I look around at the unfolding landscape; low undulations divided carefully into a patchwork of fields; deep blue overhead with a few wisps of white, the air pleasantly warm against my skin; well-kept tarmac beneath my wheels. Trees sprout between fields, and small streams make their way amongst the lulls and rises of the earth. It’s so quiet, but for the birdsong. And it’s obvious why I feel so bizarrely at home here. I could almost be riding in the back-roads of Derbyshire on an unseasonably warm Sunday in March.
But the low undulations are part of a plateau nearly a mile above the oceans. Divided up with low walls of piled rocks, these fields have been tilled by hand and by workhorse. The elevation offsets the climate here; other parts of this nation hold the average record for the hottest inhabited place on Earth. The tarmac will soon peter out into a track of bulldozed rubble. And the lush greenery in the distance is of a species that I have never seen before. Derbyshire this is not. This is Amhara.
I smile weakly at the children who abandon a game of football to check out the latest ferenj to pass through their territory, and I roll uncertainly to a halt on the broken gravel road.
Sprightly figures leap the piled earth and rock on the roadside; boys in faded cloth trousers and dusty, ill-fitted shirts, sleeves rolled up, some with shawls of light linen draped across their shoulders; girls in absurdly pretty frocks plucked from an English Sunday-best wardrobe a half-century past; all running up to me, barefoot. They’re maybe seven or eight at the youngest, twelve or thirteen tops, all lean and stringy, fit as fiddles, staring and jostling for proximity to the weird white-skin on a bicycle.
They’re just little humans, I tell myself. And I try to make friends, smiling and talking about my journey, pointing ahead and behind – ‘Gondar! Bahir Dar!’ – smiling some more. Some of the kids respond hesitantly, slowly repeating my words, staring at me as if I am an alien, or some kind of grotesque museum exhibit. I frown.
Then it dawns on me that I am.
I am an alien.
Attempts at rapport miserably trampled, I hesitantly make as if to continue riding. A ripple of havoc. The crowd, which by now has swelled considerably, attempts to part in order to let me through, and the domino effect lifts the smallest kids off their feet, sandwiched, others stumbling, and the wave of faces sways in front of me, as if Moses was warming up before attempting to part the Red Sea. Amidst the milling bodies and sudden yelps of amusement, I attempt to ride, reluctant to run anyone over. Gradually I gain momentum on the flat road. Then the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end.
A stampede of footfalls. Sixty Ethiopian children simultaneously lose all self-restraint and belt hell-for-leather after the wobbly ferenj, chasing me down the road.
Quick – can I grab a strap on this bag? How heavy is the bike? How much would it take to slow it down? What a hoot!
A few of the lazier members drop back; they can’t be bothered, it’s gone now – back to the football.
‘You!!!’ Pant. ‘YOOUUU!!!!!’ Gasp. Heels hammering dirt. Flying gravel.
I pedal as hard as I can. To no effect; I’m going uphill! I cannot outrun the mob! But suddenly the bicycle’s momentum wins through and the remaining crowd is receding in the shattered remains of my rear-view mirror. And I keep my eyes on the road ahead. I don’t want to know what’s co …
The first stone hits a pannier. The second glances off the metal rail at the back of my saddle. More stones sail through my vision and bounce off the road ahead. I hear more dull impacts on the track behind me. The surge of adrenaline is fading by the time I come to terms with the fact that a gang of kids has just thrown a load of rocks at me.
Here, children are going to throw rocks at me, for fun.
I’ve seen a fair few versions of normality, now, but this is the first in which I am a mere toy, whose only purpose is to provide target practice.
‘Give me one birr!’
What the hell is Highland?!? I wonder as I continue to cycle, alone and vulnerable, wearing a stupid grin on my face like I’m still cycling across fucking Derbyshire. And at the next village I collect a following of at least two hundred children, who are already standing in the middle of the dirt road as if they’re waiting, just for me.
I don’t stop. They dive this way and that, giggling, recovering quickly to give chase, and I blank my mind as more rocks come hurtling in my direction. I blast downhill at full speed to the next village and dash into a small building with a garishly painted ‘Hotel’ sign outside. I hand over a couple of dollars’ worth of birr for a shoebox room facing the yard and its resident goat, stow the bicycle safely inside, sit on the heap of blankets, and try to collect my thoughts.
What the hell?
I tiptoe gingerly towards the gate by road. There’s a cafe of some description opposite the hotel, tempting me with its fresh fruit juices. Looking up and down the street, I can see no children at all. Adults go about their business, ignoring me completely. And I am awash with a feeling of purest serenity.
When I return to the hotel room, I find that the four empty water bottles I’d been keeping in the end-pockets of my panniers have disappeared.
Hold on … water bottles … Highland …
It’s a local brand of bottled drinking water.
They’d been shouting at me for my empty water bottles!
My cycle-computer had been stolen many weeks previously. That day, I’d left my accumulated mileage count in the dust. The thief had unwittingly freed me from one of the few quantifications of my travels I’d kept hold of. I had been reminded how irrelevant mile-counting was to everything that the lifestyle had come to mean, and had begun to judge my days in terms of my feelings and experiences, rather than through the numbers on the little grey screen.
Hitting the road the following morning, I leave the safe haven of the village and immediately begin to crave distractions from reality. I want to have a little grey screen to stare at, numbers to think about, statistics to manipulate in my favour. I want to return to calculating how much more impressive my kilometre-count sounds than its mile-based equivalent, likewise for my average daily distance; whether I should express altitude climbed in feet (impressive) or metres (not so) in the next website article, whether I should translate the upper extremes of temperature into Fahrenheit for added effect. Because the unavoidable alternative I am faced with is to remain in reality and come to terms with what I represent to this culture in which I am now inextricably immersed.
Then I glimpse a sight on the road ahead that fills me with incredulity. As the shape nears, growing more distinct, I gawp open-mouthed: here, in some nameless valley of rural Ethiopia, I am about to cross paths with another fully loaded bicycle traveller.
One of the defining features of my journey has been the complete absence of other foreign travellers. This life has offered no network of peers to tie oneself up with, no moral support back at the hostel after getting lost or swindled, nobody with whom to slip into that comforting world of companionable chitchat. There is no escape from escapism. There is no way of brushing under the carpet the fact that beneath the itineraries and plans, the guidebooks and tours, the modern traveller is actually deeply insecure, flitting briefly through someone else’s world with a stupid smile and a camera before returning to a pre-purchased haven of safe, comfortable familiarity.
No. My journey is taking place on a plane of inner solitude, whether I like it or not. I have had to become secure in my insecurity, married to nothing but the ground beneath my feet, tracing a slow line across the surface of the globe. My life on this path has become a thing uncommunicable; I live it alone, no matter how many people I meet. And I know I will go home and discover that the brief messages and updates I have sent back will add up to little more than a list of highlights, a prompt for stories that will ramble on too long or break off abruptly. I can’t help remembering those three unimposing-looking veteran cyclists at the Royal Geographical Society – despite my best efforts to share this peculiar nomadic existence, the very attempt to break it down into bitesized chunks of time and space is not just inappropriate, it is almost completely meaningless. I understand, suddenly, why their advice had been so humbly delivered; I understand how pointless it had been to judge their journeys on miles pedalled and continents covered. Their journeys, just as mine, had been entirely personal, the statistics just a way of piquing the layman’s interest. And I wish that there was a way to share this realisation with my friends and family without them having to go through the stressful and lonely self-indulgence of a long, solitary journey themselves.
The figure is close now; a sunhat, an unhurried rhythm, the familiar outline of a heavy bicycle with panniers astride its wheels. He’s a young, long-haired ferenj like me, and he grins as he approaches. I grin back.
‘How’s it going?!’
‘Things are supposed to chill out when you get out into the countryside, right?’
‘Ha-ha! Not here!’
He has a look in his eyes of hard-earned wisdom: he knows exactly what psychological hurdles I’ve leaped to get to this meeting. In fact, it’s almost as if the entire conversation itself is surplus to requirements, and that we might just as well share a moment of silence, taking in the surroundings and the present moment, without the hassle of discussing the riding conditions and the weather and the availability of water. We could swap stories of hardships overcome, but what would be the point? Anyone else in the same position would have sweated and toiled in just the same manner, given no alternative but to grind away, pedal-stroke by pedal-stroke, until the self-inflicted suffering in question had passed beyond the horizon.
That said, Jared has a Canadian accent, and the opportunity to talk in lazy, colloquial English is too good to pass up. We talk about his route, which will lead him north via the Middle East to Europe in a reversal of my own, although I suspect he’ll be slightly quicker: it is approaching two years since I began that journey. And, as we talk, children abandon their herds and pad silently across the fields towards us, as if drawn by some unseen magnetic force.
We have both become used to this relentless attention, if not entirely comfortable with it. So we continue talking and ignore the growing circle of boys and girls. They stand with their goat-whacking sticks; an occasional whisper passes between smaller splinter groups. Yet more individuals gravitate towards our little party from afar. A shift of weight from a ferenj sends undulations through the crowd; again I have the feeling that I am some dangerous creature on display, a being of such unfamiliarity that the slightest movement is treated as prelude to a potential lashing out. We’re all the same on the inside, I want to say. But it certainly doesn’t look that way to a small boy who has seen nothing of the world but the fields and herds and neighbours and the inside of his family’s hut. Our audience is on tenterhooks as we stand leisurely by the roadside. We are two wise and well-travelled adventurers, enlightened as to the common nature of all people. We are two Martians, talking bullshit in an unknown tongue.
‘I just ramble at them in English,’ Jared says, ‘saying any old rubbish – song lyrics, poems, random crap that comes into my head. They don’t understand a word I’m saying, but at least it keeps me amused …’
This is when I notice the hand. The hand is midway through the careful extraction of a small yellow bottle from one of the rear pockets of Jared’s panniers by the time I shout:
The bottle clatters to the ground. The lanky teenage boy and his errant hand whip back into the crowd, giggling nervously. Murmurs echo through the ranks. Isn’t this a funny game!
‘What the … ?’
‘He was taking something out of your bag.’
Jared dashes round to the back of his bike to inspect the bag; glares at the crowd; tries to calm himself while he rifles through the pocket.
‘Man, they’ve taken my tablets … I had some purification tablets in here. And … oh, man, my spare shoes have gone …’
‘At least we rescued the sun cream,’ I say, pointing at the bottle on the floor.
What the hell is an Ethiopian teenager planning to do with Factor 30?
‘Shit … shit!!!’
He stands with his hand on his forehead. I’m not sure what to do. I know he’s trying not to get angry at having his personal belongings re-appropriated under his nose. I’d be doing the same. There is nothing in my bags that I can’t live without; and what I once did I have long since jettisoned: army-issue poncho, clothes, books, and other accessories (hip flask, solar battery charger, brass rabbit snares) that had seemed like a good idea at the time.
I look around. There are now at least a hundred children surrounding us. Again I am staggered by the sheer number of people who wander these lands. There are no office jobs, no sedentary professions. The crude, temporary appearance of buildings reflects this: stick-walled, grass-roofed little roundhouses jutting in small clusters from the green-brown hillsides – as far as the eye can see – are the quintessential image of rural Amhara; functional shelters in which to sleep and perform a few household chores.
Most of the children have sticks, and doubtless know how to use them. I am acutely aware of what an act of aggression in this situation might provoke. I imagine the pair of us being set upon by the kids, cowering on the road in terror until the next truck happens by – the adults, of course, would jump out of the cab and throw rocks at the scattering children, which I’ve seen happen several times. I can’t help feeling something raw and violent in the air when these staring, suspicious faces surround me. Children don’t hide their prejudices. I have already seen the wildness that can overcome such a mob, watching chases unfold in the smashed remains of my rear-view mirror, and I don’t want to see that kind of energy bent into a confrontation.
Nor does Jared. He musters an admirable amount of diplomacy and offers a handful of birr to the crowd in exchange for the stolen shoes and tablets. Plenty of hands reach out for the cash, but the offending items fail to materialise. The pannier pocket had already been opened – maybe the robberies had occurred earlier in the day?
‘Look,’ I say, ‘I’ve got some water purification tablets myself – I hardly ever use them, so you can have them if you need them.’ Jared politely declines, saying I must need them, but I really am too lazy to bother using them. And so I dig my little first-aid kit from a pannier and give him enough iodine pills to get him to Gondar where he will be able to get some more.
We bid each other farewell and continue our separate ways; it is difficult to muster a smile, now that our meeting’s been tainted by this episode of daylight robbery – my composure and spirit deflated once again by a bunch of little kids.
I’m safe in a hotel room. They can’t get to me here. At least I don’t think they can!
I’m just completely knackered. I’m absolutely exhausted. By … just … being in this country.
It’s just an exhausting experience. And I guess the main reason is that I never know what the next person is going to want! Half of the people I’ve met on the road have just stuck their hand out and demanded money, or whatever. As if the whole purpose of my existence as a white foreigner in their country is to supply them with whatever they want. In an incredibly demanding fashion. Without – without even saying ‘hello’, or … it’s as if …
It’s almost as if some white people came along in the past and dished out loads of stuff and money!
The other half have been amazingly helpful and friendly. I just turned up at this hotel in this tiny village and got dragged around a whole load of different houses, trying lots of different things to eat and drink. Not all of which I was particularly keen on. But I kind of had to eat and drink anyway. There were some, er … some moments where I had to control my, er … my, erm … what’s it called … oh my god, I’m so tired … for goodness’ sake …
I had to control my gag reflex a couple of times … but I managed it! I didn’t vomit all over somebody’s front room, as a guest, so that’s good!
But yeah, it’s just so exhausting. And … in some areas, the kids kind of get carried away, and before you know it … er … there are rocks the size of your fist flying past you along the road. I think partly it might be something to do with the fact that the adults seem to discipline the kids by throwing rocks at them. So a moving target – especially a random white guy on a bike – is pretty much all they need, I guess, to liven their day up a bit.
It just gets really tiring, though, not really knowing what to expect from the next group of people. And it’s horrible to generalise, and to assume that everybody is just going to want – is going to demand money, or pens, or food, or whatever, off you, because an awful lot of people don’t; an awful lot of people are very genuine, and they just want to help and they want to know what you’re doing and … you know, just normal human beings!
But with some people it seems to be completely the opposite. And it’s that, and the frequency with which it occurs, that’s made riding here so incredibly tiring. Mentally. And physically, too. The road is … just … crap; it’s the worst road I’ve ever ridden on, without a doubt. The mountains are extremely big … the altitude isn’t enough to cause me problems at the moment, but the road will be going up to nearly twelve thousand feet above sea level before too long.
On a side note, for the first time today I saw wild monkeys, which is – you know – it’s a nice experience. A little bit of kindred bonding going on there. I stopped to have a wander around amongst the whooping hordes!
It was lovely. It was really, really beautiful, actually.
The asphalt reappears sporadically as the route weaves across the gentle plateau of dry fields; brooding mountains appear once again to the east. I am already approaching a mile above sea level, and it looks like I’ll be climbing higher still, as my turn-off has finally arrived. This faint track leading off to the east, as far as I had been able to make out from pixellated satellite images back in Gondar, will take me off the standard overland route down through Africa; instead bisecting the heart of the Amharan highlands and spitting me out in the far east of the country on the edge of the Afar Depression. This diabolical sub-sea-level desert, I’ve read, is commonly considered by palaeontologists to be the very region from which all human life sprang forth – not to mention being cited as the location of the hottest continuously inhabited place on Earth.
Turning eastwards will be more than an interesting-sounding detour. It will also be the moment at which I cease to sail away from the distant harbour I left behind, instead tacking around to bring it back into view. The natural onward route from the far side of the Afar desert is to Djibouti, the biggest port in East Africa. And from there, I may find myself able to catch a boat away from Africa to the Arabian Peninsula. A few weeks of riding through another of the great infernal deserts – the Empty Quarter – will bring me within striking distance of Iran.
Coming down with malaria has given me plenty to think about. And the thing I keep coming back to is that continuing through Africa is not the only way to live this life on the road. Cape Town is nothing but a convenient target, riding to it as romantic a notion as any that drove a journey; sticking to it will allow me to hold a steady course while I do what I have to do. But other targets would serve that purpose equally well. And a target of Djibouti, then Dubai, and then Iran, will let me hold my course – but also make a concession I’ve surely earned, after an illness that might have ended everything: to allow the chance that I might see Tenny again, if only briefly, as I pass by Tehran. And afterwards, I will continue as I had long ago planned: to ride through Central Asia, Tibet and the Far East. For though much has happened, and much has been learnt, the itch that drove me here has still not been scratched.
The stone-throwing mobs and the highway robbery are still fresh and raw in my mind, and it is not without a little trepidation that I continue to ride, as I am quickly learning that challenges are coming thick, fast and unprecedented on the road through Ethiopia. And challenges, of course, were exactly what I’d hoped for, as I’d set out on the journey that would finally put me in my place.
I gently ease the handlebars to the left, leaning slightly into the turn. Negotiating the junction, I straighten out, take another few pedal strokes, and roll off the asphalt and onto the rocky trail. The sun moves behind me: from today onward I will spend the mornings shielding my face, the afternoons chasing my shadow. And I look up at the road ahead, where a crowd is waiting patiently.