Wednesday, April 22, 2009

The ups and downs of the roads

The rest day in Bahir Dar was a true rest day. I sat back, ate injera, did email and drank about 6 of Ethiopia's amazing juices - they are layered drinks, usually four layers - mango, papaya, avocado and guava - sometimes pineapple. We are all hooked on them, and are drinking them with the knowledge that in a few weeks we won't get them again - but there is always something just as good around the corner.

Rest day is sort of a misnomer for us. In just over 24 hours we need to do all of our laundry, email if we can get it - super hard in Ethiopia with dial-up access and constant power-outages - fix our bikes, eat and shower - sometimes with real showers, lots of times with buckets or hoses, change money, try and find atms, try to find postcards and mail services, charge everything with batteries and maybe even take in a bit of the culture. I've been trying to get at least my bike fixed before I get into town, and do laundry if we have access to water.

After the rest day I rode with Erin. It was my favourite day of riding so far. I think Erin took the brunt of the hits from the kids, which may have made me feel like they were finally being nice, though I did get a few stones, a whip, and one stick. But the riding itself was amazing! The hills were large and rolling, so every down would take you right back up. We've been gaining quite a bit of elevation.

When we left the camp we passed by women with baskets strapped to their heads - the baskets sunk all the way down to their calves and were filled with ... shit. And some were filled with corn husks. "Where do you think they're going?” Erin asked. "To the shit and corn shop, of course." Turns out that was precisely what they were doing, what with it being market day and all. For the less traveled, cow patties are a large part of the fuel resources in this part of the world.

The hill tribes are a lot more traditional in their dress as well. As we climbed we saw more women wearing thin, black, coiled headdresses, and tribal colours went from green to purple to cobalt blue.

People here keep talking about the vastness of the population, and while there are a lot of people here, the real reason we notice them is because they are walking everywhere. The cars on the roads are buses, the occasional tourist rental, and the very occasional rich local who is zipping through to the next city.

I love one-on-one rides because you really get to know people, so much more so than sitting around in camp shooting back and forth the same stories. Erin is our kiwi nurse, and a beautiful, ever-smiling presence who loves the outdoors, making her own clothes and doing yoga. We actually meet up frequently for yoga after rides. She used to teach, so loads of people come to her for advice on stretches.

As we flew past the hilly farm-lands the rain clouds moved in, but the showers quickly turned to hail, just as we were hitting our biggest downhill so far. I have discovered that I am pretty comfortable doing about 68km/h, but any more makes me a little nervous, especially in an area where kids jump into the street randomly to stop you, or a troupe of donkeys might be around the next corner.
When we got into camp we saw that they had set up a perimeter to keep the hordes out. Kids had come in with warm bottles of pop and beer to sell us (no electricity), and the rest were folk with nothing better to do than to come and watch the circus.

Erin and I did yoga, so the campers got a reprieve while everyone circled around us. watching what was I guess the gymnastics part of the show.

Through the night we listened to the sounds of children creeping through our tent area, scavenging anything we had forgotten to lock away, and hyenas calling - a sound which did not sound anything like their stereotypical laughter.


The next day was a slog. The first part was wonderful downhill. I raced down at about 55km/h, keeping in check with the kids who would jump out in front, or play chicken, or red-rover - a group of them would hold hands across the road. The only solution was to aim for them and hope they didn't do a deer in the headlights thing.

We entered a valley where hundreds of people were walking tens of kilometers up the highway to get to a market to sell their wares. Women carried round baskets slung over their heads, with the basket itself sitting on their bottoms. They were filled with any sort of mystery. James, our cook, bought one filled with 700 eggs. There were donkeys carrying up earthenware jugs, four at a time, half the size of me. Then I realized that some of the women carrying the body-sized baskets on their backs were doing the same, only they were six slightly smaller earthenware vases. Droves of people on their weekly commute, nary a car in sight, and all with burdens that a westerner would balk at.

The road became a very long climb. It was steep and unending. We got into a town where someone had found a fruit juice stop, and that was that. We were there for an hour, drinking a few juices each, consuming some of Ethiopia's dry, bland pastries, and enjoying that we would have nothing but downhill the rest of the way. That was when we relearned the now age-old lesson "Don't fully trust the TDA directions."

True, there was more down than up, but there was also a lot of gravel, and a lot of gravelly ups. On one downhill I almost died. I also almost killed a kid. I sometimes wonder if that would have been such a bad thing. I was racing down the hill, and coming around a bend when this kid decided to dive-bomb me. It was all I could do to swerve, keep control, and not go over the side of the cliff. My hatred for these children grows on a daily basis.

Going up the last gravel slog I stopped to hang out with David, our current lonely planet guy (we get two new ones every section). We sat and were surrounded by curious kids, who would occasionally be distracted by the new passing riders. We shouted out to everyone who passed, "You you you you you, give me money, give me pen, where you from, what's your name, you you you!" The riders laughed and then the kids, confused a bit at first, also caught on to the fact that we were making fun of them and laughed as well.

Camp was in a beautiful forest, obviously replanted as the trees were linear. The kids climbed up the trees barefoot and snapped off branched from the top of the spindly pines, working their way down. All of this effort was for their kindling. I did some yoga to an audience and rested before dinner. When I had to go to the washroom, they followed. I grabbed the shovel (we bury our waste), headed off into the bush, but there was no shaking them. So in the end I defecated in front of an audience of 60. They starred laughing when I used toilet paper. Welcome to Ethiopia.


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