DAY 21. TUESDAY JANUARY 1st, 2019. MOYALE, KENYA
So it’s 2019. I was fast asleep a couple of hours before midnight, and woke to a miserably grey, windy morning. This is Marsabit’s microclimate. By ten thirty it was the usual hot house, and the desert below the mountain was burning.
It’s been quite a day! Wow! And again wow! What a day. It began badly when I topped up with oil in the hotel car park and drove away without returning the filler cap, because I was talking to Saleem, the manager. I rode north, stopping – fortunately – to take a photograph of the large crater that drops beside the road beyond the town, in fact the road follows its rim for a mile or so. As I walked back to the Mosquito I saw my boot was covered in oil. Expletives, loud and colourful, followed. I rode back to town, ten kilometres back, with my foot on the oil filler hole, oil atomising all over the bike. Back at the hotel, I knew just where I had ridden and Saleem and several others joined me in a forensic search of the rocky approach lane, car park and main dual carriageway outside. We searched and searched in vain. Saleem, so helpful, phoned the best mechanic in town. He would come in due course. Meanwhile, we all searched again.
It was an hour before one of the young men found the filler cap! He found it on the other carriageway of the big road passing the hotel. Sadly, a truck must have run over it, but by then Sam, a charming Kikuyu mechanic from middle Kenya, and obviously a knowledgeable and decent man, had arrived. Now he left again to bring a small file with which to buff the threads back into shape.
Because of all this it was high noon when I finally left, into the hottest part of the day and one of the hottest parts of East Africa. I have Sam’s phone number and will have him check the Mosquito when I pass back through Marsabit. What a kind, gentle man. He was at some time in the military but settled in this northern town with his brother, and fellow mechanic, to do God’s work, he being a devout evangelical Christian in this rather Islamic town. Despite my own total disbelief, I do respect the sort of guidance that Sam obviously takes from his religion. It forms the foundation of his life without preaching too much to the rest of us. That’s fine by me. He’d probably be a decent, honest and likeable man without it, but he obviously believes he’d be a lesser man. It’s an unquestioning complete belief.
It was another astonishingly alone (not lonely) ride. I fell to thinking, for there’s not much to do out there amongst the red sand and burned purple rocks, the low dry scrub, the camels, numerous graceful gazelles, the local mayattas, the decreasing thorn trees, the blinding sun, the horizon visibly bent to prove that the world is round, the long smooth tarmac, and a vehicle coming the other way about once every ten or fifteen minutes.
And what did I think about in my reveries..? I thought that I am probably certifiably bonkers! Absolutely off my trolley! Obstinate and utterly crazy! What the hell, I wondered, was I doing there? I was riding across about three hundred and fifty miles of burning desert on a tinny 200cc motorbike; no shade, dressed in hot boots, jacket zipped against the danger of flying insects, wool scarf to protect the back of my neck from the vertically overhead sun, steaming helmet and goggles. I am four months off seventy years old. Why can’t I stay at home, pour another Laphroaig for New Year and act my age? Take up carpentry or painting or some sedentary hobby? What is it that drives me to this?
Of course, it’s the Challenge. I’m afraid of these decisions I make: to cross this huge desert to explore even bigger Ethiopia. I have been apprehensive, deep down, for weeks. And the trouble is, as soon as I acknowledge my fear, I know I can’t, or won’t, let it beat me! Which is where my legendary obstinacy comes to the fore. I WILL overcome the disquiet. I WILL persevere. And there, of course, come the rewards, the new confidence, the high of achievement. It’s about beating the fears.
Utterly, totally pointless! Bonkers.
The sun beats remorselessly on my helmet. I listen to that loose timing chain, wait for the puncture, count the miles down. It’s incredibly empty and incredibly vast: just me on the little bike moving through this terrifyingly remote landscape. Here and there herdsmen sit beneath the thin shadow of a thorn tree, hundreds of sheep grazing the empty miles, scavenging for goodness knows what. There are perhaps five small, rude villages in all these 150 miles, mainly basic places of local manyattas, caravan-sized homes of curved sticks covered with astonishing patchworks of scavenged debris: old plastic, woven nylon sacks, pieces of torn canvas truck canopies, tablecloths, bedsheets, and dust-faded plastics, all tied down with home made ropes. What do these people DO? What do they eat – camel milk and sheep, I suppose. Much of their day must be taken up in the basic need of fetching water – there are numerous donkeys carrying yellow plastic containers across the desert. What are these people’s ambitions? Just to survive, maybe? What do they think about? How do they see me? They are a mystery to me, just as I would be to them, should we come into closer contact as I hurry past. Why is it that at almost 70 I want to ride my motorbike across their harsh homeland and all they want is to exist in this furnace? It’s all they know… But I’m not content with that…
Around four, weary and overheated, I approached Moyale, the last Kenyan town. It’s not an attractive place. It’s full of large mosques and that directed my search for accommodation. The obvious hotels were too close to that dismal drone of the muezzins at dawn. I rode down every dusty lane looking for signboards. I found a guest house in a quiet place but it seemed to be closed. I turned in the dust lane. And that was when the clutch cable broke! All I wanted was a cool shower and a drink – and now I must deal with this.
I was proud of the bodge I fashioned from a six inch nail with my pliers. By levering it against the handlebar I could pull in the clutch enough to ride to find help. First, I checked into a nearby basic lodging house, a simple room on the second floor with a view of scrubby hills and people’s compounds below. It’s good enough for the night, a cleanish bed, a rugged bathroom with a cold shower, a railed passage in front of the room; there are no other guests so it’s like a balcony. Tonight the whole town is without electricity, which may help keep the lugubrious misery of the mosques quiet. The watchman brought me candles and matches and it’s quite atmospheric as I write. The sound of families below floats up, utensils clatter, and the watchman and his friends chatter below. My ears still sing from the desert ride and I am still thirsty but the water is most unattractive, with a vile sulphurous smell, doubtless a souvenir of the volcanic nature of these lands. Fortunately, it doesn’t taste quite as bad as the smell.
The local boda-boda mender sent me to town, by the biggest mosque. There I asked about, riding my bodge rather proudly. Soon I met Mahat, in his broken down lock-up, the frontage deep in oily sand and discarded bike parts. Most things can be mended in Africa; it’s how everyone exists. With parts from two Chinese clutch cable packages, he fashioned me a working clutch – actually better than before. By the time we were done, me greasy fingered and weary as hell, it was almost seven and darkness falling as we worked with the aid of our phone torches. Mahat asked for 300 bob for the clutch we cannibalised, another 100 bob for the new cable and 100 for himself, a total of £4. I gave him five and we parted the best of friends. In Addis, maybe I can find a replacement from Suzuki – or I might just carry that as spare until this one breaks!
As Mahat and I worked, a young Somali boy pestered around. “Take me to Engerland. I want to go to Engerland. Why don’t you take me to your embassy?” It’s the universal dream. This boy tried the ‘Libya route’ but turned back when he saw the danger and cost. My words of unemployment in England, the cold, the expense, the contempt in which he’ll be held by many. I was reading rampant xenophobia in my Guardian, from Dover residents only this morning. The saddest sign of changed times being that the liberal, understanding Dover folk all asked for their names to be withheld, while the racists were proud to publish their ignorance. My words have no effect. The streets of the North are still paved with gold. The old colonial fairy tales refuse to die. Reality is still perceived as me being mean-spirited. And of course, I AM the one with the ‘big’ piki-piki and the ease and money to tour Africa on a whim. It’s an unequal world.
Now it’s 9.15. I am exhausted with the heat, the tension, the bike repairs, dehydration and a grim meal of chicken and beans that I took quickly before returning to my guest house in the pitch dark, my headlight shining up at the roadside trees. I shall sleep on top of the bed tonight, ignoring the centimetre-thick Chinese blanket.
And the best news of the day is that this morning I dropped my iPad on a tiled floor (I am usually SO careful!) and seem to have cured the immensely frustrating problem I have had since the ‘repair’ of the screen. Only this morning I emailed the Apple repair place in Nairobi and told them I would have to bring it back sometime and meanwhile would try to purchase an external keyboard in Ethiopia. So far tonight the only typos have been mine, not the independent mind of the device. I will watch with interest. The old adage: if it doesn’t respond to care, bash it!
It’s 9.38 and the whole town is silent, asleep. But those miserable muezzins won’t let anyone sleep in. Earplugs by the bed… (Just as well. The power came back a few hours later, bringing back all the radios and TVs in compounds around, everyone asleep by now, and no African sleeps as lightly as me. They would blare until dawn…).
DAY 22. WEDNESDAY JANUARY 2nd 2019. AGERE MARYAM, ETHIOPIA
Ethiopia. A complete new book. And right now, I feel utterly lost – not unduly ill at ease, but with no bearings at all on which to start. Culture shock is a well worn phrase, but apt tonight. I don’t know how to begin. Of course, in a way, it’s a reflection on how complacent I have become in East and southern Africa, where English is so widely spoken and the culture has so many echoes of the British. It’s easy to travel in all those countries; this is something entirely different…
It’s been a very long hard day and my confusion adds to my exhaustion. And for once I do feel rather alone. Few people speak English (why should they?) and I appear to be a somewhat exotic species to most I pass. Everyone waves and gesticulates: it’s astonishingly friendly – just a complete unknown and I am floundering. Doubtless, I will begin to pick up the cultural signs in a day or two. I’ve enough experience after all. For now it’s new languages, a new script, different calendar, new norms, new currency, new everything; out of my depth for once – hopefully briefly.
I’m sitting in a sort of bar in the yard of a cheap hotel. The light bulbs are about 20 watt, all over the hotel. I’m a little out of sight, keeping that way as I seem to attract so much attention when I’m more visible. I’ve got my second 60p bottle of beer in front of me and just ate a bizarre meal of injera, the Ethiopian thin pancake made of slightly fermenting millet, and what I hoped would be vegetables… Well, remember, the only Ethiopian food I ever ate was in that rather smart Nairobi restaurant on the first night of this trip. Then I was served a big injera with various very tasty vegetables, beans, small piles of delicious meat and some good tastes like salsas. Tonight I ordered injera and vegetables – and got the 15 inch, thin pancake and a huge helping of spaghetti, with some small shavings of carrot and cabbage and chilli pepper! Oh well, after a day entirely sustained on fruit juice and water I guess it’ll keep the body going for another few hours. I can recommend travelling as the ultimate diet, largely because, on the road, you eat to live, and sometimes there’s just nothing available. Today was such a day. No breakfast in the basic hotel, nothing I wanted to eat in Moyale, and then no currency to buy food.
Now, half dead from fatigue, I am determined to record my reactions, here in the warm dark evening. Music pounds from the street; everyone shouts rather than talks; music plays tinnily from a handful of phones; there are people everywhere, far more than I see in Kenya. About ten candle-power illuminates the whole sprawling hotel, rooms ranged round the car park, and a largely empty four storey block in which I have one of the few occupied rooms on the third floor for some daylight and fresher air. The larger block has no running water but has light and a view – essential for me, but not for Africans, who exist in these dull, gloomy, internally-windowed lodging houses. Actually, my room with a sort of view over the incredibly scruffy town, is cheaper than the ones round the noisy, fume-filled car park on the ground floor. It costs £5.30. Eat your heart out, all those faceless £100 Hampton Inns of my American travels! At least this has character!! I know I’m here – in Ethiopia.
My sleep was fine in that simple Moyale guest house, but I wasn’t sorry to leave the misery-soaked Moslem women who ran it. They seemed to wallow in their gloom, headscarves pulled around unsmiling faces. I didn’t bother to ask about breakfast, the body language told me there wasn’t any. I bought a carton of juice, filled up with fuel and headed for the nearby border post, visible in the valley. I’d imagined a chaotic crossing, remembering ones like South Africa to Zimbabwe and the pushing mayhem at pokey windows. This is the main highway – the only viable highway – between Kenya and Ethiopia, yet I appeared to be about the only vehicle crossing. In an hour and twenty minutes I was in Ethiopia. It might have been an hour and five, had the only printer for the customs officer’s computer (“There are problems with the network. Please be patient…”) not been a 200 metre walk away down the station in another building.
No banks were open on the Ethiopian side (“There were problems last week…” I took from that that there were disturbances) and I brushed aside dozens of irritating money changers. I’d use my card at an ATM in the next large town. I thought… The next ‘large town’ was the ill-named Mega. A straggly dump so small I rode through looking for the town! There was an ATM in a crowded bank compound and it actually worked, even if I did my business amongst a crowd of intrigued spectators and had no idea how much money I had in my hand having withdrawn the largest amount available. About £115, it turned out later when, in this town, I called in to a bank to ask the rates, and was ushered behind all the cashiers and their tills by polite people eager to help, even though it took time to explain that what I wanted was the international exchange rate. (“There’s problems with the network, I am sorry, you must be patient…”).
My journey was long and hot, the desert giving way to bush land, not unlike northern Ghana. Houses were round and mud built with conical thatched roofs, walls brightly and proudly decorated with painted bands of colourful triangles and diamonds. Later, these gave way to houses of sticks and thatch. People waved and stared, astonished. I felt that I was a rarity, but I can’t believe that I am, except that I did see four smart Land Cruisers pass – Ethiopian drivers and white passengers flashing by, separate. Perhaps individual white men ARE a rarity; ones who wave and smile and react.
306 kilometres, on a bike that does 45mph downhill… It’s a very small machine for these immense distances in a country twice the size of France. Even now, 190 miles into Ethiopia, I am still 300 from Addis Ababa. That’s why I persevered. And I have to return by the same bloody route, too. Bonkers. What am I trying to prove? Just that I am an obstinate bastard?
I am happy I did carry on so far this evening. After long slow climbs, the landscape changed back to something much more like the highlands of Kenya, with mighty cedars here and there, mixed into the more tropical growth. Finally, I thought, the extremely large desert was receding. I’m climbing higher, towards the altitude of Addis.
Now, at 8.20, I am wiped out. The noise outside is incredible. Music pounds and hundreds of people shout and yell, lorry klaxons, motorbikes, people, people, people. Astonishingly, whenever I go anywhere near the hotel gate, people call to me, come and introduce themselves in very basic English, or wave, smile and gather in crowds around me. It’s very tiring – but very engaging too.
Ear plugs! And I left it too late to wash in the bucket of – cold – water. It’s getting cool outside. I’ll sleep in my dirt tonight. No one will notice here. The smell of bodies is quite prevalent. And the threadbare bedsheets are grey with age already.
My god, the NOISE!
DAY 23. THURSDAY JANUARY 3rd 2019. HAWASSA, ETHIOPIA
It’s funny how a day can change in a few moments. This was a HARD day, and by mid-afternoon I was sinking into depression and defeatism, wondering if this really was a viable proposition, riding this very small motorbike about such a vast country. I was getting bad tempered, only returning about one in ten of the extravagant waves from everywhere, feeling completely bushed and rather beaten. It was all too much. This Ethiopian trip was a mistake…
On a whim, I decided to stop for a cup of tea in a hotel I was passing in this large town of Hawassa. The tea was very good, a bit sweet and red, like rooibos tea. It was also restorative, and the waiters quite charming, a group of young men with the widest smiles. Then a fellow approached and spoke English, a bit difficult to decipher, but basically the language I understand. He was the first person with whom I have spoken any sense in two days. Balguda was kindly and asked what information I needed. We chatted for a while and then I realised that I was absolutely knackered and probably incapable of even the 25 kilometres left to the town I had picked for my night. Balguda told me that the rather smart hotel where I was seated would charge me a large sum – almost £12 – but he had a friend with a guest house 300 metres up the main road where I could get a room for less than £6. He would guide me there in his car. There he introduced me to the owner, Defige, who, wonder of wonders, speaks good English and once spent three years in Dublin. My spirits lifted. The room is acceptable – a bit rough and tattered, but it will do. It also has hot water, which I really need tonight! For an hour we three sat on stools in the yard and talked, largely about Brexit – since no one here can understand the national suicide that Britain contemplates, or Theresa May and her shambles.
But I’m in Ethiopia, who wants to think about the stupidity of British politicians?
Now, before I say anything disparaging about the struggles of my day, let me make one statement right out: alongside dear Lesotho, I don’t think any nation has made me more welcome in Africa than my early experience of Ethiopia. Sometimes I write, particularly in Lesotho, that I have waved to hundreds of people. Here I can multiply by ten, partly because there are SO many people, but also because almost all of them shout out, wave, gesticulate, stop in astonishment, ride faster to ride alongside to look, point me out, flash their lights, gather in crowds when I stop, and just react with pleasure and excitement. I feel larger than life, even when I am so emotionally and physically buggered that I can hardly think straight. It’s a wonderful gift to be the focus of so much genuine goodwill.
And at the end of a bloody day, that’s actually my reaction, having just eaten a very good meal – beef goulash unlike any goulash I ever ate before but very tasty and garlicky, watched by a small boy, about three years old, playing at my table. His mother keeps calling him off, but I smile that I don’t mind. I’m charmed by it. I feel so much better.
The day wasn’t all this contented… A couple of beers has helped no end.
Agere Maryam was pretty ghastly. I dislike the words, ‘Third World’, but I can’t think of any other description that describes how rugged life seems to be in southern Ethiopia. I’ve ridden through a huge tract of country that was like going back a long way after the developed infrastructure and social development of Kenya and Uganda. This was rural Africa at its most basic. It was also – and I despise my own prejudice – a largely Moslem region. It’s easy to see why Islam gives such a negative image. And I have travelled in many Islamic countries, and enjoyed their hospitality, but there is something ultimately depressing about the repressiveness of the religion, its subjugation of women (in the region through which I have just travelled I noted that the pack animals were donkeys and women, about equal in loads, both driven by menfolk walking casually behind), its appalling miserable intonations of prayers, and all its own prejudices of we infidels. My minor rant here is the result of that moaning lament coming from three separate mosques sometime around 5.35 this morning even percolating my ear plugs. It was a bad start, after a poor sleep, trying to digest about a pound of spaghetti and anxiety about the task I have set myself and my ability to either achieve or enjoy it.
I had just got over the ghastliness of that dismal droning when the watchman started beating on my door. It was shortly after six. I ignored it for some moments, but at last had to pull on trousers and open the door. He stood outside expectantly. “You go?” he asked, with a gesture to the road.
“No, I don’t bloody go! It’s still DARK!” For, indeed, the sun was just coming over the shoulder of the hills. “Go away! I want to sleep!” It wasn’t a happy start to my day. Later, sitting on my bed, packing my panniers, one of the attendants looked through the window and indicated that he wanted my (very grey) bedding for washing. OK, so there wasn’t much finesse about the place.
But the coffee… The coffee.
Coffee originated from this southern region of Ethiopia; originally eaten, but later – around the 13th century – becoming the beverage we know all over the world. Here I was at the fount of all coffee. In Ethiopia it is a ritual drink as much as a common beverage; the coffee ceremony is intricate and formal. Every hotel, cafe, office building and so forth has its little altar to coffee – in the form of a small booth containing a low table covered in small coffee bowls, a brazier and incense burner, all attended by a woman versed in all the intricacies of making and serving the national drink. Even my rugged hotel had its ‘buna’ stall. Rico has told me fondly about Ethiopian coffee, and I took it all as slight exaggeration, knowing how strong and bitter Rico likes his coffee. I gestured to the young coffee girl that I’d like a cup. She acknowledged my look and put her elegant black clay pot with its long curved spout onto the brazier. She brought me a small dish, sugar and the pot. I stopped the second heaped spoon of sugar (into a small coffee cup) and she poured the thick black liquid from her pot. I waited for it to cool and then tasted it suspiciously. It was absolutely DELICIOUS! I have NEVER tasted such coffee! Rico, I take back my doubts. This coffee was unlike I ever tasted: it was rich, chocolatey, tasted subtly of charcoal smoke, and perhaps it was my imagination, but it even seemed to have infused a trifle of the incense. Three tiny cups is the ritual, and I had no hesitation in enjoying the other two! No coffee will ever be the same.
Breakfast wasn’t quite so successful – some sort of spicy meat mixed with egg and sort of scrambled, dumped unceremoniously onto a large injera on a tin tray. Paul Theroux, whom I have been reading, likens injera to the consistency of bath mat, but I think it’d be more accurate to say one of those ‘Spontex’, I think they were called, kitchen cloths. It’s kind of grey and bubbly and saggy. Oh well, it filled the stomach ready for the worst road I have ridden in some years. Broken tarmac, badly broken tarmac, and road building makes for the worst ride. I had to endure about sixty miles of this punishment. It was horrible, and the traffic, although thin, is undisciplined. Passing through straggly, unkempt towns and villages there are hundreds of Indian three-wheeler ‘tuk-tuks’ (cockroaches, as Rico calls them), small taxi motorbikes and the worst pedestrians I have ever experienced – anywhere. It became quite cold as I was now at altitude, rolling over mountains – and my mood drooped. This wasn’t why I’d come to Ethiopia: I’d come to witness the pride and wonder of one of the only countries in Africa never to be colonised, with a more immense, intense depth of history and culture than much of the rest of the world. I hadn’t come for decrepitude, mess, ugliness, heavy traffic and bad roads, even if tens of thousands of people flashed enormous smiles, waved wildly, and their calls and greetings permeated my ear plugs over the bashing and crashing of my little bike.
Then I discovered that Ethiopia has a fuel war going on. Basically, there isn’t any… Almost every petrol station is dry, with queues of motorbikes and cockroaches 150 or 200 long. There seems to be diesel for the buses. In Agere Maryam I bought four litres of black market fuel from plastic bottles at an exorbitant rate. It was enough to get me to Dila, where I was told there was petrol. At this point I didn’t know it was a national problem. In Dila the queues stretched far down the road at the only station with a supply. What was I to do? If I queued, I’d be here for two or three hours. I took out my map. A crowd gathered around me. I play-acted my need for petrol.
Several young men encouraged me just to go straight to the pump. What to do? Did I maintain my equality, or abuse my privilege as a visitor? One look at the queue reaching back 300 yards up the dusty road made the decision immorally simple! I rode to the pumps. Two policemen and a police woman guarded the only functioning pump in town. No one, not one ungenerous Ethiopian objected as the pump attendant FILLED my tank. Now THAT is ungrudging and tolerant, two qualities I think I will find many Ethiopians embody, now that my mood is less mean and weary. Everyone laughed and good-heartedly enjoyed my amazement. What’s more, it was cheapest petrol I ever bought since the gauge on the pump appeared defunct. It must have been less than 40 pence a litre! Earlier, the black market price had been £1.50… The real price, when available has been about 50 pence I think, and that’s the problem: government subsidy has made fuel half the price of neighbouring countries and the suppliers object. I’m not sure how I will go on, but Balguda and Degife this evening reckon that as a tourist I will be able to find fuel despite the month-long shortages. We will see.
So, a day that began rather badly, and continued as a struggle, seems to be ending more equably. Perhaps a decent sleep – this is a Christian town, so less mosques – may restore me to travel mode. Maybe I need a rest and should pause tomorrow. In a week, since I left Kitale, I have ridden a little over 1000 miles – at about 35 miles an hour! I am deeply weary.
DAY 24. FRIDAY JANUARY 4th 2019. ZIWAY (AKA, BUUTAA, it seems), ETHIOPIA
Without doubt, Ethiopia is the most welcoming and friendly country I have visited in my almost 100 countries around the world. I have fallen, in just three days, for these astonishing people. They are unique. Everywhere I go, I meet generosity and smiles, greetings and curiosity. It is truly wonderful!
But… and there’s a big but. I think I came to a decision this afternoon. There is no way I can achieve my original plan to see a huge circuit of the country. I’ve been riding for over a week now, and covered about 1100 miles. I am exhausted. I haven’t even reached Addis yet! The circuit I had in mind, will take me a further 1000 miles around the country – and then I have to ride this same, exhausting road back to Kenya. Even my obstinate determination balks at the idea. My Mosquito is just too small. Then, of course, I have to buy all my fuel on the black market, which seems quite possible, as it’s the way all Ethiopians are still travelling around. Well, actually, most of them are queueing at immense lines at the few petrol stations still selling their fuel – those that haven’t sold to the black marketeers! I am fortunate in having the money to purchase at a premium (£1 a litre, still cheap for me…). The availability of fuel is influencing many of my routing decisions.
Another consideration is the traffic. Having now ridden in 22 African countries, I am appalled at the standard of driving and the free for all that is driving in this country. This is the second most populous country in Africa, after Nigeria. There are eighteen-wheelers, matatus, cars, tuk-tuks, motorbikes, bicycles, clapped out trucks, overloaded donkey carts, sheep, goats, cows – and the most ill-disciplined pedestrians I ever witnessed. The latter are perhaps the most dangerous! The roads – the much dreamed-of Pan African Highway, is broken and narrow and FULL of those bloody donkey carts. Everyone pushes and tries to get by. It’s mayhem – and very stressful. I’m probably one of the most observant on the road, but it’s still a huge strain to ride thus. No way do I want to volunteer for an extra 1000 miles of it…
When I get to Addis Ababa, I will review my journey. Perhaps I can find some reasonably priced internal flights to the far north to see some of the sights. I need information, and that’ll only be available in Addis. I may have to stay a few days in the city, since Christmas is coming.
Yes, I did write that! When I crossed into Ethiopia, I changed to the Julian calendar. Today is the 26th day of the eleventh month of 2011. Christmas comes on the 29th of this Ethiopian month. Monday is Christmas Day!
I rode only 70 miles today, although it feels like 170! A huge gale blew directly in my face. Apparently it’s pretty much a daily occurrence at this season, the mountain winds attracted by the relative cool of the several large lakes here in the Rift Valley. With the wind came clouds of tiring dust. I was sand-blasted most of the journey, stressed by the traffic conditions and worn out by the wind and distance. It wasn’t fun. I had to wend my way through various crazy towns and any view was veiled by white dust. I was heading for Meki, another 20 kilometres up the road – my friends of last evening had recommended it as a quiet place. When I finally reached this town, variously named Ziway and Baatuu – in the manner I keep finding, in which my map disagrees with the locals – I decided to stop for coffee. Spotting a likely place – there are thousands, as coffee drinking is a cultural thing – I decelerated quickly to go back.
It was then that my front chain sprocket flew off the Mosquito!
At least it happened in town. Within moments a young fellow was proffering the lost sprocket, and instantly people gathered. One man, with a bit of basic English, pointed up the road, indicating that there was a mechanic two or three hundred yards ahead. I pushed the Mosquito, it’s light enough, fortunately. Ignoring hoots and crazy traffic, I pushed the silent machine to the mechanic, who operated from a tin shelter beside rough-block single storey buildings. In about three or four minutes he had found a suitable nut and washer from an old tin trunk in which he kept his few battered tools, and screwed back the cog, tightened the chain and checked the bike. For this, Bariso refused payment, but I insisted he took a pound. Some of the gathered boys procured eight litres of black market petrol from around the corner.
Bariso’s brother had arrived almost instantly; the presence of a white man seems to be an instantaneous item of news, without any apparent messages being conveyed; they just seem to know. Eyasuu, spoke some simple English, proudly showing me his certificate from a hotel company for the 42-hour basic English course he had completed in 2006. He, too, was friendliness itself, as were all those around me. I felt instantly comfortable and warmly welcomed. It’s a lovely feeling; very much a feature of this country.
“I need buna (coffee),” I told Eyasuu. “Let’s have coffee!” There was, of course, a coffee house within ten yards. I left the Mosquito, confident that it was completely safe, and we entered the coffee shack. Then ensued the most enjoyable, delightful hour and a half. It’s for times like this that I travel, and it’s times like this that put the horrible journeys back in focus; makes them worthwhile after all.
Bamboo settees ranged along the walls, which were draped in striped fabric, with cultural posters of the buna ceremony hung above the casual men seated inside. On the floor were spread fresh green palm fronds. Lema, a very beautiful young woman (Ethiopian young women are frequently spectacularly pretty) was enthroned on a small pedestal, sitting on a sort of stool like a throne, a low table decorated with balanced coffee cups before her. It IS like an altar, and the coffee is treated with great respect, giving the whole ceremony religious tones. To one side was a brazier of charcoal in which she heated her black, pottery coffee pot with its long curved spout. Wide red trousers, a white top and a light scarf thrown across her neck, with deep, dark eyes and a lovely light complexion, it struck me that in her rituals and her command of her small shack from her raised podium, she possessed all the qualities of a priestess dispensing religious rites, her beauty and confident poise obviously an attraction for the gathered men.
Two buckets of orange roses, grown in hot houses for export down the road, stood on the small bamboo tables. We were nine men seated, chattering and laughing, a few words of English from one or two of them making conversation possible. Some of them chewed qat (pronounced chat), the mildly addictive drug that is harvested hereabouts and one of the main earners. It must be eaten fresh, so the roads are crowded with racing suppliers, and much of it is exported by the plane load to the Arab states, not far away now. It brings a state of mild euphoria and I suppose reduces appetite like coca leaves in South America. To everyone’s amusement, I tore off a couple of leaves to try. It tasted like privet (not that I ever chewed privet, but it’s how I imagine it tastes!), and of course you must chew for some days at least to begin to feel the effects. Many people have badly brown-stained teeth, dark brown. Eyasuu told me his were a result of the water from the nearby lakes but I doubt qat helps much. I don’t think I’ll take it up with my very expensive recent implants!
It was a delightful time, a feeling of complete equality, curiosity about each other, warmth and smiles and jokes. My angst fell away and I drifted into a comfortable satisfaction. And of course, the coffee was fabulous. It’s worth coming to Ethiopia just for the coffee.
At last I felt I should move on. By now there seemed little point in riding the last twenty kilometres just because I’d been told that Meki was quiet. Eyasuu and his friends recommended a hotel 500 metres up the road, and Bariso jumped on his bike to lead me there. I’ve a half-decent, slightly tired room with a very comfortable bed, a bathroom with warm water, a small terrace and there’s a bar and restaurant behind the palm trees across the dust. It’s not bad. Extravagant for Ethiopia – at £10.30. The road is still noisy 100 yards away, but I just have to accept that in Africa’s second most populous country, it’s going to be noisy wherever I go. I’ve never seen so many people everywhere.
With luck, and no more breakdowns, I’ll get to Addis tomorrow. It’s just 100 miles or so now. There I will have to take stock and decide how to go forward. I do want to experience more of these delightful people, but I really doubt I have the stamina to ride almost 2000 more miles – and enjoy the process…
DAY 25. SATURDAY JANUARY 5th 2019. ADDID ABABA, ETHIOPIA
Sometimes things just go wrong… Today’s just gone totally tits up from beginning to end. Late this afternoon, I found that my passport is missing. On these journeys it lives in my wallet in my inside jacket pocket, and all day I didn’t remove my jacket until I reached the place I am staying tonight. I used it yesterday afternoon to check in to the hotel in Ziway. Tonight, I don’t have it… Honestly, I’d rather lose my camera or iPad – the only other valuables I carry. At least money can replace those. A lost passport is a gigantic hassle, plus it’s Sunday tomorrow and Christmas Day on Monday – and British embassies only work about half a year and take ALL holidays, ours and the host’s. Even the Queen’s birthday is holiday for them! Probably the Queen of Sheba’s too.
The hotel in Ziway is not answering their phone. If it’s lost it must be there, but if it was stolen or mislaid (by falling upwards out of my inside pocket?) I suppose I just have to accept the hassle and a long stay in Addis. Well, unless it’s in Ziway, that’s the only option.
So tonight I write in a rather depressed state…
It was another wearing, unsettled day anyway – even before this disaster.
Riding north, I decided I may not be riding any further around this enormous country. The traffic is the worst, most undisciplined, terrifying I have ever witnessed. The roads are broken and narrow and the vehicles pushing to make any progress. Frankly, I decided I value my life more than seeing Ethiopia from my bike at thirty miles an hour. I hate the sense of failure but I have travelled long enough to follow my instincts. I’m just not enjoying riding here. I love the people; the culture’s fascinating, but moving around Ethiopia is beyond me. I thought perhaps I could make some trips internally by air – but that was before the passport fiasco… Now that takes precedence over everything.
It was a ghastly ride. One of the worst I can remember. Even Kampala didn’t upset me the way this journey did. Competitive traffic, no one ever looks behind: they just pull out; cows, donkeys, mules, sheep, dogs, camels and goats crossing everywhere; pedestrians who seem to have a death wish; minibuses that scream past, then stop right in front of me; ancient trucks lumbering up hills belching filth in my face; holes a foot deep in what’s left of the tarmac; the appalling three wheeled tuk-tuks, whose casual drivers go wherever they like, many of them texting or checking their phones and not one of them checking their mirrors, turning in the road at will; and the donkey carts that hold everyone else up and make everyone take even more risks, even a cyclist I knocked off when he rode straight into me! Uganda is skilful by comparison. And I thought THAT was bad. I really don’t want to ride here any more. Except I have those 500 miles to get back to Kenya.
These journals are written every day. There’s no time to rationalise my reactions. I just write as it happens. I’ve always thought that was their value. When I am happy, it is reflected in my entries; when I am gloomy, tired, upset, angry it’s also in the words. Tonight’s a low. Even my iPad has decided to start mis-keying again. I thought the drop on the floor had repaired that.
I am so obstinate that I HATE this feeling of despair and failure. Disappointment too. I had such high expectations for Ethiopia and I DO think its people extraordinary, friendly and charming. But travelling here is beating the fun out of me.
Maybe I’ll be better for some sleep, although I think it’ll be hard to rest tonight. I am too anxious.
I was going to upload an episode of my journal tonight, but I think I’ll keep it until I HAVE rationalised things a bit. This is too depressing an entry to leave it here. A journal cliff-hanger too far…
DAY 26. SUNDAY JANUARY 6th 2019. ADDID ABABA, ETHIOPIA
MY PASSPORT IS FOUND!!!!! Phew… So now I can update an episode so that I end on a high note rather than that downbeat cliff-hanger!
Around dawn, at last I fell into a fitful sleep, having fretted and worried for hours, going over and over when I last saw my passport and every minute detail I could remember of what I had done since. I even, almost superstitiously, got up in the early hours and searched the room again with my torch. Of course, to no avail. I just had to accept that I am here for days with hours and hours to spend at the police, the embassy and Ethiopian immigration. What’s done is done – but it’s difficult to accept. I lost attention for once, after 130-something trips with a passport, amounting to about twelve years out of my home country.
I woke at almost nine, still anxious and depressed. I’m staying in a slightly hippy, Lonely Planet sort of guest house – places I generally avoid as I prefer to find local places, not those that attract all the white people. But Rico recommended this place, as I would be able to get information about mechanics and would find other over-land bikers here.
Bullant is from Turkey, straggly grey hair, perhaps in his late fifties, and has been on the road on his motorbike for two and a half years, from Australia through Asia to Africa. He greeted me and asked how my night had been – and I told him, bad, because my passport is gone. We commiserated for a while, then, using his international phone (mine only has a Kenyan sim card and I need a passport to get an Ethiopian one..!) we tried the number of the small hotel company that owned the hotel in Ziway (pron: zw-eye). I spoke to a charming fellow called Tedla, explained my predicament, and asked HIM to phone Ziway on my behalf as I doubted they spoke much English.
Half an hour later, Tedla phoned back, “Your passport is found!” I almost burst into tears of emotional relief! I could hardly thank him. “But we can’t bring it to you until Thursday. It is Christmas, but the regional manager will bring it to Addis on Thursday. You should phone me on Wednesday and we can meet at the Heber Ethiopia, it’s a traditional restaurant on Bole Road.” Since I want to get work done on the Mosquito, that’s not bad, except I must stay in this city for five or six days. Oh well, I will try to find the local atmosphere and relax. I can’t face those last sixty kilometres back towards Ziway, the worst I have ridden – and motorbikes aren’t permitted to use the parallel expressway, probably the best road in the country, so I’d rather wait to meet Tedla and the regional manager here.
Soon after the news came through that my passport was safe and sound (and my EU passport is valid for another five years and I DO NOT want a Brexit passport) I met Alice, a charming, talkative young woman who cheered my day entirely. Alice is of Malay Chinese extraction, from Melbourne, Australia and a committed traveller, aged 30; in fact she’s 40 years and a day younger than me. She has been delightful company all day, arriving as she did from Egypt early this morning. I’ve relaxed in good cheerful company for the whole day, mostly talking ten to the dozen in the guest house outdoor bar area. It’s a wonderful thing that, like motorcycling, travel enthusiasm can bond people over wide variations of culture, class, race and even age. I spot many similarities of character between us. She’s a smart, open minded young woman who travels all over the world alone – recently all over Pakistan. She’s lived in England and looks at her more conventional friends with no scrap of envy as they drop into their round holes. It’s been a very enjoyable conversation, with just a short walk about the quiet Sunday city. Alice helped to restore some travel spirit in me.
Seldom do I stay in hostels like this, filled with white people from all over. But I am getting information about travelling in this country, from people travelling the other way and so on. I am told that the road north is one of the best in the country. Rereading my last few days of travelling, I can see the gloom into which exhaustion cast me. Perhaps I will see it all more positively in a day or two, especially when I can be sure the Mosquito will continue to carry me reliably. Somehow I will see some of the northern sights, perhaps combining the bike and a flight or two. All to be decided when I recoup some energy and get information. Watch this space.
Happy Christmas, again. Tomorrow is Ethiopian Christmas so I expect another rather slow day. Probably that’s just what I need…