Posted by: Dana | 2010/02/21

Feb 20 – In the highlands of Ethiopia

We are camped tonight just up a hill from the most incredible view of the Blue Nile Gorge, and I just walked back from enjoying a beer overlooking the gorge after today’s ride.  It is a vast crevasse, an opening in the earth, with the Blue Nile snaking its path down below.  And the view was simply spectacular!  Yesterday, we descended and then ascended the gorge, a 20km journey in each direction.  Of course, the ride down was fast (the only English billboard I’ve seen in this country warned:  “Fast Speeds May Kill You” which meant even more on a bicycle than in a car) and the ride up was slow, slow, slow.  TDA amused us all by making the ascent up the gorge a time trial, meaning that each rider was timed (you could opt out) and then ranked, and the results are factored into the race (which I have most definitely opted out from).  It took me nearly three hours of straight climbing—the kind of vein-popping, sweat-dripping, heart-pounding, throw-up-at-any-minute kind of climbing—and this was after the 50 kilometers we rode, on hills the entire way, to get to the gorge.  It was a relentless climb for which I put the bike into my lowest gear, tried to keep my butt on my saddle, and simply pushed the pedals to keep from tipping over on my side.

The Ethiopian landscapes are breath-taking and trying to describe what I’ve seen can not do justice to the beauty of these highlands.  We have cycled through some of the most gorgeous scenery, pastures and farmlands far more verdant that I would have expected.  The road we travel is dotted with villages and farms with stretches that are quiet and peaceful and other sections that are bustling with activity in and beside the road.  The hills seem to climb on forever, as you crest the top and soak in another incredible vista, you come rolling down the other side, only to find yourself at the bottom of the next giant hill.

The many homes along the route are typically made from sticks and some have thatched roofing while others have tin.  Many homes have a pile of donkey poop nearby, as this is burned as a source of fuel.  In the villages, everyone is walking in the street and carrying a giant load of whatever it is that needs to be transported to wherever it is that it is going!  There is a lot of movement.  Men, women, and children carry everything from the piles of donkey dung, to enormous bales of hay, to water jugs, to crates of tomatoes on their heads and their backs.  Almost every man carries a large stick used to herd the donkeys or the cattle or the goats away from traffic in the road.  Small children also share herding responsibilities are are often wandering the pasture and fields with a large group of animals.

It is immediately and abundantly clear how poor a country Ethiopia is by looking at the dilapidated shelters, the shoe-less children, and just about everyone wearing clothing that is tattered and torn and looks like it was handed down decades ago.  I am also struck by how much work I see being performed by men, women, and children, and it seems like everyone is busy most of the time.

Traveling in Ethiopia, we were warned, isn’t easy and the majesty of the landscapes are overshadowed by two things—diarrhea and the rock-throwing children.  Nearly every rider has been wracked by diarrhea and unfortunately, I couldn’t escape it.  For five days (and it got worse each night), my body rejected whatever it was that I put into it—whether it was the food, or the germs, or the water that my body didn’t like—it came out violently and without much warning.  As you can imagine, this is a total nightmare to deal with in camp, as it kept me sprinting out from my tent, more times than I could count each night and more often than not, without even my shorts on, because there just wasn’t enough time to get dressed.  Things got so bad at our last rest day in Bahir Dar on Lake Tana that I got a hotel room once I realized I was going to be up all night on the toilet and I couldn’t rely on the hospitality of my friend, Cat, who offered me a space in her bed in my condition.  Once I started Cipro, things cleared up but it seems that for the three weeks we’re in Ethiopia, all riders will be at various stages of getting sick, being sick, or getting over it.

It pains me to describe the menacing children of Ethiopia.  I hate that the lasting impression I will have of Ethiopia’s children is that they throw, steal, and grab;  that I have felt threatened by them on the streets and been injured by their stones;  that they harass us incessantly with the two words every child  knows (and most only know these two words):  “you, you, you” and “money, money, money”.  Children stand on the roadside with their fists full of rocks, or they perch above our heads on the hills, and they use us as target practice.  They use their herding sticks to barricade the roads, to poke them into our wheels, or to use them as projectiles to interfere with our path.  It’s unclear whether they intend to injure or whether it is simply a fun game for them, but, without a doubt, it is a dangerous and frightening reality of riding our bikes through this country.  The worst of it, for me, came yesterday while riding up the gorge.  At times traveling at a speed of only 5km/hour (most people can walk this speed!), I could hear the patter of the children’s bare feet on the asphalt running behind me and when the bike became unsteady, I knew that small hands gripped the back of my bike.  I would scream and even raise my hand to scare them into thinking I would hit them.  I even threw the bike down and chased a few, while begging the adults nearby to help.  Adults stand-by and watch and don’t seem to care.  When they want their kids to move, they throw rocks at them.

It’s so hard to wrap my head around why begging has become the norm here for children in Ethiopia because from what I observe, there are few tourists and few opportunities for this behavior to be reinforced, at least out here in the highlands.  The harassment by the children leaves visitors wanting to escape them, rather than wanting to help them.  It is a very sad reality.

Despite all of this, I am always conscious of the fact that I am realizing my dream of riding across this continent—and experiencing all of the highs and lows that come with the territory.  We are more than one quarter through this journey, and well into the third country (of ten) that we will travel, with more than 3,000km cycled and another 9,000km to go.  Today we hit the highest altitude we will reach on this trip (over 3,000 meters, or nearly 10,000 ft) and we laugh already that Cairo seems a world and a lifetime away.  I can’t imagine how we’ll feel after another three months on the road.

Over the past two nights I read The Alchemist, by Paulo Coelho, a book that moved me and couldn’t be more apropos for this journey.  There is a passage that resonated for me:  “To realize one’s destiny is a person’s only obligation.  And when you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it.”  I am constantly aware of the support of loved ones back home, for helping to free me of  daily responsibilities and enable me to pursue this journey.  I think in realizing a long-held dream, sometimes the moment can be so fleeting that one is unable to consider all that went in to making that dream possible.  In the case of the TDA, because of the protracted nature of this journey and the many opportunities to reflect on the universe conspiring to help me (that is, the universe minus the children along the roadside in Ethiopia), I am in a uniquely wonderful position of knowing I am fulfilling a dream while I am fulfilling it.  For this opportunity, I am so deeply appreciative.

We arrive in Addis Ababa tomorrow, Ethiopia’s capital city and Africa’s fourth largest city, where I will stay with a friend, Jane, who I met in DC a couple of years ago who is living here while working for USAID.  I’m excited to see what her life is like here and to enjoy her hospitality and a night without my tent!  I’ll post this blog from Addis, technology-permitting, and will then continue the journey towards Yabelo, where we will have our next rest day before crossing the Kenyan border at Moyale.

Until I write again, and please understand the communication infrastructure is horrible here, I will be thinking about friends celebrating birthdays I am missing and my sis and Brad on vacation in Jamaica.  Thanks, Aunt Margie, for looking after Jackson while they are away.  Give him lots of doggy kisses (on the lips!) for me!!  Signing off from the hills of Ethiopia…


  1. Dana~~ LOVE the Alchemist, LOVE your beautiful spirit, LOVE your beautiful heart, LOVE your blog!! Thanks honey for being a constant source of not only cherished friendship but inspiration!

  2. Dana
    I continue to wait for your blogs each day. When they come, I enjoy them immensely.
    See you in Lilongwe where three of us will join you.

  3. Wish I could give you a “smooch”, but will have to be satisfied with Jacksie’s “smooches” and on the lips too, D.

    Beautiful imagery and writing. Did I teach you how to write so well???


  4. Hey Dana! Love your journal. You write so beautifully and with such heart. Africa is a mystical and magical place full of contradictions and you capture it all in your pieces….thanks so much for sharing your journey. May you have the strength to climb every hill. Sending you love and hugs xoxoxoxo Barbara

  5. Hey D, Love the updates, keep em coming, thinking of you lots, scott

  6. Fantastic story, I feel many times I’m riding along side of you. You have real grit and our one tough lady. Waiting for the next entry.
    Tom Bloch

  7. Hey Dana! This is the first time I’ve noticed the “comments” function–neat! Anyway, I am absolutely in awe of the adventures you’re having! Please keep up the blog. I am sorry to hear that there were some tough days in Ethiopia but I keep picturing your laughing smiling face enjoying some of the adventures you’re righting about. Miss you tons! Keep up the amazing adventure and spirit–we’re all here with you 🙂

  8. Dana,
    Your blog is so inspirational, spiritual, moving. (Emphasis on the moving part–pun intended.) Your journey is incredible, and your writing is so vivid!

    Miss you, safe travels!

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