Monday, November 20, 2017

Konso to Todenyang: Into the Bush

We left Konso and managed to find water on the way out, seeing a large water container and asking the locals if we could have some. I wondered if we should feel ambiguous about using their water, but they didn't seem to mind (nobody ever does – I get the impression water shortages here aren't as widespread as many Americans think they are). Konso was halfway up a climb and we had to climb the rest of the way, the usual kids on bicycles and teens on motorcycles tailing us out until they realized we weren't going to give them money. The descent was slow and steady, and at one point as I was dodging potholes through a town of spear-wielding kids, one of them threw a spear at me.

It was a bad throw – I didn't even had to dodge it – but it was... an experience. Have a spear thrown at me? Check. This was his version of the “give me money” rock throw we'd seen before: not maliciously intended, just intending on doing whatever it takes to get money. Of course, a rock could give me a welt or at worse get stuck in my chain – a spear could get stuck in my wheel, break all my spokes (making my bike useless and irreparable in the bush), and send me tumbling over the handlebars. With a shudder, I recalled that boy who had been hit by a car showing off to me a few days before. People who don't realize the potential consequences of their actions can be very dangerous, to themselves and others.

The sun was setting and we were getting nervous about a place to sleep. I tried miming to an old man I felt good about, but he could only point down the road, speaking no English, then miming for money. We passed a church, blaring its service out of a speaker, a few kids leaving the sermon to come ask us for money. I didn't feel good about it. 15 minutes later, Jacob had me ask someone he felt good about. This person mimed about a shack across the road but that it was locked, then thought for a minute, and pointed to what looked like an animal shed, or a house under construction. We and our flock of onlooking children went over and yes, it would work – though, being under construction, the “walls” were quite see-through. We made camp with children peering through the walls and climbing in the windows, wondering when privacy would come. I tried to sweep the floor a bit, and three children jumped in to help. At least we felt welcome – hopefully they wouldn't ask for money.

Around 5:30, I went outside and mimed to one of the older ones that we'd like to sleep, and could people please go. Surprisingly, it worked – after about 20 minutes we were left alone. An older women waved with two hands, either enthusiastically saying goodbye or enthusiastically wishing we'd stay and sleep well. People walked by very closely outside our shack – to and from church, we imagined, as the loudspeaker wailed until 9 PM. We shut off our electronics when we heard footsteps, not wanting to attract any more attention. It would rain, hard but briefly, overnight, but we were safe under an aluminum roof. I moved my tent farther from the edge. Jacob rolled over in his sleep.

The next morning the loudspeaker woke us at 5:30. I tried to blog from under my raincoat to hide the light, but at 6 AM, the children had reappeared – no doubt to see how white people got up in the morning. A few days ago we'd stopped to photograph baboons and realized we treated them the same way Africans treated us – like zoo animals. There in that shack, the analogy was complete.

For breakfast we had coffee and Abu Walad Sandwich Biscuits. The package was labeled: “Better taste!”

Hi mom.
We asked to use a bathroom and someone even poured water for us to wash our hands. Nobody asked us for money. While Jacob used the bathroom, I whipped out my harmonica, to varying reaction. We got the two-handed wave from the lady again, and went on our way.

That day we would have a fairly sizable descent which strongly reminded me of the game Far Cry, where you and your friends are stranded on a tropical island and have to escape – I felt the developer of that game had probably spent a lot of time on that chunk of road.

"My brother! The white man approaches! What? You have no pants? Ride my back, then, and we shall give chase together!"

After the descent, the road was flat for a long time. The sun was burning the back of my neck, so I managed to barter a scarf off a lady walking down the road for the last of my Bur, 150 (about $6). I think she was asking 110, about $4, but I misinterpreted... oh, well. She can use that $2 more than I can. And, no more sunburn on my neck!

We started running low on water and Jacob tried to convince me to filter from a brown river. I asked if he'd ever done that before – “Yes, once” – and if he was fine – “For a few days” – and what happened after a few days – “I got a bacterial infection and had to go to the hospital.” Pass.

We went through a village big enough to have a restaurant and got – you guessed it – gera and tibs. They also gave us some water, but not before a very drunk teenager came onto me and then Jacob, including but not limited to grabbing our behinds. We wondered briefly if he had been trying to rob us, but neither of us keep anything in our pockets, so it didn't matter anyways. We're good looking guys.

We left town to find a secluded place to filter water. Of course, a few people pulled off the road to watch, including two guys carrying a dying goat on their motorcycle. As they watched us in silence, the goat bled out onto one foot, and the tailpipe. We took off, and a giant truck passed us, and then some goats. As we came, the goats scattered. “Big truck? Whatever,” said Jacob, imitating the goats, “AHHH!!! IT'S A BICYCLE ON A MURDEROUS RAMPAGE!!! RUN AWAY!!!”

The scenery continued to change, and feel a little more rural – people became less and less common. A climb began, slowly at first, just as I ran out of water. We were at the lowest altitude we'd been at thus far, so it was hotter than it had been thus far. A truck passed me, the passenger filtering water out the window. My bike started wobbling – at first I thought I was going delirious, but then I looked down and realized I had a flat tire. I pumped it up, hopefully to last until I could catch up with Jacob.

While I fixed my flat Jacob held out his water bottle and the first car stopped to give us water. Flat with a purpose? Maybe. We continued up, and I located a piece of rubber to use as a “real” boot, since I suspect the flat was caused by a tiny rock caught in the cardboard boot I had installed a few days ago.

Reusing is more efficient than recycling, right?
At some point we reached a water pump and stopped to do... everything. Bathe, fill water, do laundry. It was heavenly. Three Hamer tribesman joined us – by which I mean watched us – and they wanted 3 Bur each to document the occasion. We decided to try the razor blades: at 15 Bur a pack of 6, a slightly better deal. For one razor blade each, they accepted, and now we have a photo of three Hamer tribesman staring at Jacob's camera while I bathe at a water pump in rural Ethiopia. (still need to get this photo from him)

The climb continued, and we were passed by a number of trucks with burning brakes – steep parts to come. At one point Jacob noted what we deemed the “butt sheep.” Why are they called butt sheep, you ask? Well, take a look.

The good news – I was laughing so hard I could hardly climb. Better that than the opposite! The bad news... well, there wasn't really any. Refreshed from the bath, wearing clean clothes, topped up on water, and with an irremovable smile, we climbed.

At the top, we finally turned onto the dirt road we'd been anticipating since Addis – what was supposed to be our first dirt road of Ethiopia. But, this is Africa: it was our third. Still, it felt like an accomplishment. Hamer tribesmen came and went, and asked for money like all the rest. Some were very, very tall. Some had guns. We made camp in the best spot we could find – there were cattle nearby, but it was better than people. Again, it would rain. I'd jump out to put on the fly. Jacob would roll over in his sleep.

We woke up to my back tire flat, again. I put on the rubber boot as Jacob patched the tire, and as we worked, a Hamer tribesman with a semi-automatic WWII-era assault rifle approached and checked us out. We traded him a razor for a photo, and he left. Breakfast? Abu Walad Sandwich biscuits – now better tasting. We fished them out of our bags, surrounded, for an unknown reason, by bees. I counted at least 20 bees.

The next time we saw butt sheep, as we ate some Abu Walad, they were lead out of the bush by goats – goats with gas. “What's wrong with them?” said Jacob. “Why do they keep farting?” So, fart goats and butt sheep... the funniest animals we saw in Africa.

After some time, rain came. We made it to another village with a restaurant, a touristy village with many English speakers. One of them, an 11-year-old named Shelo, took to us and helped us find a restaurant, a water pump, and a place to sleep. We had to decline the place to sleep since the wifi didn't work. They were asking $15 when we had paid only $8 a few nights ago in Arbaminch – worth it, if there had been wifi. We gave Shelo $1 and left town.

When we'd gotten water, one of the locals had asked us if we should really be drinking it – that white people usually drank “packet water.” We had no idea what that was, but Shelo said they served water from the pump at the hotels, and that was good enough for us. We both had, after all, many months of drinking various qualities of tap water under out belts.

I had extremely mixed feelings about Shelo. He felt very genuine and very kind, but he was selling hard the camping spot, and gave me a card of a tour guide friend of his. I felt he was a well-meaning kid who was being sucked into a money-oriented culture. It was the heart-tearing feeling I usually have through the day in Africa, but about just one person. I hoped he turned out alright.

As we left town, the rain stopped. We ran into some Japanese tourists, which was a nice treat. I gave out a few cards and hinted to one that maybe we could bike the Pamir highway together? Maybe. They'd all been backpacking for various amounts of time, so meeting up in Istanbul in four months didn't seem too far-fetched – but you never really know with these things.

The road was pretty awful dirt and sand – wet dirt and sand – for a good ten minutes, and then... brand new pavement, not even painted. We passed the team of people marking the center line. Four weeks ago, maybe two, we would have continued through wet dirt and sand. Instead, we found ourselves roaring through the African bush – the real secluded African bush we'd been expecting for days now – at 15-20 mph. We passed a few tribesmen on occasion, some wielding guns, but for the most part, it seemed we had achieved the impossible: we were alone.

Just some redecorating...

Tall anthill

I wanted to open one of these; I couldn't resist. I wanted to lick it then... I resisted.

That night, we camped in the bush.

“Small bush,” said Jacob. “The bushes are small, the birds are small, the antelope are dick-dicks” (yes, we saw dick-dicks, and their alien eyes). “No lions here.”

But there were huge anthills.

I would wake up that night about midnight to use the bathroom. There, farther from any large city than I'd been in a long, long time, I looked up at the stars. They were magnificent.

The next morning we decided against coffee, being short on water. Breakfast? Abu Walad sandwich cookies, now better tasting.

Notice the anthill in the background...
A two-hour parade averaging 18mph, past many native tribes, including a lot of naked people bathing in stagnant water (and even drinking it, I think? – they must have incredible immune systems), we made it to Omorate, and Ethiopian immigration. Some kerfuffle about why we didn't register our bikes at the airport later, and we were stamped and good to go to Kenya. The immigration officer was kind enough to give us 8 liters of water, and we rested in the shade of the porch of the office as it filtered. The road was paved until Kenya, we were told, and then... well.

Dung beetle!

18 miles to the border station, with a headwind, and the vegetation getting sparser and sparser. A few men with guns and one woman wearing a sheet that we wondered about. They checked our passports, and as suddenly as the pavement had appeared the day before, it disappeared. What was left couldn't even be called a road – it was just the route taken by the most recent 4x4. It was the Africa I expected.

Sand, dirt, and mud were the name of the game for the next three miles to the border. Did I mention headwind? Even Jacob had to walk from time to time, which is saying something. The first time we hit mud, my front wheel froze, too clogged from detritus under the front fender. To an audience of what seemed like an entire tribe, I discarded the fender and left it for the next tourist – or so I thought. One of the tribesman picked it up and put it between his legs, as if it were a saddle on an invisible steed, standing proudly. The other tribespeople kept saying things and gesturing towards the fender.

“I hope he makes a rocket ship out of it,” said Jacob. I hope so, too. The next bicycle tourist who comes through – let me know what happened to my fender.

I had 10 Ethiopian Bur left, about $0.30, and I ended up using it to pay 4 kids to push me about 200 meters through deep sand. Cheating? Perhaps. But, what else was I going to do with it? I considered it further investment in getting Ethiopia to space.

For a while, we were alone, with only the dirt and sand and headwind for company. I felt it an odd sensation to be riding over bare footprints. A group of woman passed us, all carrying large piles of wood on their heads, all wearing traditional clothing and jewelry – colored bracelets around their ankles, a towel around their waist, and nothing else. It was singular. (Jacob has the photo)

At one point three tribesmen came up to us and asked for food and money. Jacob offered them razor blades, I'm not sure why. They each took one and then the tallest, at least 7' tall, towering over Jacob at 6'6”, towering over me at 6'2”, gestured enthusiastically at his balls. We laughed, and Jacob gave him another. We tried to get them to trade razors for a picture, but they wouldn't. They still wanted more; trying to make conversation, they asserted that Jacob was the “Chief Consulate” and I was the “mutato.” This is fair: out of money since my ATM card stopped working, I had gestured towards Jacob when the asked me; he also had the razor blades; and, he is taller and stronger than I am.

More headwind, sand, and a group of kids playing an oddly intense game of “touch the bike:” darting in and out, multiple times, laughing, egging each other on. Clearly, bikes did not come this way often. Finally, we made it to the Kenyan border station. They took our passports and we passed out on the porch. “Current mood,” said Jacob, “bare cement is better than Thermarest.”

We had made it to Kenya.

They were very kind to us there – they gave us water and indicated if we stayed a few hours, they'd share their fish with us – minnows drying on the cement; supposedly sweet. We wanted to keep going. The guard who took our passports was especially kind and good-vibey. He kept saying how glad he was were were in Kenya and how welcome we were. He corrected my pronunciation on the few Swahili words I knew. He kept saying, “We speak English here, not like in Ethiopia. Nor will we ask you for money.” I wanted desperately to believe that, but time would tell.

“We gave you Barack Obama,” he said. “Now, we will give you hospitality. Please, feel at home. Welcome.” There was a Spanish mission down the road, he said, where we could pay for food and lodging.

Ten more miles over sand and dirt and real washboard, and we made it to the Spanish mission – which was abandoned. It looked, for all intents and purposes, like they just up and left – recently. Partially decayed goat skeletons were everywhere, even a cow. Hawks roosted in the rafters. We slept on the porch, dealing with dead animal smell for one night in order to have a free place to sleep out of the wind and potential storm that was on the horizon, falling asleep to the screeches and swoops of hunting hawks and bats, the occasional cry of the unfortunate mouse, mosquitoes clamoring at the netting of our tents.

We hoped the storm wouldn't hit us – that would turn the roads to mud. Rain or not, though, we knew what was for breakfast: Abu Walad Sandwich Biscuits.


  1. He threw a spear at you, but not in a malicious way! HAHA! Well done for making it through Ethiopia both of you. Very clever of you to take a 6'6 man with you, by the way. I'm sorry to hear about your tyre troubles. Mondial was it? Same thing happened to my Mondial on the Pamir Highway. We're in Bishkek now, somebody left a spare Mondial here. Guess what, it's got a tear in the sidewall. Useless Mondials. All the best to you

    1. I'm 6'2" I'll have you know, but you're right, Jacob takes the cake. And yes, they were Mondials... I laughed so hard when I read your comment. Supposedly Schwalbe will send you new ones if you send them the ID# on the inside? So then you can get more torn sidewalls.

  2. It sounds like you're in the real Africa now, well, at least what we think of Africa as here, but Ethiopia was certainly Africa as well. The spear incident is scary - the thought of you careening over your handlebars and ending up injured and with a broken well in rural Africa makes me really glad that you are with Jacob. I love the image of you riding by the group of woman, all carrying large piles of wood on their heads, all wearing traditional clothing and jewelry – colored bracelets around their ankles, a towel around their waist, and nothing else. I found it on Jacob's blog - it was singular. I also loved the photo of you being pushed through the sand. I'm glad that Jacob is 6'6" and appear to be a chief!!!

    Love you, Mom