Trip Start Sep 01, 2005
72Trip End Ongoing
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With a wide grin, laughing as we saw his breath turn into small steam clouds in the cold air, he drove us past lines of perpendicularly stood sheet metal. It was a street turned corridor with ramshackle houses. Reaching over to lock the passenger side door, our driver pulled into a small alley way and parked with his headlights staring at a large steel double door. He honked the horn twice before a sleepy eyed guy came to the gate, also wrapped in a towel.
They exchanged words and the driver told us that they the hotel was full. I guess that that is what you get when you go to the first on the "budget" list in the Lonely Planet guide. So, we choose another and leave for it. There were many dogs walking the streets and barking at each other. I started to feel better about spending so much money on the rabies vaccination that I got back in Denver.
A half awake man in a blanket opened the gate for us and pointed to an open door with a bed behind it, and then disappeared. Arriving in Addis at four wasn't so bad after all. In fact, besides the over priced taxi, it may have even been a good time to arrive.
Addis is a high altitude capitol of a few million people. I would think that an accurate census would be difficult because of the depth of the unorganized poverty. Ethiopia is in the top three for poorest countries in the world, and the squalor around its capitol reflects that fact well. Our first afternoon there we sat in a café drinking tea and looking at our guidebook for the first thorough time. It looked like a simple loop through the North could encompass a great touring circuit. We couldn't travel too far northward because of recent military disputes with Eritrea, but we could still see several of the sites that we had envisioned: Lake Tana, the headwaters of the Blue Nile, and the churches of Lalibela, carved into stone several hundred years ago. Slowly we began to realize just how long it would take us to get to these different destinations.
Bahar Dar, a small town on Lake Tana is about 700 km from Addis. It takes two ten hour days if you go by bus. Gonder, an old capitol city lies another 200km north. That route takes about 5 hours by bus, from there, Erin and I would turn east and follow the edge of the Simian Mountains to Lalibela. From Gonder to Lalibela is about 700km, and it takes two to three days to get there overland. Then, Lalibela back to Addis, 700km and two days. Looking at the map we were puzzled by how short the distances were compared to the time that it took to travel them. We were looking at 7-8 days of full, hard, uncomfortable travel. Just in bus time, we needed a week.
We took a short walk that afternoon to get a feeling for the city. It is relatively new capitol and the modern parts of it clash loudly with the older parts of the culture and the society around it. Highrise offices had herd of goats led around them by barefoot shepards. There are a few luxury hotels patronized by business men, politicians and well dressed tourists. Just outside of their guarded gates are priests wearing medieval cloaks and very young orphans running around with their hands out saying "Money. One birr." There are nice sidewalks and streets with many inexpensive pastry shops, cafes and restaurants. The Italians left their refined knowledge of coffee processing after their 1940's occupation of the coffee rich land. Also along the sidewalks and streets are many beggars, many of which are maimed by diseases long since eradicated in the western world. Some of which are horribly gruesome. Just three weeks before we arrived, Ethiopia had held elections which resulted in the unexpected victory for the unpopular status quo government. Anti-corruption demonstrations started and over 40 people were killed by the police. The city had shut down for a week and hundreds of people were arrested and sent to prison. We saw no evidence of it as we walked around the town.
That night we ate a small dinner and retired to the hotel. For the first time we noticed distinction between "shower" and "hot shower" in the guidebook.
The next morning we drank ginger tea and ate French toast. It was more like a sweet batter fried toast really; the large amount of oil used coated my stomach. We walked through Meskel Square, a massive intersection at least 12 lanes wide, as long as a football field with six streets entering it then crossed a bridge on the way to the bus station. A half naked teen was washing his pants in the trash lined creek below. We passed the lush gardens of the National Palace then crossed behind the most luxurious hotel in town, the Sheraton and its dancing fountains. The guidebook has a picture of the latter, but not the prior.
On that walk, I saw some of the most pitiful sights of existence that I have seen; the worst of which made me gasp. After a couple of hours we reached the bus station, a collection of worn busses in a dusty lot. The ticket to Bahar Dar cost us the equivalent of seven US dollars. The first day we would wind our way through the mountains North of the capitol to make the 310 km trip to Debre Markos. That would be followed by an eight hour ride through the mountains and into a basin at Lake Tana. Each day we would have to be at the bus station no later than 5:30 AM, because the busses fill up quickly then leave. I have to admit, I was not looking forward to the trip.
We walked back through the clusters of mud packed shambles. Everyone watched us as we walked down the streets. The hills were covered in slum-like neighborhoods, packed together like mud dobber nests being held together by whatever bits of metal, wood or rope that they could find. From the street you could look down the dirt trails that led into the heart of them. Kids had small ping pong tables set up in the dirt. They filled socks with plastic bags and tied them to any upright pole, playing tether ball with their feet and heads.
On the way to the center we passed an Ethiopian Air office and stopped in to check the fares. A flight from Gonder to Lalibela cost $50 US. It would save us a minimum of two days in the mountains on an infamous road. An Ethiopian national who drives a cab in New York City told us about that route, "Oh man, that was the scariest thing. I never do that again. Long ride, yes, but the bus driver, he was crazy. I always fly when I come here." We splurged on the flight.
Just to compare prices, we checked what it would cost to fly to Bahar Dar.
"$74 US, and it takes about 45 minutes," the lady at the counter replied to our inquiry. 74 dollars, or at least 18 hard, maybe dangerous, hours stretched over two days. We took another number and got back into line so that we could talk it over. One day, that statement will probably sound funny, but we had to consider our budget.
I flipped my pocket angel to see what she said to do. In 3 flips out of 5 she agreed with our final conclusion. We put the ticket on Erin's REI debit card so that she'll have some dividends coming to her at the end of the year.
Late in the afternoon we returned to the café where we had eaten the day before. They served us an oily rice and cabbage soup as appetizers. Erin had the rice and vegetables. I ate half of a large portion of a very greasy ground beef lasagna. On the way back to the hotel, my stomach was in pain.
In the next door bar that evening we met a recently released Peace Corps volunteer who had just finished in Tanzania. The three of us went to a place that was close by and served chat, a mildly narcotic leaf that grows legally in Ethiopia.
Telling the waiter what we were interested in he smiled and said, "Oh, you want to try chat? Come this way." We followed him through a small hallway and took our shoes off at a door. He poked his head in, exchanged a few words in Amharic then invited us in.
Our chat guide was an English speaking business man. We sat on pillows on the floor, picking leaves from the small branches. We chewed them into a wad and packed them in our cheeks. For two hours we sipped on tea, talked about chat, America, Ethiopia, Africa, business, politics and religion. Our new friend traveled to China and Thailand for business dealing in light bulbs. He had interesting views and his English was very good.
A short excerpt in the guidebook said that chat was legal in Ethiopia, and that many people there chewed it. It was a mild narcotic that was supposed to produce a euphoric phase, followed by a contemplative one, and then sometimes followed by melancholy and feelings of self worthlessness. Just like eating the sheep's cheese in Poland and the wine with rain water in Croatia we thought that we would try it if we could. We each had a large pile of leafless twigs in front of us and a stuffed cheek, but at the end of the night none of us felt any different from when we walked in. We chalked it up as an experience and an opportunity to talk with a local, then returned to the hotel.
That night as we prepared our bags, I wish that I could say that the euphoria had kicked in. Instead, I began to fear that I had done the wrong thing in eating the soup and lasagna. My stomach was turning as I bedded down, hoping to not have to get up again in the night.
An hour and a half later I opened my eyes. A hundred little faces had been standing around me with their hand out saying "You. Money. You." My stomach was in pain, audibly churning with the greasy red ground meat. 15 minutes later I got up and wretched into the toilet. An hour and a half later I got up sweating, and did the same, followed by diarrhea; my body self-purging the poisons that I had digested. Good bye modesty, hello misery. Afterwards I lay in bed awake. The hundreds of stray dogs in the city barked, filling the air. I don't think that it was the chat, but I felt the melancholy. This was the lowest part of the trip so far.
Erin had been awake throughout the night as well, not being able to sleep in concern for me. She didn't have much of a choice either as my turning over in the bed only ceased when I staggered to the bathroom to vomit.
Early the next morning we would be on a flight to Bahar Dar. If only the morning would come.