Saturday, November 18, 2017

Sodo, Ethiopia to Konso, Ethiopia: Almost in the Bush

After a good night's rest we left Sodo expecting a “mostly downhill” day to Arbaminch, a touristy town 75 miles south, 75 miles closer to the Kenyan border. We stopped at a bakery to buy some bread – 5 bur (about $0.20) each for either triangle or circle loaves – and a grocery sto1e where the clerk spoke impressive English. “Do you like my store?” she asked. I wobbled my head while I considered – she had peanut butter, wafers, cookies, lentils, indome (ramen), and even chocolate (though at 65 bur, more than $2/bar, Jacob and I decided it wasn't really worth it).

“Yes,” I said, “You have a good store.”

After a meal just outside the grocery store, punctuated by Jacob's use of his umbrella for shade (I felt like we were on a date), we continued our descent. It was indeed “mostly uphill,” and as we got lower and lower, the road got better and better, and it got hotter and hotter. I failed to mention in previous posts that Addis is at 4400 feet, where it's quite cool and there are no mosquitos. We descended past 3000 feet for the first time that day, and it actually felt hot. There were even a few parts of road without people on them, and we fantasized about stealth camping, but doubted it would work in reality – where there is a field, there is a house. Africans don't have expensive tractors like Americans, so all the fields are worked by hand.

At one point we saw baboons on the side of the road and stopped to take pictures. “We're just as bad as they are!” said Jacob. Indeed, this would precipitate a change in my feeling half celebrity, half ATM to feeling half ATM, half... zoo animal.

The good thing about people chasing after you, trying to sell you things is that sometimes you want those things. At one point Jacob and I were starving and as we stopped to consider what to eat, baskets of bananas appeared in front of us. Some bunches were huge and some were small – it was easy to bargain with so many eager sellers! We settled on a modest bunch of 6 bananas for 10 Bur – about $0.28. Someone also tried to sell us a huge papaya, but we didn't think we could carry it.

Bird joins us for a break.



Into Arbaminch we went and the hunt for a hotel – and wifi – began. We found a motel that also offered camping – with warthogs! – for 200 Bur per tent per night, about $8. Jacob's tent will sleep two, so we considered that, but the wifi didn't work. We asked when it would, expecting the answer to be the “African five --” five minutes, every five minutes, until you give up because the real answer is forever. But she just shrugged. Points for humbleness.

We went to visit the Emerald Resort next door and were quoted $60/night after a kerfuffle about not leaving our bikes in the parking lot. “Okay,” we thought, “$30 each could be worth it with kick-ass wifi... we'll do all the updates!” So there was more kerfuffle as we tried to check the wifi under the guise of visiting the restaurant. We had to leave our bikes at reception, and on the way to the restaurant we were shown the souvenir hut... and the hostess lingered in the souvenir hut, presumably hoping we'd buy something. Many African artifacts were present, some of which we'd seen along the ride, some of which (fancy silverware) we were certain weren't very African. The prices were such that you could probably drive out of town, find a hut, and offer a local cash for the real thing for half as much. 900 Bur, $35 for a hand-carved coffee pot?

The wifi didn't work. We retreated back to the significantly less pretentious motel with warthogs and no kerfuffle, made camp, and went to the restaurant for dinner. In Africa, they have what they have... they had no cheese, fish, or tibs – the first three things we tried to order – so I settled for an “egg sandwich” (scrambled egg on bread) and Jacob got firfir. For dessert, we wanted mango juice... but they only had papaya. It was still pretty good.

And I can check "camped with warthogs" off my list...
The next morning Jacob thought he forgot his wallet, so we got swarmed as he searched his bags for it. Getting antsy, we retreated down the road a ways, but the crowd just followed. One of the hazards of touring when kids are going to school, I guess. Afterwards, we made it out of town, noting some huge vulture-like birds, and a general change in the scenery: it was flatter. This felt more like the Africa you see in movies – the greenery stretched on for miles and the birds were various and chattery.

No shoulder riding today...

Still, the population density didn't decline too much. Through a few villages the people were more hostile than usual, trying extra hard, it seemed, to touch our bikes, get us to give them money, shouting extra loud, chasing extra fast (most of the kids here can run about 10 mph, it seems; the record, for a few seconds, anyways, is 15. All barefoot, usually on the gravel margin), and throwing rocks (“He didn't give me money when I asked! Maybe if I get his attention this way!?”).

Also, spears became a thing – quite legitimate spears, too. We first noticed them with the shepherds, and then it seemed everyone had one. Africa is interesting in this way: as you tour the US and Europe, you notice subtle changes in culture, the way the states and countries sort of blend into one another, whether it be the cuisine (traveling throughout France, in particular, this was noticeable; and from Macedonia to Greece to Turkey; I remember seeing a pastry once in Hungary and then again throughout Romania and Ukaine), or the language (Switzerland, for instance, has a French-speaking part and a German-speaking part), or the greetings (ciao!).

These changes seem to happen much faster in Africa – there are spear-wielding villages, machete-wielding villages, wood-carving villages, musical instrument villages (next to the wood carving villages -- wood pipes seemed common), and the English they know changes too: the word for “money” was sometimes replaced or augmented with “China” or “alan;” some villages greet you as “friend,” “brother,” “uncle.” The languages themselves change: though the national language of Ethiopia is Amharic, you can pick out the villages that speak their own, or local dialects.

When we heard “alan” over and over again (presumably a word for “money”), I was reminded of an episode of talking animals (voiceovers of animals doing funny things) where a groundhog repeats the name “Alan” over and over again... then realizes, “that's not Alan, that's Steve!” and begins repeating, “Steve! Steve! Stevestevesteve!” So Jacob and I were able to make light of the constant requests for money in this way.

In any case, at some point we came across a few huts overlooking a lake. There was a sign with pictures of food, and no one around to accost us as we ate, so we decided to go for it. When we asked what they had, we were pointed to a picture of a fish. The price was 100 bur, $4 – on the more expensive side of our meals, but we thought fish might be worth it. They insisted it would be “fresh” and “big.”

Truthfully, we had no idea what to expect. I was expecting a nicely cut filet, of course, because I'm an ignorant American. It took about 30 minutes to arrive, and we wondered if they had to go catch it – we did see someone down by the lake... after they caught it, of course, they'd have to build a fire, filet it, etc. etc... in any case, all our jokes subsided once the fish actually came out, because this is what it looked like:

Thus began the checking off of things from my bucket list that I didn't even know were on my bucket list. Cycle touring has a way of doing that to you.

Later, we turned onto a gravel road for who-knows-how-long, and were just reaching the end of our nerves with people asking for money, chasing us, and throwing rocks, when we passed a boy of about 10 carrying a dead 10-foot-long python over his shoulder. We rode by, in shock for about 5 seconds, than began laughing hysterically.

“We need to go back. I need a picture of that. It's not even a question,” said Jacob. I agreed. We went back and took pictures. It wasn't the same, having the boy lay it out for us, than just coming across him carrying it over his shoulder, but it was still ridiculous. We couldn't stop laughing, and though the boy didn't ask for money (!!!), Jacob gave him 10 Bur, about $0.30 and the most we'd given for a photo to date (usually just 1 Bur, maybe 5). “So worth it.”

I will say this about Africa: it tugs at both ends of your heartstrings. You see extreme poverty. The absurdity of the number of people asking you for money and how bluntly they do it (“Money!”), the way your heart sinks when their hands turn from palm down (waving) to palm up (give me money), how food and hotels are never what you expect or want, how you have so much trouble finding people who give you that “I am safe here” vibe, tugs your heart the one way, crushing it against your conscious and preconceptions and patience and sometimes your faith in humanity. But then you see a boy carrying a 10 foot snake along the road, or you are served a whole fish for breakfast, or someone invites you into their home and feeds you and serves you coffee and tells you how much you're appreciated, and you can't help but smile. It's much the same as cycle touring elsewhere, except the proportions are off: Africa requires much more grit and patience than it gives smiles, maybe 10:1, except the absurdity of the good things that happen is sometimes exponentially inflated, too.

To be fair, I don't think people in Africa are bad, maybe not even impolite. For starters, it's a different culture, and it would be presumptuous, rude, and foolish of me to come in and whine about how I'm treated. I wasn't raised here! I'm a visitor. Second, people are much poorer here, so I'd surmise it's much harder for them to be generous in the way that my American and European hosts and strangers have been. Third, white people give them money. When most Americans think of “Africa,” they probably think of starving children, famines, and various other crisis. This isn't the case here as much as the media would have you think, but the point stands: as a cultural norm, white people give money to Africans. Every hour I pass signs about such-and-such project or initiative or study that such-and-such non-profit has built or performed or is doing. I have no doubt that the words the people here use – “money,” “china,” etc., are just reflections of the last non-native to come through, and I wonder what reflection I am leaving for the people who come after me.

In any case, we made it to Konso, the last “major” town before we entered what we thought would be, for all intents and purposes, no-man's-land, for 4-8 days until reaching the next “major” town in Kenya. We found Bruno (English name), who spoke very good English – we suspect he was a tour guide – and he gave us plentiful advice on what to buy, where to buy it, and how to survive the bush. I finally got new soles for my shoes (recall: I had them repaired in Addis, and my right sole disappeared). We stocked up on food, including but not limited to a kilo of peanut butter; ten packs of cookies each, four packs of indome (ramen), a kilo of pasta, and and assortment of wafers. It was more food than I've ever carried and the second most for Jacob; my bike was visibly larger, Jacob's... looked the same.

We also bought razor blades – 30 of them. Why? Bruno told us the local tribes used them to shave their heads and groin in accordance with their tribal standards – you could tell, in fact, which tribe a native belonged to based on how their head was shaved. We would, apparently, be able to trade razor blades for whatever we needed – food, water, a place to sleep, or even photographs.

After our bikes weighed much more than before, and with everything more in order than it had been in a long time (though still not as well as we would have liked – we hadn't showered that day and hadn't had wifi in a week. But hey... Africa.), we went to one last restaurant to have someone cook for us one last time that week.

“Here's to the hard road,” I said.

Jacob concluded: “And many more to come.”


  1. How was the fish besides looking awesome? I'm glad the bearing of the weight of the culture has lifted enough that you're able to take a step back and think about the African way of life, and why Americans are viewed and treated as they are. Jacob wrote that you had a spear thrown at you! What a bucket list! You seem to be learning a lot from the hard roads...

    Love you, Mom

    1. The body was really good, a bit bony but what can you do. The head was very fishy and my hands smelled like fish for three days after. Not something I want to redo... not with bare hands anyways!

      Spear throw will auto-post next I believe...