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Khartoum to Ethiopia
We had a long day to get to Khartoum, 350 miles of straight, featureless (and petrol free) black top to the capital. We woke early, to get on the road before sun got too fierce. We filled our petrol tank, and every water bottle that we had with us, and stored them on Donkey's roof. If it hadn't been for the kind presence of A and A, it would have been a nightmare, strapping that many bottles of petrol, plus water to Harri.
There is very little to report on the road. We took it in fifty kilometre stretches, pulling in for a stretch and a drink after each section, breaking it down into nice bitesize chunks to digest easily. The riding was so easy, so boring, stick into top gear and switch the brain into neutral. I managed to mentally play my entire Meatloaf back catalogue, watch Rocky Horror start to finish, and recite all the poetry in my head by the time we rested for dinner. We had made it half way before midday, but the wind started to pick up, reducing our speed to forty much of the remaining way. For the first time, we started to feel like a real burden, as Donkey slowed to allow us to slipstream behind, but soon enough we made it into Khartoum. All we had to do was find a hotel and take our first shower in nearly a week. One very sweaty, dusty week.
Only it's never that easy is it? Khartoum apparently has a severe lack of mid priced hotels. You either stay in a palace for $200, or in an overpriced slum for not much less. Apparently it is the UN's doing, wherever they go, they push prices up. Our first port of call was the Blue Nile Sailing Club, but at fifteen dollars to pitch a tent in their car park, it was quite easy to turn down. The absolutely blasted guy wandering around hassling us only helped our decision. Apparently ‘us’ the ‘Jews’ are just like ‘them,’ ‘the blacks,’ and we need to ‘resist the West, especially America.’ It was far too much like hard work to point out the numerous errors in his plans for world well-being, so much easier to agree with how famously anti-America Israel is, how Jewish we were, and how Western we weren’t! He was having a solo party, watching UK premier league repeats on Sky TV, working at a campsite that only accepted US dollars - in between lengthy and confused dialogues about the evils of the West. It’s something I have seen so many times in the Middle East, people who want the trappings of the West, but are still opposed to them.
Three hours of searching led us to a hotel called 'Hotel Dubai,' which although not cheap, at around 35 quid, had everything we had desired. Warm water, a comfortable bed, air conditioning, it ticked all the boxes.
After showering and resting for a few hours, we met for dinner at one of the local cafes, and over tasty and silly cheap chicken, we were each all relieved to find that it was normal for the water to run brown for the first five minutes in the shower. After the pair of us had showered in ours, it looked as if we had emptied half of Sudan into the shower tray. As we ate the chicken, barbequed to perfection and served with bread and beans, a dust storm kicked up from nowhere, and the sky turned dark. In minutes the innocent blue turned angry slate grey, with gold and silver cloud tips looking ominously heavy over the city. I've never seen Han look so happy - it was going to rain - she had been waiting for this moment for nearly three months. Every day I have heard 'when's it going to rain?' Finally it was going to. The dust storm abated as quickly as it started, and the clouds suddenly emptied themselves in a biblical deluge. The neon signs of the dirty high-rise buildings glowed bright against the bruised sky, and the muddy streets turned to rivers before us. Taxis bogged down and pedestrians ran for cover on the sidewalks as lighting scribbled bright chalky streaks across the blackboard clouds. We hid out in the cafe until the rain calmed itself, and then walked the fast flowing streets, enjoying the feeling of rain on our bodies and the smells and sights of a new city.
We all slept like babes, and woke to a fantastic breakfast, of good cheese, sausages, real bread and real coffee. Andrew and Angela left to travel North for some pyramids they had been recommended, but Han and I decided to wait around to get more money, and more lazy times.
There are no ATMs that work with foreign cards in Khartoum, so we had to get money transferred via Western Union. That gave us an excuse to wait another day in the comfort of our hotel, and the next day we were provided with another. Han's insulin had been stored in Donkey's fridge, which had iced up. Insulin is apparently less resistant to cold than heat. Three months of boiling it in our bags hadn't reduced its effectiveness, but two nights of freezing had killed it stone dead. We had a day of looking for insulin in Khartoum, considering the possibility that we might have to curtail our trip and fly home, before finally managing to find a similar insulin to Han's normal in one backstreet pharmacy. Then we had another day, just because we wanted to. I got addicted to Jericho, and we watched far too many cheap films, and far too much American drama for any non-lobotomised person. We eventually managed to leave on our fifth day, empty of excuses, and ready to move on. Khartoum is a great city, but there is very little to stay for. There is little in the way of nightlife, and eating out is restricted. The street food is among the best we have seen, but real restaurants are few and far between. The highlight of Han's week was finding a cafe that did 'real' cake, and a pizzeria that did some of the most delicious pizzas we had ever tried. It did mean a long trip across town, taking our lives in our hands each time.
The streets of Khartoum are not as busy or dangerous as many African roads, but the standard of driving is some of the worst, and the roads themselves are terrible. Rutted mud tracks, broken concrete, open drains, no lights, no signs, no rules, no rights for a little bike with very little might. Riding a bike also leaves you vulnerable to beggars. We began to dread crossing one particular junction, with lights that never seemed to be green. Each time we approached it, we got the same little demons hassling us. The first time, three little girls came up to us, touching and pawing, asking for money. When we refused, they got more insistent, attempting to wrench my hand off of the clutch, or kick me out of gear, one of them started to punch Han in the boob, while her friend pinched her leg. Finally one of them started to spit, before locals chased them off, apologising profusely. In fact each time they hassled us, locals saved us, and could never be more apologetic, always wanting to check that it hadn't soured our opinion of their country.
We waved it all goodbye on that fifth day, and set off for the border.
It took two whole days of riding to reach the Ethiopian border, with very little of note on the road. We stayed in Wad Maddanni for our first night, and Gedaref for the second. While sleeping in Wad Maddanni, we were woken by another tremendous storm, more violent than anything I have ever experienced. In the dark night, the monstrous palm trees bent like gnarled old men under the deluge, the pebble sized raindrops hammered on the window, and the thunder rattled the frames. Lightening lit up the world like a thousand camera flashes every few seconds, throwing the view from our balcony into sharp negative, and burning retinal memories of the garden into our brains. The air was so charged, that every movement beneath our cotton sheet produced static crackles and bright firefly trails of electricity. We fell asleep listening to the storm beating itself out, and woke to a drowned world. At least it meant that day riding was the first for several months where we didn’t continuously choke on dust all day.
Reaching Gedaref, all we had to do was cross the border, and we would be into our tenth country of the trip. We decided to leave the actual crossing until the morning, rather than rush the formalities and end up riding in the dark through a new country. Ethiopia sat waiting one day away. What would it hold? I was born in 1985, the year of Band Aid, I grew up in the 90's, I remember the images from the wars of that decade, and the subsequent hunger. All I know of the country is famine and war, death and destitution, would the country defy my expectations of desolation, disease and destruction? We would find out tomorrow. First we would be receiving another one of our first lessons in the effect of aid and capitalism on third world economies.
The town itself is not much to write home about, a collection of typically ramshackle African huts, intermingled with typically blocky Arab buildings, in the typically Sudanese blend. The dust streets with their open sewer systems had been turned into sticky stinking mud by the previous nights’ storms, and our bike found itself outnumbered and pushed into the gutter time and time again by NGO Landcruisers. The town is famous for its market and its hospitable people, the name of the town is even a reference to the busy souq; ‘Gedaref’ is an anglicised version of the ancient Arabic, meaning (in layman’s terms) ‘if you’ve finished selling, sling your hook.’I couldn’t help but wonder whether or not the paragons of virtue in their emblazoned four by fours ever thought about heeding the ironic moniker. They were the most noticeable feature of the town, with their walled and wired compounds, and their ‘we made the roads so we own them’ philosophy towards driving. Their presence would continue to frustrate us throughout Africa, but at this point it was a novel frustration. We would come to see them as ineffectual, arrogant, misguided and self propagating, but by Gedaref, our biggest bugbear was that they are some of the worst drivers on the roads – always the fastest, always the least considerate and always the last to offer help to anyone. The actual market seemed to us no better nor worse than any other Arab market, only memorable for the collection of truly repulsive characters who made our acquaintance.
The first hotel we were recommended was the ‘Amir,’ which roughly translated, means prince, or is an honorific to address someone in high office, but translated into Gedarefian, it means a large, decrepit and dirty hotel. The manager was busying himself cleaning his nails with a broken drawing pin when I entered the echoing reception, and didn’t see my intrusion as a reason to interrupt his task. ‘Salaam Alaykum,’ I coughed twice, before Hannah came in with her jacket off, and he jumped up so quickly that he lost his drawing pin. Even though we were now in the Christian south, Hannah was still dressing conservatively, and her neckline was perfectly demure, practically up to her chin, but that didn’t dampen his interest. With his attention grabbed, I thought we could get some kind of service, but he still refused to speak to me, preferring instead to speak to Hannah’s chest, which doesn’t speak, or understand much Arabic. His Koran laid open and well thumbed on the desk didn’t have any kind of restraining effect on him, and his terrible manners didn’t even bother to try and hide his unveiled stares. At least with Han in the hotel, we had his undivided patronage, that’s the teamwork we’re perfecting, playing to our individual strengths.
He informed us that the hotel was a shocking $65, and took us all the way through the empty hotel to the top floor to show us the room. $65! That’s $65 for a grubby room, with sheets that had been on the beds since the English left in 1956, a non flushing toilet, and a broken window. I thought that maybe one concession towards justifying the price had been left on the pillow, a pair of little chocolates, like in a Mayfair hotel, but as I looked over, the ‘chocolates’ scuttled away in a flurry of legs and feelers.
All the way back to the reception, I tried to bargain with him, feeling that we had the advantage, as there seemed to be no one else in the hotel, but to no avail. In between slipping on steps and walking into walls (it’s hard to walk in a straight line when you are six foot and trying to walk with your face actually in a five foot lady’s cleavage,) he told me in no uncertain terms that no concessions would be made for foreigners. ‘Why do you want cheaper? Everyone else pays the same price without these complaints. You are American, why not just pay the price?’
That’s when the penny dropped. Nobody else complained because nobody else paid from their own pockets. The rest of the guests passing through Gedaref were all on stipends for their accommodation, the rooms paid for by kind grannies and bleeding hearts back home, pledging their pensions and pay packets after telethons and awareness raising concerts. The drivers of the Landcruisers, dropping in to build roads and wells, and jetting out feeling good after their humanitarian holidays, they all needed somewhere to stay, and why should they haggle over prices when someone else picks up the bill? Who can blame the hotel owner for ramping up the prices and making the most of Sudan’s problems? We were white and Western, therefore exactly the same as the people who were making him rich, so why should we have any discount made for us? Economics in action.
After a few minutes of deliberation, and several more attempts to barter, we gave up and left, thinking we would find somewhere else to stay. The only notable success was the rare encounter of finding an Arab unwilling to barter. We rode through the children playing in the sewerage caked road and into the centre of the bustling market area, where we had been told there were more hotels. The first two were completely empty when we asked for rooms in Arabic, and bargain basement priced, but quickly became full when our passports revealed we were English. The third was in a particularly busy area, full of hawkers and predators. I made to enter the building, leaving Han with the bike, but looked over my shoulder and saw her about to be engulfed by a group of unsavoury looking chancers. Despite the obvious handicaps of being female, and not understanding Sudanese, I thought it best if she went into the relative safety of the hotel, and I stayed with the bike.
I lit a cigarette while simultaneously fending off over-inquisitive hands from our luggage. I greeted several of the closest, but only received wary animal stares in return. For the first time in Sudan, I didn’t feel very welcome, and actually felt that if I did turn a blind eye, we would lose baggage, if not the whole bike. Most of the crowd were young men, and most of them were completely sloshed. ‘Give my money,’ one of them shouted at me from two foot away, close enough to make me back out of his spittle range. I replied in Arabic that I couldn’t, and the crowd looked at me as if I had done something very, very wrong, and very, very rude. Some of them dispersed, seeing that I wasn’t an easy enough target, but the spitting man stayed there, swaying and staring at me. He was truly disgusting to look at, and either completely mad, or completely pissed. He smoked a foul smelling roll up, which had burned down far enough to scorch his lips, which he hadn’t noticed, and which, judging by their burned and chipped state, was something that quite regularly happened. His ragged shorts were held up with a Playstation controller knotted around his waist, and though I recognise that there is no accounting for taste, I thought it an odd choice for a beggar. He wore a dirty waistcoat, open at the chest to reveal a newspaper article stuck to his skin with sellotape, through which some kind of bodily fluid was seeping. His legs also had sores weeping a similar coloured fluid from them. I believe they were Sickle cell sores, and I have no idea whether these were the cause of his awesome hum, or merely contributors, but either way he was an assault on the nostrils.
He asked for a cigarette, more politely now that he was using his own language, and surprised by the switch of manners, I gave him one. Partly because I felt bad for his poor luck in life, and partly because I wanted to know more about him. He also found himself the proud recipient of my back up lighter, which I gave to him partly because I felt bad for his poor luck in life, partly because I wasn’t really sure I wanted to use it after him.
The first question I had to ask was why he was wearing the computer accessory as fashion accessory, to which he gave me a conspiratorial wink, and the wonderfully mental answer, ‘have you seen anyone else wearing one?’ I was forced to admit that I hadn’t, leaving him to conclude the conversation with a proud, ‘exactly,’ in turn leaving me to conclude that he was at least as mad as he looked. The sartorially switched on soak then answered my next question without being asked it. ‘Jarah, biskeen.’ My Sudanese was still lacking, and I didn’t understand until he pointed at the soggy news clipping on his chest. Then I understood, ‘wounded, with a knife.’ He had been stabbed in the chest, yet his dressing was no more than paper and sellotape. He continued to tell me how, but I couldn’t fully understand his slurring and his dialect, the only thing I definitely know is that it revolved around a drunken argument, which I could have probably guessed without asking.
At this point of the conversation Hannah came out, with the bad news that this hotel was ‘full’ too. There was only one option left to us, the $65 Amir, which obviously was where foreigners were expected to stay in the town. We would have to bite the bullet, or try and cross the border before dark, which was swiftly approaching. I had heard bad things about the road South of the border, and didn’t want to tackle potholes, thick mud, potential bandits and moron cows without daylight as my ally. I said goodbye to the unlucky fashionista, and slipped him a couple of pounds as we left. I told him to buy some proper dressings, but I don’t kid myself for a second that is where the money went. Normally I wouldn’t even consider giving money, but his complete insanity and abject poverty touched me.
Back at the Amir the manager didn’t make any more effort to tear his eyes from Hannah’s lady bumps than he had before, but didn’t make us any more concessions than before either. We paid up and retired to our luxury suite. We dumped our baggage, and realised how hungry we were, it was now gone six, and we hadn’t eaten since breakfast. Hannah was tired, and of negligible value to bring out anyway, as she would simply attract more of the wrong kind of attention than necessary. The meagre collection of shops down to the market were lacking severely in foodstuffs, so I walked down to the market again.
The sun had fully disappeared by this time, and just negotiating the streets in the pitch black lightless night was difficult enough, the open manholes and rubbish ditches only added to the fun and games. How many people must fall into holes at night and end up buried to their necks in shit and rubbish in African cities? Maybe it is just dumb Westerners who struggle? The ghostly white robes gliding up and down the street didn’t seem to have a problem. It was simply life as normal for the jet black faces going about their night time business unseen in the night, invisible beneath their white skull caps floating disembodied above their robes. The market bustled in the relative cool of the night time air, hawkers trading, maqhas full to bursting with elderly smokers sipping at the sickly sweet brews, illegal bars topping up the daytime drunks, feral dogs and cats chasing rats in the gutters, chased themselves by equally as feral children. The scene couldn’t have changed much in a thousand years, still wrapped in the same smells, the shisha smoke, the acrid burnt coffee, the stenches of vomit, of impromptu streetside piss stops and unwashed bodies, the all pervading dry tang of dust and mud and heat in the air. The same sounds: the musical muezzins, the steady market patter of born barterers, the mournful howling of lonely dogs and the chatter of children. The constant buzz of two stroke scooters and the ringing of mobiles glowing in dark corners, the only aural anomalies to bring the listener back to the year 2009.
I lingered and soaked up the atmosphere before deciding to buy some bread and oranges. Purchases complete, fat oranges for a song, and fresh baked bread for pennies, I walked back to the hotel. On the journey back, I noticed a huddle of small stalls that had been invisible from the opposite direction, and decided to check out what they offered. The three stalls were all centred around one huge pan, so caked in soot and grease it was probably twice the size it once was, over the top of a coal fired burner. Each stall took it in turns to cook their produce, all of which was completely alien to me. Questions didn’t get me very far either, as none of the traders spoke much Arabic, and I spoke less of whatever one of the 500 odd languages present in Sudan they were speaking. I came to the conclusion that one was selling ‘meat,’ the second was selling ‘meat,’ and the third was selling ‘chicken.’ Not being able to ascertain exactly what ‘meat’ was, I plumped for a bag of chicken, which came looking like popcorn chicken, hot and fried in ancient oil, with a coating of sticky breadcrumbs. That would be nice surprise for Hannah, still sleeping at the hotel.
The manager didn’t look up from his Koran as I walked into the hotel, after all, I’m lacking in the breast department. I woke Hannah, and we sat down for our supper. I took my surprise out of the paper bag, and laid it on the bed like a conquering hero bringing his spoils back for his maiden. Her face animated from its sleepy state and she popped one into her mouth. And then spat it straight back out.
Technically, I hadn’t been led astray, my purchase was from a chicken. I tried to bite into one, and had the same response as Hannah. What looked like little juicy popcorn nuggets of flesh, were in fact, the knobs of gristle from the end of the leg. They were practically inedible, I tried to carry on, as if it was exactly what I had meant to buy, but failed, it was just too unappealing to chew on the gristle and sinew; they went straight into the bin. I would have given them away, but didn’t feel obliged to show the manager any charity, and we were still the sole guests as far as we were aware.
We woke the following morning after a night of surprisingly good sleep, and I immediately regretted leaving the chicken in the bin. It had filled the whole room with a gagging stench, a sweet, sickly, almost rotting flesh stink. I think we should be thankful we didn’t eat more, or we could have been forced to sit several days more in the overpriced hovel. We packed and left, on to Ethiopia.
next bit of diary
We thought getting to the border by midday would give us sufficient time to cross it and reach Gondar, north of Lake Tana. We still didn’t have a map, but the name ‘Gondar,’ stuck in my head as an aim for the day, if only because I though tthere might be an outside chance of seeing some hobbits (surely Tolkien must have taken some inspiration from the town for his fictional Gondor?) It’s remote, it’s an enigmatic cypher and a historical mine, it’s wild, almost in the same category as Timbuktu for its almost legendary numinous qualities, its mysterium fascinans; in short, it has all the required ingredients for perfect fantasy.
We thought it would give us sufficient time. We must have also thought we were somewhere other than Africa. Thinking is a luxury in Africa; doing is all that counts.
After an hour cruising through steadily more lush and verdant greenery, we entered a decrepit looking town. The tarmac abruptly disappeared and the ‘road’ became a swamp. Ethiopia is mentioned in Genesis, indeed it was one of the first countries to adopt Christianity, so it is only fitting that its gateway had seen some truly biblical rains, the entire breadth of the 20 metre wide road was churned up and waterlogged, looking more like a snapshot of the Somme than central Africa. Either side of the track were motley huddles of mud splattered huts, around which huddled even more motley and even more mud splattered Sudanese hawkers, beggars and soldiers. The vitality of the Sudanese people that we had seen so much of in the North was sadly lacking here. Where in the North faces beamed like summer days, here they were overcast and sullen, where in the North people were lively and happy, here they seemed like walking corpses, shuffling and morose. Where in the North men carried staffs and women skinny livestock, here the men carried rusty rifles and the women pitiful bundles of belongings. It had to be the border town we had reached, much the same as any other African border town, different only in their languages and location; all the same in their destitution and squalor.
It was indeed the border town of Galabat, the crossing point to the Ethiopian village of Metema. The two villages, really just one sprawl with two different names, merge into each other in an almost indistinguishable and undefined mess. So ill defined in fact, that we had ridden into Metema and Ethiopia itself, without conducting any of the Sudanese exit formalities. We were duly stopped, and pointed back up the way we had came, to search for the small and dirty customs hut, amongst the mass of other small and dirty huts.
We rode back up the road, slowly so as not to miss the customs for a second time. I was concentrating on keeping the bike upright in the mire, while also trying to spot our target, when Hannah tapped me, ‘stop, there’s a guy who wants to help us.’ I saw whom she was talking about, the young man running and skidding through the mud towards us, and replied to her in a less than helpful manner. ‘Of course he does dear, if you cross his palm with some skanky paper.’ Any argument was academic by this point, as he had reached us, and was standing in front of the bike. ‘Customs. You,’ he panted, and pointed out the non-descript shack twenty metres to our right. We would have rode straight past it if he hadn’t stopped us. There was no sign, in either English or Arabic, to indicate its function, nothing to distinguish it from any other half there building in the lamentable line of half there buildings. Sometimes I think that African border posts are designed to keep people like our new friend in business. There was no way you could know where to go without being told, and being told costs money.
He followed us the twenty metres to the building, and I am willing to bet that he wished he didn’t. The mud was so thick and churned up, that as we careered off the ‘road,’ down the berm and across the mini swamp to the door, he was covered in the shit and slime kicked up by our hopelessly spinning back wheel. I felt a twinge of guilt, until I remembered that the only reason he followed was to attempt to extort money from me. We slipped and slid half sideways, coming to an ungraceful halt by the wall. Getting down had been interesting, but we had made it, getting back up would be a thoroughly different prospect. The ground was obviously not going to support our centre stand, so I leant the bike up the rough breezeblocks, and left Hannah looking after it while I took our documents inside.
Our new friend followed me in, and stood in silence next to me. The customs were suspiciously easy. No queue, no hassle, no corruption. The bored NCO, alone behind a glass screen, stamped my carnet while chatting amicably about nothing. There was some small amount of confusion, as to why my passport said ‘Great Britain,’ but my carnet said ‘England,’ so he received an impromptu lesson in European geography. It turned out he thought England was a part of America. He flicked back through his ledger, to show me evidence of a man from ‘New England, USA,’ which was the source of his confusion. He thanked me for coming to Sudan, and congratulated me on not being American, ‘shukran, la ahib al amrikieen, kulhum yuhood, wa la aindhum ai ihtiraam,’ ‘Thanks, I don’t like Americans, all Jews, and they have no respect.’ I merely nodded and said my goodbyes.
My friendly shadow had gone, so I asked Hannah if she had seen him. ‘Yeah, he came out a minute ago, and told his friends there was no point, cause you were speaking Arabic.’ What a result, half the customs down, and now no fixer to shrug off. It was all going too well, so I set off to get our passport stamps at the building the NCO had cheerily directed me to visit. The building was less than fifty metres down the track, but the mud sucking and slipping under my sandals made it feel like five hundred. Each step was a soul-sapping struggle to extricate my sole from the mire. I had almost reached the passport control, when my left sandal capitulated. The thong just gave up and snapped, making the already difficult task of walking twice as awkward again. I knew it had all been going too well.
I flopped my way into the building, all flip gone from my stride. Another friendly official dealt with my paperwork, stamped our passports out, and within five minutes, we were legally ready to leave the country. His English was bad, and his Arabic almost incomprehensible to my ears, but we muddled through. He informed me that he wasn’t the regular official, but the officer who should have been at the desk was AWOL. Apparently he went over to the Ethiopian side to enjoy the drink and women, and hadn’t been seen for three days. I had never thought about it until he said this, but I suppose the close presence of a country with liberal views to such un-Islamic pursuits is rather attractive to the border staff. It isn’t surprising that they skip over the border to enjoy themselves. What is surprising is that even though the regular official was away, they had someone in to replace him. How very un-African. After the convoluted mess of Egyptian bureaucracy it was a breath of fresh air.
Struggling to return to the bike, the predators around spotted me. I felt like a wounded wildebeest, as three touts honed in on me, limping back to the bike as fast as I could with my broken hoof. I took the stricken shoe off, and walked with one bare foot, as they babbled and implored me to give them money for their services rendered. I refused, on the (in my opinion) pretty fair basis that I hadn’t actually received any of their services. They didn’t leave even when I got back to the bike, they just watched in amusement as the strange foreigner proceeded to use duck tape to strap his sandal on, before tying it tightly to his foot with a length of paracord. This action either confused them so much that they stopped hassling me for money, or convinced them that I was too completely mad or destitute to be tapped for cash. They shuffled off, with goodbyes and offers to change money if we needed it.
Rather than tackle the slope back to the road two-up, I left Han to walk up the berm while I attempted to ride the bike up. Just getting the bike out of the hole it had started to sink into was a task in itself. I swear that if customs had taken an hour longer, the bog would have swallowed the bike entire. Rocking it back and forth, and wheelspinning madly, I shot out of the quagmire, side to side sliding, shooting up the slope and skidding across the marginally better road surface like a penguin launching onto land. I then had further reason to feel guilty, looking back I saw Han, practically knee deep in mud with her little pinhead feet stuck deep, holding her sandals in her hands and covered from head to toe with mud from my flailing tyre. She looked so helpless and lost, that two of the touts ran back to pull her free and half carry her over to me. We thanked them, and decided to change money with the friendliest looking one, who ended up giving us a better than average rate. Generally we found in Africa, that although the black market is more challenging, the rates to be found are way better than anything the banks offer.
We crossed the border for the second time, this time legally. Our new friends crossed with us, giving cheery salutations to the guards on their way through. The Ethiopian set up was simple and easy to follow, only two huts, and directly adjacent to each other. Again, I left Hannah and disappeared to fill forms in. The clean and modern looking building that I had assumed was customs was in fact empty. An old man leaning up the wall smoking pointed me around the back. He informed me that the building had indeed been built for the purpose, but the official was still working out of the old one. I thanked him, and slip slopped my way through the weeds and chicken tracks, to a building with the appearance of an old farm shed. I knocked on the doorless wooden frame, and poked my head inside. A bookish looking man, with thick taped together glasses and a bobbled pullover looked up from his ledger to invite me to sit down. His gaze was friendly, but caveated with a tinge of disgust for my appearance, that made me wonder for a second if I had soiled myself.
He sat and measured me for a second, before stuffing his hand down his jumper and rummaging around. He withdrew a stubby pencil from his shirt pocket, and proceeded to examine it minutely. He was obviously dissatisfied with what he saw, as he took a knife from his desk and began to whittle it down with intricate care, as if working on a fine sculpture. When he was satisfied that the pencil was sharp as a scimitar, he then returned to his ledger, crossing, dotting, lining and scripting with studied and deliberate strikes of his treasured hb.
While watching his obsessive behaviour was temporarily amusing, I began to feel slightly awkward, sat in silence while he assiduously scribbled. In his sparse, but spotless, office, I looked at the mud caked remains of my sandals, the oil splattered tatters of my trousers, and the fly spattered and salt stained leather of my jacket, all very incongruous against the swept and dusted cleanliness of his sanctuary. I almost couldn’t fault him for the way he had first looked at me.
While the Englishman inside me squirmed at my appearance and the uncomfortable silence, I took in my surroundings. Although from the outside, the building had resembled a farm shed, something only enhanced by the clucking chickens that still strutted at the door, inside it was a perfect haven for a comically serious third world bureaucrat. There were two desks in the room, old and worn, but dust free and tidy, a calendar on the wall, only two years out of date, a computer monitor only lacking a hard drive and a mouse, an ancient military map of Ethiopia and Eritrea, a stack of well thumbed ledgers, an empty plastic desk tidy, a Koran, and a host of brewery sponsored paper stationary. The customs officer obviously took as much pride in his workplace as he did over his book keeping.
Still he continued dotting i’s and crossing t’s. Feeling the need to do something, I opened my document bag and shuffled through some papers, hoping he would take notice of the movement. For all the attention he had showed me since I sat down, he may well have forgotten I was there. He did look up, and told me, ‘interesting bag.’ I assumed this was his preliminary to asking for it as a ‘gift,’ in return for his services, but he simply asked ‘where did you get it?’ The truth didn’t seem like the best option, especially given the presence of a Koran on his desk. ‘Actually, I got it when I was attached to a US base in Iraq, and it isn’t really a bag at all, it’s the carrier for the groin protection plates from a set of Aussie body armour.’ I didn’t think that would enhance my popularity, so ‘I was given it by a friend,’ seemed like the best option. In rooting through the bag, I had however found an old mechanical pencil I thought he may be interested in. I took it out and clicked it a couple of times, half to check it had lead, half to get his interest. He was certainly interested, his gaze suddenly riveted itself to my hand. ‘Oh, would you like one of these? It’s Ok ,I have another,’ He did indeed want the trinket, taking it graciously and appreciatively from me and putting it in the same pocket as his previous stub had come from.
The pencil action definitely enhanced my stock. With a flourish, the book was slammed shut. ‘You have visa?’ I did indeed have Visas, from the amazingly painless embassy in Cairo. I gave him our passports, which were pored over in great detail for nearly ten minutes. Every stamp on every page of our passports was agonisingly inspected, before he decided that he was happy with them. Then came the equally agonising task of entering us into his precious ledger, which I am disappointed to say he did with his old pencil, not my recent gift. Maybe he was saving it for a special occasion? Despite looking through our passports, and asking me if I had ever been to Ethiopia before, he still checked through thousands of his serial killer neat entries to be one hundred percent sure that I hadn’t actually been before and just forgotten. Happy I hadn’t, he entered us at the bottom of the current page, in the delicate and laborious scroll indicative of somebody writing in their second language. With that he wished me luck in Ethiopia, and blessed me on my way with exhortations to enjoy Ethiopia’s 13 months of sunshine and its one hundred different s. 13 months? Must have been a mistake with his language, or maybe just a tourist board exaggeration?
When I came out, Han had made another new friend. Normally I think her personal judgement is very astute, but I was forced to consider that it may have been at fault with this one. He was one of the blackest men I have ever seen, with some of the yellowest eyes and teeth I have ever seen. He was closer to naked than half dressed, and closer to completely wasted than half cut, his shirt hung in rags off his torso, bullet wounds were visible on his shoulder and shrapnel scars pock-marked one side of his face and much of his chest. He was up in Hannah’s face, and shouting incoherently at her, she later told me it was something about Darfur and the USA’s complicity. What is with people assuming we are American? I ran over as he was being dragged away by the guys who had changed our money for us. I winked my thanks at them, and the money changer gave me a thumbs up and a conspiratorial wink back – maybe the rate he had given me wasn’t as good as I thought?
It had started to rain while I was in the office. The sky was an unbroken ceiling of cloud, thick and heavy looking, almost close enough to touch. I walked the bike over the treacherous road to the second hut. The slope up the building was almost too slippery to get up without the bike, let alone with, so I was forced to stay down on the road. This wouldn’t have been so bad, but the mud wasn’t stable enough to use the stand, so I just had to stand in the strengthening rain and hold the bike upright.
Hannah is too weak to hold the bike up, even on good ground, so it was my turn to stay, while she went to get our all important carnet stamps. Or not. The officer we needed was asleep, or at lunch, or somewhere else, or something involving not actually being at work. Nobody really seemed to know anything for sure except the last indisputable fact. We stood quickly soaking to the bone, watching the passage of people from one side of the border to the other. Ethiopian women, immaculate despite the deluge, rolled up their long skirts and tip-toed through the sludge, carrying big top hued umbrellas in one hand and their shoes in the other. Mothers carried their babies in the traditional African style, wrapped in slings over their shoulders, flies swarming unchallenged around the defenceless children’s mouths and eyes. Men giggled and held hands as they slipped and slid as if drunk, trying desperately to keep each other upright. A group of stately Arabs, incongruous in their stiff white robes, drew up in a pick-up and crossed the border back to Sudan, holding up their jalabas like prim Victorian ladies. Everywhere, everyone was losing their individual battles against gravity and collapsing in laughing heaps on the waterlogged ground, as children ran amongst them, splashing in the puddles and running into long stylish slides. Whatever is different about any given country, children are the same anywhere.
We found ourselves adopted by a Cheshire cat child, who introduced himself as Baligh and then took it upon himself to protect us as ‘his’ Westerners. Any other children who approached us begging were chased off with threats of violence, ‘get away, they’re my foreigners.’ Each time he chased a group away, he would return muttering ‘modder****ers’ under his breath, and shaking his head with feigned exasperation at his peers’ destitution. I once heard that ‘Mcdonalds,’ and ‘Beckham,’ are the most recognised names in the world, but ‘Mother****er,’ must be gaining ground as one of the most widely spoken words in third world English, thanks to the all conquering dominance of American film and music. He didn’t want money, he didn’t ask for anything other than English practice, which he really didn’t need. At eight years old, his English was better than many Brit born kids the same age. The name Baligh itself means ‘eloquent,’ in Arabic. He kept looking at my long and bedraggled hair, and after half hour he picked up the courage to ask me a question. ‘Can I touch it?’ My English sensibilities almost led me to refuse him, there’s a list that people go on back home for having someone else’s child stroke your hair. I figured that I was far enough away from any Sun readers to let him touch my hair without fear of being lynched, as he was so obviously fascinated with the ferenji locks. He gingerly took some of it in his hand, and squealed, and backed off smiling, then shouted at me, ‘Shake it! Shake it, shake it like a bolarid bitcha!’ Another MTVism, who knew that Ethiopian kids were familiar with ‘Outkast?’ Then if I was in any doubt as to what he wanted, he shook his own little head, with its almost impervious tight dark curls. I shook, and my soaked hair flapped like a broken mop, spraying droplets over all three of us and the bike. Again he squealed with delight, and implored me ‘again, again.’
We had been standing in the rain for over an hour, and Han was hungry. She toddled off to find some fruit, and had to be helped every step of the way by kind ladies, who found the funny English lady who kept getting stuck in the mud quite hilarious. Ten minutes later, she returned, hand in hand with a big mama dressed in a bright purple dress. The mama was as tall as me, and twice as wide, and practically dragging Han, her feet barely touching the floor as she was pulled through the slime.
Two hours went by, and then three. It was approaching four in the afternoon and we had no idea how long we had left until the grey day became black night. We knew that Ethiopians were a little idiosyncratic when it came to time, they work on a twelve hour clock, ‘one’ GMT is at ‘seven’ in the morning, with ‘twelve’ at ‘six,’ and then the next twelve hour cycle starts. We knew this, but we didn’t know the time difference now we had crossed the border, and we didn’t know which clock the locals would be using. We did know that we didn’t really want to stay in one of the hostel/brothels that lined the road, and it wouldn’t be many hours before that became our only option, regardless of which clock you wanted to use.
Three and a half hours after we arrived at the immigration office, the bureaucrat returned, apologising profusely. Apparently the border hadn’t been busy, so he thought nobody would mind if he took a long lunch. He processed us quickly, almost bashfully, and within ten minutes waved us goodbye with a friendly ‘amesegenalloo’ we were ready to hit the road. Unfortunately it was still so wet and treacherous, hitting the road seemed to be a far too literal and likely possibility.
The road out of the border point is approximately half a kilometre of uphill sludge. Five hundred metres doesn’t sound very far, but I can guarantee that it is a long way sideways on a commuter bike. Either side of the road was littered with the carnage of those who didn’t make it. Lorry drivers sat next to their stricken vehicles, waiting for the mire to dry up so they could make it up the hill, men carried pushbikes rather than chance their luck riding them, all the motorbikes apart from the one foolish ferenji bike, were parked up under trees, waiting for cessation in the downpour. Vehicles coming down presented a major hazard, with absolutely no ability to stop or change direction, something I could empathise with, as Harri seemed to show very little inclination to do either.
After the first one hundred metres, I had to acquiesce, I just couldn’t keep the bike in any kind of straight line, and it would only be a matter of time until we fell. Hannah jumped off and walked to ease our progress, and walked behind the bike. Still I felt as if I had all the control of a clucking addict. The people lining the road kept shouting at me, but I assumed all the shouts were friendly ‘hello,’ or, ‘ha, look at the stupid Englishman, why isn’t he hiding under trees with the rest of us?’ I struggled vainly to stop my wheel spinning, not wanting to splatter anyone I passed, but failed entirely, to maintain any kind of momentum I had to rev, and rev, and rev, and the slightest twitch of the throttle left anyone within ten metres of the bike looking like swamp creatures. The bike seemed possessed, wanting to go any way other than I wanted it to, attempting to mount donkeys, mow down children and smash through market stalls.
I stopped for Hannah to catch up, which she duly did, of course assisted by a gaggle of giggling girls. She looked completely out of place struggling in the post apocalyptic landscape, the mud, the animals, the black children, the beggars and the stricken lorries. She looked completely out of place, and at the same time, completely at home. She looked beautiful, smiling and laughing with the Ethiopians, her eyes wide with happiness to see the rain she had been lusting after for so long, feeling the satisfaction of our petty triumphs and irrelevant successes over nature and life, living, feeling alive and loving it.
When she reached me, she had a silly grin on her face that was an effect of more than just the rain and enjoying herself. I knew that grin well enough, it was the one reserved for when I was doing something stupid. ‘Is the front wheel meant to turn when you ride the bike?’ She pointed to the offending hoop, still wearing the retards’ smile. The mud was so viscous and clinging, that it had completely stuffed the mudguard, and had stopped my wheel turning. No wonder I couldn’t control the bike, I had been trying to ride it like a skidoo.
Using sticks and stones, we picked and poked enough cloying claylike mud out for the wheel to turn freely again, while a bemused crowd gathered. Not wanting to leave her to walk again, and with renewed confidence in my ability to control the bike, we set off again two-up. It was barely less Charlie Chaplin-esque than the first stretch, but we made it, and by some miracle we didn’t even fall once. We had made it to asphalt by five in the afternoon, Gondar would be way out of our league tonight.
We asked around a selection of the most intelligent looking locals for a place to stay, and as always in Africa, averages and guesses have to be factored in around what people actually say, but four out of five Ethiopians recommended Shehedi, and it was somewhere in between ten, and seventy kilometres away. Call it forty kilometres then.
Forty kilometres, twenty-five miles, even on a bad road surely it couldn’t take us more than an hour? The road did indeed turn out to be relatively good, but those forty kilometres still took us nearly two hours, by which time it was very nearly dark. The road in Ethiopia seems to double as a cattle track. Every thirty seconds of travel, we had to slow down behind huge herds of the horned beasts, and their AK toting owners. Sometimes the owners would be courteous, and move their cows to ease your passage, then other times they could be deliberately awkward, leave you riding behind the herd for painstaking ten kilometre an hour stints, until impatience overruled courtesy, and forced a hair raising push through horns as long as Hannah. Then there were villages, the roads of which were never tarred, always packed with goats, children and more cows. The children were different to any others we had seen so far on the journey. Almost immediately after leaving the border town, the respectful, almost bashful children of Sudan were replaced with their aggressive and noisy Ethiopian counterparts. ‘Youyouyouyou,’ would ring out in shrill voices as we approached a settlement, followed by hordes of children scampering from shacks, often right into the path of out careering bike. We would soon rank the danger posed by the various obstacles on Ethiopian roads:
Other vehicles had been trying to kill us since France, and would continue until the Cape, but in Ethiopia there are relatively few cars and lorries compared to most countries we passed through, so they slipped from their normal position at number one, to number two. Ethiopian people presented themselves as the biggest, most present, and most dangerous hazard on their roads. The Ethiopian Green Cross code; look left, look right, look left again, and then throw yourself in front of the nearest vehicle. Often of course, they pay no attention to the code, and don’t look before attempting vehicular suicide, but it makes no difference to the outcome.
Other than avoiding everything Ethiopia, Ethiopians, and the weather could throw at us in barely veiled attempts to kill us, there was so much to see. The first thing you notice entering Ethiopia is the assault of colour. The countryside was a million miles away from the sand and the dust and the stunted trees of Sudan. Verdant, lush and green do not do the colours justice. The grass looked nuclear powered, the skies on this evening were brooding funereal blacks and regicidal golds, the next morning they would be dazzling Mediterranean azures. The women’s clothes shine in traffic light hues, even the cows look like the pages of a ritalin deprived child’s colouring book.
After the beige flatness of half a dozen desert countries, entering Ethiopia is like learning to see again.
We arrived in Shehedi just before dark, and found what seemed to be the only hotel after asking half the town. By the time we found it, we had an entourage of kids to make the Pied Piper envious. We rode into the courtyard, followed by them all ‘youyouyouing,’ until one of the young ladies who worked there chased them away with a broom.
There did, infact, only seem to be young ladies working at the establishment, and the clientele was exclusively truckers, which led us to the logical conclusion, but they did had beds, however well used they were. That is about the full extent of what they had, a bed, covered with a threadbare mosquito net and almost filling the dirty concrete room. There was a communal hole in the courtyard masquerading as toilet and a small bar. What else could two tired and soggy travellers want?
As soon as we threw our kit down, we were invited to join the young truckers for a . We eagerly accepted the offer, after travelling -less through Sudan, if they had been young cannibals, I would probably still have accepted their offer. They ordered us two St Georges, and asked us if we were hungry in broken English. By the time the St Georges arrived, we had ascertained through sign language and a curious mixture of Arabic, Amharic and English, that there was only one thing on the menu ‘injera with alesha.’ We had no idea what either component was, but given that or nothing, it was definitely the best choice. St George isn’t just our Patron saint, it is also Ethiopia’s national ; so what could be better for a pair of Brits in Ethiopia? It helps that it is also refreshing, light and a little bit Euro-pop in taste, not too dissimilar to our own Carling.
A waitress/manager/prostitute brought our food over while we were finishing the s, and put it in our room. I thought it was odd not to bring it to the table we were sitting at, but we excused ourselves, with promises that we would return after eating. I turned out to be glad that we hadn’t eaten in front of the others. The meal was served in a surprising fashion, on a metal tray larger in diameter than our bikes’ wheels, complete with a metal bell over the top. Hannah removed the cover and a wave of heat rushed out. As the steam dissipated, we looked at our meals in confusion. For starters, ‘meals’ turned out to be singular, had they not realised there were two of us? The second item of confusion was the single lone bowl of meat, stewed in a thin aromatic gruel smelling of ginger and peppers. We had no cutlery provided, and there seemed to be no bread to scoop the stew with in the Arab style. The bowl simply sat, looking forlorn and lonely in the centre of this huge tray, which was covered with the dirtiest tablecloth I have ever seen. All my expectations of Ethiopia revolved around famine and poverty, no wonder people were hungry if all they ate was a little bowl of shared watery stew.
‘I think you eat the tablecloth,’ Hannah ventured. ‘Don’t be stupid,’ I answered, but she had made me curious. I prodded the cloth, which on closer inspection bore more resemblance to an old bathmat than a tablecloth. It was spongy and warm, so I tore a little corner off, still dubious, and hoping I wouldn’t get billed for it when we left. I put it in my mouth and hesitantly chewed. Hannah was right, we were expected to eat the tablecloth, and bloody good it was too. One side was flat, and the other dimpled and cratered which made it perfect for scooping up the extremely tasty stew, which to our further surprise was beef, not goat. I thought that the pancakes’ vaguely fermented bitter taste perfectly offset the gingery spiciness of the stew. Hannah on the other hand was less of a fan. We would soon find out that this pancake, injera, is practically all that is available in Ethiopia, along with the alecha, or similar stews. This made me happy, but it made Han very hungry.
After I ate almost all of our meal, while Hannah grumbled, we returned to the truckers. Over a few s, I had to admit our confusion over how to eat the injera, to which I was met with even greater confusion on their part. ‘How could I possibly have never eaten it?’ The man who originally invited us to join, and spoke the best English, sat completely perplexed, lost for words that we had never eaten the staple that for the last twenty-five years had been his breakfast, his lunch, and his dinner. One of his friends bought another plate for us all to share, mostly out of curiousness as to how we would go about attacking it I believe. The food was so cheap, around thirty pence for the large plate, including the meat, and I am sure they got their value for money from laughing at my pitiful efforts to tear, wrap and scoop without dropping it down my chin and chest. When they could stop laughing, they would try and demonstrate the correct way to eat it, but even after that, I fell some way short. A few more s later, we retired to bed, leaving the Ethiopians outside chewing chat, something else we were to see a lot of in Ethiopia.
As we got into bed, I couldn’t help but note that it was the first time that I had woken up in one year, and gone to bed in the past. I woke up that morning in 2009, and went to bed in 2002. The Ethiopians have never accepted the Gregorian calendar, so they are seven years out of sync with every other country we would visit on this trip. Fatigued by the day, and our first experience of travelling back in time, we swiftly fell asleep, to dream sweet 125 dreams, where the hills always go down, the roads are well surfaced and the wind always behind you.
Typical of our plans, we never actually made it to Gondar. Typical of our navigation, we actually thought we had. Apparently it is a beautiful city, steeped in history; it was the capital of Ethiopia until 1885, it was the site of the Italians’ last stand in 1941 and the launch point for much of their guerrilla activity against the British forces. Apparently many of the buildings bear crumbling legacy to the colonial influence, built in simple moderne styles. I’ve read that it was the site of decisive battles in the recent Ethiopian civil war, as well as numerous others against the Arabs invading from the North, most notably Ibn Muhammeds’ sacking of the city in 1888. I have been told that it is a major centre of the Ethiopian Orthodox church, the predominant religion of Ethiopia, and also a hub for the country’s Jewish population, called falashas.
Falasha itself merely means ‘outsider’ or ‘invader,’ a term which many Jews resent, understandably after hundreds of years living in, and fighting to live in the country. Ethiopia must have one of the strongest national identities in the world, fiercely proud of being Ethiopian almost to a man, fiercely proud of never being colonised (they don’t count the short Italian occupation,) fiercely proud of their unique language and their biblical descent, their claims to be in possession of the ark of the covenant, and their history of being the first African country to take on Christianity. There is always an ‘us and them’ vibe with Ethiopians, an outsider will always be an outsider, even an outsider who has been part of the fabric of the country since the days of Solomon.
But of course, we never made it to Gondar. All my ‘knowledge’ is speculation or second hand at best. The only map we had of Ethiopia was an A5 diagram of the entire country printed off of the internet, which showed Gondar as being at the head of the road that we had been travelling all day, and approximately one hundred and eighty kilometres from Shehedi.
Soon after Shehedi, the road started to rise into the Simian mountains, scenery straight from the Lost World; imposing, ruggedly prehistoric lumps of jagged black stone shrouded in mists and flecked with vegetation that could remember the dinosaurs. Hannah asked me at one point, ‘do you think this is where The Land Before Time was filmed?’ I could see her thinking, and agree to a point, until she followed the thought up with ‘nah, maybe it is where ‘My Little Pony,’ was shot. I had to acquiesce to her logic, if not her taste in film, ‘nothing looks real, it is all too big, too out of proportion, and the colours look like they’ve come from a tube, they’re too intense to be natural.’ The observation was spot on, if an artist painted Ethiopia, he would have to mute the incredible colour and shape, for fear of making the finished work seem unreal and overblown. The hazards continued in the same vein as before; herds of cows being moved up to their winter pastures, begging children doing their best to get under our wheels, AK carrying drunkards treating the road as a footpath, not forgetting the mix of suicidal and homicidal dogs.
The rain set in shortly after midday, as it would every day that we stayed in Ethiopia (with the exception of several days where it rained from the moment we woke up.) The only concession to waterproof equipment we carried was a pac-a-mac each. Flip-flops, combat trousers and fingerless wool gloves don’t offer much water repellence. The discomfort of being soaked to the skin was secondary to the effect the rain had on the roads anyway. Gondar is high, at almost nine thousand feet, and the road up to it is by turns slick and unstable rock, slippery and tiring mud, and terrifying and unpredictable coarse gravel. For five hours we struggled to cajole the bike up steep gradients on these surfaces, turned to fast flowing rivers against us, always with a sheer drop to one side, and a wall of rock on the other. The numerous roadworks made life no easier, for long sections of the trip, new and smooth road surfaces were visible, but we had to ride along the side, in the drainage ditches and scree. Most of the traffic we shared the road with were logging or quarry trucks, which rutted and ripped up the soft slush of the countryside, and made commuter bike cross country hard work. Water running off of the mountains wore gullies for itself crossing the road, which had to be forded, and these gullies were then further criss-crossed by the lorry ruts. This cross hatching of the road surface was borderline lethal when it wasn’t submerged under water, once in a rut with our skinny tyres and tiny engine, we had no choice but to ride it out, but if the channels were underwater, they became an even more difficult pot luck, hold-on-and-hope-your-guardian-angel-works-in-Ethiopia kind of obstacle.
Eventually, we passed out of the mountains and into a natural depression, and into the great historical city of Gondar. We found a comfortable and cheap pension, threw our kit in the small but clean room, and walked downstairs to ask the owner where we should visit in the town. He looked like a cartoon, his face full of features without enough space to hang them. His eyes alone must have taken up half the available space, and the smile wrapped around the whole circumference of his head another full half. How his bulbous nose and elephant ears fitted on is a mystery to me. He was particularly amenable and a perfect gent though, as well as dashingly dressed in a completely out of place suit. ‘You no visit anyplace in town, you need Gondar for vistoring.’ So if we weren’t in Gondar, where were we? ‘You is Azeza.’ Azeza wasn’t even on our sketch map. I showed the tidy young man the map, showing Gondar as being where we were now. ‘No no no this is right not, you take route here to Gondar!’ If we wanted to go to Gondar we had to go dozens of kilometres back on ourselves, up an adjacent road. ‘Tis too late, and be’s too dark in soon, you stays here in my hotel.’
I agreed with him. It was too late and too dark, and I wanted a .
The electricity in the pension, and the whole town for the matter, was out, so we sat in the draughty dining room by candlelight, while the rain wetted an ever-expanding patch around the simple wax sheet masquerading as a door. The pension restaurant was popular with the locals, all huddled around various permutations of injera, barely able to hear each other over the marble sized raindrops battering the tin roof. The owner came back with the pair of Dashins we had ordered, another of Ethiopia’s excellent s. ‘You like food now?’ I told him we did, and he suddenly looked crestfallen, as if he were about to be embarrassed in front of the ferenjis. ‘We not have anything much, we have steak?’ Hannah’s eyes lit up, she wouldn’t be eating injera tonight. ‘One steak and one injera wat,’ I asked. ‘You don’t want steak?’ The little man asked incredulously, his large cloudy eyes almost popping out of his skeletal head. ‘Only one steak. You definite? Do you think Ethiopia not have steaks? Is it surprise for you?’ ‘No no, it’s not like that, I just really like injera.’ The owner looked around, as if to check if anyone else had heard. ‘This amazing,’ he dragged a chair noisily across the concrete floor, and sat on it backwards, with his arms and resting on its back. ‘You tell me. Do other ferenjis like our food?’ I didn’t have a bloody clue, do people generally like Ethiopian food? ‘We always get told ferenjis eat ferenji food, you want Mcdonalds no!?’ He laughed with this last statement, to confirm that he meant it as a joke, but in his unsure eyes you could see the kernel of truth that this was actually the commonly held belief. I told him that although we didn’t have injera back home, I liked it, and had been looking forward to a plate all day. His unfeasible smile returned, happy that the foreigner was a fan of the local dish, and scuttled away, with promises of the best food in Ethiopia coming my way.
The injera was, as normal in Ethiopia, excellent, and silly cheap. Hannah got the poor end of the deal again, with two tiny strips of beef, pounded, charred, and then soaked in foul old cooking oil, served with a very dirty side salad of dubious origin. The owner placed her plate down with a flourish, very proud of his exotic cooking skills, ‘there, you must tells all people of England that good steak is in Ethiopia.’ Concealing her disappointment, Hannah promised she would, but I have a feeling that the promise was never kept. This was to happen many times on our journey, where people would assume they had to serve us with something ‘European,’ and then cook a very bad version of that dish, when you knew that if they would serve exactly what they ate, it would be delicious. The wat was of a different style to my first one, much hotter, and the beef was left raw. ‘Tis Ok, much chilli kill all germs,’ our proprietor informed us. Raw or not, germs or no, it was a beautiful meal, made all the more beautiful by the rain on the roof, the rhythmic Amharic soundtrack, the smoky candlelight in the low room, and the see-saw creaking of the donkeys outside.
We ate ravenously, and retired to the room. Hannah fell asleep almost instantly, sighing soft mammal noises and probably dreaming of a country with fish and chips and poppadoms. I sneaked out of the room, to sit and smoke on the communal balcony.
With no electricity, the whole street was dark, only lit by a few oil lamps in shop kiosks, and the intermittent lightning. A storm was building over the dark intimations of mountains towards Gondar, the thunder rolling ominously, and sheet lightning intermittently exposing the dark streets in bright daylight. The flashing made the streets seem all the more inky in the intermissions, the shuffling shadows of late shoppers, drunks and still awake children disappearing behind retinal burns. In those blind breaths I could only hear the people walking the muddy highway, I could only hear the dogs barking their defiance at the angry sky, two stroke bikes screaming, children laughing, traders bartering, and the donkeys braying along with the whole cacophony, not wanting to be left out. Ethiopia is not a place to go to find silence or solitude. Cars and bikes became almost invisible in the gloom, almost none had any headlights, and the ones that did never had a full set, just the one cycloptic candle burning with all the energy of a dead glow worm. I watched a 250cc motocross bike, headlights off, only visible as a screaming ghost in the night, get completely out of shape in front of the hotel, the bike sliding almost sidewards through the slime, before the rider managed to kick back into shape. Either Ethiopians are much braver, or much stupider than I am.
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