Friday, April 20, 2012

an Ethiopian Update...

All is well on the African continent.  I've been in Ethiopia for nearly a month now.  Been to Harar to watch a guy feed hyena's with a stick stuck in his mouth. A stick, i.e. a chop stick.  And then I did the same thing, only I held the stick in my hand.  Ha!!  Later, as I sat there, he loaded his stick again and had one of them lunge onto us.  Imagine having a beast that has the power of 7 horses packed into its over-sized dogs body - with a giraffe neck - rubbing it's cheek on yours and you'll know only a speck of the thrill I encountered.  So enamored with the feeding was I that I returned a second night to watch and partake.  And all for around 3 to 4 bucks a night.  Yeah.  Worth it.

I feel as though I could write a book about the people in Harar.  The people there are among the most spectacular I've ever met.  Beautifully generous, beautifully accepting of my skin-tone, and beautifully beautiful (France hold's the cylindrical shaped standard for the kilogram, and Ethiopia holds the woman-shaped standard for beauty... Yes, my girlfriend is still better, ok?... good).  I was invited in for numerous coffee ceremonies, partook in the smoking of some smooth sheesha, and was protected from the endless line of beggars as I sat just inside an "old" gate to the "old city" eating my morning breakfast of bread and sauce while sipping "shy" (tea) intermixed with "buna" (coffee).  On the night before my departure, I met a man named Hadi.  "I've lived here my entire life, and I am STILL learning about Harar," he told me.  Every piece of me in that moment wanted to know all that he knew and would know. 

UNESCO, who I hate (more on this in the next paragraph), presented Harar with a Peace Award some years ago because of the exceptional way in which they have figured out how to take one Large-part Christians and another Large-part Muslims and a Small-part minority-religions, place them in a blender and spin them into a deliciousandpeacefulbeyondexplanation-smoothie of happy, accepting people just trying to do the best they can for their families without the radical "I'm going to blow myself up on a bus full of you guys" or "I'm going to mow down a church full of you guys"-mentalities so often seen in the prime-time newscasts today.  As my friend Maria Mohammed told me, "You are free to believe whatever you like, and I have the same freedom.  Still, we can be friends." And we were friends.  I shared three cups of coffee with her and her grandfather in their traditional adare house - think: southwestern adobe with a room covered in rugs and pillows to lounge around on - while chomping away on the tiny, baby leaves of chat and feeling the delicate euphoria that accompanies it.   

When I left the city, a piece of my soul remained.  I do hope to return one day. 

Following Harar, I hit Addis, the capital, but only for a night.  I left the next morning for a two day trip to Lalibela to see these famous rock-hewn churches that I'd heard so much about.  Churches: rad.  Tourists: fucking suck.  Environment that 28,000 tourists per year in a tiny dusty got-nothing-but-big-BIG-
IMPRESSIVELYBIG-rock-churches nourish: sucks even more.  UGH! Add to that that UNESCO came in and put hideous umbrella structures that more closely resemble a 21st century super-dome than a spiritual African landscape from 900 years ago over all but ONE church for "protection from the elements" (ahem, these guys just kicked the SHIT out of 900 years, folks, what's the worry???), and you've got Lalibela.  The churches were beautiful, and the fact that they were made from pure stone was mind-blowing.  More powerful was the fact that the churches, all of them, were still being used, and we were there for a pre-Easter mass.  Let me say: Ethiopian Orthodox Christians... a bit loony.  But... BUT... beautiful in their spirituality.  I was content to enter these temples as quietly and meekly as possible, retreat to a dark corner and observe while trying to make myself as small as a mouse.  The other tourists talked at nearly full volume while snapping pictures and listening to a guide speak AT full volume while the locals around them cryed out for their sins to their beloved Mary and Jesus.  It was a hard site to bear.


From Lalibela, Brian and I headed to Gonder where we stayed the night before heading to Debark where the park offices were for the Simien Mountains.  For ONCE in Ethiopia, we didn't have to rise at 430, hit the bus park by 5 and leave at 6 creating a exhausting, hallucination-laden day.  No.  We had a leisurely morning with bread, tons of coffee and fruit-tart at a local cafe before taking off. 

Debark was dusty and terrible.  The people were awful.  That was a first for Ethiopia.  A second if you count Lalibela where everyone was "Farangi-fied".  Found the park offices easy enough and took care of the bill.  For 8 days in the park it cost us each about 17 bucks per day.  Not bad! Even with additional food we were coming in under our $20 dollar travel budget.  Got our gear (tent, pads, sleeping bags, cook stove, all of which looked as though it came straight out of a Kmart/Wal-Mart "backpackers" catalog... I was unimpressed... scared, even... consider this foreshadowing).  We then met a married Peace Corps couple in town, introduced through a couple of eager local boys.  The same boys took us to two other white girls who "are also Peace Corps" who were unloading their truck from a journey.  Definitely not Peace Corps.  The girls ended up being researchers inside the park, studying the Gelada baboon population (if you haven't heard of these critters, rent BBC's Planet Earth "Pole to Pole" or "Mountains" IMMEDIATELY and check 'em out.  So rad.  More on them later...).  Brian and I, after squaring away our shitty Toys 'R Us backpacking gear, returned to our 50 Birr a night hotel, downed two icy-cold brewskies and then met up with the girls and the couple for dinner. Before leaving, I had to hold the key to the hotel's latrine for ransom until the kid gave me a bucket of water for drinking and bathing.  "10 Liters between two men is NOT much to ask for!" But until I threw that key in my pocket and walked away saying, "You BLEW it!!", it definitely was.  I got the water, they got the key, we were all happy (Until a man knocked on my door at 6am the next morning wanting his bucket back... damn youuuuuuu old man!).

Nothing to report about dinner aside from this: remember those girls, the researchers? Well, they were there when BBC filmed the most recent, 3D video that includes the Gilada's.  They tried to give advice about where the baboons - which aren't REALLY baboons, but monkeys... which is weird, because in my mind "monkey" suggests "jungle" and these guys live in about the polar-opposite of a jungle... - might be from day to day.  In doing so, they found out how the original scenes from planet earth were shot.  Brace yourselves: if you have seen the video, you may remember the Gelada's giving a warning call and evacuating the grassy field to bound down a sheer rock face dropping thousands of feet into the lowlands below.  Remember? Well, it happened... but not the way BBC spun it.  In the video, it shows the monkeys, shows the warning cry and then does an "Uh ohhhh! DANGER APPROACHES!" and cuts to video of a rare Ethiopian Fox.  The goal: make it look like the fox was chasing the monkeys.  the problem: Ethiopian foxes do not eat the Gelada baboons.  In fact, the scenes with the foxes were even shot in the Simiens but in another range six hours away. 

"How," you might ask, "did the BBC camera crews get the monkeys to go ape-shit-crazy then?"

Easy.  They took the stuffed Leopard from the Simien park office, placed it in a field with the monkeys and started making loud noises around it to get their attention. 

Danger calls ensued. 

Shame on you BBC. 

Actually, I learned two somethings from the evening: No United States Government officials are allowed to travel to Harar.  Harar!  Harar?!  Remember that beautiful place I raved about a few paragraphs back? No government travel... what???

Harar is situated only an 1.5 hours from the Somaliland border - a peaceful chunk of a country broken off from horrific Somalia - and is thus uncomfortably close to... Somalia.  Long story short, someone un-white kidnapped someone that is-white sometime back.  The result: it became a no-travel zone.


How did I feel when I heard the news? Like this...

"Hey dude, you know that field you just walked through?"
"Yeah man.  It was incredible! So many flowers and trees.  I just had to break from the trail and explore!"
"Yeah... that was a mine-field."

I felt a bit lucky, like I had dodged a bullet.  I couldn't help but think, "Cool! I did it! I saw it! I lived!" And I also couldn't help but think that the government was crazy for imposing such an absurd regulation on what was one of the coolest cities I've ever seen on account of a kidnapping or two. 

Just imagine the travel restrictions in the US if our government restricted travel to certain AMERICAN cities based on (a.) child abductions, (b.) murders (c.) rapes and (d.) robberies.  No more school-sponsored field-trips to D.C., that's for sure...

On "Fasika" (Easter) morning - Ethiopian Easter, that is... they are on a different calendar than us, one that has 13 months a year, hence the slogan "Ethiopia: 13 Months of Summer" - Brian and I began our trek into the park.  With us, we had our scout, Dowd, a gun-toting badass with a head wrap, a blue polar fleece and a very nice pair of Asic running shoes and Yareed, our Mule driver.  Mule? Yes, mule.  Toys 'R Us camping gear, remember? Combined with the food, Brian and I would have to be Nepalese Sherpas to have shouldered the load.  I mean... we could have... we're really buff and strong and stuff... but we are on vacation... so yeah... a mule... Anyway, Yareed wore cheap plastic sandals - think "Jellies" - which made me feel even more like a chump.

Day 1: Through town into the country, took a left and down into a valley.  "Where is the grass? Oh... it's been eaten to the dirt by all those bone-thin goats, ponies, mules? Bummer."  The devastation to the soil can only be described by pictures.  It was sickening.  Followed a winding river for a bit and then climbed out of the valley.  More rocky, dry fields.  The trail was nothing but powder - think: chalk dust - three inches thick.  Foot-step, foot-step.  Puff, puff.  Up went the clouds, stirred by the wind, straight into the nostrils of the man behind or in front of you depending on the ever-changing turbulence. 

Ten kilometers in, we emerged from a small village on an old road.  "Oh!" I heard.  I looked up.  "Nice, man!" A gelada baboon.  A field of them.  And there it was... we were in the planet earth video.  Only, in this season, nothing but the scarce ever-green trees, is "green".  Well that and the local "weed" which dominates 99% of the forested land, the Eucalyptus tree. 

In this season, all that is green is yellow, but the sky remains blue and the contrast remains beautiful. 

Snap, snap, snap.  Pictures.  Must have taken a hundred.  The baboons have a hilarious "lazy"-tactic of dragging their rumps across the grass to reach new place to paw - scrape, scrape, pick, pick, chew, chew, move on - in order to not get up and walk.  Think of a dog with worms dragging-ass across your mom's living-room carpet.  My response? The same was when my mom's poodle did it back in my dad's living room.  Gut-wrenching laughter.  "Oh my god, dude! Look how they move!"

After a dust-devil - "a Twista! a Twista!" - nearly carried off Dowd, we moved on, and soon we were on the edge of the escarpment.  Down, thousands of feet, we peered.  small villages dotted the countryside.  To them and from them: no roads, no wires, no water.  Utterly secluded.  The guidebook says (paraphrased) "looking down on these remote villages will make you feel happy to be alive."


Looking down on these remote villages made me feel happy to be American.  The villages I encountered ON the roads inside the park make Appalachian towns look like Rodeo drive.  The poverty of the villages in the lowlands, cut off from all outside humanity, cannot be described with words, at least not my vocabulary.

The book continues, again paraphrased: "There are numerous return routes from the mountains that can take you through all sorts of interesting villages.  Just ask your guide!"

Translation: If you pay your guide enough, he'll show you the geological etymology of the word "bereft." 

Brian and I found the towns we saw deeply depressing and were eager to depart quickly to the escarpment cliffs, the edge of the grasslands, dotted with giant lebelias and permanently bent windswept grasses, hosts only to the whisper of the wind and the whoosh of passing Lammergeyer wings.

We spent the night at Sankober, just inside the park.  Our tent ended up being worse than first thought... the zippers were broken on both the inside vestibule AND the rain-fly.  Hello frigged draft.  The mattresses were as bad; one was uncomfortable, the other miserably so.  The sleeping bags? Criminally thin.  We cooked up a bag of noodles flavored by a cube of chicken bullion - gummy gag-inducing-nonsense - ate while making cracks about how it was the worst meal we'd ever had, and crashed beneath a starry sky that, in my mind, has only one rival: the Namibian desert.  Gorgeous.  Unfortunately, I was so cold, I could only admire it for 15 minutes while trying to click a few ISO1600, 30 second exposure photos.  It was so clear and so bright that for the first time, the photos turned out.  Brilliant.

Day 2: It was a pleasure to wake after feeling like I was going to die for most of the night.  "I made it!" I thought.  "Tonight, I'll be breaking out the emergency space-blanket," I told Brian.   

The walk followed the escarpment.  Dowd, though lacking every word in the English language,  understood that hikers like to see views, and so he took us to every viewpoint on the trail... ad infinitum.  It really did screw the rhythm of the hike, and with the sun always in front of us washing out the lighting, we couldn't really capture the immensity of the view.  Still, we smiled and thanked him for his work.  He was the picture of happy dedication. 

The highlight of the day came when we descended into a valley and took an hour and a half long break on a small stream terminating in a waterfall.  I set up at the lip of the waterfall - dipping my blackened, dust-caked feet into the icy waters, to soothe the ache - while Brian sat in a boulder's shade just upstream.  Within half an hour, we were surrounded on the cliffs on all sides by Geladas.  Down they came, one by one and two by two to the water, a pool just 10 feet from me, to reach out, stretch-stretch-stretch, out to the middle and scoop a handful of the greenest algae out to eat.  And then one would spring across.  Snap! Captured, but blurred, by the camera! Time and again.  The gurgle of the stream, the call of monkeys from the cliffs.  Planet earth, baby. 

As we moved on, a male that had gotten just a bit too forward with the ladies got his ass chased around the valley.  He screamed in terror until he climbed a tree and shook it violently and screamed.  Snap, snap, snap.  Meanwhile, the male closest to me, interested in nothing but licking for something under a rock took a break to flip up his monstrous lip to reveal his fierce fangs.  "Say cheese!" Cheeeeeeese! Snap, and captured (I showed the picture to the researcher days later, and she said even she hadn't gotten that shot yet.  Cool.).

We stayed at a place just outside Geech village.  On entering the village, I mimicked a chicken taking a dump well enough to convince six children to run to their homes and return with eggs.  At two Birr a piece (exchange is 17 Birr/$), Brian and I bought up eleven to supplement our horrifically unpalatable breakfasts - we ate the pasta-filth for breakfast too - and dinners.  Two ended up being rotten.  The others were eaten for dinner in the dark and for breakfast in the morning.  The morning eggs were fine.  But the vile atmosphere of the tent for the next two nights suggests that we may not have found ALL of the bad eggs.  (When I was feeling especially ill on day three, Brian came into the 95+ degree tent - a temperature that made him feel like "oh, wow, it's too hot in here" and me feel like, "I'm just starting to warm up" - and ripped one.  Son of a... I looked at him, as only I, Devon-nicknamed-Satan, can and accosted him with the first word to come to mind.  "FUUUUUUUUUUCK!!!!!").  Venom.

In the evening we yakked it up with a French Canadian Lawer exploring Ethiopia for its history and a Spanish UNICEF worker taking a break from her duties in her beloved Sudan.  Verdict: aid in Africa is FUBAR, and Che was a really cool and attractive guy, and an incredible leader though too radical, far too stubborn and with the wrong idols.  We were invited for Vodka and jumped at the opportunity.  Oh Absolut.  How smooth thy are. 

Sleep was not entirely sleepless on night two.  With my emergency blanket mirroring all my radiation back at my body, I actually slept between the tosses and turns and readjustments of the crinkly wrapping-paper blanket, but the condensation did freak me out, and while the scale tilted towards comfortable, it never really got there.

Day 3: Warmed buy the sun, we rocked it to Imet Gogo, a viewpoint showing us both where we were going and where we had come from.  At 12,900 feet, the air was thin, clear and cool, and we spent half an hour just taking in the sites.  From there, down, down, down into the valley.  Fields of grass.  Fields of lebelia.  And then up, up, up.  Huff, huff, huff.  The air, the thin air, so thin.  More dust from the ravaged lands.  Always the dust, always painting us. 

We passed children, perhaps the fifth set in the entire walk, that had set up shop on the trail trying to sell overpriced tiny baskets, strange helmet-shaped hats, and necklaces to dumb hikers.  I'd passed all to that point without even answering to their calls of "You! You! Hello! Hello! Where are you go?!" but at this one I stopped.  "The hat? How much?" "50 Birr." "Pshaw. 10 Birr!" Back and fourth.  I put one of the hats on.  Brian said I looked like King Leer, i.e. Stupid.  but at least I was a king, right? No go on the 10 Birr, but they would have sold their crappy flute.  I was long gone, and their last calls never caught me.

Up the hill.  Past another set of kids selling trinkets.  Nothing else to do all day while they tend the sheep.  Life is hard but simple in the hills.  Water might be lacking.  Food, depending on the season, might be supplied by the guilty-feeling citizens of the United States instead of your land.  Hard.  But simple.  You wake up, you throw on another blanket.  You grab the whip and crack the ground outside your stable, and you and your flock ascend, up, and up into the void, up where only the loudest calls of your village dogs can reach you.  Everything else is erased by space.  And there you stay until the sun approaches its last hurdle, the horizon, a hurdle that, when crossed makes others feel warm leaving you cold.  Hard, and simple. 

We stopped at the top of the hill taking shelter from the wind among the rocks.  Dipped our stale bread into the dripping peanut butter and glued our mouths closed and then unglued them with sips of water-turned-lemon-aid complements of saccharin and artificial flavoring.  Set the alarm for 15 minutes later and snagged a nap in the noon-time sun.  Oh, god, the warmth.  The alarm was our safety net for fear that we sleep away the day.  Delicious.

Up.  Hiked.  Saw more views.  The afternoon was a slog for me.  My feet were swollen and blistered inside my toosmallbyahalfsize-shoes, and my body ached with a resemblance to the flu.  "Am I becoming arthritic already?" I thought in one especially steep and rocky downhill section.  Thud, thud, thud.  Hit camp hours before we thought we would. Off came the shoes and out came the limp.  And then **WHAM!!!!** I'm down for the count with a headache that would have split granite.  Day three, and I'd had the same headache every afternoon of the trek.  And the only thing that could cure it was by taking two pills consisting of part Tylenol, part caffeine and part Codeine.  Ahhhhhhhhhhh, instant release.  MAGIC. 

Altitude sickness? But I wasn't up that high, around 12,000 ft... Caffeine withdrawal? More than likely. I'd been taking in about 6 Ethiopian-strength, read: Espresso, coffees per day up until the trek, and I was taking one packaged coffee each morning on the walk... I've been through this before, sophomore year of college when, after cutting out my habit of 2 POTS of coffee a day - one in the morning before dynamics class to wake up and one at night while studying because "why the hell not?" - I suffered headaches for a month and almost went to a neurologist because I was convinced I had a brain tumor slowly creeping. 

So that afternoon, I was down for the count until I broke down and took one of the magic pills (I had been hesitant to take them because I fear the Codeine addiction).  Released, I showered, limb by limb in the icy waters of Chenek camps showers.  Finishing, I was met with exclamations of, "Did you see it? it was right there! HUUUUGE Horns!! I went to get my camera, but when I came back it was gone." "I didn't.  You lucky bastard.  You saw an Ibex!" And he was lucky.  And he was a bastard, because just minutes before he had farted in my 95 degree tent and nearly sent me into a puking frenzy.  Bad Eggs. 

Later, after we had done some laundry - which, Brian couldn't figure out why I was doing it seeing as my clothes were "only dusty and not smelly" - the Ibex returned, and I was able to get within 10 ft of him. 

Walia Ibex: a beautiful endangered species that can be seen only from a distance, bouncing among the cliffs of mountain ranges when young, as they are rightfully afraid of men that kill them. 

Walia Ibex: borderline deaf, blind and lacking all ability to smell me when I am 10 feet away when they've reached the ripe old age of 20 years. 

I was thrilled. 

More bad food for dinner.  We spent time with Ellie, an Israeli traveling for a year from Ethiopia to Cape Town and swapped travel advice and discussed "the conflict." I just finished "From Beirut to Jerusalem" and was well versed in the history.  What I wanted was an update on the clashes.  He was happy not to provide it.  All I got was that I, as an American, would probably be fine in all areas but the Gaza strip.  Damn.  Guess I'll have to research it all on my own.

The sun dropped, and I began to shiver uncontrollably.  To hell with the teeth-brushing. 

Rumbles from the eggs from breakfast before bed.  Cramps followed our dinner of rice with bullion crumbs and roasted barely almost immediately.  Another cold night lay before me, and I felt an infinite sadness holding hands with trapped-with-no-other-choices as I entered my sleeping bag bundled in both my jackets, my pants, socks, hood over my head, wrapped tight, with my emergency blanket around me.  And it got worse.  Cold air began pouring onto my face.  The tent door was broken again... only this time, no matter how hard I tried, I could not close the inner vestibule. 

I've felt explosive rage before on trips.  Years ago I pulled the speedometer cable through the fire-wall of my beloved VW on a x-country trip to Seattle (my grad-school buddies found this HILARIOUS, and in hind-site, so, now, do I.).

In a violent rage manifested by a breaking down body and an inability to get warm I rendered the zipper useless for eternity, punched Brian in the head by accident - "Sorry, bro" (And he was so mellow he didn't even mention it!) - and ended up saying to hell with the whole thing and tying the flap off and out of the way. 

Hell ensued. 

With only one layer between us and the night, I was ripped apart by cold air all night long.  Brian, for reasons I cannot understand slept more warmly.  Perhaps it was his beanie and his long-johns.  Perhaps he is just more manly than I.

Toss.  Turn.  Repeat.  Freezing and jittering from the cold but boiling when I laid my hand on my face.  Sometime in the morning, I finally snapped.  "Brian, what time is it?" 2 AM. I had been hoping he was going to say 5... or better yet, 6.  Instead, I had 5 more hours of this shit ahead of me.  "Brian.  I'm done.  I'm leaving the mountain today." And then I tossed, turned, ached, panted and moaned until the sun broke the mountain top 5 hours later. 

Day 4: I awoke resolute.  I was leaving the mountain.  When Brian awoke, I told him so again.  "We'll talk," he said.  But there was no talking about it.  I made my way down to the bathroom and then back to the kitchen were we were cooking up breakfast.  We laid down the options.  He would not have to leave the park, I would never have suggested that.  Instead, I would get a ride out somehow.  I told the mule-man, and he suggested I stay at the lodge.  Done.  After 3 days, I could simply walk out when my original scout returned.  The problem was that all visitors to the park needed a scout, and Dowd was relentless about following the rules.  "The park entrusted you to me, and you cannot be alone in the park without a scout!" he said to me in Amharic, translated by the punk-teenagers nearby.  "Ok, then I'll leave the park on the first vehicle that passes out." Settled.

But it wasn't.  Soon, other officials came up and told me that I would have to purchase another scout to accompany me on the vehicle out.  Feeling like hell, I let 'em have it.  Not rude, but straight forward.  "I'm not buying a scout.  If you don't like it, I'm sorry but you'll just have to deal with it." (But what I wanted to say was, "You can fuck off.  I'm tired of these games."). They let me go. 

Goodbye Brian.  A shake and a birthday hug.  "I'm sorry it had to end like this.  Next time'll be better.  I promise." And off he went. 

Waited for the truck.  The first wanted 400 Birr.  Clearly a farangi price.  I jumped off.  The next came.  200.  Fine.  Whatever.  I jumped on board.  It was a lorrie, a cattle truck being used to haul empty bottles from somewhere deep in the mountains to somewhere else not-so-deep in the mountains.  People spilled in.  I jumped on board.  And away we went. 

The dust was magnificent.  Great plumes rose behind us marking our advance to everyone watching form afar.  When we slowed to take on a hill, the plumes caught us, clouded us, filled our lungs, our eyes, entered our pours, our eyes, made us cough.  I'd always wanted to ride one of these trucks.  And now I was swinging around mountain twists and turns, ripples in the fabric of the land at a rate that made my heart pound, my mouth grin and my eyes dry.  The other passengers turned to look at me.  Locking eyes for a few seconds, I'd raise my eyebrows and smile and they'd flash a grin, and onward we drove.

I began to get hassled for the payment. "How much?" I'd been told 200 B.  "300 B." No, you said 200.  "Ok, 200." But you just said 300.  Now you say 200.  How do I know it is not actually 100. Perhaps you're overcharging me and will keep the excess for your pocket.  "Pay the driver then." Ok.

Another Kilometer passed.  We stopped.  Behind me I hear, "give me money." How much do you want.  The whole 300, 200 bit again.  Angry now I let him have it.  "Look, give me a fair price.  I want to pay what they pay.  Stop looking at my skin.  Stop trying to steal from me! You have one more chance.  Give me the fair price, or I'm jumping off this truck, not paying you a thing and waiting for the next truck to come along." Silence.  "Ok, give me 150." Done.  I handed him the bills, and forward we rolled.  (I learned later that the correct price is more like 100, but as a white guy traveling illegally in the park without a guide it is next to impossible to get that.)

There were checkpoints on the road.  It is illegal for Farangi to travel in lorries in this country.  It is illegal for Farangi to travel without a scount in the park.  I was doing both.  Three times I heard, "get down." And I did.  Hood over my head, glasses on, hands into my pockets, hunkered there trying not to show my reflective skin.  Pass, pass, no problem.  A man got on board carrying a gun.  They shuffled him next to me and said, "he is your guide!" and giggled over their creativity. 

Finally, we hit the park gate.  I did not know this as I was hiding in the masses.  Then, "Stand up." Discovered.  A man in uniform began harassing me about not having a scout.  I explained the situation.  He scolded me and said I needed to pay, his chest puffed behind the camo.  I declined.  He asked for the receipt.  I said I didn't have it (but in truth was too lazy and perturbed to take it out for him).  He let me go but shouted as we pulled away, "but go to head office or the police will get you." All I could do was laugh.  The threat might have rattled me two years ago, but after two years of asshole big-shots in crappy fitting uniforms, it did nothing but tickle me.

"So long Simiens" I said, giving a salute.  Those around me copied the action, and we all grinned and breathed deeply.

Into Debark, back into the shitty town, straight to the hotel where I'd enjoyed dinner days before.  Placed an order, Dabo Fir Fir, bread mixed up with a spicy sauce, and drank a beer that made my throat ache with cold.  Threw down two more before I decided it was time to hit my hotel and sleep.  I slept, and woke 2 hours later.  More "On the Road" as I awoke slowly, still buzzed.  And then... ring, RING.  The telephone. 

It was Michelle.  The first words I heard: "HAPPY BIRTHDAY!!!"

And it was one of the happiest birthdays.  Twenty-nine, still a twenty-something and still 'out there' ripping through the wilds, sorting through the adventures.  And I was warm again, and I was full, and I was buzzing, and I had Michelle's sweet voice in my ear. 

I arrived in Gonder yesterday and immediately hit up the local Tej Beat for a large bottle of honey wine for my breakfast/lunch because why not? It was delicious.  I got into a development discussion with the boys sitting next to me.  The same tired words, only they filled in more of the blanks than usual. 

I am living like a king here dropping money freely on espresso and cake and glasses of mango smoothie to my hearts content.  It finally hit me that while I may grimace about spending 10 dollars on food here per day, it is only the lingering spirit of PCV and its accompanying paltry paycheck in me that makes me feel guilty. 

Passing the time reading "On the Road", AGAIN, and loving every word.  Actually, I just finished it, and as it is my only book I'm flipping it over and starting it over...  The only time I've ever done that, and it feels just right.  Dig that mad, gone Kerouac.

There are also two Germans here that I hung out with last night.  They told me I was their favorite American that they'd ever met... that I was well educated and well informed... they were probably drunk.  I accepted the compliment anyway.  I'll join them tonight for more spectacular food while taking in some traditional dances at a restaurant down the road. 

Keeeeeeeerist! That was a long update.  But a lot happens in a month out here.  Ethiopia is hands down the favorite of the 14 African countries I've seen, but I'm itching to see Egypt, to feel the 180 flip between the ways of Sub-Saharan countries and the Arab world.  People - some of you - have expressed concerns about my travel in that region, as there has been violence there recently.  Don't worry.  I just got news through the travel-grapevine that an American worker up in Cairo says the coast is clear, and as long as I stick to the well traveled trail, I'll remain safe. 

I fly next week to Cairo to begin the journey.  after 13 days I'll jump to Israel with a brief stint in Jordan (assuming Petra isn't too expensive).  Then back to Israel to explore.  I'm looking forward to seeing a country the size of a small New England state instead of Texas where "you drive and drive and tomorrow night you're still in Texas." 

More as it unfolds!

Thanks for reading!

I love you all (but especially you, Michelle!)


Sunday, April 1, 2012

Overland Part 2

From the first days of the second part of my overland trip from Cape Town to Cairo:

Day 1: left Kampala at 6PM and arrived in Nairobi, Kenya at around 8 the next morning.

Day 2: Caught a taxi out of "Nairobbery" to Isiolo via Nanyuki (where, in the shadow of Mt. Kenya I demonstrated my water purifier to 15 men and one psycho woman who kept shouting, "I love you Jesus" while simultaneously covering her face with streaks of charcoal like a jungle warrior, offering sex and blowing me kisses). Isiolo = sketch-as-hell. Caught a private 4x4 out of there headed to Moyale leaving at night to avoid daytime banditry in the north. Paused from 1-4AM for the drivers stomach problems.

Day 3: Watched the sun rise, a red orb right out of the earth, just after one of our fellow passengers laid out his prayer rug and sang into a westerly wind in the baron Kenyan landscape. Magic. This is what I came for. Made Moyale, the border town by lunch and stayed the night. Prevailing Islamic influence, half the town is Somali, the rest... not. Another world, finally.

Day 4: Caught a 6am bus out of town. Bus ride was hellish (seats designed by a pious midget, i.e. not fit for an atheist giant... knees and back = fucked). Stayed in Aswa.

Day 5: Yesterday. Made Addis! Part of my journal entry from yesterday: Dirty streets. Foul. "You!! You!!"-s shouted at us from everywhere. While a man grabbed my wrist, asked for the time over and over despite my repeating "No watch!! Not a watch!" another guy spit on Brian and went to wipe it off focusing far too much attention on the wallet area. Sketch as hell. Left them in the dust and nearly ran head-long into a gnarly looking homeless guy, pants dropped to the floor, stinking to high heaven and doing the happy-dance in front of five police officers who, for money, couldn't have cared less. After finding the hotel, we trekked off to Addis Ababa restaurant which looked too rich for our pockets but dazzled us with the incredibly delicious and inexpensive food, tej (a honey-wine (meade?) that had us buzzing and euphoric by the evenings end. On the way home, I felt a tug on on my bag and quickly turned around o find a thief still attached to the zipper. I whipped around and cuffed him square across the face. *WHAM!!* And down he went. Looking down on him and pointing I said, "Don't fucking do that!", turned and walked away. No protests from he or the surrounding crowd. I returned to the hotel with a buzz - part tej, part mind-blowing food, part adrenaline, part coffee (ethiopian crack), and part thrill of this life in general.

Off to the walled city of Harar in two days. Back to Addis and then off to Lalibela and the Eth. Highlands to pet the Planet Earth badass cliff-dwelling baboons. Sudan is almost definitely out due to them (a.) sucking and (b.) George Clooney telling them a bit too publicly that they suck.

Will likely fly to Cairo which'll save us travel days and give us more time to explore Eth., Egypt, Israel and Jordan.

Damnit it all. I wish all of you could experience this. Wish you were here. I really do.

More to come!!

Thanks for reading!

I love you all (but especially you, Michelle!)


P.S. If you haven't already read The Diary of Anne Frank, read it. Damnit the world lost a beautiful mind with that girls passing. Huge bummer.