Monday, November 6, 2017

Istanbul, Turkey to Butajira, Ethiopia: Wrong turns in Africa

AKA longest blog post ever? Might want to space this one out – I've broken up sections with dashes - - -.

After finishing the previous blog post in Turkey, Ogulcan and I were treated to breakfast prepared by his mother. It was, again, examplary of fairly simple foods: fruits, vegetables, spices, tea, and bread. Of course, "simple" doesn't have to mean "unsatisfying" when it comes to food – the more time I spend with cultures that eat this way, the more I come to like it more than the "complex" foods so common in western cultures. You know what you're eating, it's good for you, and your body has no trouble digesting it.

After breakfast we had Turkish coffee and Ogulcan's mom read my fortune from the dregs. I won't put it all here, but I did record it with her permission, so it might end up in a book at some point. Then, Ogulcan and I went out to find bubble wrap and beer – it was time to package my bike. We were out and back and had the bike in the box by 2 PM; my flight was at 6. We would have been done much sooner except the box was much too big. It would have allowed me not to disassemble the bike at all, but I didn't think the airline would allow that, so we spent about 45 minutes shrinking the box.

Ogulcan's mom has a friend with a van he uses for his restuarant business who wanted to help me take my bike to the airport, so he came over for a late lunch before we headed to the airport ("It's like this in Turkey?" I would say to Ogulcan on the way. "Yes," he would reply, "people want to help." It takes a village...). I was sad to leave Ogulcan and his mom and all the friends they had who wanted to help take care of me – I truly felt at home there, and like Ogulcan and I had much more to experience together. The good news is, I probably will see him again: once I make it to Cape Town in March, I plan to fly back to Istanbul to continue east to India. As I fretted with the nuances of air travel, I found myself very much looking forward to that day.

- - -

EgyptAir's bicycle policy is to allow them as part of the regular checked baggage allowance for free – but they still wanted $100 since it was oversize. I showed them the policy which I had printed out for just such an occasion; they docked the price to $50. Finally, after the manager came and went, he called the desk and informed me the bike would be free. Cool. I tried to be all smiles with the clerk who was clearly having a long day; I was trying not to be one of "those" customers... but the bicycle policy was clearly stated on their website.

At my layover in Egypt I had to go through security twice. The first time, they caught my spare bicycle chain on the x-ray and asked me what it was... I had no idea. I honestly forgot I'd been carrying a spare chain! (I usually don't, I had just picked it up two days previously). Upon opening my bag they also decided the homemade windscreen for my stove was not allowed, so much to my dismay I ended up checking one of my panniers. Something told me it would be fine, though there was a risk of the mounts breaking off since they are so exposed. Panniers are made for bicycle travel, not plane travel.

Another passenger and I lamented being so close to the pyramids but not getting to see them. One day...

My flight got into Addis at 3 AM; it was an hour to get the visa, sped up by some conversation with a French couple there to backpack north to Egypt. After getting my bike and pannier I slept until 5 in the baggage area since it wasn't very crowded; then, got up, put my bike through the x-ray machine, and began assembling it in the hotel lobby with an audience of taxi drivers. The French couple would join me again and we had quite some talk about traveling through Africa and traveling in general – they had some recommendations for the southern parts of Africa since they had been there many times. We traded blogs just as Jacob came out of baggage claim, and said farewell since if I delayed putting my bike together any longer I'd be delaying Jacob too.

We (Jacob and I) shook hands and got to putting our bikes together, the fatigue from travel not encouraging too many pleasantries. The audience of taxi drivers cycled and they sometimes had questions, one time they asked how they could help and I let them pump my tires a little. Around 7:30, we finally had everything assembled and tuned and went out into Addis.

- - -

Our Warmshowers wouldn't be available 'till 10 (still generously early) so we stopped at a restuarant for breakfast and had gera and tibs – pancakes and meat – and beer and coffee. It was, I think, the earliest beer of my life (8 AM), though it felt more like 4 PM after the redeye. Still needing to kill time, we stopped at a grocery store and stocked up on food for the day – mostly eggs and pasta, which will become my stable in Africa – and got to our Warmshowers at 9:50. The guard showed up at 9:55 to let us in, and we spent most of the day sleeping.

That day and the next would be finishing errands around town: I needed fuel for my stove, US dollars for the visa-on-arrival to Kenya, to fix my shoes (which had been falling apart since I can remember), and to reorganize my bags with all the spare parts Jacob had brought me for Africa. Jacob needed fuel and to recharge his SIM card, which proved more difficult than it should have been: at one point we spent an hour being pointed around town; when we finally found the store for the cell carrier, their system was down and they said to come back in a few days.

I tried fixing my shoes with the sewing kit I'd brought, but being just a needle and thread for fabric, I was unable to do a great job. Eventually I found someone on the street who spoke little English, but through gestures we established he would fix them for 30 Bur, just over $1. Much to Jacob's and my surprise, he finished in just a few hours, which was a much needed morale boost after the failed hunt for a SIM card. I paid him 50 Bur, about $2, which seemed more than reasonable for the work he'd done, and certainly less than a new pair of decent cycling shoes – the cost itself, much less finding them!

For currrency I decided to try a prestigious hotel and was told by the bank in the lobby that nobody in Addis could get me US currency. I asked the lobby clerk just to be sure, who pointed me to the concierge, who I came to understand was the "fixer" of the hotel. This is is a term I've heard a few times since arriving in Africa. It basically means, "if you have money, this person can make it happen" (they "fix it up" for you). He said he could get me US currrency on the black market, but the current rate was very bad: 33 Bur/$ instead of the market rate of 27 Bur/$. Even if I paid with my spare Euros as USD at the Kenyan border, I'd get a better exchange rate -- no black market trades for me, though I was caught off guard by the offer. I know of other travelers who have had some luck with the black market: in Sudan, one was able to trade at 22 Sudenese Pounds per dollar instead of the market rate of 7, making Sudan one of the cheapest countries of his trip.

- - -

On a less plot-based note, I'm in Africa! It is, in many ways, exactly as I remember it (I spent 10 weeks in Zambia in 2013) – the smells of fresh-cooked food, fresh vegetables, and fresh air whiff by, replaced just as suddenly by the smells of exhaust, burning trash, and the various things water is mixed with before it evaporates: everything from soap to perfume to trash to various oils. Some of the city is impeccably dirty, some if it impeccably clean (some people are trying to make the impeccably dirty parts impeccably clean); some buildings are constructed of aluminium siding or bamboo poles and tarps, right next to marble and brick and concrete; art is eveywhere, as is trash; half the signs are in English, half in Amharic (the Ethiopian alphabet); half the times are in the global standard, half are in Ethiopian (our 06:00 is 00:00 Ethiopian), few stores obey the posted times anyways.

The streets are filled with people doing everything from carpentry to shoe repair to sewing to bathing to hawking and begging (which itself ranges from holding out a hand to lying on the sidewalk next to a bowl or plastic bag). Stores are grouped by ware: there are entire streets of clothing, or shoes, or jewelry, or electronics (including copy machines under tarp shacks powererd by generators). Shouts of "Hey, Feringi!" (white person!) and "Hello!" and "Taxi, sir?" follow you down the street. Some people stare, others try and engage you out of curiosity, or well-meaning, or the same ego-seeking attitude with which frat boys cat call short-skirted women. Still others want to sell you things. People cross the road as they please, some hop on the back of passing trucks, some walk in the street. Prices vary as wildly as the clothing: twice, I was offered 300 Bur (more than $10) to repair my shoes and twice, 30 Bur (about $1); some people wear rags or torn wifebeaters and others wear suits. Electricity is never guaranteed -- sometimes during the day, the sound of generators floods the streets.

More than once I have invariably concluded: "This is Africa."

Some locals are so helpful and friendly you want to buy them coffee, whereas some are so dismissive it seems curious. The waitress at the restuarant where we got gera and tibs was all smiles despite the effort it took us to communicate; either she truly loved her job or she was a great actress. I've made friends with a grocery store clerk and a cell phone salesmen, both making jokes and smiling and giving precise directions about where to buy food and SIM cards and sewing needles despite having no indication I'd do business with them. A random lady went down three booths translating "curved sewing needle" for me (no luck, but I considered tipping her anyways, though she didn't seem to expect it). The pharmacist I bought alcohol from (to use as fuel for my stove) was patient and kind as I debated if 70% alcohol was worth it or if I could do better. Then, some people just leave you with a "I no speak English" or a "Not here" or a "No." Maybe they don't speak English and are embarassed about it, maybe they've had bad experiences with feringi, maybe they are just having a bad day. I've never felt my life was in danger or anyone was angry at me, it's just a stark and curious contrast.

- - -

In any case, it was a blessing to be able to stay in Geke's guest bedroom and get two good nights of rest before heading out of the city. We sat with her and her housemate, Michaela, the second night, and got to know them a bit, which was a delight. I was worried we'd go the whole time as ships passing in the night – not a fault of Geke's or ours, just the way things work out sometimes. But no, by the end of the stay Michaela had made us soup, coffee (some of the best coffee I've ever had! Supposedly, Ethiopan coffee is like this – though the coffee at the restuarant we went to gave me doubts), tea, and salad; and shared with us lemon meringue; and Geke shared with us some stories of stealing giant beer bottles and impromptu dance parties under random bridges in Amsterdan. We talked about aid organizations and how it's sad the most well-known ones are also often the last well-managed or effective; we talked about what it's like to be in Ethiopia and how travel changes your priorities. We also tried a movie share but I think it just ended up being a virus share. Despite that, it was a wonderful stay.

Also, I managed to trade some French tourists my coin Euro for Bur. It was probably the worst exchange rate of the tour, but it was better than carrying 5 Euro in coins all the way through Africa. Exchange offices do not trade coins – my bad for bringing them from Greece.

I did wake up twice the second night with hives and having to vomit from stomach acid; the hives makes me think it was an allergic reaction of some kind but I couldn't think what it was. Maybe an unknown spice in restuarant food? After a light breakfast the next morning, I'd be fine.

Jacob and I plotted many routes to Kenya and tried skimming a few of Geke's guidebooks, but in the end concluded: there is no way to see it all. Reading the books just made us feel as if, even if we stayed forever, there would be things we would miss.

We left the second morning after saying goodbye to Geke. Day 1 of riding in Africa would be, while not a disaster, quite full of mishaps.

- - -

First, I felt like I had a rock in my shoe. I took it off to discover the guy who fixed them had forgotten to put the sole back in one – but by then it was too late to go back. So I would ride with a soleless right shoe.

Second, we ended up riding through a crowded market. This wasn't a mishap so much as an "oops --" riding through crowded streets, you never know who is going to grab something off your belt or the back of your back. Nobody did, thankfully, but a number of people did just put their hands on ourr bikes, and a few tried to "help" by pushing.

Third, after crossing a traintracks, I felt a push on my bike, almost so bad I fell over. I should have just taken off, but I slowed and turned to see what was up. A cop materialized in front of me. "Stop!" he said. I did. He then grabbed my bike. "You cannot go!" I asked why. "Stay here!" was all he said. I dismounted my bike, afraid he might push me over, and wanting to keep an eye on things on the back.

"Let go of my bike," I said, subconsciously sizing him up on the off chance I had to defend myself. He was brandishing a rather large baton in the hand not on my bike.

"You cannot go!" he said, and pulled the bike towards him. A crowd was forming.

At this point it would have been better to remain calm, but still in shock, I acted instinctually, pulling the bike back towards me. "Let go of my bike!" I shouted.

"You cannot go!" he said, pulling the bike again. At this point I came to my senses and realized this was going nowhere.

"Why?" I said. Like a broken record he repeated himself and pulled the bike. "Why?" I said again. Again, he repeated. "What right do you have to keep me?" I said, "What have I done wrong?" He responded with dumbfounded silence – either he didn't understand what I'd asked, or he had no idea what to say.

"What right do you have?" I repeated. I didn't believe I'd done anything wrong, but in hindsight, maybe Ethiopia had some obscure law about riding a bike over railroad tracks and I was going to go to jail forever. At this point a man in a suit appeared from the crowd, winked at me, then began talking to the cop in Amharic. He spread his arms to separate us and began walking away from me, the cop backing away behind him, a dumbfounded look still on his face. I wasn't going to wait around to say thanks.

So that was, I believe, the first time I ever felt threatened by another human on this trip.

- - -

Fourth, my front tube exploded. I believe this is my fault for putting too much pressure in on a large diameter tire. The tire was nominally the right size for the wheel, of course, but manufacturing imperfections in the tire and rim mean they are never a perfect fit. I'd put in "slime" tubes in that Jacob brought me – the "slime" (a latex-based sealant) is supposed to fill any punctures so you can just keep riding – and thus had to re-seat and re-pump the tires from the airport. I heard a rubbing sound and immediately tried to stop, but before I could there was a "bang" and I was riding on metal in the front. Since I couldn't stop to investigate before it blew, the sizing mismatch + overpressurized thing is just a theory... but it seems pretty likely.

Thankfully the rim and tire were fine (unlike the first time I blew a tube which destroyed the rim... thankfully I'd literally been on my way to replace the rim at the time, and was not 1 mile away), but that was the shortest-lived $15 tube ever – 10 miles – and I had to stop and do a tube change right in the middle of a busy street in Ethiopia. As Jacob likes to say, there is "always an audience."

- - -

Fifth, we missed a turn and didn't realized for 10 miles or so. The road was supposed to be "straight all the way," but sometimes when zoomed out on the map, roads with turns look that way... in any case, being proper, adventurous cycle tourists, we decided to just keep going and connect back up with the road we were supposed to be on via a side road. This "side road" ended up being gravel that would go over a 3000 meter climb – the highest of my tour so far.

At first we were like, "gravel road, okay, no problem." Gravel is something we'd both done before; it's almost inevitable on any cycle tour, especially one in Africa. We let some pressure out of our tires for better traction and more cushion and went on our way.

Then came the first sign we were in over our heads. It looked like this:

As we were both out of water, we decided to use the opportunity to filter water from the stream. As you should come to expect, we had an audience.

We ascended from the stream in what was, unbeknownst to us, the beginning of the 1000m climb. A truck that had forded the river just behind us passed us, and it would be the last vehicle we'd see for 20 hours.

As we climbed the road got worse and worse. It was, without a doubt, the hardest climb of the tour – and probably the hardest climb of my life. The road was terrible: pitted, potted, huge rocks, loose gravel, everything you can think of (except mud, thank goodness). It was easily 10% grade most of the way, with some sections at 12 or 14%. And there was a headwind to boot.

I'm not ashamed to say I walked much of it. I have no idea how, but Jacob pedaled the whole thing. I winced as his bike tire occassionally spun uselessly on a large rock or spot of loose gravel. I was impressed, befuddled, and still not ashamed that I had to walk. It just kept going... and going... and going. On such "gravel," at least 30% of your energy is put into making the bike go up and down, not forward. Over large rocks or in pits of tractionless sand, anywhere from 80-100% (100% being a useless spin that kicks up dirt, but doesn't move your bike, not to mention the bite to your morale)..

Without tools to measure the grade or the energy output, of course, some of the measuring is done against my ego. "28 miles to pavement," Jacob would update. I rode sometimes at 4 mph and walked at 2. 7-14 hours of effort, I thought to myself.

- - -

That night we made what we believed was the top. Jacob flatted – a staple (in rural Africa!?) and a thorn, not plugged by his slime tube. We passed through a village called Lemen and, as it would get dark soon, mimed about a hotel. No luck – not that we expected it in the mountains of rural Africa. Just as we were leaving, we heard a shout behind us: "Wait! I help!"

And so we met Brzunnu (spelled as best I can). There was lots of talk with his broken English (and as usual, we had an audience), but eventually we established that we could sleep at his place. He wanted to make sure we were "peaceful" and kept saying "no worry." There was no theme to the conversation really so I don't remember much of it, but in the end we had a place to stay just as the sun set. He had a spare room in his "compound" (fenced in courtyard with doors to rooms in the house) which was all we could ask for, though there was just one plastic-wrapped mattress. We made dinner by headlamp with my alcohol stove – the power was out (Africa!); Jacob had been hoping to find gas outside of Addis, but that was before the missed turn – and made conversation with Brzunnu as best we could, though at some point we wanted privacy and weren't sure how to communicate it. He was well-meaning, but a little... too present.

Finally he left us, and after some confusion about whether we'd be locked in (um, no) and where we would "urinate" (at first he gave us a bucket; once we established we wouldn't be locked in, we agreed to a corner of the compound), we had dinner and collapsed. I'd had the mattress at Geke's, so Jacob got the mattress that night.

We awoke at 06:00 (12:00 Ethiopian time), packed up, and paid. Brzunnu said payment was voluntary, so Jacob and I agreed 100 Bur (about $4) seemed reasonable, considering what Jacob had paid at previous hotels in Ethiopia and what we got there (one mattress). Whether we should have paid for his kindness, or just paid more because we had it, is another debate altogether. "If you have more, add," said Brzunnu. We stuck with 100.

That day was supposed to be "mostly downhill," but we discovered we weren't at the top yet. Up and up we went again, and again and again I walked. We subsisted on what food we had left – two packs of vanilla wafers and half a jar of peanut butter.

Finally, we hit a T and turned the downhill way – though "mostly downhill" still meant the occasional uphill. Jacob flatted again and I would pinch flat my back tire (pinch flat = tire compresses so much it "pinches" holes in the tube, one on either side, between the tire and rim) hitting a rut on a downhill. Between leaving Geke's the day befoe and the time we made it to the bottom – to pavement! -- I lost both my $15 slime tubes, Jacob one slime and one regular.

Jacob fixes a flat tire with an audience of children on their way to school.

We immediately went to a restuarant, ordered gera and tibs and beer, and celebrated being alive.

- - -

In retrospect, that pass was... awesome. It was a really cool part of Africa – the mountains – we wouldn't have otherwise seen. Bruzunnu told us we were the first feringi (white people) ever to come through town. There were no shouts of "Hello!" or "Money!" we suspect because nobody spoke English (we did hear "feringi" spoken amongst themselves, but not shouted at us as a way of attention getting). Some people's faces even portrayed fear: "What's wrong with their skin!?" Jacob and I imagined they must have been thinking. The foliage was tropical, the birds were exotic, and it was chilly – I had to dig up all the cold weather gear I'd put in the bottom of my panniers because "I wouldn't need it for Africa." On the descent, we glimpsed a few monkeys before they disappeared into the trees.

Maybe it's making a silver lining out of a shitty situation (arguably what cycle touring is all about), but I'm actually glad we missed that turn.

- - -

Back in the hot foothills, back among whistles for our attention and shouts of "Money!" and "How are you how are you how are you!" ("Maybe if I repeat myself as fast as I can, they'll be more likely to reply!" joked Jacob), we made it 10 miles to Butajira, a semi-major city where we hoped to find... well, everything. Food, fuel, and a hotel.

We checked out four hotels and were quoted everything from 2273 Bur (about $85 and yes, oddly specific) to 104 ($4), with and without wifi, electricity, elevators for our bikes, places for our bikes, and floor bathrooms. We settled on 300 Bur (about $12) for a third floor room with no elevator and wifi when there is electricity (there wasn't when we went in, it flickered on and off a bit throughout the first few hours before finally staying on long enough for me to post this). Receoption said bikes would be no problem, but the manager came around as we were paying and said it would be a problem. There was a guard, he said, and that should be good enough for us. We just didn't imagine they'd ever had nice touring bikes around... anyways, after some polite groveling the real manager came in (yes: the first one, turns out, wasn't exactly the manager) and said "okay" and that was that – bikes in the room. We shook his hand and thanked him profusely.

So here we are, where we meant to be last night, exhausted physically, but mentally... definitely on the silver lining side of the challenge. Okay, posting this entry with as few clicks as possible (since every click takes 3-4 minutes to load) was a little annoying (photos weren't uploaded until Kenya).

And that's how Africa made our first day of riding into two.

1 comment:

  1. Great stuff Kyle, good to see you riding with Jacob (say hello from me and Dea!). Based on what William Bennett wrote about Ethiopia I'm sure the company will be a great help in that country! All the best from Kyrgyzstan