Posted by: Dana | 2010/03/05

Feb 28 – Out of Addis and into rain!

Rain-soaked and cold, we’re now in Yabelo, Ethiopia for a rest day. It’s been nearly three weeks that we’ve been in Ethiopia, the longest period we’ll spend in any country, and the experience has continued to have the extreme highs and lows described in my earlier posting. The last posting I wrote was as I was approaching Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia and Africa’s fourth largest city. We arrived into Addis by way of rider convoy, as we have either exited or approached the other big capital cities (Cairo, Khartoum, and now Addis). The convoy was incredibly hectic, and faster paced than is typical for our convoys because it was 10km of downhill. We were finally coming down from the highlands, though Addis is still at a very high elevation (13,000 ft, I think), and into the urban craziness of countless blue and white minibuses, or “blue donkeys” used for public transportation, insane traffic circles, uneven roads, and extremely aggressive drivers.

I pulled into our camp site and was so happy to find my friend, Jane, waiting for me there. She had brought armfuls of Gatorade and granola bars for the hoards of hungry riders who gobbled up everything she brought in just seconds. Jane and I met several years ago, shortly after I moved to Washington, DC, in an orientation for a pet therapy program we both volunteered for with our dogs. I hadn’t seen Jane in a long time—she has been in Addis for one year already, working for the US Agency for International Development (USAID). Jane was so incredibly hospitable by inviting not only me but another friend from the group into her home. She hosted a dinner that night for us (and changed the menu on our request!) with her ex-pat friends, folks who work either for USAID or the State Department. It was a great group of people eager to hear about our experiences on the TDA as we were to learn of their lifestyle living and working (and in several of their cases, raising children) in Addis Ababa. Just as with our riding, their experiences reflect the highs and lows of this country—satisfaction, generally, with the important work they perform, but frustration and disbelief at some of the local decisions made not only by the government here in Ethiopia, but also of individuals. Recently, one of Jane’s friends had been driving with her daughter behind a truck that was transporting things on its roof, and a giant table fell off the roof and cracked the windshield of her car. Of course, the items that fell were not properly secured, just balanced, and the driver of that vehicle claimed that he was not an idiot because he was only driving a short distance. The expression goes, “TIA: This is Africa”–and this instance is just one of the many, many examples I could share of this kind of crazy thing.

The following day, Jane set up a complete day of pampering for me—I had a massage and pedicure in the morning (amazing!!!!) , followed by pizza for lunch, and spent the afternoon catching up with friends and family on the internet. Seriously, it couldn’t get any better than that. And I did laundry! Jane’s place was a home away from home and I’m so grateful for the day of complete comfort, cleanliness, and great food and company! (We totally ate her out of house and home!)

The next couple of riding days were relatively low-key which provided a much needed reprieve from the relentless hills of northern Ethiopia, but this was not to last, as we re-entered the hills the day before yesterday. And, to make matters much worse, we awoke to soaking rains which marked our first riding day in the rain. We have experienced just a few sprinkles at night in Ethiopia, but nothing that hasn’t dried by the morning, and the one storm (also at night) on our second night in Egypt. Aside from that, it has been dry. Rain adds a totally new, and kind of miserable complication to living outdoors, because things just don’t dry—so you go from packing up your tent in the rain to putting up your tent in the rain, wearing wet shoes and clothing, etc, and things are just cold, smelly, and really gross. And this is only the beginning of it…things get much wetter in Tanzania later in the trip. Riding in the rain that first wet morning was really tough for me. Road conditions were bad (pot-holes, ruts, LOTS of obstacles to navigate in the road, and of course, screaming children yielding rocks and sticks). I saw one rider bomb past me on a downhill, and thought to myself that this could be disastrous, and found him laying on the ground at the bottom of the next hill, bloody and bruised. (It is mostly the young men who are taking these falls—go figure!). The incessant screaming of the children was driving me completely mad and in response to their mockery of us, my friend Cat and I began neigh-ing and squwack-ing and moo-ing at them, which worked as a good distraction by taking them off guard. If the kids know more than the typical two works (“you, you, you” said a million times fast; or “money, money, money”), they shout, “where are you go?” which I still can’t determine if they want to know from where I come or to where I am going. In either case, a response draws laughs and jeers and sometimes stones. Sadly, riders including myself, now look upon all children here with suspicion, even if they simply raise a hand to wave or offer a sweet smile, we’ve become distrusting and always maintain a very defensive posture while on the bicycle.

I can’t begin to describe how sad it makes me to feel what I feel about the children here in Ethiopia and wonder what the future holds in store for the millions of kids we see along the roadside. (I have learned that more than 50 million of Ethiopia’s approximately 75 million total population are under 18 years old.) The conditions here are very dirty, little faces are covered with snot and crust, and the kids under three often have no pants, undies, or diapers, so you can imagine what the sanitation conditions are like here. Nothing could have prepared us for the treatment we have received from the kids here, but we see it is also acceptable for parents to throw rocks at their children, and kids to throw rocks at the animals they herd, so I suppose it should be no surprise that we provide novel targets for their practice. We see signs indicating international aid provided by NGOs like Samaritan’s Purse, World Vision, OXFAM, and foreign government support provided by USAID and other countries. Isolated agricultural projects and HIV/AIDS education initiatives evidenced by public service announcements (billboards) are noticeable from the streets, but you have to ask yourself whether the pace of foreign aid can even scratch the surface of need here in Ethiopia and whether it has been handled effectively when you acknowledge the culture of begging that has been created here.

Meanwhile, the rolling hills of Ethiopia continue to amaze and inspire me, and on the rare occasion, when the streets aren’t lined with kids, as with nice stretches of the ride yesterday, it is a glorious ride through pastures and farms and some of the most amazing scenery you could imagine. The changes in altitude make for ever-changing vegetation. Within just a few kilometers yesterday, I rode in what felt like a jungle, only to be followed a few km later by a pine forest. On the approach into Yabelo yesterday, I noticed the appearance of the women was changing as they wore more vibrant and colorful garments (mostly wraps of large pieces of cloth), beautiful beaded necklaces, and silver bracelets worn on the upper arms. I’ve seen some crazy looking birds, including giant stork-like creatures that pranced around our camp site two nights ago, beautiful butterflies, and even an occasional monkey on the side of the road. One of the countless memorable moments on the road in Ethiopia included a short stop on the side of the road I made in order to clear out the mud from the bottom of my cleat. Mud had caked in the cleat making it difficult to release my foot from the peddle. So, I stopped on a relatively quiet stretch of road, took out my multi-tool, and began to chisel away at the mud. Within seconds, I was surrounded by dozens and dozens of onlookers, the eldest of whom each grabbed one of my feet and worked to clear out the mud. I sat there on the side of the road, in the center of a circle numbering nearly one hundred, I would guess, as the locals cleared mud out of my shoes. It is this kind of experience that is a perfect counter to the harassment described already.

I haven’t talked much about the food I’ve been consuming in alarming quantities. Camp food continues to be good–the hot mushy stuff for breakfast, generally tuna or PB&J for lunch, fantastic afternoon soup and a very hearty dinner with starch (pasta, couscous, rice or potatoes) with some kind of stew with meat (cow and sheep, so far). We’ve also had fish and grilled meat a couple of times, which was a delicious treat. On our rest days, we’re on our own to eat and I’ve enjoyed many local delicacies. In Egypt, I found and loved something called kosherie, a blend of elbow macaroni and spaghetti with lentils and fried onions and a garlicky, tomato sauce on top. In Sudan, I discovered fuul, a bean dish made from large fava (?) beans mixed up with spices, oil, and some other magic and unknown ingredients, typically mashed up using the bottom of a very old-looking soda bottle. Fresh pita bread is used to scoop up the fuul and it very, very good! DC-based friends know how much I love traditional Ethiopian food, and you can believe I have had my fill here! The traditional “fasting food” is a platter of injira bread (the very flat and sour fermented bread made from teff grain) with small piles of vegetarian dishes you eat with your hands (scooping up the food using small pieces of in the injira). The platter includes lentils, cabbage, carrots, beets, chick peas, etc and is so good, but I have to admit that after getting so sick here, I’ve become a little weary of these platters and may stick to good old spaghetti (and my prescription Cipro) until I cross into Kenya.

So here on our rest day, we find ourselves in Yabelo, which is a tiny local village with no internet access but a huge local market which I walked through yesterday with women crouching on the ground with bags and baskets filled with beans and spices and grain for sale. On each of the past rest days, we have been in a slightly more developed place, with more amenities. But, here, there is little more to do than eat, watch the rain fall, and clean our bikes. Thankfully, I got a hotel room which I’m sharing with my friend, Annalise, an Australian an rider (the one who chased down and frisked the small boy/thief on our first morning in Ethiopia). I did laundry in the sink and have clothes strewn up on clothes lines I’ve tied from each end of the room, but am worried that none of it will dry out in time for the ride tomorrow morning out of Yabelo. From here, we head towards the Kenyan border at Moyale and have another five riding days before our first rest day in Kenya in Marsabit. This next stretch is notoriously difficult as the roads deteriorate and the pavement disappears. Our rider board, a white board that gives distances and road descriptions of the week ahead, is a bit ominous: stage 35–”rough pavement” and by stage 37–”definitely not paved”. It warns of a “mega-climb” tomorrow (a 128km day) from the 70km lunch stop until the top of the climb at 100km. We’re warned about “complications due to weather” including severe headwinds and rain and possible snakes. Distances are significantly reduced from what we’ve grown accustomed, which is an even more telling sign that the terrain must be incredibly difficult to ride. It’s going to be a very tough week…but, before we know it, we’ll be heading towards Nairobi, passing Kilimanjaro, and onto Arusha—the mid-way point of the trip where we have three days off and where I plan to go on a safari. For now, I’m simply hoping that the water gets restored in this little hotel room I’m currently staying in in Yabelo so that I can take a shower, because we finally got towels but now we have no water! This is Africa, as they say!

I’m feeling very cut off from family and friends without internet for at least a week at a time, and without access to cellular service. I have absolutely no clue what is going on in the world and am hoping for better communication once I get to Kenya where I hope to post this blog entry. Until then, we’ll be riding, dodging rain drops, and trying not to fall into a deep lava crevasse somewhere in the northern part of Kenya. I hope all is well with loved ones back home. Drop me email updates and as I will be anxious to hear all that is going on when I finally get on the internet (maybe in Marsabit?) next week. Love to all and happy birthday to my sister (and I’m so sorry that by the time you get this I will have missed your birthday). xoxo

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