DAY 50. WEDNESDAY JANUARY 30th 2019. ADDIS ABABA, ETHIOPIA
Riding along this morning, a pretty tedious ride as I approached the sprawling capital, I found I had a tendency to be riding faster than usual – only a few kilometres per hour of course, for the Mosquito pretty well regulates itself at 60kph. ‘Why’m I speeding?’ I wondered. Then I realised it was because of an email that I unexpectedly fielded on my iPad over breakfast. There’s not been much connection for some days, but there was a brief contact in the broken hotel cafe where I stayed last night. And one email was from chattery Alice, who so cheered me when I needed it here in Addis three weeks ago. She was back, by coincidence, in Addis last night! What a nice surprise. We’ve enjoyed a lovely, cheerful evening together again. Funny how one can bond so happily, despite the difference of years. So many shared interests and ways of looking at the world. She’s off on a 30 hour bus ride at four in the morning, so maybe the next time we’ll meet will be in Devon. I do hope so. It was such fun to meet again, even just for a long evening. A warm reunion.
“Alice Yap, I think it’s why I talk so much!”
After relaxing for a bit from my traffic-heavy ride back into the city, and taking the delightfully named ‘gingibel chai’ – ginger tea – prescribed by the lady who manages to day to day kitchen of this guest house, I rode out to find Eyob. You may remember, Eyob works for the only bike shop I found in the city – motorbikes are uncommon throughout Ethiopia; no boda-bodas here, just the bloody tuk-tuks. When I met Eyob, he took me to his home for coffee and was so very helpful. I need a few jobs on the Mosquito, particularly the fitting of an in-line petrol filter against all the water and dirt that is being poured into my tank with all the black market petrol. It will be done tomorrow. I need trouble-free riding now to get me back across the first half of the northern Kenyan deserts to Marsabit, where Sam, the mechanic, can give it a little more attention.
Addis holds few attractions and I hope to spend just a couple of days getting small chores achieved: a new zip on my camera bag, maybe some stitching to my panniers, the housekeeping required on long journeys and usually available in the big cities.
Then, a cheerful evening with young Alice, supper and beers and chatter: the pleasure of bonding with someone else with so many similar enthusiasms, despite the huge difference in age (40 years and a day!) and background.
DAY 51. THURSDAY JANUARY 31st 2019. ADDIS ABABA, ETHIOPIA
Addis Ababa isn’t a city I much like, I have decided. I shall head southwards tomorrow, having little to keep me here. This morning I took the Mosquito down Bole Road and Eyob and his mechanic cleaned the carburettor and fitted an in-line filter in my petrol pipe. I hope this will solve the coughing and spluttering – of the bike that is; I am beginning to control my own coughing and spluttering by drinking a lot of gingibel chai and taking big, deep breaths. Alice is a nurse, and that was her useful advice. It appears to be working.
We fixed the bike on the pavement on busy Bole Road, rinsing petrol all over the carb, puddling the paving stones, disrupting the pedestrians. It seems to be just the way it is in Addis.
I introduced two young Danes; their six weeks’ in Ethiopia started a few days ago, to the joys of the juice stalls. I am in awe of the half litres of avocado juice, freshly crushed and served with half a lime. Then my only task was to try to repair my small camera shoulder bag. I found a whole series of leather workshops around the local ‘stadium’ area, but no one could replace the zip in less than a couple of days. In the end, I settled for a helpful young worker who stitched part of the bag shut. I’ll see if I can get a repair in Kenya or down the road. I hang the camera bag over my shoulder all day on the bike, so I need to keep the dust out.
Fighting off pickpockets is a trial in this city. I am shocked by the number of boys and youths sniffing glue (mixed, I am told, with diesel). It is a serious city centre problem. Thousands of them, sitting on most traffic islands, hunting for petty crime opportunities on every pathway. One of them tried to pick my pocket this afternoon. As it happened, I was carrying a couple of carved spoons I had bought in an ‘antique’ shop. A quick upthrust not only threw his hand from my pocket but dashed his crushed plastic water bottle, with glue and green gunk in the base, into the road. “You’re not even a good pickpocket!” I shouted angrily, turning heads. On one hand, of course, I have to feel terribly sorry for them – street children who have either run away or, in these countries, whose parents have died or abandoned them. On the other hand, they are a bad nuisance to everyone in the streets, causing trouble everywhere all day long. They prey on tourists by choice, thinking we will be easy quarry. But we all know all the ruses and techniques… We pass this information between us. They have not a single chance in life, and will probably be dead quite soon. It’s one of those terribly hard facts of life on this continent. Short lives, utterly wasted.
In every hotel in which I have stayed; every cafe and restaurant in which I have eaten; most buildings I have entered, TVs play constantly, absolutely constantly. It’s either football – mainly from England, occasionally from Europe – or it is **** CNN. Who is interested in constant trivial ‘news’ from America? This is AFRICA. It has not the slightest relevance to anyone that this week is about to be the coldest in a decade in USA. Who cares? Who cares about the arsehole president and his childish megalomania? This ‘shithole’ country is so proud that they have never been colonised. Well, look behind you, Ethiopia. You are being colonised day by day by trite shite, like the rest of us. I’ve had to move into the chilly bar yard this evening to write. I can stand no more of the fluting tones of the announcer, the jingles, the endless upbeat cheery announcement of death and disasters that take on an anodyne meaninglessness.
Oh, I think I’ll go to bed! I HATE TV, especially wall to wall shite like this.
Time to move south…
DAY 52. FRIDAY FEBRUARY 1st 2019. ZIWAY, ETHIOPIA
It was at the Bekele Mola Hotel in Ziway that I left my passport four weeks ago tonight. I’m glad that time is behind me and my journey back on form. I reread that part of my journal as I relaxed after my ride this afternoon. I really did suffer an uncommon crisis of confidence.
The first 15 miles of today’s ride were ghastly, but not nearly as bad as the last 45 miles of my entry to Addis. I found a much preferable, minor road south and only joined the main highway tonight, 300 metres up the road. I came by a lesser used route, roughly parallel but thirty miles west. Once I left the extended, traffic-clogged tentacles of the capital, it was a quiet, rather undistinguished ride over rolling, parched hills to the town of Butajira, and then a left turn for the last 45 kilometres back to the main north/ south highway which I must follow now back to Kenya. I am determined to limit my days to less than 200 kilometres whenever I can on this southward journey.
The mosques are groaning around me now. The south becomes increasingly Moslem. It’s sunset, time for the evening moan. It should be atmospheric – indeed, in some Islamic countries, this is a mighty, nearly joyous scream to the skies. In much of Islamic Africa though, it seems miserable and depressing, a tuneless, joyless dirge into the dust-filled sunsets and dawns. It’s Friday of course, so it persists longer. Mind you, the Orthodox incantations tomorrow and Sunday can be even less musical! Amplification has done no favours for religion in these parts. Get some better muezzins and train your priests if you must – or just give me anonymous, cheerful – brief – church bells…
The road, 100 metres away, is busy with heavy traffic, at almost 7pm. Maybe that’s the weekend effect? Often, when I sit in another vehicle, or watch the streets from a beer bar in cities, I wonder at my gall in contemplating riding in this traffic. It seems just crazed and ill-disciplined. Oddly, though, once I am a combatant, weaving and ducking through the astonishing machinations of thousands of battling vehicles – including those horse carts, flocks of sheep, obstinate donkeys, plodding cows, tuk-tuks, bicycles, taxis, minibuses, buses – not to even mention the mad, blind pedestrians, in this twelfth most populous nation of the world – and I become part of it all, able, thanks to my better training in observation and manoeuvrability, to twist and turn, spurt and dive, accelerate and wheedle – and it all becomes some sort of a crazy game; just all of us trying to make progress against all odds. With this country doubling its population about every twenty years, how will the straining infrastructure cope? Well, I guess it won’t: it’ll just get progressively worse until it all stops. By then, we will have polluted the planet so much it probably won’t matter any more…
There’s a middle-aged American woman staying at the guest house in Addis. She seems to spend her time on her computer in the shaded bar yard; even her morning exercise appeared to be walking circles around the yard, not the streets outside. When I arrived the other afternoon, she greeted me and asked from where I was coming. “Oh, I’ve been riding all over the north!” I replied.
“Did you see any unrest..?” she enquired anxiously. Unrest? No, not a thing; not a waver, not a flicker. All I saw was a lot of friendly people, the vast majority of whom held me in much respect and poured out goodwill. This morning, hearing I was venturing out into the world out there, she warned me apprehensively to be very careful. “I had an alert from the American Embassy, not to leave Addis unless necessary. It’s crazy out there…”
Where do they get this nonsense? The country is actually remarkably stable just now. Here and there, there will be minor tribal conflicts that flare up – this is Africa, divided tribe from tribe – but there is no ‘craziness’ almost anywhere in Ethiopia at present. In fact, I’d choose Addis if I wanted to tell visitors to be careful… This sort of ‘advice’ – the British Foreign Office produces the same nonsense frequently – is like Health and Safety gone mad. You issue a warning so that there will be no blame, no criticism, no redress. ‘Peanut butter: Warning, may contain nuts’, and coffee, ‘Caution, contents may be hot’. It’s not helpful; it’s downright irresponsible. Apart from anything else, any participants in conflict will do all they can to avoid involving foreigners, they know the penalties are so severe. “Did you see any unrest..?” It’s a country twice the size of France. There may be an odd conflict down in the deep desert on the Somali or Eritrean frontiers maybe – but they are as far from that woman in Addis as, well, at least the distance from Calais to Marseilles! I think part of the present petrol crisis may have been caused by ‘unrest’ in one of those FAR distant areas, and Moyale border, where I am headed, was closed for a week or so just before I arrived but Ethiopia, for the time being anyway, is not a hotbed of internecine war!
I’ve a very itchy back tonight. Wonder what got in? The perils of travel! Much more troubling than so called ‘unrest’! Haha. Maybe the miscellaneous block of soap I found by the guest house sink, with which I washed my rotating tee shirt last evening (I have two tee shirts, blue and red, two pants and two socks that rotate day by day).
Supper came. Fish cutlet: it’s on every invariable menu: every menu the same. Fish cutlet is pieces of breaded fish, fried and served with fried potatoes. With it comes a side dish of burning red chilli sauce. It’s enough to make me dream of bloody frozen peas…
DAY 53. SATURDAY FEBRUARY 2nd 2019. AWASSA, ETHIOPIA
My mood’s drooping again tonight. NOISE. Why was I so stupid, not to see at 3.00, when I stopped, that being in the centre of Awassa, by the lake and all the bars, would be the noisiest place in East Africa on Saturday night? I could have paid a pound over my limit and had the best room of my trip, but I was swayed by the fact that the owner of the guest house I selected was a charming middle aged Belgian woman, with Ethiopian husband, speaking English. Bibi and I have been talking interestingly in the guest house yard and she too complains of the noise: a relatively new phenomenon with which she is battling. She lives right here in the compound amongst all the new, very noisy beer bars… “And tomorrow we will get the churches!” warns Bibi. “They start at 6.30, and it will be four hours! I hope you can sleep?” Another ear plug night…
That damned chain sprocket flew off again – in the middle of nowhere on a very busy, unpleasant main road. This time, a young man gave me the sprocket, that he’d seen fly across the road, the bolt was soon found, but the washer was lost. Again, it was a case of flagging down a pick up, loading the Mosquito in the back and being carried to the next town, some ten or twelve miles on. But this wasn’t a pleasant Ethiopian experience. I was pestered relentlessly by unfriendly people demanding money. Not the people in the car, who seemed to be a bunch of uninterested businessmen, who didn’t even get out of the car, (I was in the back, sitting on the floor with my bike) leaving it all to their driver, but the assembled people who did no more than lift the bike into the car, a moment’s work. Then, in the unfortunately, but, it seemed to me aptly, named town of Arsii, the men who helped lift it out – a task taking about one minute, argued for money until I had to resort to the two English words that seem to be understood across the world (probably thanks to American TV). Oddly enough, the two young mechanics, who WERE helpful and friendly, although I did the work myself, using their spanners and their washers, refused any recompense with a friendly handshake and big smiles, confounding me completely.
I didn’t enjoy any aspect of today’s ride, except its relative shortness, at only 100 kilometres. I am back in the Rift Valley now, still of course at about 1500-1600 metres above sea level, but the landscape is dry as a bone, with the few lakes dotted about. They aren’t particularly attractive though, being often alkaline or brackish. Most of them are infected with bilharzia. The valley is about fifty miles wide, dusty, desiccated and empty. Vast herds of cattle were herded across the road in many places, hazards that slow the heavy, badly driven traffic even more. Dust circling high above, every shred of any grass grazed to oblivion. African aspirations, across the whole continent are for more and more cattle and babies – probably the two most environmentally damaging aspects imaginable for our straining planet. Abandon all hope…
Before my sprocket incident, I had considered investigating one of the lakes; even maybe staying by one tonight – despite their somewhat unattractive setting and what I read on the internet: ‘at the weekend, all Addis Ababa and their boom-boxes head for the resort hotels and prices rise by at least 20%’. By the time I’d sorted the bike again, I’d sort of lost the will to travel today, and finding Awassa only 25 kilometres further, I opted to stay here tonight. I stayed here a month ago, stopping in that slightly run down guest house owned by Defige, who’d studied in Dublin. It was quieter by his main road than down here close to the lakeside, with pounding music from seedy bars. I wandered the lake shore in the late afternoon with many inhabitants. Hundreds of gangly, sinister cranes stalk the path and shore, almost tame and well fed by rubbish and visitors, great ugly birds over a metre high with hideous wattles and long angry beaks. The shores of the lake are set with green reed beds, quite attractive if you mentally fade out the thousands of floating plastic, single-use water bottles.
I ate a disgusting meal, in the dark; maybe it was as well that I couldn’t see what I was eating. It was fish goulash, one of the fifteen items on every invariable Ethiopian menu. It’s just bits of fish deep fried in a red chilli sauce, served with bad chips and revoltingly greasy fried white cabbage, a gesture at vegetables. I’m honestly not enjoying the food. On the whole, I dislike meat, so choose to avoid it when I can, leaving me with oily, greasy fish and hot pepper – another food flavour I could do without. I’ve given up on cold, clammy dishcloth as much as possible and just crave some simple, clean vegetable flavours. Many people extol the virtues of Ethiopian cuisine. The expensive restaurant in Nairobi, I will grant, has very good Ethiopian food; not many places here have.
Bibi, the Belgian owner, whose husband is Ethiopian, is a bio-engineer and knows quite a lot of the continent. She’s been in the habit of coming and going between Awassa and Belgium: “We need the hard cash to run the car and so on!” But at present she is trying a sabbatical of a year, living here and adapting to Ethiopian life. “Then we’ll see..!” Echoing to some extent the fears of Daniel from Zurich, she tells me of the fomenting of unrest in some of the ethnic communities. “Especially, the Tigrayans in the north, they are manipulating the tribes. The new prime minister is doing well, but I fear his time will be too short. There may be trouble ahead, if the tribes split. Awassa was always considered the regional capital for the people round here, but factions are making problems. If they insist on separation, there may be trouble.” It’s roughly what Daniel feared when he said he thought there may be ethnic conflict in the future on the scale of Rwanda if tribal jealousies get out of hand.
Thank goodness a conversation over a beer in the yard with Bibi cheered what had become a rather bad day, one way and another. Often my mood sinks through being alone so much, separated from the people around me by the language barrier and insufficient cultural understanding. Days like this are hard, and I am happy I made the instinctive decision to stay near someone of my own culture, despite the appalling noise everywhere tonight. Chatting amicably with my hostess has restored my interest in things around me. People who choose a foreign partner, by the chances that life throws up, tend to have wider views of the life around them, a positive, adaptable approach to change and a healthy interest in what makes people do as they do. By sharing observations, we widen our own understanding of just where I am, here in Ethiopia. I know a lot more about it now, after five weeks, but am still often at sea. “They are so proud of their independence, their lack of colonisation. But they’ve lost out by that too. They have become much more separated from the rest of the world, and the cultural exchange has been so much less than in most of Africa. It’s positive in giving a strong cultural identity, but difficult when you cut yourself off from the world.”
But at least most Ethiopians don’t understand the trivia spewing endlessly from CNN’s gaping, ever-open eye on its own over-blown, tiny bit of the western world. They can be grateful for that filter at least.
DAY 54. SUNDAY FEBRUARY 3rd 2019. AWASSA, ETHIOPIA
A day of rest. I AM trying to pace this journey back, and I need to gird up for tomorrow’s ride, which, riding north, was the worst of all. The Zebra Guest House was a good place to just stop for the day, take a brief ride out, wash clothes, catch up with life and drink buna.
I’ll be heartily glad to get away from the hassles of purchasing petrol. This crisis has been going on for over two months I think, not that anyone can actually explain why it’s happening or what it’s about: something to do with the suppliers pressurising the government to raise the price of fuel – it’s much cheaper here than any surrounding country. But putting up that price will create massive inflation, in everything. This being Africa, the people have just found their own ways round the inconvenience. Spotting a huge line of tuk-tuks and motorbikes at a petrol station, I just pulled innocently in, and was once again hustled to the front of the queue, tolerated by the police on duty and my tank expensively filled. I have NO idea what the rate per litre was, but I know my Mosquito hadn’t used as much as 190 Birr (£5.58), but I’m not going to argue in front of 200 waiting customers, who’ve probably been there all day! Who cares? I have my tank filled once more, another 250-300 kilometres’ range, and I’m now about 500 from Kenyan petrol and still have my jerrycan strapped to the bike, another 150 kilometres. So I am almost home…
I regret that I felt not an iota of guilt as my tank was filled in front of all those people. “I have to get to Moyale!” I told the policeman loudly. That impresses everyone, and Ethiopians are very kindly towards ferengis. Most of them even smiled as I told the attendant just to fill right up. As a tourist, I believe I have priority to supplies, according to one fellow I met as I am almost out of the country, who asked where my authority letter from the national tourist office is… Huh.
Yoftahe is a charming fellow running a small motorbike repair business at the street side, but with a degree in Governance and Development Studies. He speaks rather good English. I stopped to get my tyres checked, and to see if I could buy a few spare bolts and washers in case the problem continues with my sprocket. I also bought a piece of second hand petrol pipe, since I spot that Eyob’s mechanic has used too short a piece and bent the fuel filter almost to breaking point. If it breaks in the middle of nowhere, I want to be prepared. In the morning, he’ll help me find bolts and washers. An educated, cultured man, he has to earn a living any way he can, and probably jobs in governance and development studies are rarities in Awassa. More African waste.
The sermonising from the huge nearby church began in the early hours and droned on and on. Thank god for ear plugs. “I’m bad tempered,” admitted Bibi as I drank my first buna. “Why do they amplify this noise? Everyone’s sitting INSIDE the church anyway!” A brief ride out round the end of the lake, on a new road that I think leads to the airport, was the total of my travelling today. By the time I came back the drone was beginning again, by now in competition with incredible NOISE from all quarters. No one appears to notice: they drink contentedly six feet in front of pounding, beating speakers, while I am reduced in moments to a screaming, foul-mouthed wretch. I’m writing as I wait for food in a vibrating bar, desperate to down my food and get out. And I chose the quietest – fifteen minutes ago. African hearing is SO much more tolerant than mine. Some fellow a few feet away is even talking on his phone! Ethiopian music is horribly, endlessly repetitive too, always following the same beat… At least it IS Ethiopian I suppose. AAAARRRGGGHHHHH!!!!!! SHUT UP!!!! Just let me get my bloody food and go!
Another personal first: I just ate a burger! Never before in Africa did I sink so low. Actually, it was rather a good burger – made here in the bar, I don’t doubt: I am sitting right by a booth hung with raw carcasses. I’ve not bonded that well with the fifteen available Ethiopian dishes on the whole. I’m not fond of meat or red chilli sauce, or fresh green chillies, the basis of just about everything. And the dishcloth (sorry again, Rico!) leaves me very uninspired with its sogginess, sourness and coldness. But a BURGER..? Oh well, I just needed a change! At least I can be pretty sure I didn’t just ingest antibiotics and hormones – just cow.
DAY 55. MONDAY FEBRUARY 4th 2019. AGERE MARYAM, ETHIOPIA
Things are seldom as bad when you accept the reality and face down the anxious anticipation. So it was with the road today. I’ve been apprehensive since I rode this way five weeks ago – it was at Agere Maryam that I started my Ethiopian journey – and it was this road that exhausted me as I fought with what I now appreciate was probably heavy pre-Ethiopian Christmas traffic. Today, the road was just as bad but the light traffic made it just like any other long trail ride over appalling rock and gravel, without the competitive element that so stressed – and on occasion, frightened me on the ride northwards. I’m a little physically weary tonight – it’s hard exercise – but I’m not in the funk that I was five weeks ago.
It was eleven before I got on the road today. First I had a leisurely buna and pancake and fruit breakfast with Bibi for pleasant company and conversation, joined by Frenchman, Gérald. Ethiopia seems to appeal to slightly older, more experienced travellers. Gérald extends a warm welcome to Burgundy. I hope I’ll take him up on that.
From Bibi’s friendly guest house, I rode to see Yoftahe to obtain a pocketful of spare bolts and washers for my front chain sprocket – emergency supplies in case it flies off again in the middle of nowhere – like the northern Kenyan desert. I’ve left off the guard so I can (somewhat obsessively, it must be admitted), watch the bolt go round.
At last I was on the road south, fighting my way through racing, clapped out buses; wandering donkeys; carts pulled laboriously by threadbare, rib-ridged old horses and mules; meandering tuk-tuks; mad pedestrians and heavily-laden, badly driven minibuses. It was many miles before the traffic thinned as I climbed into more handsome scenery with trees and views of green valleys. In the last quarter of my 190 kilometre ride, the people changed. It happens this way in Africa; tribal boundaries are quite distinct, even now. It becomes apparent that the population suddenly operates to different norms. There’s seldom any physical, topographic difference, just subtly the mood alters. It’s odd, my instinct tells me as I ride that I have moved into another region. Here it happened that quite suddenly, in a matter of a handful of miles, everyone – but everyone – began to wave at me and flash huge white smiles. It’s my main memory, my first impression of Ethiopia five weeks ago – waving, friendly people. And it’s the same area. I didn’t notice it weakening as I rode northwards out of this region, but five weeks ago my mood was deteriorating into tiredness and gloom and self-doubt about there. These last few miles were a delight: the road was now smooth and new, the audience very friendly, the scenery filled with trees. I entered Agere Maryam with a bit of a smile this time.
(Oh dear, I just ordered tibs and dishcloth again! Why bother to ask for a menu when I actually don’t know what half the items are and no one can explain? All I DO know is that whatever I order, it will be meat, chilli pepper and injera… 20 minutes later: it was goat tonight, a little tastier but still bloody meat and chilli and grease… I begin to fantasise about some green vegetables. It’s been WEEKS.)
When I stayed here before, I was green to Ethiopia, at a loss entirely, floundering. Now I have five weeks’ experience of the country and know how to find places to sleep a lot more comfortable than the first hotel, where I was woken at dawn by the watchman and asked, “You go..?”
“No. I don’t bloody well go! It’s DARK!” I remember replying. Irritated, lost and unconfident. Well, maybe I am a little more used to the oddities of Ethiopian life now and can read the cultural signs better. Tonight I found a pleasant place to sleep in minutes, a hotel so new that not much has broken yet. The lavatory doesn’t flush and the seat’s not fixed to the pan – and never will be now. In due course, it’ll snap in half and be thrown away and there just won’t be a seat. Those are the only faults so far, so they won’t need to start building the replacement just yet. There’s no electricity except the roaring generator, but I think that’s town-wide, rather than the newness of the hotel. With luck, the generator will go off before too long. The room rate tonight is just £8.80, very good value, until the place begins to disintegrate like all the others. It won’t take long. The plumbing will go first.
At least 50 or 100 times a day, I am told that my headlight is on. Today, it was at least 100 times. Drivers flash their lights, pedestrians wobble their hands, bike riders overtake, pointing desperately, tuk-tuk curtains flap as drivers gesticulate from the interior. Of course, the very fact that they are all so concerned, means that I have been seen. Job done. One policeman, somewhat more officious than the thousands I have passed on the roads, told me, as I entered Lalibela, that my light was lit. “Yes, I know! It’s so the idiot pedestrians SEE me! And it’s law in Europe.” (Well, some places it is). He informed me it is against the law to drive with lights on in Ethiopia, a rule I have studiously ignored for 3500 kilometres, except turning them off for about 300 yards entering Lalibela. I think you are only allowed to show lights in warning of obstacles ahead – or doubtless, if you are an important government official. At dusk, all over Africa, the first one to light his lights is a sissy! I believe drivers think that perhaps they are wasting fuel by being visible.
I’ve probably two more rides to get to the border. I could do it in one: the road’s good, but it’s beyond my self-imposed 200 kilometres, and I have a few days left on my visa. I’ll make it two shorter days.
It’s 8.00 now. I am tired from many miles of hard trail riding. My little Mosquito deals well with rugged roads. It is tall and light, and I can stand comfortably, transferring the weight to the front of the bike. I have big bars, courtesy of Rico and one of his old BMWs, and can easily grip the sides of the wide, comfortable single seat with the insides of my knees. Thus can I keep up a good speed as I bounce and bump, in a pother of dust, over these terrible roads. The Mosquito is under-powered, but a good, light bike for an old codger on African roads. I’m not unpleasantly weary tonight, ready for an early sleep and a reasonably short day tomorrow.
One TV screen in this outdoor bar shows CNN trivia whenever the pounding generator comes on; in the other corner a basketball game in which Boston plays Oklahoma. There’s an over-excited, breathless commentary in Amharic, by the same actor who dubs the football games, with many long expressions of excitement: “Oooooooooohhhhh!!!!”. This country is so proud never to have been colonised. Sorry Ethiopia, but it’s happening now. You are walking into this pernicious cultural greyness with the rest of the world.
One thing I will do before leaving Agere Maryam, is go back to the first buna stall in that basic hotel. It was the first, and the best buna of Ethiopia. Coffee will be the biggest regret I leave behind me. It really IS very special here at its origin.
DAY 56. TUESDAY FEBRUARY 5th 2019. YABELLO, ETHIOPIA
Determined to pace myself on this journey south, I stopped at 1.00. I knew from the ride north that there is nowhere to sleep after Yabello except a small hotel in the scruffy, ill-named blink-and-you-miss-it town of Mega. The choices here are more plentiful, but equally grim. There’s something I really dislike about provision for tourists in this country. We are seen as complete cash cows, to be ripped off if possible. I am talking here of the tourism business, not individual Ethiopians. In the one hotel that is favoured by tour groups in this backwater town, the management are grasping and rude, asking me US$44 (£36) – in dollars, which always makes my argumentative hackles rise – for a dingy room with a grim bathroom and worn furnishings and decor. I soon found a preferable place for less than £9! It has the same dingy decor, the same half-functioning bathroom, the drain smell that I now associate with Ethiopia, a better garden and friendlier staff. It’s a pity this country cannot respect its tourists more, since there’s a big drive to encourage tourism. They won’t do it by ripping us off… The receptionist was rude to me, on spotting me this evening, for not going back and cancelling the half-reservation I had made, but needing more money, I left to find a cash machine. Instead, I found several better alternative rooms (one of which was only £4.40 but I couldn’t face the bathroom!). “Sorry, but you were ripping me off for substandard accommodation, I didn’t see the need to return and tell you. I found better for a quarter your price!” The trouble is, many of the guided tourists just book these things on the horrid booking .com, think it’s cheap and have no idea what they are signing up for. Once paid, the hotel doesn’t much care what the customer thinks: there’ll be another dupe along soon.
The scenery got bigger and more expansive as I dropped towards the big deserts I have to cross in the next few days. Many people waved frantically and I pretended not to see just how many waves turned into outstretched palms. It’s a problem in the more uneducated parts of this country: the white man is perceived as being the bringer of aid. To make ourselves feel better, to assuage our own guilt at the imbalance of the economics of the world, we hand out money in one form or another – almost always entailed in some way that brings employment and commercial opportunities for the donor nation, of course, but to the rural peasant, they see white people handing things out, apparently for free. Of course, we are then seen as rich givers and there’s a sense of entitlement that builds up for the local people. White skin equals money or material handouts. Oddly enough, it’s much less prevalent in the old British African colonies than in the others. Happily, it will be less of a hassle in Kenya tomorrow. It’s something I really want to get away from. Every second hand here is stretched in supplication. Fortunately, the others are generally stretched in greeting.
Villages were frequent, although towns of any size are rare down here in lower, rural Ethiopia. The villages are mean affairs of basic manyattas, rounded homes of sticks and grass, many of them sadly draped in unsightly black plastic sheeting. There are children everywhere, a new Ethiopian born every twelve seconds. How can one get across the message that this poverty is so largely self-inflicted, and perhaps you wouldn’t need to beg constantly from the passing white man if you didn’t have five or more children, while having no job and no livelihood? It’s utterly unsustainable. These rural people may have a couple of cows, access to an increasingly small and infertile patch of dust, no education, and many children. Not surprising then that begging is seen as an option…
I ride in almost constant trepidation of mechanical breakdown, listening to my engine, watching that bolt fly round in the centre of my chain sprocket, waiting for the noises that presage disaster. When it happens, I don’t panic, but wonder how I will deal with the new problem. Riding along this morning, my engine died. ‘Now what..?’ I thought. A quick analysis suggested it wasn’t electrical. Maybe fuel? But there was plenty. What..? Then I saw that my jerrycan had slipped from its moorings on the left rear foot peg, held by elastics. On some speed bumps it had dropped down and pushed down the side stand. The side stand has an engine cut out switch that stops the engine if the stand is down while the bike’s in gear. If only all my mechanical problems can be so logically simple to solve!
Wandering along the road after a rest, I saw a large, very heavily laden BMW 1200 outside another cheap hotel. Daniel is Swiss, again a little older than the average traveller in much of Africa, and riding from Switzerland to South Africa. It’s been good to have a bit of company for a couple of hours. We may meet again in the next days, although with a machine with six times the power of mine, his pace will be somewhat different. But we are riding the same route for the next 1000 kilometres – there is no other.
How is it in a country in which one third apparently don’t eat even the minimum calories recommended, that almost every meal is of meat and injera? The keeping of so many cattle is denuding the environment even more. Growing vegetables would be so beneficial. But hardly a vegetable, beyond the long-suffering onion, the green and red chilli, and oily white cabbage, exists in this country.
DAY 57. WEDNESDAY FEBRUARY 6th 2019. MOYALE, KENYA
How did I ever ride the last two days’ roads in one day five weeks ago, on top, what’s more, of two long desert rides of 250 kilometres each? I’m not surprised I exhausted myself physically. Crossing a border is an emotionally stressful event too – adapting, learning, observing; lost in a new culture, a different language and even script, new currency, new ways. I was more stupid even than I thought. Today I rode just 200 kilometres in the hot sun; used to the culture and ways of the country – yet I am still weary now at 4.00, having reached familiar Kenya once again.
And, oh, the joy of a clean bathroom, one of the first in five weeks! Sanitation and plumbing in Ethiopia are as bad as I have found anywhere. For the first time, I can even flush paper down the pan, instead of depositing it in a nasty plastic bin in the corner of the uncleaned bathroom. Oh joy!
The time had come to leave Ethiopia. I felt my mood slipping, worn down by the constant evidence of self-inflicted poverty, of endless begging, useless men sitting drinking beer while their poor, abused, sexually mutilated women forever lug twenty litre canisters of water laboriously home, accompanied by girls as small as eight or ten, bent double, staggering under the weight of water for their useless men. The boys play table football and ping pong and never carry more than a herding stick or unused shovel as the bowed women and girls struggle by. The only difference between the donkeys and the women is that the donkeys carry two water containers at a time, while the women are probably berated for carrying only one. The men sit in the shade by the road, self-important and inexcusably lazy. Give women the power on this continent and things would change so fast the rest of the world wouldn’t keep up.
I’d become weary of lack of privacy, interruption and the assumed right to butt in because you don’t speak their language and they have six words of yours; I am sick of smelly bathrooms – another one ponged the night away in my room last night, and the acrid stench was the result of no more than lack of attention to sanitation and cleanliness. I was bored with the over-charging for everything whenever I got near to group tourists; of the invariable diet of meat – in a country on the verge of poverty, while meat is environmentally the most damaging, expensive commodity. “No vegetables available!” laughed a young man helping me to try to find a meatless breakfast. “Yes, that’s because you don’t grow any,” I retorted. There’s land and water, but instead the culture raises millions of cows, dust rising in vast clouds as they trample the dry land, completely stripped of vegetation. I was irritable about my inability to communicate, even in sign language; by lack of infrastructure – that was lacking because no one cares, not because it’s unaffordable; of no bloody petrol for weeks, filthy bathrooms, trillions of discarded plastic bottles; of seeing piles of firewood and charcoal for sale along my road, while as far as the horizon the stripped, barren land contains no tree higher than ten feet. There’s another mouth to feed, another’ baby to rear, every twelve seconds. When this landscape runs out of its last useful natural resource, they’ll move on and strip the next bit. The church does nothing, Islam less; gives no leadership on this disastrous population explosion, sitting complacently on their hands, counting more adherents, not admitting the problem, the insurmountable problem, the problem that will drag all of us into its pit and holocaust.
Yes, leaving was timely. But of course, I have had some delights and seen some wonders too. Life can’t always be reflecting on the gloom and disaster that Africa can be. I’ve met charming educated Ethiopians who didn’t beg and wheedle, but have been amongst the most kindly, generous people I have met on the continent; well informed, urbane, concerned – just ‘kind’ – there’s no word that describes them better. I’ve seen topographical wonders that were like lightning bolts: those moments of theatrical reveals of the Blue Nile Valley, the northern mountains from the high highlands, the ride up from Debre Tabor, the ride down to Woldiya, both over 3500 metres, higher than I ever rode before.
I met kind people like Biniyam, who helped when my Mosquito threw its sprocket; Eyob, who took me home for a coffee ceremony; Abdulrahman, who is still texting to find out how my cough fares: ‘How are you today.. how was ur wellness? I’m gonna miss u’; ‘I hope ur natural remedies was working faster.. Where are u today? When you live Ethiopia I hope u will meet me on email’. There was Daniel, and his mother Aster with whom I spent a terrific day in Bahar Dar, ending in that traditional music bar doing the shoulder dancing – or a pathetic parody of it at least. The charming Tedla Siyoum, managing director of the hotel chain who arranged the return of my passport and drank beer with Alice and I in his own restaurant amongst the flash wedding guests. There have been many, whose main wish was that I enjoy my time in their remarkable country.
And it IS remarkable, however jaundiced I feel right now about grim bathrooms and upturned hands of the uneducated majority. The culture of Ethiopia is as old and stable and mighty as any in Europe. I believe Ethiopia was writing before Europe; it certainly developed its religion and its extraordinary structures around the time we were building cathedrals. It’s a country rightly proud of thousands of years of independence – although that’s also excluded it from the contemporary ‘global village’ too. It’s a country with a fabulous history and myths and legends galore. It’s the home of the Queen of Sheba, the supposed home of the Ark of the Covenant, Moses’ tablets. It’s had intimate connections with the fount of Christianity since before most Europeans. It’s at a crossroads of the world’s two largest religions; had Jewish connections since they were new and modern; kings and emperors since time immemorial. It has its own tradition of art and painting; mysterious stele and is truly the ‘cradle of mankind’, for here were discovered the earliest evidence for our human species.
It’s the home of coffee and knows it. Without any doubt, it has the best coffee I ever tasted, and probably will ever taste.
And… it has the most beautiful women in Africa and hence arguably in my opinion, the world!
So I leave in some confusion. My body is certainly happy to be back in the – almost western by comparison – infrastructure of Kenya: clean bathrooms, comforts, vegetables, ease of communication, being able to pull up to the first pump in Kenya and fill up. No more dishcloth and meat and chilli pepper. No more intrusion. No more blank reactions to my gesticulated needs. No more begging.
But I’ll miss the intellectual stimulation of some of the culture. That doesn’t exist in Kenya. I’ll miss the kindness and courtesy, graciousness and gentleness, politeness and warmth of the educated Ethiopians, truly the gentlepeople of Africa.
Now I am back in Moyale, an unpretty place of small attraction, a border town with all the lack of depth and transitoriness that that implies. It’s a largely Moslem town, but by Ethiopian standards, well kept and calm. I found a big – clean! – hotel: the one I rejected five weeks ago as being too close to the giant new mosque (next door!) but selected today on the promise of the clean bathroom, even if I did get a 240 volt belt off the dangerous shower head – but this is East Africa and they’re all lethal! I’ve a decent room on the fourth floor – I always climb high, away from the bar and other guests slamming their doors. I’ve a small balcony looking over the town and catching the western rays of the setting sun, setting over the vast desert that I have to set out to begin to cross tomorrow.
I feel content to have faced my fear of the sheer scale of the country I just left; to have worked through my loss of confidence; to have seen 3758 kilometres (2350 miles) of it from the back of my little Mosquito, despite my initial fears; to have stories to tell of the small part I have seen. I know I chickened out of seeing so much more: the distant deserts, the Bale Mountains, Axum in the far north, many, many places that the country has to offer. It was just too large to contemplate on my 200ccs of ‘power’. My time was short and I got a flavour of the country. I left with just four days of my visa unexpired, so I couldn’t have gone much further anyway. But part of me feels a little guilty not to have challenged myself even more than I did! That’s the way I am…
I have back my original papers and logbook, that have been stored in filing cabinets at the border posts. It was all most efficient and done in 45 minutes. The border seems to have remained calm since the troubles shortly before I crossed on January 2nd. Many burned out shops and buildings on the Ethiopian side testify to the violence that still sometimes erupts in these out of the way borders, far from the seats of government, where the populous takes politics, envy and jealousies into their own hands. This is Africa – volatile, tribally partial, thoughtless and apt to fight before negotiating. It’s been at the back of my mind all the way south: how would I cope if the border trouble erupted again? There’s only this one viable crossing for me: the other one is remote, hundreds of miles of soft sand, gravel and extreme loneliness – and probably beyond me on my own… Still, that ‘what if’ didn’t happen – and if it had, I’d have had a story to tell as I found a way out of it. It always works that way!
Just remember those statistics at the end of my Ethiopian travels: the median age in that country is 17.9 years old; 64% of the nation is aged less than 25 years; less than 3% reaches my age; a new Ethiopian is born every 12 seconds; 9078 babies are born every day but only 1936 people die; basic literacy is 49% and there’s one doctor for every 40,000 people. It’s currently the 12th largest country in the world by population, and about 20th from the bottom of the poverty league table. And according to at least two of the informed opinions I gleaned, it has a racial bomb just waiting for the right conditions to detonate.
These are such depressing figures that they can’t help but temper my enthusiasm for the depth of culture and the kindliest of people, or for the delectable buna and the ravishingly good looking women…
Well, I got in and got out without mishap. I didn’t run into a donkey, horse, mule, sheep, goat, camel, dog, pedestrian, tuk-tuk or ditch. The Mosquito stayed rubber side down and apart from a long, spluttering chest infection – still hanging on a bit, but reducing day by day – I feel I opened my eyes a bit to my 23rd country in Africa: a completely unique, individual one at that.
Tonight I can’t even celebrate with a Tusker. This Moslem town is ‘dry’. Bah.
Just that big desert to cross now.
DAY 58. THURSDAY FEBRUARY 7th 2019. MARSABIT, KENYA
Mad dogs and Englishmen… But I had no choice, the desert must be crossed. 237 kilometres, a bit past my self-imposed limit, but again no choice. I’m back in Marsabit, a dire town where you have to search for a beer and feel guilty for even wanting one in this Islamic misery. Well, actually, I don’t really feel very guilty – maybe I feel I am expected to feel guilty, a different matter altogether!
Five and a half hours, four and three quarters of them in the saddle, the sun burning down, the air parched and harsh, the temperature I guess in the high 30s, my face drying mile by mile, my mind reduced to the mathematics of my journey: ‘24kms, one tenth gone… 61kms, a quarter gone, 81kms a third…’ and so on, watching the kilometre posts slowly, oh so slowly, count down my journey.
At Turbi, a one-camel town in the middle of nowhere about half way, with a view of nothing but dust and scrub, a few huts and manyattas, a ‘hoteli’ and a couple of meagre shops selling plastic shoes, out of date biscuits and candles, I stopped for reviving sweet, milky chai. Doubtless, I was the most exciting thing to happen all day, maybe all week, in Turbi, where I guarantee not much happens as the camels plod by and the rocks burn just a fraction more every day. Two mugs of chai from a battered Chinese flask, in a chipped mug, is living it up in Turbi.
But a couple of hundred human beings are confined in this empty place, a few shacks, the rounded, stick and grass-built manyattas covered in bits of lorry canvas, tablecloths, plastic sacks and scavenged fabrics – home. Whenever I stop in such places I pause to wonder about life. I cannot imagine being condemned to live in this hinterland of human existence for even a couple of days, let alone a lifetime, short though it may be. Doing nothing the whole day long – the women and donkeys bring the water the seven kilometres from the well, I wouldn’t even have that task to achieve. No intellectual stimulation; an unchanging view of rock and scrub; no ambitions; no achievement beyond survival. “It’s all they know,” is the usual, somewhat demeaning, explanation. Yes, but therefore life here is no different for the donkeys and camels, for it’s all THEY know too, survival until an early, overworked death; but we imbue the human condition with so much more… Surely life must be more than just existence? I can comprehend their lives no more than they can imagine mine: riding my motorbike through their lives, come and gone in a moment. Maybe that’s why the mosques are there, even in these crude habitations, to give a spurious meaning to life, a promise of something higher, more meaningful, a spiritual life beyond this grim existence. But I see all that as a lie: I have only THIS chance and I have to use it creatively – as I see it. Thank goodness I have no belief in reincarnation: I might be condemned to come back as a camel herder in the empty deserts of Turbi, my mobile phone, football league and the screeching mosque my only diversions…
The nearest doctor is at least 75 miles away, probably more – it’s more likely there’s a nurse maybe; the nearest hospital much more. Get an infection, you probably die. Childbirth is as dangerous – and common – as it was in the Middle Ages. There’s no old age pension, no unemployment benefit; the imam is probably the best educated person around, peddling advice 1400 years out of date and selling the ridiculous comfort that it’ll all be better when you’re dead! When you’re dead, you’re dead. There’s camel milk, some meat and imported maize meal for sustenance. There can’t be a vegetable out here: nothing grows in this dust and if it does, it’s eaten by the voracious goats and camels. It’s a miracle that the huge herds of camels, goats and sheep, that whip up soaring, swirling clouds of dust, find anything to live on.
No, philosophise how I will, I’ll never understand what makes that life bearable. ‘It’s all they know’, but I know more. I am SO privileged, have so many choices, so many opportunities, am so fortunate. I do well to remember that sometimes in our incredibly unequal world. Travelling in Africa is a humbling experience.
The wind rose in the afternoon, bone dry and hot – and inevitably, on my little Mosquito, a headwind. Dust devil whirlwinds rose red and high into the vast blue sky. The road swept across the hugeness, a smooth stripe in the tumbled rock, dust, struggling thorn trees and dry-as-dust grasses. The whirlwinds of dust and a few lithe, elegant gazelles are the only movement. Such delicacy and lightness of movement as these little gazelles leap away, impossibly light as the air. I’d love to touch one, their are so silkily sleek and shapely. Here and there enormous herds “of camels, haughty and despising, lollop the roadsides, heads aloof. A few ostriches flop about the rocks and dust, bustles a-flutter in disgust at the whirring piki-piki. Otherwise it’s all desiccated and lifeless, just rocks burning infinitesimally slowly in the searing sun.
As the dusty tornadoes rose into the endless blue sky, I hoped they’d miss me. They are filled with swirling grit and sandpaper my face if I happen to converge with one as it whips and spins across my road. I chuckled to remember the one that engulfed me as I rode past the municipal tip of a small South African town a few trips back, leaving me wobbling through a tower of twisting, gyrating plastic and paper, eggshells and soap wrappers.
The journey went on and on, the kilometre posts providing my only reward. Marsabit was slowly approaching. I knew where I’d stay; I was here some weeks ago and did a good deal with Saleem, manager of a clean hotel. As I’ve written before, going back in Africa is important. I was confident of a good welcome from Saleem, and another decent room – in fact, I have the same one.
If I sleep as well tonight as last, I’ll be content. I slept under just a sheet with the balcony door open to the night. It’s a bit cooler in Marsabit with its own microclimate caused by the localised mountain range on which it sits.
Since Addis Ababa, I have been saying to myself that ‘it’ll be sorted once I get to Marsabit’. You may remember that it was here that I left off my oil filler cap, and subsequently met Sam, acknowledged as the best mechanic in town. Before I rested – I knew that if I rested, it’d be the day done – I phoned Sam and told him I was coming right round to see him. He and his brother, Steve, have been mending motorbikes in Marsabit since 1992. Firm Christians (in a Moslem town) they moved here from the middle of Kenya. They’ve an oily, dusty yard on the edge of town, but they KNOW piki-piki maintenance. Sam actually owns a bike the same as mine – something of a rarity in Kenya. I rode right round there and the brothers immediately started to diagnose the small problems I have: the engine is burning oil a bit, the drive sprocket, the dirt in the fuel tank – a few things that need putting right. I’ve left the Mosquito in their care tonight (I didn’t want to have to deliver it early tomorrow!) and they’ll remove the head and check the valves, rings and so forth. No doubt, by the time I walk there tomorrow, my Mosquito will be in its component parts. Some of the problems, says Sam, will be caused by the bad fuel in Ethiopia. “We’ve seen it many times! The fuel in Ethiopia is very bad; a lot of paraffin mixed in, and dirt!” I have every confidence that these two brothers, guided by God in their deep belief, will do the very best they can to help me on the rest of my rugged journey. I am so fortunate to meet such decent, kind, friendly people on my African journeys.
And what a delight it is to be able to communicate with just about everyone, share a joke, an opinion, some news and views. I suppose that’s what I’ve loved about my African travels these past seven winters: I travel to meet people, find out what makes them the way they are, what they think, what they do, how they live. For all that I need language and communication. In so much of eastern, southern and west Africa, I have just that and can share my journeys with so many diverse, interesting people.