When cycle touring through several countries, or through a part of the African continent as we are currently doing, you face different challenges in each one of them. These challenges tend to appear extra clear if you are in a continent where the culture is shockingly different from what you are used to. Let’s say that during this trip Egypt was challenging because of the police escort that took away a big part of the pleasure with cycling: the sense of freedom. In Sudan the biggest challenge was probably the heat. And then there’s Ethiopia – the unique, beautiful country where cycling becomes character-building. This place certainly is one of a kind. Besides being the world’s most populous land-locked country, Ethiopia is the only nation in Africa that has never been colonized. Its official language, Amharic, has got the oldest alphabet still in use (as an example of its inaccessibility the word for thank you is pronounced ”amesegenalughn”). And, not to forget, Ethiopia is the origin of the coffee bean. The thing with this country is that it’s not only densely populated with about 90 million (… over-curious) people. It is also incredibly hilly. This combination is what makes cycling Ethiopia slightly challenging. But also quite interesting, and stunningly beautiful.
We left Sudan and entered Ethiopia on the 16th of November. Cycling away from the border felt refreshing and exciting. The contrasts were clear as filtered Nile water. We got surprised by how lush and green the landscape suddenly appeared, and finally there were hills and big trees! Obviously, there were also people everywhere. And not only people, but also bars and shops selling beer and spirits. It was definite that we had left the Muslim world. Now there were crosses and Jesus symbols in every corner – stuck to the back of the cars, hanging around the neck of nearly everyone and even scarred in some women’s faces as green tattoos. For nearly the first time since we had left Europe, we also saw women dressed in short-sleeved tops and with their hair out. What a revolution! I happily changed my greasy long-sleeved shirt into a t-shirt. Then we celebrated the border crossing with tree climbing and a cold beer.
Before arriving to Ethiopia we had read plenty of stories about other cyclists having quite a hard time over there dealing with constant begging for money and rock throwing when passing certain villages. While the Sudanese people are known for their hospitality and friendly manner the Ethiopians have a rather … intrusive reputation. Most of the times, reading about precedent travelers experiences is helpful, but they better be taken with a grain of salt (or a stone). I am pretty sure that you’re more likely to be attacked by rocks if you pass by people – groups of children in particular – expecting them to treat you like a greedy wallet on two wheels. If you act friendly by smiling, waving and saying hello, you’ll most probably get a big smile and a greeting back. Anyway, that has been our strategy the last weeks. Has it proven successful? Well, not completely. There has still been a few rocks thrown after us, but none that has hit its target.
And what about the begging? Let’s say that 9 out of 10 children that we’ve met so far have asked us for money. We’ve even been asked for our smelly t-shirts, Sam for his trashy shoes and me for my old sports bra. Since we crossed the Ethiopian border we’ve been constantly surrounded by ”You, you, you, you, you, you!” ”Foreign, foreign, foreign, foreign!”, Money, money, money, money!”, ”Pen, pen, pen, pen!” or ”Birr, birr, birr, birr!” (birr is the local currency, 20 birr equals one US dollar). Many of the kids are quite stubborn and won’t take our ”Sorry, no money” or ”Sorry, I’ve only got one pen and I need it for writing” for an answer. Instead they start running after us, grabbing whatever they can on our bicycles and sometimes even pulling them backwards. This while repeating the same words over and over again. It takes a lot of patience to stay calm and be friendly towards everyone while struggling with going up a steep hill and you want to do is focusing on pedaling, slow and steady. But when it’s impossible to cycle away from people you better do your best to make friends rather than enemies.
At this point we are used to being the center of nearly everyone’s attention. Still, Ethiopia is exceptional. Here there is a pair of eyes in every bush, behind every tree and in every dark corner. In the bigger cities people are naturally more used to seeing foreigners and less curious, but in the countryside the soundtrack of our life is ”Foreign, foreign!”, ”Where you go?” and once again: ”Money, money, give me money!”. Like the first time we stopped in a small village for lunch and we suddenly found ourselves in the middle of a crowd of about 50 people (Sam actually counted) just standing there watching us eat. We tried to finish our Injera with some dignity, but failed radically. Injera is a pancake-like sour-dough flatbread made of teff flour, usually served with spicy tomato sauce or other side dishes. You eat this traditional dish with your hands and generally from a shared plate. Now we manage to eat our Injera quite well, but the first 10 times or so it was a messy and pretty intimidating show.
One more difficulty that touring cyclists have experienced in this country is the struggle for finding private camping spots. We gave up that battle pretty soon. One night of trying to sleep in a field with people walking around outside the tent was enough. And fortunately, you find ridiculously cheap hotels in nearly every small town. We don’t really mind if there is only a cold bucket shower and no electricity. You get what you pay for, and for 1,5 dollar each it’s rude to complain about facilities. As long as there is a way of locking the door and we get some privacy. Eventually there is a loud party going on nearby, making it hard to sleep. A few times we’ve also been kept awake by a poor goat shouting outside of the door before getting slaughtered at 6 am. If you’ve ever heard a goat shouting in despair you might have noticed that the sound is very human-like. Not that we don’t care about the goats’ life, but we were relived to realize that she or he was actually a goat and not a human.
Ethiopia is certainly a particular country. It is the only place where I’ve seen a couple of completely naked men walking down the street without anyone else raising an eyebrow. Neither have I seen a boy cycling with two alive sheep strapped around his back before. Another particularly is the national police. So far we’ve seen quite a few civilians walking around with rifles, but rarely any policemen (literally only men so far). The first policeman we had a conversation with asked us where we were going, got my answer – ”Kenya” – and then burst out ”I love you!”, ”Ciao!”
I cold probably write a short novel about our time here in Ethiopia. But since we’re still only about halfway through the country – we arrived in Addis Abeba today – I’ll leave some stories for next blog post.