Friday, August 5, 2011

Out of time, out of the way!

Not so long ago, there was a ferry line – operated by Visemarlines – that connected Egypt to Europe in a triangular route that also passed by Tartuous, Syria.  Then the Syrian people decided to start fighting for democracy, officially making Syria a no go destination for people from democratic countries. Instead of just cancelling Tartuous as a port of call, Visemarlines suspended their whole ferry service for the summer and with it our plan for getting home.

We were still in Kenya when we heard this news. It made us linger in Nairobi longer than expected, desperately looking for an alternative that would get us to Italy in time to meet my parents on the 3rd of August in Genova. Frankly there aren’t many. You can basically fly and send your motorbike as cargo – by boat or air – or take a freighter cruise with Grimaldi lines. But apparently, shipping a motorbike as cargo is hopelessly complicated to organize. Especially if you try to do this without reliable internet connection and from another (African even!) country than the one you want it shipped from. We decided to go for a freighter cruise, being the most achievable and economical option. But besides Nicolaas having to celebrate his 30th birthday in Israel and having to spend a week at sea, it had another undesirable consequence: the departure date would be the 24th of July, taking a week out of our program. And then the whole Turkana debacle happened, which delayed us another five days…

This means we have to make choices, cut out destinations, and put ourselves on a time schedule again. Which is a pity, because the most memorable and interesting things tend to happen when you travel without fixed plans. You might get into small or big trouble from time to time, but you experience the luxury to be surprised and discover things you didn’t already know beforehand. 
So now, despite the fact that we’d been really looking forward to visit Ethiopia, we decide to rush through towards Sudan. In contrast to Sudan, Ethiopia has loads of tourist sights and activities on offer, decent enough infrastructure and a straightforward/cheap air connection to Europe. This makes it qualify as a destination in its own right on some other occasion. Our flash visit will be the appetizer, something to leave us wanting more. Or won’t it?

Our first impressions were certainly positive: friendly truckers stop to ask us where we come from and where we’re going, customs police seem professional, the roads are good, food and beer are excellent and extremely cheap, the coffee is strong and aromatic, bars and restaurants have atmospheric outdoor terraces, exotic but interesting traditional music is everywhere… Ethiopia boasts its own very distinct culture and the experience is very refreshing indeed.

But then we met with Ethiopia’s dark side. It happened when we wanted to fill up on fuel in Moyale, before the long ride north. The same petrol station that had filled Nicolaas’ jerry can at the correct price this morning, now insisted that “for motorbikes” it is 25birr/liter, 2birr per liter more expensive. Obviously it’s a racial thing. We feel quite offended and Nicolaas makes a scene. Screw them! We’ll go elsewhere. Only every other gas station wants to overcharge us. Screw them! We’ll fill up in the next town, Mega. 

Only there are no real filling stations in Mega, just black market fuel shops. They want to charge us 30birr/liter, whereas their neighbors pay 25. We don’t want to risk running dry, so grudgingly we take a small amount, just enough to take us to Yavello. There we arrive at the station during a power cut. They refer us to the center of town. 

Again we find black market fuel shops, which seem to apply a bizarre rule; the closer they are to the source, the more they charge us for their fuel. Now they want an outrageous 50birr/liter. We are very shocked for this blunt discrimination (although we realize Africans must have to face this kind of crap a lot more often). With smug faces, they keep lying to us that it’s what everybody pays and that it’s not that expensive, like being white means you shit money. It makes us like the Ethiopians a lot less.

The second big nuisance is the constant hindrance on the road. Everything and everybody from vehicles and people to animals will categorically get in your way. Buses will insist to drive in the middle of the road, effectively blocking your sight in case you want to overtake, people will traverse the street as they see you coming or they will sit on it and not move when you pass, herdsmen will herd their cattle on the tarmac or encourage their donkeys, dogs, cows or goats to cross the highway just as you happen to pass… By consequence I’ve never seen as much road kill. 

The most ridiculous example I saw, was a man crippled by polio who crawled over the road to cross to the other side right in front of a 30 ton truck. It is very annoying and utterly incomprehensive. What is their problem? Is it some kind of anti modernist protest, where people cling to their old ways and just don’t like sealed roads and whoever is using them? Is it part of a nationwide speed limiting campaign, where every man, woman, child, domestic and wild animal alike does their part? Or is there an unusual high prevalence of violent suicidality in Ethiopia?
And then you have all the negative and plain aggressive reactions along the road. Children throwing stones, adolescents cracking their whips, people shouting things or making pretend to hit you… It’s all the more confusing since you get extremely enthusiastic responses as well. We just can’t figure it out and have a very hard time trying not to be pissed at everybody and everything.

We’ve certainly come to a point where we don’t regret rushing to Addis Abeba in just two days. This brings us to our next disappointment. Despite the ringing mythical name of Addis, it just seems like a very disorganized, dirty and gloomy city to me, full of over 30 year old Lada’s. Although for all honesty we must admit that we haven’t seen that much of it. We spend our sole day there, prepping the bikes for long distances on tarmac, emailing Grimaldi lines again in the hope to book a ticket, catching up with fellow travelers and visiting a hospital. 

I thought we’d go there just as a formality, to have the case documented for insurance reasons. Instead I limp out as a handicapped person, with a posterior splint – a sort of removable cast I have to put on each time I take off my boots – but no crouches. Diagnosis: avulsion fracture of a small bone in the middle foot.

After Addis we ride straight to Gonder, via Bahir Dar. The landscapes of the cold highlands are pretty, but not very inspiring. Somehow when I think of Ethiopia, I still think of – amongst others of course – famine, drought and poverty. But it turns out more complicated than this. Sure enough Ethiopia is probably still very vulnerable to these things, especially in the drier, arid regions in the east. But there is another side to the story, which is again one of stark contrasts. I’m surprised to see a lot of industrial agriculture, beside the small individual parcels. There are probably as many people begging, as there were filthy rich people prancing around in the Sheraton Addis, where I withdrew money from the ATM. And decorating it all are the omnipresent signboards of local projects of NGO’s. Well, if you ask my opinion: it’s not doing them any good; all this Western-induced so called development. We’re smothering them and taking away their self esteem and sense of initiative.

In Gonder we stay to enjoy the well earned luxury of a nice hotel, good food and a bit of rest. Apart from that we finally manage to secure our passage over the Mediterranean, although it’s on a more expensive and slower going freighter cruise than what we’d envisioned. And we also go out to visit Gonder’s famous “Royal enclosure”, me with heavy boots and Nicolaas with heavy spirits. We find ourselves wandering around without being able to fully appreciate the charm and history of the place. Sure it’s a pretty unique spectacle in Africa, but our minds are preoccupied with the road ahead and our withering time frame.

For more pics see album "Out of time, out of the way!"

1 comment:

  1. Weer boeiend om lezen. Ben al benieuwd hoe de doortocht door Sudan & Egypte is geweest. 2de locale nummerplaats bij op de moto in Egypte? ;-)
    PS: uw voet in de plaaster is pech hé. Ik hink nog altijd van mijne val in Senegal begin december vorig jaar... :-(