“Come on, let me help you,” Abdu offered from the bajaj.
“I don’t have money,” I explained.
“Not a problem.”
I hopped in, thankful not to have to walk the hills of Gondar to reach the road to Metema, the border town to Sudan some 200 Ks away. It’d be hot soon and I wanted to take advantage of the morning coolness to hike out of the city.
I had been misdirected for two kilometers so I was a bit pissed off as I began hiking back towards AG Hotel when Abdu had pulled over and decided to help me without pay.
He too was misled and drove us about ten kilometers in the wrong direction. Eventually, the right directions were obtained and he dropped me on the road that would take me to Azezo, about 12 Ks out of Gondar. From there, I’d connect to the road that would be a straight run to the border.
With a start like this to the day, I was in high spirits and hiked down the road. I flagged down a Landcruiser.
I recognised the upholstery in the single-cabin.
No fuckin’ way.
“Abdusalam!” I cheered, recognising the passenger from my direct ride to Gondar the previous day. He was alone and just around but glad to see me as I was him.
Sometimes, it’s not about whether you get a ride or not. If you get to bump into the people that have helped you (and boy, did Abdusalam’s ride ever help me), it’s enough to put that spring in your step.
Even if you are carrying 30 kilos in 30 degrees.
I continued to hike down when Telega stopped for me.
“I can take you 3 kilometres,” he offered.
Better than walking. Besides, an uphill appeared on the horizon and I wasn’t up for it. He dropped me off and I managed to get a lift in a 1976 Landcrusier.
“This baby’s a classic!” I exclaimed.
Alex, the driver, was pleased at my excitement. He was only going halfway to Azezo but decided to take me all the way.
“Amasegnalehu!” I shook his hand, hopped out and began to follow the road that would eventually take me to the border.
The opening to the hike was an uphill climb. My eyes followed the mini-buses that passed me and saw where the road wrapped around. I also saw the shortcut and, seeing that there were no potential rides, I took it. Huffing and puffing the shortcut took me back to the Mushroom Farm Eco Lodge in Livingstonia, Malawi. I took the shortcuts instead of the entire curve of the road with all my gear and almost fell off the mountain.
And this one was only about 20 meters in distance. But the incline and the heat… sheesh! I mean, it wasn’t yet too hot and I was grateful to finally get into a rhythm.
The only vehicles to come up behind me were buses. Not a single car.
I might be screwed here.
Which I immediately followed up with,
Hey! No getting’ screwed! Think positive. Something’ll come up. It might take some time, but it’ll happen. You know it, I know it. We both know it therefore it is known and there’s no way around it.
I started the downhill hike and came across a small house with a car parked outside. A group of people were about to enter the building when they saw me. The main guy, who spoke English, stopped me.
“Where are you going?”
“By foot?” he seemed shock.
“Well, until I get a lift, yeah. I’ve got legs, may as well use them.”
“What is your religion?” he asked. “Are you Christian?”
Here we go. “No.”
“Nope. No religion.”
This seemed to piss him off a bit as he stepped into my personal space. “You don’t believe in Jesus Christ as your lord and saviour? Jesus Christ who died for our sins?”
“I didn’t commit any sins,” I began but my words were falling on deaf ears. The guy was in preacher mode.
“Jesus Christ who will protect you through the power of prayer? Pray with me.”
“No and I’d appreciate you not forcing your beliefs upon me. Jesus Christ wouldn’t want that.”
He blinked. “Then let me pray for you.”
“If it’ll make your day, go for it.” I was about to walk off when he began to pray out loud.
Oh, he meant pray for me now.
“May the blood of Jesus cover you,” he began.
May the blood of Jesus cover me? What the fuck was that? Why would I want to be covered in anyone’s blood? And if he prayed this for everyone in his flock, how much blood would be left for JC? Where does he get his blood donations from?
The guy’s voice rose to an almighty screech which had his little congregation in a worked up frenzy and he ended by yelling into my face, “By the power of Jesus Christ!”
His hand went up and came down – stopping just short of my forehead. I would not have been happy had he made contact. He then spun around and walked off. No goodbyes, no see you soon, red baboon. Just walked off as though he had performed the world’s greatest miracle.
Yes, his intentions were kind enough but he was just some evangelical priest that saw an opportunity to freak his flock into a deeper belief of the same bullshit we’ve been spoon-fed for the last 5,000 years.
How is it that we can easily recognise that Harry Porter is fantasy yet people will believe the stories of the Bible and fight to the death anyone who doesn’t?
I continued down the hill when my blood pressure suddenly dropped.
I froze, letting the wave pass.
The fuck is that?
Maybe JC was taking a blood collection and I was paying for it.
All of a sudden I felt weak even though I’d enjoyed a hearty breakfast. I spied a shady spot, dropped my packs and crouched down to regulate my breathing.
Was it the heat? Was it the walking with 30 kilos, just two kilos shy of half my body weight?
I sipped on some water and figured I’d take a break.
Did the guy bless me or curse me? Fuckin’ aye.
The wave passed, I peed and felt better. I decided to wait and see if I could get a ride. The first truck that passed flew by. Two mini-buses also attempted to take to the sky.
The next truck didn’t stop either so I slowly picked up my gear, stood momentarily to make sure I wasn’t about to pass out and headed off. I hiked what seemed at least 6 Ks before a Landcruiser full of civil engineers took me 50 Ks to Chigala. As I began to hike through the town a voice called out to me.
I turned, greeting the smiling face of a young man who invited me for coffee.
I could do with some sugar after that blood pressure drop so I pulled up a stool. In the shack his friends were gathered around. I whipped out Ol’ Red and strummed a few tunes. A shadow was cast at the entrance to the shop and when I raised my head about 50 elementary students where blocking the sun.
“Woah,” I grinned, surprised by the unexpected crowd.
I posed for photos and shook hands with everybody, thanking them for the coffee and the company. The guy who had invited me turned out to be a 17-year-old kid. Ethiopia’s the first country I’ve come by where the youth have been so open and welcoming, not seeing me as a walking ATM, appreciating my lifestyle choice and really having their heads screwed on the right way.
I hiked passed tiny villages, alongside large cows, grinning and smiling at everyone. I was in such a good mood even though the sun was baking and I was drenched in sweat.
I felt great, mate.
A car came up behind me and I turned to flag down an ambulance.
“Quick, quick,” the driver said. “Just get in.”
Is he on a call? Nice of him to stop but come on, get some priorities here.
I squeezed myself in and he took me 4 K’s down the road to where a family were waiting by the road. It didn’t seem like the call was urgent so I was glad I hadn’t contributed to anyone’s demise.
I asked the driver if he had some water as I was running low and he gave me a full 2-litre bottle.
Hope that wasn’t intended for the patient.
I continued to hike at least another 6 K’s before a Hilux pulled up. They were heading 50 K’s. I hopped in and although English wasn’t a mutual language, I managed to crack them up with my attempt at Amharic. I was offered water and Kofti, a mix bag of nuts and seeds.
I was dropped in Sequna, their final stop. I smiled and greeted the locals as I began to hike up the hill when a mini-bus pulled over.
“No money,” I said after telling the driver I was headed to Metema, about 80 Ks away.
“No problem,” he said, gesturing me to get on board. The conductor broke into a broad grin.
“No problem,” he also said.
I hopped into the crowded ride, said ‘Salama’ to the blank stares and off we went. For the next 50 Ks we didn’t encounter a single other vehicle except for the trucks coming in from Sudan, easily recognisable from the black plates with Arabic letters and numbers.
It got me wondering why there were no trucks heading towards Sudan from Ethiopia. Seemed to be a one-way trade.
And putting a damper on my hitching.
As we drove along, the driver, the only one who spoke English, asked about my method of travel. I explained my no money philosophy which he accepted with a smile and bought me a bottle of water.
About ten Ks shy of this ride’s final stop we pulled up to a checkpoint.
“Please come with me,” smiled a local wearing a florescent road-safety vest.
“Who are you?” I asked without budging.
“I’m customs and immigration official. Please, follow me.”
“Show me some ID,” I said without moving.
He stared at me and then broke into a smile as he pulled out his wallet. “You can read Amharic?”
If this guy was really customs, his ID would have English on it. “Yeah, I can read Amharic.”
He produced a laminated card that had his name and, in English, Customs Official Officer.
I grinned. “Alright, let’s go party.”
They checked my passport and bag. “The driver told me you have been footing it.”
“Yeah, no cars around here.”
“It is not good in this weather conditions,” he pointed up. “Very hot.”
“No, it’s fuckin’ hot.” He laughed as he let me get back on the bus and we continued to a tiny town where the driver said,
“I’ll pay for you to reach Metema.”
I couldn’t believe it.
I whipped out Ol’ Red and immediately a small crowd gathered around me as I ripped into Johnny Cash’s, Folsom Prison Blues. The crowd were jumping and happy and we took off in good spirits.
“30 kilometers,” the driver said, indicating the distance to the border town. I was given some bread which I shared with the rest of the mini-bus and was finally dropped at the bus station in Metema.
“Amasegnalehu,” I thanked the driver.
I couldn’t believe that I had made it. And I couldn’t believe how The Universe had placed these amazingly kind-hearted people in my path today. Every day but today especially as the extreme heat could have easily taken me out. And with the lack of cars on the road, it seemed that I might have reached the border town sometime next week.
But time and again I’ve proven to myself that as long as I think positively, that’s what I’ll project and that’s exactly what I’ll attract. It’s something I changed in myself the day I decided to go nomadic. And my second travel buddy, Baz, had been preaching that very ideal from day one.
I was still 3 K’s shy of the actual border crossing, shaking off the hustlers I hit the town, greeting everyone, overtaking donkeys lugging water tanks. I wasn’t sure if the border was a 24-hour one so I was still at risk of not being able to cross today.
A young Rasta pulled over in a bajaj.
“Come on, no money. It’s OK.”
What was going on? Maybe that evangelical’s prayer was working its magic. Maybe The Universe itself was having a great day and just felt like really giving me a boost. Whatever the reason, I was riding a cloud.
Sure the guy ended up claiming that Michael Jackson, Beyonce and Justin Beiber are all Illuminates (although, what really shocked me was that he put Beiber and MJ in the same sentence). But the way this day was going, I couldn’t help but wonder how Sudan was going to welcome me.
At the crossing my bags were searched by Ethiopian customs officials.
“You are very lucky,” said one. “The border closes in 55 minutes.”
I raised an eyebrow. When they asked me to play them a song I said, “If I had more time but the Sudanese border will close soon too.” They nodded in agreement and I was stamped out and let into Sudan, the third Muslim country I’d be visiting but the first one in Africa and my first Arab country.
I was instantly adopted by a dodgy hustler who I politely told to leave me alone, crossed the bridge over the dry river bed and hit customs.
“410 pounds registration,” said the large, bald-headed official.
“What?” I whated. “But when I got my visa they said there wouldn’t be any hidden costs.”
“410 pounds,” the guard said sternly.
Shit. “Can’t I just register in Khartoum,” like it used to be, “I can get some cash there.”
“No!” he pounded his fist. “You must register here.”
Fuck. “Can I use your phone to call my friend in Khartoum?”
I had met Mo in Nairobi via the Gypsy Queen. Recently he had returned to Sudan after completing his studies in Kenya. Mo’s a gentle soul and kind-hearted and when I called him up for help he said,
“Give me a few minutes.”
After a few minutes he called back. “I sent some money over the phone so they should be able to complete the process and I’ll see you here in Khartoum.”
What a life-saver. After the stamping and the registration sticker stuck to a page in my passport, I made my way out where a hustler was waiting for me.
“Bus to Khartoum, 145, bed for the night, 20. Customs here.”
“I just came from customs.”
“Yes, but they must check your luggage.”
I pulled into the compound where a lone soldier lay on a bed in the courtyard. He sighed and reluctantly rose which is perhaps why he just felt my packs for a second and said,
“Welcome Sudan,” and walked off to collapse in his bed.
Gotta love his work ethics.
I hiked out of Galabat, the border town and greeted two men coming my way with, “Salam al yekum.”
“Al yekum ya salam,” they greeted back.
I kept hiking and on the opposite side of the road a woman was coming down the hill towards the town.
“Salam,” I greeted her.
She picked up a rock and threw it at my legs.
What the fuck? I kept walking and could hear a rock land near me every few steps. I turned back to give her my infamous death stare but it was so bright I couldn’t be arsed to take off my sunnies.
Maybe that’s why she continued to chuck rocks at me.
I reached a checkpoint where I saw a soldier and a police officer chillin’.
“You guys mind if I pitch a tent?” I asked after the formal greetings and hand shaking.
The soldier indicated that the shack across the way would suffice my needs. The police officer wasn’t as assisting.
“Take hotel,” he pointed back towards town.
“No money,” I said. You’re bloody registration scam sucked me dry.
The soldier indicated to the shack, the cop to the town. I was torn between the two until I just walked off to the soldier’s way. The cop yelled out,
I stopped and turned around. “Nope.”
“Nope.” I waited for the magic question,
The cop and soldier broke into a smile and nodded their, ‘OK’. It pissed me off that my nationality was the key to smiles here. Americans aren’t favoured and neither are the British, but Aussies are loved everywhere.
Seeing as it was hot, the wind was hot, and my balls were hot, I figured my hammock would better suit my needs. As I strung it up in the flimsy shack, Nabil, a plainclothes policeman stood watching me. I tested the hammock to see if the shack could take my weight.
Before it was about to collapse I undid the hammock and followed Nabil’s indication to the four metal posts outside. They were close together and one was bent at the bottom so I tied to the other two that took my weight.
“It’s OK?” I pointed to my guitar case. “I can play music?”
“No problem,” Nabil grinned.
I took out Ol’ Red and headed over to where the soldier and cop were. I saw that the soldier was praying so I waited until he finished. The cop, Sabre, offered me a seat. Nabil sat beside me and even before I began to play he was doing a photo shoot, Sabre acting as photographer.
“Bob Marley?” Sabre requested.
I broke into No Woman, No Cry.
Phones were whipped out and I was videoed. Nabil and Mustafar, another cop, broke into dance while I jammed out some country styled covers for the next two hours with Abdul singing a Sudanese song to Wonderwall chords.
“You can sing, man!” I jived as he grinned.
I was offered a can of coke and then food arrived. I was invited to eat from the same bowl as the cops.
“Is ful (fava bean),” said Sabre.
It’s boiled for long hours in a specifically designed pot called, Qidra. It’s then served drowned in sesame oil and cheese.
I chowed down and then played a few soft tunes. Hiking in the sun for about 10 Ks and playing guitar for the third time that day, I was about to collapse. Mustafar told me to follow him. He pulled a bed out from the guard station and set up a mattress and sheets and a pillow.
“We all sleep outside. Too hot.”
I packed up my hammock and Ol’ Red and brought everything over to be stashed in the station before I fell on the bed and the just-right-temperature of the wind blew me up to cloud nine.
Fuck me, what a day. I grinned at The Universe, falling asleep counting stars.