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3 Ethiopia

Feb. 3- PURE LUXURY- Gedaree to Matema 152 km- I experience this day actually riding on the dinner truck with the staff that make this all possible for us. It’s a pleasant drive through the countryside and we stop at a local farm for water and watch the calves mulling about. I have a long talk with Randy and Erin and I’m feeling better already. As we cross the border into Ethiopia, again there is a distinctly different feel to this place. It’s only a line drawn on the map but suddenly the hustlers are emerging from huts positioning themselves for the kill. The immigration office is in a tin and wood structure with chipping green and purple paint that must be repainted each year after the rainy season. Now there’s only five of us in this truck yet it takes the immigration officers about 45 minutes to process us, sifting through they’re hand written ledgers looking for our authorization. I look across the street and wonder why Wimpy (pronounced Vimpy) our driver is laboring about the exact position he’s parking the truck on this site that appears to be surrounded by a garbage dump. As it turns out this is the campsite! Oh joy. I’m recruited to guard the bikes and bags under a tree teeming with flies. A group of money changers and miscellaneous Ethiopians are gathered around trying to get a glimpse of the foreigners, called harenjees (spelled phonetically) or a chance to make a buck. I’m writing this as they surround me, along with the flies. After everyone grabs their gear I buy a shower at a restaurant/hotel/brothel (I’m not kidding!). I wash the grime off of me in this corrugated tin shack where I can see chickens pecking the ground through the cracks. The cool water is absolutely luxurious…wait, did I really say that? Showering in a brothel in a tin shack where I can see chickens through the cracks and camping in a garbage dump is LUXURIOUS?! Wow, this trip is changing me.

 

 

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Feb. 4- Matema to mountain camp 98 km- Even though we leave this border/shanty town early, the dirt road (which resembles hardened brain tissue) is teeming with people, donkeys and trucks and is eerie with the sun rising, the smoky air and the music is already blaring. I can’t imagine a movie set any seedier. I don’t know why I keep likening these scenes to movie sets, I guess it’s because they’re so far from my realm of experience. This is wild though, the real wild Ethiopia! The cycling terrain is hilly and a nice change from Sudan. We’ve heard that Ethiopia is known for rock throwing, even more so than Egypt but so far the villages are friendly. There are so many kids in the streets though, all running up to us and shouting “You, You, You, You!” that it creates a bit of tension. My cycling mate is grabbed by a man and she lights into him with a tongue lashing. We’re still attempting to ride in groups to limit our vulnerability but we have to be constantly alert.  

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Feb. 5- Mountain camp to Gonder 109 km- Today is an insane, single day, endurance test slipped into a 4 month long cross continent bicycling expedition. This is the kind of event for which most athletes train for months, do it, and then go home (not keep riding for 3 more months!) The terrain is mostly gravel and rocks with some unexpected pavement and the total elevation gain is 2,400 meters. That’s about 5 Sears Towers!  Based on my performance yesterday and the description of today’s ride I’ve concluded that today’s “itinerary” does not match my ability. The brave souls who attempted it also had to deal with droves of rock throwing kids, a stick in the spokes (which threw the rider off the bike) and a punch in the face. Some would pull on the back wheel bags as the riders struggled up steep hard climbs. Many tried and many rode the truck for part or all of the day. I am deeply impressed by the fortitude of those who rode today.

 

Feb. 6- TALES FROM THE FRONT- Gondor Rest Day- What has created a population of rock throwing, havoc bound beggars? Has the international community created a dependent population with well intentioned but ill conceived and executed aid? Everywhere we go we are surrounded my dozens of children and some adults shouting “You, You, You! Money, Money, Money!” This is so unfortunate for the future of tourism in Ethiopia. It is a physically beautiful country but this experience for 50 cyclists from 10 different countries, many of whom are writing blogs or bringing home stories from the front, I’m afraid will not be positive. I can’t help but wonder what will become of all of these begging children? I have remained involved as a volunteer for Global Alliance for Africa because sustainability with its African partners creates pride in self sufficiency rather than dependency which is created by handouts.

 

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Feb. 7- Today Helen, Siobhan and I decide to take a side trip to Lalibela, considered a holy city with some historic old churches. We book a trip with an Ethiopian travel agent and jump into a minivan which we understand is taking us to the airport for a short flight. We’re driving for quite some time when it becomes apparent that we’re in fact not going to the airport but being driven the entire way to Lalibala. This realization is just the beginning of a 12 hour fiasco of almost comedic proportions. Several hours into the trip we get a flat tire and pull over to change it except there is no spare. We’re in the middle of the Ethiopian desert on a fairly deserted road; the situation does not look good. Unbelievably a car stops and takes our driver and the tire off to be fixed. There is a truck stop “nearby” and the tire is repaired. The whole incident took about 2 hours, which is a miracle considering we’re in the middle of rural Ethiopia. The road is rough as hell and we are dog tired and rattled to the bone. It is after midnight by the time we finally reach our destination. I’m not sure which is worse, cycling 7 hours or riding in a van on Ethiopian back roads for 12 hours.

 

Feb. 8- ANCIENT STONE CHURCHES- Fortunately our hotel is pleasant and the meals are great after yesterday’s road grind. There’s even a coffee stand which is lovely. Lalibela is referred to as the second Jerusalem with 12 ancient Orthodox Christian churches that have been carved into the ground out of solid rock. It has often been called Africa’s Petra, which is in Jordan. The churches defy logic: How could it be done, and why would anybody do it? These enormous rock carvings are really quite stunning though. The town has a “holy” feel to It; calm and prayerful. We spend the entire day and one more night in Lalibela.

 

 

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Feb. 9- The 10 ½ hour return drive was’t quite as bad. We knew what to expect, and we also got a very early start so we were driving in daylight. The roads were still treacherous but the rock landscape is stunning. We arrive at about 5 p.m. to the college town of Bahir Dar, on Lake Stana, in time to explore the town. I eat dinner at the Obama restaurant and have a great chicken pizza. I admire the entrepreneurial spirit of its owners. 

 

Feb. 10- MONKEYS IN THE ZOO- Bahir Dar to bush camp161 km- Getting back in the saddle after a few days off is like starting over again. I’m really struggling with the climbs and my pounding heart and breathlessness are reminders that I really didn’t prepare enough for this expedition. In the morning the children are less likely to throw stones as they are on their way to school. In the late afternoon as we approach our camp there is a cattle drive and we’re among the cows. Where we make camp we have to rope off our site to stem the flow of constant harassment and theft. There are dozens of onlookers surrounding the camp watching our every move. They’re completely intrigued. How strange it must be for them to watch the show we’re putting on. People like they’ve never seen doing things they’ve never seen with objects like they’ve never seen. We’re encircled by an orange nylon rope with throngs of onlookers craning their necks to watch us like monkeys in a zoo.

 

 

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Feb. 11- THE CIRCUS ONLY COMES ONCE A YEAR- Bush camp to forest camp 118 km- The first 30 km today is a blast, all downhill! We bottom out in the Blue Nile valley and then it’s back to the uphill grind…UGH. Ethiopia is nothing but hills, hills and more hills. Several days I’m only riding a half day and taking the van the other half. At our camp in the forest we are unable to rope off the site and there are children darting about like munchkins in the forest. It’s almost as though we’re camping in a school yard with hundreds of uniformed children running about squealing and chattering. Our Ethiopian guides are constantly scolding and chasing them off. As one of the other riders said “the circus only comes once a year and they are definitely NOT going to miss it.” 

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Feb. 12- I CAN’T MAKE IT- Forest camp Cgar camp- 89 km- The morning ride was all uphill but after lunch we descended 1860 meters down into the Blue Nile Gorge. It’s like a mini Grand Canyon. With switchbacks almost all the way down. Fortunately they have just finished paving the road so it’s smooth. Last years riders had to do it through road construction. Some of the riders are reaching speeds up to 65 kmh absolutely flying down the hill; not for me though. I’m probably riding my brakes too much but the thought of being splattered across the pavement is not my idea of a good time. On the road I see several women carrying huge bundles of wood on their backs bent over like beasts of burden going up the mountain. What a life they have, and here I am riding along with my high tech gear and clothing worth more money than they will probably ever see in they’re entire lives. Well after the long exhilarating descent, as you might figure, there is now a long climb (1881 km). It doesn’t take me long to realize there’s no possible way I can make this climb. I walk my bike a couple kilometers when the truck comes by and I give them the thumbs down which is the “I can’t make it” signal. Well the road is so steep that the huge truck can’t even stop there because it’s too steep for it to get going again! After the TDA truck passed us John and I hitched a ride in the back of an empty truck bed. We threw our bikes in the back and climbed in. I told him he was lucky to be with some T&A or he’d still be out there waiting for a ride with his skinny legs and his white beard! John is 68 years old and from Canada. He’s one of the riders I find myself with a lot because we’re close to the same speed. He’s actually stronger than me and can ride uphill for longer periods but when we’re both on the road we ride together a lot. It’s an 1881 meter climb and we laughed a lot as we passed our sweating comrades while they pushed forward up that last steep climb. I am so impressed by some of the athletes on this tour. They’re actually holding time trials for this climb segment and they are just burning up the hill. I think John and I had the best deal of everyone: a spectacular descent down into the Blue Nile Gorge and then a lift up to the rim again.

 

 

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Feb. 13 -GORGE OURSELVES- Cgar camp to Ctar (see-gar to see-tar) 91 km- Near our camp is a Blue Nile Gorge lookout with a beautiful view of this mini Grand Canyon. There is a lovely restaurant and Inn and a few of us have an “Ingera platter” and a beer as we watch the sun recede. Ingera is a grain grown in Ethiopia and it’s made into a flat, sour tasting bread. I’m told Ethiopia is the only place this grain is grown and it is supposed to be quite nutritious. This is so civilized! The Ethiopian and German couple who own the place know what comprises a good cleaning. After being shown around the place I decide to rent a room for $20. It is the best room of the entire trip so far and the one kilometer walk to camp in the morning is a small price to pay for this little slice of comfort.

 

 

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Feb. 14 -GRANNY GEAR- Ctar to Adis Ababa- Today’s ride takes us through gorgeous, pastoral, hilly countryside, and I’d like to put the emphasis on HILLY. There are long curvy downhill glides with the wind blowing your hair (as much as your hair can be blown under a helmet anyway) and then payback…up, up, up in granny gear (the lowest gear) and sometimes walking. There are oxen pulling ancient looking carts, women sifting the teft by the side of the road…slow down for cattle crossing, donkeys pulling carts and stray goats. I’m on the lookout for the lunch truck for the last several kilometers and I’m hoping it appears at the bottom of the next hill rather than at the top of that huge one ahead. At last it appears…5 hours in the saddle to lunch, damn I’m slow.

 

Feb. 15 -REST FOR THE WEARY- Rest day Adis Ababa –I admit that I have no interest in exploring Adis Ababa, a city of millions with about 85% being slums. The camp is on the grounds of an extremely funky hotel which really should be razed. On second look though…the huge 2 room suite with a private bath is looking pretty darn nice. It looks like it was quite a nice place in its heyday, possibly in the thirties, but the nonexistent maintenance, the juxtaposition of the ragtag furnishings within the enormous rooms seem comical. For $13 per night I can’t complain, all I want to do is sleep anyway and that I do.

 

Feb. 16 -MELTDOWN MADNESS BEGINS- Adis Ababa to bush camp 108 km - Each segment of the tour has a few riders leaving the trip and on this section we have 2 new riders joining. This 1671 kilometer segment, from Adis Ababa to Nairobe Kenya, is the most difficult section of the trip and I’m a bit intimidated. The convoy out of this smelly, dirty city is 20 kilometers. Our tour is visited by another “plague” which seems to happen on and after rest days. Many have diarrhea, vomiting, fever and just plain over exhaustion possibly due to accumulated fatigue and extremely close and challenging conditions. Wilderness campers back home would be shocked at the conditions of some of the campgrounds we call home. There are various varieties of dung litter and of course, in Ethiopia, the multitudes of people surrounding us at all times. It takes a lot of energy to wake up at 5:30 or 6:00 a.m. each morning with the prospect of cycling 5-8 hours…but first, where do I go to the toilet? We’ve only had 3 toilet tents so far on the trip; otherwise I’m on my own with a little garden spade and my roll of TP. After that it’s get my tent and belongings packed and organized, wait in line for breakfast, then dishwashing, another line to get into the truck where our lockers hold all of our worldly possessions for four months. I stuff my locker and slam it shut trying not to break the hinges. It’s a process that gets both easier and harder as the days progress. I’m thankful I haven’t been “struck down” thus far by other than a scratchy throat and a little cold although I have been fatigued enough to want to sleep under the truck…must…put up tent…must…get in sleeping bag!

 

Feb. 17 –WHERE YOU GO?- Gogetti to Hosiana 138 km- Once again in Ethiopia we encounter intolerable people. As we cycle through the countryside hundreds of children, 2 years old and up, run at top speed along side our bicycles yelling in high pitched screams “you, you, you; money, money, money; give me money; give me my money; Mastercard” (whatever the hell that meant). As we approach the villages from the hilltops, I can see a mass of humanity spread out for about a mile congregating on the road. There is little traffic so kids play on the highway and when “ferengi” (sp? Italian for “foreigners”) come cycling through, the kids are poised in packs for the attack. My position at the back of the pack puts me in a vulnerable spot. They wait to try new tricks or repeat techniques that may have been unsuccessful on earlier cyclers. They will grab you, slap you, throw rocks, try to unzip your rear wheel pack to steal something etc. One girl slapped my arm so hard it stung for 8 kilometers. The question of choice today was “Where you go?”, then the next one “Where you go?, where you go?”. If you don’t answer with something they can understand, like Kenya, they persist running along side or blocking you in front “Where you go? Where you go?”…my head hurts. I try to great or answer every one of them but sometimes they’ll start grabbing at me and when I scream they mock me. They’re really ill behaved little brats. 

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Feb. 18 -DINNER PARTY FOR 60- Hosaina field camp to bush camp Sodo 118 km- I rode only about 20 kilometers and then hitched a ride in the staff van. Many riders are sick as I mentioned and it finally hit me with a bout of diarrhea that prevented me from having dinner last night. We need all the “fuel” we can get and I was so exhausted I simply “ran out of gas” so I hopped on the van. I shopped form dinner with the staff and had bananas at one stop, oranges at another and tomatoes at another. James, our chef enjoys his stops for coffee, Engira (the Ethiopian flat bread), beer, Coke…not a bad morning while preparing for the ravenous 50 cyclers in a few hours. He seems so relaxed; I can’t imagine throwing a dinner party for 60 each night with such composure.

 

 

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Feb. 19 DON’T TOUCH ME!-  Bush camp to Arba Minch 108 km- I’m running out of patience. Personal space is not a concept here, physical boundaries do not exist. Today there is a new addition to the list of harassments. Many of the charging kids are carrying machetes and cycles. This is insane! Why am I cycling in this disaster waiting to happen? One cyclist hit 3 pedestrians today, it’s hard not to. As cruel as it may sound, it’s best to move on quickly after a collision before an international incident breaks out. I fell at one point and a kid stood over me laughing. The reasons for the bizarre behavior of the Ethiopians may be explainable or even understandable but I don’t have the time or the resources to explore that; I can only tell you about my experiences. I must say that I would not recommend anyone travel here unless you enjoy nonstop threats. I suppose if you traveled in a vehicle and were transported to say bird watching destinations without much contact with people…but why bother? What is a trip without experiencing the people and the culture? My observations may seem unfair. How could I not have more compassion for the rag wearing, poverty stricken population with such a feeling of hopelessness?  According to the Lonley Planet, East Africa edition, in the Ethiopia chapter on culture: “Ethiopians have a strong sense of formality and attach great importance to etiquette, especially greetings and dress, however some of the young Ethiopians who’ve grown up with high profile international aid effort lack the patriotism seen in older generations. They’re Ethiopian pride and self reliance has been undermined albeit unintentionally.” It went on to say that stick and stone wielding 4 year old children are handed responsibility of herding their family’s livestock; 38.5% are literate, 52% attend primary school and only 12% attend secondary school. That being noted, a near riot broke out at the lunch stop today. The roughly 25 ft. X 35 ft. space roped off for the TDA group to rest and receive nourishment was surrounded by shoulder to shoulder Ethiopian observers, 3 deep. A few cows were allowed inside the rope to clean up the food droppings but as the staff attempted to dismantle the sunshade tarp a few of the kids tried to steel the rope. A fist fight broke out between 2 of the locals as the energy of the mob escalated. George, our Kenyan driver, who understands Ethiopians and their behavior, quickly and abruptly drove the several ton truck out of there in a hurry. THAT’S IT, my cycling career in Ethiopia is over, or at least until we get closer to the border and the population dwindles. One of my cycling mates, Siobhan, left this country 10 days ago and is going to meet back up with us in Nairobi. I’m not going to keep putting myself in a position to be assaulted so the truck is it for me for a while.

 

 

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Feb. 20 –THIS IS AFRICA-  Arba Minch rest day- 15 of us explore Nechasar National Park by boat on Lake Chamo. It is peaceful without the accompaniment of screaming children. We see dozens of hippos, a couple dozen crocodiles and masses of pelicans and other birds; it’s quite breathtaking. There are a handful of solo fishermen on crudely constructed kayak-like boats probably catching the fish we’ll have for lunch. There is a man from Canada on the tour whose wife recently passed away. Two years ago they had both signed up for the Tour d’Afrique but 2 weeks before departure she was diagnosed with cancer. This day marks the 16th anniversary of their meeting and he has planned a small ceremony on the lake in which he will drop some of her ashes into the water. We’re on 2 boats and there is a moment of silence as he sprinkles his wife’s ashes on the lake. The ashes float and slowly sink into the water and there is not a dry eye on either boat. Back in town we dine on some fabulous fish goulash undoubtedly retrieved from Lake Chamo. I book a room for the night and the power and water don’t work which is quite disappointing, but this is Africa. 

 

Feb. 21 –DAILY GRIND-  Arba Minch to Konso 100 km- As we move farther south toward the Kenyan border the people change in looks and accessories. The Konso tribe carry spears along with their machetes. I watch women carry 5 gallon jugs of water in goatskin slings up from the river on their back. Their daily grind is to find water from the dirty river down a steep embankment and do all the other chores needed to sustain their average family size of 6 children in their mud and stick huts. It’s a very tough life.

 

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Feb.22 –AT LAST-  Konso to Yabello 97km- Since the population is dwindling I decided to ride today. I chose to bring a mountain bike on this expedition. It has front suspension and an awesome seat stem called the “Thudbuster” which help absorb tail shock. It has big fat tires which are great in rough, rocky or sandy conditions. The problem is that it takes twice as much energy to ride the bike on smooth roads compared with the lighter, thinner tired road bikes that many of my fellow riders are constantly passing me up with. Well today, at last, I had the correct bike for the road conditions that were dished up to me. I installed my biggest, baddest, knobbiest tires and actually enjoyed the rough, rocky hilly road today. I actually passed some people on the route to lunch while a number of the riders didn’t even make it to lunch on their thinner tired bikes and had to be picked up by the assist truck. At last my bike had a chance to do what it was meant to do, handle rough rocky conditions with relative ease. This was my favorite day so far. We were in the wilderness, similar to Tsavo East National Park in Kenya. There were very few cars and the few people we did see behaved with dignity, probably due to their remoteness. We heard birds singing, not kids screaming, it was glorious, at last.  

 

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Feb. 23 -ANXIOUS ANTICIPATION- Yabello to grotto camp 128 km- We’re a day away from the Kenya border and it’s a pleasant day surrounded by nature. This place has the look of a wildlife reserve but other than some incredible birds and a few Dik-diks (a cute little antelope the size of a large cat!) we’re not seeing much wildlife. We passed through one town where I was very glad to be accompanied by a male cyclist. At one point the road was so crowded that we had to walk our bikes through throngs of young men and hope that the crowd parted for us. Fortunately there was not an incident but had I been alone it may have been a different story. Anticipation is building to move on to Kenya. On the one hand it will be a relief to leave behind the anxiety and fear of assault but the legendary lava rock road conditions awaiting us in Kenya produce another kind of anxiety.  

 

Feb. 24 TRAGIC ETHIOPIA- grotto camp to Moyale 82 km- I’ve got to get out of this place and I’m thrilled to be leaving Ethiopia today. In all fairness, the last couple of days in this country have been pleasant but the overall experience has been one of heartache. I was hoping for a kiss goodbye today but no; I got one last slap with a stick while pedaling in a strong headwind. Once again, after completing the immigration formalities at the border, the immediate transition at this line in the sand is profound. In Kenya I feel at home, as odd as that may sound, I feel at ease. The people are welcoming and not begging. It’s quite tragic, this land of Ethiopia. What is going to become of the millions of uneducated children with few resources and little hope; will its soul ever mend?