I’M SORRY, THIS IS A GIANT EPISODE. TEN DAYS. Internet has been very shaky since leaving Addis. I’ve just gatecrashed the best hotel in Bahar Dar to steal their connection. MAKE A BIG POT OF COFFEE BEFORE YOU START!!
Alice, who cheered me up so much!
DAY 27. MONDAY JANUARY 7th 2019. ADDID ABABA, ETHIOPIA
This was indeed a very slow day, slowly getting my journey back in perspective. I can see now, that however much I jest about it, I am actually NOT 34 any more (my ‘metabolic age’ when measured just six years ago in America!). I must take the journey more lightly and strain my body less, especially when I am at the same time stressed by the mechanical soundness and power of my little Mosquito. For instance, I should have started out with two nights at Archers Post, where I had friendly accommodation with Rebecca, and plenty to occupy my mind in her ‘cultural village’ and so forth. I could probably have entertained myself for a day at Ziway, where I had a decent room and had made friends, however briefly, with those men in the coffee house, and with Eyasuu, who’d have loved to take me home for supper in his house. Why push myself so much? It’s just that my habit in life is to always be occupied. Even now I seldom sit and read a book or relax at home. I need activity to make myself feel useful… I hope the last few unsettling days will teach me a bit of a lesson. I wonder?
A guest house like this, that attracts most of the overland travellers in Ethiopia, is a good place to glean information for my journey: conditions of roads, where to go, what to see, how to see it. I’ve had cheerful company in young Alice, chattering away, sharing enthusiasms, wandering out to drink buna and delicious fresh avocado juice at street stalls. The streets were quiet today, this second Christmas, but the afternoon filled rather with inebriated men urinating into hedges and against lorry wheels. I counted five in a half mile walk. They were disturbing and drunkenly cheeky.
Ethiopia is going through something of a social and political revolution right now. It’s said to be one of the fastest growing African economies. You’d judge it so by the number of gigantic high rise buildings going up, but I can see through that to the Chinese money behind it, little of which will benefit Ethiopia or be long lasting. That’s not the Chinese way in Africa. And structures of the past couple of decades are already stained and dirty, for maintenance in not a feature of Africa either: more decay and replacement. And for that, these thirty storey blocks are not very suitable. In a decade they’ll be unsightly and the facing tiles dropping off, windows cracked and flower beds filled with dead shrubs. It’s just the way it is.
Politically, many have high hopes just now. The new prime minister is the youngest leader on the continent, at 42. He’s a new broom. He has appointed a woman president (just a ceremonial position, but still…) and half the politicians in government are women. This in Africa. But Ethiopia is different to so much of this continent: an ancient culture, somehow separate; never a colony; links back to the old religions of the Middle East and even physical structures testifying to its antiquity. That is rare on this continent where impermanency has always been the norm, and historic structures from stone are rare. The new prime minister is a reformer and tries with considerable energy to bring peace to the country, even to the extent of bringing back a political exile from USA to head the election commission. It’s an impressive start, but African politics are so volatile and very partisan that things change on an instant.
DAY 28. TUESDAY JANUARY 8th 2019. ADDID ABABA, ETHIOPIA
Four weeks. A month since I arrived. A third of my winter trip gone.
And today didn’t produce anything very exciting. But I am quite content to rest up, although I don’t find Addis a particularly attractive city to do it. It’s busy, with broken pavements and a lot of street children, who can be a hassle as I walk. I also need to be very conscious of pick-pockets. I was accosted quite unpleasantly the other afternoon, walking with Alice; when two young men gripped my upper arms strongly, in an attempt maybe to distract me from my pockets. I’ve not taken my camera with me in Addis. I’ll be quite happy to leave in a day or two; content too to have my passport back in my possession.
On this continent you must be content with limited achievement: one thing a day is good progress. Today I bought ‘compulsory’ insurance for riding. It’s the first country where I haven’t had to buy it at the border. Then, when I did try, everyone looked at me questioningly, as if never asked before. I spotted an office of an Ethiopian national insurer and dived in to investigate. It gave the impression that they must lose a lot of claims! But maybe it’s just that old thing of no maintenance and general slow decay. The office ranged up four dusty, decrepit floors, the one I needed seemed to be on the third. I strode up dirty staircases covered in frayed carpets. The woodwork was brown stained and dirty, the windows dense with grubbiness. Tattered furniture, broken blinds, curling lino tiles, stained ceilings and festoons of thin flex strung between light fittings with no bulbs. The staff weren’t much smarter, the elderly gentleman with whom I dealt in a crumpled suit over an open, short-sleeved, un-ironed shirt. I felt pretty smart!
“Where’s your yellow card?” he asked. My ‘yellow card’..? I’ve travelled for a total of seven months in Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda and Tanzania and never even SEEN a ‘yellow card’ – which, it appears, covers my basic insurance needs in all of East Africa. Oh well, over the next hour and a half, for the princely sum of £6.50, I was able to purchase a brightly coloured mauve and purple document covered in Ethiopian script, that will make me legal for a month. I want it just in case of checks by police, although those seem very rare so far.
Hearing the accent incorrectly, I wrote down a completely inaccurate address to find the (car) mechanic recommended, so I didn’t achieve that important goal. I’d heard Batura and searched and questioned without any result, while I should have been looking for Gotera Interchange. So that’s for tomorrow. The mechanic, with whom I spoke on Alice’s phone, reckons there’ll be no parts available for my Suzuki Mosquito in any case. Maybe I can get it a service, but no parts. So I will have to take pot luck. Two overland bikers arrived here this afternoon, from Estonia. They’ve come, in several separate legs, leaving the bikes and flying back again later, from Nigeria, down the west side of the continent and now up the east. By selecting remote borders, they even seem to have travelled all this way without carnets de passages, just temporarily importing their bikes at borders and riding quickly when asked any awkward questions! “Well, just ride until it breaks! Then you’ll have to deal with it!” said the Estonian fellow – probably correctly. It’s easier, though, to say that when you are two…
I probably have to resign myself to a journey with a certain lack of confidence in my little, somewhat rattly bike. Pity I had confidence in getting maintenance in Addis, as I could have had Sam, the kind mechanic in Marsabit, look it over. I must learn to relax and take my time, not keep bashing on in my determined way. An extra day there would have been no hardship, and might, indeed, have saved some of the angst of the later journey. But I am what I am… That’s something I HAVE learned on all these footloose journeys!
I’m ready to move on now. I’ve been very grateful for young Alice’s cheery company. Her bag finally arrived at the airport today, but without her tent, that Egypt Air had made her reluctantly remove from her bag. Now she has to wait to see if that arrives. Poor woman, she’s been wearing the same clothes since she arrived in the early hours of Saturday. She seems ultimately resourceful, however. She’s a real traveller in that.
DAY 29. WEDNESDAY JANUARY 9th 2019. ADDID ABABA, ETHIOPIA
This is a crazy city filled with traffic. It’s relatively disciplined, just over filled. It makes moving about very frustrating. I rode south to look – again – for the mechanic, and failed completely to find him, despite riding 31 kilometres in the process. I think I’ve now given up. Maybe I can find one in a smaller town to get a service. The mechanic here has a car garage anyway, and seemed unconfident that he’d find any spare parts for my bike. Really, all I want is for someone to say, “Oh, it sounds fine! Stop worrying, it’ll be grand for another 2000 kilometres!” It’s my own lack of mechanical confidence that is the problem, probably not even the bike. One of the Estonian brothers said this morning, “It sounds great to me. But I’m a bad mechanic too. I was really worried about my bike. It had a very bad rattle and I worried and worried. At last I could get a service. They found a bolt rolling about on the bash plate under the engine!”
Returning to the guest house I decided to just put the Mosquito away. I can travel faster without it in the city centre and it just gets hotter and hotter in traffic jams. I’m always amazed, when I stop and think about it, that I have the bottle to ride in African capital cities, or any other, come to that. But, in fact, there’s a sort of exhilaration to it all, weaving through the chaos. I managed to find a shop selling small wireless keyboards, so my diary entry tonight is less frustrating than recent nights. I’d a mind to take my iPad to them for repair, only £65, not the £150 of Nairobi, but as the saleswoman pointed out, they owe me the repair in Nairobi.
I also pulled into a petrol station on the off chance and they filled my tank without demur. I have no idea what’s going on with this petrol shortage. There seems no rhyme nor reason. Well, so long as they give me petrol, I’m not going to question it.
Once on foot, I hiked four or five kilometres to the National Museum to visit Lucy. Lucy is just about the most famous Ethiopian, although Ethiopia was far in the evolutionary distance when she lived, three million years ago. Lucy is one of our earliest ancestors. Ethiopia and the Turkana region of Kenya is tritely known as the Cradle of Mankind, and it’s from this region most of the earliest evidence of the evolution of early man originates. With Lucy, an incomplete skeleton of the diminutive early hominid – Lucy only stood a little over a metre high – with her are the tiny skeletal remains of Selam, a small child who died aged about three years, 4.2 million years ago. It takes a lot of imagination to comprehend what you are looking at. Millions of years have so little real relevance for we people who measure time in centuries at most. It puts Trump and Brexit in another perspective, however much screen time they take up, even here in East Africa. The museum was tired and dusty; a sadly typical African museum. A quick look at the rest of the faded collection was enough, and then I hiked on even further to the ethnographical museum, which is housed in the university. That was considerably more attractive – still a bit faded and dusty, but more interesting collections. I particularly appreciated the collection of carved chairs and some fine medieval religious diptychs.
The university started in the 1960s. Before the university used the large hilltop compound, this was the royal palace. The museum is now housed in the old palace, along with various formal libraries. I was amused to be able to visit Emperor Haile Selassie’s bedroom and luxurious blue bathroom in this grand house that used to be the centre of the royal government. Now the parliament is half a mile down the street, behind trees and shrubs, discreet and guarded.
Moving about this city is irritating. Alice has been having similar problems. Hers are perhaps worse as she has Chinese features, and is rudely shouted at in the street. No one in Africa has much respect for the Chinese, who remain a race apart. I found the intrusion annoying; lots of people being rudely, and occasionally aggressively, invasive. There are very many street children, for whom a white skin is an instant attraction. There’s none of the politeness of the Kenyans or Ugandans. I find myself actively NOT engaging eye contact here in Addis, unlike the way I catch eyes all over the rest of East Africa, always, without fail, followed by smiles and laughter. Not a very attractive city so far. I’ll be happy to be off northwards as soon as I get my passport again.
I’ve been trying to analyse my insecurity on this journey, for it must be obvious that my normal confidence has been suffering. I’m not usually indecisive and weak-spirited about my travels – enough to lose my most valuable possession and spend a week waiting for its redelivery. Normally, I’d have been back on my bike and collecting it. Some of the past few days have been spent in trying to trace this weakness… I THINK it is coming from a sense of increased vulnerability owing to my advancing age (heaven forbid I even mention the word!) and I can see, in hindsight, that the life event of the past year, that dominated so much of my thinking – even though I am still valued enough to be working on large museum design projects, travelling back and forth to USA and far from ‘over the hill’ professionally – was the implant dentistry. I went into that whole episode in my usual casual way, totally unprepared for the hugely invasive quality of the surgery, the knowledge that it was necessary on the grounds of physical deterioration (otherwise known as age), and the way I had to fit it all into timetables of working in America and travelling to Africa. My new metal teeth were finally fitted on the 6th December at 10.50 at night, I flew back to England on the 7th, getting home in the late evening. I left home for this journey at noon on the 10th! It was right up to the wire and a VERY stressful experience. I thought I’d overcome all the psychological and physical invasion with a quiet, relaxed time amongst my good friends in Kitale over Christmas. What I constantly forget (and try to ignore) is that these traumas take longer to rationalise as I get older. I can’t ignore that fact. I have been feeling extremely vulnerable, for almost the first time in my travels. It’s taken the cheerful company of Alice to pull me round. She sees me as an ‘inspiration’ still riding my motorbike around Africa at my ‘age’.
Bonkers? Maybe, but I am determined not to ‘give in’ (just like my mother) until age really overcomes me – and then, hopefully, only as necessary. I’ve never had to face this age-related vulnerability before. If I can still inspire a 30 year old, then maybe I should just accept the inevitable and slow down my journeys a little? The experience will still be just as powerful, maybe more so, since all my travelling is overwhelmed by my interest in people and how they live, and that appreciation is actually INCREASED by my perceived age. I gain respect in Africa for my grey hair. Many people ask me my age, for of course, I am already seven years beyond average life expectancy here in Ethiopia. Age, in most of Africa, is supposed to bring wisdom and almost everywhere still brings respect. We aren’t written off, as in Europe and the so-called ‘developed’ world. We become elders, with an overview of life that can be passed on. This is still the case in Africa, even though the cult of youth and their knowledge is displacing our longer perspective in countries like Ghana as they rush unheeding for the so-called Western development.
Other bikers, now almost all of another generation, seem to want my photo! Perhaps I should take comfort from that and become the mentor now, not the leader. Last week I mentally and physically exhausted myself, doing far too much; riding too long and worrying too much. I hope I have learned a lesson from all that. I must curb the desire to be always on the move and sit back and reflect a bit more..! Hah, we’ll see…
In diaries past I have written that I enjoy travelling so much more as an older person. I am now so old that I become invisible with age, and that’s sometimes an advantage. I can mix with any age, offer no sense of competition or threat to anyone and am approachable to a wider group than I ever was a younger traveller. By this age, I have no reason to put on any pretences; I know my own character well and I am emotionally secure enough not to have to worry about other people’s perceptions. I am also financially secure enough not to have to worry about the pennies as I used to do so much. My journeys were always a balance between money and opportunity. One or the other always took the hit!
Perhaps the main lesson I have always taken from my travelling, is in dealing with things as they happen: mental resourcefulness. In the old days I had no recourse to emails or international help. I always pitch my greatest lesson in mental security to that bus accident in Colombia, in early 1974. In a bus that rolled 360 degrees (astonishingly, an experience I was to have a second time, in the 2000s in Ghana) I broke my nose – scar more visible with age – and a few ribs. Mainly, though, I shattered my confidence. I was ALL alone, terrified and upset, and had to flag down another bus to continue through those frightening mountains. The ribs slowly mended, as I lugged my backpack through the rest of Latin America but it took time for the fear to begin to subside; a week or more in which I faced a lot of things about life and my place in it. It was a difficult but hugely valuable life lesson: dealing with my fears without any help whatsoever except my own emotional strength. I always consider that I really grew up that week.
I’ll move on on Friday and see where I get to. Maybe I’ll be in a better state and more relaxed. Well, I will be until I get in that ghastly traffic again at least! I’m ready to move now. Let’s face it, I will deal with whatever happens and maybe the little Mosquito will just keep rolling along.
DAY 30.THURSDAY JANUARY 10th 2019. ADDID ABABA, ETHIOPIA
So often, the ‘what if’ events turn into the best stories of my travels. Losing my passport was a very large ‘what if’, but has turned into the funniest evening for a long time.
Various calls over the past few days arranged that I should meet a man called Tedla at a traditional Ethiopian restaurant down the airport road. I spoke to him, I thought, as a representative of the small hotel chain, in one of whose hotels I left the passport. He speaks good English and told me in one conversation that he had spent time at LSE. The regional manager would drive up to Addis today, bearing my document. We would, it was finally decided, meet at about five in a large restaurant, the ‘Hiber Ethiopia”.
I suggested that Alice come along for the meeting, and then we might have a traditional meal, or coffee at least. At 4.00 I made a final call to Tedla. He’d be at the restaurant by about five, and the passport would arrive within the next two hours. Alice and I set off by minibus, a system she’s got to know quite well after several trips to embassies for visas, the reason for her prolonged stay in Addis.
The restaurant was huge, and decorated with traditional furnishings and scenery around the walls formed to represent many of the regional sights of Ethiopia – the castles of Gondar, stele of Axum, the caves in the east. The main area, half the restaurant, was being prepared for a lavish wedding. We would have to retract to the other half. We’d thought about a chai or coffee, but spotting a bar with draft beer, we took our seats at a high table. The beer was good. Alice is good company, with her bright cheerful character. She’d worn a middle eastern shawl over her tee shirt and looked rather smarter than I did in my rather grubby, dust-filled jersey. I watched the various people, wondering how we would recognise Tedla. In my mind’s eye, he would be a smartish thirty-something businessman. But he’d probably find us: we were the only two white people there. No one came. At last, I gave him another call on Alice’s phone, watching to see if anyone around us answered. “I have seen you! I will be there immediately.” And down the corridor walked a short, elderly, white haired man. We had both been looking for younger people.
And that was where it all became so funny and Alice and I had trouble keeping from fits of giggles for the next hour or more, until our charming host left and we could indulge in much laughter.
Tedla wasn’t just a representative of the hotel chain; he OWNS it! It appeared he also owned the large restaurant in which we were meeting, staff deferential to him. He had stories of his times in Europe, studying in the late 60s, and his travels in many countries. Alice is extremely well travelled too, so we had many points of contact. We moved to the outside bar so Tedla could smoke and drank a couple of large glasses of beer. At some point, a flunky brought a brown envelope and I was reunited with my passport, to my great delight.
We expressed an interest in the restaurant, the huge place that stretched the length of the building, with several floors of apartments above. The wedding preparations were beginning, but Tedla took us proudly along the dance floor, showing us the handiwork of the various scenically decorated sections. Just then, we became aware of a blaze of lights behind us and found ourselves trapped behind the entire wedding reception party as the bride and groom arrived amongst their guests. Cameras flashed and Tedla whispered that we’d probably now have to wait and exit politely, congratulating bride and groom in the reception line! Alice and I were almost hysterical when we caught one another’s eye. How had we got into this?
We extricated ourselves with as much decorum as we could manage, and eventually Tedla had to leave, but not before finding Alice and I a table in his restaurant to take a traditional meal, a large shared tray of injera, lamb and vegetables.
The meal was very tasty. But being evening, I had left the bulk of my money at home. This is a city full of pickpockets and minor aggression, especially after dark and we were travelling by minibuses. Neither of us had any idea how much our bill would be; this was a smart place, a cut above our usual street stalls. “Don’t worry, I’ve got money too,” Alice assured me. I called for the bill. The waiter brought it. I had enough money in my pocket; I pulled out my cheap, still un-working phone (I need a passport to get a SIM card), which has a calculator. “Do you know how much it is?” I asked Alice, starting to laugh. “It’s a total of £13.50!! Five large beers and a filling meal, shared by two!” We dissolved into laughter; it just seemed so ridiculous and such a great end to an evening that had produced so many surprises. We even rounded off with a whisky back at the scruffy guest house.
So now I can leave on my journey. I will wait until Saturday, a whole week spent in Addis. Alice will leave, she hopes for Djibouti, then as well. She’s been the tonic I needed, right at the correct time to help. We have many similarities despite the forty year and a day disparity. A very independent young woman with a lot of cheerfulness and confidence. She must be a very capable nurse, the sort of person you’d be happy to be cared for by. I hope we’ll keep in touch, and that she will visit me in Devon sometime. She’d be a welcome guest.
The rest of the day I spent waiting for the meeting with Tedla, walking the busy streets and broken pavements, only carrying a bit of money. I haven’t taken my camera in Addis; it’s too much to look after and I don’t really want photos of this quite run down scruffy city, above which tower gigantic new concrete structures that I fear will be Chinese white elephants, cranes swinging everywhere. It LOOKS like a vibrant economy, but does it really do much more than employ a lot of Chinese men, from the world’s most populous country? A fair percentage of Chinese are scattered across this continent, constructing roads, bridges, vast banking headquarters, public buildings – and as they do it, building up eye watering debts to the wily Chinese government machine that will have to be paid back in loss of and exploitation of mineral rights, increased pollution (for what Chinese government makes more than lip service to the environment), and in political pressure by a regime that cares nothing for human rights and fellow men, only for global wealth and power… ‘A fast developing economy’ Ethiopia may be, judging by the inward investment. But to what use will all these buildings be put? Does Ethiopia need more vast structures and sky scrapers, apart from trying to look ‘developed’? I doubt it. And I doubt they will be maintained. Already, structures doubtless erected with great show and pomp a decade or so ago, are stained and dingy, smothered in ugly signs, window linings peeling, tiles missing, concourses cracked.
Time to be moving again. I hope I learned a lesson or two this week. I hope I can relax into my journey for the next two or three weeks.
DAY 31. FRIDAY JANUARY 11th 2019. ADDID ABABA, ETHIOPIA
Happily, a final day in this big, rather unattractive city where, at one point today I had to angrily fight off two pickpockets – and it ended on a higher note when I met a new ‘friend’, Eyob.
Alice, cheerful Alice, who’s been so much help this week in the rediscovery of my travel spirit, and I met for coffee at Tedla’s large restaurant. I’m pleased we did, since Tedla was there and as I have written before, going back to places is important in Africa. it shows respect and friendship. Alice then left to see if they would grant her a visa for Djibouti – which, much to her excitement, as the process has been tedious, they did later in the afternoon. I set out to walk back up the busy airport road to the only motorbike shop we have spotted in our peregrinations. Needless to say, it was closed for the lunch-break, so I had to kill an hour in a coffee shop before going back and meeting one of the staff, Eyob. I wanted a bike pump (I usually bring my compact, valued BMW one, but forgot), and a long lever for emergency repairs. Neither, it seems, are available in Addis – nor are any parts whatsoever available for Suzuki motorbikes, unless ordered overseas and flown in through the airport and all that entails. Even Nairobi is better than that. Anyway, Eyob said there was a knowledgeable mechanic and we could go there, ten kilometres through the crazy city traffic. He climbed onto the back of the Mosquito and we set off, a mad journey in this appalling traffic that I have tried to avoid this week. You move about as fast on foot, with a lot less stress. Eyob knew his city so we dived into and out of short cuts, slowly making our way to the north of the central city. In a noisy, dirty backstreet, we found the mechanic. He listened to the Mosquito, diagnosed the noise that concerned me as coming from a noisy valve but reckoned it offers no immediate threat and can be dealt with by a full service when I inevitably return through this horrid city. “Strong engine!”
Eyob then guided me back to the centre and out the other side towards his home. We drank a couple of beers and then he took me to his house. He lives in a residential area in a small single storey house round a dry yard. Painted pink and built from concrete block, it seems to have about three rooms – fairly typical, I imagine, for a middle class worker here. His wife speaks some English too, and works importing goods from the Arab states for sale. They have three children, aged about four to nine; the little girl, aged six, very charming. We conversed to the inevitable background of loud TV in the room – the Americans shooting up the Taliban, winning another cinematic war, as they always do, with a lot of shouting and explosions. The children would understand nothing of the story – if there was one – but the special effects, the casual killing, the predominance of the victorious westerners, the opinions and the none-too-subtle racial manipulation of the gung-ho story would be sinking inexorably in…
We sat in heavy armchairs, mats on the floor (I’d removed my big boots) and the children clambered about their father. Jesus gazed sentimentally down from the wall and the TV blared. Eyob’s wife busied herself with the coffee through the door and Eyob encouraged his children to speak to me in English, which they all learn at school. The yard and its big steel gate kept out prying eyes although I have no doubt a crowd had gathered. My welcome was full and warm. As we rode about the city, taking much of Eyob’s afternoon in a favour, I had been wondering how I should pay him; it’s so ingrained in our western mentality that time is money. As the afternoon progressed I realised that this was for friendliness, not for reward, even having to insist that I paid for the beers. Life is so different here.
Eyob’s wife prepared the coffee ceremony, the first proper one I have enjoyed. It’s a very formal event. She brought the charcoal brazier into the outer room and roasted some fresh beans, bringing the smoking results in to our TV-infested room, wafting the delicious aroma about with her hand. Then she crushed the beans and prepared the coffee in her traditional pot with the long curved spout. Meanwhile, she served freshly made popcorn, also part of the ritual. It’s a slow process, and cannot be hurried! I am expected to take three small cups – although we did actually cut it short at two as darkness was beginning to gather and I have a very bad headlight. I don’t care to ride at night unless absolutely necessary. Full of goodwill and with happy waves from the children I took off again into the traffic, with a promise to contact Eyob when I come back through Addis, as I must, as any map will show you.
It was a pleasant look into private lives that I appreciated and left me with better impressions of this huge, ugly city.
Tomorrow, at last, I will set off towards the north, taking my time now. The Estonian brothers rode in again today and warn me of the cold on the heights as I ride north, but also of the warmth when I reach the Blue Nile gorge, next major topographical sight on my route. I am happy to have had the mechanic give my Mosquito, if not a clean bill, at least a word of confidence. It’s been a difficult couple of weeks; I lost my usual wonder and interest. I now understand the causes and will attempt to avoid them from here. Thanks to Alice and some reflection, maybe I’ll continue back in my usual wide-eyed mode!
DAY 32. SATURDAY JANUARY 12th 2019. GERBA GURACHA, ETHIOPIA
I’m on the road again. And from mid-afternoon, after I shook loose of the appalling Addis traffic and got past some at least of the awful broken Ethiopian roads, I began to get back the spirit. The scenery became rather impressive and, despite the cold, I began to enjoy myself. But tonight’s one of those nights that I will spend the evening alone, wrapped in the blanket on the bed as I write, my feet beneath the tasteless (to me, of course; it may be the height of good taste in Ethiopia, that’s the wonder of taste and culture!) mauve and white padded satin cover. I’ll be asleep early too.
It was already 11.30 before I threw my leg over the bike and rode off into the traffic, amongst the worst I have negotiated in all my 23 African countries. Addis has no useful signposts at all; there are signs to other suburbs of the sprawling city, but apparently not one sign that actually tells you how to find the rest of this vast country. So I had to rely on keeping a generally northerly trajectory out of the city, climbing onto the mountain range that towers on the northern edge. At times I couldn’t believe that I was heading out on the main highway that connects most of Ethiopia to its capital; in fact, I think I probably found a scenic route out of town. It did supply some extensive views down over the capital, spread as far as the eye could see towards the southern volcanic peaks, its roofs glittering in the high sun, a pawl of dust and filth lying above it and swirling round the gigantic Chinese monstrosities of skeletal grey towers, cranes spinning in the fume-clouds above the city streets. By then I was high on the northern slopes riding between eucalyptus trees. The city was founded by King Menelik II in 1887, right up here on this mountain, which, not surprisingly, turned out to be a somewhat unsuitable place for a city – the odd royal palace maybe, but the populous wanted water supplies and flat places to work. The queen selected a more suitable place, inspired apparently, as is the prerogative of queens, by a mimosa tree… Well, I suppose the city had to be somewhere, but one wonders how quickly that mimosa got subsumed into the concrete and dust, even if it did give Addis Ababa a name: ‘new flower’. The king, more practically, introduced the eucalyptus, one of the weeds of Africa, but quick growing, useful for light building works and firewood, and the city’s nickname is apparently ‘Eucalyptopolis’, rather a mouthful, more utilised by the tourist office than its people I suspect.
The traffic slowly thinned, but it was forty miles before I really felt free of the influence of Addis and some ugly towns. By now I was very high, up around 3000 metres I think, and the air was chilly. The landscape opened out into a high, yellow-washed altiplano of very dry grass, swaying black eucalyptus, ploughed brown earth, and grass and stick homes surrounded by fences of split timber and sticks. Cattle roamed everywhere, and one of the worst driving hazards in this country are the millions of donkeys. They have no road sense and don’t seem to care anyway; known for their obstinacy, they are liable to just stand in the road while the traffic goes around them. The horizon was hazed and far far away; a suggestion of distant mountains, beyond sight. It became a huge landscape, as so often on this continent.
I stopped for buna in a small town, where shack-like houses lined the main road, lorries klaxoning their way by in clouds of diesel fumes. I guess I was at least 9000 feet high. The air was harsh, chill and the light almost visibly violet to the eye. I picked a quiet looking stall at the end of town, where the buna ‘altar’ was laid out under an awning of sticks and stitched cement bags. A pretty young woman, Mekdes, (buna is usually the province of the prettiest youngsters) was hugely amused to have a ‘ferengi’ guest and other people soon gathered, including an English speaker, director of the local teachers, Adamu. From him I got information on my route, and the gathered villagers understood more about the old white uncle who had suddenly stopped in their midst. I do enjoy these respites, breaking a few barriers.
By now it was cold. I stopped on a high plain to don my waterproof jacket for warmth. I’d picked this town from my map as a suitable distance from Addis – it’s about 100 miles. I’d have liked to go further down into the desert that I’ll find on my road tomorrow, but I struck a deal that I would limit my rides, so I started today…
Soon, the scenery became wonderfully impressive. As so often is the way, I rounded a corner and a vast view burst open in front of me. My road curled down towards a mighty canyon, the Blue Nile visible far away in its bottom. It was a great moment, although it served more as a taster for tomorrow’s ride than for today’s enjoyment, as my road soon cut away, back round into rolling high plains, backed by distant blue mountains and shadowed walls of rock. Tomorrow I will drop right down to the Nile before crawling back up the other side of this huge canyon. Something to look forward to.
My bill for seven nights’ accommodation, most dinners and breakfasts, and a good deal of beer in the Dutch guest house in Addis was a mere £120. Ethiopia is a cheap place to travel. Tonight I have a faded room in a guest house built around a stoney compound. There are six bungalow-style rooms, with a disfiguring rising damp problem from bad construction. Locks are falling off the doors for want of a screwdriver, the shower head is largely blocked, tiles loose, and the lavatory seat detached. But instead off a little regular maintenance the owner appears to be constructing four more rooms across the yard! It’s such a strange mind-set, and so African, something so many share on his continent. However, the bed is very comfortable and the room, although tired, is just about clean if I don’t look too closely. My bike stands outside the door and there’s always a watchman in these places. No one speaks English, but they seem amused to have a foreign guest. The room charge, with a bathroom with lukewarm water (morning, I think!) is under £9. I’ve eaten (to live I have to say, rather than for enjoyment) at a scruffy local hotel: injera dishcloth with highly peppered minced beef and cheese curds. Well, that’s as near identification as I could come! But it’ll do to keep me riding and who cares that I pulled my belt in a hole yesterday?
The Estonian biker brothers are leaving Addis tomorrow, back home to London and Estonia, leaving their machines here for another time. Kindly, Kristo gave me their hand pump and a 12 litre plastic container, now strapped to the side of my little bike with petrol. I managed to fill my tank at a station 25 kilometres back up the road, and bought five litres for spare. This ridiculous petrol crisis has no pattern. Here and there, there’s fuel, at its usual cheap price of 58 pence a litre; other places it’s almost £3 a litre on the black market, and other places it’s just not available. It’s a case, as usual in Africa, but even more so now, of fill up when I see fuel.
Now I think it’s under the covers – at 8.30. I bet sleep won’t be far away.
DAY 33. SUNDAY JANUARY 13th 2019. FINOTE SELAM, ETHIOPIA
My nightly fear is to be staying too close to a discotheque or mosque, especially on Fridays or Saturdays. I didn’t know about Ethiopian churches! All night I could hear a long untuneful drone, but not Moslem for once. An endless incantation, flat-toned and tedious. Fortunately it was just far enough away for me to sleep through most of it, only resorting to the ear plugs when someone else started up somewhere as well before dawn.
Ethiopian churches in smaller towns and villages are generally six or eight sided buildings of zinc with a small square cupola, its tin roofed fringes decorated with small flashing pieces of dangling metal. Churches are painted in red, yellow and green, the national colours – those adopted by many young African states at independence, out of respect for Ethiopia’s long history of independence, and those, of course, taken by the Rastafarians – those sort of born-again Africans from the West Indies, reasonably indulgently tolerated here in their adopted homeland – the town of Shashamene, that I rode through south of Addis is their stronghold in Africa. The most common pictures adorning taxi minibuses and lorries are Jesus and Bob Marley, in about equal numbers, with Che Guevara somewhere behind! Sunday brings out the population; Orthodox Christian adherents wear white cotton; the women in long dresses with fine machine embroidery stripes down the middle, men with white scarves and sometimes tall wrapped turbans. This is a very religious country, about 35% Orthodox Christian, 33% Moslem and the rest a mixture, including some remaining Jews, although most of the quite large population left for Israel in the 1980s’ famines (out of the frying pan, I would be tempted to say…). Just about every Ethiopian identifies themselves by religion. It underpins life and culture.
Today’s been a good day, but quite hard again. That’s just a result of the immense size of this mountainous and desert formed country. It’s a harsh environment but impressive. I didn’t really mean to, but I rode another 150 miles. And I did the last twenty because at least three people told me there was a good hotel in Finote Salem. There is too! Quite a palace in which I have a corner room at the back, away from the road, with a balcony and a window looking across the seedy townscape. It’s very clean, and apart from a few partially blocked drains in the shower and basin, all the drawer knobs missing, and a few electrical dangers, it’s about the best Ethiopian resting place so far – for £11.75. The Mosquito is in the yard behind and I am looked after by a couple of young men who even speak some simple, understandable English. It feels quite the international hotel! I’m writing in a large tiled bar and restaurant in a comfy chair, with a Meta beer, and reliving my day: the great advantage off this journal discipline. I’m surrounded by Sunday night treats for middle class families. Many smile hospitably, but we share so little language that it’s difficult to engage. It’s a difficult country for solo travels.
Sometime there are views that take my breath away and sights that make me proud of this odd wandering way of life. To experience the Blue Nile Gorge, and add it to my rather long list of impressive sights, is satisfying – even if it’s a bit pointless, in that I have witnessed it for no real reason but the old saw: that it is there.
Some of my travel experiences make all the loneliness, the discomfort, the boredom and the seedy rooms worthwhile. That’s why I do it. Just to have seen with my own eyes, to have stood on the rim of Fish Fish River Canyon in Namibia (2nd largest in the world, and me the only visitor that day), the Grand Canyon (largest, of course – but I was one of thousands, well organised and controlled), Blyde River Canyon in South Africa (3rd, I think, in scale) and now to have stood and wondered at the vast Blue Nile Gorge, an incredible, incomprehensibly huge break in the earth, formed by unimaginable millennia of erosion, is reward in itself for all the crises of confidence, sunburn, hassle and effort. Reward in spades.
To stand on the edge off that immense trough, the Nile a far distant brown gash below, the folded and creased landscape reaching as far as I could see; raw, arrogant nature, just showing us how puny and inconsequential we really are. The Blue Nile, that joins the White Nile that I have seen in all its power crashing through the Murchison Falls, and over the rapids at Jinja, in Uganda, carries 90% of the water and 96% of the silt that flows down the Nile through Egypt to the Mediterranean. It falls from Lake Tana, where I should be tomorrow.
The gorge has the scale, but not perhaps the colour, of the Grand Canyon. It’s just vast – and deep. The road, impressive in its planning but awful in its execution, with the tar rolled and rippled by insufficient substrate for the topography, winds down several thousand feet from the cool heights into the heat of its depths. I stopped frequently, just to enjoy the extraordinary vistas, the warmth and the fact of being there. Another almost unknown wonder of this most amazing continent.
What rides down, must ride up – on 200ccs of ‘power’. But it’s not a race, fortunately, as I’d be losing comprehensively. It’s been quite a slow ride, weaving around all the holes and hazards of Ethiopian roads; the awful driving, the donkeys and pedestrians, and in towns, the three-wheeler tuk-tuks – all utterly undisciplined, often on their phones or texting within the billowing curtains. Then I was back to riding across the high plains, rolling along in a huge landscape of yellow grass stubble and haystacks, small villages of stick and thatch and always walking people, by the tens of thousands. A few here wave, but to most I am a mystery, incomprehensible, from another world. It’s not that wonderful effervescent friendliness I found in the south, as I rode towards Addis Ababa.
From the top of the gorge, the road was smooth, interspersed, for the unwary, by gigantic potholes and dips and wrinkles. It takes concentration. My shadow spread longer across the road. I had stopped for chai in the largest town and searched for petrol. I’d been ripped off for two litres of black market fuel in a small town but in the larger one I was helped by a friendly young man, who jumped on the back of my bike and guided me to a black market stall, well set up at the side of an apartment building. It’s crazy, this alternative market. The government is losing tax, and those rich enough to ‘invest’ in back-handed fuel from the suppliers are making good money. I keep five litres in my jerrycan and fill whenever I can. The legal price is 20 Birr, the black market anything between 30 and 50. Still, I keep finding fuel…
I’ve just eaten ‘lamb tibs’ – I really don’t know what it was, other than small pieces of lamb in sauce. Pleasant enough, it’s filled the hole encouraged by a day subsisting on a bread roll, half a packet of date roll biscuits and chai and buna. Eaten with chill, floppy dishcloth, it’ll keep me going – but I’m already dreaming of my home vegetarian diet. I’ve not had a decent green vegetable since Kenya, and that was all kale. The buna and chai is a chance to stop and meet people by the wayside; always memorable, for it’s the only time people really engage with me, almost as if a shyness comes over them until I have been with them for some short time. The language barrier is very big. I am spoiled by all the Anglophone countries of Africa.
DAY 34. MONDAY JANUARY 14th 2019. BAHAR DAR, ETHIOPIA
Since crossing the Nile, I have settled back into my journey. My infamous determination and obstinacy are working once more, the smile’s on my face and I am interested in everything around me. Thank goodness I worked my way through my ‘wobbly’ of last week and I am relaxed once more. Ethiopia is still dauntingly huge, but I have accepted that I have time to slow down and enjoy what happens – even at 35 miles an hour.
Bahar Dar is a large town, a seething place of 600,000 or so, but a different kettle of fish to Addis – thank goodness. It sprawls beside Lake Tana, the source of the Nile here in Ethiopia. Sitting here on the hotel balcony above the busy street, the main road to the north, as it happens – the lake is way out of sight – I am watching dense traffic and a thousand ‘cockroaches’, as Rico calls the tuk-tuks so accurately, weaving in and out in search of fares; a large car just tried to turn left at the roundabout (Ethiopia drives on the right…); a student demonstration blocked the road noisily for ten minutes, something about an ethnic conflict (I think) between Oromo students from the south and Amhara students from this district; buses hoot; lorries blare their air horns; all is noise and anarchy. Across the road a tall building is bedecked in a multitude of hideous adverts for the occupants’ businesses, from computers to beauty parlours and insurance agents. The sun is setting pinkly along the road through a curling haze of city fumes, where some shadowy mountains rise against the horizon, the mountains from which I descended into this cheerful chaos. The streets seethe with people, half blocked by itinerant traders and over-flowing shops, it’s difficult to walk with any speed or direction. All life, in all Africa, is on the street.
Chatting after breakfast (included in my rather good deal last night) with the hotel manager, its owner and his brother – a white foreigner is accorded a lot of respect, even dressed in oily motorbike trousers and a dust-filled jersey – I asked about mechanics in Finote Selam. “No, you will find no good mechanics here! I have Suzuki like yours (the first one I’ve seen here, a bit smaller but still a Suzuki). Go to Bahar Dar, and see Changyello! No mechanics in Finote Selam. Best in Bahar!” Thus encouraged, I set forth into the morning sun, bright and hot, and into the giant landscapes of this vast country. It’s a largely agrarian economy and much of the time I am riding past huge acreages of dry grass, now cut and piled in conical stooks and haystacks. The road seldom leaves ribbon villages, of vertical stick and mud houses. Here and there farmers tend oxen plodding in small circles threshing the crop, round and round in endless loops all day long. Bulbous hay wagons meander the roads, the mules subsumed by the enormous loads, the carts of old car axles and rough timber. Men and boys sit on top, whipping the mules or donkeys, turbaned or shawled in local cotton. Women, bent double under loads, carry bales of hay as big as the donkeys’. Men generally walk the roadside unencumbered. It’s the women who keep Africa going.
The riding’s been a bit more relaxed today. The mad, speeding buses are less common up here; the minibuses just as crazy. But I am finding my way now amongst the traffic that frightened me so much before. I see that there’s a sort of etiquette of the road and that generally drivers’ observation is better than I imagined. It’s just everyone trying to cover huge distances against the provocation off those damned donkey and mule carts in the countryside and the tuk-tuks in town.
People are friendlier here. I guess I have passed into another tribal area, as I get away from the unsympathetic people of the Addis Ababa district and it’s surrounds. The scenery has been becoming more attractive too since the Nile crossing: distant vistas viewed across tracts of high dry grasslands, waving eucalyptus forests and endless grazing lands. I drift through the sweet aroma of charcoal burning everywhere up here, the scented air drifting lazily in the hot sun. The air dazzles with brightness: I am very high most of the time. Between gouts of diesel fumes, the air is crystal and almost tangibly dense and heavy. The light is blue, the sun burning, shadows sharp.
A couple of lengthy villages filled with some festival, hundreds walking to the celebration, dressed or draped in white; older men, highly wound white turbans with flat tops, trotted on thin horses brightly caparisoned in red woollen pom-poms and plumes. On one hillside many had gathered around a red, yellow and green church building. Along the roads are small shrines; square, mud built with painted zinc roofs, a tiny cupola festooned with fringes of dangling tin, elaborate Ethiopian crosses on their tops. Often there’s a traditionally painted hanging beneath the roof, painted in that graphic, orthodox style that is so Ethiopian: flat featured portraits of Jesus or saints, lined in black and brightly painted in red, blue and yellows. Frequently, a parishioner – I assume – waits, brightly clad in embroidered robes with an upturned glittery umbrella to collect alms from passing vehicles and worshippers.
In a long straggly town – they are all long and straggly actually – I stopped for buna. This is becoming the most memorable part of my day. I pulled up, watched by a group of idle young men (of whom there are always plenty). Removing my helmet, earplugs, gloves and goggles, they watched, intrigued. Then one, the noisiest as always, ventured a couple of words in English, about all many people in the country know, “Coffee, like?” And pulled a plastic chair amongst theirs at the plastic table, beneath the plastic umbrella advertising a local beer. The whole place was the usual riot of yellow, orange, red and blue – not easy on the eye, but not supposed to be by the advertisers.
It’s fun, these episodes amongst the goodwill of complete strangers, my coffee there bought by one of their number. We can’t really understand, but we can bond on a simple human level – the level of smiles and laughter, a few visual jokes and a lot of physical handshaking, gesticulating and loud conversation. Forty minutes or so passes in a warm atmosphere, trying as well as we can to communicate with a smattering of language. It’s surprising how much we can ‘talk’ thus! “You Christian?” is the main concern, with crosses pulled from inside shirts and jackets. “Anglican,” I lie, totally mystifying them, but leaving them content that I appear to believe – it’s far too difficult to put over my lack of belief in sign language and anyway, these people wouldn’t understand if I did. Later, the sign language, pidgin English questions, always turn to family and family size. I am obviously pitied for my mere two children (again, FAR too difficult to explain the concept of childlessness). “Me, three! You more!” encourages Yewilsew, the most confident, noisiest. He’s 25, he says, already father of three and wanting more. How would they ever understand the concept of over-population of the world; of the reasons for their poverty and unemployment; resources stretched to breaking; their effect on global warming – when all Africa wants is more children? There is NO hope for mankind on this planet. I give us about three hundred years more as a species unless there’s a cataclysm like the meteor hit that destroyed the dinosaurs. A few humans might be fortunate enough to survive and start again – it’s the only hope. If you’ve seen Africa, you know the futility of the way we pontificate about emissions targets, Paris Agreements and the like. We are doomed as a species. Don’t fool yourself. I’ve witnessed Africa these past three decades; three decades in which the countries I know have doubled their populations, and decades in which childhood mortality has been largely removed, meaning most off those doubled populations will live to breed again. The future is grim. Completely doomed..!
The owner and manager of the Domat Hotel in Finote Selam recommended the Papyrus Hotel here in Bahar Dar, and I rode right to its doors in my first trawl of this city. How my travels have changed! A pleasant modern single room with bathroom and balcony is under £15, so why not? The bar is gloomy and the food passable (fish goulash and dishcloth) but the restaurant gets nil points for atmosphere; I’ll eat local tomorrow. But the staff speak English and even knew the mechanic recommended by my new friends in Finote Selam, a fellow by the name of Chanyello. One of the hotel hangers-on clambered on my pillion and directed me to a filthy workshop across town. Everyone says Chanyello is the best in town. The Mosquito is left there tonight, for an oil change, a complete check over and adjustments as required.
Meanwhile, Beacourt, my guide, who also touts trips on the lake to visit the ancient Ethiopian monasteries, has inveigled me into a boat trip in the morning. It’s easier to agree with him than hassle on the streets for a boat ride. This is a touristic centre of Ethiopia and, frankly, Ethiopia is so cheap that even if I get ripped off, it won’t hurt much! So I’ll do my statutory tourist trip with him.
So I am back in travel mode and even planning the next phase to the north and the mighty Simien Mountains. I’m liking the Ethiopians more now I am away from Addis, although communication is very difficult, and I’m accepting the fact that even the boring bits will have to be taken at 35mph.
DAY 35. TUESDAY JANUARY 15th 2019. BAHAR DAR, ETHIOPIA
This has been a wonderful day! How is it that ten days ago I had got to the point that I just wanted to be back in Kenya – and today I feel I have ARRIVED in Ethiopia. Well, I know the reasons – and as always the change has been people – people I meet, people who make me welcome, people who react and bond and are the wonder of the world, people who make travelling absolute magic. What a day! A great day. I’m not sure where to start. I’ve made friends, been an out and out tourist and had a memorable day with very good company. Just the chances of travelling.
At midnight-20, I am just in from one of the most memorable days. The sort of day that keeps me travelling even after all these years…
Through helpful Barcout, an honest man, I booked to go on a boat trip to visit the ancient monasteries on islands set in the placid Lake Tana. “There are two other people, you can join them. We meet here at 8.30,” he said yesterday, in the lobby of my hotel. This morning I suffered all the street noise rather than put in my ear plugs and sleep late, had my hotel breakfast and was in the lobby at 8.30, having changed to a room that has hot water and lights in the bathroom, unlike last night’s. I’d bet no one will mend the shower or fix the lights… I was easier to move me along the corridor.
Barcout and I jumped into a tuk-tuk to another, slightly smarter hotel, where we were joined by Daniel and his mother, Aster, Ethiopians both, although Daniel now lives in Zurich, where he works in IT software. He has two brothers in Switzerland too, married to French and Swiss women, and a brother in Ohio. His late father was a teacher and they are obviously from a middle class Addis Ababa family. His mother, who loves to travel, still stays in Addis at the family home. Daniel is home for a holiday to visit his mother, bringing his Ethiopian wife and 18 month old son for Christmas and for his in-laws to meet their grandchild. For a few days he and his mother are visiting a part of the country they don’t know. Daniel studied for some years in Dublin and speaks excellent English. His mother is a cheerful, determined woman but speaks little English. We were to be companions for the lake trip, which extended to lunch on the lake shore, a road trip to view the Blue Nile Falls, 35km from town, and even dinner by the lake and a terrific late evening of traditional music and dance – and in Ethiopia such things are not put on for tourists, but an integral part of this very strong culture. I am IN Ethiopia at last! I feel part of the place. I’ve a smile as wide as the Blue Nile Gorge on my face as I prepare for bed (hot shower tonight too!) and all the enthusiasm that makes my journeys so much part of my life.
Floating gently across the lake in a well-appointed steel boat with canopy and outboard was lovely. The sun was bright, the air fresh and the lake calm, with its dotted tree-covered islands. We watched basking hippos at the entrance to the river that flows out of the lake, through Sudan, where it joins the White Nile and flows into Egypt. A feature of the day was the selection of lovely birds, from pelicans and fish eagles to brilliant kingfishers and tiny ground-hopping birds of many colours.
We called at the islands with their old monasteries, all Orthodox Christian of course. Aster had brought a complete change of clothes out of respect for tradition, wearing her Ethiopian cotton white embroidered dress and shawls for the monasteries and changing back into trousers and jacket at lunchtime. As for all Ethiopians, her religion is a serious consideration. It was so good for me to have Ethiopian companions for this tour; it added so much to my understanding, as well as entertaining me all day with good conversation and insights to Ethiopian life.
Debre Maryam, Entons Eysus and Kibran St Gabrael were the three island monasteries we visited, the latter being the oldest and most sacred, only accessible to men, and then only the outside. It is only opened in December, the rest of the year the great doors – about eight of them, made from vast pieces of timber five metres high, many of their planks a metre wide – stay closed. It’s an eight-sided building of mud-crete with an intricate timber roof that now holds aloft boring rusted corrugated zinc. It’s on the top of the small island, and as we visited, a bent, blind old monk was led round, shuffling in the wake of a younger man. The monks wear upright pillbox cotton caps and wrap yellow or orange shawls around their shoulders, over long cotton robes.
These monasteries were established in the 13th century, but appear to have been rebuilt and adapted over the centuries, the first two being mainly constructed from concrete, without the patina of age of the last one. Shoes off, padding on threadbare mats, you can wonder at the paintings, distinctly Ethiopian, a fascinating blend of ancient imagery and modern story telling. They are bright and glossy, all featuring bible stories and saints but revealing their stories like comic books and graphic novels. The painting is brash and colourful, vibrant, in intricate panels across the walls, just like comics. A quiet monk or two hovers discreetly about, yellow shawls contrasting brightly with the tattered red drapes and the brilliant paintings in the shadowy monasteries. Many, like so many of the men portrayed on the walls, are thickly bearded and quietly friendly. It’s all very low key and these are places of veneration, the monks touching their Ethiopian Orthodox crosses to our brows and cheeks as we leave. Somehow, I’d dreaded a much more touristic experience. With Aster touching her forehead to the door jambs as she entered each monastery, and the calmness of the monks, it was a restful, gentle experience, the placid lake around us, birds hooting and whistling from the trees. A few boats glided on the water, most of the few visitors were Ethiopian and all was peaceful and warm.
It was cool on the water, under our canopy, sliding over the quiet waters, an occasional fisherman on low canoes made from papyrus reeds, as they have been for millennia, just like those in Egyptian tomb paintings – or on Lake Titicaca on another far distant continent. A large group of young people, traditionally dressed in long robes, shawls and pillbox hats, with a tall, handsome black-robed priest in attendance, clambered excitedly back into one of the canopied boats at a stone jetty at St Gabrael, and drifted away onto the still, sunny lake, a flutter of shawls and fabric, the priest standing at the back of their boat, chuckling, his cross in hand.
At the second island, Daniel told me that Aster was hallo-ing and calling through the gates of the monk’s and nun’s compound as she wanted to take food on these sacred islands. We were made very welcome and sat in a large, empty hall, where amused, pretty young nuns brought us thick dark injera and spicy beans. Then, in horrid old plastic beakers, they poured local barley beer, sour and soupy, as it is in its various forms all over the continent. Of course, everyone thinks it wonderful that the white man takes part – not knowing how much experience I have of pito, bulsa and all its variants.
Three or four hours went calmly by. Our kind, quiet boatman – and this didn’t feel like a tourist trip; all the finances had been arranged amicably in advance with Barcout and no further money demanded, beyond entry fees to the islands, their modern income – dropped us back into the garden of a smart lakeside hotel, where Aster, with quite an appetite and a figure to prove it, enjoyed lunch while Daniel and I took a draft beer. Then Barcout, ever polite, met us with his driver and I decided I was enjoying my day so very much that I would accompany Daniel and Aster on the second half of their arranged tour – to the Blue Nile Falls, 35km from Bahar Dar. It was a rough road I would have taken on my Mosquito, but why not enjoy the companionship? “Oh, we would probably be arguing by now! You know how it is with mothers!” exclaimed Daniel with a laugh. “Come on, we are enjoying your company too!”
We bounced noisily over the rocky road – I had not realised just how uncomfortable it is on four wheels – through endless villages of vertical stick houses with ugly zinc roofs. “They used to be much more beautiful with grass roofs,” said Daniel. Sugar cane was being loaded here and there and everywhere there were people, people, people, and donkeys by the thousand. It’s a completely rural landscape, small fields, eucalyptus trees and dust. But here the landscape is becoming green again. We are still at 1800 metres and the sun still beats down relentlessly.
The falls ARE a bit of a rip-off. The tourist office still uses pictures of the 400 metre wide falls, spume flying in ethereal clouds into the sky above the 45 metre high horseshoe. Those pictures were taken before the river was dammed for electricity immediately upstream! Today the falls are about six metres wide and I have seen better in England. The setting is pleasantly rural, with a gentle walk through fields and a short belt in an old boat across the Nile to land at a muddy embankment. Children who should be at school – their compatriots were returning in clapped out old boats to their homes as we crossed the not very wide river in the ‘Heaven Sun Light’ boat reserved for tourist visitors – children pestered us (quite politely but relentlessly) to buy souvenirs and I took a couple of mandatory photos of the unimpressive falls. “Not exactly Victoria!” Daniel quipped. “Or Murchison or the rapids near Jinja,” I agreed. This is the Nile at its least exciting. However, I was enjoying the long day in good company, and now we motored back, bouncing on the rocks and dust, an hour to town as a brilliantly clear orange sun dipped slowly below the low mountains on the horizon.
“So what’s our evening programme?” asked Daniel at the door of their hotel. “My mum wants a sauna, and then we will have beer and some dinner?” We agreed to meet in a couple of hours.
My evening was terrific! We ate fish goulash again (a bit like sweet and sour fish without the sweet or the sour, just the hot) and drank a couple of beers. It was late now to eat, after nine. I argued with Daniel about paying for the food. “You can pay, next place…” For we were going on to a traditional club in town, the sort of place I’d never have found for myself. We squeezed into a tuk-tuk back to the centre and pushed open the doors of a rather seedy looking bar, closed to the street. It felt like a private place but was a roaring bar filled with people and music. About 100 people, mainly men, but a few young women around too, sat on low cube stools of wood and hide. The walls were decorated here and there with traditional weavings and beer posters. There were no tables, just the low stools. The place was full, and full of noise. People shuffled up to make room on four stools inside the door. A man was declaiming very loudly, obviously a story told in rhythm with two drums beating in the back of the room. It must have been funny, to judge by the audience. It was perhaps a far relation to rap; the storyteller beating his stick on the floor, amongst the spread grasses so typical of gathering places and buna stalls. We ordered beers, St George: a popular brand, and Aster had a huge gin.
The loud storytelling gave way seamlessly to a fellow, dressed in sort of jodhpurs and belted jacket, playing a one-stringed instrument and again making up his song as he went along; so much was obvious when he came to me and included me in what must have been funny stories, to judge by the indulgent laughter all around. The drums beat at the back of the room and everything was somehow in synch. Then dancing began, several youths and a couple of women with enormous flowing hair and long, belted traditional dresses of white cotton and embroidery, doing the most bizarre traditional dance. It’s odd, in that it uses mainly the upper body and shoulders. Some of the dancers seemed double-jointed as they shook and gyrated their shoulders in fast rhythm to the drums and a small mouth horn and the rhythmic clapping of the crowd. Of course, no one can resist getting the white man involved: it’s a big joke. And no white man worth anything in this situation can resist making a gesture at least, however ridiculous he may look. It’s just appreciated that I join in: it shows respect and equality of some sort. Everyone laughs and a few cheers go up at my pathetic display. I’ll have got rid of all my shoulder tension with this crazy dance! I can feel the loose joints as I write next morning about my wonderful, warmly friendly evening. A few more beers and my shoulders were jigging and bouncing automatically to the drums, the one-stringed instrument, the noisy singing, the shouts and cries and the pulsing rhythm that is so much part of all African music. I was happy and content to be in Ethiopia, my angst and reservations forgotten, my confidence back, the journey rekindled.
“Aren’t you frightened, these places you go?” ask so many at home about my travels… I felt so welcome, so full of goodwill myself, so accepted and so respected.
It was midnight before we drew ourselves away and I got a tuk-tuk to my hotel with a friend of Daniel and Aster’s, who been with us. I staggered back up the stairs, exhausted but elated by my day, that had started at 8.30 in the morning and was now drawing to a close 16 full hours later. Now all I wanted was a hot shower and sleep – but why do I expect hot water from the hot tap? I am in Africa. The hot water, if there is any, invariably comes from the cold tap! Things are contrary and eccentric here. And you step in cold puddles when you go for a pee in the night, for the floor drain is higher than most of the floor and East African bathrooms always have the shower in front of the lavatory…
Daniel added so much to my day, with his plentiful, intelligent conversation, his explanations and his knowledge of the norms and conventions. It was relaxing to let him and Aster deal with those as I enjoyed my day in relaxation. We talked about the eternal problem of overpopulation that is creating so much hunger, unemployment, global warming and forthcoming disaster in this country – on this continent. “I blame the Orthodox Church. They should be taking the lead in this, but they don’t. You know, historically many of this country’s problems come from the dominance of Egypt over Ethiopia until 60 years ago. The leader of the Orthodox church, the pope, if you like, was always appointed from Egypt. He appointed the bishops, so the control was from Egypt. You’ll have seen, we are a very religious country. They were happy to keep Ethiopia poor and under control because the Nile flows from this country but is the source of their wealth. Now we are building the new dam on the Nile; they don’t like it as they are losing control. Ethiopia is building that dam without outside help, not the IMF, not other countries. It’s a homegrown initiative with the whole country involved.”
I asked about the hope that I have seen with the new regime now in power. Daniel was not so sanguine. He told me of deep ethnic unrest, mainly between the two biggest population groups, the Oromo and Amharic. “I think it’s possible that we could have a situation as bad as Rwanda at some time, unless this can be kept under control. It goes very deep…” Tribal Africa, as strong today; as competitive; as angry and jealous as ever. And it wasn’t even the Scramble for Africa that caused this tension, as Ethiopia has never been colonised, despite many tribal borders being ignored in the white man’s drawing of lines on that Victorian map as they raped the continent. Ethiopia is proudly independent and always has been.
What a day! Full, fascinating and very funny too. New friends, even just for a day: the best thing in life. Maybe one day I will meet Daniel in Zurich and thank him again for adding so much to my understanding and enjoyment of his mother country. I hope so.
DAY 36. WEDNESDAY JANUARY 16th 2019. BAHAR DAR, ETHIOPIA
The Mosquito has been fully serviced, even to the fitting of a new oil seal on the kick start, a job I didn’t expect to get done. It appears that Changyello found a Yamaha seal that fits. Everything now works and everything’s been adjusted, lubricated, reconnected and checked. I have a horn, a dipped beam, no exhaust leak, new oil. I hope for another couple of thousand kilometres without trouble. It’s worth it for me, to have confidence that a more knowledgeable mind (and mechanically speaking, there are a lot of those around) has looked in detail at the workings of my transport. The cost was £58, quite a lot of money in Ethiopia, but I am a white man, so I pay a premium – and for me it’s still cheap. The price of mental security.
Then I needed petrol. Oh, what a ridiculous saga this is in Ethiopia. There was no black market available, so ever-helpful Barcout, on the back of my bike, took me to a large petrol station on the edge of town. The line of tuk-tuks, motorbikes and cars stretched at least a kilometre. Imagine the loss of efficiency, the loss of work, the cost of transport this involves. “OK, go here,” instructed Barcout, pushing me to the front of the queue, right onto the forecourt. Youths brandishing large sticks bullied everyone and tried to extort money from me, but I’m an Englishman, dammit, and I’m not going to be intimidated by a bribing youth for no service! I responded indignantly and loudly, attracting attention. They slunk away, bad tempered. I stood my ground and in twenty minutes my tank was filled; that’s hours before those in the queue, if the supply didn’t run out. Don’t ask me why I am afforded this privilege, probably because no one wants to argue with a ‘ferengi’ in case I happen to be influential. Frankly, my guilt is very quickly assuaged. “There’ll be petrol in Gondar,” says Barcout, “it comes over the border from Sudan.” It’s making my journey difficult and I have to be conscious all the time that supplies are short and difficult to find. I have about 2000 kilometres to get back to Kenya and can’t waste a drop.
Hence today, instead of a ride to visit other monasteries, little visited along the shores of the lake, I parked the Mosquito – it was already noon by the time I’d been to the mechanic and filled the tank – and walked the streets of the city centre instead. My hotel room is one of the best, so I may as well relax. Right now, I am writing from a basket chair on the bar terrace on the seventh floor of one of the better hotels with a fine view north over the lake. In this country, a beer, even here, will cost me about a pound a bottle and my skin gets me past any suspicious doorman down below, even in my creased clothes and with the odd bald patch I created by mistake when trimming my hair rather badly this morning! No one will even notice and my vanity is long gone here on my travels.
How can any town need so many mobile phone shops? It’s an African conundrum. It’s true that everyone, from the shoe shines and rural peasants to the businessmen and professionals, has a phone, but whole streets of these towns and cities are lined with phone shops. It’s slow, walking the crowded streets, much of the pavement obstructed by traders and shoe shines and people attempting to scratch a living by selling a few sticks of gum, some Chinese junk products, sandals, sunglasses and cheap watches, tee shirts and hats. What’s life like, I can’t help pondering as I walk, committed to this endless poverty and tedious necessity to earn a few Birr any way you can? What ambitions and dreams can you have when life is reduced to scraping together enough small coins to purchase the meanest of foodstuffs – probably to feed several children? What do you think about, squatting day in, day out, at the side of the hot pavement in an endless line of competing traders? Perhaps those children are the only creative product of your existence? Perhaps that’s why there are so many? It’s the one thing every human can achieve, yet it impoverishes both you and the children, always just a bit more. Everyone’s in the same boat; maybe that makes this life more acceptable? Tomorrow will be just the same: this endless grind of poverty, lack of education, poor nutrition, discomfort, and then home to some shack on the peripheries of town.
It’s how most of the world lives.
And I ask these questions sitting in a smart bar carpeted with Astroturf on the roof of a smart hotel, wondering what and where I will eat from the plethora of (chilli-peppered) choices at my command. I am so privileged but even I take it for granted, as my right. Tomorrow I will ride my little bike to new experiences, untroubled by lack of finances, just a bit niggled by the irritations of petrol supplies – that I can afford even at black market prices. It’s such an unequal world. We would do well, in our wealth and privilege, to remember that.
Bahar Dar is a city full of trees, even in the main trading avenues. The proximity of the lake, about 75 by 60 kilometres in size, although only about fifteen metres deep, assures this pleasant climate. Now, as the sun sinks for the day, the air is quickly cooling; there’s a breeze off the lake up here on the seventh floor and last night I had to double over the bed cover for warmth. So much of this country is at altitude: here the lake is 6004 feet above sea level. For the last month, I have been at these altitudes, sometimes way higher – and colder.
Gazing at the street activity, drinking thick black buna in the enveloping warmth of the afternoon, my feet scuffing in the fresh grasses spread around these traditional refreshment coffee stalls – a charming habit – I realised that that first coffee, in Agere Maryam, is still the best I tasted, despite the simplicity of the hotel. “That’s the region where the BEST Ethiopian coffee comes from!” Daniel explained yesterday. “You could take some back with you, when you ride back to Kenya!” Another kilo on my little Mosquito..? Four hundred miles of bush and desert to cross?
It’s dark now. The lake has disappeared, lights come on – although many vehicles still drive the streets below without lights. Fifty times a day people signal to me that my light is on. Yes, that’s why: so I am seen! In all Africa vehicle lights are left dark until the last moment and beyond. I’m sure drivers think they are wasting money and fuel when they run with their lights on.
Time for supper…