Monthly Archives: July 2015

Through the Filter: Onwards in Ethiopia

A nineteen minute read

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“What one hopes for is always better than what one has.” ~ Ethiopian Proverb

The nature of humanity is now a mixture of ancestral roots and modern influences. These vines of joy, change and sorrow are planted deep in the heart of Ethiopia. In parts of the country the global rush to urbanize has taken over, while others life continues on relatively uninterrupted, besides the occasional buzz of a cellphone. We are all apart of the global push to follow the thin yellow line. How we define ourselves is a complicated task when taking into account the bombardment of information each day. The many are following the prudent few.

Ethiopia opened my eyes into a world where outside influences and local acceptance do not always mesh. We are impacted drastically by the changing tides of global pressure. Trends and spotlights come and go. Africa has been dubbed the dark continent, but I believe it is the continent of hope. For years it has been pillaged at the expense of local lands and populations. However, in many parts that purity still reigns relatively true. To be of Africa, is something of a legendary tale. The land offers so much to the world and people just continue to take without even a nod. The world needs Africa, but it is never spoken. No one just builds a road into the desert for free.

It took me a while to come to terms with my time in Ethiopia. It has been the hardest place for me to write about, because it was the hardest to deal with mentally. I still find it hard to come to grips with it. What I will tell you is the short and sweet version of my struggles through one of the most beautiful countries I have had the privilege to ride through. It took me a while to write this as I often got down about it for various reasons. But the story must be told all the same. This will not be the most positive of posts, but a reality of the situation from the seat of a bike.

The moment I entered Ethiopia it was different. There was instantly more people. They looked and dressed more liberally. People were just strolling back and forth across the border between Ethiopia and Sudan, like it was a walk in the park. I was checked quite thoroughly as a man ruffled through my medicine bag. I had heard all of the horror stories of people who had biked through Ethiopia. It seemed like a nightmare and in many ways I wasn’t looking forward to it.

After some hoops at the border, I was on my own in the late afternoon of my 14th country on my round-the-world tour. I knew Ethiopia was going to be hilly. But it started immediately. As soon as I crossed the border gate there was a hill leading up through the town. The heckling started right away. “You, you, you!!!” “Where are you go!?” “Ferengi”(foreigner) or “China!” These few lines would be the soundtrack to my existence in Ethiopia. At first I played along. I actually thought the China one was pretty funny. But, this was my first day and I wasn’t bothered yet. There were few places to sleep in the bustling border town of Metama. I found one place that was filled with three very large spiders and an open toilet that fermented the room with a lovely stink. One of the spiders was the size of my palm and looked like something from a National Geographic special. I pitched my tent on the bed, not wanting any mosquitos or that hairy spiders crawling on my face in the night. I ate some of the local specialty, injera with tibs(beef), an Ethiopian staple and headed off to bed. The music boomed on Africa loud late into the night at the bar outside my room. Later there was a big rustle in the bed and around my tent, I was happy with my decision to lock myself away and tried not to think about that hairy spider.

I started early and begun my first day of riding in Ethiopia. Throughout the next two days I climbed my way into the mountains on the way to Gondar. The people on the first two days of my journey were actually quite nice and I was left relatively alone. There were small groups of curious children that surrounded me with huge smiles when I stopped for water breaks. Sharing my biscuits, we laughed together at nothing. I had a great conversation at lunch with a local man about the present state of Ethiopia and their achievements in recent history. I was happy to be riding in more bearable weather and food was more readily available than through the desert stretches of Sudan.

After a long day of riding I found myself in a small village with no sort of accommodation. I located the church and asked to pitch my tent. The ‘leader’ of the church allowed me to camp and invited me to his hut nearby for dinner. It was cold injera with meat that looked like it has been sitting around for a long time, with a chunky milk in the middle. I ate and he didn’t, which should have been a sign. It was pretty unappetizing but there was no where else to get food and I didn’t want to be rude. I ate enough to satisfy him and myself, before crawling away in my tent. Some hours later that same man proceeded to shout, sing, talk and chant from one to seven in the morning over a loud speaker attached to the church. Not to mention the electric thunderstorm and heavy rain that rolled in. I got zero sleep and was going crazy.

In the morning I waited until the sun rose and got myself moving. When I got out of my tent there were about 50 people hanging around outside to greet me. Surprised, tired, hungry and feeling slightly sick I packed up as the entire village watched. The man continued to shout through the loud speaker. I got out of there as quickly as possible after a thank you for letting me camp.

I eventually made it to Gondar. Dubbed as Camelot, it boasts amazing castle complexes high in the mountains. I was shattered when I arrived after 8 long days on the roa and found a cheap guesthouse to rest. In the night I woke up extremely ill. I was sweating like crazy, freezing cold, every bone in my body hurt and getting very sick. I had a hallucination there were dogs in my room that wouldn’t leave and broke the toilet cover when I swear I saw a massive centipede jump at me. I suffered through the night and tried to make it downstairs to get some water in the morning.

I was way too sick to even think about venturing to the clinic. I had never felt this terrible. I knew I needed to go to the hospital, but I could barely function and was running to the toilet every few minutes. I met a French guy name Ludo the day before who came by to check on me and brought some soup. I eventually dragged myself to the ‘clinic’ which was the last place on earth I really wanted to be. There was a lot of really sick people there, including me. The building was rundown and in the back of a damp alley. I almost passed out while I was waiting due to dehydration and when a man crowded next to me with breath that reeked of old meat, I nearly lost it. The doctor was very nice and after some tests which I wont get into, he told me I have a severe gastrointestinal infection due to some parasites and was now dehydrated because of the illness. He gave me some medicine that never worked and I spent the next 2 weeks sicker than anything. Days later another trip to the hospital also solved nothing more than making me thankful for Canadian healthcare and cleanliness. I have seen better days.

During this time my body was wiped out. I couldn’t eat anything for days and spent most of my time holed up in my awful little room feeling sorry for myself. I wanted to quit. I wanted to go home. I knew it would be a while, even when I recovered, before I could ride again. I lost a lot of weight that I didn’t have to lose. With some massive mountain climbs on the horizon, I took a bus to the capital Addis Abeba and rested at a friendly Italian mans house until I was ready to continue on. I celebrated my 27th birthday in a miserable state of slow recovery.

From Addis I pushed back on the bicycle for a 730km journey to the Kenyan border. During this time I saw some of the most beautiful scenery on my trip. Throughout my time in Ethiopia I was blown away by the natural beauty. I was also blown away by the way Ethiopian people and in particular the kids acted towards someone on a bike.

“Cycling has encountered more enemies than any other form of exercise.” ~ Louis Baudry de Saunier

When I was off the bike it was generally no problem. People left me alone and carried on as usual. However, riding from Addis to the Kenyan border of Moyale was the worst experience of my trip. I was constantly shouted at all day. Kids would chase me and hurl rocks from the roadside. I was hit with sticks and had soccer balls kicked at me as I sped down dangerous hills. One kid ripped a Canadian flag off my bike and ran into the forest. In small villages people swore at me for no reason or jumped in front of my bike and demanded money. It seemed no one went to school. I had a rock fight in a village with a grown man after he tried to hit me off the bike as I passed and then threw a rock at me. At this point my patience was gone. We exchanged a few rocks back and forth before I got out of there at lightning speed.

The road was either under construction and was a dusty bumpy messy or full of huge terrible pot holes. In 3 years it will be a beautiful road, but for now it is a disaster aside from a few finished sections. I generally like to see the positive of the places I visit and so far on my this trip the kindness has been out if this world. At the end if each day I did my best to reflect on some of the nice encounters and friendly conversations with the local people. It was the only thing that kept my spirits high for the following day.

There was such a contrast from the welcoming nature of the Sudanese people. Everywhere on this trip I have felt overwhelming generosity and hospitality from complete strangers and it was sometimes hard to deal with the realities of cycling in Ethiopia. Upon reaching Kenya, life returned to as normal as it can be. The imaginary line I crossed into Kenya came with the disappearance of ‘You, you, you!” and I was just me again. I am back to full strength and people are as welcoming as ever. I now sense the warm genuine nature of Africa I had imagined in my mind.

The present state of Ethiopia has a lot to do with the failure of the west. During a famine back in the late 80’s thousands of people gave money and aid to Ethiopia. However, it was poorly managed. Handouts do not fix the problem. It was only a band aid. People then came to expect this money and have since seen white people as an opportunity for handouts. Maybe you would remember the images of children with bloated bellies and a sweet person talking about their sponsorship back in the 80’s and 90’s on daytime TV. This was done in good spirit, but again poorly managed and not sustainable. I was a rolling dollar sign. To live in Ethiopia is a difficult life and can never be properly understood from an outsiders perspective. Images streaming on the television are not the reality of a whole nation. Sometimes I don’t blame people for the way they acted towards me. I must look insanely crazy to them. Many people rode by and put a hand out the window as if to say, ‘What are you doing?’ A valid point in some respects, when many people struggle on a daily basis. I struggle by choice.

“In Ethiopia… you might find a seven-year-old expected to take 15 goats out into the fields for the whole day with only a chapati to eat and his whistle. Why are we so afraid to give our children responsibilities like this?” ~ Joanna Lumley

We are so fortunate back home to have all of the freedoms and luxuries we so often take for granted. In Ethiopia many children do not go to school, because in many places it is not available or they cannot afford it. I experienced Ethiopian healthcare firsthand, with kind doctors who were dealing with a neverending stream of people, under pressures of limited resources. Even if a doctor is able to help someone, the family may not be able to afford the medicine. The five dollars it cost me when I was ill, I didn’t even have to think about. Though if someone gets very sick in Ethiopia, it may mean the difference between recovery and a whole family eating. Things we generally do not think about back home. There is no safety net. People need to work and they work hard.

So it is with a heavy heart I look back on my time in Ethiopia. A mixture of emotions often wells up when I think about it. I wonder what I could have done differently or how I could have changed something for the better. It comes back to me as I ride alone down quiet roads. The images you see of Africa on television are not the reality. Yes, poverty does exist in large numbers, but it is a starkly beautiful part of the world and in general the people are full of a deeply proud heritage. There is food on the shelves of stores and it is by no means a wasteland. Wthiopia is beautiful, mountainous and green. He roof of Africa. However, sometimes people don’t always need our help and we don’t always know best. To share knowledge is a gift, but to force change is to be met with failure. Working together is the key. I saw many shades of light in people’s eyes. They all bear pieces of an individual story. Some of struggle and some of hope. I wish I had time to hear them all.

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Two Milestones:
**After a huge effort from many schools in Eastern Ontario we have achieved our goal of raising an additional $10,000 towards building a new schoolhouse with Free the Children. A total of over $22,000 has been raised since I started my ride. This always blows me away. The work done by Free the Children is part of a sustainable development project that puts education at the heart of their initiatives. Construction of the school in Verdara, India is set to begin soon with updates to follow. To donate to the next school project in Kenya CLICK HERE.

***This week I celebrated my 1 year anniversary since beginning my adventure in China. With over 15,000km cycled in 16 countries it has been a life altering experience. Words cannot describe the beauty and kindness I have experienced this year. Looking back on old photos, it sometimes doesn’t even seem real. Is that really me? Was I really there? Then I feel the hardness of my legs and softness of my heart and know it was all true. It makes me welcome the following year with open arms. Thank you to everyone, near and far. We are all part of the same world. Find your adventure. Find your place.

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