“Rumble,” my stomach rumbled me awake. I felt stuffed from the two dinners last night and the six cups of coffee were knocking on the back door.
The toilet in the compound, a traditional squat was a little full. There was no way I could do what needed to be done. My brain tapped me on the inside of my head.
I gathered my packs and headed out, making the five minute walk into three, reaching the Sabena International Hotel. I put my packs down and kindly asked to use the facilities. I was directed to the restrooms and saw that the cleaners were doing their duties.
Shit. I’d hate for them to have to go in after me but it was the fault of their traditions with the coffee. A price must be paid. And unfortunately, they were about to pay it.
Ten minutes later I walked out of the hotel with a skip in my step and a grin on my face. I hiked down the road that lead to Shire (pronounced Shir-eh), about an hour and a half away. Every time I looked back all I could see were bajajes (tuk-tuks), buses and taxis.
The great thing about hitchin’ in Ethiopia is that the hard working folk of the public transport industry don’t hassle folk like me. The disadvantage to that is sometimes, after hearing my way of life, some bus drivers offer me lifts in exchange for a song or my philosophy.
So I found myself hiking down the road. The sun had yet to peak so it wasn’t too hot. The school kids in their green and pink uniforms cackled and giggled when I passed them, salutating them with the local greeting of, “Salamneh,” for the men and, “Salamnesh,” for the women.
The road to Gondar from Axum is a 275 kilometre stretch that, according to Google maps, would take almost seven hours if I scored a direct ride. Why seven hours when 300 Ks is usually a four-hour drive? This bit of highway is regarded as one of the most dangerous in the world. Not for bandits or terrorists, but because of its mountain-hugging, cliff-dangling, twisty and windy rollercoaster asphalt.
At least, that’s what I’m told. I never looked into it.
My first ride, after hiking about 3 K’s, was with Zekarias and Kidane who work for a German NGO. Like the UN, NGO vehicles don’t usually stop for hitch hikers so I was surprised (and fuckin’ relieved) when these guys did.
“We work in agriculture,” Zekarias explained. “We are teaching the locals how to farm sustainably and how to farm in the harsh conditions of these areas.”
He asked where my travels were taking me and I said, “From Ethiopia I head through Sudan to Egypt and then Israel and Jordan.”
“You can’t get across the border between Israel and Egypt,” Zekarias hit my panic button.
“What do you mean?” I’d never heard of any issues at the border between the two countries that have held onto their peace agreement since 1981. Even Sadat’s assassination by extremists during a military parade not long after the signing didn’t stop the Egyptians from maintaining the quiet.
“I visited Israel from work because they are very good at growing the desert,” he explained. “I wanted to travel overland to Cairo and then fly to Ethiopia but at the border they wouldn’t let me across.”
Hmm. “When was this?” I asked.
“Nine years ago.”
What happened nine years ago? I tried to think. If I calculated the time according to Ethiopia’s Julian calendar, it’d be 1999. If I went by the Gregorian one, it’d be2005. Both years registered nothing for me.
“Maybe for certain passports they weren’t allowing it,” I pondered aloud.
“No,” Zekarias said. “We were simply refused.”
Then I recalled how my mates, Harley and Em had recently crossed the border in Chewie, their Landrover Defender they’d been driving from Cape Town to Stockholm.
“They just crossed about two months ago,” I said.
“Oh,” Zekarias seemed defeated. “Maybe things have changed.”
“Maybe,” I leaned back, watched the landscape of mountains roll by.
I was dropped in the tiny roadside village of Wukromarain, whose entire population seemed to be of three cows, four goats and ten people. I began to hike down the road. My water conservation was that I’d only take a sip once I got a ride.
We can survive a whole month without food but if we lack water for three days we’re screwed. I hiked down the mountainside until a single-cabin Landcruiser took me on.
“Welding,” the driver said in broken English when I asked about the generator my packs were accompanying in the back.
“Ah,” I ah-ed.
The two guys were both named Solomon which made remembering their names a helluva lot easier than other drivers I’ve met. “The kings,” I grinned as they chuckled.
They dropped me in the town of Salekleka where, as I waved and greeted the locals, I hiked out to where the road dropped to a flat stretch of land, a rarity in a country that has more mountains than people, so it seemed.
The traffic on the road was sparse aside from the occasional bus or mini-bus taxi.
Ah, well. May as well enjoy the view. It wasn’t too hot of a day – yet – so I continued to hike merrily along the road. Until a truck appeared on the horizon.
“Shire,” the driver said from behind the old man that sat next to him. The youngest fella in their crew hopped out and helped throw my bags up into the tray. It seemed they were transporting sacks of flour.
No one spoke English but through gestures and tone I managed to convey my lifestyle.
“Music for food and bed,” I’d air-guitar for music, indicate with my hand to my mouth for food and clasp both hands together, flat by my head which I tilted to the side to specify sleep. The guys looked at each other and burst out laughing.
“No money?” the driver couldn’t believe it.
“No money,” I grinned.
“How you get here?”
I tapped on my chest to show that people were helping me from their heart. That it wasn’t always about money. That it should never ever be about money. Just about being human.
He nodded, tapped his chest and said, “Brother.”
I nodded, “Brother.”
Amazing how we can still communicate even if words are a struggle. When I was hitching from Malaysia to Thailand only one driver spoke English, and that was on the Malaysian side. Every other driver I had didn’t speak a single word, but they all smiled, nodded and projected good vibes. Couldn’t go wrong with that.
The truck dropped me in Shire which, turns out, is a little bigger than Axum. I thanked the guys and hiked off down the road. Luckily, it was a flat stretch to the next village, about 5 kilometres. But I could feel the sun really beating by now. I wasn’t sure what time it was but I figured, by the sun’s angle, it must be just after nine.
I kept hiking and began to project to my good friend, The Universe, what I needed.
A ride to Gondar would really make my day here. It’s pretty hot. I don’t wanna succumb to the sun.
I’ve always felt that when my physical presence on this planet would cease, it would be on the water. I really believe that I’m not destined to die on land.
And just a note in case I do, I’d like to be fed to the ocean. No land burial.
We came from water and to water we should return. That’s my belief anyway.
I came upon a curve in the road when I heard an engine behind me. Come on, Nelly, I thought as I turned around and stuck my hand out for a ride.
The single-cabin Landcruiser pulled over. I came up to the passenger window.
“Salamneh!” I greeted the two men.
“Salama,” they grinned back.
“Denani?” I asked to their well-being.
“Denani,” they smiled.
“Where are you going?” I asked.
I blinked. Jesus, The Universe doesn’t waste time.
“It’s possible for a lift? I don’t have money.”
Please say ‘yes’. Please say ‘yes’.
The driver looked at his friend. “No money?”
I gestured to my guitar and explained my ways.
“OK, let’s go.”
I couldn’t believe it. Sure, I’d be squeezed in between Aout, the driver, and Abdusalam, the passenger, in a seat where there was only room for one butt-cheek but still, I had 245 kilometres left to reach Gondar. I’d sit with cows in the back if I had to.
We took off as I leaned forward, waiting for the sweat I was drenched in to evaporate from my shirt. Aout had better English than Abdusalam and as I philosophised my way of life he would translate over my head to his buddy. We stopped in Dabahuna for some soda and bread and water and continued on, all the while talking about life, if I was married and had kids (the standard questions) and then, as usual,
“What religion are you?” Aout asked.
I grinned. “No religion.”
He blinked. “Why no religion?”
“If I had a religion and I told you, you would judge me based on that.”
He blinked again, seeming to realise that I was making sense. But like most religious folk, he was trying to fight what he had been brainwashed to believe his entire life. “But you must have a God.”
“I have The Universe and I’m a strong believer in Karma.”
“What is Karma?”
“It’s a philosophy, a way of life. It comes from the Hindu religion but has nothing to do with Gods or prayer. All it is is if you do good, then good things happen. If you do bad, bad things will happen.”
He seemed to accept this as we passed through the towns of Adigebru and Maysabri.
“Means Muddy Water,” Aout said.
It was past this town that the road turned to up, almost vertical and wound around mountains.
“We climb more than one thousand meters,” Aout explained, skilfully guiding the Landcruiser which I noticed would violently shake in third gear.
“Wheel balance,” he said when I asked him about it.
Ah, great. A lack of wheel balance is just what was missing to make this trip a little more exciting. The wheels hugged the edge of the road as Aout took the curves expertly.
“You’ve done this drive a few times then?” I asked.
“Many. Every month. My family is in Gondar.”
We drove up in silence as I snapped photos of the incredible views. It was like riding a ski-lift to the top of a mountain.
And I’ve never ridden a ski-lift before.
The silence was shaken when Aout asked a question about the bible. I explained how could it be possible to believe every word in the book when Lucy, the 3.8 million-year-old skeleton of the species before us sapiens, sat on display, proof to the world that not only did we evolve from cave folk but that there was life long before the 5,000 years that the bible states.
“I can only believe what I see,” I finished off. “And if I can’t see God, how do I know there is one?”
Aout blinked. I gotta hand it to the guy, I was quite grateful that he didn’t take his eyes off the road for a second. But my words affected him. He translated for Abdusalam and he remained silent for the next three hours. I could see from the corner of my eye he was pondering on thoughts. His world had been flipped and the change of energy in the cabin was strongly felt.
Sometimes, I really need to learn how to just keep my mouth shut. What if my approach would piss someone off and I’d be dumped by the side of the road in the middle of nowhere. We hadn’t overtaken a single vehicle and there hadn’t been any behind us.
And the way the road wrapped around the mountain, hiking it was going to be a pain in my left knee.
We passed through Aderkay and Zarima before stopping in Debark, the gateway to the Siemen Mountains National Park. Aout’s phone charger was broken so he went off in search of a new one while a man who talked to some rocks begged me for money.
He grabbed my arm which I gently removed from his grasp.
“Don’t touch,” I said sternly. I hate being touched by people I don’t know. “Back off.” Abdusalam stepped up and told him in Amharic to get lost.
Ten minutes later we were back on the road. The windiness of it had ceased now that we peaked the top of the mountain.
“Ras Deshen,” Abdusalam pointed out Ethiopia’s highest peak. Regarded as the fourth highest in Africa. I looked at it longingly but my left knee said, ‘No, no, no.’
Gotta listen to your body sometimes. Besides, after climbing Mt Kenya, anything less than 5,199 meters just didn’t seem worth it.
Finally, at around 17:00, Gregorian time (23:00 Julian time), I was dropped off in Gondar. I thanked my ride although Aout seemed a bit pissed at me, Abdusalam vigorously shook my hand.
Right after he peed on the back wheel.
I gathered my packs and headed down the road wondering what awaited me here. I had the number of a couch surfer. A young local said, ‘hello’ and as we were headed in the same direction we chatted a bit until I reached the Landmark Hotel.
A giant of a building it hideously protruded from the hillside, overlooking the city. As I came up the driveway I was greeted by Marion who had perfect English.
“I used to work here as a receptionist,” she explained, “but I’m moving back to Addis so I’ve quit. Are you staying here?”
I explained my ways and she tried to help me by calling the number I had. The guy answered but the reception was bad and then he wouldn’t pick up his phone anymore.
“The hotel here won’t go for your barter,” she said. “They’re too old school in their ways. But you can try the AG Hotel. Come, I’m heading that way.”
I tagged along and she called her aunt to see if I could crash on their floor but was declined. Outside of the AG Hotel I was instructed to talk with Mark, the manager.
“We don’t have any facilities for music,” he began, “but I’m interested in the marketing side.”
I elaborated my ability to promote his hotel and by the end of our warm conversation I was provided a room, dinner and breakfast for the morning. I thanked Mark and followed Micky, the bell-boy, to the elevators.
“Enjoy your stay,” he blessed me.
“Cheers, bro,” I shook his hand and brought him in for an Ethiopian hug – right shoulder tapping his right shoulder while we still held hands.
I stepped out onto the balcony and looked at the city. What a day, I thought.
What a fuckin’ day.