Thursday, November 16, 2017

Butajira, Ethiopia to Sodo, Ethiopia: Eyob and the Fallen Child

After my previous blog post we went for dinner at the hotel, $5 each for a large pizza. The waiter polished the, erm, steelware in front of us, and they took about 30 minutes to come out, but they passed for pizza. We passed the time swapping travel stories and scraping the top of politics and eavesdropping on an ex-pat get-together a few tables away before paying and heading up to sleep.

We were on the third floor so I didn't expect any mosquitos, but one window was permanently open to allow the TV wire out. I spent much of the night either trying to kill something buzzing by my ear or suffocating under the covers.

The next day was what I can probably describe as a typical day in Africa: climbs so long they seem like cols, and descents to match. We found shade (and a rare bit of privacy from foot traffic – still the occasional honk or holler from a motorized vehicle though) by a tree covered in needles, we drafted a re-bar truck, allowing us 10 minutes of 22mph riding on flat road with no pedaling (excluding the hill we passed it down, racing to get behind it again after the ascent).

Africa: Everything wants to kill you.

For stoves. I mean, sterilization.

Final Destination, anyone?
I discovered a hole in the sidewall of my $40 rear tire of less than 300 miles. It wasn't too surprising given Schwalbes are known for weak sidewalls and the type of riding we did through the 3000m pass the day before, but it was disappointing. I sewed it shut (literally) with a bit of cardboard underneath; for no particular reason I had kept the box for my latest purchase of toothpaste. “Maximum cavity protection” was exactly what was needed here.

Around 2 PM we passed through a town big enough to have a hotel. We asked just for giggles – 700 Bur each, about $26. Too much. There were more hotels but there was much daylight left, so onwards we went, stopping at a spring to fill and filter water next to the locals. They let us cut in line, being we had only about 8 liters to fill, and they had tens of jerry cans at maybe 5 gallons each. They even filled my filter bags for me a few times.

About 4 we were crawling up I hill and I called for a break. I hadn't eaten much that day so, to the usual audience of 15-25 black people, I downed what snacks I had. Jacob tried to convince me to ride a donkey one of the onlookers had temporarily let loose, but we decided it was better not to, in case I got injured. We started a climb and someone appeared next to us on a bike, asking the usual “Where are you go,” but then he did something unusual: he introduced himself.

“I am Eyob,” he said.

“I am Kyle,” I said.

He talked at me a bit but for some reason seemed kinder than usual; after 200 meters of climb I was too out of breath to reply, so he said goodbye and disappeared. Also unusual – almost like he wanted to talk and not just stare at the white person or ask them for money. Jacob and I conferred and decided it was worth asking him for a place to sleep. Our other “plan” was a church five miles further.

Eyob had all but disappeared down the hill, but when we stopped and turned and stared, trying to decide what to do, a relay of calls began: first the people 50m behind us shouted after him, then 50m behind them, then 50 behind them, and after a few seconds, just when he seemed too far gone, he turned and looked. He wasn't any bigger than my pinky nail, but I waved. He turned and started coming back; we waited for him to bike back up the hill.

“Yes,” he said, “What is it?”

“Eyob,” I explained, “We are needing a place to sleep tonight. Do you know somewhere?”

“Yes,” was the immediate reply, “you are sleeping with me.” I mimed and clarified a few times since people don't always understand what they are saying, but after a few rounds of confirming there was a roof and it wasn't too far away (less than 1k, though that seemed impossible), Jacob and I dismounted our bikes and followed him not 20 meters down the road to a dirt side road, and up the side road. Okay, I dismounted my bike, but Jacob rides everywhere.

What followed was a night I'll never forget – and a bittersweet ending. I can't possibly put all the details of what happened here, but I did record plenty, so no doubt the finer details may end up in a book at some point. In any case, here's the best I can do for now:

We started out walking through a grassy field (Africa has impeccable grass – the animals keep it trimmed, I guess?) and Eyob described this as his “family area.” We'd eventually establish that within the area around where we were – maybe a 2 mile by 1 mile area – was all of his family and extended family. The home of his uncle was next to his home; after a snack of beans from the stalk and ensuring our bikes were “safe” in his hut (he even locked the door for us: “no one will come”) we walked maybe half a mile to see his mother's mother's and father's mother's home, him pointing out the other relatives along the way. His nephew was eager to meet us (“You are appreciate,” Eyob kept saying): we shook hands and bumped shoulders twice, apparently the way to introduce yourself to someone here. His grandfather kissed our hands as we shook, informed us (via Eyob, the only family member of the seeming 50 or so who spoke English) the stay would be free, and asked if we wanted coffee later.

He showed us his family's field of... conchu? (I'll have to revisit the recording on that one), trees made of huge leaves that are processed into a food of some kind; a field of some grain that we could eat off the stalk and was surprisingly delicious; and, after the grand tour (all the while followed by a troop of 5-15 black people), we were invited into the kitchen hut for dinner (his immediate family had two huts: a kitchen and a living hut. The other families seemed also to have two structures for the most part, though we didn't ask what they were). Their cow and donkey came too, fenced off in the animal part of the structure (the cow, by the way, was “for milking,” but it “wasn't now,” so we'd have fresh milk “next time.” Milking a cow is on my bucket list. Other things we'd have “next time:” tea and conchu). Looking up, we saw a black vastness – the ceiling was easily 30 feet high, and with no electricity, it looked almost endless.

Hole for making conchu.

Kitchen ceiling

Entrance to their front yard
Dinner was gera and cabbage – recall gera is giant pancake, only this time we got to witness it being made! We sat on a bench-and-picnic-table type setup, facing away from the table as it was up against the wall. The youngest brought in chairs for everyone else coming and going and a small table. Water was provided, but Jacob and I had very little. We thought it would be rude to just go get our filtered water, but we also didn't think explaining why we had to filter it would come across well, so we snuck out to our bikes periodically to hydrate. As we ate, someone bought in a pole of sugar cane “from market,” which we had for dessert. Eyob cut it open with a hand scythe, and after watching how he ate it, we tried it, too. You bite off a piece (if you can, it's very hard... if not, you just bite out the center), chew it so the sugar and water come out inside your mouth, and spit out the fiber that's left.

Pouring the gera

Having dinner, mom mans the firer, cow in the background

Cutting sugar cane

It was delicious – sweet, but not too sweet, and easy to chew, if sometimes hard to break off. At one point there much have been 10 of us in that hut all chewing sugar cane, and for a few moments the talking ceased and the only sounds were the biting and crunching of enjoying our dessert, and I had one of those moments of bliss that I was worried I'd left behind in Istanbul. The peace was broken by the sound of the donkey pissing; in response, someone threw the fibrous leftovers to the donkey and the cow.

We were asked what we wanted to do next – Eyob suggested “play.” We asked what that meant, and he said, “running, jumping,” and a few other school recess verbs I can't recall just now but have recorded (I had previously asked if we could play football, because that seems like a quintessential Africa experience, but they didn't have a ball, so...). We went out to their yard; fenced off to the side was an adult jungle gym made of bamboo: parallel bars, a bench press, and some weights. They showed us what to do – carry yourself across the parallel bars with your arms, bench press 16 kgs, do 10 pushups – and we followed suit as best we could (Eyob did 5 reps lifting 16 kgs; I could only manage two; Jacob did 12, which made me feel less bad about always being slower than him...). After 30 minutes or so we went back to the kitchen hut to witness coffee being made and I grabbed my harmonica.


And so we spent the last hour of the night with my mediocre harmonica skills (Eyob was baffled, his eyes widened with awe when he heard it, and he insisted on playing it. “It is VERY GOOD,” he said, nodding enthusiastically), watching coffee being made “the old fashioned way,” (beans roasted over the fire, then crushed with a huge wooden stick used as a pestle into a section of tree trunk with a hole used as a mortar, then), and getting to know Eyob a little more – all by a single candlelight and the light of the cookfire. Since leaving Butajira we'd had the addition of “China!” to shouts from the side of the road, and when Eyob asked where my harmonica was made, we found out why: amazing things come from China. “China” means, “give me things made from China.”

Coffee took forever, and was really salty (they salt it here). I hoped coffee ground by a giant wooden mortar and pestle in a clay and straw hut in rural Ethiopia would be the best yet, but the best coffee here has still been Michaela's in Addis. *ahem* By the time it was done, Jacob and I were falling asleep. We usually retire shortly after sunset at 7. It was 7:30, and Eyob informed us nobody in Ethiopia slept until at least 3 (Ethiopian time – 9, our time). “You will sleep after one cup,” he said. One cup came and was set down on the table, and disappeared by a number of hands only to reappear full again, placed next to the basked of hot beans that are “good for life,” said Eyob, making a muscle with him arm (other things “good for life:” play, music, family). I began drinking the second cup and reminded him we needed to sleep.

Roasting the coffee beans

Waiting for coffee

As "homemade" as it gets

Earlier there had been some confusion about where we'd sleep: Eyob had said it was “advantage” for us to sleep with his grandparents in their multi-room house, but it was our choice. Not wanting to kick his grandparents out of bed (or be left with Eyob, the only English speaker in the family, half a mile away), we chose his single-room hut, though we anticipated waking up among Eyob, his 5 sisters, 2 brothers, and mom (actually, 4 sisters – one had been adopted to Canada. Before dinner we looked at photos of her “other life” and wondered how that had come about, and how they felt about it, but weren't sure how to ask).

So at 8 PM we retired to the hut, where it was my turn for the mattress, and peed in the conchu forest (side note: “second” was urine, “first” was feces, as Eyob translated where we should go. “First” was to be done in a specific hole in the conchu forest. Sorry if that's TMI, but I thought it was interesting). As we fell asleep, we both noticed the ceiling seemed to glow: looking at the walls we saw pitch black, but looking up, we saw an almost imperceptible amount of light. We guessed it was either phosphorescence, the stars coming through the hay roof, or our eyes playing tricks on us.

Just as we were about to fall alseep, someone came in with a light and gave Jacob a blanket despite his “no problem” statements, and they put the blanket over my feet as I feigned sleep, not wanting to start a conversation. Again we tried for sleep, and again just before we were both out, Eyob came in and asked if there was any problem. “No problem,” we said. He left, and singing began, and we wondered if there was dancing, and if we should be out there, if this was our opportunity to participate in native Ethiopian singing and dancing and by the clock of the cycle tourist we were missing it, but just as I was about to put my shoes on and go out, it died down.

At 9 Eyob and his brothers came in and settled down and locked the door (“Oh god,” I thought, “I'll actually have to pee in the bowl, with everyone listening”). “Settled down” just meant lying together, as they talked for a bit, and someone made no less than 6 phone calls, and did I mention nobody whispers in Africa? It wasn't quiet until just after 10, when Eyob snuck out and I snuck out behind him to pee outside while I still could. I was caught on the way in but “no problem,” I said, and though sleep was elusive – I was sleeping in a handmade hut in rural Ethiopia with 3 new brothers, after all – it came eventually.

I'd told Eyob we'd be leaving at 12 (Ethiopian time – 6 our time), which he seemed surprised by, but “it's possible,” he'd said, clapping his hands together (his way of saying “yes” or “okay”), and just before 12 his phone started playing music to accompany the sounds of the birds outside. We got up and started packing and Eyob began insisting I give him my harmonica. “I help you,” he would say, “give me.”

One time – okay. Two times, and my heart began to break. Our stay with Brzunnu in Lemen had always felt a little “off,” with an undertone of monetary need – Brzunnu had kept saying “what technology” we had and “how poor” he was, and that though our stay was “no money,” money was, of course, “voluntary.” Say something is “voluntary” enough times, though, and it feels like maybe it isn't. With Eyob and his family, we felt truly welcome, like he really wanted us there. He kept calling us “brother” and said “you are appreciate” and once he said our stay was free, that was that. He didn't just ask about our “technology” and our trip (he didn't ask about our technology at all, except when noting the harmonica was made in China), but about much of our lives, and he shared with us so much of his life and his family's life. It had been a wonderful stay... and I didn't know what to do.

I considered giving it to him. I also considered explaining to him that $80 wasn't an insignificant amount of money, even for an American; that I couldn't get another one in Africa and how would I entertain other hosts? I considered asking him to pay me for it, or at least some of it. But in the end all I could think to say was, “I'm sorry. It's too much.” I told him if I came back, I'd bring him one, and I meant it. But he kept asking. Jacob came over and gave him a SIM recharge we'd bought but hadn't used, and this distracted him long enough to put the recharge code into his phone. I gave him some vanilla wafers, which I'd also given him last night, and he'd liked them very much. But again, he asked.

We walked ten minutes to the road and I tried asking if he would go to work that day – “no,” he said, and then, “I have helped you. Give me.” I told him I was sorry, but it was too much. I shook his hand, thanked him again for such a wonderful stay, and we took off. He kept his head down and wallowed away.

We climbed another endless Africa climb, and much of the road was silent, as if a funeral procession were in order. I hoped to see Eyob again and that it wasn't the death of our friendship, but I felt as if a part of me was twisting up inside, a part that hoped we had finally met an African native who wouldn't judge us based only what we gave them.

- - -

We climbed for an hour and finally descended, two kids on bikes chasing after Jacob; when they couldn't catch him, they slowed and waited for me. Nothing new. We tore down the hill together and then... the road had been twisty and potholey and I had the sense to not go as fast as I could, but these kids wanted to show a white guy who was boss. Just as I hit 30 mph one tore past me, and in my peripheral vision I saw a van swerve to avoid a pothole and hit his front wheel. He bike lurched left and he fell over it, tumbling on the ground a few times before sliding to a halt. The van and the other rider continued on, oblivious.

I pulled over, put my bike up to the fence blocking the cliff, and ran to him. He kept trying to stand but was so disoriented he never made it straight up. He collapsed into my arms and I dragged him to the fence, leaned him against it, and did a quick assessment. He was alive, breathing, heart beating, and would definitely live, but he was bloody, there was something sticking out of his head, and he couldn't keep his head up. I lied him down gently and told him to relax. He probably didn't understand me.

By this time a few girls walking to school had stopped to gawk. I motioned to one of them to get the bike out of the road, not wanting to cause any further accidents. I turned back to the boy and he had managed to crawl under the fence and almost off the cliff; I gently laid him down again and tried every permutation of “relax” I could think of: stay, wait, hold, rest, wait, wait, wait... holding my hand in front of his face in a “stop” sign, everything. I pressed his head gently down against the grass and finally, after four or five times of this, he looked at me and passed out.

I turned to the road and saw a car coming. I tried to motion to the girls to get it – stop it – whatever – I pointed and made hand waving motions, but they didn't understand, they just started to cry. I checked that the boy was not going to walk off the cliff and ran to the middle of the road waving my hands in the air. The car stopped, confused, and I motioned and shouted at them to “come, please come, please come,” pointing at the boy. Finally the driver got out and we lifted the boy over the fence. “Okay, you go now,” he said, and put the boy in the van.

A crowd of 15 or so had gathered now, one who spoke English asked me what happened. I mimed biking and falling; “he fell,” confirmed the man. I nodded. “You saved his life,” he said. I didn't feel that way. I felt like, had a white person not come though the village, it never would have happened. I tried to mime to a few more people but two or three just waved me on, telling me to “go,” so I did.

A 25 minute descent awaited with Jacob at the bottom. I wanted to cry, I wanted to cry so bad but I had to make it to Jacob so he knew I was alright. I stopped to take a few pictures of the view, I waved and smiled at schoolchildren, and in my mind I wanted to stop every child on a bike and tell them to WEAR A FUCKING HELMET, and not to show off to anyone, least of all me because I care the least, but for 25 minutes I just held onto my handlebars and maintained my composure long enough to find Jacob, suffocating in a throng of black people in a village at the bottom of the hill. We rode on, out of the village, and took pictures of the children chasing us, and I asked to pull over at the next mile marker so we had something to lean our bikes against, and then I discarded my helmet and Camelbak and cried.

I cried for all the kids who felt like they had something to prove, for all the people who chased us just because we were white, who asked us for money, who thought we were “ATMs on wheels,” as Jacob put it. I cried for feeling like I was doing something wrong by being there, accomplishing nothing but hurting people. I cried for Eyob, who was so kind to us and whose eyes had widened so when he heard the harmonica for the first time, and I cried for that little boy. I cried for Brzunnu, who had given us a place to sleep, who was so well-meaning despite having very little sense of privacy, and who – did I mention my headlamp disappeared that night? I cried for feeling like the world was full of terrible problems I couldn't fix, not with money, not with a bike, not with a book.

Jacob put his arm around me and I explained through sniffs what happened. I cried some more, and snotted on the ground between my legs, and asked for water, and cried, and breathed. Finally, I said, “Let's go find some lunch.”

I got up to face the crowd of 10 or so women heading to school that had gathered across the street. Through my wet eyes I summoned a smile and a wave. Some of them smiled back, and we rode off.

In the next village we would find a restaurant serving spaghetti, vegetables, and bread – Wednesdays and Fridays are fasting days, no meat – and order coke as well. Jacob said “cheers,” and I clinked coke bottles with him, wondering to myself what there was to be cheerful about. Seeming to read my mind, Jacob said, “Better to suffer in good company than to go it alone.”

I smiled a real genuine smile.

Breakfast (did I say lunch? When you get up at 6, 9 feels like lunchtime) was had mostly in silence, and at some point the only thought I had, which I said aloud, was: “At least my sweater's red. I got some blood on it.” Jacob concluded, “always a silver lining.” I couldn't help but laugh. A good laugh. I was very, very, very grateful to have him with me. I don't know what I would have done without him.

We paid 50 Bur (just under $2) for the meal and departed – 17 miles to the next hotel room. It was the most mentally grueling 17 miles of the tour. There was a headwind, it was hot, and there were people. People. People followed us on motorcycles, bicycles, an entire school of children took off after us in an ocean of “Money money money money,” kids ran after us just to touch our bikes and laugh. It was all I could do stifle “leave me alone” and “go away” and even sometimes “FUCK OFF!!!” some twisted part of me even thought to kick the cocky ones off their motorcycles. I rode mostly in silence, my helmet low, occasionally yielding a firm “no” to the real insistent ones, the ones who really wanted money or to touch my bike, but the only result was laughter. I tried repeating back “moneymoneymoney” to one child in the same monotone emptyheaded-ness he said it to me, hoping to communicate what a lifeless, careless robot he sounded like, but he just smiled. To them, this was a game: how to get money from the white person, how to touch his stuff without getting caught, how to stare without having your picture taken.

School's out

Some motorcycles tail Jacob.

Trucks and busses slowed as heads and thunbs-ups poked out the windows, oncoming tuk-tuks and motorcycles stopped just to honk when we got close, people crossed the road to be closer to us and a few feinted falling in front of us or stuck their hands in our faces just to make us swerve. Anything to get the white man to react, to acknowledge their existence. I didn't count but it was by far the most times I'd been “asked” for “money,” ever.

Jacob, having already spent a few weeks in Ethiopia before we met, informed me that this was “normal” and the ride since leaving Addis had been “easy.”

We made it to the next major city and settled on a hotel for 240 Bur, about $9, the most we'd paid since arriving. There were other, cheaper ones across the street (150 and 170, about $5 and $6, respectively) but this one had a studio in a separate building in the back. We wanted to be alone, and I didn't want to try anymore.

Home for the night
We filtered water from the sink, having been out for the past hour and a nasty climb, and made the dinner we'd intended to have the night before -- before Eyob. I collapsed on the bed, and fell asleep listening to the receptionist tell the maid something about white people. Later, when Jacob would check if the window locked so we could go to dinner, we'd find someone waiting on the porch. I wondered if we could leave the studio without anything getting stolen. I wondered when the next time was I would feel like I could just exist, and not have to worry about finding water, or whether my bike and everything I own would get stolen while I was out to dinner, or whether people would ask me for money or a harmonica, or whether anyone would chase me down the street and get hit by a car and have a concussion and almost walk off a cliff in the resulting disorientation.

None of this is my fault, of course. And to be fair, I chose this. I can go home anytime I want. My goal is now: make it to Nairobi, see how I feel. If I want to quit Africa in Nairobi, I could still be home in time for Christmas (which my family of doctors-that-don't-pick-their-own-schedules is celebrating on Thanskgiving; I'd do Christmas in Madison with my friends). I hope I'll feel better once I get there. But I just don't know. And of course, I'd have to return to Istanbul in March, to see Ogulcan again, to keep my promise of seeing the city with him, and to bike the Pamir highway to India.

I want to close with a shout-out to Jacob. Jacob, who put his arm around me while I cried. Jacob, who made me laugh – really laugh – when all I wanted was to cry. Jacob, who cooked for me when I just wanted to do nothing and who lets me use his water filter and just in general has kept me going as I adapt to the toughest part of my tour so far, the never-ending Africa hills and mechanical failures and mental sidewinder that has been the culture here. I've found a Bosnian.

Plus I mean, he cooks.


  1. I now have a new vision of Africa - the incessant shouts and sounds and expectations seem so harsh and discordant - exhausting and oppressive. It must be horrible to be unable to get away from it and to be objectified. If you continue past Nairobi, I have friends with connections in Tanzania I can see if you can stay with. Be safe - there are riots in Nairobi right now. If you come home for a few months, I'd love to have you here as much as you'd like. I'll be home over Christmas. Give Jacob a hug and a big thanks for me. I love you so very much, Mom

    1. Kenya is much better - 10/90 whereas Ethiopia felt 95/5 (chide for attention vs other behavior).

      We will be in Tanzania in four or five weeks maybe. The riots are south of Nairobi where we are not going, we'll cut east to Uganda.

  2. I am so sorry about the fallen child. Not your fault, but how horrible. I hope that he will be okay.

    I hope that Kenya is 10/90. A weight will be lifted.

    Love you, Mom