"Rest of the World 2013-14" story # 41

Addis Ababa, Ethiopia           June 20, 2014

It was an awkward transition from Malta to Ethiopia.
     To state the obvious.
     Before flying from Malta to Ethiopia, I had traveled eleven months without getting on an airplane. I'd devised plans to reach Ethiopia by land and sea via: Iran, the United Arab Emirates, Oman, Yemen, and Djibouti. Or via Libya, Chad, the Central African Republic, and South Sudan. But in Turkey, I couldn't get a visa for Iran. And in Tunisia, everyone told me Libyans were a rich and uneducated, gun-carrying people who would certainly kill me.
     At the time that I was flying from Malta to Ethiopia, my friend Walker Stephens was completing his twentieth month of traveling around the world without airplanes. Since I'd left him in Turkey, he traveled through Georgia, Azerbaijan, and a snowy springtime Kazakhstan. He bought a donkey in Kyrgyzstan, walked twenty miles with it over several days, and had to stop because it was starving to death. He hitchhiked through the Eastern Chinese desert and ascended the Great Tibetan Plateau. The last I'd heard from him, he was crossing Laos by bike.
     He and I shared a belief that airplane travel wasn't natural for human beings, and - in a mystical, unknown way - very unhealthy.
     I often wished that, upon completion of my world travels, I might go years or the rest of my life without flying. (But I was in love with so many distant places and people, this probably wasn't feasible.)
     Ambition caused me to fly to Ethiopia, where my fifteen years of world travels would culminate. I suffered the discomfort of flying.
     From Malta to Istanbul ... I sat beside an African soccer player whose face seemed disgusted by all people who weren't cool enough to be soccer players. From Istanbul to Ethiopia ... I sat beside a North American who was addicted to thumb-clicking his phone, and who only spoke to me once, to complain that my tent poles were poking him. I should've shoved them up his a--!
     I arrived in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia on June 5th, at just after midnight.
     I felt tired. I felt scrambled, as if the pieces of my body and luggage had become separated while traveling through a teleportation machine, and come out in the wrong order.
     I was arriving in the large capital city, which I would find to be polluted, confusing, boring, depressing. Had I arrived from a neighboring country, I would've gradually become accustomed to the East African flood of lazy beggars. Addis Ababa's beggars included young guys who calmly greeted you, then followed after and chatted with you, turning themselves into your guides, and waited to share in whatever meals or beers you bought.
     It was frustrating that, nearly every time somebody spoke to me, and many times when I asked someone directions, he wanted to gain from me materially.
     The beggars whom I felt the most sympathy for were the women with young children. Seeing them, understanding that many men neglected their babies, it made me wish that we'd get rid of monogamy and capitalism for good, and all the men could work to support all the women, who - when taken care of - would live to please the men.
     But on the dirty streets of Addis Ababa, people loved money - which was especially unfortunate, because they were so poor. Once they had money, they did dirty things with it, like getting drunk, chewing a leaf called qat, and hiring prostitutes. They hung out in dark bars attached to cheap hotels, and I paid $2.40 for a room in one of them.
     In restaurants, I ate "firfir": a spicy red mixture of charred beef, eggs, moist wraps of ingera bread, and yogurt. Ethiopian food was delicious!
     One evening, the female cooks at my hotel called me into their kitchen. The girls of Ethiopia, especially the Amhara and Tigray women of the north, with their soft brown skin and sleek cheekbones and tight braids and soft purple lips, were often considered the world's prettiest. These girls served me my first Ethiopian hospitality: morsels of beef and healthy, cooked grasses, to be eaten inside shreds of injera bread. And fried "sambusas" (samosas), filled with lentils.
     I used my days to try to get things done. Mostly, I tried to figure out where I should go from Addis.
     To the north? I could learn the Amharic language, with its rich literature and its alphabet of two hundred letters. However, the Amhara people were Christians and Muslims, wore Western clothes, and may not have interested me that much.
     To the Omo River Valley of the south? In this remote area, people maintained traditional religions and walked around in the forest wearing cloths, half-naked. They pierced their ears and lower lips, then stretched out the holes so that large clay plates could fit inside them for aesthetic reasons. These people sounded wild and fascinating. But on the negative side, their cultures had become commercialized by tourism, and I might have to pay a national park fee just to be there.
     On my fifth day in Addis, I learned of a third option. The Surma tribe, in south-western Ethiopia. They were culturally similar to the people of the Omo Valley. But, they lived on the other side of the valley, opposite the national park and tourists. They knew magic, made love potions, and resisted the influence of other Ethiopians. Their jungle was full of thieves, and soldiers who might rob me at gun-point.
     Wow. I wanted to go to them!
     A professor at Addis Ababa University, named Moges Yegizu, gave me a dictionary he'd compiled of the Surma people's language. A Protestant missionary organization, which specialized in languages, told me of a German woman who lived among the Surma. She couldn't be contacted, of course - she had no internet nor telephone services.
     But, at least I'd been given direction. I ignored everyone who said I'd need a permit to visit the Surma tribe. And I began the seven-hundred kilometer hitchhiking trip on bad roads to the Surma tribe.
     To the German woman. Maybe she'd like me?
     Or maybe she'd send me into the jungle with the thieves?

The first Ethiopian to give me a ride was a young trucker who called himself, "Mandela". His short-haired head chewed qat leaves. These leaves, like cocaine, gave people energy and kept them awake.
     Mandela spoke to me happily, though we couldn't quite understand each other. He acted out famous soccer players like Messi and Christiano Ronaldo with great expression, though he only used his arms and face. He danced, shaking his shoulders and putting his hands in front of him as if her were about to do a dive.
     A member of the Guragi tribe, he drove me through one of the lushest and greenest countries I'd ever seen. Wild plants and trees resembled banana trees. The Guragi people populated this land with dark gray huts, wearing tall beehive roofs.
     Mandela dropped me in the town of Welkite. In this heat and unfamiliar humidity, I needed to eat well to stay healthy. I ordered myself "tibs". Morsels of goat meat in a buttery sauce, served with injera bread and spicy orange powder.
     Walking to the edge of town, I was chased by a drunken, white-bearded man. He shouted, "Give me! Give me! Give me!" And a sweeter girl called to me: "Money, money, money ..."
     I was picked up here by two truckers.
     As we ascended jungly mountain passes and drove beneath limestone mountains rising like parabolas, I searched for a place to camp. We passed a family of baboons, hanging out in the road as if they owned it.
     Nighttime and total darkness neared. Because the Ethiopian villages were built alongside the road, I couldn't find a place to camp where I wouldn't be noticed. Oh, no! I watched the road, worried.
     Finally, the road became clear. But, for how long? Stop! Stop the truck!!!
     I got out in the middle of nowhere, and followed a path into the jungle. Above my head in the forest, large monkeys swung from the trees. Baboons?
     I came to a clearing. I set up my tent. I armed myself with rocks and logs, in case the baboons attacked.
     Instead of baboons, the rains came. June, July, and August were the rainy season. The worst time to travel in Ethiopia.
     Rain hammered my tent. Soon, my sleeping bag was soaked. I wore my scarf and winter hat. I kept changing my socks, underwear, and t-shirts, but soon they were all wet. As a result of this night, I caught a cold.
     Nevertheless, this was still my best day so far in Ethiopia.
     And I was two hundred kilometers nearer to the Surma people!

Deuhna hoon (Good-bye),
Modern Oddyseus

Thanks to Mandela; and Derese & Meseler for rides!

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