Camino calling

P1070244It has taken a while but the bean is back on the bike – this time to follow ‘El Camino’ (also known as The Way of St James) across the Iberian Peninsula towards Santiago de Compostela.

My original intention has been to update the blog as I go; to write about the exhilarating highs and occasional lows of cycle touring, or the elemental experience of wild camping across the diverse patchwork of regions that make up northern Spain. Yet, I’ve not been able to commit the words to the page until now. It’s partly because I’ve wanted to resist the compulsion to write and be in search of the next available wi-fi zone to publish another update. But more than that, I’ve wanted to allow the gentle rhythms of nature to take over so that the need to be in, or have access to, instant communication day or night via digital means becomes merely a possibility, rather than a necessity. And it is this desire to, well, coin the old cliché – to ‘turn off’ and ‘tune in’ – that has helped to shape the journey along the Camino de Santiago so far. The only dropping out, however, is the chain on the trusty Sherpa from time-to-time.

P1060942Arriving in Bilbao after an unusually smooth crossing by ferry across the Bay of Biscay from Portsmouth, England, I decide to get the leg muscles back into shape by tracking the coastline along the Costa Verde towards France. This was with a view to joining the Camino on the French side of the border at the popular starting point of Saint Jean-Pied-de-Port and then back into Spain across the hinterlands of the Pyrenees to ‘officially’ start my pilgrimage from the monastery at Roncesvalles. Although I appreciate it may seem counter-intuitive to head completely in the opposite direction of Santiago de Compostela, it turned out be a good decision. The legs, as expected, were painstakingly out of shape and despite the forgiving ride of the steel-framed Sherpa, a serious amount of necessary weight needed to be jettisoned before the fully laden bike felt more like its sprightly former self than I had been accustomed to on my last cycle tour to the birthplace of coffee, Ethiopia.

P1060958Punctuated by some cracking wild camp spots en-route, the crimson sunsets along the Costa Verde as the sun plunged into the deep blue waters each evening was the perfect reward for the succession of punishing hills that I encountered each day. In fact, I was actually reluctant to leave the undulating coastline to head inland from the combed white sands of St-Jean-de-Luz; but the Camino was calling and I needed to reply. Thankfully, the legs responded too and I soon got into my stride on the Sherpa, stopping off for the occasional refreshing natural cider poured at a height – to achieve that perfect effervescence that is so characteristic of the Basque outlook on life – as I cycled through the verdant rolling farmland that straddles each side of the western Spanish/French frontier.

P1070492I met my first pilgrim, Maria from Austria, on the winding climb up from Arnéguy before the swift descent into Roncesvalles. We stopped for a chat under the baking hot midday sun. It turns out that she was a tour guide who decided to take some time out from the demands of her work and be on the other side of the tourist fence for once. She was the first of many Maria’s and Mary’s that I would meet on the road. Fortunately, I was allowed to camp in the monastery grounds of free of charge with the helpful advice that I should present my newly acquired Credencial del Peregrino (Pilgrim’s Passport) to the officer of the Guardia Civil if they turn up to enquire why I had chosen to sleep in a tent rather than take advantage of the accommodation provided by good folk at the monastery.

I appreciate that to some folk it seems an odd choice to decline the offer of the warm bed for the night for the confines of a cosy tent. But my decision to wild camp my way along the Camino has been not only born out of reasons of self-imposed financial austerity but for the very fact that it’s the sheer joy of getting off the beaten track and being as self-sufficient as possible. The mitigating factor is that if I am going to carry a nylon home and all the associated paraphernalia that goes with it; I might as well use it. P1060992That night, the weather changed dramatically and the familiar brilliance of the milky way and waxing moon became shrouded in a swirl of storm clouds. The thunder and lightning display that ensued was a dramatic start to my journey along this ancient pilgrimage route that has experienced a huge resurgence in popularity in recent years.

El Camino de Santiago – also known as Camino Francés across the border – is essentially a collection of established walking routes that fan across Europe and converge on the shrine of the Apostle of St James in the Cathedral at Santiago de Compostela. Legend has it that the apostle journeyed to the Iberian Peninsula after Jesus’ death on a mission to spread Christianity amongst the Pagans. On his return to the Holy Land, he met an unfortunate end and was martyred by the sword of King Herod in Jerusalem. His decapitated body was said to have been taken by his followers to Jaffa where a stone boat was commissioned. Miraculously, the boat floated and after seven days at sea, the boat was washed up in a great storm, undamaged and covered in scallop shells, at Padrón. After some deliberation with the local chiefs, his body was allowed to go to the earth in Spanish soil in a tomb 20km inland from the Galician coast. P1070450For more than 800 years, his resting place was undisturbed until a shepherd called Pelayo was led to a bright star shining in a field where the body of James the Apostle and his followers were discovered. It is from the field (campos) of the stars (stella) of Saint James (Sant Iago), that the name Santiago de Compostela is derived.

Not long afterwards, Alfonso II – the King of Asturias – declared St James the patron saint of Spain after there were reported visions of him leading the charge in shining armour on a white horse against the Moorish invaders, earning him the title ‘Santiago Matamoros’ – or St James the Moor Slayer. A church and monastery were built over the tomb in recognition of his decisive interventions that turned the tide in battle against the advancing Islamic army, and so the illustrious history of Santiago de Compostela began. Steeped in myth and the mists of time, the Crusades and reconquesta of Catholic Spain had finally found a patron; the Golden Legend was born, and the pilgrimage routes that we know today across Europe have been a magnet for pilgrims far and wide.

Legend, historical and religious complexities aside, the question concerning why people embark on a pilgrimage of their own is a fascinating one. My own personal motivations for cycling along one of the major sections of the Camino that follows an ancient Roman trading route to the Atlantic is not for religious reasons – but neither do I discount the fact that, for many, it is a journey of great religious importance.P1070171 I suppose it is partly down to a desire to slow down and reconnect with nature; to be ‘still’ again and to fully appreciate the moment, away from the perpetual distractions of modern-day life. Another dimension has been to allow the soul, body, and mind to experience the freedom of the open road again; unheeded, unhurried and most of all, to be at peace in an increasingly chaotic and conflicted world. I’ve also keen to discover the myriad of reasons why others have decided to make time to make their own pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela, and how, the experience has, if at all, profoundly changed them.

Ubuntu: The spirit of coffee

84707813_c888ce86d9.jpgOf all the insights that I have gained into coffee culture on the trail to Ethiopia before returning back to the whirlpool of London life, there is one softly spoken truth that endures. It is a universal truth that runs through the coffee trade and culture like a golden thread, connecting every stage of its complex supply chain from field to cup. It is a philosophy that cannot be fully expressed in books, research papers or from the good intentions of policy-makers.

Its application cannot be taught out of a school textbook. Neither can it be bottled, packaged or commoditised in the interest of profit. It transcends all these things; yet it continues to be a unifying force that touches the hearts of everyone who has a respect for our fellow human being. It is the spirit of Ubuntu. Or to put it another way, it is the celebration of our shared humanity grounded in the common space that is community. By very definition, it means different things to different people but Ubuntu represents a maxim for life that is authentically African: “I relate, therefore I am”.

P1020957.jpgIt is this deep, genuine, sense of human connection that binds the many linkages in the coffee value chain together. Just as the raw green beans are the farmer’s gift to the roaster, the roaster’s gift to the barista is, at the most fundamental level, an alchemy of a kind that completes the circle from soil to sip. Rooted both in a sense of place and time spent in the sharing of company with others, coffee creates long-term connections that live long after the annual harvest or momentary enjoyment of a cup of black gold. The spirit of Ubuntu is expressed in practical terms through the model of direct trade that allows mutually beneficial and respectful trading relationships to form. In essence, coffee communities along the supply chain are brought closer together to ensure better traceability, working and environmental conditions, a fairer price for the producer, and ultimately better quality coffee for the consumer.

01The annual London Coffee Festival based in the beating heart of London’s East End is testament to a renaissance of fruitful connections that are flourishing in the enjoyment of coffee and coffee-based culture. Home to the UK Barista Championship (UKBC), it is a forum for coffee-lovers and those in the industry to come together to appreciate new single origins and blends, trends in brewing techniques and technologies, and to learn more about the provenance behind the wonderful drop of black gold in your cup at home, work or in the local coffee house. It is the brainchild of Jeffrey Young and his team at the Allegra Foundation, who have been researching the coffee market in the UK for fifteen years and helped to predict the ‘third-wave’ boom in small independent coffee shops and roasters trading on artisan-based values in the past decade. He says that the industry has a collective responsibility to promote sustainability at the production-level and for consumers to give something back at the counter. When asked about what coffee means to him, he adds, “I fundamentally believe that café culture and coffee houses are not just there for the product; coffee is a great connector of the human spirit.”

P1030784The profound effect of Ubuntu in coffee culture and how it has the potential to change lives as a real force for social and economic change is central to the story behind the flourishing of the Manchester-based Oromo Coffee Company (OCC). Based on social enterprise principles that ploughs its profits back into creating employment and training opportunities for the Oromo community in the UK, the OCC works to support coffee growers by sourcing beans directly from the smallholder farmer through the Oromia Coffee Farmer’s Cooperative Union in Ethiopia. Aspiring human rights lawyer and director of the social enterprise, Abiyot Shiferaw, explains: “Coffee in our society brings people together; it is important socially, culturally and economically. In Oromo culture, people come together under the Odaa tree to make the coffee ceremony and share stories so that we can teach other and manage our lives better. We are trading and working together so that we can increase the capacity of smallholder farmer. This means he can get a fair price so that he can send his children to school and get an education. That’s why coffee and trade has the power to change lives for the better”.

P1030067The challenges, of course, are many. Increasing unpredictability in extreme weather patterns caused by climate change threatens the sustainability of global coffee production at a time when demand is outstripping supply. But new innovative approaches to diversifying income streams through bee-keeping and inter-cropping, micro finance, less reliance on pesticides and fertilisers, better water management and improved training in agronomic practices are already providing answers to long-term, sustainable solutions that are locally owned. To compound matters, coffee farmers are still unjustly exposed to the volatility of financial markets. In an increasingly interconnected globalised world, however, we can all play our part in raising levels of social capital along the coffee value chain by demanding a fair price for the producer. This is the essence of relationship coffee. If coffee is a connector of the human spirit then it is also a leveller of human the condition; no matter who you are are or where you come from, the enjoyment of coffee transcends geography, cultures or creed. Ever since the reputed discovery of coffee by the Abyssinian goat herder, Kaldi, and his legendary herd of goats, coffee has been coveted by the communities it has touched through the centuries.

Revered for its potential to seduce the senses and invigorate the mind, the transformative power of coffee is a potential change-maker in a cup by aiding the exchange of ideas in a social setting. Throughout history, the consumption of coffee promotes the strengthening of humans bonds that sustain communities. Economically, it is a catalyst for commerce and fuels an industry that is worth more than $100bn a year on which millions depend for their livelihoods globally. Culturally, we only have to look to the rise of the coffee house in 17th century England and the dawn of the Age of Enlightenment to see that it has the potential to change the course of history. It will be interesting to see how the ‘third wave’ boom in coffee culture today will give rise to new sparks of creativity and innovation that will shape the world of tomorrow.

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Road to Lalibela

You can understand why King Lalibela wanted to establish his ‘New Jerusulem’ in the back of beyond. Reaching the holy town is a journey in itself. Nearing the final leg of my ‘Tour de Ethiopique’, I set off at daybreak from the junction village of Gashana to get some kilometres behind me before reaching the fabled ‘pista’ that I knew lay in wait before me. Affectionately termed by Ethiopians as a road without tarmac, the ‘pista’ is by all intents and purposes a ‘road’ surface consisting of rubble, volcanic detritus and infinite quantities of dust. Riding it on two wheels is little like skiing without poles; it’s a controlled fall, even uphill. For the first few kilometres, the going was good until the inevitable ‘roughstuff’ kicked in with gusto. Zig-zagging my way through the scree, I went for a tumble a couple of times. The biggest effort of all was trying to keep my eyes on the road whilst the breathtaking table-top escarpments continually vie for your attention.

After an impromptu espresso stop (100% sun dried Harar Arabica) shared with a young shepherd and his two sisters on their way to school, I realised that I had run out of water. Never a good idea when you’re in the middle of nowhere and the oppressive midday sun is beating down on the rocks like a solar-charged anvil. So, I pressed on in the hope that I would reach a village with a water pump, that works. My map of Ethiopia that I had, by now, become so accustomed to its jaw-dropping inaccuracies (which has led me on wild goose chases in search of ‘ghost towns’ that did not exist on more than one occasion) pointed me in the direction of a river. For once, the map was right. And there was running water; a double bonus. Pulling up, three young shepherds and their father gathered to inspect the bike and proceeded to search for the absent engine as I unpacked the stove for a long-overdue brew.

I was in luck. The father’s fields bestriding the river were ripe with garlic, onion and capsicum peppers: Time for lunch. As I cooked up a slap up pasta over the MSR, the workmen that I had passed further back turned up in their rusting water tanker to refill, bathe and wash their clothes. ‘I’m the grading technician, how do you like the road?’ said one with beaming pride. ‘Smooth’, I replied, daring not to look up from stirring my spaghetti for fear that he would see a glint of untruth in my eyes. ‘In fact, the stretch of pista back there was surfaced with some of the best graded gravel I have experienced in a while’, I added, omitting the fact that my bum had turned completely numb for hours. Gobez! (great), he replied and stripped down to his birthday suit before plunging in to the cool, clear rushing water. As I ate, the three young shepherds came to watch. Not having the heart to continue my lunch, I offered them my concoction which they wolfed down with speed.

The next few moments proved to be surreal as I went on to brew an espresso with my trusty Bialetti for each of the gravel technicians. They lazed in the sun-kissed running waters enjoying their brew, without a thread between them; another of those priceless, unscripted, moments that occurs on the road.

Accounts of shiftas (bandits) started to creep into my mind as the sun banked low in the warm afternoon shimmer. I still had more than half way to go if I was to reach Lalibela by nightfall. Sure enough, the ascents got steadily steeper as I winded my way back up the twists and turns from the valley floor. This also meant that the descents got more treacherous. The gravel technicians clearly have a job on their hands if they’re going to grade this lot, I thought to myself, as the Sherpa bounced and shuddered from loose stone to stone of varying shape and size. The sun continued its inexorable course towards the horizon and by now, hung low in the deep spectrum of the African sky. Flat-topped acacias cast their long shadows across the naturally formed chimneys and minarets that had been carved out of the looming escarpment walls by nature’s hand. They grew with each minute as my leg muscles began to tire. Embracing the hopelessness of my situation, I stopped to watch the sun set in a last final burst of golden light before it sank behind the silhouetted teeth of a fold of mountains that faded into the growing darkness. Night began to close in and Lalibela seemed further away than ever.

One-by-one, pinpricks of starlight began to appear in the celestial firmament above and I was now being guided by the reassuring glow the Sherpa’s Schmidt front beam. Outlines of young shepherds returning their cattle to the safety of their home ducked and dived in and out of the roadside gloom as I kept my wheels steadfastly turning. Their enthusiastic greetings were an encouragement to redouble my efforts and keep on pedaling. The spectre of shiftas (bandits) which I had been informed by the local police ‘sometimes’ ply their unwelcome trade at night became however an ever-present, intimidating thought. Just as my exhaustion levels and paranoia reached an all time high, the ‘pista’ – by some stroke of luck – gave way to asphalt again, and, buoyed on by my change in fortunes, I pushed on. The distant flickering of fires could be seen burning high up on the escarpment as farmers retreated into the warmth and safety of their mud and straw Tukus for the night. The occasional haunting whoop of the Hyena call echoed across the vast, empty expanse.

Eventually, I reached another village and stopped to pour the last remaining drops of water that I had filtered from the river earlier in the day down the back of my dry, dusty throat. With one last steep climb to tackle, I set off again with one final surge of determination. No sooner had I negotiated my way round the last territorial dog when a voice cried salem! (peace) from behind a row of thorns. ‘Please come inside,’ said the welcoming voice. Too exhausted to enquire further, I took off my cycling mitts, rested the Sherpa against the hedge and followed the voice into the Tuku. In the middle of the candle-lit circular space covered with goat skins was a young woman and her broad-smiling husband who was coaxing their one year-old daughter to sleep. ‘Please, stay and eat’, Endalitch said, offering me a tray of injera and helva (staple Ethiopian food), and a glass full of tella (an alcoholic home-brewed drink made from teff and maize). She returned to the fire at the back of the hut and soon enough, the aromatic smell of roasting coffee emanated from the tray that was placed on the embers. Endalitch stirred the beans gently to the percussive sound of popping and crackling. As I ate, the beans received a forceful pounding into a coarse grind and were placed into the earthenware jabana (coffee pot) which was being licked by the open flames as it rested on the fire. Her husband, Desal, rocked his six-month old daughter lovingly who had now woken to observe the pale-faced visitor with a short wail followed by a long yawn, before falling back asleep. Finally, some etan (incense) was placed on the burning charcoal. The Tuku infused with a warm spicy fragrance as we chatted and drank coffee. After the beureuka (blessing) – or third cup – I could stay awake no longer and retired to my tent, counting my lucky stars. Traditional Ethiopian hospitality, the incredible generosity of the human spirit, and a yeu buna a feulal (coffee ceremony) had, yet again, saved the day.

Highland Hysteria

You know you’re getting off the beaten track because the faranji frenzy turns into pure highland hysteria. If you could bottle it, it would be strong, potent stuff. The more ‘off-piste’ you go, the more hysterical the children. It’s an overwhelming,  psychologically challenging, at times hilarious, often surreal, deeply moving, endlessly entertaining experience; especially the bizarre sight of young boys jigging about whilst shaking their ‘moneymaker’ for all it’s worth on the dusty roadside verge.

Following on from an account in a previous post, here is the latest abridged version of the perpetual roadside chorus that has accompanied my ‘Tour de Ethiopique’ wherever I go:

Habasha (Ethiopian): High, high, highland, highlaaaaaaaannnnd!
Faranji on a Bike (foreigner): Habasha!
Habasha: Money, money money… give us the money!
Faranji: Sorry, no Birr. [I don’t give money to children for obvious reasons]
Habasha: You, white man, are you sure?
Faranji: Positive.
Habasha: Bag, bag, give me one bag!
Faranji: Any particular pannier that you would like?
Habasha: Highlaaaaaaaand! Where you go?
Faranji: Up that mother of all hills…. [To add to the growing list, other interchangeable destinations have included Chester Zoo, Gretna Green, the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, and to the ‘stomping ground’ of Kaldi the Goatherder]
Habasha: [Pointing at the open space in the bike frame] Oh my god, where is the machine?
Faranji: Engine yellum. [Amharic for ‘there isn’t’].
Habasha: Lemin? [Amharic for ‘why?’]
Faranji: Pedal power is all you need.
Habasha: What are you doing?
Faranji: Cycling to the birthplace of Buna [coffee].
Habasha: Bravo! You are guest in my country, now give me your bike!
Faranji: Of course, can you give it a service as well?

And the most perplexing so far…

 Habasha: Are you Jesus?

More 'hedgerow' than 'holy'

Although I’m accustomed to the rather predictable repétoire by now, this roadside réposte totally floored me. It’s not that I’m suggesting that Jesus neglected his sartorial duties in the holy beard maintenance department, but I’ve put it down to the fact that my growing facial fungus is now starting to resemble a rather unkept hedgerow.

The other sign of getting off the beaten track is the flip side to highland hysteria. For the sake of this post, let’s call it ‘faranji fear’ (or loathing). This quickly became apparent as I crossed the mighty Great Rift Valley in the culturally and ethnically diverse Southern Nations, Nationalities and Peoples region that borders the Kenyan border. In short, it amounted to a 110km stretch of ungraded gravel and volcanic rubble.  Still, the  spectacular scenery and rich array of wildlife was enough to keep me sufficiently distracted from the fact that my hands and derriér had turned completely numb from the continual battering they and the poor Sherpa were receiving from the ‘rough stuff.’ (As my 84 year-old grandfather ‘Harry The Bike’ would affectionately call it. You can read more about his weekly exploits on two wheels as he leads the esteemed Watson Wanderers’ Tuesday ride around the byways, highways and rough stuff of NW England/Wales on his blog here. Long live the Roughstuff Fellowship!).

Along this remote stretch, the only presence of tourists are from behind the tinted glass of Land Cruisers that trail a large swirling cloud of fine red dust as they roar passed. And then there is the faranji fear and loathing-inducing Rotel Tours mobile. Now, the first time I saw one of these bright red beasts, I honestly thought I was hallucinating from sunstroke.

Tourism's answer to the 'Death Star' on wheels

Basically, the Rotel Tours mobile takes the form of a large HGV-cum-B&B, complete with upper ‘observation deck’, converted to carry up to twenty SLR-armed tourists. It even contains bunk beds at the back just in case you get tired of watching the ‘local curiosities’ and fancy a snooze. It’s the equivalent of the kind of fun ride that you would expect to see in a theme park. Except the ‘theme park’ is far from make-believe. In effect, the Yabello Wildlife Sanctuary has by its very presence been turned into an open human zoo. The spectacle of pasty-looking tourists taking pictures of the locals without consent from the ‘intrepid’ confines of their ‘articulated armchair’ made my heart sink; a vulgar example of just how culturally insensitive some manifestations of mass tourism can be.

‘Are you with them?’ I was gingerly asked by one elderly chap as he turned his back to the monstrous juggernaut as it rumbled passed, bristling with paparazzi-style telephoto lenses. ‘No’ I replied, shaking my head in dismay and disbelief. He didn’t even say a word in response, just smiled and shook my hand firmly before leading his grandson back through the low entrance of the family hut, out of sight and earshot of the rapid fire of lens shutters and digital AF beeps. His silence spoke volumes. As much as the rolling Rotel Tours mobile struck fear and loathing into my own heart – I dread to think what the locals thought of it and the perception they have formed of foreigners.

Disclaimer: This photograph was taken at their request!

I admit that I am equally guilty as charged for unintentionally causing my own fair share of faranji fear. Young shepherds who are tasked with the huge responsibility of looking after the family herd or groups of tall, slender – always giggling and smiling – young women wearing the most vibrantly colourful shawls and sporting amazingly intricate hairstyles platted with patterns of beads would stop and turn abruptly as I slowly approached. Whether it was the unfamiliar sight of a heavily laden touring bike or the faranji at the helm sweating through countless layers of sun block whilst deep in concentration trying to keep the Sherpa going in a relatively straight direction, I will never know. But the response was consistently the same as they quickly dived for cover into the hardy shrubs and giant Aloes at the roadside. Only until I passed with a wave  to signal I was more friend than foe, would they emerge, with startled looking expressions before bursting into fits of laughter. Quite frankly, I don’t blame them. In many ways I looked just as out-of-place as a Rotel Tour. On reflection, I’m sure I must have looked like some strange apparition with streaks of sweat-lined lotion running down my face as I pedalled passed at a bone crunching rate of 5 km/h. More ghost on a bike, than bean. It is then that the tables are refreshingly turned and within seconds their mobile phones were trained on me as I bounced over the rubble from one pothole to the next.

Maybe it was a largely due to a strong desire to notch up my first wild camp in Ethiopia because it transpired that I had no choice but to find refuge under the canvas that night. This was in part due to a rare torrential downpour that turned the rough road into a river of red mud.

(Tragically, the rains in the region have failed for a second year running and the telltale signs of water stress and drought are everywhere; the cracked earth of dry riverbeds, dead carcasses of animals on the roadside, fields prepared but no healthy green crops growing, the heart wrenching sight of malnutritioned children, widespread soil erosion, abandoned homes, the sad and sorry list goes on… Despite this, many aid international agencies are active in the area – including the charity Water Aid who I am raising funds for – to help prevent further needless suffering and improve lives with deep well, irrigation and sanitation projects).

Yet again, the chunky tread of the Schwalbe Marathon Extremes did what they said on the can and with characteristic herculean grip, managed to throw mud into every nook and cranny of the Sherpa with a the force of a thousand spades until my wheels eventually jammed and would turn no more. It was a timely cue for my first Ethiopian stealth camp in the wild. Fortunately, the rain clouds cleared to reveal the majestic African night sky as the celestial white band of the Milky Way arched its long back around a luminous waxing moon. Having got the tent up with time to spare for a hearty meal of pasta and tomato puree generously seasoned with some local spices to give it some much-needed kick, I tucked into my sleeping bag in anticipation of a deep sleep. No chance. Within minutes, the blood-curdling cries of Hyenas could be heard calling to each other in the far distance; presumably coordinating yet another nightly attempt on a raid of the local livestock. In fact, these powerful nocturnal predators are so feared by the locals that it is widely believed that they are actually the spirits of young men who have taken the form of a Hyena to hunt and run with the pack during the hours of darkness. The only proviso is that they are forbidden to eat human flesh. An Ethiopian version of a Gothic vampire, if you like. Despite my aching legs and exhausted mind, my senses were on high alert and refused any onset of restorative sleep. It turned out to be a long night as my imagination ran wild to the howls of the Hyena and sound of wildlife as they went about their night-time activities, peppered with the occasional gunshot. A spine-tingling experience that was only tempered by the comforting rhythmic sound of drums and singing that softly padded through the cool night air from the village nearby. At daybreak, I managed to pack up after catching only a few precious hours of restless sleep in the half light of morning. Miraculously, I managed a lightening-quick brew with lashings of honey without being rumbled by raising my first ‘faranji alarm’ of the day. Truly a miracle.

Needless to say, the going was painfully slow and it took me two full days to cover a mere 100km. This did however allow me to enjoy the sweeping vista as the land opened out into wide open savannah dotted with massive termite mounds, sometimes as high a double-decker bus. Camels loafed about in the shade of the acacias with their toothy, slightly haughty expression. Large groups of Gibbon Monkeys would mooch around the roadside and allowed me to get surprisingly close before they set off together into the scrub and towards the safety of a treetop. Humming birds and butterflies fluttered from the few flowers that had blossomed as Grass Snakes or Lizards basked on the warm rocks. Occasionally, young gazelles and their mother would leap across the road with incredible elegance – as if for the sheer joy of it – and because they can. I am still yet to spot my first predator of the feline kind that is reputed to roam the coffee forests further to the north however, before it spots me.

The generosity of the locals has been a humbling experience. Despite the daily hardships they face, I’ve been offered maize, fruit, coffee, precious supplies of water and invited to freely camp amongst the enset and orange trees. Highland hysteria aside, I’ve received exceptional highland hospitality as I edge closer to the birthplace of coffee.

Next stop on this blog: the Choche Coffee Farmer’s Cooperative where I’ll be helping out with the washing of the red cherries on one of their wet mill stations in the western highlands. The annual Ethiopian coffee harvest of 2011/12 has begun in earnest… Time to get my skates on.

 

Tour de Ethiopique

When the day of departure finally came, the early morning sun was shining brightly in a big, blue African sky without a threatening storm cloud in sight – the first time in a month. A sign that Kareumt (the long rainy season from June – September) was finally coming to an end as the warm rays bathed the Friary garden with the promise of an Ethiopian spring.

Brother Lucas helps out with some essential bike maintenance to get the Sherpa ready for the (off) road

After bidding farewell to the Brothers over a simple breakfast of honey and bread, washed down with copious amounts of freshly prepared coffee, I took a deep breath and started to turn my wheels once more.

If the truth be told, I had mixed emotions; elated to be back on my trusty steed again, sad to leave the company of the St Francis Capuchin community that had been my home for a nearly a month, and a little nervous about the prospect of encountering the battalions of stone throwing children that I have heard so much about. Whether there is any substance to this myth or not, their reputation certainly precedes them. Either way,  I was soon going to find out en-route to the southern Ethiopian coffee growing highlands of Yirga Cheffe. My mission? To help out with the agricultural activities on a Oromia cooperative farm in preparation for the coming harvest. The only thing that stood in my way was 500kms of winding Ethiopian asphalt through fertile farmland and the Lake Abiata-Shala National Park where tales of highway bandits that lie in wait on the roadside abound. Putting this last thought out of my mind, I pressed foot firmly to pedal and pushed on. There was no turning back now.

The pan-African colours of the national flag to mark the recent passing of the Ethiopian New Year (in the Coptic calendar the year is 2004) fluttered in the breeze as I free-wheeled the gentle downhill into Addis city centre. A quick detour to say goodbye to the good people at Tomoca Café and to stock up with half-a-kilo of their fine freshly roasted Longberry Harrar Coffee – a perfect primer for the Bialetti and calf muscles – and I was on my way: A five-day ride south beckoned. At least.

Leaving the smudge of the smoggy city skyline behind me, I felt like I was cycling out of a high altitude portal of relative modernity into a completely different world. The harsh glint of the, by now, hot midday sun reflected by the corrugated iron roofs of Addis’ suburban tin shacks soon softened into a rural pastiche straight out of a scene from Tolkien’s Middle Earth. Nestled amongst the fields of maize, shady enset (false banana), teff, avocado and papaya, are the impressive Tukus – traditional round huts with thatched conical roofs – that stand like large pepper pots made of mud and straw. Oxen, goats, an occasional forlorn looking mule tethered to a wooden cart, and chickens scratching around in the undergrowth completed the sensation of being teleported to the pastoral idyl of the Shire. High above, vultures slowly rode the thermals in long circular arcs, like the undead Nazgul of the skies, scouting for the next road kill on the menu far below.

In terms of geographical phenomena, the Great Rift Valley is a masterwork of Mother Nature in progress. Riding a small part of this massive tectonic fissure in the Earth’s crust that stretches from the Arabian Peninsula all the way down to Mozambique is truly a sight to behold. Scarred, gaping mouths of extinct volcanoes dot the landscape like giant eroded cones rising of out of the expanse of the vast valley floor. Tree-clad tabletop ridges flank the horizon on each side whilst ancient igneous debris is strewn everywhere. A fine red dust of the African earth coats everything; clothes, hair, brakes, chain and, no doubt, the lungs.  Once the primal forces that are literally tearing this part of the African continent in two have finished their subterranean work in another million years (give or take a few), this 4000km long valley connected by a string of lakes will be reclaimed by the deep waters of the Red Sea.

Marvelling at this dramatic story of almost biblical proportions being played out over geological time only added to the drama on the road. Despite being regularly enveloped in the thick black soot that belches out of the back of the ubiquitous Isuzu trucks (often stacked at an gravity-defying angle or crammed full with a dozen-or-so windswept camels) that zoom passed with clockwork predictability (and cringing proximity), I was coming to terms with a force to be reckoned with of a different kind.

With more regularity than an Isuzu, my journey so far has become increasingly accompanied by an entertaining roadside repertoire of call and response. The exchange goes something like this:

Habasha (Ethiopian): Faranj, faranji, faranj, faranji!
Faranji (Foreigner) on a bike:
Habasha!
Habasha:
You, you, you, you, you…
Faranji
: Hey you, how are you?!
Habasha:
Where you go?
Faranji:
Ethiopia!

[Interchangeable with any other destination you care to mention. Recent port of calls have been the Sea of Tranquillity; Dagobah; Utopia; the fourth dimension; Birmingham; Buna ersha (coffee farm); or just plain and simple – but to the point; as far as my legs will carry me…]

Habasha: Money, money, where’s my money!
Faranji:
Sorry, no money!
Habasha:
Good, good, very good. One Birr, give me one Birr!
Faranji:
Sorry, no Birr!
Habasha:
Caramello, give me one caramello!
Faranji:
Sorry, no caramello!
Habasha:
Pen, pen, give me pen!
Faranji:
Sorry, no pen!
Habasha:
I love you!
Faranji:
I love you too!
Habasha:
China!
Faranji:
British!
Habsaha:
Welcome!
Faranji:
Thank you!
Habasha:
You, you, you, you, you, you…!”

[Repeat as desired]

And my all time favourite so far….

Habasha: Never mind.

 [Spoken by a young girl who was herding her wayward band of goats off the road as she nonchalantly glanced at my bike with pity as I laboured up a hill] 

At first, it is easy to feel a little besieged by the attention that a ‘faranji’ on a bicycle appears to attract. But once you start to peel away the vocal layers of this roadside choir, the essence is one of pure excitement. In fact, it becomes more endearing as each day passes. I’ll try to explain.

The choral ensemble is usually marshalled by an eagle-eyed child, sometimes up to a hundred yards away. Raising the ‘faranji alarm’, said child begins to run at full pelt towards the road as fast as their legs will carry them. This in turn alerts other children in the vicinity to the faranji pedalling in their midst. Within a matter of moments, a growing number of nimble-footed ‘faranji alarms’ are now running in hot pursuit. To the staccato cries of ‘you, you you, you!’ they reach the roadside in such a fever pitch that their voices are cracking by the sheer exertion of their little lungs. All you can do is wave and smile with equal enthusiasm. Meanwhile, the adults look on watchfully and either give a bemused wave or join in with the collective ensemble. As you can imagine, any prospect of wild camping has been on a sliding scale between nil and zero.

The question poses, how do you deal with these wide-eyed, adorable, excitable, energetic, vocal scamps of the road? My strategy to date is two-fold. Firstly, I promised to pimp my ride a while back in Lebanon. So I did with the national flag.

Indeed, this only adds to the hysteria but as a mere guest in their country, the least I can do is proudly fly the colours of this enchanting, beautiful, diverse, life reaffirming land of wide, beaming smiles.

The second method I’ve tried to employ is to engage in the good-natured banter as much as humanly possible. I’ve saluted, waved, bowed, grinned, pulled faces, and laughed – sometimes to the point where I have had to hit the brakes for fear of falling off my bike from laughing too hard – at the sheer surreal nature of the whole situation. Okay, I admit that I’m not going to start trying to perform some kind of two-wheeled circus act anytime soon, but my desire to interact in a sincere but humorous way is just as strong, even if it does shave a few kilometres off my daily average. Their speed and stamina is astounding too. It really does come as no surprise that Ethiopia is home to some of the world’s finest long-distance runners when entire classrooms of young Haile Gabrselassie’s have given chase for well over a kilometre without any visible signs of fatigue.  My own fitness levels have truly been put to shame.

The ride has not been without its fair share of perils either. Any food strapped to the back of the bike is, par the course, fair game. I’ve heard (and felt) the crack of a whip split the air just a little too close for comfort by curious young shepherds who have turned their attention away from their grazing cattle to see how a pedalling ‘faranji’ responds, if subjected to similar treatment. Likewise, small mischievous hands have tried (unsuccessfully to my huge relief) to poke a stick into the Sherpa’s wheels in a bid to force me to screech to a stop. Yes, I’ve had countless children climb onto the back of the bike in an attempt to hitch a ride home. Yes, stones and other missiles such as the discarded remains of a chewed husk of maize have been flung my way with varying degrees of accuracy. And yes, I’m keeping count. (Please see the right hand column for a running tally – currently the ‘habasha home team’ have the lead by a narrow margin).

This is not to mention the uninvited amoebas that had taken up residence in my gut, forcing an unscripted few days’ recovery whilst I nuked my system with an arsenal of strong antibiotics in the lovely lakeside town of Awasa.

A small price to pay for an unforgettable experience so far… Just.

People often ask me why on earth I am travelling alone. The truth of the matter is that in Ethiopia, you never are actually ‘alone’. Well, not for long anyway. Kids of all ages sporting brightly coloured Chinese-made bikes festooned with reflectors have often joined me for a stretch to the next village, only to ‘pass on the baton’ to another budding young gang of cyclists. Safe in the knowledge that there will always be a crowd of cheering children waiting round the next corner, I can’t help but sometimes feel like I’m completing a never-ending final stage of ‘Le Tour de Ethiopique’.

It’s as energizing as it is exhausting.

No yellow jersey or finishing line in this ‘race’ though; only a sure, steady ‘sprint’ towards the birthplace of the bean.

Next stop: The primary coffee cooperative of Killenso Mokonisa to stay on a family run farm where I will be temporarily trading my cycling mits for gardening gloves. A daily routine of weeding, seed bed preparation, clearing diseased crops, collecting water from the river, and cutting back the overgrown shade trees awaits just as the uniquely floral-tasting Yirga Cheffe variety of coffee berries are now beginning to ripen on the branch. Magic.

Back on the Road

One important lesson that I have learned over the last few months is that you never truly know what is round the corner.

After the indignity of a spiked drink temporarily turned my world upside down at the start of this year it has taken exactly 109 days, six weeks on crutches, four trips to A&E, three sessions on my sprained ankle from the healing hands of Acupuncturist par-excellence Tania Spearman, two x-rays on said ankle, one night spent in hospital with a suspected hernia later downgraded to a groin strain (Note to self: Do not attempt to lift a 50 kilo bike under any circumstance), copious amounts of Rioja (purely for medicinal purposes) and an unscripted detour back to the UK for physiotherapy – plus invaluable quality time spent with friends and family – I am back on the road at long last.

To be honest I had started to think that my journey to Ethiopia was ill-fated before I had even really got going. But then who said things were going to be easy?

On reflection it has been less of a false start and more of a turning of a page; this time with a greater sense of awareness, humility and determination than ever before. I now feel much more prepared (mentally and physically) and have managed to better equip myself with some essential gear (Katadyn water filter, Power Monkey solar panel, wind-up radio, anti-malarials etc) that will allow me to be as safe and self-sufficient as I possibly can on the road ahead. I will of course spare the long list of equipment that all too easily fills up the panniers with each mounting kilo but it does seem a rite of passage for the budding cycle tourer to metaphorically share the load in pictorial fashion before setting off (again). So here is my contribution folks…

The Pre-Pack
Post-Pack and ready to Roll

Most importantly, my good friend and fellow cycle-touring companion Richie Thomas had grasped the nettle in a moment of inspired life-changing decisiveness, quit his web design job in Barcelona, and has embarked on a round-the-world trip on his trusty Cannondale steed. We’ll be riding all the way to Istanbul together taking in Italy and Greece before reaching Turkey. You can read more about his adventure by visiting his excellent blog here.

www.theworldinmywheels.com

So with four wheels, two’s company and a good measure of coffee-fueled, pedal powered gusto, Constantinople here we come. Next stop Italy.

Steel is Real

S0, let’s get straight to the point, steel is real.

The only material that can be forged into a diamond geometry that offers the most durable, load-bearing bike frame at an affordable price.  And so, after hours of painstaking research, I settled on putting my faith in the good people at Thorn Cycles in Bridgewater, Somerset, to build a bike that will withstand the many bumps, pot holes, uneven dirt tracks and all the abuse that terra firma can inflict along the winding road ahead. With 35 kilos on the front and rear pannier racks combined and another 80 kilos (I could lose a few!) on the saddle, it has to. Otherwise it’s going to be a very long walk indeed.

Introducing my – fully loaded – trusty steed, the lovely Sherpa ‘Kaldi’:

Affectionately named after the Ethiopian Shepherd Kaldi and his dancing Goats!