A Tale of Two...
Posted On: 16th October 2012
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of freedom, it was the age of restrictions, it was the epoch of health, it was the epoch of illness, it was the season of stillness, it was the season of life, it was the summer of heat, it was the autumn of refreshment, we had all the world before us, we had no end in sight, we were all going directly into the wind, we were all going directly the other way-- in short, the period was the period of change, as one leg of our trip was coming to completion and a new challenge lay ahead of us.
…amenities. After one week of immense luxury and reminders of the English home life, we reluctantly left the diplomatic pleasures of Emily's flat in Khartoum and prepared ourselves for one last stretch through the heat of southern Sudan, before crossing the Ethiopian border to confront a new terrain full of mountains and Christians. The remaining 600 km to the Ethiopian border were supposed to be an easy four day cycle over flat roads with a southerly wind helping us fly past the smiling Sudanese faces. Instead, it was one of the toughest mental tests of the trip thus far. We were immediately met with unrelenting strong headwinds that lowered our average speed from 30 km/h to a meagre 12 km/h. We felt like we had 500 pounds of lead weighing down, all of a sudden, on both our bike frames and our morale. To add possible injury to insult, the evenings were now abound with mosquitos and each bite sent fearful images of malaria parasites being injected into our bloodstream to wreak havoc on our bodies. We threw in the towel after two horrendous days puttering along in the sun, retreating to a cheap hotel to regather ourselves and boost our determination for the remaining 450 km to the border; a good decision considering that the evening brought with it a pounding thunderstorm (the first rain since leaving Istanbul) that lasted hours and would have soaked us to the bone had we been camping in the great outdoors.
…winds. For the first three days, we struggled to make our daily distance goals as the wind blew into our faces like the big bad wolf trying to break down the third little piggy's brick house. The Daring Dynamos persevered, eventually reaping the benefits of our hard work, as the road turned to east and the wind started to hit our backs, pushing us quickly up and down the rolling hills of southern Sudan. The smiles on our faces could not be contained and the music in our headphones was a means to inspire rather than to escape the harsh life we had chosen for ourselves. With the end in sight, we pushed hard on the second to last day to complete 195 km and reach Dokka, the last major town before Dinder National Park and the mountains of Ethiopia. Phil was suffering from his determination to not drink enough fluids (big men need big amounts of water), while Tom and I were also exhausted from a long day on the bike. We had hoped for some sort of lodging to rest away from the dangers of the road and out of reach of the disease carrying mosquitos. The only feasible place to lay our heads for the evening, this being Sudan, was at the local police station. We were welcomed in by the sergeant and promptly set up our mosquito nets and sleeping materials in the common room to the delight of the rifle-carrying officers, who remained in the room to ease us to sleep with a crackling rendition of Rambo on the TV until 1 in the morning. The next day we cruised through the final 90 km of Sudan with ease, despite the disappointing lack of abundant wildlife that we had expected to see in our first African national park.
…countries. We crossed from Galabat, Sudan to Metema, Ethiopia without any major immigration issues. The landscape of these two border towns was relatively similar but the cultures could not have been more different. This border crossing likely marks one of the biggest cultural shifts in the entire world. Sudan was characterised by quiet roads with few people dispersed across small villages; Ethiopia is a maze of mountain roads bustling with local farmers every 50 meters herding their sheep, donkeys, goats and cattle. Galabat had a small population of reserved Sudanese who waved from a distance and showed their support with a simple thumbs-up. Metema had thousands of people roaming the streets approaching you without shame to ask for money or offer their services-- from money changing to rub-and-tugs. The Sudanese tended to be quiet and conservative while the Ethiopians were lively and outgoing. In addition to the differences in the character of the people, other major changes included: the language (Arabic vs Amharic), writing script, calendar and time (Ethiopian calendar has 13 months and the day is divided into 12-hour shifts starting at sunrise and sunset), currency (Sudanese pound vs Ethiopian birr), ethnicity (Arab vs Ethiosemetic), food (fuul and eggs vs injiera bread and spiced vegetables), drinks (tea vs coffee) and history (Ethiopia is the only African nation to have largely fought off colonisation). Ethiopia is home to the original coffee bean and still produces some of the best coffee in the world. The traditional coffee ceremony, which includes roasting and grinding the fresh coffee beans before distributing the sweet black coffee in three rounds, is a delight for the senses. Much remains to be explored of the uniqueness of Ethiopia and we look forward to experiencing all that it has to offer as we cycle through the mountains for the next 4 weeks.
…religions. The Sudanese people are primarily Muslim with personal interactions reflecting the instructions of the Koran to lead a conservative lifestyle. The Ethiopians are primarily Orthodox Christians, which evidently teaches that begging is acceptable and white "firanjis" are full of handouts. The women in the arab countries through which we have passed were almost nonexistent, forced to hide their beauty behind burkas and the walls of their houses. The women in Ethiopia strut about in tight-fitting clothes and interact with men as if they were almost equals… almost. Obviously most Ethiopian women are not prostitutes, but the border town of Metema indicated otherwise and it was impossible to find a hotel that served weary travellers looking to rest rather than truckers looking for a brothel. Even in Gonder, a lovely mountain town with camelot-looking castles, each bar has its requisite 3-4 prostitutes prowling the scene to earn an extra birr or two. Alcohol in Sudan was illegal. Alcohol in Ethiopia is an accepted part of life with abundant cheap beer. Joy for the Daring Dynamos.
…healths. We had planned on staying in Metema for one full day off before taking on 1800 meters of elevation change over the course of 200 km of uphill roads to reach the mountain town of Gonder. Although Tom had enough fortitude to stave off the abundance of prostitutes and STIs they inevitably carried around with them through the streets of Metema, he did succumb to the diseases lurking in the street food we ate while in this seedy border town. It was inevitable. Metema is not a town meant for the weakhearted nor those with unaccustomed stomachs. To put it simply, Metema is the most vile, filthy, trash-filled border town with the worst toilets in the world. Unfortunately for Tom, he had to spend far too much time frequenting these toilets to rid himself of the stomach bug that was ruining his life, more time than any human would wish on their worst enemy. When I had imagined, before coming to Africa, where malaria would be likely to breed, this festering toilet was exactly what came to mind. Sorry Tom. It took quite a serious stomach bug for Tom to finally admit that he was sick (the first time he had done so on the trip). He was in no state to risk sitting on a bicycle seat but staying in Metema was not a healthy option for any of us. We had to suck it up, put our bicycles on a mini bus, and drive the 200 km to Gonder. None of us were happy with the decision but there truly was no other option if we wished to remain healthy and sane. Just when Tom started feeling better, it was Phil's and my time to suffer the effects of strange food sitting in our stomachs. There is never a good time for traveller's diarrhoea. But hiking through the clouds and spending freezing nights camping at 3900 meters is certainly one of the worst times to fully grasp what doctors mean when they say bowel movement.
…landscapes. Sudan was as flat as a pancake and hotter than depths of hell. Ethiopia, on the other hand, is like a voluptuous African beauty and the cool mountain air is refreshing for the body and soul. Leaving Khartoum, we witnessed the transition from the lifeless Saharan desert to expansive subsaharan grasslands. The scenery became more lush and greener the further south we went. Within a day's cycle, Sudan had become a rich land of productive agriculture with pools of water flowing freely between the small villages along the roadside. Multicoloured birds and ginormous insects made the cycling more interesting, as it felt good to know that we were not the only living organisms in that very spot. The hills started just before the Ethiopian border and transformed into full-on mountains as soon as we crossed into Ethiopia. Incredibly, we started to actually enjoy the weather once we reached Gonder. It was warm and sunny during the day with cool clear evenings, perfect for a light sweater. We relished the temperature change and realised just how much we missed feeling cold. With a few days to spare, we decided to go hiking in the Simien Mountains National Park. The park is renowned for its high mountain plateaus, incredible vistas, 2000 meter cliffs, and the endemic Gelada baboons that roam throughout the park. One cannot begin to explain how surreal it felt to be hiking at 4000 meters across a green field full of lush wildflowers and cows, when out of the cloudy mist strolled along a troop of 50 baboons eating the grass and posing perfectly for pictures. The four days of trekking and camping in these mountains (despite the stomach issues) will certainly remain one of the highlights of our journey.
…transportations. It had been quite awhile since we had traded our bicycles for other forms of transport, be it walking or automobile. Slowing down to hike through the Simien mountains was a pleasant change of pace that enabled us to get away from the road and explore the mountain wildlife. However, walking is just too slow and the trek reaffirmed our belief that cycling is the best speed to see the world around us. In order to leave the park as cheaply as possible, we hopped into the back of a local cattle truck and enjoyed a bumpy two hour ride at unnecessary speeds dangerously close to the edge of 1000 meters cliffs. Park regulations meant that we had to have an armed scout with us at all times. That led to us arguing with an elderly man, carrying an even older soviet rifle, in broken English over 50p for his fee for escorting us out of the park. We kept a hardline and managed to save that 50p for our next three beers. That truck ride taught us an entirely new meaning of going to town. The truck was full of locals travelling more than two hours to go to the doctor or attend the nearest high school. Almost half of Ethiopia's population are under 18 years old. The majority of these youngsters have the responsibility of herding their families' livestock down the middle of the road from one pasture to the next, armed with sticks and a highly trained rock-throwing arm. It's scary to think how many animals and children fall victim to the manic drivers who fly along the narrow roads as fast as they possibly can, swerving at the last minute to avoid obstacles alive and dead. In our two bus rides thus far, we have unfortunately hit a dog, a bird and almost 6 children. A great deal of fun will be had on the bicycle.
…orders. In most western societies, you sit at your restaurant table and order your food, expecting it to arrive within half-an-hour at the most. Despite the differences between Sudan and Ethiopia, one custom has remained the same. Orders must be placed two, three, or even four times to as many different people with the hope that the food that arrives at your table is the same food you ordered an hour earlier. It is incredible how foolish we feel when placing our first or second orders. We know that it is pointless to even announce that we want food the first couple of times. However, we are getting used to this process: you order the food that you desire, wait 30 minutes, then approach the waitress again to order the same food for the second time. The waitress appears just as amazed the second time as the first time that you actually want to eat something in their restaurant. Thirty minutes after the second or third order, you get a surprise. Sometimes it is exactly what you ordered; most of time, it something that the waitress decides you will like and, indeed, it is normally a tasty meal that hopefully goes down without consequence.