037 – Debre Markos
A Close Look at my Tormenters
The next day’s cycling passed in what had become a familiar pattern. There were some enjoyable moments. These tended to be the ones where I could block out the children. And there were the not so enjoyable ones when I turned into the raving lunatic. I got so distraught I could have fallen to my knees and pleaded with them for just a minute’s peace, just 60 seconds where a person could gain some composure.
The children had amazing endurance. Passing through one village I picked up a crowd that ran with me in a body for two kilometres. At the two kilometer mark most dropped away, but one young marathoner did not leave my side until a full five kilometres had passed. Towards the end he started clapping his hands and waving at me and shouting “tenesh, tenesh, tenesh” (little, little, little), pleading with me to slow down. He pantomimed how tired he was and then pointed at my legs indicating that I, too, must be very tired. I slapped my legs to show him that they were made of iron and kept pedalling till he was far behind me.
The children were also masters of this terrain. They knew every inch of the road and even when I was positive I had the advantage and could escape they’d come up with a short cut and track me down once more. Once I picked up a crowd of particularly obnoxious children who followed me up a long hill screaming and yelling the entire time. Most had sticks and they dashed in to take a whack at the bike or trailer and then ran out of reach again.
On the other side of the hill there was a long downgrade and I geared up and raced down. But of course these children lived there and knew the road intimately. And in this case they knew that after this downgrade and a sweeping curve the road just started going up again. They ran down a short cut trail and were waiting for me at the beginning of the next slope. I had no choice but to drop back into first gear for the long climb and the children took up their accustomed places behind and around me.
Before I reached Debre Markos (my destination for the day) I had the chance to get a close and leisurely look at my tormenters. I’d stopped for a rest in the tiny village of Chemoga where I’d spotted a small bar with some benches out front under a large shade tree. I took a seat there with three or four Ethiopian men and the children gathered around.
A dozen or so had followed me through the village and they stood catching their breath while they stared at me and chattered amongst themselves. A dozen more came from the nearby huts and houses till once more I was surrounded and hemmed in.
Only one child in the entire group had shoes, I noticed. The rest were barefoot and their clothing was little more than rags. Nothing was ever thrown away. A new shirt or jacket, however acquired, was simply put on over top of the old. The old clothing by then might be just a few strips of cloth over the shoulder, but it was kept and worn till it literally fell apart to nothing. Knees, elbows, sleeves, crotches and cuffs all had torn and worn through at one point or another and had been repaired with large jagged stitching using whatever string was handy. Many of the children wore the remains of old children’s Sunday suits that were in fashion in Canada and the United States twenty years ago. One gold jacket struck me as almost identical to a suit I had been forced to wear myself long ago.
From time to time the men sitting with me judged that the children were crowding too close and drove them away with kicks, blows and stones. The children themselves repeated this behaviour. The older ones would suddenly attack the younger ones, the bigger ones the smaller ones and the boys the girls. Only I, the poor ferenji, and the animals had no real place in this pecking order. We were fair game for everybody.
As if echoing my thoughts a toddler emerged from behind a fence dragging a chicken. The poor thing had a string tied around its leg and the toddler swung it through the air and bashed it against the ground again and again. The chicken was obviously dying having been subjected to this casual torture all day. No one, not even the child’s mother, saw anything but entertainment in this chicken’s agony and no one intervened.
Mr. Hyde has Good Night Vision
I arrived in Debre Markos around 3:30. It was the capital of Gojam province but didn’t really come across that way. I saw my first horse drawn carts, or “gari.” It would be a stretch to call them quaint, since they were built onto old car axle assemblies. Debre Markos appeared to be a tourist town for Ethiopians though I couldn’t see why. One man even took my picture as I cycled past.
As a tourist town it had a population of touts who tried to take me to different hotels. I ignored all of them completely and was amused to see them set to fighting amongst themselves. They were arguing over to whom I belonged when I had given myself to no one. I calmly cycled the length of the entire town looking over all the different hotels. At the far end when I had gained a lot of height I turned and raced away from them all.
I picked out a basic looking place called the “Abay.” I chose it because it had a big open courtyard and driveway making it possible to cycle right up to a room. And to my surprise my room came with its own bathroom with a shower. Ice cold water of course and the toilet was your basic toilet from hell, but that came with the territory.
Two new touts were hanging out at the entrance to the Abay and came in with me, claiming to have brought me there. I ignored them and then heard a screaming fight between the manager and the touts as they tried for a commission. Several rocks crashed against the roof of the building containing my room as the touts finally gave up and left.
The cold water shower was shocking and wonderful. The sun was still sucking the life right out of me. I lay down on the bed with a deep groan of pleasure after setting up the mosquito net. I barely found the energy to get back up, but there was some light left and I wanted to get a feel for the town plus a meal, my first in 2 days.
The Ethiopian Mr. Hyde was out in full force in Debre Markos and I spent as little time as possible cycling around, just dove into the first likely looking restaurant. I had a small meal plus several Pepsis and mineral waters. I couldn’t seem to take in enough liquid though I easily drank 6 litres a day. It was dark when I cycled back to my hotel, but Mr. Hyde had good night vision and “fuck you” rang out several times, the first time I’d heard that since leaving Addis.
When I got back to the Abay there came a gentle knock on my door. It was a man carrying a thick black ledger. He apologized a couple of times but explained that at the hotel they had a rule. All guests had to fill out the register. He apologized again for the intrusion. But a rule was a rule and if I didn’t mind could I produce my passport? It was Dr. Jekyll in the flesh.
I zipped open my money belt, which I was still wearing around my waist and took out my passport. I offered it to the man, but he said that the ledger had to be filled out in Amharic and if I would read the information aloud he would write it down in the equivalent phonetic Amharic. I dutifully read out all my particulars, repeating each word several times. He repeated it all back to me over and over till he was satisfied that he had it right and then wrote it all in Amharic on a separate piece of paper. Several bits had to be scratched out and redone. When he was satisfied and I had approved his pronunciation of what he had written he then carefuly transcribed it all into the ledger. It was not a fast process, but I enjoyed his courtly manners and drank it in as an antidote to the bitterness I felt after the nastiness of the streets.
The Flea and Bed Bug Zone of Death
I found I was starting to get the hang of the routines in these hotels. When I checked into the Abay there was water in the shower, more water than you’d ever want because it was overflowing and leaking and spilling all over the place. But I made sure that I filled up my 10-litre water bag right away because you never knew when the water was going to be turned off. And sure enough I returned from dinner to find there was no water in the bathroom at all. The Abay also had electricity when I moved in, but I knew that wouldn’t last and before it got dark I put a candle in a good, safe location and before I went to sleep put matches and a flashlight in a spot conveniently to hand.
I had also become adept at putting up my mosquito net. Most of the time it involved nothing more complicated than finding a good spot in the ceiling to screw in the hook. But often the ceiling was cement or so far above me that I couldn’t reach it. Then I had to rely on my ingenuity using my bicycle, a long nylon cord, window hinges, bed frames, sticks, my tent poles, and once in Gomando even a clothes rack with my trailer’s Yak Sak as ballast. The result was like something a troop of low-budget Chinese gymnasts might have assembled for their routine, but it was effective.
Often I’d kill two birds with one stone and while balanced precariously on a chair to put up my mosquito net I’d also change the light bulb. In Ethiopia they favored the 25-watt bulb, which does not throw very much light. Often they used red or even green bulbs, which gave the rooms a festive, somewhat Christmasy look but made it difficult to read, write or examine maps. I replaced them for the duration of my stay with a brand new Phillips 100-watt bulb, which I’d purchased in Addis and packed with me everywhere. (How it survived the Ethiopian roads is a mystery perhaps only the Phillips people can explain.)
Once the net was up and my light bulb in place I’d turn to the rest of the room and see what needed doing. Sometimes I tightened up the screws on the door hinges so the door would open and close properly. The hinges themselves were often rusted into near immobility and gave off a horrible screeching that penetrated even my 29-decibel ear plugs. It became part of my routine to oil the hinges of my room and sometimes when I stayed in one spot for several days, the hinges of all the rooms around me. I often wondered if anyone noticed that their hinges were suddenly silent (though I doubt they would have appreciated the high-tech wax based lubricant – “designed to shed dirt, not collect it” – that was used to accomplish this feat).
When it came to insects I was still feeling my way. Mosquitos were never a problem, since I had my mosquito net. And with cockroaches I had adopted a live and let live policy. Bed bugs hadn’t become a big problem yet (the real infestations awaited me further in my journey), but in any event there was little that could be done about them. Fleas, however, were everywhere and reached such proportions that I could whip back the blanket, flick on my flashlight and literally see them as a dark cloud around my legs. As with bed bugs there was little that could be done about fleas but for lack of anything else to do I’d establish a perimeter of DEET on the bed roughly outlining my body. In an attempt to convince myself it was effective I called it “The Flea and Bed Bug Zone of Death.”
Spiders of course got special treatment. There were the corner spiders. These were a group of four spiders that inevitably occupied the upper four corners of the room. When I moved into a new room I spoke to them and explained how things worked. If they stayed in their corners and didn’t come out I wouldn’t bother them. If they moved, they died. It was a simple arrangement and most times it worked.
Light bulb spiders had a 50/50 chance. If the bulb was above 25 watts and threw enough light I didn’t have to change it and the spiders who built their webs around it went unmolested. If, however, I had to put in my 100-watt bulb I had no choice but to destroy the webs with my dula. Hopefully the spiders would run for cover and disappear in a crack far away. If they chose to stay and fight then I got out my flip flops and smacked them dead. The only exception to this rule was when the light bulb spiders were immensely large. Then I had no choice but to concede the field of battle and put up with the gloom for a night. If I was lucky the bulb of choice in that particular room wasn’t red or green.
And at the Abay I encountered for the first time the unique Ethiopian sink spider. These clever little spiders had realized that though bathroom sinks in Ethiopia had both cold and hot water faucets there was almost never any hot water. They checked it out and found that the unused hot water faucet made a perfect little home and the sink itself with its deadly smooth surfaces an efficient insect trap.
I came across the Abay’s resident sink spider by accident while brushing my teeth. It wasn’t a pleasant encounter for him or me and I made a point after that of tapping the sinks before using them to give the sink spiders time to dive for their burrows and nestle in deep. Neither they nor I wanted them to jump onto my toothbrush in a moment of panic ever again.
In the morning I discovered the second insect surprise the Abay had waiting for me. I was packing up my mosquito net and sleeping bag when I saw large creeping shadows on the walls and floor. At first I dismissed them as cockroaches, but there was something about the way they moved that was different. I approached one for a closer look and it leaped nearly the entire length of the room. They were crickets, immense crickets, and when I startled them they dashed into one of several large holes at the base of the walls. These holes I saw went all the way to the outside and were large enough to admit anything up to the size of a rat. I was surprised I hadn’t noticed them the night before. I looked at my various bags, which I had unwisely left open and wondered how many creatures of various types had crawled down inside them to keep warm. Then and there I added one more rule to my Ethiopian hotel room routine: keep bags tightly zipped at all times.