Hello Abyssinia

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The promised land, certainly in my eyes after the adversities of the Dida Galgalu desert of northern Kenya. Leaving from the rundown Kenyan side of Moyale – isolated from the rest of the country by that lengthy and tortuous road - and entering Ethiopia on the more relaxed (and asphalted) side, was a straightforward procedure. The modern Customs and Immigration buildings looked new. My passport was scanned into a computer. Why was I thinking this must be funded by European Development money? There were the usual scattering of touts descending on me with offers of “change money” or “cheap hotel, nice” but not too hassly. It was with a slightly euphoric ‘can’t really believe I’m here’ sensation I checked into the budget Tourist Hotel nearby. I had made it!

First Impressions
Sitting on a concrete step in the small dusty courtyard administering a little attention on the bike in the company of two self-appointed ‘assistants’, I didn’t care what Ethiopia was like. The St George beer was cheap, cold and refreshing. (I bought one for an assistant, the other was a kid.) Two women were finely chopping onions and tomatoes on a board on the dusty ground by the only tap outside. Savoury cooking smells floated out on the steam from the carbon-blackened doorframe of the lean-to hotel kitchen. Among the ambient sounds of evening in the town, a beautiful, melodic, high-pitched female voice in Amharic, strange to my ears, could be heard from the bar. This was my first exposure to the music of the internationally successful Aster Aweke. Unwinding in the warmth of the evening, with that utterly niggle-free sense of deserved relaxation after the ordeals of the day… I felt suddenly infatuated with the idea of Ethiopia.

Later, after a cold though welcome bucket shower, myself and an Australian/Canadian couple wandered up the bustling main street, lit just by lanterns from roadside stalls and restaurants, looking for something to eat. She was a vegetarian which meant we tried a few places before settling on one, giving me an opportunity to be gradually introduced to this different culture.

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And different culture it was. The animated, chatting faces were the first and obvious distinction for me – finer featured and lighter skinned than the rest of sub-Saharan Africa. The voices too, the Amharic language sounding closer to Arabic in its pronunciation from the back of the throat. Strains of the quite identifiable, attractive Ethiopian music came from everywhere. Years before I had been exposed to music compilations of 70’s Ethiopian jazz – ‘Ethiopiques’ - issued by Francis Falceto an Ethiopian music specialist, some of it so beguiling, and here I was delighted to recognise familiar rhythms and instruments (“yes I’m sure its the clarinet”), though the arrangements were more contemporary, drifting across from shop counters and doorways. In the yellow light, taking in the beautiful faces, and longer, sometimes auburn hair on the women, I found myself in a state of wonderment at how unlike this all was to any other culture I’d been in. Of course I was in a slightly exalted state of heightened appreciation.

And there were other Europeans. A tall, pony-tailed, Dutch fellow dressed in khaki coloured 'High Street safari travel-chic' was delivering his thoughts, in fluent American-accented English, on his few weeks travelling in Ethiopia, to an Australian/Canadian couple. He and his quieter blond partner clad in orange who was a clinical psychologist (he worked in advertising. I found this out when joining them for a drink in the bar later) were looking for transport heading south and asked me with (disguised) trepidation about the road ahead. From experience, I knew the effect negative reports had on me (and as a practice I no longer ask this question unless necessary) so told him it was fine, and not as bad as its reputation. While not exactly the whole truth, there’s little point in stoking pre-trip anxieties. We exchanged Kenyan shillings for Ethiopian birr. I found I had to be on my toes - he seemed to have few scruples in getting a good deal for himself. The local tout standing glumly on the sidelines having been done out of his commission, came to my assistance with advice on a fair rate.

On the trip through Africa south from the Maghreb (the stretch of Arab Africa north of the Sahara) food had been largely and solely a source of nourishment. Choice - and imagination - was an extravagance few could indulge. Various starches – cassava, potatoes, rice and the ubiquitous maize – were usually accompanied by some form of protein, perhaps a (gristly) meat or fish sauce. Vegetables were a rarity. (Of course South Africa was an exception to this rule, where it is possible to eat the finest and freshest food imaginatively prepared, and drink the finest of wines… and develop the biggest of bellies.)

The food here was a revelation. I had read of Ethiopian cuisine being quite different from their neighbors. It is based on ‘
injera’ - a large, grey, pancake with the appearance of a well-used dishcloth – which is made from ‘tef’, the grain rich in minerals and tolerant to the unreliability of the rains, grown only in the highlands of Ethiopia. This is served with little dollops of stewed meat, pulses and vegetables on it and eaten communally with the fingers (of the right hand. It is advised to keep your left hand tucked under the table.). On my dining partners’ advice I went for the popular ‘tibs’, small roasted pieces of mutton, with stewed lentils on the injera too. I loved it, the slightly sour injera used to mop up the meat and lentils. The taste doesn’t apparently appeal to all. The Dutchman wasn’t a fan, and had asked me earlier what was in store in Kenya!

That's As Far As You're Going!
The next day I took off in a light hearted mood, still with a slightly elevated sense of unreality, after what my bike had undergone the previous day through the desert. So after about an hour cruising on asphalt road in cooler temperatures at the higher altitude (no red light), it wasn’t with any great alarm I reacted to the bike losing compression and stopping. That was it. It had given up. But it had got me through the tough bit.

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After a two hours on this very quiet highway, I stopped a truck, agreed a price of ten dollars and we loaded the bike onto the back, continuing the few hundred kilometres to Yavello. The two lads in their ‘Isuzu’ - the generic name given to any truck - were on their way there to pick up a load of cattle. Like most long distance drivers I was later informed, they chewed ‘chat’ leaves constantly, a mild amphetamine that grows in southern and eastern parts of the country. We were driving through hilly countryside, sparsely populated, and fairly barren. And poor. Some of the hills were clad in scrubby bush. We stopped once at bags of charcoal stacked on the roadside sold by nomads (right).

So here I was with my bike, luggage, and gear stacked at a fuel station on the main road five kilometres from the town of Yavello. Now what. A curious, and growing, audience was drifting over though I felt no bother. In the past this has not been a problem for me. If it gets too intrusive, I would nominate an apparent ringleader to be the ‘
askari’ and he’d good naturedly keep order, knowing there was a reward in it.

Now at a point near civilisation I set about establishing as far as possible what kind of situation I was in. I took out the spark plug and turned the engine over. Water spurted out. From my basic mechanical knowledge I understood one thing - the cylinder head gasket, a seal that separates the cooling and lubrication systems, had to be perished. Water had got into the oil, and thus the cylinder, which was not good. I wasn’t confident my abilities, and probably tools, would stretch to taking off the cylinder head. All I knew was the damage was serious and the bike unrideable. My task was now to somehow get me, the gear and bike the six hundred kms to Addis Abeba where I’d hope to find a competent mechanic to help determine the seriousness of the damage, and what could be done.

Unscheduled Stop in Yavello
The three days it took attempting to find a truck heading north provided an interesting opportunity to get acquainted with an aspect of southern Ethiopia. The town of Yavello, a few dusty streets disappearing into the surrounding hills, did have a few guesthouses, in one of which (named something like ‘Green’) I based myself. Over the few days, I recruited two aides to help me find a truck going north. Mohammed (“I want to become a Protestant”) was the gentle mannered older of the two with very good English and Luego, a younger ambitious guy whose English aspired to fluency but needed a lot more practice. He thought he was better than he actually was, cracking jokes and telling stories (with him featuring favourably of course in a transparent attempt to impress) but I didn’t understand half of it and tired of asking him to repeat, so just nodded and smiled. He was full of energy and good entertainment. From a small village near the traditional area of Jinka further west, his education had been sponsored by a Scottish priest, for which he was very grateful, and was trying to make it as a tour guide. Though just nineteen Luego had apparently already successfully undertaken a few tours, and was in thrall to the image that came with driving the vehicles. More than once he stopped me in my tracks to point excitedly at a new model Landcruiser, and elaborate on its features. “I would love to drive one,” he’d say with desire.

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The time in Yavello was spent chasing up leads and rumours about trucks. It would be too expensive to hire one, so the lads were on the lookout for a part load going north. A few were carrying cattle and were happy to take me and my things for a very reasonable price. A definite “No”.

Time was also spent getting my daypack repaired (left), and trying to find a phone. I discovered buying a local SIM card which I had been doing so far - between five dollars in neighboring Kenya to free in Mozambique - was close to forty dollars in Ethiopia, which didn’t make it an option for a short stay. The only internet in town was in the office of the British NGO, C.A.R.E. which kindly let me send off a communication after a few days to Self Help in Ireland and their office in Addis Abeba.

Coffee Ceremony
After lunch one hot day, I wandered back to the guesthouse for a snooze. The two lads were around town on the lookout, making enquiries and there wasn’t a lot I could do. A pungent scent of church incense, maybe frankincense, drifted across the courtyard. One of the ‘bargirls’ – working girls – from the guesthouse bar, sitting under an umbrella, beckoned me over for a coffee. Abyssinia is known as the birthplace of coffee. The story is that a pair of monks, observing the energetic and excitable behavior of their goats after eating the berries off a particular bush, tried some themselves but threw them into the fire due to the bitterness. Of course the aroma of the roasting berries, or beans, encouraged them to try again, this time stewing them in water. The rest is history.

At the end of a concrete-block passageway in the shade of her large umbrella, dressed in a traditionally embroidered white cotton smock, Mahalet was seated cross-legged on a large cushion, rubber sandals kicked off to the side. She gestured to a low three legged stool, and I squat sat, beginning to realise I was witnessing a regular ritual here. Coffee is held in great reverence in Ethiopia, the coffee ceremony a not unusual practice after a meal. And here it was. The array spread out before her included a stand of flickering coloured candles, the molten wax running down the side of the candleholder creating an artistic sculpture. Some Chinese incense sticks smoldered their wispy trails. Purple Bougainvillea petals lay scattered across the ground. A small iron brazier with pieces of glowing charcoal heated a metal plate, on which a handful of coffee beans were beginning to smoke, letting off that distinctive, powerfully recognisable roasted aroma. Three delicate little coffee cups on a tray awaited. It seemed to me a shrine. And she the celebrant. The priestess.

Mahalet lifted the metal plate off the brazier, slid the roasted beans into a small earthenware pot, or mortar, and pound and grinded them slowly and methodically with an iron pestle for about a minute. Bending forward she tossed the ground coffee into a kettle of water and put that on the coals to heat.

It was an experience to watch this ‘bargirl’, in the shade in the heat of the afternoon sun, conducting her ritual. If I weren't there, she would be doing it for herself. Occasionally she would lean forward and adjust slightly the burning candles, breaking off and arranging the wax stalactites carefully around the candleholder base, as if this was part of the custom. When steam issued from the kettle’s spout she poured a cup for each of us, the liquid black and viscous, and added sugar. It tasted like… the original coffee!

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Coffee and 'Chat'
A bundle of green leaves and twigs stuck out of a plastic bag next to her, and she pulled out a few, offering some to me. Why not, I thought, as a ‘cultural experience’? This was ‘chat’, and I had seen it chewed all over town at this time of day after the main meal, in the ‘siesta’ time. The trick I was instructed, was to pluck the softer more succulent leaves from the stalk – the harder, older leaves were more bitter – and stuff the bundle into the side of your mouth, barely chewing, more sucking the juice, gradually letting it disintegrate. A mouthful might last ten to twenty minutes slowly masticated.

I had no pressing issues to attend to, so there we sat for the afternoon, chewing
chat interspersed with the odd cup of coffee. Occasionally Mahalet would toss onto the coals some grains of ‘itan’, dried pebbles of gum collected from a tree found locally, which sent up clouds of the pungent scent I had first detected on arriving. Now and again I was offered peanuts to chew while the wad of chat was stuffed into the side of my mouth, which softened the slight bitterness. While I could feel no obvious or discernable effect from the chat, the totally relaxing experience of sitting on the three legged stool, chewing, sipping coffee, being present at this ritual as the heat of the afternoon gradually diminished, in this environment, was enchanting. We had little to say to each other due to the difference in language. Occasionally we were joined by a few of the other staff who’d come over for some chat, including me at times in conversation, or nattering away in Oromo, the local dialect.

After a couple of hours I got up to deal with a visitor with possible information for me, and recognised the slightest feeling of disorientation, not at all unpleasant, which could have been exacerbated by having been squatting in the enclosed space for that length of time. As evening drew in, a whole afternoon of chewing behind me, though not hungry I reckoned it was time to eat while the restaurants were still serving and set off with my two assistants Mohammed and Luego. And now I could feel a definite ‘buzz’ striding into town. Very pleasant. The whole afternoon was an experience – made the more so, as these things can be, because it was impromptu.

On the Move
Mid-morning the following day Mohammed excitedly ran into the courtyard with news he had a truck. And it was leaving now! I grabbed my gear, paid the bill – leaving a decent tip for Mahalet – and jumped into the truck waiting outside, engine running. While driving the five kms out to my bike on the main road, we agreed a figure of thirty dollars to Awasa, a city halfway to Addis Abeba.

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And a slow, laborious journey it was. Twelve hours, stopping at different spots to load more bags of maize or wheat or tef, until just the top part of the bike was visible. It wasn’t going to move anyway. One stop was to collect ten bags at a nomad village (below). The driver and two others with me in the cab - it was a tight squeeze - were pleasant company despite our difficulty in communicating. They wouldn’t allow me pay for my lunch and dinner when we stopped at the Ethiopian equivalent of a truckstop. Because it was one of two ‘fasting’ days in the week where no meat is eaten, we were served ‘
bayaiyonet’, a large injera with various vegetable portions on it such as lentils, beetroot, ‘shiro’ a popular chickpea sauce, maybe a bit of salad. After the visit to the tap – every restaurant has one convenient for diners – to wash our hands, we all tucked in to the same plate, extra injera and sauces arriving when needed.

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I was surprised at how green the mountainous landscape became as we drove directly north up the centre of the country. It was so verdant – fields bursting with crops, everywhere banana trees, water flowing in the rivers. And the people looking healthy. This wasn’t the stereotype many in the West have of Ethiopia. I was to learn this country is in fact blessed with many resources – mineral wealth, hydroelectric potential, fertile land, abundant water in three major rivers, and of course “thirteen months of sunshine” as the Tourist Board boasts. The problem is 80% of the population lives on the land, and the agriculture practiced is largely reliant on the rains. And when they fail - that is when we get pictures broadcast into our living room of famine victims. Eighty million people to be fed puts too much pressure on a system like that.

Arriving very late into the spread out city of Awasa, I was dropped at the Gebrekiristos hotel, the bike unloaded, and the driver paid and thanked. I went to bed pleased to have made it this far, without it costing too much. Despite three pleasant days in friendly Yavello, I was becoming a little anxious about the possibilities of progress. I had to be in Addis Abeba in three days time.

I had heard about a campsite outside town popular with overland travellers, Athenium. We had been unable to find it on arrival late at night, so the following day I turned up to see if the owners could help in pointing me towards a truck to Addis Abeba. Knocking on the corrugated iron gate, voices could be heard from within the compound but nobody opened. Banging louder, there was a pause, but still no one opened it. Hmmm. The visitors obviously have instructions. Peering through a gap I recognised a Land Rover driver from Switzerland I’d met in Nairobi and called out “Simon, open the gate!” That got the desired response, along with grins of surprise and welcome.

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Help at Hand
Simon was a mechanic in the Swiss army, but of more significance, I was introduced to a heavyset, middle-aged German relaxing on his deckchair in the shade in front of his kitted-out, overland truck. Herbert (pictured left, later that evening) was a motorbike mechanic who previously had his own business and was now the main Moto Guzzi importer into Germany. Himself and his wife were on their way down to South Africa to open up a KTM dealership. He was very happy to have a look at my engine! And he had all the tools. An hour later I had pushed my bike the thirty minutes around to Athenium (Actually I paid a couple of young lads a few bob to push it, my steadying hand on the back. It was hot. We stopped halfway where I bought oranges for them from a woman under a big tree on the side of the road. After the initial concentration however, their focus began to flag and I had to take over the steering.)

By the end of the day we had the radiator, cylinder head and cylinder out to inspect them. I knew things would be bad – it was a question of how bad, and was it repairable, at an affordable cost? With sharp intakes of breath and wonder, we could see the battle damage.
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Cylinder head gasket gone, piston rings broken, and most spectacularly – a small hole burned through the scorched cylinder head collar, caused probably by a glowing metal particle burning through. (The cylinder head pictured, with hole burned through on the right.) Herbert hadn’t seen anything as bad. As I repeated to them, I was still in awe at how that Rotax engine had got me through 200 kms working hard mainly in 2nd gear through the North Kenyan desert - on the red light!

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This was such a stroke of luck meeting Herbert. It meant I now knew exactly what needed to be replaced. My parents fiftieth wedding anniversary was the following week and I had decided back in Tanzania, that rather than miss seeing Ethiopia, Sudan, Egypt, Libya at a proper pace and race home in time for the celebration - I was the first born and needed to be there – to break the journey and buy a brief return flight home from Addis Abeba, coming back to my bike to continue the trip. I was in a stronger position now knowing what was needed. (Parts to be repatriated pictured above.) I couldn’t thank Herbert enough. His wife did tell me he missed that type of work and that he was looking ten years younger, which made me feel a little less helplessly indebted.

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The Ethiopian office of the charity I am supporting,
SELF HELP, kindly sent down a driver and Toyota pickup the next morning and we lifted on the bike, its guts and my gear, and a few hours later were in the SELF HELP office Addis Abeba, via the new Chinese built ring road.

After nearly a year on the bike in Africa, the previous week in major stress struggling to get it across the Dida Galgalu desert intact, and just a few days ago trapped in the dusty south Ethiopian town of Yavello, the strange yet familiar experience of walking down the main street in Dun Laoghaire on a windy, wet and wintry Tuesday, seemed like a parallel universe. I don’t suppose jet setters feel like this.

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