Where are you go?

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.

Translation, courtesy of J.P. Guerschman

After four days of resting in Wukro and recovering a bit of the lost faith in the Ethiopians thanks to father Ángel and his mission, we resumed the long journey to Addis Ababa. We had already crossed tens of mountain passes to get to the Tigray and go across it, bearing the tireless harassment from the evil Ethiopians, and tens of mountain passes we still had to go across to get to the capital, but to our surprise and relief, we would experience a calmer Ethiopia, at least for a little while.

Afar land

With a shield and a sword we left Wukro, ready to continue battling the everyday harassment, but miraculously the miles began to go by without major problems. After a couple of days, I began to wonder whether Ángel was indeed an angel whose compassion influence extended to his surroundings, taming the wild behaviour of these demons. In Mekele, a city famous for its nice people in this country of bad people, we met for the very first time charming Ethiopians who made justice to such fame. Among other things, the Mekele cycling club members helped us repairing Julia’s bicycle, gave us shelter and food and helped us to continue believing that not all is lost in this country.

The days became noticeably easy even though we had to climb and descend mountains over and over again, each afternoon reaching an accumulated ascent of over 2000 m! But our journey seemed to go unnoticed to the people of the south of Tigray. We started to gradually descend, pass after pass, until losing altitude and find ourselves in the line that separates the highlands plateau from the famous Danakil depression, the lowest place on earth with a maximum of 117 meters below the sea level. The land of the Afar is not an easy land, it is land of tough men who traverse the depression by foot bearing temperatures of more than 60 C. We came across them in the towns where they arrive from the depression with their camels loaded with salt. Their faces show apathy and sometimes even some apparent contempt. We went through, however, without major problems.

After the Afar region, we finally got out of the Tigray and began a new climb to the highlands. Valley after valley, endless climbs followed by descents so ephemeral that they made of the days feel like a constant endless climb. We left the arid lands of the Tigray behind and the mountains dressed up in intense green again, but together with fertility the devils came back like mushrooms after the rain. We gradually had to bear the continuous harassment again, this time with new variations but now done by both children and adults. To the common “give me...” now we also had the “where you go?”. In each town, each corner, there’s always someone shouting with disdain “ehhh faranji(white man) where are you go?”. Great power for synthesis these ethiopians who seem to have fusioned two tenses of the English language: simple present “where do you go?” and present continuous “where are you going?” inventing what I like to call, the Simple Ethiopian: “Where are you go?”... A question apparently so harmless but almost always said in a way where the tone sounds taunting and arrogant which I don’t like a single bit.

World Cup loss

Once again in the Ethiopian highlands, a plateau higher than 2000 m above sea level, we are in the middle of July when, passing by a coffee shop in a small town, I see lots of people surrounding a TV watching a football game. I remembered the football World Cup must've been taking place. Football is a sport that I’ve always found as incomprehensible as terribly boring. But not only I got to know we are two days away from the grand final but also that Argentina will play in it against Germany. With the only purpose of putting my heart together with those I love who like this sport, I decided to leave my indifference aside and stop at the end of the day in a place where I could watch the final. In a small town before a hard climb, the locals take me to a small adobe made hut wherein a small room with an unpainted wall, around 20 excited Ethiopians crowd behind a small TV set. The TV requires someone standing next to it, moving the antenna, in order to get enough signal to be able to see the little-coloured points who run from one side to the other, although the ball, if there is one, I have no idea where it is. 

We are tighter than 4 elephants in a Smart, but the mood has plenty of emotion. I come in, the Argentine faranji, and everybody cheers and I get emotional because they are good Ethiopians. They turn on my side against Germany right away. I think to myself that in the end, football can’t be such a bad thing if it has the power to turn the Ethiopians into good people so I sit down to watch and suffer together with them. Not to suffer the missed shots from the Germans, nor the missed shots from the Argentines, not even to suffer the Ethiopians! Suffer for the torture of so much boredom. How can someone enjoy watching this sport is so far from my understanding as trigonometry is. I don’t understand it and won’t be able to ever understand it and to make things worse, after 90 minutes we have 15 in the middle and 30 minutes more of extra time! Why does this happen to me? Can’t they simply accept a draw and go home? And even waiting all those 30 minutes for what? So that Germany scores! Damn, I wish I could get back these 135 lost minutes of my life because tomorrow we have a 65 km long climb to a 3300 m pass and it’s more than 1 am, but I must admit I had a good time with these Ethiopians.

Deja-vu for me, as in 2006 when I was doing my first long bicycle trip from Iran to China I was crossing Uzbekistan when in the great city of Bukhara, in a similar self-torturing mood I decided to suffer the Argentina-Germany game of that time, when Germany also beat and left Argentina out of that World Cup. Different to that occasion, this time I didn’t have to watch the game next to 5 drunk germans who didn’t stop making stupid jokes, as if I cared at all about the final score! The moral of the story is that I believe I don’t bring much luck to my home country in World Cups and next time I should choose not to watch the game to see if they finally win once and for all.

Arriving to Addis

I knew we had a hard climb the day after the World Cup final but I didn’t know it was going to be 65 km! I had barely slept and to make things worse I had to do it alone because my iron maiden woke up with a stomach sickness and she decided to jump in a pick up truck and wait for me in the late afternoon in Debre Birhan. From the early hours of the morning until the last hours of the afternoon I didn’t do anything other than climbing the endless succession of bends and switchbacks which go up in the steep hills, something akin to climbing a vertical wall from a high to an even higher place, reaching the highest point at 3300 m, where the change in the climate brings conifers and a cold wind that sticks to my sweat and freezes my muscles. The views are, as always, the great reward for the effort, because if there is anything extraordinary about this country is its magnificent scenery.

In the final days before Addis, we entered into the rainy season and the strong, cold and sporadic storms would be with us for the rest of the way. The rural life gets into the very boundaries of the capital, where farms continue to be ploughed by hand and farmers live knee deep in the mud all day under the sun or the rain. Sunsets paint plantations in gold and the clouds of the storms reveal splendid rainbows in this part of the country which is, fortunately, quieter than the rest.

900 km have passed since Wukro and I lost count of the number of mountain passes and valleys that we have had to tackle to arrive to the dramatic chaos of the outskirts of the city, as well as the thousands of meters of ascents we have done, but I suspect that since we left Sudan until we arrived in Addis we have gone up and down mount Everest no less than a dozen times. We finally arrive to Addis Ababa, the capital of this rabbit hutch called Ethiopia.