post Trekking the North

June 26th, 2008

Filed under: Tourists on Ethiopia — Lissan Magazine @ 10:52

A Turbulent Start
Travel journal by Nancy Chuang

Laughing was the only possible reaction.
This is the worst ride I’ve ever taken!” Jochen shouted over the noise of the rattling car.

I’ve been on much worse!” I yelled back flippantly.

I had—the choppy dirt path climbing to Parque Nacional Celaque in Honduras, which I foolishly undertook in a jittery moto-taxi, or the road winding through the Ecuadorean Andes toward Chugchilán, so narrow that every bump threatened to toss the busload of praying passengers off the cliff.

© Nancy Chuang

The difference in Ethiopia was that this rough patch lasted 6 hours. By the end I fully admitted Jochen was right.

I’d expected the car to collect me from Circle Hotel at 8:00. Several apologetic phone calls later, Habtamu arrived sometime after 9 claiming that Jochen caused the delay by changing money. Later I found out that easygoing Habte had kicked back and ordered breakfast after the transaction was already complete.

Jochen, a friendly German with a sweet smile, hoped to visit every continent before he turned 30. People with “before I’m 30″ plans make me itch. By coincidence, I’d split a taxi into Gondar with him the previous morning.

Spurred to visit by a half-Ethiopian half-Eritrean close friend back in Cologne who’d waxed poetic on Ethiopia’s beauty, he was a former professional-level runner who now worked in sports journalism. He’d brought a small videocamera and interviewed marathoners in Addis Ababa soon after the annual high-altitude Great Ethiopian Run, and was quite jazzed about his footage.

We raced along the paved road from Gondar, the wind whipping my hair into a tangled snarl. Suddenly making a sharp left turn, Habtamu intoned, “asphalt is finished”…and the turbulence began.

Hours of jarred organs later, we vibrated into an extremely basic restaurant filled with wary eyes. Small children discussed terms with Habte and appeared to be watching the car or possibly washing it (at this point, why?) while we had lunch.

As strangers, we were shy about sharing and instead ordered separately: I got tibs, Habte got kitfo, and Jochen got the fasting food mixed platter that easily would have fed all three of us. Kitfo is raw ground beef and looked like brains. My opinion did not improve after Habte allowed me a sample.

The bumps intensified after lunch, including one jolt so strong I hit the roof. Jochen burst out laughing, but it was less funny by the fourth time.

I’d begun the day with an astounding tej hangover and was having trouble focusing. I could not re-hydrate because the very thought of water sloshing inside me was revolting. Habte generously invited us to tea so we stopped in another village. Although we sat right next to the car, he still paid some kids to watch it. I hoped soda could settle my roiling stomach but no such luck.

Amazingly, the road grew still worse due to construction. Eventually asphalt would connect Gondar and Lalibela, but there were three more years of work ahead. When the road crew threw a shovelful of dirt on our car, Habte meticulously wiped off some of the mound with a tissue. Without rancor, he suddenly popped the lid and let the remaining dirt to fall into the engine, setting us on another fit of giggles.

A couple of the elusive Chinese engineers supposedly distributed all over Ethiopia were reviewing blueprints with their foremen. We exchanged looks of vague recognition.

My head still throbbed as we pulled into a Filakit truck stop. In this tiny village, our small rooms cost a mere 15 birr. The outhouse reeked of urine on both the squat-toilet and shower sides. Mysteriously, the shower was operated from outside the stall. It was definitely time for a beer.

We forced down a bit of shiro wat, neither Jochen or I particularly hungry. The electricity in Filakit shut off at 9, surely a downer for the boys playing foosball on the street, but this hotel had a generator that operated until 10:30. Departing at 5AM with the other buses, Habte went to bed while Jochen and I felt we shouldn’t waste the light. But as the night grew cold and an odd Kenyan man nearby started rambling about the joys of drinking mother’s milk directly from the breast, we downed our last beers and headed off.


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