Round The World by Bike: Northern Ethiopia to Addis Ababa (March-April 2002)
Northern Ethiopia to Addis Ababa
“Everybody must get stoned.”
– Bob Dylan
Say Ethiopia to me and I would have thought of Bob Geldof and speedy
runners. After two weeks in the country those thoughts are still prominent.
Cycling through Ethiopia involves a crowd of up to 40 children running
alongside you for a couple of kilometres after every village. At the same
time they keep up a relentless shout of “YOU! YOU! YOU! YOU! YOU!” and
“MONEY! MONEY! MONEY! GIVE ME MONEY!” Decades of foreign aid (epitomised by
Geldof’s impressive efforts) have produced a knee-jerk reaction in this
nation: if you are white you are rich, therefore give me money. As I pass by
they express their disappointment by hurling stones at me.
I am no longer a person, I am a mobile cash point. Something has gone
seriously wrong somewhere.
The change from Sudan is drastic. It is not only cultural and behavioural,
the dress of the people changes too. From flowing white galabeyahs and
colourful draped robes to ragged mohican-haired children with necklaces of
old keys, nuts, bolts, shells and whatever else they have found lying
around. The men wear very skimpy shorts and tattered t-shirts, usually
beneath a blanket gracefully wrapped over the shoulders. With a shortage of
public transport the roads are busy with people walking. Women walk shaded
beneath umbrellas, a strange sight. Men usually carry a stout staff across
their shoulders as they walk. Barefoot people and donkeys vastly outnumber
fume-spewing rattling vehicles. This is by far the poorest nation I have
Poverty and the issue of money hang constantly in the atmosphere. Larger
towns are busy with beggars suffering every variety of physical disability,
skin ailment, disfigurement, disease and blindness imaginable. Most could
easily be helped with basic medical treatment. There is a never-ending
circle of people around me pleading for money. There are a lot of issues I
am struggling to get my head round here. It is very, very difficult.
A man finds it very hard to believe that there are homeless people and
beggars in England. However, he absolutely refuses to believe me when I tell
him that many of them are white. Impossible, he declares.
Apart from the ‘give-me money’ consequences of foreign aid, the worst impact
seems to have been on the dress sense of the population. In each village are
large numbers of people sporting dreadful Titanic T-shirts emblazoned with
Leonardo di Caprio and his irritating “please punch here” smile.
As I greet people the tradition seems to be to bow your head at the same
time. My cheery greeting to a chap on a bicycle almost ends in disaster as
(rattling fast and brake-less down a steep rocky track) he bows low and
almost nose-ploughs into the gravel. I resolve to be more selective with my
salutations in future.
The roads are awful, the mountains are huge, and the kids are almost
unbearable. I am sick of this lonely, hard, exhausting, boring life. I
almost cannot go on. I sit in the dirt, head in hands just wishing that the
80 staring faces (I counted them) would please, please give me a metre of
space or a second of peace. Please go away. Beneath my sunglasses the tears
flow again. The crowd stands and stares. I feel very alone.
I spend the night with a kind teacher. His English is excellent and he tells
me of his work. He teaches Grades 1 to 4, has 150 students in each class
with no textbooks or blackboard. The students in each class range in age
between 8 and 30 years old (in the UK, Grade One kids are 4 or 5 years old).
Many walk 20km to school every day. It makes me wonder what on earth I
thought was hard about my PGCE teacher-training course last year! Oh yes,
the government has not paid his $90 monthly salary for the past three months
The long, hard slog pays off and I make it to Gondar in time to meet my
friend, Rob. It has been a hellish seven days, but Gondar is high in the
mountains, cool and green. I am ill for the first time on the journey,
lying in my bed-bug ridden bed, vomiting into a small plastic bowl and
crossing my legs and fingers: for some unknown reason the stinking pit
referred to as a ‘toilet’ is locked until dawn. I hope I can wait that long,
the plastic bowl is already worryingly full…
Rob arrives, fresh faced from England and in search of two weeks of adventure.
He has brought a new bike for me to replace the trashed Rita, bags of sweets and a splendid pair of Union
Jack shorts! It is great to see him again: it was he who introduced me to
many of the ridiculous concepts of Wildman behaviour that are helping to
make this journey so ludicrous!
Being with Rob is a holiday for me: I even allow myself a Pepsi every few
days! I eat tuna for the third time since New Year! I could get used to a
lifestyle of such decadence! In search of a quiet evening beer we enter the
innocuous sounding ‘Bingo Club Bar’. A quick about turn at the sight of a
collection of bored looking prostitutes sitting around in this unusually
named brothel. The old bingo call of ‘Two Fat Ladies’ could have very
serious consequences here!
In Ethiopia it is still 1994 (I’d better leave soon or I’ll have to do my
A-Levels again next year) and their calendar is very different to ours. In a
rare moment of clarity Rob realises that the song was right: they didn’t
know that it was Christmas time at all. Their Christmas is in January!
I am in raptures as we cycle: Ethiopia is GREEN! There are trees and grass
and all the colours and smells and sounds that go with the novelty of
vegetation. Lush pastures and herds of cattle. It has been a long ride
through the desert lands to get here.
Behind the obnoxious, rude, greedy, stone-throwing children is a beautiful,
lush nation. There is no need to go hungry here. Management and education
could make huge differences.
Abandoned tanks litter the roadside, testimony to a hasty military advance
on Addis Ababa during the recent civil war.
Lalibela is Ethiopia’s most remarkable sight. However, it is extremely remote
and notoriously difficult to reach. Samuel Johnson wrote of the Giant’s
Causeway, “…worth seeing, but not worth going to see”. I was concerned the
same would be true for Lalibela. But whether carved by angels or by men, it
is hard to imagine the devotion required to hew 13 entire churches out of
solid rock and we decided we must make the journey. The churches are still
in use today and are a heady blend of passionate chanting and humming,
ringing bells, sweet clouds of incense and fervent praying by crowds of
devout white-robed worshippers. The atmosphere, combined with the exciting
mountain journey on the roofs of an assortment of different vehicles means
that Lalibela was certainly worth seeing and worth going to see as well.
Travel bores are a uniquely dull breed, but please forgive me this next
sentence on the relative pleasures of different rock-hewn spectacles: I
simply could not resist it…. For natural scenic splendour give me
Cappadoccia in Turkey, for sheer perfection of construction it has to be
Petra in Jordan and if you are after spiritual atmosphere then Ethiopia’s
Lalibela comes out on top. Sorry.
We tackle the Blue Nile gorge: 1400 metres deep. The road is too bad and too
steep to cycle up so we push the heavy bikes uphill for almost six hours. We
set ourselves a ludicrous challenge of getting from Bahir Dah to Addis Ababa
in just four days so nightfall sees us still plodding uphill in the dark. A few
hours sleep by the roadside and we are back on the road by 5am, slogging
upwards in the moonlight. It is like being trapped in one of those
horrifying Escher drawings, trudging eternally uphill. But the end arrives
eventually, a landmark point for me – I have outrun the Blue Nile river now,
all the way from Cairo.
We camp after dark: it is the only way to avoid a ring of staring people
surrounding you all evening. Suddenly headlights manoeuvre to illuminate our
tent…. I hear the unpleasant sound of a Kalashnikov rifle being cocked….
Silhouetted figures cross the field towards us….
Rob urges me to “play the dumb foreigner…. quick, start chopping some
onions! Offer them an avocado!” The curious policemen are friendly enough,
think we are both are very weird and leave us alone to enjoy our dinner and
a spectacular, eerie electrical storm.
Finally we reach Addis Ababa. We celebrate in a great bar where you have to
order beers two at a time! The ride through the north of Ethiopia has been
spectacular, irritating, exhausting, beautiful and confusing. I have been
forced to challenge many of my opinions about poverty, begging, the role of
foreign aid, the purpose and justification of my journey, the influence of
local culture on the behaviour of individuals and my attitudes towards other
Ethiopia has asked a lot of questions of me and provided very few
answers. It has been one of the toughest legs of my journey so far, but
absolutely fascinating. I have a lot of things to get my head round as I
pedal on towards Kenya and the Southern Hemisphere.
And to celebrate having ticked off the length of the Blue Nile, here’s James Leigh Hunt…
It flows through old hushed Egypt and its sands,
Like some grave mighty thought threading a dream,
And times and things, as in that vision, seem
Keeping along it their eternal sands,-
Caves, pillars, pyramids, the shepherd bands
That roamed through the young world, the glory extreme
Of high Sesostris, and that southern beam,
The laughing queen that caught the world’s great hands.
Then comes a mightier silence, stern and strong,
As of a world left empty of its throng,
And the void weighs on us; and then we wake,
And hear the fruitful stream lapsing along
Twixt villages, and think how we shall take
Our own calm journey on for human sake.
Funny, he doesn’t mention the hordes of irritating people trying to sell you rides on their feluccas…