GIVE ME!

Warning: many of the commentaries and opinions that you will be about to read might sound very harsh, but I promise they are the most accurate account of the frequently miserable experience that is crossing Ethiopia by bicycle. Given the radical difference that exists between those of us who travel by bicycle across this country (and those who walk the world too) and those who travel by any kind of motorised transport, I don't feel particularly well predisposed to accept any objections coming from those who haven't crossed it in the same way.

In Gondar, little less than 200 km after having entered Ethiopia, is where the route that I had planned would split from the one that virtually all cyclists going through the country use. Although this involved almost duplicating the distance that it would take us to ride across the country, staying away from the comforts of the main highways, taking us across very tough roads in bad condition, the truth is that the Tigray route would also take us through one of the most fascinating corners of this country and its culture. At the same time, I believed that the more remote we went taking small tracks along which very few foreigners are seen passing by, it would make our lives much easier in this difficult country. I believed wrong....

Stone-throwing culture

From the very beginning, I knew that the road between Gondar and the Tigray would not be easy, just by looking at the shape of it in Google Maps is intimidating. The first stage, the 350 km from Gondar to Axum is also known as the "route of the Italians" and it runs along the edge of the famous Simien mountains in their entirety. It was built by the army of Mussolini in the 30's as part of his plan to invade Ethiopia entering from Eritrea, a country which was already under their control. On the other hand, I had no references about it, nor had I found any information from any other cyclist that had taken this route, so in that aspect, we were heading for the unknown. The only certainty that I had is that riding across the Simien mountains would be nothing but spectacular, and so it was.

As soon as we left Gondar, located at a little more than 2000 m of altitude, we started the long and steady 100 km climb to Debark. Paradoxically, it was during this very ascent that the descent into the Ethiopian hell would begin. Children, if that's how you can call these motherfucking pieces of shit devoid of even the slightest sense of respect, turned into the worst possible nightmare. Legions of them, between 4 and 12 years old, came out of their houses running wildly to our encounter with one simple and final aim: make our lives miserable. It was not shouting anymore, this was more like insane yelling, something that I could only define as a syndrome of generalized hysteria. The more we cycled the harder it was to believe what was going on around us. 

It all starts with the one that spots you first. As soon as he/she sees you, he/she will yell hysterically something like FARANJIIIIII (white man) or straight away:

MONEEEEYYYYYY!!

. Almost like a call to arms, the first yelling will trigger the attention of those around, and the yelling of those around will trigger the attention of those inside the houses, who after joining the madness yelling as well, they will trigger the attention of those in the upcoming houses. In a matter of seconds, you have anywhere from 20 to 30 kids of all sizes around your bicycle. Unless you are going downhill, there is simply no way of getting away from them and this herd of savages knows that very well, so they stick all around you, either walking, or running if you are going faster, they start laughing at you, mocking you, yelling, insulting and overlapping each other like broken records all at the same time:

  • you!you!you!you!you!you!you!you!you! Faranji, give me money! give me money! give me money! give me money! give me money! give me money! give me money! give me money! give me money! give me money! give me money! give me money! give me money! give me money! give me money! give me money! give me money!

  • give me clothing!give me clothing!give me clothing!give me clothing!give me clothing!give me clothing!give me clothing!give me clothing!give me clothing!give me clothing!

  • Give me shirt! Give me shirt! Give me shirt! Give me shirt! Give me shirt! Give me shirt! Give me shirt! Give me shirt! Give me shirt! Give me shirt! Give me shirt! Give me shirt! Give me shirt! Give me shirt!

  • Give me mobile! Give me mobile! Give me mobile! Give me mobile! Give me mobile! Give me mobile! Give me mobile! Give me mobile! Give me mobile! Give me mobile! Give me mobile! Give me mobile!

  • Give me shoes! Give me shoes! Give me shoes! Give me shoes! Give me shoes! Give me shoes! Give me shoes! Give me shoes! Give me shoes! Give me shoes! Give me shoes! Give me shoes! Give me shoes! Give me shoes! Give me shoes!

  • Give me pen! Give me pen! Give me pen! Give me pen! Give me pen! Give me pen! Give me pen! Give me pen! Give me pen! Give me pen! Give me pen!vGive me pen! Give me pen!  

  • Give me, faranji, Give me, Give me, faranji Give me.....you you you, give me, give, money money money, faranji, you you give me, you give me, you you you, give me money money money money!.

It is so overwhelming that it is unbearable, it is a sick display, the kids look pretty much retarded doing it because there is no possible answer to them. No matter what you do or say, they keep going on and on and on, saying the same thing repeatedly over and over and over again in their high-pitched voices. This not begging of desperation though, they laugh their asses off at doing it. Cycling faster is of no use at all. Ethiopia has broken over 30 world records in athleticism in the Olympics and when you are cycling you can easily tell why it's in these people's nature. These demons going through puberty can run head to head with us for hundreds of meters and many of them can even keep harassing us for up to 3 or 4 km while we are riding at 17-20 km/h !! But the most unbelievable thing is that not only they do this while yelling at us "

money, money, money, money...."

without pause, but they do it running barefoot on the types of surfaces that would make any of us twist our knees and yell out of pain just by simply standing on them. It is only when going downhill faster than 30 km/h that we are liberated from them, but the faster we go the faster the downhill ends and so hell starts again. It's horrendous, it never stops.

At the very beginning we took it with a lot of patience, we tried to respond with good sense of humor, we would play with them trying to entertain them while we cycled (with all the massive extra-effort that this involved for us). Most of them, mainly the littler ones, calmed down but not the older ones, those wanted more, they weren't satisfied. After following us for hundreds of meters, yelling, insisting like broken records, ignoring any kind of answer we would give them, some would opt for hanging on to ourbicycle from behind to prevent us from moving forward, others would push one of our rear paniers from the sides to make us lose stability and fall, others would try to catch anything that might hang from our bicycles and pull it out.

However, the worst are those between 10 and 12 years old, the smart asses (and cowards). These would stick behind us at about a dozen meters, and they will either walk or run behind us while throwing stones to hit us, and I am not talking about little stones, I am talking about really fucking big stones that can break your bones or easily cut through your skin. Any reaction of anger and fury will cause nothing but a chain reaction of hysterical laughter among them and not only it will not stop them but it will motivate them to keep targeting us. Stopping the bicycle to chase them is futile, the second you step foot on the ground whatever group is in charge, will split in all directions vanishing in the fields and mountains in the blink of an eye, and as soon as we would sit on the saddle again they would regroup almost immediately to keep on with the harassment. You are helpless, there is no way out of it, it's horrendous. 

Chasing them? If I had to bet on it, I would say that this is exactly what they want, because nothing, really nothing can entertain them more, for they know there is no possible way for you to catch them. While performing the ridiculous spectacle of chasing and throwing stones at them and yelling all sort of unimaginable insults into the air, your only real chances to catch them is if they ran out of air while they are laughing at you so badly. Once you give up and go back to your bicycle, they will come right behind you, always staying within the buffer zone to continue the harassment until you burst out of anger once again. At times, it becomes real evident that their ultimate goal has nothing to do with getting money, or stuff but basically laughing their asses off while harassing you. When I look at their faces of hatred with their innocence completely lost, I fantasize they have "EVIL" written in their foreheads in bright red.

 It is only when we reach a village, that perhaps one or two adults sitting around see us cycling in pain with a herd of savages running right behind us, and react to help us out of our misery. But what is it that they do to ward them off? They pick up stones from the ground and throw them at them in all directions!!!! It is preposterous especially when any of those kids could be their own family or the family of their own neighbors or friends. The kids run away in all directions when a local adult does that to them and they are not likely to come back after that, but a couple of hundred meters later, a new herd is ready waiting for us and the cycle begins again. This is stone-throwing culture at its best!

The Simien

During this brutal turn of events in the course of our well-being, we finally reached Debark after two miserable days. There, is where the tarmac ends and an exhausting series of rough ascents and descents along stony roads in terrible condition begin. We can only find motivation in the stunning scenery around us but even more so in the much less amount of people inhabiting the region.

At over 3000 m high, from the end of the tarmac, we contemplate this massive panoramic view of green canyons and valleys, rivers and truncated pyramid-shaped mountains whose majestic leaves us speechless, they are the Simien mountains in all their splendor lying before us. It is one of the most spectacular scenery that I have seen in the whole world. From then on, we have a long descent ahead along a terrible dirt trail of endless switchbacks that come down like a vertical ladder on the steepest sides of the mountains, a drop of 2000 meters in altitude where the Gelada baboons reign with their callings.

While we are in awe at the view and in a moment of peace up there, we see two armed men with AK-47's(Kalashnikov), the famous Russian machine gun, going downhill. Several minutes later, a white woman comes busy carrying heavy bags, and behind her comes yet another armed man. She stops to catch up with her breath and chit chat with us. She tells us that she is a teacher from England and that she had been living in Ethiopia for 12 years, the last 8 in a small village where she founded a little school comprising the first two years of primary school. After talking for a while I ask her:

  • Kathy, ¿what's with these armed men?

  • Ah, it's because of theshiftas – she responds relaxed

  • ¿shiftas?

  • Yes! shiftas, bandits – replies without worries and continues - This region is full of them, they come down from the villages high up in the mountains and ambush the vehicles that are slowly driving uphill. They take everything away from them. That's what these men are for, they are volunteers from the villages that take turns to protect us from them. Not long ago the shiftas attacked four consecutive vehicles, there was a shooting and people died. But don't worry about it, now it's quiet, they killed Gebre, the leader of the worst group and in the next bend, the most dangerous one, you'll find the volunteers you just saw passing by.

  • Arrrghhh.....now I feel better Kathy, thanks a lot – I grimaced while my stomach shrunk

  • Ahhh! and one more thing, don't even think about camping in the wild, there are hyenas and leopards all over the place after dark - She add

  • Aarrrgghhh, are you serious? Anything else, Kathy?

  • hahahaa – She laughs cheerfully. - If you want, you can come and camp in my village, I have a place in my garden, I will take the shortcut but I'll wait for you down there.

  • We'll be there!! Wait for us!

3-2-1-0......Knock-out!

The descent to Kathy's village is brutal and slow because of the condition of the road but the views at sunset are breathtaking. I cycle down slowly, enjoying it, absorbing it through all my senses, but for the last day and a half I have been feeling strangely weak. If there is anything that one learns when traveling the world by bicycle is to know one's body extremely well. I choose not to worry though, but I know that there is something wrong with me, I just still don't know what it is yet. While I wait for my body to either sort out the problem by itself or finally reveal the mystery that's coming, we stop to contemplate the impressive views of the Simien when the sun is coming down and the golden light washes the faces of the mountains. It is mesmerizing. It is in times like these that one can forget completely about the difficulties that sometimes one has to go through to experience beauty, and prevent them from occupying a place in our minds that they don't deserve.

At night, after camping at Kathy's garden I feel decidedly bad. I go into the tent and try to sleep but I find myself paralyzed by the pain in my bones, joints and muscles and fever soon starts going very high. I spend a terrible night in which I can't sleep at all due to the pain going all over my body. I suspect it might be malaria, but I remember that a couple of days ago there was something wrong in the taste of the water I was given in a village. There is no medical assistance in hundreds of kilometers around us, nor there is transport of any kind, so the only thing I can do is to wait at Kathy's and see if I can determine what I have based on my own experience and my bible on rural diseases ("Where there's no doctor") that I carry with me on pdf.

The next day, I am still paralyzed by a general pain that barely lets me move, and that's when this tough nut to crack declares the full knock-out for the rest of the day. The only little emergency strength I have left I have to use it to drag myself to the toilet. In Kathy's village, her house is the only one that has a latrine, a black pit hole on the ground within a dark room of mud walls filled with spiderwebs. There, I crawl to relieve myself 8 times in one afternoon leaving me extremely weak, but by the end of the day the fever starts to go down and I am able to sleep. I wake up the next day feeling stable and while I know I am short on energy I decide to keep going.

Kathy's husband, an adorable Ethiopian, escort us until reaching the end of the village to help us ward off the wild children. As we walk by the main road you could see the frustration in the eyes of the herds of demons that helplessly see us passing with an Ethiopian adult as an escort. After saying farewell, we continue the descent until reaching 850 m of altitude before starting a full new climb. At that point in time, it becomes clear to me that I am at about 10% of my energy because no matter how much I step on the pedals with all my strength it is as though I wouldn't be stepping on them at all. I can still fare quite well in the stretches without people, but in every single village misery resumes and hordes of these demons come at us to harass us mercilessly. I do not feel well at all and having to deal with them becomes harder than ever. I begin to have such strong negative feelings, so much poison inside me that I am sure I will get even sicker. Their modus operandi is driving me to insanity. I have the horrible feeling that these people are harmful to my health. 

  By the end of yet another day of endless consecutive ascents and descents I feel completely worn out, but I am still on my feet and now it's time to do the very hard job of finding a quiet place to camp, something that in Ethiopia is harder than finding a needle in a haystack. As we go through the pathetic exercise of sneaking around bushes and trees, trying to avoid being seen by the kids that are still playing in the area, we end up in a half-abandoned rural school. A downpour helps us to get rid of the last few kids that are still lazing around and forces them to finally go home for good. At that time we sneaked into an old classroom and pitch our tent hidden from the demons.

However, a few hours after going to sleep I must come out running out of the tent in total darkness under the rain for more flash diarrhea.
Forced by the inability to restrain myself, I have no other choice but to release my guts indifferent corners of the schoolyard and in the abandoned classrooms. A part of me feels guilty but my darkest side stirred by the continuous everyday harassment thinks: "give me, give, give me..." ?? There you go little fuckers, here are a few gifts for you for when you arrive tomorrow morning, little shits!" (read the warning on top of this post if you haven't read it!)

 I release my guts time and time again but my situation does not improve, so I have to use my headlamp to illuminate the feces and stir them with a stick to check if there are any worms in it; not only I do not find any but I fall into shock when I see blood all over them. Now, this is a real problem and I know it is not malaria but that contaminated water they gave me in the village, motherfucking Ethiopians! I can't recall anything similar to this other than brutal diarrhea I got in Pakistan back in 2006 when I lost 3 kg overnight. I am still far away from any hospital so I decide to give it a shot to one of the infallible medicines that I have in my first aid kit in every trip: ciprofloxacin. I take one and by the next morning its magic had worked again, I feel very weak but already much better. We picked up our stuff and left the school right before the savages arrive. 

The diarrhea, that I would later learn it was a form of dysentery called shigella, went away completely in a matter of hours, but even though I feel good now, I am extremely weak. I have no idea how many kilos I lost in these last 4 days but with the enormous physical effort combined with diarrhea, I lost every single kilo that I had put on back in Japan and that I had put so much effort in trying to preserve since then. I touch my ribs and I feel I am skin and bones, I feel malnourished now, in this place where the availability of good food is non-existent. I have no idea how I am going to complete this stretch of hell, but when the going gets tough, the tough gets going, so If I have problems, I am the only one that can get himself out of them. I just know one thing and that is that surrounded by this marvelous scenery, the last thing that comes to my mind is the idea of hitching a ride on a truck, not even after having left half of my intestines on the way, it is simply not an option. So I set my stubborn mind in that I will reach Axum sitting on my saddle no matter how badly worn out my ass is. That is how I almost painfully face the brutal succession of passes that followed, fighting the mud, the stones, the steep climbs and of course the Ethiopian savages. I go slow but steady while Julia waits for my like a rabbit waiting to race a snail.

As the days went by I slowly recovered, little by little, enjoying the very last views of the magnificent Simien already lying well behind us. I stop the bicycle right by the edge of the road to succumb at the magical beauty of the scenery. I save these mesmerizing images in my mind while they make me feel so tiny, so insignificant, they have the power to bring me back to the reality of our extremely small nature, it is a wonderful feeling that I seek again and again while traveling this world. 
     
The green and lush landscape ha subsided and given way to the aridity of the drylands of Tigray. From green to red, I look back and count no other than a staggering seven mountain passes squeezed in the last 120 km. Up and down again and again between 3000m and 750m. It took seven days to cover the brutal 350kilometers of the "route of the Italians" that connects Gondar with Axum and even though I was sick and the Ethiopian savages made every possible effort to make us continuously sick all the way, I do not regret it one bit. I look back at the ordeal from high up above in the mountains and I am dazzled by the beauty lying before me. I breathe deeply and my lungs get filled with oxygen, a sense of inner peace and fulfillment invades my body and soul. I let it flow while proving to myself once again that there is more in each of us than we know......