Saturday, February 22, 2014

Rasta Revisited

When Brian and Lorrie worked here in the 1980s, Brian befriended a Rasta named Norval Marshall who repatriated from Jamaica to Sheshammanie whence I am posting. The two of them helped to build a clinic while working for CPAR (Canadian Physicians for Aid and Relief). Brian lost touch with Norval and asked me to seek him out to deliver a letter.

This morning, I left the beach camp where there was a beautiful lake vista. Though it required a long detour over dirt track, it was worth it.

On the road in, we were treated to some wildlife. Here is a friend.

Cycling into Sheshamanie, I sought out local Rastas. I came to compound that announced the 12 tribes. Asking some dreadlocked passersby about a bloke named Norval, I was led into the compounds. Some old Jamaican dudes greeted me warmly in rich patois. It turns out they know of this fellow who Brian knows. He belongs to the tribe of Dan. I ended up speaking to him by mobile. He lives in Addis Ababa and was thrilled to reconnect with Brian. The snail mail letter was delivered to Norval's son Mesfin who lives nearby. Small world, eh?

Birr, Beer and beaches

South of Addis Ababa, there is a series of lakes that serve as resort areas. We convoyed out of Addis Ababa for a significant distance before we were safe to cycle single file on an often dodgy shoulder where pavement succumbs to gravel or dirt. The size of the capital is enormous and it was a relief to reach the outlying communities as the traffic and therefore the toxic truck exhaust subside. The southern fringe is industrial and very busy. 

Our first camp was Lake Koka, about a 100 kms. I felt grim indeed as I had been ill the night before. I soldiered on out of foolish pride and made camp. In the village nearby our camp, I was referred to a barber who trimmed my mop for 20 birr (approximately 1 US $). The scene at the barbershop was comical as the clipping drew a crow of 25 rapt Ethiopians who watched the white guy get a trim. 

Back in camp, I bid farewell to our friend, Addis Abebe, an avid cyclist and jeweller who accompanied us into the capital and rode with us to our first camp. Addis is a long-time supporter of the TDA and a champion. His passions are cycling and his craft. He befriended my pal Brian when the two of them rode this section years ago. As a gesture of friendship, Addis collected us from our site in A.A. And took us home to see his family. Below, his daughter, Dana, and his wife Aster Girma, pose outside their humble abode.

The family took us to the best kitfo place in town for Brian's last meal before flying Toronto-bound. The feast was impressive. Take a look.

Alas, some of the meat did not sit well with me and I paid the price. Ethiopian food is delicious and yet caveat emptor applies, especially to westerners who have not built up the intestinal flora to combat local microorganisms. Meals are eaten with one's hands and, again, sanitation is critical to a healthful journey. 

A debt of gratitude is owed to Addis who helped us through the hectic environment of Addis Ababa. He sold several of his pendants to the riders, including the designs of the TDA logo. He took commissions and will send his work to cyclists wherever they live. He is a mensch.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Up and Down

The Biblical Ethiopia section of the tour finishes here in Addis Ababa, a bustling centre of African government administration and commerce. We approached this hilly metropolis in a convoy of bikes from the city boundary on the northern rim. A lasting image of this terrain will be the carved sandstone formations and the winding roads that undulate up, over and around the hills. All the gutsy climbs are rewarded by free-wheeling descents during which one can take in the vista.

After the Blue Nile gorge, we had a laidback day which afforded most riders to peddle at a leisurely pace and stop for a friendly roadside coffee with local hospitality. At the nearest vilage, I opted for scrambled eggs laced with chilies and a macchiato that hit the spot. As ever, the presence of ferengi draws kids like paparazzi to a celebrity sighting. Further down the road, a group of us sipped a strong brew of coffee while our hostess burned frankincense. 

At camp, some riders decided to book into a nearby guest house overlooking a gorge. Here is the view. Not bad, eh? Two experienced TDA riders, South African Jos and Swiss Gabriele, invited folks to come and enjoy the view and explore the canyon.

Yesterday, we arrived here at the Addis golf club to rest our bones. This is where I bid farewell to my old chum Brian who will board a flight to chilly toronto this evening. Brian and his wife Lorrie began their African odyssey here during the famine of the 1980s. The impact of that experience is imprinted on them and I have been the beneficiary of their insights into and love of Ethiopian culture. I also credit Brian with shepherding me into Bahir Dar on a day when I had no energy whatsoever and every hill looked like Everest. Cheers Brian! A friend in need is invaluable; safe journey home.

Rider Meetings and Disclaimers

Embarking on a cycle tour of this length entails numerous unforeseeable circumstances: a spike in temperature, a rogue wind, road construction, etc. The TDA organizers try their best to forecast the day's conditions in advance so that riders can prepare for the road ahead. In camp, our tour leader beckons everyone to gather round a white board for the rider meeting. People in various states of exhaustion congregate next to the big truck while the details of the next day's journey are evoked.

The graph at the bottom explains the elevation profile and, on the day in question, there was a time trial emerging from the Blue Nile gorge. As we emerged from camp on this day, the alleged "pavement" was, in fact, dirt for much of the way as road construction crews laid down aggregate and trucks spewed dust as they scurried in both directions. This sort of contingency is par for the course and one learns to just cope with however the road unfolds. Due to the capricious changes, Randy, our guru, qualifies the information given on the white board and asks us to be forgiving regarding inaccuracies. 

As it happened, an intrepid group of riders descended into the gorge on a rugged, bumpy road where they had the option of being timed on the climb to camp where my friend Brian awaited with a stop watch and a gaggle of Ethiopian children offering soft drinks to the exhausted. Our mechanic, Alex, did the ascent in a mere one hour and twenty minutes. In doing so, he won a sibling rivalry as his younger brother Doug had established a staff record a year earlier. Ina de Visser, by far the strongest female cyclist on tour this year, accomplished the feat in an hour and forty-two minutes despite suffering from ill health. Most of us were chuffed to get up to the top. 

Each day presents a unique challenge. The road is clear and yet the circumstances vary widely. What you see is what you get, including the aforementioned stone throwers, so an open mind and stamina stand you in good stead. 

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Tour Guides

It has never been my practise to join organized tours. Books have been written by seasoned travellers who have scouted the local surroundings and provided helpful direction for newcomers. With the advent of mapping technology, one can set out on foot and find places of interest wherever you are. This afternoon, I thought a pleasant destination would be the Blue Nile river. 

En route to the river, I passed the university.

Further on, I saw an ambulance race into this hospital.

Alas, when I reached the river, a disheveled young man wearing the Ethiopian cross informed me that I could not take a photograph of the river. I suspect that he had no authority to prohibit me from taking a shot of a rather ordinary looking stream. However, I respected his wish and did not capture the river on film. The fellow proceeded to follow me for several kilometres until it became clear that he wanted me to hire him as a guide. No, thank you. 

The relentless come-on for money whereby one feels like a walking dollar sign can grate. It is all part of the game or dance that is performed. As I continued on my stroll, I noticed a flower that reminded me to appreciate beauty. Here it is.


Once you come to an urban center here, the markets sell a wide range of goods in a variety of ways. The footpaths, such as they are, provide space for enterprising vendors who want to sell vegetables, cane sugar, footwear or sporting equipment. Malls take the form of multi-storey buildings with a rabbit's warren of stalls. Stock is tightly packed into whatever space there is. 

The bazaar is often unpaved so one shares the track with animals. The approach to waste management is haphazard. Debris is strewn in the middle of the road and, periodically, removed. Prices vary. Foreigners with some Amharic, such as my friend Brian, can negotiate a price that is close to the local value. 

Brian was in search of Ethiopian national team track pants and this pursuit was accomplished with the help of a tout to whom he paid a tip for his services. The brilliantly coloured national garb and sports jerseys are hot items. The latest stock appears to be made in China even though textile factories exist here. Traditional cotton garb is inexpensive and practical. Western gear, especially jeans, is available and some women favour the skin-tight version. The hip young men often opt for baggy trousers. 

School Children

With a population estimated at 90,000,000 Ethiopia faces some daunting challenges as it tries to develop a viable economy. A key element will be the delivery of education to as many children as possible. Literacy rates continue to be low and there seem to be a lot of kids working in agriculture or on the streets helping their families by basic commerce, selling wares or shining shoes (they even wash running shoes).

Bahir Dar is a college town and one can see students mingling in the market area. As in Sudan, a school uniform is standard. The primary schools are basic structures with relatively meagre resources. Hence, the request for pens and books is understandable. The excitement and exuberance of youth is evident in the students who choose to engage foreigners.

My assumption is that the aspirations of these youngsters hinge on the pursuit of higher education. As in the west, there seem to be many underemployed graduates and yet their opportunities are wider with a command of English and rudimentary technical skills. The curiosity is there and some of them have an infectious enthusiasm. Some will migrate to America, Australia, Canada or Europe for economic advantage.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Everybody Must Get Stoned

No, I am not referring to Bob Dylan's lyric in the sense of being waylaid by partying friends. The stoning is of the biblical sort. This section of the TDA is dubbed Biblical Ethiopia so one can see the throwing of pebbles, stones and rocks as part of an ancient culture. 

As we departed Lalibela, we pased students en route to school on the roadside. Clad in uniform, they tend to greet you with a smile and a query about your destination. Where are you go? About 20 kilometres into the ride, we left tarmac and started the challenging dirt track which one day will presumably be paved. Navigating the villages off-road, one encounters an almost unending stream of children. Most are lovely; some have malicious intent.

After Monday February 10th's ride, the dominant conversation piece was the hurling of stones at us. One needs to be mentally and emotionally strong to endure the "slings and arrows" of these kids. They scurry to the shoulder of the road when they see us, "ferengi" (foreigners) and make requests for birr (money), a pen or a book. If one does not stop and oblige them, a stone will likely be thrown. 

The tossers are often in the 5-12 age group and unaccompanied by a supervising adult. Sometimes the projectiles strike you or your bike. After copping several stones, one is inclined to get off the bike and try to reason with the kids. Doing so exacerbates the frustration. The guilty assailants disperse, giggling as if hitting a foreigner is a source of great amusement. 

I tried to reason with any Ethiopian adult with whom I could communicate. The pat response is that the kids are mere babies. The counterpoint is: if they are not responsible for targeting cyclists with stones,  then who is responsible for moral guidance i.e. Throwing stones at people is wrong. Alas, many parents, especially the villagers or herdsmen, discipline their children by, you guessed it, throwing stones at them. 

As the country evolves and sustainable tourism becomes a buzzword, perhaps this sport will die out over time. In the meantime, it is an experiential hazard for ex-pat riders. Below, one of my colleagues, Kam Heather, a gentleman, tries to engage the kids who come to our camps nightly. Good on him for taking the time to give them our perspective.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

St. George's and Lalibela

This town has become a magnet for tourists so we are not the only "ferengi" in town. The big draw in Lalibela is the rock-hewn churches of which there are many for a community of this size. Perched on the side of a mountain, Lalibela has a lively market full of touts. Often the young men approach you offering their services as a guide. 

Brian and I went first to Bet Giorgis to tour the church and capture a picture of Brian's bike agin at the backdrop of the stone temple. We were stopped by an official who insisted that we must have a ticket to enter the premises. We were led by a tout to the ticket office where we learned that the fee was $50 U.S. per person. This is a steep form of spiritual materialism. Below, you can see the outline of the cross of St. George embedded in the earth. 

We carried on to visit other sites and while I minded Brian's bike, a swarm of teenage boys surrounded me asking to use the bike. Alas, in these circumstances, allowing the locals to take an expensive bike for a spin could end in tragedy, so I held on to it and indulged their banter.

One fellow, Moggis, tagged along and eventually led us to the Blue Nile restaurant where we had a feast of shiro wat with an assortment of dishes. The cook took a long time and the wait was well worth it. The quality of the food was excellent and we were brought a bowl of water to wash our hands before and after the meal. The Blue Nile is a basic wood structure that overlooks a rough dirt road.

To walk on the road in Lalibela is to gain an appreciation of the mix of concerns for a society in transition. While some youth have outdated mobile phones and wear western jeans, there are beggars and herdsmen who share the path. Read the sign below. Overpopulation is a real issue for a growing country that is vulnerable to cyclical drought. Though the country develops quickly, one wonders if the quality of life will improve for the majority.

And here is one of the aspiring students of Lalibela: Moggis. 

Saturday, February 8, 2014


We are novel to some Ethiopians. There are daily tales of encounters with locals, on and off the bike. They are diverse folks who seem to be, for the most part, curious to know who we are, why we are here and where we are going. The last query is often phrased, "Where are you go?" The response to this is often the next town. Villages are strewn along the road so one must guess where the next community of size is located.

Camps are selected for convenience and location on the path. Once we reach camp. There is inevitably an audience that gathers as soon as we come into camp. They stare at us as if we were museum pieces. Soon, the word gets out that we crave cold drinks. Inevitably, an enterprising villager comes with a plastic crate of Coca-Cola, Miranda (orange drink) and Pepsi. For the beer drinkers, there is St. George's or Dashen, if we are lucky. Here is an image of the gallery.

This audience remains until sunset and then disperses. We are serenaded by a motley array of donkeys, dogs, and roosters. The night sky emerges as people erect their tents and riders retire early or,  if they have energy to burn, they linger around the coffe or tea urn and chat until sleep beckons them. 

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Night Reading

We tend to go to "bed" early on the TDA. Once you have replenished calories, you are ready for some tea, a chat and a snooze. If you are lucky, you have enough energy to read. For those of us beyond the  internet, a book in the tent brings us back to days reading after lights out. Here is the lamp device Lize gave me; it has been a pleasure to use and an object of curiosity for some riders.

And now to Lalibela on the back road: 128 kilometres on variable road surface and terrain. We pass through Adwa where the Ethiopians scored a victory against the Italians.

Obelisks and the Ark of the Covenant

Aksum (or Axum) draws tourists for a few reasons. The stelae or stone columns that stand at one end of town, the Church of St. Mary, and the baths of the Queen of Sheba are all within an easy walk. After the camp chores, we strolled into the sights. The town has a ready, eager posse of guides offering to give you a complete tour for a fee. Unless you are here as part of a tour, the places of interest can be seen alone. 

The obelisks are massive and one wonders how they were erected. It seems to be a mystery though many theories exist. One of them has fallen and it gives you a sense of the heft of these stones. Below is the fractured one. 

The Orthodox Church in town is dedicated to St. Mary and is believed to house the ark of the covenant. Ironically, where the ark is located is off-limits to women. The lady in our group was motioned away from that site. There were many women within the compound but none were allowed within that area. 

Prayer is an important aspect of the local population. Indeed, this morning's public address system for believers was addressed to Christians. It was an early wake up call. No one can claim that Ethiopians are malingerers. Attending church is a family affair and this child has just done his devotion.

By midday, it is hot and we get hungry. A 15 year-old student approached us and struck up a conversation. Articulate and friendly, he did come on to us as a promotional representative. He simply wanted a chat. We learned about his life in the village and his aspirations to read history and study maths at university. How refreshing to meet a fine young man without ulterior motives. Kbrom has a bright future, wherever life takes him.

Monday, February 3, 2014

Rest Daze

Over the course of this journey, we rest in towns or cities that have services that are not available at our campsites. Notwithstanding the exponential growth in mobile phone towers and the net in Africa, there are many spots where our daily rituals are reduced to simple essentials: set up tent, rehydrate with soup or the truck reservoir of water, eat an evening meal and sleep under the stars with the serenade of livestock. A rest day affords us a chance to wash clothes, communicate with loved ones and attend to our bikes.

Above is my bike next to my nomadic home, an MEC wanderer tent. The morning wash is drying in the brilliant sun. Within the tent is a cot and a sleeping bag. On the bike, draped over the bottom bracket, is a nifty device called a Luminaid. My thoughtful cousin, Liz Williams, sent me this solar-powered, inflatable night light. It has worked a charm and I will send an image of it illuminated after dusk tonight.

Luxuries such as wifi and a strong cup of coffee are welcome in places such as the Yeha Hotel, our current location. This morning, I awoke to the sound of wailing prayers around 5:00 a.m. and made my way from the tent to the hotel restaurant. Properly caffeinated, this visitor came to join me.

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

We are now in Axum. Three days from Gondar over a combination of paved and dirt roads in very hilly countryside. From the Goha hotel we descended and then, a few kilometres down into a valley, we began a steady ascent. The road meandered up through switchbacks to a series of villages.

The good along this course is the open reception of the vast majority of Ethiopians who come to the roadside to wave at us or greet us "ferengi" (foreigners) and the stunning beauty of the land. The bad is the stone throwing by a tiny minority of children, aged 3-10 years old, who hurl projectiles at you or your bike. Several riders, myself included, were hit by stones. Fortunately, no one was injured. Bruised egos and indignant reactions to this inexplicable hostility is the fallout from this annoying activity. The ugly is the perception, again among a few Ethiopians, that every westerner is a font of money. If one does not comply with the request for cash, you become a target. Sadly, one rider has his bag stolen at lunch. In it, was his wallet, an IPod, a camera, and a photocopy of his passport. Again, the good far outweighs the other elements.