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.
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?
[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!
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.