Posted by: Dana | 2010/02/13

Feb 13 – Recovering in Gonder, Ethiopia!

It’s daunting to try to detail the past week from Khartoum to our current resting spot of Gonder, Ethiopia. We’ve cycled hundreds of kilometers through the urban jungle of Khartoum and its outskirts, then we moved into the desert villages of eastern Sudan along the Nile River Valley, through Dinder National Park, across the border and into the highlands of Ethiopia. How in the world can I capture this past week in words? More for my own sake than for yours, I will try to provide some rich detail, as this is the only journal I keep, I want to remember it all. Faithful readers: read along for as long as it holds interest.

After leaving Khartoum I felt my last blog entry did an injustice to the place. I remember being to exhausted by the three public buses it took to get to the center of the downtown area and the endless search for the DHL office (where I learned that they would not mail parcels back to the US, so my attempt at returning my computer to the US for repair was unsuccessful), and too hot in the dirty internet cafe to sit and write a proper summary. But even in retrospect, Khartoum didn’t offer much that I could see except for a big and dirty African city. The biggest highlight was the street food which we found near the camp site which I can’t believe I ate without getting sick. By happenstance I passed the American embassy (en route to DHL) and was struck by how much it looked like a bomb shelter, interesting only because of the time I know Eythan has spent there.

We were told the day leaving Khartoum was one of the more dangerous on the ride—largely because of the insane traffic we faced leaving the city. We traveled on a two-lane road. One would think one lane would be reserved for incoming and the other for outgoing traffic. The shoulder was gravel and in places nearly one foot lower than the street surface and occupied by donkeys, tuk-tuks, and vehicles attempting to dodge traffic on the road. Our challenge was navigating these road hazards, which required full attention and defensive riding. It was exhausting and frightening—I can’t count how many times both lanes of traffic were moving quickly in my direction and the shoulder was either too rocky, occupied, or too far below the road surface to be a viable alternative route. There are no accommodations made for pedestrians and even fewer for cyclists. At the end of the day, our group was definitely worse for the wear.

On that day, around the 110 kilometer mark, I came upon a fellow rider laying the dirt surrounded by dozens of local Sudanese onlookers. Thankfully, another rider who is an EMT in Australia was already on the scene assessing the situation. Apparently, riding approximately 38km/hour, and by herself, she collided with someone who jumped in her path on the roadside, flew over her handlebars, and landed on her head. In serious shock and having sustained a concussion, she was taken to the local hospital. Back on the bike, I have to admit to being completely unnerved. Little did I know at that time that worse accidents had occurred that day, namely one that has put another rider in the hospital in Khartoum for the past week. Hit by a car, this rider has no recollection of the accident but has had significant repercussions as a result of an apparently pretty severe concussion. Other riders sustained falls—all on that one day out of Khartoum—five helmets were cracked and ruined. Scary stuff.

Finally, arriving at desert camp approximately 160 km from Khartoum and feeling so far away from the city that it is almost hard to believe that one day of cycling can move you into a whole new world, I had one of the best nights of the ride. I arrived early enough for a walk to the Nile and another swim (is this going to take years off my life?!) which was more refreshing that you can imagine. A bunch of locals boarded a small boat intending the cross the Nile with a donkey aboard. Somehow I managed to get a seat (and yes, I dragged another rider with me), for a cross-Nile ride to deliver the donkey to the other side. We couldn’t communicate one bit with these locals—they just laughed at us and we laughed at them. To get the donkey off the boat, they just smacked the ass (pun intended!!) until it finally jumped ashore.

Walking back to camp that same evening, I passed a small village and interacted with a group of local women and children who invited me back to their home for dinner. Unfortunately, I had to get back to camp to attend our nightly rider meeting, but I returned before the sunset to the village and the women shrieked in delight. A young Canadian rider, Andra, and myself were invited into their home, which was central to a complex of tightly packed homes, nicer on the inside than I would have expected. We sat in a small nook of the house and within minutes it filled with more women (completely veiled except for their faces) and children, and later the men joined us, too. We drank tea, took photos, and tried to communicate as best we could through one of the women who spoke English and the patriarch of the family who understood some of what we said. They introduced me to their local “Obama”—a village man who they think looks just like our President. It was hilarious when I tried to explain that the local guys’ ears aren’t big enough to resemble Obama’s. They understood. It was a magical evening for me in Africa, at a village with a name I can’t even remember, but it left me with an experience I will never forget. This one local village and one extended family opened their home to me and showed incredible hospitality, acceptance, and curiosity and clearly wanted me to leave their home with a sense that the Sudanese are peace-loving people who are devout in their Muslim faith but accept all others. Walking back to camp in the dark guided by the patriarch, he invited us to make ourselves home on his land (which the TDA riders had already done, not knowing we were camped on his property) and he would have had us stay longer if he could.

The following day was another long one at 160km and our first real taste of menacing children. They lined the streets in Sudan cheering our passage, but sometimes in their eagerness and excitement, they grab, reach, throw, and cling unaware of the risks this presents to us. We didn’t understand then how much worse this would become in Ethiopia, which I’ll describe more later.

Ride organizers detailed a new route which was to lead us through Dinder National Park and villages never before seen by the TDA. This was a completely new route for the TDA, an “experiment” of sorts, which detoured us from the previously traveled route for several days. We left paved roads and hit the dirt which was signficant for me, as I am a completely inexperienced off-road cyclist. I wanted to cry a little bit when the pavement ended, but almost immediately I realized that these dirt roads would take us to places completely different than the villages we could see from the paved roads. More remote and more isolated as we continued, this first day of off-road riding offered breath-taking moments of discovery for me (and it seemed for villagers, too, who had clearly never seen a group like ourselves). Children were genuinely scared of us but in one case, I got a young girl, probably seven years old, to warm up to me, so much so that she removed the beautiful beaded necklace she wore and gave it to me. What an incredible gift given by a young girl who has probably never seen someone with my color skin, who lives in a shack with a dirt floor and thatched roof, who wears nothing more than rags (and beaded necklaces), but who astounded me by her generosity. I wore the necklace for the remainder of the day, delighted by the exchange I had with her, thinking that this is exactly why I’m here. But what I haven’t mentioned is that the daylight hours were waning and I still had dozens of kilometers to cover. I realized around 10:30AM that this day would be a stretch for me when I calculated my average speed on dirt and the number of daylight hours left. I pushed all day (except for the village exchange I just described) and suffered a flat tire and a fall very late in the day, but still made it to camp—some 10 or more hours after the day started. It was an exhilarating day—one that started on pavement and ended in completely remote corner of Sudan—a day during which I felt like I was coming to Africa, not in a tour bus via paved roads, but to the far-flung villages by way of my own power. I rode in amazement that these villages survive in these inhospitable conditions with so very little.

I was physically and emotionally exhausted that evening and was thankful that a cell connection (how is this possible in the middle of nowhere in the desert in Sudan?) allowed me to call home and speak with my mom, dad, and sister. I think they could tell from my voice that I had been tested that day on the bike and was pretty banged up and pooped. I could not have imagined that the following day would test me like none other before.

It was a 140km ride, off-road, through Dinder National Park. We had a special invitation from the government to pass through the park which is supposedly home to lions, baboons, and lots of other wildlife. Apparently, TDA staff has scouted this route previously, but apparently not well. They misinformed us about the riding conditions and “road” surface which meant that most riders, including myself, were using tires not ideal for the type of riding we had to do. Within the first few km, I took the first of many falls that day, straight onto the rocky dirt, and just sat there in a heap of tears wondering how in the world I would get through the day. The roads were nearly impassable and the distance we were expected to cover just seemed completely impossible. I partnered with Erin, a young American woman who is a super-star. Having suffered an early morning fall herself, we were well-matched in terms of our shakiness on this terrain but also with our determination to get through the day with our EFI status in tact. Erin, a 26 year old marathoner, has run one on each continent (!) and recently completed her first Ironman triathlon, so she is certainly no stranger to pain. I don’t want to overly dramatize this, but I will admit that this day through Dinder, which riders later affectionately renamed The Fucking Dinder National Park of Shit, was the toughest in my life. The terrain was insane, in parts deeply rutted and cracked, in other parts so loose with sand and gravel. It took every ounce of energy and concentration not to come flying off the bike at each pedal stroke. Corny mantras (“Ride Straight, Stay Brave!”), visualizations of ourselves as “intrepid warriors,” and stories of our past successes enduring hellish challenges kept us moving forward. Each one of us took turns falling and then pep-talking the other out of tears and back on the bike. It was hot, we were out of water, and the sun was setting. And yes, we acknowledged that we were rare “intrepid warriers who weep” but we continued. Now in the darkness and still in the godforsaken park, twelve hours of riding behind us with more than 18km to go, we decided we would walk our bikes into camp, even if it took us all night. So we walked, at a snails pace, imagining the victorious arrival we would make into camp, until the Sudanese police caught us and insisted that our ride was over. We put up a fight but when we saw beady eyes in the distance (which turned out to be reflectors on another cyclist!) we relented and reluctantly boarded the police vehicle with our dreams of EFI shattered. I have to admit, this was pretty devastating. But only moments later, when the police vehicle approached a TDA truck, we saw a majority of our fellow riders dejected, exhausted, injured (and in some cases, very angry with some of the decisions made by the staff) all loaded onto the support vehicle also requiring a ride into camp. Many of these riders had surrendered earlier in the day, some hadn’t even attempted the ride, and there were a couple of others, like Erin and myself, who resorted to walking through the Park of Shit until the plug was pulled.

So we tried to brush off the experience and move on as best we could, but many in the group were completely wrecked. Between the Dinder day and the following on similarly nightmarish terrain, all but two women lost EFI and a large majority of the men, as well. TWENTY riders decided to forgo the next one or two riding days across the border into Ethiopia by taking a bus to Gonder, where the remaining riders would meet them for our planned rest day. Unbelievable, really, that only three weeks into the ride, twenty folks were either so sick, injured, or exhausted that they bypassed what we knew would be a couple of spectacular (but challenging) days of riding into the Ethiopian highlands.

The border crossing was kind of hilarious. We had heard that it was an “open border” which I didn’t realize meant that only a simple rope tied between two poles marked the line between Sudan and Ethiopia. After some basic immigration paperwork, the remaining cyclists were into our third country and quickly into the hills. Two massive days of climbing involving 3,600+ meters of climbing took us to a completely new world, with different languages, religion, food, culture, etc all immediately noticeable. No longer are women veiled. In fact, many have crosses indicating their Christian Orthodox faith tattooed on their faces and necks. Children with naked bottoms were everywhere; facial characteristics completely different; and the threat of theft now a reality which we had not experienced in Sudan.

In our first desert camp in Ethiopia, we were immediately surrounded by curious children. TDA staff put up a thin border to rope off the area where local children should not cross, to try to protect our bikes and belongings. The children came out of the hills (and out of the woodwork) and the polite distance maintained by curious Sudanese, we saw would not exist in Ethiopia. Around midnight, I awoke to rustling outside my tent. Completely paranoid I shouted “hello” hoping another rider would respond (and that I hadn’t heard a thief trying to get into my tent). Other riders heard me, but didn’t respond (until they all made fun of me the following morning) because it was a giant cow outside of my tent! In the morning, however, as soon as the sun rose, our camp site was jumping with children waiting for the brief moment when a rider took his/her eyes off of her bike or belongings to take what they could. In a bold move, children took a few water bottles, and as we ate breakfast, riders chased and took down small children to retrieve these things. We saw an incredible chase by an Australian rider, my age, who clearly left one Ethiopian kid with the impression that the white girl is fast and she will catch him (and the rest of us, completely impressed!)

The Ethiopian highlands are completely and magnificently beautiful and the change of scenery was a welcomed change. The hills are greener than I would have expected, but water is scarce and life appears to be very, very hard here. Families live in shacks on the hillside, agriculture appears to be very limited, and sanitation and hygiene are lacking. The hills took us up intense inclines (some as steep as 14% grade), which meant that at times, the young children could run faster than we could cycle, posing an obvious and dangerous threat. The kids are everywhere, and I later learned that the population is exploding here in Ethiopia, so a majority of the population are young children. We thought the streets leaving Khartoum was scary, but here there is even less rhyme or reason to vehicular, animal, or pedestrian traffic.

I was sad to learn upon my arrival into camp at Gonder, where I am currently, that another rider sustained a broken collar bone while making a fast descent through a village. Apparently, he hit a women who somehow was uninjured (people are resilient here!), but he was banged up and will now have to sit out the next few weeks of riding while he recovers. He traveled to Addis today for a CAT scan. The other rider hit by a car outside of Khartoum, will also rejoin us in Addis which is great news.

Meanwhile, the group is resting and regrouping after what has proven to be an epic week here in Africa for the TDA! We had an unexpected additional rest day in Gonder because one of our big support vehicles that carries all of our gear and kitchen supplies and food broke down. It’s brakes failed coming down one of these huge hills and the driver purposefully threw it into a gear to destroy the engine in order to make the vehicle stop. I don’t know anything about vehicles, but apparently, this is not good and the staff have been working overtime to arrange for alternative vehicles and for our truck to be repaired. I can’t imagine this is an easy task here in Ethiopia.

Meanwhile, Gonder is a lovely town, with an interesting complex of castles in the center of town, built in the mid-17th to mid-18th centuries. I’ve had my fill of Ethiopian food, which I love, and am suffering the effects already! Seems like most riders are suffering with fever, puking, and/or diarrhea, so I’m in good company, and in relatively good shape compared to most others. We even enjoyed a night of free beer last night (our first drinks since leaving Egypt, since Sudan is completely dry) hosted by an Ethiopian brewery in town, which was completely unexpected, generous, and terrifically fun. During the day yesterday, I visited a local school which one of the riders has financially supported for the past three years, and got a taste of hope for the children of Ethiopia and pleasant interactions that were far more heart-warming than the interactions on the road (when I am screaming at them trying to scare them off from chasing me and throwing rocks at me). Interesting it sure is, here in Ethiopia. And I will ride on and keep you updated as best I can.

Thanks for those who read this to the end. No photos coming today, and maybe none in Ethiopia, because the internet connections just stink. So, hopefully, what I’ve written paints a picture for those who care to join me on this journey, and thanks again for your love and support. Happy Valentine’s Day to my treasured family and friends and send me an email if anything major is happening in the world (which I will retrieve in Bahir Dar in a few days) because I couldn’t be farther out of the loop. What a wonderful place to be!


Responses

  1. […] We've cycled hundreds of kilometers through the urban jungle of Khartoum and its outskirts, then we moved into the desert villages of eastern Sudan along the Nile River Valley, through Dinder National Park, across the border and into … View original post here: Feb 13 – Recovering in Gonder, Ethiopia! « 7500 Miles For Melanoma […]

  2. Wow! Great write-up!
    As I sit here, in the comfort of my home, I must admit to feeling a little envious of you and your journey through Africa. I doubt whether I could handle the hardships with the humor and determination you have shown. I look forward to reading more from you.
    Take care,
    -Dan Crandall

  3. I don’t even know what to say!!! You are sooo very brave and the picture you painted is so vivid that it even worries me a bit, but then again, I’m your “auntie” who worries about you anyways!! Rest up whenever you can and stay strong. We are all behind you 100% and love you very much.

  4. What an incredible journal entry. Your task sounds daunting. Stay strong. We are thinking of you from our warm and comfortable house in North Yarmouth Maine.

  5. Hi Dana!
    I have just reread your post, because it is so fantastic. Your journey is incredible–inspiring, awesome, brave!!! You are a WARRIOR!!! You’re missing SNOWMAGGEDON 2010 here in DC…they’ve finally plowed our streets (Dan and I like to say that Barry sold all of the plows in the early 90’s to buy crack) so we can leave the house! We’ve had a record breaking 56 inches of snow this season, and are supposed to get MORE on Monday. Completely the antithesis of the weather you’re experiencing 🙂 We miss you, and are with you EFI!!!

  6. Dana… your writing is so riveting that I actually found myself sitting on the edge of my computer chair as read! Wow. I can not think of anything else to write except, WOW!

  7. I am totally amazed at your trip so far. It is hard to believe how much you have experienced so far and how much more there is to come. Can’t wait to read your next post. Enjoy!

  8. Amazing, Dana! You are AWESOME. What a crazy time. All our fingers and toes are crossed for you. Keep on truckin’, sister!!! XOXOXO ~:)

  9. Again, you brought the journey to life and inspire the legions of Dana-followers. Who needs Lance Armstrong on Twitter when we have you:)

  10. Dana – you are truly inspiring and amazing. Thank you for sharing every detail. Dave and I are riveted and so impressed. Be safe and well. We are sending you all our very best!


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