035 – Goha Tsiyon
The map of Ethiopia which I’d bought in Canada was proving extremely inaccurate when it came to the names of towns, their positions and the distances between them. But I’d learned to trust it when it came to topography and so I wasn’t surprised when immediately outside of Gomando/Fiche the road began to climb. According to my map I would climb to well over 3,000 meters, stay roughly at that altitude for 40 kilometers and then descend gradually for the remaining 40 kilometers to Goha Tsiyon at the edge of the Blue Nile gorge. Reaching the Blue Nile River itself would mean a drop of another full kilometer and then of course I would have to begin the long climb back up onto the plateau. All in all it promised to be an interesting two or three days.
The landscape changed subtly as for the first time I reached and then exceeded the 3,000-meter mark. Below me the fields remained a colourful and fertile patchwork, but immediately around me the land was drier, wilder, and the plants more desert-like. One plant called a “Red Hot Poker” served as a very accurate altimeter. It had a green and brown stalk from two to three feet long and at the top it was a flaming red and orange. It only seemed to grow at altitudes above 3,100 meters. When the Red Hot Pokers disappeared I knew I was descending towards 3,000 meters and when they reappeared I knew I was steadily going back up.
A number of horsemen criss-crossed the road around me. Like those I’d seen in Sululta they had brightly coloured woven squares of material hanging off both sides of the saddle. The edges of the squares were decorated with every colour of the rainbow and in the centre there was a big lion, the lion of Judea, the symbol of Ethiopia.
One horseman came riding past me while I sat beside a small stream eating my breakfast of dabo. I smiled and waved. I got no greeting in return, but he turned his horse and came trotting over. He looked at me and the bike then looked around him in a deliberate way as if scanning the area for other people. I got the distinct impression he was sizing me up for a quick robbery. There’s something quite intimidating about a man on horseback. He stood there about five or six feet away from me and his horse was pawing the ground and stamping and rearing its head. At that moment I could understand why horse armies throughout history have been so successful in their attacks.
My bicycle was close beside me and I casually reached over and laid a hand on my dula. The horseman stared at me for another few seconds, his eyes flitting from my face to the dula, then wheeled the horse around and galloped off. I don’t think it was the dula that changed his mind – it was too light to be a really effective weapon – but the realization that I was willing to put up a fight and would not be an easy mark.
Guidebook Writers Ain’t No Dummies
As I came down out of the high altitudes and began the long sweeping descent to the plains around Goha Tsiyon and the Blue Nile Gorge the roads became crowded again and the children set up their incessant cries for money. I wondered, not for the first time, who in the world had come passing down this road before me. It must have been Rockefeller handing out hundred-dollar bills.
But far outnumbering the cries for money were the demands for pens. I’d gotten so many demands for a pen since leaving Addis that I started to imagine that pens were a new form of currency in this part of the world or that they were in incredibly short supply. In Fiche I even made a point of visiting a bunch of shops to see what they had and in fact there were pens everywhere, boxes of pens, mountains of pens. There were so many pens of so many varieties I cynically wondered if the children were doing a roaring business in collecting pens from foreigners and then selling them to the shops at a discounted price.
Foreigners with good intentions were of course to blame for much of this. They read in guidebooks that one shouldn’t give money to children. This encouraged the children to beg and at the same time made things more difficult for the next foreign tourist to pass by. Instead, the guidebooks advised, you should give them something useful that they can use in school, like a pen. This seemed a marvelous idea and pens were spread around the world like manna falling from heaven.
Unfortunately as I’d seen in Ethiopia this strategy had backfired somewhat. Rather than turn millions of begging children into local Hemingways and scholars it turned them into pen addicts, rabid creatures thirsting after their next hit of pure Bic, screaming for a taste, just a little taste, of Parker.
Guidebook writers ain’t no dummies, however, and they then came up with a new strategy. “Don’t give anything to children,” they now trumpet. No money. No balloons. No candy. No toys. And definitely no pens. If you really want to do something for the children, they advise, you should go to the school and make a donation of pens and notebooks directly to the teachers. (“This’ll really outfox those kids,” the writers said to one another.)
No big surprise but the children of Ethiopia were already all over this new strategy and practically dragged unsuspecting foreigners over to “visit” the school. It happened to me the first time in Sululta. As I walked around the village the children asked me over and over again whether I wanted to visit their school. They impressed on me how poor their school was. They pointed out all its faults, how old it was, how broken down it was. They told me they had no supplies, no books, no pens, no paper. When we approached the school I saw that the classrooms were still filled with students and not wanting to disrupt the lessons I pulled back. The children accompanying me, however, sensing that the ‘donation to the school’ was slipping away, grabbed me by the arms and tried to force me onto the school grounds. In a very cynical frame of mind I wondered if the teachers had set up this little scam with the kids. Awful as it is to say I wondered if perhaps the kids got a commission for every foreigner they brought to the school.
A Chance to Perform a Miracle
Cycling into Goha Tsiyon I saw a young man at the side of the road working on his bike. It was a dream of mine to be able to help at least one of these poor Ethiopians I saw struggling with these local bikes. They rode big black Chinese behemoths that fell apart with appalling regularity. But even though I had a full tool kit and spare parts I was never of any use. None of my tools or parts fit their bikes.
This young man’s name was Aberra and he was an agronomist. His exact duties never became clear to me (other than a cryptic reference to artificial insemination – “Bull, you know bull?”), but it appeared to be his job to assist local farmers in whatever way he could. For this the government paid him 420 birr a month, or $15 US a week.
As expected I couldn’t help him with his bicycle (it looked like new bike time to me), but while speaking with him I was given the opportunity to perform a miracle, and failed. A local man, a well-known character I gathered, came up to us. His face and hands were covered in dirt, his clothes in tatters and his hair long and matted. He spoke very loudly and he reached for my hand and kissed the top of it repeatedly. Between kisses he looked intently into my eyes, speaking rapidly and pointing to his ears.
Aberra spoke English after a fashion and told me that my supplicant was deaf and was asking me to lay my hands on his ears and heal him. I explained that I wasn’t a priest, but Aberra said that didn’t matter. The man knew I wasn’t a priest. He just thought that since I was a ferenji I might be able to help him in some way. I wanted nothing to do with the whole situation, but the man was insistent and would not let go of my hand. In the end I had no choice and I laid my hands over his ears and held them there. He closed his eyes tightly and concentrated, but nothing happened. He opened his eyes after a time and gave me a look that said, “That’s it? That’s the best you can do?” He got up off his knees, upset that I was such a poor excuse for a ferenji, and walked away.
The Famous Ethiopian Hospitality
Aberra brought me to a tiny place with the splendid name “Mana Bunna Gooh Hotel.” He brought me there because it was the only hotel in town that had electricity. They had their own generator in the back and they turned it on from six until ten at night. He pointed up at the single bare bulb in my room with something like reverence and painted a picture in words and gestures of the moment when it would burst into light.
When my gear was stowed and my bike locked up outside (the room too small to bring it in) Aberra insisted I come with him for a glass of “tej,” the locally brewed honey wine. I resisted, pleading fatigue and the difficulties of the day, but it was all in vain. Ethiopian hospitality crushed my excuses like the flimsy things they were and we set off.
We walked perhaps a hundred meters up Goha Tsiyon’s one main road and turned left into a very ordinary looking shop. This was the tej house or “tej beat.” There was a front room and a rear room. Both rooms had straw spread out over the floor. Crude benches covered in goat skins lined each of the walls and the benches were crowded with farmers. They were dressed in a style reminiscent of desert nomads with their shammas wrapped around their bodies and around their heads. And they each had their own dula. They were made from the same wood as mine, but were much thicker and some even had curved handles on the top like a cane. Charcoal braziers sat in the centre of each room letting out clouds of smoke. The smoke filled each room and kept the hundreds of big house flies and the tens of thousands of what Aberra called “honey flies” at bay.
We took a seat in the back room where it was cool and dark and comfortable. I could see through the door into the next room and then out onto the blazing street. A rectangle of sunlight fell like a spotlight into the first room, blinding to look at, and I was glad to be off the bike, out of that savage sun.
A young boy who worked in the tej beat came over and put two special tej glasses called ‘brule’ in front of us. They were shaped almost exactly like an upside down wine glass. The difference was that the stem was hollow and you drank from what would normally be the flared bottom of the wine glass.
A second boy emerged with a big steel kettle with a long spout on one end. The spout was blocked with a rolled up piece of cardboard or paper. He pulled out the plug and poured a stream of a glorious yellow liquid into the brule.
In keeping with the famous Ethiopian hospitality he filled the brule to the very top and then kept pouring till the tej spilled over onto the table and mixed with the straw on the floor. No one cared that the glasses became sticky nor that the spilled tej attracted and fed the countless flies. The point was not to be stingy. Aberra showed me how you picked up the glasses with two fingers around the fluted top and raised it to your mouth. I was prepared to dislike it thinking it would be rough and sludgy, but it was smooth, sweet and delicious.
I asked Aberra if I could see how the tej was made and he brought me to the brewing area in the back. Three giant blue plastic drums were arrayed against one wall. Opposite them was a mud and stone oven with two large holes cut out of the top surface. Large cast iron pots nestled in these holes over the wood fires below. The special ingredients were cooked here and then added to the water in the drums, which were sealed and allowed to ferment for 5 to 15 days. Then honey was added and it was left to ferment for an additional 15 days. They must have had a sure touch because there were no measuring tools of any kind. I saw a woman get the honey for a current batch and she simply reached into a gunny sack and pulled it out by the gluey handful. I asked her how she could possibly clean her hands of that honey and she laughed and replied that she simply washed her arms and hands in the barrels of fermenting tej.
“You can eat pure honey, okay?” Aberra said to me while the gunny sack was open. “She get the honey.”
Before I could react another woman had grabbed a spoon and reached into the sack. I stared aghast at the vast mound of honey (complete with bits of honey comb and dead bees) she pulled out.
“Eat it,” urged Aberra.
“Not all of that,” I protested. “It’s too much.
“There is no problem,” he replied.
“If I take too much I will be sick,” I said. “I don’t know if I can eat all of that.”
“I’ll try. I’ll eat some,” and I nibbled at the spoon much to the dismay of the farmers.
“Eat! Eat!” they cried.
“Please eat!” echoed Aberra. “Why don’t you eat?”
I ate as much as I could (which I thought was quite a bit) and then passed the spoon on to Aberra. He took an enormous mouthful, about half of what was left, and then passed it on to one of the astonished but happy farmers. He popped the whole spoon into his mouth and it was gone. It appeared that farming the stony Ethiopian soil gave you a hearty appetite for the good things in life.
“Life is Very Dangerous Here”
I was into my third glass of tej when two of the farmers approached Aberra and handed him a piece of paper and pen. He wrote as they dictated until three quarters of the page was filled. At first I thought it was a letter, but there were a lot of numbers and dates and I realized that it was a kind of contract.
“He buy ox, okay?” Aberra explained afterwards. “That is the agreement. Contract. One ox.”
“How much for one ox?” I asked.
“One ox is 550 birr.”
“A young strong ox?”
Aberra told me that the local farmers mostly owned their own land, but they were all subsistence farmers, growing just enough to feed themselves and their families. The farmer buying the ox had been setting aside as much of his crop as he could and selling it. Each 100 kg sack of tef (called a “quintal”) was worth between 150 and 220 birr depending on the season. To sell even one quintal per harvest was a calculated risk for the farmer. It meant less reserves for his family and if the next harvest was poor they could be in trouble.
“Life is very dangerous here,” concluded Aberra. “No cash crop.”
The Blue Nile Gorge
When we left the tej beat Aberra suggested we go for a stroll around the village. I was more than a little unsteady on my feet but agreed. I was enjoying the bubble of untouchabilty that Aberra’s presence threw around me. Sometimes the children started to gather, but one glance from Aberra, one word, and they scattered like frightened deer. Ethiopia was an altogether more pleasant place when the children left you alone.
We walked down the street till we got to a small pathway on the left and almost as an afterthought Aberra asked me if I’d like to see the Blue Nile Gorge. We followed the path for a hundred meters or so till it opened up onto a wide grassy field. We walked across the field, through a small grove of eucalyptus trees and then with absolutely no warning that anything was going to happen the entire earth opened up in front me. The view just about knocked me off my feet.
While I stared speechless at the huge canyon Aberra asked me very casually what I thought. Ethiopians were always looking for reassurance that their country, weather or food was good. What do you think of the weather condition? How is the atmospheric condition? And I had to gush about how wonderful Ethiopia was and how delicious the food. But now faced with something truly extraordinary I was left grasping for words.
I got out my binoculars and to my surprise saw huts, singly and in clusters all over the gorge. Aberra said that he remembered when the gorge was thickly wooded and wildlife was everywhere including hyena and monkeys. Now the growing human population had stripped it bare – a sobering thought considering that Aberra was only 21 and that Ethiopia’s population was still growing at a tremendous pace. (I’d met no one with less than seven siblings and heard of one legendary man with 46 children.)
Dawn the next morning found me following the path Aberra showed me back to the edge of the gorge. I didn’t exactly get the day I was expecting. The weather, like everything, constantly surprised me. I’d woken up to high winds, extremely cold air and thick black clouds flying overhead.
I found a spot just over the edge of the cliff, somewhat sheltered from the wind and tracked the rising sun. From time to time it would break through the clouds and aim a spotlight at different features of the gorge. I examined everything for what it was (a stunning geographical scene), but also with an eye to my having to cycle down this side and up the other side the next day.
When I’d tried to get this close to the edge with Aberra he got very nervous and kept pulling me back. I couldn’t really blame him. The cliff edges were broken up and large cracks in the ground showed where the next chunk of land would break free and plummet down. The ledge on which I was sitting was one of these chunks. It had slid down ten or twelve feet and then stopped. I was betting, however, that it wouldn’t go the rest of the way today.
I stayed there for over 2 hours and even when chilled to the bone was reluctant to leave. No one had seen me come here and no one had followed me. I was completely hidden from view and as long as I didn’t move it was unlikely anyone would discover me. For what felt like the first time since arriving in Ethiopia I was enjoying solitude.
Lost in a Sea of Grasping Hands
I was not so lucky when I emerged from my hiding place and returned to the village. I was discovered instantly and then hounded and pursued without a moment’s peace for the rest of the day. It became even worse when I attempted to hike a short distance down into the gorge. I gave up the attempt at a suitable lookout point and retreated to my “Mana Bunna Gooh Hotel.” I tried to sit at a table out front and relax, but it was no use. The local crazies and curious soon overwhelmed my table. My pen was plucked out of my hand, my journal taken away and read and my maps unfolded and examined. I had to agree dozens of times that “the air condition is good,” “Ethiopian food is good,” “Ethiopian people are hospitable and polite,” while privately thinking the exact opposite. I had to endure an endless recitation of place names read off my map, as if I couldn’t read them for myself. They each did it in turn demanding my attention in that unfortunate imperative they’d mastered so well.
“Look! Bahir Dar. Okay? Gondar. Okay? Look! See! Axum. Okay?”
When my novelty wore off they began the demands. “Map, give me!” “Book, give me!” “Give me money.” “Bread, give me!” “Give me pen!” A grown man walked right up to my face and let out a piercing whistle and then laughed hysterically. Another stared straight at me and from two feet away screamed “ferenji! ferenji!” as if I wasn’t human. (Scream and don’t my ears hurt? Prick me and do I not bleed? Jam sticks into my wheels and do I not fall over?)
I tried to walk around the village and explore, but the children had different ideas. Occasionally I came across a sympathetic (I thought) adolescent who would chase away the children. But then he would turn out to be worse than the children and would stick to me like glue demanding anything and everything he could think of for his “guarding” or “zebanya” service.
Finally I admitted defeat and returned to my tiny room to filter my next day’s water supply and do some routine maintenance on the bike. On cue the door slammed open and the entire family from the hotel crowded into my room. They stood immobile for just a second and then like crazed shoppers at an ‘everything must go’ clearance sale descended on me and I was lost in a sea of grasping hands.
“Van Damme is good guy, okay?”
In the evening I saw my first little village movie house. It was inside a single largish room. I pushed through a crowd of twenty children peering in at the door and joined the 50 or so people inside sitting on wooden benches who had paid 50 cents for the privilege of sitting inside. I soon realized that all the questions I’d asked Aberra like “What movie are they showing tonight?” and “How often do they change movies?” were naive. The ‘theatre’ consisted of a TV, VCR and an odd assortment of video tapes, all of which only half-worked. The guy running the show simply popped in whatever tape was handy, regardless of where the tape was cued to, and let it run till it jammed or the picture was lost. Then he’d stick in another one. I entered right at the climactic fight scene at the end of the tournament fighting film “Bloodsport.” Aberra was with me and blithely ignored my comment that I’d seen the film before.
“Van Damme is good guy, okay? Look! Okay? He strong, okay? Look! Now he has poison in eye, okay? Look! He blind. Okay? Now, he remember training, okay? Now he win. Okay? You look!”
After “Bloodsport” they tried to play something called “Top Dog” about a shaggy dog that saved babies from burning houses. Mercifully, just as the dog’s owner said, “I order you to come back,” and Top Dog ignored his command and went off to save another baby from yet another burning house the video snowed out. He couldn’t get a picture again except for one brief moment when Top Dog and his owner were driving into a new town and the owner said, “We have our work cut out for us here, boy.” I took that as my exit line and the 50 heads that had been facing me swivelled as one and turned back to the TV screen. “Give me one pen” and laughter followed me out into the night.
The Third World Night of Agony
After a meal of beyienatu and a mournful look from Aberra when I didn’t hand over a thousand dollars from my bags crammed with thousand dollar bills, I retired to rest up for my epic cycling conquest of the Blue Nile Gorge. Unfortunately my stomach wasn’t cooperating and I endured one of those nights of gut wrenching pain, one of those nights of crouching over a cement hole piled high with shit, breathing in the most repulsive smells while giant spiders crawled over me, one of those nights of writhing on your bed sweating and feverish burping up rotten egg smells, farting the most disgusting gas, needing to vomit, wanting to vomit, wanting to die, one of those nights that only the third world traveller can truly understand.
This night wasn’t the worst in my experience, but it did have a few unique touches. In other toilets they at least left you some kind of a shit broom and you could push the various piles into the hole, but here there was no such thing so you just lowered yourself carefully. In each corner there was a pile of crumpled up newsprint and pages from old school notebooks that people used as toilet paper. The spiders that called these piles home were so large that they made rustling noises as they crawled around. I’ve never been very fond of spiders and found myself prepared to bolt when the piles of paper shook and trembled like leaves in a gust of wind. I had to choke back a shriek when a particularly large spider darted out of one pile, ran between my legs and with a crackle shot into the pile of paper in the opposite corner.
Throughout this long night there was the usual bustle of activity. Long distance bus and truck drivers came in looking for their friends or helpers. For some reason they never stayed at the same hotel (and never exchanged room numbers) and all night they’d roam from room to room drunkenly banging on doors and shouting out names. They never took silence for an answer and would continue to pound on the same door till they got a reply. It wasn’t a laugh fest or anything like that, but I did get a wry chuckle from time to time when my ferenji voice sent them stumbling away in confused horror, probably vowing never to drink again.
In the light of day I wondered if it was my feverish imagination, but between my room and the toilet I also kept meeting men with large burdens on their heads. Once it was a rolled up mattress. Another time a chair and a third time a bench. At 3:00 in the morning. I must have been a sight with my white hairy legs showing and a Petzl headlamp strapped to my forehead (the third world night of agony’s best friend) so I don’t know who was more startled. At 4:30 it was definitely me. I was in my usual spot, crouched over that cold, unfriendly hole, my attention firmly riveted on the monster spiders when a man showed up with a sheep. I had no idea the sheep was there until it got near the door and let out a night shattering bleat. It sounded like a demon screaming in my ear and scared me half to death. A few minutes later I came out of the toilet and the beam of light from my Petzl found the sheep hanging from its hind legs, blood running from its slit throat, and a man cutting away the skin with long strokes of a knife. The man nodded at me in a friendly way and I stumbled to my bed thinking that if I’d begun hallucinating I was in serious trouble.