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Published: December 15th 2010
Ethiopia. And I thought Sudan defied words. I arrived yesterday, and since the border it's been a manic two days, and possibly, probably, the toughest day of travelling I've ever had. I'm in peices. I'm well and truly wrecked. The good bits, they are just great. The bad bits, well, they're like nothing else I've seen. And this place seems to bring out the worst in me.
I guess things started at the border yesterday, the joint ramshackle towns of Gallabat (Sudan), and Metemma (Ethiopia). Although calling Metemma a brothel, rather than a town, would be closer to the truth. The Sudanese side - tea ladies. The Ethiopian side - bars and endless dingy 'hotels'. It almost makes me long for another 'dry' country, and makes me realise what a very special place Sudan is.
Passport control was easy enough, and the border just a bridge to be walked across at your leisure, without any kind of control at all. Once in Ethiopia I'm obsessed with finding the right price for the bus to Gondar. The books says 30br. Everyone tells me it's 60br. I get grumpy straight away. It seems, before I've even left immigration, that my mind has been made up about Ethiopia by the bad reports I've heard of people being ripped off. And then, somewhere between the border and Gondar, the first major town, my phone goes missing. Possibly stolen. Although most probably lost. Still, it's not a good start is it?
Once in Gondar, I find the cheapest hotel I can find, which may or may not double up as a brothel, and then want to wander around the town. In Sudan it was such an easy thing to do, but here, no one seems to give you an inch of space. I'm accosted by some guys from the hotel, and a younger boy of about 10 years. I can find my own way to a damn cafe for crying out loud. And again, I'm suspiscious of their motives for being so 'helpful'. I go to a cafe for food and a beer, and the young boy just stands outside. We stay for over an hour, but he' still there when we leave. He's intnet on following me, and then, dives into a sob story, and asks for money. I ignore him. But he still follows me. And follows me around the whole town. For some reason he really gets to me. Maybe it's coming from Sudan. Maybe it's the lack of sleep. Whatever, I almost lose my rag. And I've only been in the country a few hours. How are the next 4 weeks going to work out?
But then, from the safety of a coffee shop, I suddenly decide that Ethiopia is actually fantastic - the coffee is cheap, they have beer, and the waitresses, well, they're absolutely stunning. People in Sudan kept mentioning how pretty the girls in Ethiopia are, and it's a nice welcome to the country. Then later, I join about 400 locals for the United vs. Arsenal match. The fans make a pub crowd in England look tame, and are all jeers, shouts, and chants. I think I could be happy here. United victorious, I wander home at 1am. The bad news is that this is just 4 hours until my 5am bus...
I pack my bag, set the alarm, and wake up feeling as if I've not even been asleep. The town is in darkness as I walk through it, the powercut which started 12 hours ago is still going on, and the only light comes from the single bulbs of tiuk-tuks as they chugg around town. I make it to the bus station, and it's pandemonium. I'm confronted by a hoard of men all shouting out their buses directions, which turns into an incoherant and illegible mass of Amharic. And at the meantime, what feels like half the town, and all their possesions, are hurrying around in the darkness to find the bus they need. I'm glad it's not just me who's confused.
I find the bus I need and climb on board. It's only 5.05am. And as I climb up the steel steps, 30 slightly shocked and bemused Ethiopians all star back at me. I get offered a seat next to the door (which thankfully gives me leg room), force my bag under the seat, possibly breaking everything inside, and take my place. I think the bus must be about to leave as it's clearly full already, but in the next 25 minutes, at least another 30 people mus climb aboard. It's five to a row, with more crammed onto the isle, and anywhere else there's space, sat on their shopping, and buried benath piles of boxes.
At 5.30, the overlaoded bus creeps and crawls out the station, leaving behind a cloud of dust and petrol fumes, as we wind along the dark streets out of town. I spend the first hour in a constant daze, dropping off to sleep, onto to wake up sharply, as I slump forward and crack my forehead on the 'safety' rail in front of the seat. At one point, I catch my glasses square on the rail, leaving a sharp gash across my nose. It's not what you want after three hours sleep.
The rest of the journey, again it's the definition of intense. The road, built by the Italians, is the most picturesque, and terrifying, road I've ever been on. Clearly designed for nothing wider than a Vespa, the thin track of dirt and rock hangs precariously around the cliff edges, seeming to defy gravity. For six hours, we don't got straight for more than 50 metres, as the track winds and weaves down valleys, and back up the other side. I thought we were skirting the edge of the Simien Mountains, it feels as if we're travelling straight up and over them. On a tarmac road, in a decent car, it would be sketchy. On gravel, dirt, and dust, in this ancient bus, it feels suicidal. My heands, dripping in dweat, grip to the bar in front of the car as we round each hairpin. I'm torn between looking at view, and starring down into the abyss below. But the views, they're just stunning. The forested hillsides seem to rise and fall for eternity, until that is we round some a corner, the side falls away, and we can see for miles onto the palins below. It feels like a mix between the Scottish Highlands, Tuscany in autumn, and the peaks of the cardrona valley all rolled into one. And I'm confroted by a whole rainbow of colours, the golden fields of harvested corn, bright (almost flourescent) greens of newly planted crops, the sunburnt browns of grasses on the peaks, and the dark, black, earth below. It's just unbeleivable, especially after two months in the endless and flat desert
But the bus, that's the pain to counter the pleasure. It starts off pleasant enough, but with 60 people in a metal box under equatorial sun, it just gets hotter, and hotter, throughout the day. Sweat covers everything, and soaks into all my clothes. A small boy needs the toilet, and some dribbles onto the floor. The constant turning back and forth, makes another boy travel sick, and he vommits all over the stairs, and onto people's feet. The dirver is so hot he takes off his shirt. And the smell of dust, sweat, and vommit mix in the air, and get caught in the back of your throat and make you wretch. And through this, the locals leave all the windows shut for fear of letting in diseases and evil spirits. The only releif comes when someone opens a window after the boy vommits, allowing a gust of fresh air to wash over my face, before slamming it shut a few moment later. It's such a mad, mad, journey. At the same time, and in equal measures, one of the worst and best journeys I've ever made.
But, when we finally roll into Shire, 13 hours after leaving Gondar, I'm coudn't be happier to get out, stand up, and dust myself down. That is of course, until Ethiopia shows it's most annoying side. As soon as I step off the bus, I'm accosted by a group of guys asking me where I'm going, and telling me to get on a bus that's about to leave to Axum. The bus driver tells me I can't go until the following morning. The guys shout that the bus is about to leave. Why is it so hard to find the truth? And who shoud I trust? (Even though, I don't actually trust anyone).
In a snap decision I follow the group of boys, eager to get to Axum that day. Suddenly, I'm now surrounded by about 15 men, all staring, all saying nothing. I ask if the bus is definitely going to Axum now, today. They all say yes, but I'm still not sure, convinced something is going on. I get a bad feeling when I ask the price in Amharic. The ticket seller repeats my words, and everyone bursts into laughter. In Sudan they'd be impressed if you tried any Arabic. Here, it seems you're a laughing stock. I ask the price again, and they discuss in Amharic, before saying 20br (about 80p). Why do they have to discuss the price? Why is everything in this country so tough? Why am I getting cut up about 20p?
I moan, and moan, and moan, then pay the money and take my seat. Straight away a boy stands next to me, saying nothing, doing nothing. Then, after 10 minutes, says 'Give me money'. More a demand, than a plea for help. I brush him off, and the bus pulls away. As soon as we're going the ticket seller shouts things to the whole bus. I here the word 'firenji', Amharic for foreigner. And then the bus bursts into laughter. I'm clearly the subject of such amusement. Or do they all think it's so funny that I'm being conned? I just don't know what to think, or what to do. I've been awake and crammed into a bus for the last 13 hours. I need space. I need sleep. I wish I'd stayed in the last town. I stare out of the window, a frown on my face, wishing, praying, willing for the journey end. I later learn, I've paid the correct price for both journeys. Am I jumping to conclusions?
Ninety long, bumpy, and painful minutes later we arrive, and I'm dropped off at my hotel. I get a nice clean room with a decent bed room for 50br (about 2GBP), but I would have paid ten times that for a box on the floor I'm that tired. I sit down for a beer and spagetti, and can relax for the first time in the day. I struggle to walk to the table. My white shirt is red from the dust. My face a brown mess of sweat, dust, and dirt, having not showered for 3 days. It's only 10pm, but I have to go to bed, I just cant keep my eyes open for one second longer.
It's been one of of the toughest, but possibly best, days travelling I ever done. This country has fantastic scenery, unbearable hassle, and then horrific bus journeys that are so good you'll never forget them. It's everything I was expecting, and then more. It's fantastic and horrific in equal measures. And I've only been here a day and a half.
Welcome to Ethiopia...
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