#8 - Ethiopian Diary
Jeff Willner - 20 August 2001
(Lalibela, ETHIOPIA) – Ethiopia started out so promisingly,
great food, paved roads – but the past ten days has ground us down to
raw nerves. Despite its world-class attractions, there are few tourists
here. As a result there is little of the tourist infrastructure that
visitors depend on, no bank machines, no decent bookstores, sparse internet
access (sometimes only one computer in an entire city), and most damning,
only four ‘farangi’ dishes available outside the capital – spaghetti,
fish ‘cottelett’, omelet, and fasting food (vegetables). Ethiopia’s national
cuisine, a sponge-like flat bread called injera, is delicious but has
an unfortunate side effect, bad gas, a serious problem with four people
in a confined space. We arrived at the beginning of a sixteen day fast,
so in most restaurants there is no meat served. Leaving only spaghetti
as a viable mid-day meal.
Something as simple as getting money from a bank account,
which would consist of a five-minute trip to an automated teller machine
in Kenya, took days of effort and culminated in a satellite phone call
to home to arrange a Western Union transfer. Only three places in the
country take credit cards, Ethiopian Airlines, the Hilton, and the Sheraton.
There is no such thing as a cash advance, so desperate backpackers can
be seen lurking in the hotel lobbies asking guests if they can pay for
their hotel bill with their credit card in return for cash. For a week
we were confined to Addis Ababa, waiting for visas from the Sudanese
embassy – a process that consisted mostly of being told, “come back tomorrow”.
We decided to take a side trip to one of the national parks as a break
from the hassle – but ended up getting completely stuck in the mud, after
which the truck broke down yet again. In short, it hasn't been one of
the better weeks on the road. Here are excerpts from the diary.Highlights
of one of the more aggravating sections of the trip.
Aug – Arrived in the southern outskirts of Addis, the paved road gave
way to a scramble of traffic cut through by maniacal taxi vans. Sally
navigated us around the outskirts toward the Sudanese embassy, hoping
to get a jump on our visa application – the Ethiopian embassy in Nairobi
was able to process us in a day so our fingers are crossed. On the way
we passed the city abattoir. A tin-walled slaughterhouse with a mountain
of decomposing cow bones in the back, watched over by a hundred vultures
hunkered on the walls and roof. Groups of cows were herded through twin
lanes of traffic to stand in the muddy curb outside, purchased by the
slaughterhouse buyer, and then forced into a dark chute. Experts have
informed the company that the tons of bones could be used to make fertilizer – but
they haven’t bothered, instead the bones accumulate and rot. The smell
is horrific. It crawls inside your mouth (it’s too much to breath through
your nose) and sits there like an evil thing.Not a good omen. Sure enough,
the word from the embassy was bad “Everything is closed – wait till Monday”.
Aug – Ethiopia’s tourist line is “13 Months of Sunshine” because their
calendar has an extra month – but since we’ve arrived it’s been rain,
Petrol is cheap in this country, imported from the
oilfields of Sudan. It is nice to spend $0.31 per litre, but the sulfur
content of the fuel is much higher than normal. So we drive with the
odor of brimstone.
5 Aug – Walked to the top of the city to see St. Georges’ church
on Sunday. Coptic Christianity is quite similar to the Orthodox beliefs,
worship of icons figures prominently in both. I’ve seen pictures of supplicants
kissing pictures and relics in eastern Europe – but here the church building
itself is holy. Men genuflected at the gate, walked to the church wall
and kissed it, prayed, and moved around the corner to repeat the process.
6 Aug – This morning the battery died. We’d hotwired
the diesel injector pump in Kenya to get out of the desert, but it slowly
consumed the charge of the twin battery system. A taxi took me and the
batteries to Ultimate Motors, the best Land Rover place in Addis Ababa.
Fixing the truck took a full day; repaired loose wiring, new shocks, new
auxiliary tank fuel pump, and re-welded one of the spotlight mounts. Great
service but unfortunately the shop was located downwind of the slaughterhouse.
Gag. As I waited on the truck the mechanics told me about another couple
driving to Sudan that had passed through a week earlier. North of Addis
Ababa the man had swerved to avoid a dog in the road, the truck slid sideways
on the gravel road and rolled – requiring days of expensive repairs. “So
you understand what you must do if you get in this situation?!” they enquired
forcefully. “Drive slower?” I responded. “No. Hit the dog!”
Aug – Decided to head out of town to Awash National Park for a couple
of days, killing time more enjoyably while waiting for the Sudanese visas.
Hotels are basic, foam mat bed, non-flushing toilet, and cold water shower,
but the price is right - $1.50 per person. Entry fees at the park were
a wee bit skewed, 3 Birr for locals, 50 Birr for tourists. It was raining
cats and dogs but driving through the scrub on a sand and gravel road
was a blast. We forded streams, bush-barged through the forest to detour
bad sections, and generally filthified the truck with mud. The Awash
Falls were pretty impressive in rainy season. More interesting was the
hot spring pool – wading in the warm water was positively therapeutic.
The view from the Awash crater is supposed to be spectacular, but 30km
west of the hot springs we hit axle deep mud and despite low gear and
differential lock I got completely stuck. Rain fell steadily as we waded
through the shin-high muck, digging out the rear wheels andpushing branches
and stone under the wheels to give traction. Two passing villagers took
matters into their hands, taking the shovel from us, but the more we
dug the deeper the truck sank into the mud. Finally, when the right wheels
had sunk almost up to the door frame, a tractor appeared. To huge cheers
from the onlookers it dragged us free. We distributed $25 to the tractor
owner, the diggers, the pushers, and various onlookers that claimed they
had played a key part in our rescue – to be honest we were just relieved
that we wouldn’t be spending the night in the mud.
Beating a retreat back down the park road the way
we’d come, the truck started acting up again, stalling briefly at shorter
and shorter intervals. Thinking that the ignition was damp, I idled the
engine for awhile – but nothing seemed to help. Jody and Sally pored
over the owner’s manual, “Is it bad diesel? Can we check the sedimentor?” We
checked the diesel filter drain – no water, no dirt. Finally when the
truck ground to almost a complete halt, we called Foley on the satellite
phone. “I think it might be the anti-theft valve in the main fuel line”,
Stuart predicted. On the shoulder of the road, we opened up the passenger
seat and did some surgery, removing the fuel line valve and cannibalizing
the aux tank valve to fill in the gap. Cutting out the aux tank valve
left an open fuel line, which I decided to close with a pair of vice-grips
heavily taped to the frame. This did the trick, so on we went, wincing
at the bumps, hoping that the vice-grips did not fall off. Bloodytruck.
9 Aug – Still no visas. The consulate looked at Sally,
Gulin, and I, “For you no problem.” Then holding her US passport he turned
to Jody and sighed, “But for you, problem. Come back Saturday.” Jeez.
Back to Ultimate Motors for a permanent fix to the fuel valve problem.
Another precious $80 of currency gone.
10 Aug – Addis sucks at us like a black whirlpool, it takes a full-day of
strain to accomplish the littlest task. Purchasing sand ladders (steel grates
used to get unstuck for the abysmal Sudan border road) occupied six hours,
most of it in the Merkato - Africa's largest market. It covers over twenty
square blocks and is littered with hundreds of little shops. The scale is
so vast that it is virtually impossible to find anything without a guide.
I was led through the construction material shops, the scrap metal piles,
demolition areas where entire cars are sledge-hammered into their constituent
parts, enquiring in each area unsuccessfully. I drew pictures in the mud
with a stick, and haggled with metal-bashers over close substitutes. The
only genuine aluminum sand ladders I'd found in the city were used, and the
owner wanted $250 - for that amount of money I could afford to be patient.
Finally in the early evening, waiting for yet another vendor in a tiny mud
alley, I wasrewarded with two steel mesh tracks for $100. Close enough.
12 Aug – Leaving Addis Ababa is a relief, finally
we are on our way to the famous underground, rock carved churches of
Lalibela. Though it is no longer starving, this is a poor country. Very
little industrialization, over 90% of the economy is agriculture based,
and a recent civil war with Eritrea has beggared the population. It has
been a challenge to continuously fend off the children asking for money.
There is little foreplay, just, "Give me 1 Birr!". After being pestered
day after day, minute by minute, it is hard not to snap at them - "Stop
it. Just stop it!" Cows and especially donkeys litter the road. Between
potholes and moveable bovine targets, driving is a constant challenge,
there is certainly no temptation to fall asleep. Sally keeps one hand
braced against the dashboard and emits occasional yelps when we are particularly
close. Birds would seem to be the easiest creatures to avoid, they tend
to have an advanced sense of self preservation. Buthalfway to our destination
a majestic hawk rose lazily in front of the truck and then, inexplicably
banked back, smashing into the oncoming windshield. To make matters worse,
it became lodged in the engine snorkel, wedged against the glass with
one eye staring inside at the horrified passengers. I braked, and it
slid gently down the windscreen and bumped onto the hard tarmac road,
This country is an enigma. It is undeniably beautiful,
but it is impossible to escape its ugly poverty. Like the slaughterhouse
scent that pervaded the professionalism at Ultimate Motors, or the rotten
egg sulfur smell that is the penance for cheap diesel, there is always
a reminder that you are in the third poorest country in the world.
Muddy, Rainy, Smells like Pee