We are little over two weeks in this unique country.
First thing – cycling is really hard here. It is a very mountainous terrain. Every direction which is further than 100 km you will have to do some continuous climbing. On a loaded tandem bicycle climbing is always slow, on your lowest gear.
This slow speed inevitably allows all the local children to not only run by your side but also to investigate what is in your panniers, or have a lot of fun while trying to provoke you for racing with them. If you happen to be sensitive to touching and constant attention, well, this might be the hardest country to bike in Africa. Or so they say.
We say it has very hospitable and super joyous people. You get a feeling that everyone and everything is constantly roaming around. They make sounds, lots of sounds. Often it qualifies as just pure noise, but if you listen carefully you will hear goats, lots of loud talking and then, you will hear various pigeons and donkeys. And hundres of Bajaj’es (Ethiopian TukTuk) racing with each other. Then you will hear the same children screaming something that reminds you that this coming uphill is a FARENJI (common term for foreigner) trap!
We are lucky to experience no rain and somehow it does not feel like a hot country, just because it has rather dry climate, thus 36 Celsius feels like 25 in Chicago for example. Of course we are biking mostly in the mountainous regions thus climate is rather pleasant.
We got quite far East – to Harar. Harar is considered arguably the 4th holiest city for Muslims. Definitely it is the holiest Muslim town in Ethiopia. And it is located some 160 km from Somalia border. Also, Ethiopia’s Somali federal region is outside Harar’s walls. There are some ethnical tensions between Ethiopia’s Somalis and Oromo people so we were strongly advised not to venture further East. Who knows what would be awaiting us there? Most likely we would be greeted by nice locals and everything would go smooth. You know the destructive power of the media and ones fears?
Anyway, we were quick to head the advice as there is some 1000 km of mountains to cross so we decided to take a buss back to Adama, thus saving us some 3 – 4 days of biking and continue our cycling from there. This time directly South towards Bale Mountain National Park.
One more thing that pops into my head. While in Addis Ababa, very friendly nurse was telling us how we have to be very careful and not to relax and watch what we are eating. “It can come frow anywhere” – she was referring to diarrhea. “Sallad is a no no” – she says. Mostly due to “almost” all Ethiopian water being contaminated and who knows what kind of water people are using when washing/preparing and even growing your sallad. So I do not know yet if this is correct assessment but I happen to get so called travellers diarrhea twice already. Yesterday night it was quite extreme – lots of womiting and pain 🙂 Today things are getting back to normal and I was even able to venture out for some errands. Oh and another thing to share – already multiple people told us to “be more patient”. This we can confirm fully. Things take time and people are very flexible with time and their obligations. Do not forget, they are generally extremely friendly but also they are not in a rush to serve customer the way you might have gotten used to in the West.
It took us two days to keep returning to same police station in order to find out that we still need to arrange a third thing (means a third visit). Or just today we went to a local post office to send some presents back to Lithuania and USA. It’s working hours are from 9-12p and 2-5pm. We arrive at 11am, all post office gathers to try to figure out where Lithuania is… After some 20 minutes of trying to enter Lithuania, Vilnius, Kaunas into their computer systems they gave up and announced that they cannot deliver there. Well, then let’s ship everything to USA – “not now – you need to come back at 2pm”. – but it’s 11.30am, we tell them – “it is Friday and people need to pray, please be patient”. So we get back to being patient and come back at 2.30pm to finish our task. Other tricks we’ve learned – when biking probably only possibility for somewhat quiet rest is only on very steep and high mountain slopes. As a rule there will be much less huts thus less people and you can have your snack if you will.
Its time for a dinner now. We are sending many big hugs and sunny Ethiopian smiles!
We finally loaded our tandem with all the gear and rolled out the gate of our guesthouse around 8 am. First time we got to see the addisian morning rush! Intense, but orderly. Glad to turn onto a big road leading to Adama. Oh wait, we’re going the wrong direction 🙂 after all we found the right way and enjoyed the wide asphalt highway until about 15 km later we got redirected to the old highway by local police since bikes are not allowed on the expressway (for the rest of 80 km…). What a pity, it was suuuch a nice road! The old highway, even though paved was busy with trucks, bajaj (local blue and white tuk-tuks imported from India) filled with khat chewing young men and other admirers and most of all – dust. About half way to Adama we stopped for a bottle of cold Coke, I looked at myself in the mirror and saw a creature with half white and half brown face looking at me with small eyes from the mirror. I splashed some water and, oh! what a relief, she’s still there, hiding under the road dust…
In Adama we met with Daniel, Amanuel’s childhood friend, who hooked us up with the local police station where we pitched our tent for the night. We even got a shower! For the next few days we were staying at cheap hotels in larger villages rising at 4:30 am and starting the ride at 6 am. Why? Because the road took us up and down the mountains through small villages dotted with clay huts every half kilometer and roadsides full of curious humans. Adults are very nice and friendly, the concept of farenji (foreigner in Amharic) on a bicycle passing through is hard to grasp but still, they wish us well, friendly nod and a smile and off we go. The children however are less timid. There’s something in their nature to drop everything and just run after us, touch us or at least the bags, and no matter how slow or fast we ride, the swarm of children constantly follows. Most are sweet and curious, but most swarms have a lead “entertainer” who will do everything to drive us mad and pay him attention. We do our best not to. But still, have to keep an eye on the bags, as those few little devils snatch small things from the pannier pockets. And you never know which one will it be, so now you are ready for any one of them to be the one. So far in 6 active days on the road we lost 2 rolls of toilet paper and an inner tube. Towards the end, we borrowed a trick from the truck drivers carrying precious goods such as Coca-Cola, and put thorny Acacia branches in the pockets and it seemed to repel the curious hands.
Over a course of a few days we learned that there will be no or very few people in the serpentine roads in the mountains, you can safely take a wiz and rest, even have a meal there.
One morning, we turned off the road to the path up the mountain for breakfast, it was peaceful and quiet there. We put out some instant soup and bread with peanut butter and waited for the water to boil. I look to the right and here they are, the whole gang of them curiously observing us, moving their thick lips. The camels! They walk so quietly like cats, just wave their tails, so docile and majestic at the same time. Pleasure to meet you, adorable utilitarian beings.
As the road was nearing Harar, the villages got smaller and “less important”, so no more hotels… The last night before we entered Harar, we got to stay at a former hotel built by a former World Bank clerk who now lives in Addis Ababa. He built the hotel for his family hoping they will make a good business out of it, but sadly, they ran the place to the ground and now he’s trying to revive it. It’s hidden behind an unmarked blue gate and we only got there because of the note we had written before leaving Addis in Amharic, saying we’re touring cyclists on a low budget and asking for a space to pitch a tent. With the help of a good portion of the village, we were set up with this older gentleman and his hotel. We ended up tipping the grounds keeper and enjoyed a piecful patch of grass in the bustling town of Chelenko.
From there the villages got denser and denser, hard to tell when one ends and another begins, so the second half of the last day on a bike was quite a handful with all the local attention. It’s probably what being a celebrity feels like…
Ahh, finally after 514 km in 6 days, we’re in Harar. We went for a nicer hotel for this part of the trip as we both felt like we could use some decent, warm shower without spiders watching you, and flies pooping all over your room. Overall, Harar feels much nicer than anything we’ve seen so far, especially than Addis Ababa. The city consists of the new part, and the UNESCO protected old part, called Jegol. It’s a walled circle full of colorful labyrinthine streets with only 3 motorable streets crossing the old city. It’s bustling as usual, but somehow less intrusive, fresher, less smoke of all kinds… Vibrant in it’s own archaic way. Check out the latest album on Flickr for some of the highlights of Harar!
Tomorrow morning we set out on the other leg of the trip – Bale Mountains.