Travelling Ethiopia can be difficult. But cycling in Ethiopia has a really bad reputation. We crossed the border and the first thing that greeted us was beer – everywhere. Sudan is a stone-cold sober country, drinking alcohol is illegal. Cross the border into Ethiopia and the first things you see are massive billboards advertising beer. That was not the only thing that changed, there were brothels everywhere. In fact, we met a very a nice prostitute while we were waiting for the midday heat to pass. She put a hose of ice cold water over our legs and didn’t even want to charge us for drinks.
The brothels and beer were a bit surprising, though, seeing as every man here wears a massive cross around his neck. They like to show off their faith proudly. We also noticed that their hairstyles were pretty out there. What else can you expect from the home of Rastafarians. The food was also clearly better in Ethiopia and we enjoyed our first meal that wasn’t foul or falafel in a very long time.
While eating, we met a guy called Daniel. He told us about his recent journey to Russia as a refugee. Instead of being greeted with possible job opportunities, they threw him in jail, which was a pretty horrible experience for him. Eventually, they sent him back to the last country he entered from and he was now sitting in front of us, his savings gone.
He spoke English perfectly, a rarity in Ethiopia, and told us that the road to Gondar was blocked. Protests have been erupting all over the country again and it was not known how long this one would last. People had died and trucks were burnt. We cycled to the next town 40 km away to get some more info. On the way, Simon got his first stone from a kid, which landed directly on his head. These kids can aim!
We stayed at the next town. Simon got very nauseous and sick, so I went out to look for fruit for him. After I couldn’t find any, I asked at a juice bar and a nice guy, John, came around the town again to look with me. After no luck, we came back, passing a group of drunk men on the way. One of them ran up to me, “ferengi, ferengi, have some beer!” I caught sight of the beer bottle in his hand just before he tried to shove it into my mouth. John tried to hold him back and calm him down. Eventually, he held out his hand for a handshake. I don’t know why, but glancing over to his 8 friends watching nearby, I gave him my hand. I thought they would all be more insulted if I didn’t.
I knew this was a mistake when he gripped it firmly. I couldn’t get out of it without either kicking him or talking some sense into him. Even though he could barely walk straight, he had the grip of a bears jaw. I stayed calm while John held onto his shoulders and spoke to him in Amharic. After some tense moments, he released his grip. I can go now, I thought. I was wrong. As he stepped back, I turned to walk away and then WACK. He slapped me across the face with an open hand. I could still feel the sting an hour later.
As much as I wanted to punch the guy, there were hundreds of people walking in the dark, visiting brothels and drinking beer. I did not want to get into a fight here. I was just glad I didn’t meet this guy and his friends the first time I went into the town, alone.
John walked me back to the hotel where I found Simon still sick, lying on the bed. I could not find fruit for him so the only thing I returned with was Papaya juice. I had never worked so hard in my life to get juice. He took one sip of it and said “ewwww”.
Ya. Okie dokie then. Half an hour later he was vomiting into our laundry bag. Not a good start. Welcome to Ethiopia.
The next day we realised why there was no fruit around: the road block meant food deliveries couldn’t come into town. Finally, we got on the road after two nights in the town and had three tough days of cycling up into the highlands. Our legs were tired from the 1000 meters up in elevation every day. The mountains were beautiful and were as far as the eye could see. What was shocking, however, is that all of it was cultivated. The steep slopes of the mountains were all farmed in some way – either for crops or for grazing animals.
Another shock was the amount of people. People, people, people, just everywhere. Simon and I found what we thought was a nice quiet spot to hide from the still burning sun. He put up the hammock and I relaxed on the picnic blanket. Half an hour later, a group of people collected and sat in front of us, just starring. They starred at us for 1.5 hours. Yes, sadly, I am being serious. We felt like we were in a zoo. Every 10 minutes, herds of goats and cows grazed by. We were relieved when the sun weakened so we could move on from this circus. We wild camped that night but it was incredibly difficult to find a spot.
It was also impossible to keep stuff in the outside pockets of our panniers. ALL of it would be gone if we did. The kids tried to push our panniers and hold on to our bicycles. It took a lot of effort to engage with them. We used all of our energy to smile widely, shout “hello, how are you” and wave at them. Some kids did pick up rocks and we focused our conversation and eye contact on them. We were mentally and physically exhausted at the end of every day.
Although, we should be grateful. Cyclists told us that this section from Metema to Gondar was the worst for them, however we only had one tiny stone thrown at us. We may have been lucky or perhaps the extra effort at engaging them worked. However, we were not so lucky in the days ahead.. but we will come to that in another post.
We did meet a very cute group of kids though. They actually helped to push my bike up one steep section of a hill. So, nice kids do exist in Ethiopia… although they are very few in our experience! Most of the kids harassed us for money and were very aggressive about it. Clearly Ethiopia was going to be a difficult country for us.
For more photos from Ethiopia, see here.