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 301. 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 in 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 off 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 home. 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, age 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
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 diid actually cut it short at two as darkness was beginning to gather and I have a very bad headlight still. 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 wiil 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!