043 – Bahir Dar to Werota
Leaving Bahir Dar
The streets of Bahir Dar were quiet and cold as I cycled through them. A group of men made swishing sounds as they swept up the road with large palm branches. Boys from a school scoccer team chattered and kicked a tattered ball back and forth. The only other people on the street padded by silently on their bare feet and stared at me through the folds of their shammas.
The route out of Bahir Dar took me around two traffic circles and then out towards the bridge across the Nile, the boundary between Gojam and Gondar provinces. An old and battered sign on the other side said that it was 170 kilometers to Gondar and 699 kilometers to Asmera, the capital of Eritrea. From the sign’s condition I felt sure it had been put up at a time when the two countries were still united in some way.
I smiled when I thought of all the children waiting for me out in the countryside. I had a surprise for them – no more trailer. I’d taken it along with all my camping gear to the Bahir Dar airport and had it flown ahead to Gondar. I’d use my camping gear in the Simien Mountains and then have the trailer and whatever other gear I felt unnecessary flown back to Addis.
I was now left with just my two large pannier bags, which I attached to my rear pannier rack. My clothing and other soft items I’d put in a stuff sack and lashed it to the front rack. It wasn’t an ideal setup, but I was glad to be rid of the trailer. My informants told me that the mountains I was heading into made what I’d come through look like nothing. And the road was if anything worse. With the trailer gone the children would have nothing to grab onto as I slowly ground my way up the coming switchbacks and the increased weight over the rear wheel should improve my traction.
It was Sunday and I hadn’t been around long enough to get the rhythm of the different days, but Sunday was clearly a day of rest. There weren’t nearly as many people on the road carrying firewood and other items. But I was passing people, mainly women, dressed in bright white shamas, their Sunday best. They were moving in a steady flow in the same direction and I saw they were turning in to a small church. A priest with the customary colourful umbrella, his badge of office, sat near the road by a small shrine. The people passing him gave him small donations.
It was 6:30 when I saw the church. The sun was just above the horizon and I was cycling directly into it. This made sense as the road out of Bahir Dar followed the base of Lake Tana to the east and then swung to the north to continue along its edge. The road was still boulder on boulder, not as bad as the stretch after Debre Markos, but bad enough that even with my lightened load I was moving at a blistering 8 km/hr.
Slowly the road began to curve and I soon found the sun on my right and a long skinny shadow of me and my bike was thrown across the fields to my left. From time to time I caught a glimpse of Lake Tana. It was going to be my companion for the next three days, but I doubted I’d see much of it since the road passed quite a distance inland.
The land didn’t seem as fertile as that around the Blue Nile Gorge, but it was still cultivated as far as the eye could see. There was a gentle roll to the landscape and it made cycling pleasant. I climbed gradual inclines for a long time and then coasted down the other side till at the bottom I reached a small stream with a bridge across it. I liked to stop there for a few minutes, have a drink and listen to the water churn and gurgle. Then I’d climb back on my bike and start the long slow climb up the next hill.
Traffic was light. Only an occasional bus or truck passed by. I didn’t have to worry about them very much in any case. They were so accustomed to people and animals being all over the roads that they drove quite defensively. They stayed in the middle of the road when they could, leaving large spaces to the right and left for foot traffic and dumb white guys on bikes. This was a welcome change from Canada where a cyclist generally has six inches between his wheel and the curb and another six inches from his elbow to the cars and trucks passing at high speed. But on these country roads in Ethiopia I could go essentially wherever I wanted, wherever I thought the smoothest riding could be found.
I stopped for an unsatisfying breakfast of eggs and bread in a small village then cycled into a flat marsh, the first change of terrain since leaving the Entoto Hills. The marsh area was large and at times the road was little more than a causeway with water on both sides. There were raised sections of land with houses on them, but for the most part it was water all around. Many beautiful birds lived here. One in particular caught my eye. It was tall and thin with a graceful neck and long beautiful legs. It was a dark blue but when it took to the air it revealed white patterns mixed through the blue on its wings.
Leaving the marsh I was waved down by a group of men and children standing on a bridge. They’d seen the camera around my neck (I was still playing super-tourist) and wanted me to take their picture. In the time it took me to get off my bike and take the lens cap off the camera the crowd started to swell. Children pushed into the front and I kept taking steps backwards to get everyone into the frame. But with every step I took backwards the whole crowd took two steps forward crowding into the lens. It was a narrow bridge and I soon found myself backed right up to the cement ledge. Any more excitment and I was going to be pushed right over it into the river.
I thought I was in trouble when two men with rifles appeared at the crowd’s edge and started pushing their way through. A bridge, no matter how small, was never a good place to start waving a camera about. But these two men had no trouble with my picture taking. They wanted to get in on it and posed stiffly for a portrait.
After the marsh the road moved away from the lake and reverted back to its long climbs and gradual descents. The surface also worsened and I went down the inclines up out of the seat to spare my body the pounding. There was nothing I could do about my hands and arms, however, and they took the full impact as I slammed downwards over the rocks. The skin on my palms was long gone and it felt like my forearms and elbows continued to vibrate long after I’d stopped the bike to rest.
On one very long and tough descent I came across a mini-bus parked at the side of the road with a flat tire. The driver and the mechanic were changing the tire while two other men, the bus’s only passengers, stood a distance away talking. I stopped my bike near them pretending to have a a drink of water to see if perhaps they wanted to talk. They were well-dressed and I assumed they spoke some English.
After a minute or two they came over. One of the men was a businessman and the other a private investor. They had the idea that this flat and moist land near Lake Tana would be an ideal place for growing a cash crop like sugar. They were considering some kind of joint venture with local farmers and thought they might even build a sugar refinery right on the spot.
I left them after a time (amidst much headshaking and pleas to put my bike into their bus) and continued down the hill. At the bottom the road curved to the right and when I was out of sight of the bus I came across a large herd of cattle, one man and five stark naked little herder boys. They were a nasty little bunch and set on me with loud cries, smacking the bike with their dulas as they ran beside me. One ran in front and hit the front tire and threatened to throw his dula right into the spokes. I picked up some speed and when I got about ten yards past them a rock caught me hard right at the top of my neck in that soft area just before your skull starts. Then a hailstorm of rocks flew around me.
When I reached the outskirts of Werota the usual crowd of children started running in my direction. I had a new technique for dealing with the children and I tried it out here. As soon as I saw the first children on their way I stopped the bike and waited for them to come to me. It was the same technique I’d developed to protect myself against dogs while cycling in Canada. As long as you keep cycling a dog is going to chase you and in its excitement perhaps sinks its teeth into your leg. But when you stop it confuses the dog and defuses its hunting instincts. As often as not it starts wagging its tail, sniffing at the bike and when you (slowly) start to pedal away again it doesn’t chase you. It has lost the momentum of the hunt.
My hope was that the children would react the same way. When I was cycling it was fun to chase me. The chasing itself fed into their high spirits and the screaming and yelling soon transformed into behaviour more annoying and dangerous. And of course the dumb white guy on a bike was in their eyes just a giant moving target. The temptation to wing rocks at my moving form was too strong for them to resist.
My technique seemed to be working right from the start. The second I applied the brakes and came to a full stop all the children running towards me slackened their pace. Some even went from a run to a walk. I laughed when I saw two children actually exchange glances. The dumb white guy on a bike has stopped. What do we do now?
They gathered around me a big circle and hit me with the usual one-two punch of questions. “Where are you from?” Then, “Where are you go?”
“Is this Werota?” I asked them.
Yes, they said, this was Werota.
“Good,” I replied. “I’m going to Werota.”
“Where are you go?” another child piped up.
“Where are go?” asked yet another.
“Werota,” I said, losing my patience.
“Where are you go? Where are you go? Where are you go?” they all began to chant in unison.
I reflected that it didn’t take them long to come up with a new game to play with the ferenji. But at least they weren’t throwing stones. Not yet anyway.
The crowd had grown to about twenty children and I saw that no more were coming out of the fields. They stood motionless around me simply parroting “Where are you go?” Very slowly I put my feet back on the pedals and maintaining eye contact began to move away. I could feel I was on the knife edge. One false move, one sudden jerk and their inertia would be broken and they’d come after me in a body. But if I kept it smooth and steady they’d stay and just watch me go. And that’s exactly what happened.
I arrived in Werota earlier than I thought and it was exactly 60 kilometers from Bahir Dar. Another 20 kilometers past Werota and the mountains started so if I was looking for scenery and locale I would have continued cycling. But one of the advantages to getting up at 5:00 and being on the road by 5:30 was that I could do the majority of my cycling by one or two o’clock. And then I could ‘enjoy’ the evening wherever I ended up.
I stowed my bike and gear in a room at the Allen Hotel and set off on foot up the road. There was a small market there where they sold baskets and other knickknacks. I guessed it was for the tourist trade though I wasn’t quite sure who those tourists would be. Part way along I saw a small road branching off to the right and when I turned down it I was instantly mobbed with children. By the time I’d walked its length and arrived at a big open area, the village’s main market area, I had an entourage that could easily have numbered more than a hundred. I was the Pied Piper of Werota.
I had to try and take a picture. But just as on the bridge each time I brought the camera to bear they moved in closer and I got only one or two large and out of focus heads in the viewfinder. I stepped back, but I couldn’t focus and adjust the light fast enough. And as I was walking backwards with the camera to my eye I stepped in a pile of cow shit. My entourage thought that was pretty funny.
The children were nice enough, but when I pointed my camera at them I nearly started a riot. They all started jumping up and down and screaming at the tops of their lungs and waving their hands in the air. The noise was deafening and I saw some adults looking at me with distaste so I put the camera away.
The really annoying thing was that I was picked up by a couple of teenage hustler/guides of the practice-their-English variety. They nudged me and grabbed my elbow and poured a useless torrent of information into my ear. “Here is the mosque.” Yes, I can see that. “Here is a goat. Here is a donkey. Here is a chicken. Here is a sheep.” Yes, yes, I know. “Go this way. Go that way. Where are you go?”
I tried to explain that I was just walking. That’s all I was doing. Putting one foot in front of the other. I might go this way. I might go that way. I might go up the hill. I might go into the field. I might shoot myself. I wasn’t GOING anywhere so stop asking me.
I might as well have been talking to the donkeys they so eagerly pointed out at every turn.
One of the younger children kept pointing off towards the right and repeating that there was a school there if I wanted to visit it (and of course make the standard donation of pens and notebooks). I thought if I went there I might run into a school teacher and I turned in that direction. I didn’t find the school but the trail opened up into a large area containing a couple hundred people all dressed for church. There was no way to stop the momentum of my army of shrieking, laughing, jeering children and they split the congregation like a flying wedge. I don’t think I was the most popular man around.
We walked down a small trail that approached the church. I didn’t plan on going inside, but thought I’d take a look at it from the outside and then retreat. Meanwhile my hustler guides were talking earnestly with a man who was sending really nasty looks in my direction. I took him to be a security guard or just one of these guys that seemed to hang around every building in the country waiting for any excuse to shout at somebody and exercise the meagre authority he thinks he has.
He marched up to me and demanded to know who I was and what I was doing in Werota. I showed him my camera and said “Gobenyit.” Tourist. Then I turned and with my army in tow walked back to the big market area. I wouldn’t have minded walking around a bit more and exploring the village further, but I couldn’t handle another minute of the crowd and the questioning and the shouting and the yelling. I couldn’t even take a step without tripping over somebody. If I stopped walking for even a second the mob formed a solid mass of flesh around me and it was difficult to break out and get moving again. It was move or die.
Going down the trail back towards the main road there was suddenly panic in the air. All the children started pulling at my arm and telling me to stop. “The police!” they cried. “He wants to talk to you. You must stop. You must stop.”
I looked behind me and saw the man from the church, the fellow who had asked me what I was doing in Werota. He looked to be in his late twenties. He was wearing no uniform or insignia just ragged street clothes like my guide hustlers. He signalled me to stop, but I ignored him and kept walking.
My guide hustlers grabbed my arms to try and drag me to a stop. “You must stop,” they said. “He is the police.”
“I don’t care about the police,” I said tearing my arms free. “They have nothing to do with me.” And I kept walking.
Eventually the man caught up with me and started tapping on my arm and asking me questions.
“Where are you from? What is your name? What is your nationality?”
I smiled at him and feigned ignorance, telling him nothing.
Then he demanded to see my papers.
“You must have permit to visit Werota. Do you have permit? Show me permit!”
I told him again that I was a tourist and that I did not need a permit to be in Werota. I told him he had no authority over me (assuming of course he was in fact any kind of authority at all which I doubted) and kept walking.
The crowd meanwhile was nearly hysterical and had grown to a size that I thought must include every child and half the adults in Werota. We hit the main road like a wave of maddened soccer fans fleeing a burning stadium. I stopped for a second and the crowd surged past me like water breaking around a boulder. They poured out onto the road and a passing truck had to swerve to miss them. The driver laid on his horn. I’d had enough and I turned left back towards the Allem Hotel.
When I reached my hotel I dashed inside my room and collapsed on the bed (I seemed to be collapsing on beds a lot in Ethiopia). I couldn’t hear the crowd anymore and hoped they hadn’t followed me into the courtyard. I wasn’t about to check, though. Some new imagery occurred to me and I thought if I opened my door and looked outside I’d see determined villagers standing in a ring with pitchforks and burning torches. The man from the church would be standing just a little forward urging them on, telling them they must finish off the monster. The final scene of “Frankenstein’s Gobenyit.”
The Joads Arrive and a Long Day Ends
When I emerged from my room, somewhat recovered from my walk, I found the family of the Allem sitting in a circle performing the daily coffee ceremony. They’d spread green grass on the ground and I could smell the incense mixed with the delicious odor of freshly roasted coffee beans.
A man walked up to me and offered me a plate of roasted germinating beans that he called ‘bakala.’ He then brought over the first of three cups of coffee and asked me to join them. The whole family was sweet and welcoming. I didn’t even want sugar, but they made sure I got some and gave me a spoon to stir it with. A boy was dispatched to get me a chair to sit on. They made me feel I belonged, that this was my home.
It impressed on me again this many sided face of Ethiopia. If you belonged somewhere, even in a family run hotel, you truly belonged and it was a wonderful experience. But you couldn’t go out into a town like Werota by yourself. Doing so was just asking for trouble. What I should have done was gotten a man from the hotel to accompany me. Going out on my own was just suicide.
I stayed sitting in the courtyard for a long time after the coffee ceremony was over, writing in my journal and looking over my maps. The next day looked like it was going to be an interesting one. A solid wall of mountains began about 25 kilometers beyond Werota near the town of Adis Zemen. I didn’t know if the road went around them or if I’d have to cycle up and over them, but I was hoping for the latter.
My plan was to get up as usual before dawn and cycle the 25 kilometers to Adis Zemen and stop there for breakfast before tackling the mountains. Beyond that I wasn’t sure. My map showed no towns between Adis Zemen and Azezo, the airport town just outside Gondar. I couldn’t cover that distance in one day (at least didn’t want to) and would have to spend the night somewhere. Then a man from the hotel mentioned a town called Infrance where there was a small hotel. He pointed to a spot exactly halfway between Adis Zemen and Gondar. I smiled at him.
“Tomorrow,” I said, “I’m going to be In France.”
He smiled back and repeated “Infrance” though he didn’t get the joke.
Just before the sun went down and the courtyard plunged into darkness a big Toyota pickup truck pulled in. Four people got out and walked around to the back. A man pulled back a flap covering the bed of the truck and revealed a mountain of junk and household goods. I immediately dubbed them the Joad family.
The man started digging in all this stuff. He heaved out two spare tires and a half dozen baskets bursting with clothing and produce. A second man climbed past the first and into the back. He was throwing old furniture aside and bracing it all with his arms and legs. Now the women leaned in and lifted aside some bundles and stacks of firewood. Through it all I suddenly saw what I assumed was the object of all this effort – a rooster. They’d thrown him in the back and what looked like the entire load had fallen on him. He wasn’t making a sound and I thought he must be dead.
I was trying to figure out why they were so determined to get the rooster out and I decided that he must be dinner. But to my surprise when one of the women finally reached down and pulled the rooster free she carried him to a tree and tied him there with a string on its leg. She got a bucket of water for him and the rooster stood there for all the world like he hadn’t just spent twelve hours trapped under two spare tires. He took a drink, groomed himself and then crowed to announce the Joad family’s arrival.
When night fell I moved over to the restaurant to finish the day with a beer. I could have sat inside, but the TV and radio were both on and every available surface was alive with flies. Instead, I took a seat on the cement steps leading out the back. The family didn’t like that and someone immediately ran and got me a chair.
Directly in front of me was the only light for the courtyard. It was a single bare bulb and swarmed with mosquitos, mayflies, moths, and assorted flying beetles. Every once in a while one of them would get too close to the heat source, flame out and fall to earth. Occasionally four or five of the smaller bugs would flame out at the same time. They were lit up from the bulb above and looked like tiny raindrops, a light winged rain falling into my beer.