Ethiopia 28/06 – 06/07/2012
There’s a marvelous feeling to enter a fresh territory where, like Yusuke sings, the air is new. There’s a sense of excitement and the natural fear of the unknown. Crossing borders in Africa is also generally not easy. Custom forms and TIP need filling, passports need checking, money changers need bargaining. In time, we learnt to expect nothing and be prepared for anything. So when one of these uncharted territories proves easy and we get the wave through in a place so notoriously difficult as the Ethiopian border, we know we had a good day. Amazingly enough, the temporary import permit was free of charge, details soon to be updated on our HUBB thread dedicated to overloading in Africa without a CpD. Visa was 20 dollars for 30 days and petrol around 20 Birr/l.
Ethiopia is a very special place indeed, utterly distinct from any other country in Africa. People look indeed different.
Human history here dates back at least 4.4 million years. It is the only never colonized African nation, with its own unique calendar, language (that belongs to the semitic family), alphabet and religion. Sadly, Ethiopia has a very bad reputation among over-landers. But even if we drive the same routes, we don’t all often groove to the same beats. Instead of throwing rocks and sticks at us, people welcomed us with shy smiles, confused about the unheard country we were coming from. First night we slept in the compound of a catholic mission:
The next day we hit the 60,000 km mark. That meant 48,000 in Africa! We were climbing the dramatic plateau that boasts altitudes between 1800 and over 4500 m. After a short couple of days basking in the heat of Chalbi, we would soon have to wear the entire content of our backpack under the riding gear. Vernacular architecture proved to be equally original: long eucalyptus poles are used to built a high ceiling single room house, that is often left un-plastered. Some facades are painted in bright colors. In more remote villages huts have kept the traditional round shape, that in the more emancipated communities is only used for storage or cattle.
Even if we are well a decade over the new millennium, most of Ethiopians are still pastoralists. It nukes you back into a rural, mystical age, as if you’ve stepped into a living time travel machine. Every child is supposed to take part in herding the family livestock, thus the origin of rock and stick throwing. Unfortunately after being saved from the 70s famine by a concerted international effort, the younger generations have lost some of the authenticity and pride of their elders and, accustomed to foreign aid, are more prone to begging and hassling tourists. The markets on the other hand, have pretty much stayed the same, with villagers congregating from many miles away to trade cattle and produce.
Ana told me about a pack of cards she had as a child, the kind that you have to match pairs of two alike to win. Her cards had a ethnic wear theme, and she had now flashes of something quite similar to the Ethiopian getup. The main ingredient being a thick cotton scarf that can become shawl, poncho, skirt, dress, baby sling.
That goes for the plains, because the highlanders favor colorful plaid blankets and mandatory green or kaki shorts for men.
At 11, Ylumaga is a fine herder
After buying some fruit, we wanted to offer a couple of photos to people. Within minutes we had become a mobile free print shop.
Sadly the printer battery lasted only for a short while, and as people were expressing their eagerness to be photographed, a strange vigilante crashed the party. This guy wore no uniform, but appear to command some sort of authority over the crowds. He grabbed a boy’s stick and started hitting people away, while shouting at them to disperse. We tried to explain that we were not being assaulted and that his actions were completely unwarranted. As the situation regain calm, we shook some hands and took off. That evening I switched to a second hand Heidenau that Chris at JJ’s Nairobi had given us for free.
Since entering the country, we had been introducing our taste buds to new flavors. The staple food is an entirely original Ethiopian creation, based on a cereal (tef) that, much like many of the plants and wildlife that live on this land, are endemic to the country. The tef flour is used to make a watery dough that is fermented, then baked on a clay oven or in an ironcast pot. The spongy and slightly sour pancake resulted is called injera, and substitutes both serving dish and eating utensils.
Eaten with your hands, injera is savored with a wot (sauce) spiced with berbere (a mix of cumin, cardamom, clove, cayenne pepper, ginger and turmeric). With sauteed vegetables, boiled meat or even raw meat. Our favorite was shekel teps, roasted mutton or goat served sizzling hot with peppers and onion
Vernacular Ethiopian being alive and well, injera is not carried around in Tupperware, but in a dedicated basket, woven, then insulated with hide.
Of course the famous Ethiopian coffee is constantly brewed and savored across the nation, with much ceremony. The beans are roasted on the spot, incense is being burnt and the smooth velvety liquid sweetened.
Not being huge coffee drinkers, we favored the ubiquitous 1 Birr tea. Beer is available either bottled or locally brewed from germinated cereals in the countryside, where your drink it from tin cans.
Nothing was as good as the insanely delicious fruit juices, like this mango/ avocado/ papaya creation
Making our way north, we passed Lake Abiata national park. As they wanted us to pay a bribe to ride to the shores, we entered a mile farther, on a dirt track. Unfortunately, there was not much to see: a few flamingos scattered, and some donkey.
At the shores of Lake Ziway the barrier and ticket office were just being sorted. Local fishermen can still picnic next to pelicans and some tall storks. Hopefully when they’ll start collecting money for this place, it will go into some environmental damage control.
Being so different comes with a few quirks. Ethiopia also claims to have the undisputed diplomatic capital of the world dominated by an ‘italian’ piaza, to foster the Ark of Covenant, to be the center of orthodoxy. Ethi-utopia anyone? Addis Ababa, with its hectic urbanism, with immense governmental compounds lost among scruffy boulevards, had little to support such preposterous claims. To us, the soviet influences were too evident to ignore, and the modern developments too kitschy and amateurish to bare. Hosted with unparalleled hospitality by our Bulgarian brothers, we were for the first time alone, an entire apartment to our disposal. Not having to squat in a disintegrating tent under the daily rains was bloody fantastic, also offering Ana the required peace and comfort to experience her first food poisoning in a decade of backpacking and hardcore street food sampling. In between downpours, our friend took us out for coffee and some sightseeing.
After visiting the imperial paraphernalia in the nearby museum, the Raguel church (with a circular layout, built by an indian artizan) felt equally bland
The modest palace of Menelik, situated on top of Entoto hills was quite interesting, with superb roofing details
After taking a few days off because of Ana’s injera overdose and having to deal with ridiculous foreign currency laws in order to buy some much needed cash for Sudan, we realized the Wadi Halfa ferry would leave in a few days. We had to decide: a sprint to the border, or hand around for another week and catch the next one. This infamous boat is the only border crossing into Egypt, and leaves only on Wednesdays, if it runs at all. For us, that would be the second time we would rush like that, after the adventurous crossing of the Congo. The first step, crucial to the success of our endeavor, was to do the Addis – Lalibela stretch in one day. Remember we spoke of penitence for all the good fun had in Africa? Our metal Ark and our sinful beings were treated with Flood. The morning of our departure it started pouring again, cats and dogs. Drenched and chilled to the bone, almost unable to grip the clutch, we had to stop in the first sizable town for hot tea.
Our gear is not designed for cold weather, nor for wet. When it rains, it rains right through it, even with the weatherproof layer on, so it doesn’t take long to have everything, down to unmentionables, completely wet. In moderately warm weather a tender wind will soak our clothing reasonably fast, which is great, so far we couldn’t complain at all about that. Even in DRC, where we were riding for days under pouring rains, it was bearable. This time, we were shivering at below 14 degrees. The real feel while riding was much lower. It rained almost all day, with brief intervals of modest sunshine which we cheered with disproportionate euphoria, probably due to our advanced state of hypothermia. But the highlands were stunning.
Our gear is not designed for cold weather, nor for wet. When it rains, it rains right through it, even with the weatherproof layer on, so it doesn’t take long to have everything, down to unmentionables, completely wet. In moderately warm weather a tender wind will soak our clothing reasonably fast, which is great, so far we couldn’t complain at all about that. Even in DRC, where we were riding for days under pouring rains, it was bearable. This time, we were shivering at below 14 degrees. The real feel while riding was much lower. It rained almost all day, with brief intervals of modest sunshine which we cheered with disproportionate euphoria, probably due to our advanced state of hypothermia. 60 km before Lalibela, in pitch darkness, the tar ended and we continued, blind and tortured, on a winding, slippery river of mud and gravel. I’m assuming the scenery was fabulous, I we could see it. That would have made the ride reasonably fun. Over an hour and a half of hell we eventually arrived where we were almost not hoping to reach. We hardly slept, unable to heat our limbs back to normality, but nevertheless, the morning was dry, so we were ready to be dazzled.