Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Ten Reasons Why Ethiopia Was My Favorite African Country

Ethiopia simply has the most beautiful people. 

The children are adorable, gracious and always curious. While traveling they run to the edge of the road, sometimes onto the road (not so good), to make sure you do not miss their wave and smile - both of which are hard to miss. Though they have a reputation of throwing rocks at passing vehicles, that was not my experience. Walking in the streets or through the markets you will soon have a few little friends wanting to follow and hold your hand - wanting nothing more than some companionship and to practice their English. 

Whether in the capital of Addis Ababa or out in the rural villages, the women were the most attractive of the trip. They exhibit an exquisite balance of classic beauty and mild exotic features. 

Approachable and always in good spirits despite being some of the poorest on the continent, I enjoyed the people of Ethiopia very much. 

I was blown away by the landscape of the country, something that had taken me by surprise. The deep river gorges and high mountains made the riding spectacular. I was there in March, still the dry season, but could only imagine how spectacular the place would be after things turned green after the rains. If Ethiopia had a coast, if would be a hard place to leave. 

What better way to see the landscape than a network of good quality roads? After replacing the shocks on the bike, I did not venture too far off the beaten path and primarily stayed on the paved roads and graded dirt roads. Always in good repair without potholes, the driving was some of the best in Africa. 

The "road theater" was some of the best as well. Driving was often slow due to the constant activity on the road's shoulders. On market days, there would be a procession of people and domestic animals going to market. It never failed to be colorful and entertaining, but also nerve-racking as you had to be on high alert at all times. 

The cool refreshing taste of a St. George can really slay a guy's thirst.

To love a country with inferior coffee is an empty short lasting relationship. Ethiopia, the birthplace of coffee, owes a lot to the sacred bean and the worshipping is going well. It is a tradition to invite one into your house for the traditional coffee ceremony. I was lucky enough to have been welcomed into locals home to experience the process on a couple different occasions. 

The green coffee bean is roasted over hot coals while incense burns atop the small coffee platform surrounded by fresh palm frowns. Next, the newly roasted beans are then crushed into a large wooden motar and smashed usually with a heavy steel pestle. The grounds are then placed into a ceramic vessel along with water and sat back on the hot coals. The coffee later comes to boil, removed from the heat and allowed to cool some. When the time is right the lovely coffee maiden raises the vessel high and demonstrates a long pour of thick black coffee. Served in a small ceramic cup with a generous amount of sugar and often times fresh popcorn. 

The ceremony can take up to two hours but is a social cornerstone to entertaining in Ethiopia. It is a very pleasant experience and a great way to see into the lives of the locals. Though nobody ever asked for any money, I always tried and leave something behind. 

Ethiopia is one of the first areas to officially adopt Christianity as it's religion, in the 4th century. The majority of the population is Orthodox Christian and 1/3 muslim. Remnants of this history is on display throughout the country, with monasteries along Lake Tana to monolithic churches of Lalibela.

Lalibela had an amazing display of churches carved out of the earth's rock - the entire thing, exterior and interior carved out of one piece of rock. (Of course, I could not get a number of how many slaves died so that others could worship, but impressive nonetheless.)

It was never hard to find something to do. 

Well, not exactly a reason to love the country. I enjoy Ethiopian food and it is a fun way to eat, but the novelty wears off fast. The orthodox followers were seemingly always fasting (we were there around Easter), the local menu was often limited to "injera" the soft sourdough flatbread and a spicy chile paste. The soft soggy texture can get monotonous eating it twice a day. 

When the menu is in fully force a platter of injera is placed in the middle of the table ladened with spicy bits of beef, lamb, greens and vegetables and sometimes even pasta. One pitches off some injera - always with the right - and uses it to scoop of the different offerings. It is communal way of eating, and yes, hand washing is always a part of the ritual. 
If Ethiopia seems to be living in the past - it is! If protocols and practices seems inefficient and dated (Retrieving my shocks from the post office was a near nightmare.), they are.  In Ethiopia, it is only 2004. The Ethiopian calendar adds a leap day every four year and begins its new year in August. Once you get that down, the clocks are set six hours behind yours, so good luck trying to make plans to meet someone for coffee - you, or they, maybe hours late, or a few years(?)

I have not experienced many regrets on this trip, but one thing that may classify is this - I should have spent more time in Ethiopia. I should have explored other areas. Because I had to truck the bike to capital city of Addis Ababa in the center of the county, I missed the colorful tribes of the Omo River Valley in the southwest corner of the country. Described as going back to primitive times the people of the Omo Valley live as basic as you can imagine and practice several beautification and scarification techniques. At the time, I was reluctant to travel the 500-miles back down to the area, only to travel the same road back up - for a third time. Plus, I was enjoying traveling with Sheldon, the Aussie that crossed the Marsabit road with me. My visa for Sudan gave me two months to cross the border, so I had some extra time, but not unlimited. 

Later, when I was on the ferry to Turkey I ran into a Polish photographer who had just circumnavigated the continent of Africa taking portraits of the the tribal people. Here are some of his photos of the people of the Omo River Valley:

Monday, May 28, 2012

The Marsabit-Moyale Road

There are two inescapable obstacles that you must get past while traveling the eastern route of Africa. Of course you can make all the obstacles you want, but there is no getting around these two spots on the map - the northern road out of Kenya and entering Egypt from Sudan via the Wadi Halfa ferry.

Back from western Kenya with my passport and visas sorted, I was ready to tackle the first challenge, the Marsabit-Moyale road to the border of Ethiopia…well almost.

During my two weeks at Jungle Junction (JJ’s) I saw many southbound trucks and motorcycles roll in or being towed in, most is various states of disrepair. The road was taking on mythical proportions. It is not that the road is that technical, but it is because it is a drawn out 300-mile two-day journey consisting of large rocks, corrugations, deep wheel ruts, through an incredibly hot and barren landscape. One BMW bike was trucked into JJ’s with its transfer case cracked, leaving the bike almost broken in two. Others in the yard were busy replacing shocks and/or wheel bearings among other things. Another biker reported how he had several flat tires during his trip. I knew my tired weeping Ohlin shocks were not going to fair very well. If they did make to Moyale, there would not be anything left of them and I would need replacements to get through the rest of Africa. Once I left Nairobi, there would not be any more support available.

My money was running low and I could not afford to have a new pair of shocks shipped to me. I talked to Chris, the owner and head mechanic at JJ’s about a solution. Not many options were available to me outside of shipping the shocks back to South Africa for another rebuild. Plan B: I contacted Ohlins USA. In the past, every time I have had an issue with the bike’s suspension, I have always conferred with the guys in the States, so they were fully aware of my history and problems with the shocks. I asked if they could “partially sponsor” me by sending me a used or rebuilt pair to me in Ethiopia. I got a curt reply, “we don’t do sponsorships”, with no other solutions or ideas offered. I then contacted Kimmo at Touratech USA in Seattle and discussed the problem with him. He immediately wanted to help but did not have the shocks in stock to send me. He offered me a discount from the German supplier, but with shipping it would still be a hell of a lot of money. Kimmo then came back with another option. He had made some calls and found someone who would sell him a pair of stock BMW shocks, slightly used, and he could send them to me in Addis Ababa - all at his cost! Kimmo and Touratech USA have done me a lot of favors during this trip and they have always been supporters of Write Around the World, but this time they really “did me a solid”.

Knowing that I would have some shocks waiting for me on the another side of Moyale was not only a relief to my wallet, but it also enabled me to keep traveling. I would never have done the road to Lodwar if I had to "pamper" my existing shocks. It gave me confidence to keep moving.
(I should mention, that there is another route you can take to Ethiopia which is actually much more scenic and passes through some very interesting tribal lands. The route up the eastern side of Lake Turkana is even more remote and covers a lot of sandy terrain. It is a more viable option for the Land Cruisers and Land Rovers, but less so for bikes. There is one stretch of over 800-kilometers without a petrol stop and my range is closer to 400-kilometers. Having a truck to travel with who can carry your luggage, extra fuel and water is the only real way to enjoy this route on a bike, but with my bike already “limping” it would not be a very good place to get stuck.)

Finally, an international group of four set off to take on the road, an Aussie, a Frenchman, a Japanese guy and myself. (Here is map of the route.)

The paved road from Nairobi to our first night’s destination, Archer’s Post was beautiful and took us by the equator and Mount Kenya. The sky was clear and the temperature very comfortable.

Over a meal of beef stew and rice with a Fanta after the tents were set up, we all agreed on taking on the road to Marsabit slowly with breaks for our shocks to cool down every 40-minutes. We had heard that the first day was more difficult than the second so we were glad to be getting that out of the way first, while still relatively fresh.

That night, it was hard to find a spot in the night sky not occupied with stars. Julien impressed us all with his Star Map app on his iPhone and could name the planets and constellations by simply holding his phone up to the sky. (I have been carrying a paper star chart since Bolivia and still don’t know how to use it.)  The next morning we climbed out of our tents at dawn and packed up the bikes. 

The first 100-kilometers were surprisingly some of the best riding I have had in Africa. This portion had been recently paved and was a twisty road pass large rock outcroppings, green scrub brush and lots of Acacia trees. Still early in the morning, we passed many families of ostriches - momma bird accompanied by much larger papa bird with his intensely black plumage and brilliant white tail feathers, both were followed by 4-6 wiry little chicks. Many were feeding near the shoulder of the road and often ran out in front of us, so we slowed for the “traffic”. At one point, with Julien riding just ahead of me, a papa bird got confused about whether to go left or to go right, and ended up running straight down the left lane of the road right next to Julien. They stayed together for about 200-yards at a steady pace of 45-mph! It was amazing and we all sort of held our breath and kept our speed steady waiting to see how far he would go. When he finally cut off to the left we all yelled and pumped our arms into the air. What a great start to the day!

Alas, the pavement finally ended. The road was not difficult to manage but very bumpy with a washboard-like surface. Right from the start it was difficult to keep the speeds down. We could have easily gone faster, but the stress on the bikes would have been too much. Regardless, everyone was in good spirits. It was getting warm, but was still comfortable. We later stopped later for an impromptu lunch of white bread, margarine, peach jam and a can of bake beans – all washed down with warm water. 

During one of our “cool down” stops a group of Samburu women approached from the other side of the road. After we snapped a few photos, they quickly came towards us and demanded money. They were not very pleasant, and in this instance none of us decided to comply. One old lady grabbed at Sheldon’s arm and I heard later that another had thrown a rather large rock at me while I was driving off.

Later in the day, as I was trailing the rest of the group, I stopped as a mother and child were walking on the opposite side of the road. I stopped well before them and let them walk up to me. I don’t know where they had come from or where they were going, but it was now over 100-degrees out and not a village in sight. I offered them a half bottle of water and asked if I could take a photo. They complied and were happy to see their image on the camera screen. They then noticed my sandals made of old car tires under the wire mesh. The woman signaled that she would like to have them, and then the boy pointed to his mom’s same type sandals, but with broken straps.  (Sandals made of old tires are popular amongst poor country folk in many countries. I first saw them in Bolivia. It is an inventive way to recycle an exhausted material, give work to some local craftsmen, and provide a much needed, and usually an indestructible footwear option for the locals. I bought my pair in Lodwar for $2.50 because I was tired of blowing out cheap flip-flops.) Not willing to part with my “5,000-mile sandals”, I joked that the size was not right. We laughed and I left.  To comment on how hard life must be out here would be a massive understatement.

Eventually, we made it to Marsabit and went straight to the gas station to fill up for the morning. It had been a long eight-hour day. We got rooms at the unexciting Jay Jay’s, and went to bed early. In the morning, we packed each bike with four liters of water and some chipati for a snack later. Today would be a longer ride but easier. The mild metallic “chirp” coming from my rear shock was now a loud grinding “squawk”. The sun had just come up and the air still a bit cool, or at least comfortable. The day progressed as we passed large lorries and the occasional overlander in a truck, but mostly, we were on our own. Hours into the ride, we commented to each other how today was much more difficult than they day before – contrary to what we had been told. The wheel ruts were deeper, the rocks larger and there were more pockets of the talcum powder-like “bull dust”. The riding required constant attention. During breaks I would splash water on my rear shock, which would elicit a sizzle and burst of steam.

Everybody was getting tired. The heat and the tediousness of going so slow (an average speed of about 20-mph was wearing on everyone. Standing up on the bike was better for control, but was more tiring. We were getting close, but so incredibly slow! Suddenly, on a stretch of boring gravel road my bike came to a sudden stop – dead in it’s tracks and I was sitting much lower on the bike. “NOOOOOOOOO!” The rear fender was now resting on top of the rear tire. The rear shock had finally snapped 40-miles from Moyale. The bike was now a 650-pound immoveable object baking in the sun. Shin and Sheldon went ahead to try and find a truck at the next village while Julien stayed with me. We tried to spread a tarp over the thorn bushes to create some shade but that turned out to be a fruitless and comical venture. Eventually we just sat on the edge of the road holding the tarp over our heads. It was now about 110-degrees.

A couple trucks passed going in the other direction and then a few smaller fully loaded trucks going north. After only about 40-minutes of waiting, a larger lorry came by and I waved him down. He had room and after brief negotiations, we settled on $100 to take me to Moyale. They used the removable tailgate as a ramp and with four guys we were able to load the bike into the back of the truck. Sheldon and Shin returned with a small military truck and a couple of disappointed soldiers who just realized they had missed out on some easy money.

My plan was to sit in the back of the truck with the bike and the boxes of cheap Chinese teakettles, but I was advised by the crew that that would not be too smart, “the dust will be very bad”. Seated in the cab, I was glad to be off the road, but as soon as the driver launched the truck into motion, I knew it was not going to be a relaxing ride. I could hold myself down into the seat by bracing with my arms, but my legs continued to bounce up and down off the floor of the cab. The truck clearly did not belong to the driver because he was beating the shit of it. I also knew that my bike was in trouble as it was impossible to tie it down very securely. Nothing I could do about it now. Two hours later we made it to Moyale. The bike had shifted and one of the panniers had slid underneath it causing some damage. I also made the mistake of leaving my helmet back with the bike and it got beat up pretty bad. 

The rest of the guys rolled in soon after I arrived. It had been a fatiguing 10-hour day and they were mentally and physically exhausted. We checked into the only hotel in town, which was Muslim owned. There were no beers on site, but we each quickly downed about four sodas each. The next day I walked across the border and arranged a truck to take me all the way to Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia and where my replacement shocks would hopefully be waiting. The 375-mile trip truck-hire would cost me $500, cleaning out the remaining US money that I had stashed under the bike's seat.