Chapter 11: Over Yonder to Gonder
Goha Hotel, Gonder, Ethiopia…
This morning we waved Axum and the Ark good-bye. This was the apex of our trip; the furthest north we dared poke our noses without having them shot off by Eritrean troops. We trundled past the stelae fields and started south.
Today’s travels would take us through the Simian Mountains to the ancient capital of Gonder. Not to worry though, because the guidebooks told us our way was paved by beautiful Italian-made roads where wine poured from vases held by naked marble sculptures of the nine muses that lined the way. And as anyone knows, nobody can build roads like them crazy fascists.
The surface we traveled on turned out to be a ‘beautiful Italian-made road’ the same way Kraft Macaroni & Cheese is fusili formaggio. I’m sure it’s fallen into disrepair since Mussolini was here, but apparently also since the last time anyone from Lonely Planet had come this way. You could see what might have been paving stones in some places, but it looked like they had just been dumped from the back of a truck as it drove along. What’s the Italian word for ‘bumpy’?
The filling-loosening rattletrap we were going over meant we had to go much slower up and down the mountain passes. Gelada baboons would scamper out of way when they saw us coming around a switchback only to have to move again when we doubled back on the next level down. Or perhaps they were laughing at us for taking the long way.
At the top of each pass we’d consult the GPS to check our altitude, distance and direction. Then, an hour later, we’d be near the bottom and check it again. Only to learn we had gained about half a kilometer toward Gonder.
It got to be a disheartening ritual, so we gave up checking the GPS altogether and started making up bad puns off of village names. Like “Debark wasn’t bad, but I heard it’s worse than Debite.”
Jim shook his head.
“Look kids,” I said pointing at some shepherds pushing their blasé goats to market. “It’s the village people.”
Jim put a hand to his forehead. But I knew it was just to conceal his smile.
“Does this guy know the way to the Ark? Let’s stop and I’ll Aksum.”
“Stop it!” groaned Jim with a voice that was 80% laugh, 10% being upset that he had laughed and 10% trying to come up with a better one. If for nothing else to stop the kids from chanting “Maxum Flaxon lived in Aksum. Should I call or should I fax him?”
We also passed by a town called Shire. On our way to Gonder. I’ll spare you the LOTR riffing that helped pass an hour or two. But it was a pretty sweet African adaptation of the trilogy involving the one true Ark.
Even behind schedule and fearing another tire blow-out couldn’t distract us from the scenery. We were passing through the Simien Mountains where a fistful of peaks hunched their shoulders up to 4000m high. This area contained the only national park in all of Ethiopia. Even though we had traveled through half a dozen areas that easily could have qualified as national treasures.
Yet the Simien’s somehow found a way to top everything we had seen to date. Even the wide arms of the Ws in ‘wow’ weren’t wide enough to contain the natural beauty that stretched for eons all around us. UNESCO had rightfully deemed it a World Heritage Site.
Enough talk, check this out:
Yeah. It was like somebody had created a ‘best-of’ national parks park. There was something from Yellowstone. There was a peak from Zion. There was a cliff face from Banff. It looked fake. It looked like some impossibly beautiful setting you could create only if you were an all-powerful diety or had one Weta-sized special effects budget. None of us would have blinked if a brontosaurus had stuck its head above the trees.
It was clear the drive time was going to be longer than we anticipated, so we ate lunch on the fly. I became wise in the ways of knowing how very little strawberry jam it takes to turn a toddler into looking like an extra in a Sam Peckinpah movie.
While I was on laptop sandwich assembly, Jim sat in the back peeling some vegetables for us to munch on. At one point he casually tossed part of a rotting cucumber out the open window. And smacked a kid walking along the road right in the noggin.
The kid was alright, but Jim was incredibly embarrassed. “Great. I think I just created a terrorist. Death to America you cuke-loving infidels.”
Late in the afternoon, the road seemed to flatten out and the paving gave way to dirt. Unfortunatley, the silver lining in that cloud dumped a ton of rain on us. The road now became a slitherly, greased-up Slip-N-Slide that had Melissa fighting to keep the vehicle from going sideways.
After nearly 11 hours of travel, we finally hit decent dirt roads on relatively level terrain. It was much more lush than the sunbaked and dusty browns we had spent the day bouncing through.
The SUV began shaking violently and I heard a sinister ‘ssssssssssssss’ coming from outside the open window. The back right tire had gone flat.
Correction. It wasn’t a flat tire. It was a wrecked tire. A mangled tire. A destroyed tire. It looked like it had run over an entire thesaurus of ‘ruined’ and exploded off the rim.
“I don’t think a patch is going to work on that one. “ I muttered, poking it with a sandaled toe.
Jim and I set to work immediately, already far too familiar with the drill. The requisite crowd of curious and bemused villagers had already started to appear to see what we were doing and try to catch a glance inside the vehicle.
We were back on the road in short order and if we’d been a little less worried, we would have been able to enjoy a beautiful sunset. Instead it felt like that scene in every vampire movie where the heroes are racing to get to shelter before the light disappears and the creatures of the night come out.
We overshot the sharp turn that led to the hilltop Goha Hotel at first, but soon were stumbling out of the vehicle while various porters rushed to grab our luggage. We also met Jen, a friend of Melissa’s from the Embassy. She had flown into Gonder earlier in the day from Addis. Her luggage was somewhere else in Eastern Africa.
We finally got to our rooms and let the kids go wild, bouncing on the beds and letting off the energy they had so kindly kept pent up all day. Again, I have to say, they’ve been exceptionally well-behaved. All Jim or Melissa have to do is mention the cattle prod and they calm down.
After a quick wash-up we headed down to the restaurant for some dinner and our nightly, sudsy prayer to St. George. In order to get something quick, we asked for ‘national food’, which was more than fine as we were all very hungry. As we tucked into injera and spicy beef tibbes an older couple with a tour group stopped by our table.
“Are you American?” they asked.
“Well, Happy Thanksgiving.” they said. “Just in case nobody has wished you one yet today.”
We stared at each other around the table. We had forgotten it was Thanksgiving. Back home in Minnesota, everyone would just about be sitting down to the meal. I immediately had a craving for moist stuffing, beans with cream of mushroom soup and those French onions on top, and my mom’s cherry cheesecake and pumpkin pie with a dollop of fresh-made whipped cream.
Still, it was hard not to rethink on the day, look around at my friends and their giggling kids still making up rhymes using Aksum and not feel thankful.
[Coming up next…In the footsteps of Kings, Queens and lions]