“Today is April 1st,” Hailay grinned.
“Yeah, I don’t play,” I said.
Hailay had picked me up with his driver and another passenger on the outskirts of Debra Birhan. When we hit Desse, some six hours later he suddenly said,
“My boss said we have to stay here a few days.”
And this was no April Fool’s joke. His sudden change of story and the fact that he hadn’t spoken to anyone on the phone for the last 6 hours had the whiff of bullshit ride up my nose.
“So goodbye.” He handed me my guitar and turned his back.
I’ve never been dropped like this in three years of hitch hiking. Even Juhar, my co-passenger, who had gotten off the ride after what appeared to be a heated argument, had gone off. Collecting my packs I hiked down the road as the sun set and clouds settled in on the outskirts of the city of Desse, bumping into him.
“Those guys are stupid,” he said, affirming their bullshittiness.
“Good luck,” I wished him as he was sussing out transport to Makele, some 450 K’s north. Desse was the half-way point, 429 K’s north of Addis Ababa, where I had left that morning, starting out with an 8-K hike, carrying my 30 kilos until Tsegye, Tsodesa and Tsomer decided to help me out.
“Where are you guys headed?” I asked.
“Debre Birhan,” Tsgeye said.
I hopped in.
“This is where the long-distance runners train,” Tsegye pointed out the long-legged folk running on the road.
Ethiopia’s global success in marathon running is due to the fact that training is done in high altitudes of over 2,500 meters.
“Birhan used to be the capital city back in the 13-14th century,” he added just before I was dropped off a few K’s before the town. I bid them farewell and was soon picked up by Wande, Solomon and Daniel.
After a bit of philosophising they invited me for coffee. I brought out Ol’ Red and jammed out some Johnny Cash, earning my caffeine fix. The guys dropped me at the edge of town where I waved at the horse and buggy drivers that offered me a ride as I hiked about 3 Ks down the road. A lot of buses and mini-buses (taxis) blasted by along with heavily-loaded trucks. I was glad that the taxis weren’t stopping to bug me as they’ve done in every country I’ve hitched. The lack of motorbikes also made it more peaceful.
But I was a little concerned at the lack of private cars. I decided to stop after I crossed a small bridge and it was here that Hailay, his driver, Seuyum and their passenger, Juhar stopped for me. Juhar was chewing ghat and offered me some. I accepted a few branches and chewed on the leaves.
“We are heading to Makele,” Hailay had said. “But we will reach there tomorrow. Today we go as far as we can.”
As we cruised on the windy, hilly roads, I was blown away by the majesty of the land. I had never seen so many mountains and hills in one country. We drove through tunnels that the Italians had carved into the rock, on roads built by the Chinese.
I was pointed out the eucalyptus trees that dotted the countryside. “They were introduced 120 years ago by the emperor,” Hailay said, connecting to my Australian roots.
After helping a bus driver load a gear box into the tray of the Hilux and take him about 30 K’s up the hill to his broken down vehicle, we continued on and stopped in Kamse for a late lunch of njera and pasta.
Juhar had gone off to eat somewhere else and when we were done I asked if they knew where he was.
“We don’t know him,” Hailay. “What is his name?”
I blinked before resorting to my notes. “Juhar.”
“Is he Muslim?” Hailay asked.
“Does it matter?” I answered.
He laughed and we got into the car. Juhar appeared and joined me in the backseat where he commenced to pray quietly. We shot through the hills and small villages, passing camels, Ankola cows with impaling horns, goats, horses and overloaded donkeys. I was surprised at how smooth the roads were. Not a single pothole.
“Everywhere I’ve been it’s like the army has been using the roads for target practice,” I told them of my experiences.
“Yes, the Chinese, Koreans, Italians and the Turkish have all been building the roads here,” Hailay said.
Rain clouds began to close in as we reached Desse, a large city by the shores of Lake Hayk. It was beginning to get dark and it was here that Hailay began to reek of bullshit. I hiked down the road seething. There was no movement of any vehicles so I figured I’d try to find somewhere safe to pitch a tent. A group of teenagers were hovering around a small coffee shack.
“Salamnuh,” I greeted them.
“Salama,” they greeted back.Where you go?” one of them asked.
“Makele,” I said. “Do you know where I can pitch a tent?”
The kid looked at the space between his café and the parked truck by the side of the highway. “Here,” he indicated in front of the vehicle.
“And it’s alright?” I questioned. “I can play some music for you guys.”
“No problem,” he said.
I dropped my packs and brought out my tent. The kids pitched in, whipping out the flashlights on their phones to assist, grabbing corners, feeding the poles into the slides and within ten minutes my tent and bedding was set up. I then produced Ol’ Red and sat under the tarp of the coffee shop just as the rains began.
My tent is not waterproof.
I jammed out some tunes and suddenly I was surrounded by 20 people. A woman in the crowd leaned in.
“Why you don’t stay in hotel?” she asked.
I explained my penniless ways.
“We give you money, you go to hotel,” she persisted.
“No,” I refused politely. “I play music for food and bed.”
“So let me give you food,” she said. “You eat njera?”
Njera is made from the teff grain, indigenous to Ethiopia. It’s regarded a superfood full of iron and high in fiber. Ethiopians will eat it 3-4 times a day. And always with dips made from a variety of beans and chick-peas. Shiro being the main one from chick-peas – and always spicy.
Like with ugali, some foods I can only do once a day. And njera was one of them. And as I’d just eaten a plateful with pasta about two hours prior and was still full, I wasn’t really feeling the need. But this might be my only opportunity for dinner.
“OK,” I said. “Amasegnalehu,” I thanked her in Amarhic, a word that has taken me two weeks to wrap my tongue around. While she headed off into the rain I continued to jam until she returned with a plate of njera covered with shiro and a bottle of water.
I took a break and could only manage to consume half the dish.
“I can finish this plate,” she antagonized me.
“I can’t,” I begged her forgiveness. “It’s yitafatal,” letting her know it was very good which had her give in with a smile and take the plate from me.
It was getting late and I was ready for bed when Jibril, the kid, who turned out to be 18, said, “You come, stay in my house.”
Music will provide anything you need in this world.
I grinned at my saviour. The kids helped me pack my tent up as the rains grew stronger. I was led off the highway, down the hillside through a grove of trees and into a warm home.
“This my sister,” he introduced me to his family. “My small brother,” he pointed at the kid on the mattress in the large living room, “and this my friend, Abdu.”
I shook hands with everyone, bending slightly at the knees while grasping my right arm with my left hand, a sign of respect when greeting someone.
“You want eat?” Jibril asked.
After two servings of njera in the space of two hours, I was so full I didn’t have room for chewing gum.
“No, please,” I tried to explain without offending, “I’m very full. You saw, I could not finish the njera the woman gave me.”
“I bring you njera,” Jibril disappeared.
He returned a moment later with a plate of the soft, pancake-like dish, with a hint of sourness and a dollop of shiro.
I took in a deep breath, not that I actually had any room to contain oxygen, and began to eat.
“Please,” I offered to everyone around me.
They all refused.
I force-fed myself half of the serving and did the best I could with every known sign on the planet to try and explain that I was stuffed like a baboon’s arse.
Tea was presented and after, a discussion on religion – “We are Muslims,” Abdu informed me.
“Salam al-yekum,” I said.
I’m always asked what religion I am and I always end up discussing what Karma is. “Do good, good things happen,” I’d say. “Do bad, and shit is going down.”
Some folk then tell me that they feel sorry for me for not believing in a deity. I always chuckle and say, “Don’t be. I’m quite happy as you can see.”
Jibril’s sister spoke a bit of Arabic and so I got to practice the little I knew, a good exercise as I was heading towards Sudan.
“Tomorrow we go to lake,” Jibril suggested.
“Yes,” I accepted. A bed was prepared for me and I hit the sack, the rain beating a relentless rhythm on the iron-sheet roof – all night. I couldn’t stop grinning.
Everything always works out in the end.