I spent four days in Metema. The mild symptoms of malaria were the lesser of my concerns. More worrying was the stiffness and soreness that quickly appeared in my legs, as if somehow sparked off by the unexpected parasites.
By the evening of my arrival, my lower calves were sore and stiff, causing some discomfort when walking. The following morning, after wishing my temporary Austrian companion a safe journey to Sudan, I could barely hobble from my tiny mud-walled room to the latrine across the stony yard. The hotel proprietor, an older woman assisted by her daughters, interrogated me in Arabic as to the reason for my wincing and shuffling. I told her I had no idea.
Recently I have worried that I seem to do a lot of complaining on this blog. If you agree, so I should apologise. In retrospect, it would appear that I’ve had a lot to complain about in the last couple of weeks. But at any given moment, my situation simply is what it is, and I only ever have one option: deal with it. Complaining is futile. I have to muster strength in the face of any hardship or uncertainty that comes my way, else abruptly end the journey with the ease of a credit card and a one-way airline ride to safe, predictable home.
In this case, rather than jump straight on the bus to the regional capital of Gondar, I decided to wait it out at the hotel. I would sweat out the requisite days and nights in the tin-roofed oven of my eight-foot-square hotel room. But within 24 hours, I was unable to extend either leg without experiencing sharp pains in the muscles above and beside my kneecaps. I could not understand the sudden breakdown of the physical fitness that was so integral to my life.
Gradually my malaria-induced fever diminished as the treatment ran its course. My aches continued and seemed to be the effect not of over-exercise but of the lack of it. I felt that my body had begun to revert to its former non-pumped-up self due to the inactivity of Khartoum. Suddenly it had been exposed to a lot of torturous riding – had it understandably freaked out?
Admittedly, all of this was conjecture. (I also find it convenient to apportion at least some of the blame to that Thai massage.) But it wouldn’t be the first time my muscles and joints had painfully reacted to the abandonment of their daily workout. Drawing on past experience, I suspected that I might be in for a longer break than I had envisaged.
In the meantime, alone again, I set about making friends in Metema, which turned out to be a more interesting place than I’d first decided. Newly arrived in the room next-door was Mike, a teacher from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s capital, on his way to Sudan. I brewed some tea as we sat and chatted in the shade outside our rooms. A young man and recently engaged, he felt trapped by his high earning power and his ageing and increasingly-demanding parents.
In Sudan, he could earn up to one-and-a-half thousand dollars a month teaching at a private school in Khartoum, pitiful salaries at home being more like two hundred. He wanted to save for his future family, but sadly, he said of his parents, “I can honestly say that they have ruined my life now.” They had welcomed him home and proceeded to spend all the money that he’d saved during the previous three years in Sudan. Left with almost nothing, he was forced to return for another three years of working in a foreign land, and it was on this journey that I encountered him now.
Like many Ethiopians I met, he had ambitions. He’d wanted to make films, but couldn’t afford to fund the production himself. So he’d spent a year writing a script, only to find that nobody wanted to buy it. He seemed resigned to a future of forgotten dreams, content to chew qat and let the days go by.
He offered me some of the fresh green leaves. I wasn’t really interested in stimulants, no matter how exotic or benign. “It’s like drinking coffee”, said Mike. “It helps you focus. It makes you think that everything is just fine… when really, it’s not!!!” He laughed heartily at the irony. I could see why he had been chewing away for the last two hours.
Many Ethiopians were crossing the border to Sudan. “You know”, said Mike, “some of these people will be heading for Europe – Italy, England?”
I asked him what he meant. This was one of the waypoints, he explained, on a dangerous voyage that would claim many lives. Paying a fortune to a series of profiteering ‘agents’, individuals and families would pass through the porous Sudanese border with Libya, far from civilization in the inhospitable Sahara, before boarding boats headed for the Italian coast. Others would sail to Yemen to board ships bound for Turkey and Greece, where maybe they would become those I had watched in November last year – figures in the dark, vainly attempting to scale the fence of the Greek port to jump onto a ship bound for Western Europe as I strolled aboard with my E.U. passport.
Of course, agreed Mike, who was clearly well-educated and worldly, none of these people had the remotest inkling of what lay in store for them as they landed on dark European beaches or stowed away in container lorries on the busy shipping lines of the Mediterranean and English Channel, dreaming of a magical carefree world of opulence and comfort. They were just as brainwashed as to the reality of the West and its faulty, unsustainable economic system as we are to the socio-political realities of the Middle East and the development needs of Africa. We chatted away over plates of overly-spicy spaghetti and glasses of fresh avocado and mango juice, the price a pittance to us, a fortune to some of those who sat and stared from afar.
Later, dealing with the familiar question of “can you help me go to England” to yet another group of daydreaming young men, I modified my standard reply. Did they know that the difficulty of obtaining a visa was due in large part to the problems caused by the very souls who were crossing the bridge just down the road? Did they know that the society they dreamed of joining had just missed the turning for a stable, viable future and was fumbling about for the map?
I remembered Steve, the Cornish trucker who had given me a ride a few weeks ago from Belgium to Italy. He had told me how, at British ports, lorries would occasionally be stopped as they disembarked. The driver would wait patiently in his cab while the ‘bugs’ were extracted before continuing to his destination as if nothing had happened. At all links in the chain, it seemed, smuggling and counter-smuggling of human immigrants was an industry in both scale and conduct.
Although Metema was rowdy and jolly, I felt an air of hopelessness. There was a stark difference between the simple yet complete living of the Sudanese and the visible destitution here, as far more people competed for a share of limited, ill-managed resources, with the losers numerous and obvious. I got the impression that for many people here, dreaming of a better life was futile. Daily routine was the keystone in a society where future ambitions were fleeting and quickly shelved. Ethiopia was clearly the poorest country I’d yet visited.
I soon tired of daily ‘friends’ falling in with my walks, asking “Are you fine?”, briefly discussing the relative merits of Manchester United and Chelsea and disappearing again when they realised that I didn’t wish to change money with their black-market friends. Still suffering from leg pains, on the morning of the fourth day I decided to take the bus to Gondar.
In order to fully appreciate what the following journey entailed, you must first envisage sitting over the back axle of a soap-box racer and being eagerly dragged at speed up a dried-out stream bed. Now you must imagine the same experience, but seated within a hot tin box whose other occupants resolutely refuse to allow you to open any of the windows.
Now imagine that the person crammed into the seat next to you happens to be a lunatic who spends half the journey loudly regaling those assembled with the disturbing proclamations of the clinically insane and the remaining half loudly apologising for any offence caused, who pauses every few minutes to spit on your left shoe, and finally demands the vehicle be stopped and oriented towards Mecca in order that he conduct a full Muslim washing ceremony and pray on the floor of the aisle.
Now imagine that you had forgotten to remove your padded lycra cycling shorts that morning, and that they are now incubating your nether regions at a dangerously-high temperature, which, together with the repeated bashing you receive as potholes cause your seat to fall away beneath you and return with great force a split-second later, causes you to seriously call into question the future survival of your family’s genetic heritage.
Now imagine the above scenario continuing for almost the length of an average work-day (no lunch-hour, mind), and you have a good idea of what it is like to take a bus to from Metema to Gondar. At least it only cost four dollars.
Gondar turned out to be a sprawling collection of villages which snaked down the valleys in all directions, linked together with an endless stream of tiny blue-and-white minibuses, swarms of recklessly-driven rickshaws, and of course the ever-present complement of donkeys and donkey-carts, all heading to or from a small and buzzing town centre that exuded a disarming sense of prosperity amongst so much visible poverty. The famous castle could be glimpsed from the small, noisy central piazza, where left-over Italian buildings from the short occupation had in turn been colonised by cafes, computer shops, small supermarkets, private clinics, hotels and photo studios that attested to the growing presence of the Ethiopian middle class.
Gondar nests within the furrows of a green, hilly plateau at over two thousand metres of altitude; way above the border village which resided at a modest eight hundred. I was disappointed to skip the impressive climb from the savannah below until I studied a map in my hosts Nicole and Josh’s flat, which indicated that my proposed route to Djibouti would involve roads approaching four thousand metres – four vertical kilometres above the oceans! – dwarfing the majestic passes of the Alps and even the strenuous climbs of Armenia. Looking around, the landscape was pleasantly undulating and growing verdant, reminiscent of inland Turkey in autumn. The rains were due any week now, so I was eager not to dawdle.
Unfortunately my run of bad health seemed destined to continue. The morning after my arrival, I awoke to find my ankle inexplicably swollen and no amount of ice-packs or lazy days on the couch would induce it to come down. Visiting a local clinic, which was far cleaner and more professional than my shallow preconceptions had allowed me to imagine, I was examined, blood-tested and prescribed a course of aspirin for two weeks. The doctor seemed to think that the swelling was unrelated to cycling, but that a hereditary susceptibility to rheumatic arthritis could be the cause.
On investigation, it turned out that my late grandmother had suffered the disorder, so I was left to contemplate the possibility of growing disability in my retiring years – a humbling idea to contemplate at the age of twenty-five, I can tell you, but, when rationalised, only fuelling the drive to make the most of my youth and health while I still have it!
I decided against a detour to the north of Ethiopia, since the less-popular route across to Djibouti was sure to provide a good dose of challenge and spectacle. In the meantime, I decided, I would rest up in Gondar until my condition improved. It was the only sensible choice.
My hosts were laid-back at home and driven in their work. Nicole was a volunteer with the US Peace Corps, and had been working in the area for a year and a half with the aim of educating communities on the topic of, amongst others, AIDS prevention. Amongst African nations, AIDS is a relatively minor problem in Ethiopia, but with a dense population the numbers are still high.
I joined her at a local school as some of her university students gave a training session to a group of deaf pupils, translated into Amharic sign-language, and came away significantly less cynical about the effectiveness of Western volunteering schemes and aid and development work in general. In a country such as Ethiopia, where the appearance of a white person has traditionally signified tourism (money) or large aid agencies (money), dependence has been a problem and continues to manifest itself throughout the country in racial stereotyping of incoming foreigners, as many a cyclist has previously attested.
I asked Nicole what could be learnt from past mistakes, where Westerners had landed here with the best intentions but with ideologies that could not be simply transplanted from world into another, with more harm than good as the net result. A good example is the aid effort mustered by Bob Geldof and friends following the famine of ’84-’85 – the miserable spectacle with which Ethiopia is now generally associated – which raised over 100 million GBP in public donations.
Much of the money, it transpired, was redirected towards feeding Ethiopian soldiers, prolonging the ongoing civil war and in leading in fact to even further human suffering in a famine called by Michael Buerk “the closest thing to hell on Earth”. Undoubtedly those who donated did so out of the goodness of their hearts, but the idea was far more noble than the reality, which simply deposited the funds in the hands of a less-than-benevolent Ethiopian government and, to all intents and purposes, left them to it.
We can only hope that the mistakes of the past will not be repeated in the future, and Nicole was well aware of the common stumbling-blocks. I was heartened by her efforts to ensure that her work was sustainable, to borrow a contemporary buzz-word. For a long time after she departs later this year to cycle to Cape Town with her fiancé Josh, Nicole’s students, with the zeal and ambition of youth, will continue to educate community groups in HIV prevention, not only in Gondar but in their home towns all over Ethiopia.
Thinking about foreign aid workers today prompted me to imagine a tomorrow where people from today’s ‘developing’ nations come as volunteers to the Western world to teach us the skills that capitalism has taken away from us – how to milk a cow, bake bread, preserve food for winter. What a turning of the tables that would be! How many amongst us now can profess to have these fundamental skills for independent living?
After a few days of resting and reading a remarkably insightful and topical book called ‘The World Without Us’, I can tentatively report that my leg muscles seem to be returning to their normal duties. I’m slavering in anticipation of the high-altitude dirt through the mountains, with the possibility of an unusual (for me) touristy side-trip to see some unique churches carved directly into solid rock, before I continue east towards Djibouti, where the uncertainty of sea passage to Yemen still occupies a small corner of my consciousness.