Ethiopa: No Pain, No Gain

I waved goodbye to the Tele Café in the piazza of Gondar, where I’d enjoyed many a delightfully-spicy breakfast or pint of mango juice. I was about to experience a magnificent ride through the soaring highlands of north-central Ethiopia. As I rolled out of town towards the green valleys below, however, I was nervous.

Aside from the threat of ill-health making an unwanted comeback, my nerves came from reading too many journals. Those writing about cycling in Ethiopia were far from complimentary – “the single most difficult place I’ve ever cycled because of the human factor”, “the worst roads I’ve ever ridden”, “the mountains were the largest I’d yet encountered”, and so on.

At least one couple I met on the road had resolved that they would never go to Ethiopia, based on their reading of an account of travelling the country that Alastair Humphreys penned in the first part of his round-the-world travelogue Moods of Future Joys, a book which I read whilst planning this journey back in 2006. It was a contributing factor to my initial rejection of Africa as part of my trip, until last year I realised it would be much more sensible to form my own opinions.

So based on my (admittedly limited) time cycling in Ethiopia thus far, these various reports (or maybe my interpretations of them) seem, in retrospect, biased towards the negative and sometimes more than a little egocentric. It will be difficult for me to present a balanced picture when the experience was characterised by the opposite extremes of elation and struggle. I will say at the outset, however, that northern Ethiopia is a magnificent place to ride a bicycle, and that though often a challenge, it is one well worth facing.

Children observe my steed atop a huge valley

But there is something different about Ethiopia. As Nathan, a Canadian long-term bicycle traveller I met on the second day, had said, usually things tend to ‘chill out’ when you reach the rural areas, but here the opposite was true. As we chatted, miles from anywhere, a lone child, bare-footed, head covered from the midday sun by a grubby shawl, shepherding stick in hand, padded wordlessly up to us. Across the dry ploughed fields, others approached, their high voices audible long before they became visible.

Before long, we were surrounded by boys of various sizes, shuffling, whispering, staring. Since none of them spoke, we ignored them and continued talking, when out of the corner of my eye I noticed a hand slowly extracting a tube of sun-cream from Nathan’s unzipped pannier. I glared at the teenager who retreated in guilt as Nathan advanced to retrieve the stolen item which was proffered at arm’s length by the grinning miscreant.

I was unnerved to witness first-hand such a blatant act of highway robbery, especially one so witless – what exactly was a young black man intending to do with half a tube of sun lotion? It was the beginning of a feeling that reappeared with wearying regularity as I pedalled up the dusty dirt road into the mountains – that I was often seen, especially by children, as a travelling freak show, something to be laughed at and provoked and taunted until I disappeared over the crest of the next hill. But I suppose if, at the age of ten, I had noticed a dark man in robes and bare feet riding a camel down the main street of my village in Northamptonshire, I’d have been pretty curious too.

Ethiopian children stare at me, again

By contrast, the adults I encountered were, with the rarest of exceptions, some of the most gentle and courteous people I’ve ever met. Unlike the Arabian attitude of hospitality as something which should be honoured as a tradition, many men and women of Ethiopia were genuinely interested in me as a rare ferenji (foreigner) who wasn’t gazing at them from behind the dual shields of sunglasses and the rear window of a receding Landcruiser. People welcomed me to sleep in their villages, bought me meals and drinks and absolutely refused my protests, others just stopped me for a good old chinwag. I spent one amusing night sleeping in a tiny animal pen on a bed of straw, whilst the young cow next to me chewed noisily throughout the night and once threatened to pee on my head.

I spent the days grinding up loose gravel tracks and bombing down again soon thereafter, dreaming of finding the perfect camping spot amongst the coppices of exotic tree species and whoopings of distant monkeys. Fantastically challenging riding and spectacular scenery was the order of the day as I ascended even higher, traversing rugged, thirsty plateaus atop mountain ranges that rose to over four kilometres in altitude, and winding my way up and down precipitous, cliff-hugging tracks that linked the valleys together.

But whenever I thought I’d found that dream campsite and stopped to check it out, I would hear a distant cry of “YOU!” This indicated that a small child had abandoned his or her scraggly band of sheep and was heading quickly in my direction. This call would also have the effect of summoning every other child in earshot, small boys and girls seemingly being the hard-working breadwinners of the country. So it was often that I found myself brewing a cuppa on a hillside amongst a wide-eyed crowd of silent, tiny onlookers.

Ethiopia is not densely populated, but the rural people in these mountains are for the most part shepherding families, with the dry, high-altitude land being more suited to grazers than crops, and they roam with sufficient range to mean that if I suddenly found myself alone and undisturbed, I was a lucky ferenji indeed. It was this constant feeling of being watched, together with the absence of the concept of personal space even when I stopped for a meal or to spend the night in a village, which provided the main psychological challenge. I was a lone foreign bicycle traveller from the West, brought up on a diet of individualism and private property, plonked suddenly into a country where such concepts only existed in the closed, competitive middle classes of a few scattered cities.

A parched riverbed awaits the rains

Occasionally I would roll up in a village and, within a few seconds, have procured an entourage of (without exaggeration) anywhere between twenty and two hundred or so small children. Evidently having not been attentive to their English teachers, their vocabulary often began and ended with “YOU!!!” which they used in order to gain my attention at full volume, regardless of proximity.

Sometimes this would be supplemented with demands: “Money!!!” “Pen!!!” “Highland!!!” The latter referred to a popular brand of bottled water, but was used to mean any drinking receptacle. They had no other way of carting water around the pastures or to their schools, having not yet discovered that the plentiful animal skins could be turned into convenient water-carrying devices.

Even had I been carrying a huge pile of pens and bottles, I would be reluctant to begin any kind of programme which involved dishing them out before disappearing without a trace. This is because, as more than one observer has noted, previous and doubtless well-meaning attempts at aid and development by foreigners in rural Ethiopia have not always turned out well in the long run. Specifically, a worryingly large number of Ethiopians (though still a minority overall) seemed to think that I had ridden a bicycle fourteen thousand kilometres to their village in order to supply them with whatever they wanted from my modest luggage, whether or not they genuinely needed it.

Even more worryingly, the presence of the most obnoxious, opportunistic and demanding children seemed to correlate visibly with the very villages which still sported chipped and fading wooden signs advertising the involvement of numerous international aid agencies. World Vision, Save The Children (Norway), Food For The Hungry International and USAID seemed to have been amongst the more zealous. It would be sad to conclude that the best efforts of these organizations had caused more problems than they had solved, and it would be arrogant to generalise the social conditions of rural Ethiopia based on the reaction to my unusual presence there. But the evidence pointed tragically in that direction.

I stopped early one day in the curiously-named village of Gob Gob, high in the mountains. I saw no reason to continue, as the tree-lined village was particularly pretty and my welcoming entourage was only about fifteen-strong. Stopping to enquire about accommodation, I met a well-spoken young man by the roadside whose family ran a small hotel nearby. I trundled my bike and life into my tiny room, which cost about 65p and was just big enough for my bicycle and a bed.

It was a typical rural Ethiopian affair, doubling also as the family home, farmyard and restaurant, with a row of little bedrooms in a timber-framed, mud-walled building in the yard. The walls of my room were for some reason decorated with pages of an English-language newspaper from China (dated November 2004). A tethered goat nibbled at scraps. The kids of the family giggled at my video camera, hid shyly behind the straw huts that constituted the kitchens, and never once asked me for money.

My host, worried that I would be offended by the aromatic hint of damp earth, lit an incense stick in my room and promised to take me to see “a very beautiful place” after dinner, which was shiro, lentil stew, and bread – too spicy for me (as usual) but still delicious. The beautiful place in question turned out to be a large vegetable garden on the fringes of the village, with fields divided amongst tree seedlings, beehives, carrots, potatoes, onions and cabbages, all separated and sheltered from the elements by tall hedgerows in an English-garden style.

It all sounded most un-Ethiopian, if you’ll understand that I use the term here without any derogatory connotations. The vegetables were unusual for the altitude, as was the style of management. It was ordered, silent and mysterious. As my host unfolded the story of this strange, secret garden, I learned that it had been for the most part abandoned. Five years ago, he said, the NGO responsible for managing the project had been evicted from the country – for reasons which left me shocked and indignant.

After running what was a productive local enterprise for almost twenty years, continued my host, Food For The Hungry International of the USA decided they were more interested in interfering with the religious practices of the community they were contracted to be helping, attempting to convert local people to their preferred brand of Christianity. Religion, again. The local community, he said, was sufficiently incensed to kick the organisation out, and the Ethiopian government followed suit, and took responsibility for the project themselves.

But now, five years on, the original workforce of two hundred had dropped to fewer than twenty. We wandered amongst the overgrown fields in the evening light, all but a couple given over to nature. One had been kept trim as a sort of ‘village green’ for weddings and other events. It was sad to see a place that had once been so productive in such a state of decay and decline. The remains of a large wooden hut lay where they had fallen, once the place where the workers would convene for lunch every day.

It occurred to me that if the story was true, then the project had failed on two fronts – firstly due to the irresponsible way in which those involved had grossly overstepped their territory, and secondly because of what had happened when the support was withdrawn. What is the point of a development project that cannot sustain itself in the long term?

The farm was overproducing, and there was simply no market to sustain its output, as no consideration had been given to developing the local economy to keep the level of production viable. No doubt the hungry had had their food, but they had not been given the knowledge or incentive to take the fruits of their labours and distribute them elsewhere in order that more could benefit from it, so only a few onions, potatoes and bees remained.

It is a shortcoming of modernity in general, in which symptoms of problems are tackled rather than the root causes. It’s easier. People are hungry – give them food. People are poor – give them money. But wouldn’t it be better to help the poor and hungry develop an economy which will continue to benefit them long after the seeds have been sown? Isn’t that a better way of giving a decent existence to those who still need it in this twisted world of inequality we live in?

The following morning I sat in the tiny front room of another house-cum-hotel-cum-restaurant and had my breakfast – a glass of sweet, black tea flavoured with cinnamon, and a bowl of scrambled egg, with a dash of onion and hot pepper, served with a couple of fresh bread rolls. It was one of the staple foods of Ethiopia – egg firfir.

As I ate, the family began to prepare another traditional meal, t’ibs, pronounced by violently spitting the ‘t’ out of the mouth before following with the rest. Preparation involved three people and took place on the restaurant floor. I watched in curiosity as they brought in the utensils – a plastic bowl and a length of rope – followed by the main ingredient. Then two of them turned it upside down and sat on it while the third tied its legs together, cut its throat open and wrenched back its head until its neck snapped. Twitching and gurgling, the goat quickly died as its lifeblood splashed alarmingly rapidly into the waiting bowl. After forty days and nights of pre-Easter fasting, meat was back on the menu, and it was a strictly do-it-yourself affair. And suddenly my egg didn’t taste so good.

Ethiopian truck drivers having tea

Sometimes I came across groups of road workers, usually with two or three civil engineers from China standing around close by. The Chinese construction company was the contractor for upgrading the road to Weldiya, which was my intended stop-off point for a day off. The Ethiopians complained that the Chinese spoke no English, which was actually rather inaccurate, as I discovered the night I talked my way into their compound.

Suddenly a particularly annoying band of young ruffians was on the other side of a very large, very unfriendly steel gate, with AK47-wielding soldiers on guard. I allowed myself the dubious pleasure of laughing and pointing at the kids and shouting “MONEY MONEY MONEY” at them (please don’t be offended; you’d have done the same), before wheeling my bike into the compound. There were about sixty Chinese men and women employed on the project, which aimed to upgrade 87km of rocky track to graded asphalt. It would take five years to complete.

I chatted to Adam (as he liked to be known) as I put up my tent on the basketball court. Most of the Chinese had ignored me when I arrived, but now work was done for the day and news quickly spread of my presence. For my part, I felt like I had walked through a wormhole and emerged into a parallel universe. A basketball court, for goodness sake! And possibly the only hot shower in all of Ethiopia, with the bonus of being serenaded by a moving rendition of ‘Are You Going To Scarborough Fair’ which emanated from the neighbouring cubicle. I washed my feet in the trough outside the latrines, noticing how similar it was to the foot-washing apparatus found outside mosques, and only realised how culturally disoriented I was when I later noticed somebody taking a pee in what I now clearly saw was the camp’s urinal.

My first attempt to gain sanctity in the camp had been denied by an older Chinese man who seemed to find the whole spectacle rather amusing and told me that there was ‘no house’. Now he came over and professed his apologies. He turned out to be the camp’s doctor – not just engineers were employed here; there were IT staff, lawyers, administrators, cooks and cleaners, who all turned out to be lovely, welcoming people who got me dreaming of cycling in China. (Maybe next year…)

Chinese road crew camp in Ethiopia

Since many of these people would spend five years living here away from home with only 40 days’ holiday a year, it needed a few comforts. Shipping containers arrived from China bearing tons of goodness-knows-what (but certainly not tarmac), and I was treated to a flavoursome and refreshingly different dinner of rice, stir-fried vegetables and spare ribs.

Before long, a consensus was reached that I should not be sleeping on a basketball court in the cold of three thousand metres elevation, so I was moved into the conference room, where some of the young Chinese men whiled away their evening on laptops with broadband internet, playing music from the back catalogues of the Backstreet Boys and Westlife.

“I think the Western idea of travelling is very different to ours”, said one. “You want to go to the developing world. We want to visit the Western world!”

“I don’t think it’s that different”, I replied. “We both just want to see something new.” And it’s true; that’s often why people travel – to challenge their ideas of life and the world. At least, that seemed to be the motivation of the handful of travellers I met in Sudan and Ethiopia, neither being particularly big tourist destinations at present.

Despite that, there are a few ‘hotspots’ in the country, and I was headed indirectly towards one of them: Lalibela. I’d heard about the place from some of the people I’d met in Gondar. Apparently, Lalibela was the site of a number of ancient churches from the thirteenth century, the unique selling point being that each church had been entirely carved from a single piece of rock.

But by the time I reached Gashena, the turn-off for Lalibela and the start of some tentative stretches of semi-tarmac, I was sick of hearing the word. Far more annoying than the relentless children were the smug know-alls in every town who grinned at me, cocked their heads and announced “Lalibela?” as I rolled past, as if having performed some outstanding display of psychic talent. “No – I’m – not – going – to – Lali – fucking – Bela!” I would reply as I strained up the hill, having long since rescinded any plans to make the detour. Churches. Great. Eight hundred years old? Wow. Great.

I wanted to explain that I was far more impressed by the yawning valleys and grandiose, curvaceous peaks that had been under construction for hundreds of millions of years without any human intervention whatsoever, until one day they spontaneously brought forth the conditions needed for the emergence of what would become the most successful and dominant species of the current geological age – homo sapiens.

The road down from the highlands to Weldiya

Unfortunately, Amharic wasn’t a language I particularly connected with, so I contented myself with just thinking about it as I cleared the highland area and descended a mind-boggling distance down to the lush, warm valleys below and the town of Weldiya for a well-earned day off after one of the toughest, most rewarding weeks of my life, and my first beer since January and Istanbul.

Comments (skip to respond)

6 responses to “Ethiopa: No Pain, No Gain”

  1. I didnt like this post, it had some stereotypes, but then again, this is from 2009. Also, I agree with Phlebas when they said not to dismiss people’s heritage…even if it all it seems like presently is just another hotspot.
    On a lighter note, I did a 16day trek in extreme conditions recently, my black African self will invest in sunblock in future 🙂 I too was surprised
    See you at the screening hopefully!

    1. Agreed. You learn a lot in 3 years!

  2. This is great. I came here because I’m about to take an extended trip and wanted to figure out how to pay for it (your financing long trips article) and I just kept reading from there. 

    From your writing I can tell that you actually really appreciate the cultures and the places you visit. There sometimes tends to be either an air of “Western-exceptionalism” to travel writing or on the other hand a total disregard for the bad, negative parts of “developing countries.” I think your writing shows a great midpoint between the two, the way things should be.

    1. Thanks for the kind words, Shaun. And nice to see my older content getting fresh eyes. Those times were the strangest and most valuable of all.

  3. Very interesting Tom. I am impressed, as ever. What’s great is that you learn as much about the development of Tom as you do about the developing geography explored by Tom.
    However, to me, an 800 year old building hewn from one piece of rock sounds worth a minor town digression. Be careful not to offend a people by rejecting their cultural heritage. Particularly since they might not have had the money or resources to do much since then (eeek!). This is a value judgement though, and you know me well enough to know how little I care for churches (although the architecture can rock! — pun intended) and how much I care for natural landscapes, particularly when they’re well preserved. If I were you, I’d try and catch a (binocular-enhanced) glimpse of those famous cliff apes deliciously shown on Planet Earth (.
    As ever, Tom: God Speed

  4. liz allen avatar
    liz allen

    An amazing, insightful and fascinating read. Look forward to seeing the photos sometime. 

Something to add?