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.

The task of reading, researching and asking about a country that we are planning to visit always precedes the arrival to it and it is a task that takes an undetermined amount of time. We dream, we inform ourselves, we learn and we procure to know as much as possible beforehand for things to turn out as smoothly as possible. In the case of Ethiopia, unlike most other countries, the information we obtain through other cyclists and walkers that have passed through, paints a grim picture, with stories that abound in hardships, frustrations and wild tales. After having read much of what has been written about it, it is hard to think of the motives that might lead someone to actually want to ride a bicycle across this country. Even worse, it is impossible to imagine who in his/her right mind would be willing to duplicate a number of miles that are needed to cross it entirely using the fastest possible corridor and instead, choosing the most remote and inhospitable trails that will make everything slower and more painful. It is at this point where the adventurer, the optimist, the idealist and also the naive in oneself all come together, to believe that if we approach a situation with the right attitude and the right quota of patience and tolerance, nothing can be that bad. It was with this very spirit and the extra positive energy with which the Sudanese had filled us with that we cross the border to Metema, the Ethiopian side of the border with Sudan.

The change is radical and you can feel it immediately within the first few meters of cycling in Ethiopia. From the absolute absence of alcohol to the endless rows of crummy little bars one right next to another where drinks are served from early in the morning. From the conservative dress code of Islam, men in immaculate galabiyas and women in tobs, to men wearing filthy sleeveless t-shirts and shorts and women without bras letting their breasts go wild in and out of their shirts. From the mosques to the Ethiopian Orthodox churches. From the smiling faces and the joyful greetings of the Sudanese to the suspicious mocking laughter and arrogant looks of the Ethiopians. From tea to coffee. From the monotony of fuul to the intensity of shiro. But above all, an overwhelming difference in a number of people reflected in the noise, the traffic, and the surrounding chaos.

As we slowly cycled forward, absorbing this whole new universe around us, not more than a few meters pass until we hear someone shouting at us: YOU!. "You", is the way locals use to draw the attention of a faranji (white man) passing by. Apparently, it is a literal translation of the very way they address each other in Amharic. Whatever the case is, the truth is that as soon as anyone calls you out:" YOU!" the chain reaction it creates becomes an irreversible epidemic, reaching a point where pretty much every single person around us seem to put us in the spotlight with their own shouting of "YOU!". Whether this is a friendly way of addressing anyone, as some locals try to explain to justify it, it is not very clear to me yet, for the "YOU!'s" sound anything but friendly to me. More than a greeting they sound like an intimidating order, something like: "YOU! LOOK AT ME, I'M TALKING TO YOU!" and more often than not, they shout it out and loud, with a defying look and frowning to emphasize it even more. However, I decide to take it as a mere local custom, a little abrupt to my taste, but if I accept it like it is, I might be able to end up finding it original if not even funny.

Accompanied by the shoutings of "YOU!" for every push on the pedal, we left Metema to face the next radical change: the topographic one. Just a handful of miles before, everything around us was dead flat desert,  barren, dry and vast, but as soon as we crossed the border, as though the dashed border line of the maps separated black from white, everything became green and exuberant. Right there, as soon as one crosses the border post, we started cycling uphill the massive wall of mountains behind which Gondar lies. With the ascent, the stifling Sahelian heat disappears almost as if it were the result of a miracle. The air becomes fresh, the sun leaves the violence behind and immense clouds build up to bring back the drama to the previously sterile skies of the Sahara. The downpours will fall on us during the day and their drops would become an elixir after so many weeks that we have spent in the aridity of the desert yearning for the rain. Arriving from the Sahara, the ascent to the Ethiopian highlands feels like a glorious experience of rebirth.

The noticeable increase in the amount of people is not limited to the villages and towns but it extends along the whole way across the rural areas. Similar to what happened in the Philippines, here hardly a mile go by without seeing people. On both sides of the road, a long and uninterrupted continuum of precarious constructions are the houses, the barns, the little shops. Poverty becomes very evident; the road might be perfectly paved but there is no electricity, no running water and the average home in the best case, consists of a skeleton of wooden sticks with their interstices filled with mud mortar and straw, a tin roof and dirt floor. In other cases, they are simply thatched huts of circular shape without any other opening other than the front door.

 Kids sprout out of the huts as though they were rabbits coming out of the hat of a magician who lost total control of his trick, but nothing could be further from the whiteness of a rabbit, these kids are filthy from head to toe and with a few rags cover their nudity in different degrees. They are different to any other kids that I have met before, there is something different about them, more unpredictable, I perceive something evil hidden behind their smiles and looks. They come out running frantically to meet us as soon as they see us passing through, they surround us and they all yell hysterically in unison, in such a high pitch that could easily break the glassware of a whole town:


The effect propagates from house to house like a fire out of control, from each house more and more kids sprout ceaselessly to join this dissonant symphony that could very well break the eardrums of the Vienna Boys' choir. In no time, we were dragging a trail of dozens of little Ethiopians chasing us indefinitely while shouting:


But these are the very first days in the country and the relieving pleasure of this much more forgiving climate, coupled with the immense beauty of our surroundings help us to take this overwhelming reception with a lot of patience and even with great sense of humor, because after all, this is quite unique. On the other hand, the adults, especially the women, they are extremely nice. They come out of their huts and they look at us with great curiosity. In my first approach to a house, a middle-aged woman waits for me at the doorway.

Selam noo!

- I exclaim with a big smile, greeting her in Amharic. She burst out laughing and extends her hand to shake mine. I extend mine back and as soon as she grabs it, a strong pull shakes me by surprise until my right shoulder collides with hers, faces getting close but without touching. 

They collide once and bounce off and when I believe that she is going to let me go, another strong pull drags me back until colliding shoulders once again. After the two collisions, a final hand squeeze follows and this is how I learn the typical Ethiopian greeting, which I do not only find incredibly funny and original but also quite affectionate. I start to believe that in the end, this country and its people might not be that bad really.

For three full days we cycled mostly uphill until passing the 2000 m high threshold. The simple climbs of the hills of the beginning turned rapidly into long and steep climbs that would take us hours to complete. The weather might have become much more pleasant but after 3000 km of flat desert, the legs had forgotten what it was like to climb a mountain at 4 km/h with a bicycle weighing more than 65 kg. However, with the hardest climbs came the best rewards and despite the overpopulation and the increasingly annoying kids, we managed to find places where to camp during the first few days. And in the Ethiopian highlands, the rewards are serious. In this unique terrain of green deep canyons forming massive intricate shapes we spent the first few nights, under a full moon and few stars in these hidden spaces of peace and tranquility among the increasing hysteria of this culture.

We reached Gondar physically tired but keeping the optimism alive. The hysterical shoutings of "you!" are certainly a fact as can be read everywhere else on the web, but until now, it was nothing that could not be tolerated with a little patience. During the two days we spent resting in beautiful Gondar, I was keen to believe that if the rest of Ethiopia stays this way, then most of the people that cycled across here (or walked) were either excessively intolerant or what they wrote about was a problem left in the past now.

Unfortunately for us, not only it will be neither the first nor the second but it will often turn out to be a far worse experience than everything that has already been written before.