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Published: February 23rd 2010
It's a not so short hop to Sodo, skip to Arba Minch and a jump to Jinka that begins my final days in Ethiopia. The last leg into Jinka is hilarious. The road is lined with young children who bob up and down, springing in and out of a squat position whilst simultaneously waving their hands, sometimes with a coordinated salute. It is as if they are auditioning for a work-out video. The reason for this is that the region is surprisingly parched and they are providing "entertainment" for passing vehicles in the hope that passengers will give them some water. Some of my neighbours do just that, flinging a few half full bottles out the window to some of the more adventurous children who also do handstands and, in one case, back flips.
I am now in the Southern Nations, Nationalities and Peoples Region, last on the list of Ethiopia's nine administrative provinces, of which I have now seen, at least briefly, all bar one. Part of the reason for my spells of unhappiness mentioned in the last entry was feeling, for the first instance on this trip, a sense of time pressure. The cause for this is
the need to make it to Jinka for the last Saturday - market day - that falls within the dates of my visa. Unable to afford the expensive organised tours that are the standard method of seeing this region, my best bet for experiencing the cultural draws of the south is to attend the local markets. Up until the last moment I am uncertain of making it in time, so when I finally do arrive on Friday afternoon I am naturally very relieved. I am also grateful for the first chance in ages of a morning lie in - after nine straight days of getting up by 5:30am at the latest, seven of those by 4:30am!
The big attraction for tourists in the south west of Ethiopia, around the Omo Valley, is the diversity of the indigenous tribes who still retain many of their animist customs, traditional styles of dress and various forms of elaborate self-mutilation. Market day in Jinka is one of the biggest around and draws various different groups in considerable strength. My morning reconnaissance of the centre of town is a bit underwhelming, but when I return at mid-day the place is buzzing with activity
and every possible path through the packed main square is a log-jam of people and livestock. Unfortunately the numerous tourist filled 4x4s that zip around the region have alerted the locals to the monetary value of their culture and turned the place into a bit of a circus. I want to photograph these exotic people, but they want to be photographed even more and I am approached on many occasions by men in their distinctive tribal garb demanding that I snap them for money. Some even follow me down the street shouting aggressively. Now, I am perfectly understanding of people who do not want to have their picture taken and I will always ask permission if directly photographing someone. However, it’s not fun being belligerently asked to pay for the use of my own camera. I am forced to take mostly distant, covert street shots, and then zoom in as an in-camera edit later. One Hamer tribesman caught in a such a manner is particularly pugilistic. He comes storming over from across the road to where I’m sitting, rubbing his fingers and thumb together. He is furious when I don’t hand over some money, and threateningly raises the metal rod
in his hand as if about to stab me. Thankfully the two Mursi guys I’m in conversation with help to stop such drastic action and shoo him away.
After Jinka I head to colourful Konso, with its abundance of orange and women in frilly dresses, hoping to catch their Monday market. Frustratingly I am told that the only bus to the Kenyan border goes on the same day and I will have to spend another three days here before it goes again. Konso is essentially just a roundabout and, as I've become accustomed to many days of back to back movement, I opt to leave sooner rather than later. However, I still have plenty of time on the day of my arrival to explore. I try to head for some of the surrounding villages of the Konso people but get turned away by the first one because I lack a permit. I therefore change tack and aim for the biggest hill around, hoping for, and getting, excellent views. I am followed up this sweaty climb by dozens of children; those that drop away instantly replaced by others waiting ahead on the trail. I feel like the Pied Piper
of Hamlin. That night there is another torrential downpour. Sadly Konso, like too many settlements in Ethiopia, lacks a good water supply, so I must take advantage of Nature's bounty. I don swim trunks and flip flops and, armed with shampoo and flannel, step outside to shower in the rain, creating much thigh-slapping bemusement among the patrons sheltering in the hotel bar.
My final bus journey in Ethiopia is fittingly fun and feels like a microcosm of all my previous rides (only lacking an intimidating mountainous skyline). I am told to report at 11:30am, which leads to a minor blip. Time is an utterly different concept in this country, both in how it is passed and how it is measured. For Ethiopians the day begins with the starter's pistol of sun-up, therefore 6am (a rough average for sunrise) is considered to be 12am here. I have grown very used to converting into the local clock and so arrive at 5:30am GMT. I am astonished to find that 11:30am actually meant 11:30am on this occasion! I return to my hotel for a while and then get on board to save a seat and wait out the standard delays. I
notice a man feeding one of his goats with qat and wonder if this diet contributes to their ubiquitous, docile presence on the roads and their unhurried efforts to remove themselves for passing traffic.
Qat is very much the order of the day on board including, worryingly, for our driver whose teeth are permanently stained green and whose eyes become narrower and narrower as we progress towards Moyale. The plentiful bunches of the narcotic provide ample splashes of green to our already colourful bus. Although there are only 37 passengers for the 25 seats we are also overloaded with enough baggage to supply an army. The variety of bright bags, combined with the dazzling multi-coloured attire of the passengers and the density inside the bus, makes us resemble the end product of someone emptying a whole bag of skittles into their mouth and chewing it for a few seconds into a lumpy, colourful blob.
The driver's inebriation is mercifully insignificant because the road, especially from about half way, is Romanesque in its seemingly never ending straightness. We also strike tarmac once more, although at some points the quality is probably worse than any 2000 year old
Roman roads that might still exist. Lining the way is a plethora of incredible termite mounds. Some of these phallic colossi poke out above the trees, at least two or three times taller than a man, yet as thin as a catwalk model. Some have overstretched themselves and I see a number that have collapsed into ruddy brown piles, like the ruined remains of the Tower of Babel. When the soil changes from this earthy hue to a plaster grey the mounds alter correspondingly, becoming shorter and fatter in the process, reminiscent of half-finished snowmen.
I arrive too late in Moyale to cross the border and so am blessed with one final night in Ethiopia to ruminate over my last two months travelling in this frustrating but fabulous country.
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