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Published: February 23rd 2010
"13 Months of Sunshine." Everywhere in Ethiopia I see this slogan promoting tourism here; in hotels, immigration departments, cafes and tourist offices. There is not much tourism in the west of the country however, which is what attracts me. In the two weeks I spend wiggling westward from Harar all the way across to Gambela and then back again to Bonga (my last stop before heading south) I don't see a single white face.
If my previous blogs have sounded at all negative this is unintentional. I'm not on here to complain, but to relate what happens as articulately and entertainingly as my limited ability will allow, and often the relatively mild problems I face from time to time make for a better tale. After all: "happiness is an allegory, unhappiness a story." However, during this period (once I've passed beyond the lovely Lake Ziway) my mood definitely reaches a nadir and for the first time I start to question my own decisions and allow previously insignificant inconveniences to really rile me. Travel in the western regions is considerably tougher than most of what I've been doing so far and I've deliberately come to challenge
my own durability and patience. I don't mind admitting that on occasion I fail the test.
Although there are a number of niggling little reasons for this brief downturn, the real catalyst is two bouts of bowel rebellion. I'm held up in Welkite for an extra day and then, immediately afterwards, for a further three in Jimma. Here, as I feverishly scamper backwards and forwards from the squat toilets during the first night, a little delirious from dehydration, my supplies of toilet paper become critically depleted and I am forced to finally find a use for my hitherto hopeless LP. The pages of author mug shots quickly meet a very sorry, sodden end.
In Nekemte (the next stop after Jimma) I finally give myself a good kick up the arse and recognise the need to toughen up a bit. I'm a little concerned that this uptick coincides with randomly catching a bit of Braveheart on a restaurant TV, and of the possibility that this is what inspires me. I’m also motivated by my hotel being overrun with mosquitoes, which attack with infuriating cunning. Although there are many of them they choose to dive bomb me one
by one. Awake at night I gradually I hear the buzzing of an approaching foe and I swat wildly around my face and neck. Eventually I've had enough and switch on the light, wait for the bastard to land and... SPLAT! Off goes the light but within a minute my next nemesis takes to the sky and the distant whining hum begins again. Louder and louder it becomes until once more I am flailing frantically and reaching for the light. This process continues for a long time until fatigue overtakes my will for self-preservation and I cannot help but fall asleep. Defeat I suppose was inevitable but I manage to martyr a great number of my tormentors and the wall is covered in bloody smears when I depart the next morning.
Although Ethiopians are generally friendly and keen to offer assistance, the information and insights I am given are regularly wrong. Consequently I have learned to dismiss a lot of "advice" that is offered me. In Nekemte I am therefore shocked to discover that the bus station does actually open at the time the officials tell me. Having been misled by those in similar positions in the recent
past I arrive an hour early and get to wait around observing the busiest depot so far. Entering an Ethiopian bus station is an incredible experience in itself. You aim to arrive perhaps fifteen minutes before opening to join the hordes of people that jostle for position at the wide gates. Then, when the bars finally swing apart, a stampede occurs as aspiring travellers charge with a frenzied desperation into the station towards their bus of choice. Many do not know which one they need and rush around like headless chickens (my usual technique) relying on the many bus boys calling out destinations to direct them. Within twenty minutes however most buses are full or at least the best seats have been taken and now those people who have failed to secure a spot mill about like tranquilised zombies. The change in disposition is hilarious in its extremity.
For better or worse, the journeys in this region are undeniably memorable and surviving the journey to Dembidolo from Nekemte is an epic, twelve-hour task of Herculean proportions. It is a fantastic experience, with a great cast of characters, an appalling, windy road and changing, engaging scenery. We break down
four times, all for engine problems and I wonder to myself why the decrepit old hunk of junk hasn't been replaced long ago. The simple answer, ironically, is that a new engine would last a lot less time than the old one. The buses in Ethiopia are officially run by a government authority which is ultimately responsible for them, but in practice the crews have a large amount of autonomy. In an example of the, erm, “entrepreneurial”, behaviour that typifies the continent a crew will simply remove any new engine supplied and promptly sell it for their own profit, replacing it with the faulty old one again as long as this still has some life left. Therefore, important spare parts are not provided until the originals are completely broken and impossible to re-use, hence the frequent sightings of abandoned buses by the roadside as they have reached a stage where no amount of bashing with a spanner can compel them to move any further.
Having got some accurate information at last, lightening does not strike twice and, lulled into a naive trusting demeanour after Nekemte, I foolishly listen to similar advice and consequently fail to get a bus
out of Dembidolo, wasting another day in this bone-dry backwater. Much of the day is spent sitting waiting around at the depot for later transport which is promised but never appears. The lack of travellers here makes me an item of tentative curiosity and the trio of men chatting beside where I first sit soon swells to at least a score of locals unsubtly spread out in a semi-circle around me. I feel like I'm in a zoo.
The ultimate goal of these westerly wanderings is the town of Gambela, which is the capital of its own tiny province, and although I’m still aware of impending time pressures this stop provides a much needed soothing tonic for my currently mercurial mood. Until only a couple of years ago the place was firmly off the tourist radar and actually quite a dangerous destination due to tribal conflict between the local Nuer and Anuak. As I walk about I can certainly feel some of the residual tension. Each group has its own part of town but in the centre I notice some decidedly dirty looks between people as they pass in the street. I myself receive a few hostile stares,
but of the two tribes I feel more welcomed by the Nuer and am engaged by some in conversation and others wanting their picture taken as I patrol their territory. When tramping around an old ruined Italian fort I am also invited in for coffee by some locals. I hate coffee! But, western Ethiopia is the home of coffee and when in Rome... With the usual spoon suspending dose of sugar in each cup, the local fare is really quite palatable.
The ride from Gambela to Tepi is again a rough one but one of the most beautiful routes so far. This is because the latter half is through dense, luscious and exotic rainforest. This is a rarity in Ethiopia which has lost an estimated 95% of its original forest. Rainforest of course means rain, and the heavens duly oblige for most of the journey, lending a sensual brilliance to the glistening greenery and permeating the bus with the pleasant aroma of fresh, damp chlorophyll. The weather does however make the travel much slower, particularly the next day when I head for Bonga.
After the usual assault on the bus station, an event which now resembles
a festival mosh pit, we set off along a track so muddy that it puts Glastonbury to shame. Twice we get stuck in the mud, and on the second instance we join a long line of vehicles waiting to be towed by tractor up a steep, otherwise insurmountable hill. It is a long time before we arrive at the journey’s end.
Tot: 2.905s; Tpl: 0.063s; cc: 14; qc: 106; dbt: 0.0699s; 2; m:saturn w:www (188.8.131.52); sld: 1;
; mem: 1.6mb