044 – To Infrance
The Escape of the Joads
It was still pitch black when I was woken up by the Joads, their truck, and their rooster. They wanted to get an early start and started warming up their truck at 4:45. Unfortunately it was right outside my door and to my lungs it felt like they’d run a hose from the exhaust pipe directly into my room. I had a choice. I could lie in bed and breathe the toxic fumes or get up and start packing while breathing the toxic fumes. I decided I might as well get up.
As I took down my mosquito net and stuffed my sleeping bag into its stuff sack I listened to the Joads. Two loud bangs were obviously the tires being thrown back in. A few crashes were the bundles of firewood. Then came the myriad bundles and old furniture. A cockle-doodle-doo split the morning but ended with a squawk. The rooster had taken his customary place in (soon to be under) the pile.
The previous afternoon they’d driven the truck through the narrow driveway and into the courtyard front first. It was a tight squeeze with only a couple of inches to spare on each side, but they made it. They even practised backing out while it was still daylight. But backing out in the dark, they now discovered, was quite a different story.
The first attempt ended in an audible crunch and scrape. The second, third and fourth attempts were equally unsuccessful, even with the rooster giving directions. Their only hope was to get the truck turned around and as I gathered up my maps and other odds and ends and put them in their various pockets the Joads embarked on a series of u-turns, t-turns, s-turns and what sounded like w-turns.
I didn’t have much hope for their success. The courtyard was small and the family had planted trees throughout not leaving much room to manoeuvre. But twenty minutes later I emerged from my room to see their tail lights moving slowly up the driveway then turn left and disappear. A triumphant crow from the rooster would have capped the crazy scene perfectly, but he didn’t oblige.
“Shent bet alle”
It was 5:30 when the Joads made their escape. I had my Petzl headlamp in one hand, a roll of toilet paper in my little red bag in the other and carefully made my way back to the shent bet. As was my habit I tried to be unobtrusive, making no noise and finding my way with only occasional flashes from the headlamp.
I found the latrines occupied and instead of going back to my room took a seat out in the courtyard to wait. It was quite dark, but any ferenji who thinks darkness can hide him is sadly mistaken. Very soon I heard the voice of one of the women from the family that ran the hotel. There was an urgency to what she was saying. I suspected she was talking about me and when I heard the word ‘ferenji’ I knew I was right.
In a moment the man who had given me the plate of roasted beans walked past me and went to the shent bet. I heard voices and doors opening and closing. He came back and announced in a loud voice, “shent bet alle, alle”, which roughly translated meant the latrine was available.
Now little old me who just wanted to sneak down to the toilet with no fanfare was the centre of attention for the whole family. The women shouted across the courtyard to ask if the ferenji was going to use the toilet now. The man shouted back that he certainly was. In fact he was going to escort me all the way there and make sure that things were to my liking. I went into one of the stalls and closed the door as much as it would close. The man stayed right outside and shouted back updates to the women, highlighting, no doubt, any unusual ferenji noises.
Sharing the Road
It was five to six when I wheeled my bike out of the courtyard and onto the road. Werota was quiet and the road, barely visible at that early hour, was empty. I was hoping to go unnoticed and rode slowly and carefully with no lights on the bike. But it did no good. Shouts and jeers came from the side of the road as I passed by. I peered into the shadows but saw nobody there. When I came to the edge of Werota a rock came flying out of the darkness and bounced up the road ahead of me.
It was a lovely time to cycle. The sun was just a pale yellow glow below the horizon, the moon, barely visible, a tiny sliver of grey. Everything was damp and cool.
The mountains beyond Adis Zemen were only shapes in the darkness as I cycled towards them. At first I thought they were clouds, but as the sun peeked over and then broke free of the horizon, their rounded edges came clear.
As if the sun was a signal the first large truck of the day rumbled past. The drivers of these trucks, aside from the teachers, were the friendliest people in the country and this one slowed down to get a good look at me, waved and then let loose with a blast of his air horn. I appreciated all these gestures of encouragement, but the air horn caught me by surprise as it always did and I lost control of the bike and lurched to a halt in the deep rocks at the side of the road.
Not far behind the truck was the first of the day’s buses. They invariably left at first light and rarely continued past 4 in the afternoon. Outside those hours, I was told, the shifta took over the countryside and it was dangerous to be on the road. Any bus suffering one too many flat tires and not reaching its destination before dark would pull in to the nearest town and go no further that day, the passengers having to take potluck as far as accommodation was concerned. I never heard them grumble, however. They were as frightened of shifta as the bus drivers.
I stopped the bike at the road’s furthest edge and waited for the bus to pass. Buses moved at a faster pace than the trucks and brought with them choking clouds of dust. I’d found it was best to wait till it settled and not just for the sake of my eyes and throat. More than once I’d moved prematurely onto the road when a bus had passed and nearly been hit by one of the ubiquitous white NGO Toyota Landcruisers as it burst out of the remnants of the dust cloud.
These were by far the most dangerous vehicles in Ethiopia and my least favourite. Their drivers considered themselves to be the most important people on the road and tried to prove it by driving as fast as they could. They had little regard for anybody else and often cut far too close for comfort kicking up a spray of rocks and other projectiles – and it wasn’t like I didn’t have enough rocks being thrown at me already.
The Ethiopians were equally wary of these trucks and walked down the road tensed and listening for the sounds of approaching traffic. Unfortunately I was almost perfectly quiet until right on top of them. Then they’d hear the sound of my wheels, know I was only a few meters behind them and thinking I was a Toyota pickup or even a full-sized transport truck practically die of fright. I felt bad each time it happened and tried to make a habit of ringing my bell as I cycled, but that felt even worse. People would hear my bell and even though there was lots of room on the road they’d scurry to the side and give me the whole road. That’s not what I wanted. I only wanted to warn them I was coming so they wouldn’t be startled. I eventually settled on coughing and running my bike over the largest rocks I could find. The noise got them to look around and see me but didn’t make them jump a foot into the air. “It’s just that dumb white guy on a bike,” they’d say to each other. “You know, the guy with the chronic cough.”
On animals, particularly mule trains, I had an even weirder effect. Quite often when I passed a mule train the lead mule wasn’t going much slower than I was. He’d pick up on me as the new leader and fall into step behind me and the whole train would pick up its pace and trot along behind my bicycle. Once they’d locked onto me it was extremely difficult to get rid of them. They slowed when I slowed, sped up when I did. Coming to a halt risked a mule pile up. Either way the poor farmer had to run desperately to keep up and it wasn’t a good scene. I eventually made it a habit to cross to the opposite side of the road when I saw a mule train ahead of me. Passing a dozen feet away the mules were less inclined to follow me.
Sometimes a single animal would be startled when I moved up alongside it and start running to stay ahead of me. It would sprint a couple hundred yards and then revert to its walk or trot. I’d try and approach it as gently as I could, but each time I got close it would be spooked again and sprint away. The only thing I could do was pick up a lot of speed, cross to the far side of the road and then angle towards the head of the mule and cut him off. Once the mule saw I was in front of him he’d come to an abrupt halt or slow to his original walking pace. The danger here was that I’d head it off too abruptly and the animal would literally turn around and run back in the direction it had come, sometimes right past the desperate dula-waving farmer and all the way back to the farm or village from whence it came. In those cases all I could do was shrug and wave apologetically to the farmer.
The Corn Cob Militia and a Disturbing Development
About halfway to Adis Zemen the atmosphere on the road began to change. I’d seen a lot of old single shot rifles, but now every second man seemed to be carrying an AK47 with a full clip jammed into place. I stopped to chat with the first farmer I saw with such a gun and he proudly pulled out the clip and showed me he had bullets. I wanted to ask him what in the world he thought he was going to shoot that day, but that was a topic beyond the powers of sign language.
I also passed what I assumed were two militia checkpoints. They didn’t have barricades across the road and didn’t take themselves too seriously so I didn’t take them seriously either. The first one consisted of a group of armed men sitting in the shade of a thatch shelter. Most of them had old rifles that from the looks of them would just as likely explode when you pulled the trigger as send out a bullet. But one of them had a clean and well-cared for AK47 and this man came up to the side of the road and waved at me to stop. He moved his hand up and down like he was signalling to a bus.
I gave him a nice “tenestalen,” nodded, waved, and cycled right on past. He didn’t shout at me or, thank goodness, shoot at me.
The experience made me think of Michael Shawcross, a man I’d met in Guatemala, who taught me everything I know about dealing with armed roadblocks and militia. I travelled with him through the Guatemalan highlands at a time when the guerrilla groups were very active and the army was trying very hard to crush them. Michael, upon arriving at a roadblock, would hand the young soldiers any old piece of paper he had lying around. They’d look at it holding it upside down and sideways and then let us pass. These soldiers, Michael explained, were pressed into service involuntarily and usually came from a different part of the country. They were generally illiterate and their instructions were often vague and therefore their enforcement of them quite arbitrary. Our job, he said, was to help them interpret their instructions by displaying total confidence in ourselves and our right to be on the road.
This was what I’d tried to convey to the man with the AK47 by my cheerful greeting and by not stopping. I didn’t imagine that he had a clear idea of his authority and I was positive there was nothing in his instructions to cover ferenjis on bicycles. I hoped my confidence would transfer to him and he’d take it on faith that I had the right to be on that road. If I stopped and gave him a choice I was sure that he would turn me back just on principle.
The second militia group was even lazier than the first. They sat in the shade of some trees back from the road. Most of the men just watched me cycle pass. Only one got to his feet. He shouted something and started to move towards the road. I waved at him, called out a greeting and kept cycling. I made sure I didn’t look back after that and in my rear view mirror saw him sit back down amongst his posse. I imagine they were as relieved as I was that we wouldn’t have to deal with one another. I was now that greatest thing in the bureaucratic and military world – an SEP (someone else’s problem).
Adis Zemen was not much of a place, just a strip of ramshackle buildings on each side of the road. It was quite a bit smaller than Werota and I had trouble finding a place that served food. I finally found a hole in the wall place and wrestled my bike over the ditch and up to the front entrance. I walked into an open area with some wooden benches around the sides. A young girl saw me come in, shrieked, and ran to the back. An older woman came out and ushered me through a plastic curtain and into a more private area. It was closed off from the rest of the room with a bamboo wall draped with old sheets and plastic. Inside there were some easy chairs and other furniture that they’d collected over the years. Everything was covered in several garage sale’s worth of old quilts, blankets, and pillows.
The injera I was served was of a type I hadn’t seen before. It was crispy and thin around the edges and soft and gooey in the middle. It stretched like rubber when I tried to tear some of it free. I wondered if it was made from an inferior grain or simply hadn’t been cooked through. The meat, which they called “sega,” was also something I hadn’t come across before. It appeared to be mainly fat, but was crunchy and sweet. I thought perhaps it was a special dish, something they ate as a treat.
I asked about the toilet and they pointed me out back. I looked twice but couldn’t find it and they eventually brought me up a steep incline to the very top corner of the back yard and pointed to a hole in the ground. It was, to say the least, fairly exposed to the curious Adis Zemen (of which there were many). My need to go was not strong enough to overcome my shyness and I left it for another time.
The road beyond Adiz Zemen was exceptionally steep and climbed steadily into the mountains. My spirits rose with the altitude and I stopped often to look around me. I enjoyed looking back and seeing the grey white line that was the road I’d climbed. Around me were occasional weird outcroppings of rock, harbingers of the strange Simien Mountains landscape ahead.
The children, however, were out in force and tracked me for the longest time screaming for money and pens. Some came from the few huts I saw nestled in the valleys below me, but most were on the road heading to Adis Zemen. They dropped their loads of firewood and took off after me. The rocks flew and twice I returned fire and had the satisfaction of seeing them scatter. I may not have grown up pegging rocks off the horns of cattle, but baseball and snowball fights had given me a pretty good arm and a deadly aim when I needed it.
The road continued to climb, hugging the hillsides and carving a path in and out of the valleys. On one curve another armed militia tried to stop me, but they were the laziest bunch yet and didn’t try very hard. When there was a deep valley between us I stopped and got out my camera. I wasn’t sure if they could see what I was doing at that distance, but I hoped they could. I imagined them jumping up and down in frustration and cursing their luck that they’d let an honest to goodness cycling Eritrean spy slip right through their fingers.
Above 2,000 meters the vegetation changed from dry scrub to a region of thick and lush growth, almost a jungle. I hadn’t seen a sign, but I felt sure this was a protected zone, a small conservation area. There was no other way to explain why all these trees (and the small black and white monkeys I saw running across the road) still existed when all around me the land had long since been stripped bare for firewood. I wondered if I was seeing what all of highland Ethiopia had looked like in some dim past. If so this region would once have been spectacularly beautiful.
At 2,300 meters I reached the top of the pass and began the grinding and bumping descent back down to the plain around Lake Tana. I checked my map and confirmed my suspicion that I had merely climbed up and over a finger of mountain that stuck out from the main range. It puzzled me that the road hadn’t simply stuck to the plain and gone around the finger. Not that I was complaining. I’d take a road going through mountains over one on the plains any day.
Not far on the other side of the pass I came across another group of militia sitting around a tukul hut. There was something different about them and when they signalled to me I slowed to a stop. Four of them surrounded me waving cobs of corn and talking a mile a minute. They pointed to a ring of stones and some firewood and made motions of striking a match. I eventually figured out that they had matches, but some dummy (here they pushed one fellow around goodnaturedly) had forgotten to bring something to strike them against. Without a fire they couldn’t roast their corn. I didn’t have any matchboxes, but I had something even better: Red Bird Strike Anywhere matches. I got out a ziplock bag stuffed with them and demonstrated how they could be struck against anything – rocks, the wooden stocks of their guns, rough steel, even zippers. The zipper demonstration really got them and they gathered around excitedly as I passed out a bunch to each.
After I left the corn cob militia and exited from the region of thicker growth I started to hear an unusual but regular sound. Every five minutes or so it came, a little ‘whup’ somewhere between a stone being tossed into a still pool and a stick cutting the air like a whip. I assumed of course the “little shifta,” the “you-you birds,” were up to their old tricks and throwing stones at me, but when I looked around I saw no one. And besides, if these were stones they were moving far too fast to be thrown by anyone but a big league pitcher. Once or twice I thought I saw the bush around me twitch and quiver as if something very small and very fast had zipped past.
The solution when it came was a disturbing development indeed. I cycled around a corner and saw a group of boys and girls on their haunches at the side of the road and gathering up rocks. Each one carried a long piece of woven rope with a pocket half way along its length. I stopped to chat with them and I pointed to the rope and asked what it was. The largest boy held his rope out for me to examine and said it was a ‘wenchef.’ The name meant nothing to me and I handed it back with a puzzled shrug.
The boy then reached down and rooted around till he came up with a nicely rounded stone about the size of a large marble. He doubled up the ‘wenchef,’ put the rock in the pocket and whirled it over his head. With a smooth release he sent the stone arcing through the air. It looked to my bulging and horrified eyes like it travelled a good half kilometer before smashing into a tree. The other children were eager to show off their skill and in a moment they sent out a barrage of stones that would have done an artillery unit proud. I cycled away reflecting that I’d better be careful who I got in a rock right with. Any dumb white guy on a bike caught in such an assault would be cut to pieces.
The Ferenji who Pets Sheep
By late afternoon I was tired and very glad to learn that the rumors were true and there was a village called Infrance on this road and it had a small hotel. I leaned my bike against the Nile Hotel’s front porch, ordered two Mirindas and practically fell into a chair. I quickly drew a crowd, however, and when it grew to thirty or thirty-five I had no choice but to retreat to the inside. I never did these small hotels any favors when I sat out on their front porches. I gathered too much trouble.
The room they showed me, Room 8, was small and as hot as an oven. There was a bed, already made up, a rickety wooden chair, and a door that wanted to close but couldn’t quite manage it. The window as I moved in was full of faces laughing and pointing. I shut the piece of galvanized tin that was meant to cover it, but they simply pushed it wide again. I waggled my finger at them as a warning and swung the tin closed a second time. They pushed it open and then waggled their fingers at me in imitation and howled with laughter.
Rather than let this become a game I took out a short length of rope and tied the covering shut. Undaunted, the eyes moved to the substantial gaps running along the edges of both the window and door. I hung up some t-shirts to cover these as best I could. Skinny fingers poked through the gaps trying to push the t-shirts aside, but they couldn’t reach them. In a fit of triumphant whimsy I stuck my own fingers through the gaps and wiggled them at my audience. This was not a wise thing to do. The resulting assault on both the window and door reminded me of scenes from ‘Night of the Living Dead’ and I had no choice but to make a personal appearance in an attempt to calm the crowd down.
A friendly little sheep chose that moment to stick its head into my room and then come all the way in. To the total and utter astonishment of my fans I reached down and gave the sheep a pat on the head. When it didn’t move away but actually moved closer and butted its head against my leg and I scratched it behind the ears there was total pandemonium. That the entire building did not collapse around us was most assuredly a matter of luck and not due to the strict safety codes followed when it was erected.
After a dinner of tebs (which I fervently hoped wasn’t but probably was my little friend whose ears I’d scratched) I was sitting in my room writing a bit in my journal when I started to hear laughter. It was coming from a room towards the back and it sounded like all the women in the hotel were there plus most of the men. The laughter started light but over time built up to a frenzied pitch. They laughed and laughed till I thought someone was going to burst a lung.
I didn’t know for sure what they were laughing about, but it was a pretty good guess it had something to do with the ferenji who pets sheep and rides a bicycle. Sure enough I started to hear the word ‘ferenji’ followed by hysterical shrieks. Some of the women ran out of the room and then collapsed into chairs panting and wheezing, trying to get control of themselves. (I spied on them through the cracks around my window.) When they calmed down they returned to the room and started laughing once more.
The silly thing was that I wanted to use the toilet, but I felt too self-conscious to go past this room where all the laughter was occurring. Finally, though, I heard some people leave the room and things got quieter. I thought maybe everyone was gone and left my room and walked down the hall. But when I appeared in the open doorway of this room someone yelled “ferenji” and they all roared with laughter and fell about the room. I thought they were going to pass out and die on the spot.
The laughter had died down a bit by the time I emerged from the toilet, but as soon as I passed the door it started right up again. I got back to my room and was about to push open the door when I looked behind me. Three of the girls had piled out into the hallway to watch. They were crouched over and holding onto each other and looking at me with bright expectant eyes. Not wanting to disappoint I stuck out my tongue at them and they all shrieked and dove back into the room and laughed and laughed and laughed.
It was enough to make a guy paranoid and I looked down at myself to see what could possibly be so funny. I saw nothing that was really that amusing but of course I wasn’t seeing myself through their eyes.