suite' of Gonder's crummiest hotel. We shared our room with rats and self-appointed guides hung around outside our door demanding money for jobs they hadn't even done. Regardless of this, our room had a great view over the central roundabout (can that be a great view?) and soon became the party capital of Gonder. We were joined by Jan, a Polish guy who has lived in Cranbrook previously, and the four cyclists: Dicken, John, Lindsey and Duncan. We chewed chat and drank wine.
Chat is a plant that grows locally and locals chew it to give them energy. Eating the bitter leaves can be quite bitter so it is usually accompanied by peanuts. I definitely felt a buzz, but this was after some four hours of chewing. My tongue was out of control and I became very (much more) talkative. During the course of the evening the guys were telling me all about their trip (www.cycletothecup.co.uk). Lindsey advertised it in the Metro some months ago and executed a ruthless interview process to select the chumps she was travelling with. Surprised I was, therefore, when she asked me to join them. After some discussion it was decided that I would make all attempts to join them in Arusha, Tanzania, around 20th April. This will give me time to get a bike and the necessary equipment as well as spend time with old friends in TZ. I will then cycle the 3000 miles (that's an educated guess, it's probably more) to Johannesburg with them while I'll ditch the bike, meet up with friends and go on my own World Cup circuit. The plan has since developed and now seems like a real possibility. I have a charity lined up and I know where to get the equipment. I am still, however, reliant on other people for a bike so it is a question of watch this space. What I do know is, is that after TZ I do not know how or where I will be travelling. Exciting huh?
The following day Radek and I endured the 100km / five-hour journey (I know which sounds better) to Debark, the base for climbing the Simien Mountains in northern Ethiopia. We paid 590 Birr (£30) for a five-day climb. We did not take a guide, cook or mules to carry the bag as most people do. We took only the obligatory guide and his Kalashnikov and carried our own stuff. We began climbing at 6.30 the next morning and arrived at the first campsite, Sankaber, at 3.30 in the afternoon. At an altitude of 3200m I felt very low. I'd thought that I'd find it easy as I'd done Kili before but it was, in fact, very, very tough. I was finding the uphills extremely tiring and this was due in part to the heavy rucksack but more so to do with the altitude. Walking for so many hours also gave me the chance to think about all the stupid things I've done in my life (it still wasn't enough hours) and by the time we reached campsite I was utterly depressed.
It is often the way that in Africa strange things happen. It is an unpredictable continent and one moment you'll be having a right shitter and then the next something incredible and uplifting will happen. It is the way this continent seems to work. good, bad, ugly and beautiful is all rolled in to one and you have to take each moment as it comes. 'This is Africa' or 'TIA' as they say in TZ.
Feeling like I was at the campsite I experienced a perfect example of a TIA moment. I was at the water spring collecting shitty water for shitty cooking with Radek when a mother, father and child approached the spring. Also collecting water we exchanged pleasantries in Amharic and I then had the thought of inviting ourselves round to theirs for dinner. Despite them not being able to speak a word of English (no exagggeration, although their elder son can now say 'Crazy Ethiopia') we managed to achieve this. We went and sat in their tiny mud hut, lit only by an old torch and the fire on the stove, and feasted on injera (spongy pancake) and potato stew flavoured with onions, garlic and berbere (a fiery local spice). It was delicious but SO hot and Radek's face was a picture of snot and tears. We chatted to the mother, father and their two sons (aged about two and six) about I don't know what and I don't know how but somehow we communicated and enjoyed their hospitality. Before we left they gave us fresh coffee. The beans were fried in front of us before being traditionally ground by the wife in a hollowed-out tree trunk. Radek hates coffee but loved this. It was truly memorable coffee and we had several cups. After giving the family some money and food as a show of our gratitude we headed back to camp and to sleep. I felt totally rejuvinated. TIA.
The next day we trekked to Gich campsite at about 3600m. Again, I struggled on the uphills and was frustrated at how nonchalant and ill-prepared I had been. Who takes jeans in their bag on a trek into the mountains?! Regardless, the scenery was stunning. We saw waterfalls, sheer drops of hundreds of metres and shared it all with hundreds of baboons to whom we could get within five metres. We bought a whole (live) chicken for 25 Birr (£1.50) and at the campsite Andreas, our scout, ruthlessly hacked it death as I neatly cut the onions next to him. Both were thrown into a stew a long with the pasta and I felt very full when I headed to bed that night.
On the third day of the hike we trekked to Imet Gogo at 3900m and on to Inadye at 4070m. The views were truly stunning as we looked across over the tin roofs of the villages around. The air was cold and still, pierced only by the cries of Ethiopian daily life made by livestock and children. We continued down to the campsite, Chennak, at 3500m. We saw walia ibeks and on arrival at the campsite, at 3 in the afternoon, decided to hitch a lift back to Debark so that we could crack on with our busy itinerary the next day. The first vehicle passed us at 4.15 and, fortunately, it stopped to give us a lift. Back in Debark we feasted on spaghetti with tomato sauce, bananas, mangos, chocolate biscuits and beer.
The next day we departed Debark at 8 in the morning and arrived in Bahir Dar, our intended destination, at 5 in the afternoon. We stopped in Gonder to pick up my camera which had been fixed and in Bahar Dar we enjoyed the tastiest fish gulash, made from fresh tilapia caught in Lake Tana, and fresh juice. Maybe I'd eaten something strange or was just run-down from the trekking, lack of sleep and long journeys because that night I had one of the worst night's sleep of my life. Everytime I closed my eyes I would hear 'you, you, you, give me money, money, give me, my friend I make you good price, you like ganja, fuck you, faranji, faranji, faranji...'. I think you get the idea. I was also feverish and had a crippling ache in my left arm. If you know me well you know that I don't like to take painkillers. Well this was so bad that I took some and went for a walk at 2 in the middle of the night.
Have you remembered the concept of TIA? The next morning I was sailing around Lake Tana (the source of the Blue Nile) on a small motorboat, visiting three small islands and their beautiful, colourful, round monasteries. All were surrounded by lush vegetation and we saw guava, mango, papaya, banana, avocado and coffee all growing. It was the first time since entering Ethiopia I'd really felt like I was on holiday and we followed it up with a 30km rickshaw journey to the Blue Nile waterfalls. Known by the locals as 'Tis Isat', meaning 'water that smokes', it is a fraction of what it used to be due to the construction of a hydro-electric dam but the two streams that plummet over the edge are powerful and luring enough that Radek and I went for a skinny-dip (even though I was wearing trunks anyway). See the picture-imagine-exercise for more details. The driver of our rickshaw let me drive on the way back and I nearly put us into a ditch when I leant over to remove a first-aid box that was hitting my leg. Safely back in Bahir Dar we met up with Jan, our Polish friend, for beers before heading to bed at 1.
After just two hours sleep we were picked up by our minibus heading to Lalibela. The journey was cross-country and the roads, therefore, were in a terrible state. Somehow, I managed to sleep well on the journey and after a brief stopover in Gashema we arrived in Lalibela at about 3 in the afternoon. We met Adam (another Czech) and Becca (from California) in our hotel and with them we climbed a hill for a great view of the town. We all then enjoyed a traditional Ethiopian evening of eating injera and bayayanetu (vegetables on injera as Ethiopia was fasting (no meat) until Easter) and drinking tej (honey) wine. Adam told me I was like a cross between John Cleese and Phil Collins. How good is that?!
The following day we went to see the 11 rock-hewn churches of Lalibela. Described by some (mainly the locals) as the eighth wonder of the world it really was fascinating. During the Zagwe dynasty of the 12th century King Lalibela had been born with bees circling his mouth. He was thus named 'Lalibela' meaning 'honey-eater' and, following his creation of these churches in the same century, the town was named after him. The churches are a combination of monolithic and semi-monolithic and are dug entirely out of the rock, each church taking about two years to complete. Inside they are decorated with devine paintings and crosses and linked by narrow alleyways and tunnels, some of which depict hell before rising up in to the church and therefore paradise. Throughout the tight complex of churches many locals were gathered and were praying and singing. It was great to see and I'm glad that I had made the long journey to Lalibela in order to do so.
That night I paid two Birr (about 10p) to enter a kind of football theatre where the seats are positioned like that of a theatre and the centrepiece is made up of a single TV screen. Ethiopians love their football and it was packed as I watched Man Utd lose to Bayern Munich. Radek had left early so as I walked back to the hotel alone I was overcome with worry about the injury to Wayne Rooney. I was soon distracted, however, as I spotted Radek in a bar near the hotel, looking very sheepishly at me, surrounded by three prostitutes. I can't repeat what I said but needless to say he thanked me in the morning.
The next day we got a bus to Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia. We would spend the night at Dessie, the half way point on the journey. Radek was charged 131 Birr and I was charged 132 and the journey was fun. We sat at the back of the bus with a couple of beautiful young civil servants (they get paid 800 birr (£40) a month) called Senait and Meseret. We chewed lots of chat and sang lots of songs before hanging out with the girls in Dessie and enjoying jumbo draft beers for just five birr (25p). The following day we left Dessie at six in the morning and arrived in the capital exactly twelve hours later. On the journey the chickens and goat (cargo on top of the bus) kept falling off but I don't think anyone really cared as it was only meant for their plates of meat at the forthcoming weekend's Easter celebrations.
After getting a hotel in Addis Ababa Radek and I went to find a restaurant called Castelli's. Renowned as being one of the best restaurants in Ethiopia (Geldof, Pitt and Jimmy Carter have all said so) it is owned by the family of two friends of mine, James and Carla. It was shut when we arrived so we went for four beers before returning later in the faint hope that we may be able to afford a beer there if nothing else. No such luck. The appertifs cost 130 Birr per plate (you can eat for eight Birr in Ethiopia) and the guy behind the desk seemed unamused by our amusement that we could not even afford a beer in this place. Despite introducing myself to him and explaining I know his great-niece and nephew he was very rude and we were ushered out by the waiters. More on this later. We headed to a bar for burger and chips and continued to drink too much and enjoy the bright lights (when there is not a powercut) of Addis Ababa. In the final nightclub we went to there were six women. I made a bee-line for the only one that wasn't a prostitute. After about five minutes of fairly successful chat a blike came up to me and said: 'I make you good price'. Radek and I left, alone.
My experience of Ethiopia had been brilliant. It is the only country in Africa that was not colonised and it boasts its own language, script and calendar. It is crazy and unique. My experience was about to braoden, however. Radek had to go back to Czech and I met up with Lilla, the mother of one of mum's colleagues, in the lobby of the Hilton Hotel. I was stunned by the cleanliness of the people and the presence of lifts. Since then, I have been staying with Lilla. Initially I was going to help out at a centre for victims of polio where Lilla has some involvement but, since Lilla's driver has been away over Easter, I have been working as her driver and getting food and lodgings in return.
In my spare time I've been able to visit the Holy Trinity Church, where Emporer Haile Selassie (the first Ethiopian leaders after the Commonwealth forces liberated Ethiopia from the Italians in the 1940s) is buried, the national museum and Merkato (rumoured to be the biggest market in the whole of Africa). Together with Lilla we have visited the Red Terror museum which commemorates those who died during the regime of the Derg, a Soviet backed military regime that lasted from 1973 to 1991. We have also visited the Commonwealth and Italian war graves as well as (on Easter Sunday) the volcanic lakes at Debre Zeit with some of her friends. I have drunk wine, sublime macchiatos, eaten at Chinese restaurants and enjoyed the company of this lovely woman who has lived in Ethiopia for nineteen years working predominantly as an English teacher and an examiner. She has rubbed soldiers with such people as Haile Gebre Selassie, the current Minister of Defence and the First Lady of Mali so she has some fascinating stories to tell.
Most importantly, however, we have just lunched at Castelli's, the Italian restaurant I mentioned previously. We had prosciutto for starter followed by delicious fish ravioli for main course. 'You haven't tried pasta until you've been to Castelli's' according to Geldoff. Spending the time with Lila has given me the chance I needed to send a parcel home and donate a huge pile of clothes to charity as I prepare to lighten my load in the event I need to cycle from Arusha to Johannesburg. i have also been able to benefit from the use of the internet and the British Council and Lilla's maid has done my filthy, filthy washing.
Driving in Ethiopia is fun. It is by no means the worst driving I've seen in my trip (Libyans still boast that title) but it is not easy. It is really dog eat dog and if you are polite you'll never move an inch. Main hazards include pedestrians, potholes and minibuses without any lights.
Tomorrow I hope to start the long slog south to Nairobi. Buses go from Addid ababa to the border but from there, however, it's cattle-trucks for 700km to Isiolo where you can get connecting buses to Nairobi. Essentially, it looks as though I'm going to spend my birthday on a cattle-truck. I can't wait.
Ethiopia has been an incredible experience. It is mad (like my map). It is a country of contrasting emotions (TIA). The people are as annoying as they are delightful. One person will tell you it takes half an hour to get somewhere and the next will say it takes seven hours. You can be charged one birr more than your friend for a bus journey just for fun. Many of the roads are terrible. People fight with rocks in their hands. The women are gorgeous, truly stunning. There is a ridiculous amount to see (three weeks has not been enough). They have separate menus for faranjis. Ethiopia has a seriously high TIA factor.
PICTURE-IMAGINE-EXERCISE (Part 3):
1. Monastery on an island of Lake Tana, as a monk strolls across the picture
2. Triumphant pose and flexing-muscles behind the Blue Nile Waterfall...naked
3. Two white guys in a sea of black faces watching a game in Lalibela's football theatre
4. Prayers outside one of Ethiopia's most important places of worship
5. Lilla in Castelli's. Clean tablecloths, serviettes and sparkling wine glasses
Next blog: I have got no idea
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