"Rest of the World 2013-14" story # 42

Kafa Region, Ethiopia           June 21, 2014

I loved the rain, when it wasn't in my sleeping bag.
     Before I'd entered my tent on my first night of camping in Ethiopia, I took off all my clothes and stood in the rain.
     Suddenly, my thoughts turned to the baboons. The baboons didn't have a tent to seek shelter in, I thought with concern. I wondered what they did when it rained. I fantasized about them coming to join me, so we could do a naked baboon rain dance.
     They wouldn't come, however, until morning. I was sitting around, waiting for the sun to dry my tent and clothes as they hung in trees. I heard a three-foot-tall guy as he walked from the forest to my clearing, saw me, croaked "Kwakka!" while obviously terrified, and ran to the forest. Hidden from me, he continued to gargle. Overhead, huge spider monkeys swung from tree to tree like a family of migrants. My neighbors weren't baboons, but spider monkeys!
     They were colored like skunks. White bushy tails hung to four feet below their bodies. A white-bearded old monkey and his friends sat in the trees and watched me. One monkey nudged another and said, "Look. Faranji!"
     (Ethiopians loved staring at foreigners, whom they called, "Faranjis".)
     They moved effortlessly in the trees. One simply let go of the branch he was perched on, and dropped ten feet to the branch below.
     I made sure to not go too far away from my bags, because I didn't want the monkeys to steal them. It would've been difficult to explain to my embassy how I'd lost my passport.
     "A baboon stole it."
     "Yeah. Really. Well, no. Actually, it was a spider monkey. A skunk monkey. A skunkey."
     I wondered if, while watching me, the monkeys could sense my energy? Could they tell if I was a good or bad person?
     I left my neighbors behind, and went to hitchhike. A truck stopped. I got in with my bags, practically crushing the two young women who sat beside the driver.
     The girl next to me, Tse-abot, spoke to me with her spirit as soft as her skin-color. Wasn't I scared to sleep beside wild animals? she asked. I said, I keep rocks in my tent for defense. Later, she said the Surma people I was going to visit were dangerous and might try to rob me. No problem, I said, I'd just pick up the nearest rock. She laughed and said the robbers would be too many.
     I traveled this day through villages and green jungle. Past muddy rivers. Beneath giant baobabs sprinkling the air with their green leaves.
     As I slowly neared the Surma Region, I was given more and more warnings of what awaited me there: The Surma were killing Ethiopians! ... They were fighting with neighboring tribes! ... The Surma were killing Surma, in a bloody civil war!
     There were lions in the forest! ... Elephants! ... Hyenas! "Are the hyenas big?" "Like donkeys."
     I found another forest clearing to camp in that second night. Large, wild boars grazed peacefully outside my tent. During the night, I heard animals that sounded like hippoes, orangutans, loud "WOOP!"ing birds. I heard a joker's laughter.
     The peacefulness of this place kept me from worrying. If the hyenas were hungry enough to attack, I'd try to fight them off but stay in my tent ...
     Of course, the hyenas didn't attack; they rarely ate humans. And despite the warnings, I would encounter no more large animals on this trip.

But, that didn't mean it was going to be easy.
     As I walked through many villages carrying my heavy bags and sweating, the lazy locals annoyed me with their shouts of "You! You! You!" They called me to them so they could beg, chased me, crowded around me, laughed at me. Standing in my hitchhiking position, I felt like a donkey tied to a tree while kids were throwing stones at it.
     I bought avocados and mangoes, which the locals were selling. "Super-foods." They gave me the energy to go on.
     The road led me through a forest of tall, towering, thin trees that were bare except for ash leaves at their tops. This was the land of the Kafa people. It was in this forest, thanks to plants that grew lower to the ground, where coffee originated.
     That night, in the neighboring countryside, I snuck past a hut in search of a campsite. I walked among corn crops, where insects buzzed so loudly it hurt my ears.
     In the early morning, my tent was greeted by rain. I put the end of my sleeping bag in a garbage bag, and I used my towel to soak up any puddles that invaded my home. I stayed dry and happy.
     And I awoke to a view of jungly hills and rainforest mountains; the cone of a thatched hut sat amidst all this green, with mist oozing off of it towards purple blue clouds.
     Peaceful villagers - staring children and gray-bearded men - appeared and surrounded me. They invited me to their hut for coffee. Kafa coffee. Kafa coffee Kafa coffee Kafa coffee. It sounded good!
     They led me to the hut I'd snuck past in the night. We sat outside.
     Suddenly, another crowd of villagers appeared behind us. They huddled together. Their upper bodies were wrapped in white cotton. They slowly approached us, taking small steps. They lowered their heads and cried. They wailed. "Aaah-aah-ah-uh!" Their cries were eerie, unsettling, sad.
     An English-speaking person informed me, "This is a death ceremony."
     The villagers reached the hut. The crying grew louder. A pretty mother appeared at her door. Her mouth and eyes cried in pain. She held up a small t-shirt. She held up a small pair of pants.
     "Was the dead person from this house?" I asked the man sitting next to me.
     Yes. She was a small girl. She died yesterday. "How did she die?" She went to the forest to gather fire-wood. She pulled the wood down on her head. Her father rushed with her to the health clinic. But, she couldn't be saved.
     I felt sad. And I hoped nobody considered the arrival of a faranji in a tent, so soon after a death, to be a bad omen.
     The villagers stopped crying. Everyone sat down. We were served corn nuts, and coffee in small porcelain cups. The coffee tasted liquidy, earthy, and rich. It seemed to fit into these forested hills.
     The English-speaking guy led me back to the road.
     And I continued my journey to the Surma tribe.

A paved road brought me to within two hundred kilometers of my destination. After this, I proceeded on a hilly dirt road covered with bumps and carved with grooves. Vehicles rarely appeared, as I hitchhiked. A fancy pick-up truck gave me a ride, and we drove only sixty kilometers in three hours.
     A dump truck welcomed me to sit atop its very tall backside. I joined seven other passengers in ducking tree branches and suffering the heat of the sun. A loveable (drunk?) guy sat on the edge, so he could quickly escape in case the truck rolled over. A peaceful-looking police officer sat holding his AK-47, which occasionally pointed at me.
     The dump truck rolled through a lush green savannah of rice fields and crooked savannah trees and rising mountains. Exotic birds flew past my head. Birds with turquoise wings and pink bodies. Bright yellow weavers. Black birds that turned irridescent blue in the sun. This ride made me terribly happy.
     It left me in the remote town of Dima. Ethiopia's "gold rush" town. In the village before Dima, gold hunters had told me they'd had to abandon their search because the nearby Surma people kept harrassing them. They also said, the Surma stole their cattle.
     In Dima, I saw very dark people. They wore dark green cloths, which extended from their right shoulders to their thighs. My eyes widened. The men's right buttocks and penises, and the women's left boobs, were often visible. These were the Surma people!
     Wow. I only needed to travel forty more miles to reach the German woman who might help me stay with these people. Thus far, I'd traveled six hundred kilometers and only given money to one driver. I'd been able to advance without any permits.
     But, I was still nervous about what was to come.
     I found another ride - one I'd have to pay for. I sat in the front seat of a truck whose backside was loaded with Surma people. The truck stopped at a police checkpoint, so it could load up more Surma people.
     A thin man joined me in the front of the truck. He spoke wobbly English and seemed harmless. He was a Surma person in Western clothes. His name was "Bugu". He said he'd help me. Good.
     To make it sound like I belonged here, I told him I was going to the German woman and to an American Protestant pastor named John. Bugu said, with his usual wobbliness, "Mr. John is my father! I live with him." He said to me, happily: "I believe with you!"
     Believe what?
     My attention turned now to a drunken Surma man, wearing a khaki military uniform, who stood outside the truck and pointed at me. He shouted angrily in his language. He held a spear-pole without the tip, and his body language suggested he wanted to shove it at my throat.
     I guessed that he thought I was coming for religious missionary purposes, and he wanted to protect his people's traditions.
     He disappeared. Into the checkpoint office. And he returned ... with an AK-47!
     He shouted at me through the windshield. He was joined by a plain-clothed, military friend who also held an AK-47. Maybe I shouldn't have tried journeying to the Surma region?
     "What's he saying?" I asked Bugu. Bugu would help me. Bugu. My buddy, Bugu.
     He translated:
     "He says, 'You must give me 300 birr ($15).' I'm a militia."
     So, the angry man didn't care about traditions? He just wanted money.
     But, wait a minute. It didn't sound like Bugu was 'translating', but just giving me orders himself. "You?" I said. "I must give you 300 birr?"
     "Yes," said Bugu. "Me. I'm a militia. See? I've got my uniform right here." I recognized that his wobbliness was, in fact, drunkenness. He reached into his bag, pulled out a khaki uniform, and clumsily put it on.
     Now, I felt trapped. Why was it taking my driver so long to load the people into the truck? I pushed my way out, past Benedict Bugu. I didn't need to visit the Surma region, if it was this unfriendly!
     At the back of the truck, I searched for the non-Surma driver. I found myself another ally: a chubby, tenth-grade boy. He mediated between me and the militia men. And he helped me resolve the issue. I would pay the driver for the ride, and that was all.
     We drove away from the checkpoint. My driver, me, a passed-out Bugu, and a truckload of Surma people.
     We entered the land of the Surma. We drove through a flat land of tall grass and savannah trees, where we couldn't see thirty feet to our right nor our left.
     As we bounced our way down the bumpy road, the people in the back of our truck sang:
     "Ay-ay-ah-ya! Hey-ey-ey ...!"
     They were happy to be going home.

the Modern Oddyseus

Thanks to Asad, Rael, & Tse-abot; Ibrahim Kenea & Johannes; Bushidao; Ashebi & Ashebi; Antena & Jeon Seung-Yong; 1 man, Indulk, & Shet; driver & Tumro; Haju & Jamal; Zed & Getacho; Kashon, Shetu, & Wushet; Girma Tizazu; and Netsano for rides!

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