Buna & Bread: An Ethiopian Adventure

Chapter 13: The Lights of Addis

Addis Ababa, Ethiopia…

After Melissa and Jim had put the kids to bed and Jim put Melissa to bed soon after, he came back down to the hotel bar for a drink with Jen and I. This was our last night on the road and the ‘fanciest’ place we had stayed, so we decided to stay up later and celebrate.

The bar was designed to look like a traditional Ethiopian hut—round with a thatched roof. The adjacent lounge area had rough-hewn wooden tables with thatched umbrellas underneath which sat prostitutes with bad wigs and warm sodas. The barstools were camel saddles on legs and, while not terribly comfortable, were irresistible to sit on. We sipped on several more rounds of St. George, Harrar and Bati beers. We even ordered a round of 10 year-old Dimple whiskey which, judging by the amount of dust the bartender rubbed off the bottle, had aged an extra ten years in the bottle.

It seemed to take about five or six of the bar staff to process any tab. There was a cash register, but everything was added up by a manager-type and seemingly argued over by the rest of the group. They muttered back and forth, scribbling and scratching on piles of paper scraps and exchanging and re-exchanging worn bills. They were all middle-aged men in outdated tuxedos, giving them the look of an unemployed group of Motown back-up singers.

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Jim and I wrapped up the evening with a final round of mini-boules in my room while finishing off the bottle of Jameson I had brought from the duty-free store in Amsterdam. I won the match, clinching the bowling gold in the Ethiopian Travel Games. However, Jim reminded me he was still the Himalayan Games champion. We agreed that the rubber match would be settled on a different continent. Then we agreed that a best out of seven matches would be best.

I closed my window to keep out any Curious Georges and slid under my mosquito netting. It fell on top of me at some time in the night, but I was too tired and toasty to care. I did have a split second of panic upon awakening, fearing that an ambitious spider had gone all Sheloub on me.

The hotel had a fairly sizable buffet set up for breakfast and we decided it would be the quickest thing to get us fed and on the way back to Addis. It was good to get a little variety in the diet from the usual injera, beef tibbes and pasta with tomato sauce we seemed to be feeding on. Then Reeve pointed out the birds flitting around the high-ceilinged room. They settled on a light fixture and began pooping into the chafing dishes.

Check please.

We had one more long day of driving ahead of us and we were going to make it longer to minimize our risk of another tire blow-out. That meant going out of our way to stay on paved roads as much as possible and keeping our speed down, so the mismatched tire wouldn’t wobble us into a ditch.

It was market day, so the roads were full of sack-laden donkeys, women with impossible loads balanced on their heads and men prodding livestock with their dulas. The worn walking sticks would emerge from their rough woolen robes to nudge wayward animals. Usually with the end result being to push them right into our path.

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Every village seemed to specialize in a different product. We went through lumber town, woven matville and charcoal city. On one stretch there were kids every couple kilometers standing by the roadside offering jars of honey-flavored tej or recycled bottles with araki (a homebrewed liquor that also seemed to be a cure for sight). All around them would be open fields and forests. I had no idea how far home was.

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On the outskirts of one village, a massive eagle floated down with wings locked to check out some unidentifiable roadkill. Sadly, it chose to do so right as we were driving over aforementioned roadkill. There was an avian-sounding ‘thunk’ and a fireball of feathers. Melissa made me go out and see if it was stuck in the grill, but it seemed to have disintegrated. Just our luck, we would encounter the one eagle with astigmatism.

But our greatest apprehension was reserved for our descent into the Blue Nile Gorge. Sure, I was eager to see the source of the Nile that had eluded so many people and captivated so many imaginations for so long. But I wasn’t looking forward to descending over 1000m of razor-rocked switchbacks. But the gorge is some 400km long, so going around it wasn’t a viable option. And since it’s nearly as deep as the Grand Canyon, we weren’t keen on trying to jump it with a rocket-powered motorcycle either.

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The big question was would the tires hold? Would we be stranded? A priest stood, placid and statuesque, near the top of the gorge by a small shrine. Maybe we should have stopped? I kept praying “Get us home safe and soon. Safe and soon. Safe and soon.” over and over again, my crossed fingers gripping the door handle tighter with every axle-bending bump. Would a joke about the tires relax us or jinx us? Best to just keep quiet and not mention the tires. Shhhhhh. Don’t even think about the tires.

Let’s talk about the Blue Nile instead. Did you know it joins the White Nile in Khartoum and provides the Nile with nearly two-thirds of its water? Or that it takes some of its water six months to reach the sea? During the rainy season, it floods to fifty times its size and takes much needed soil and nutrient rich silt into Egypt, which made the whole Egyptian culture possible. Was that the hiss of a leaking tire? No? Good.

We made it to the bridge over the Blue Nile, but there wasn’t much to look at. First off, we were jaded by all the scenery we had seen the previous nine days. Plus, the water level was way down and the gorge is considered a military site, so they don’t take kindly to people stopping and snapping a ton of photos. At least that’s what we imagined the guys with the AK-47s staring at us would say. It’d be funny if one of them were one of the soldiers who had Jim and I had the staring contest with at the airport outside of Lalibela.

This was the halfway point, but we still needed to climb out the other side. Which was like driving through a quarry. And not just because of all the inbound construction equipment that thundered downhill at us, kicking up shrouds of gray dust. I leaned around each turn to check for vehicles and hoping to see what the guidebooks told us would be a paved road built by the Japanese. But all I saw was the jawline of another switchback fanged with jagged granite.

“Safe and soon. Safe and soon. Safe and soon.”

After ninety minutes, we saw a ribbon of flat black extending a helping hand out to us. It may have been one of the most beautiful sites of the trip.

“Domo ari gato, Mr. Roboto!” I sighed. And then played Mr. Roboto on the iPod.

Our mood brightened substantially, but we still had a long way to go. Road signs were no help. One would say 110 km to Addis Ababa. The next one wouldn’t even mention it. Then the next one would say 203 km to Addis Ababa. We just kept driving, knowing that we would get there when we got there.

The sun grew big and orange and then slipped out of its skin, right down to a pure pink sphere, dipping itself into indigo and then saying good night. We reached the hills outside of Addis in the dark. The lights seemed to stretch on forever, filling the valley with soft firefly glows still wavering in the remnants of the day’s dissipating heat.

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Hungry, tired and elated, we headed right for Jim and Melissa’s favorite Chinese restaurant: The Forbidden City. We were rewarded with plates of soft eggplant, steamed pork dumpling and wilted spinach with enough garlic to keep you vampire-free for life.

We clinked our bottles of St. George, congratulating ourselves on the voyage. We have no ideal what the chain-smoking group of meaty-faced Russians were singing about at the next table, but we’d like to think they were congratulating us as well.

[Coming up next: Who says white men can’t run…]

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2 responses to “Buna & Bread: An Ethiopian Adventure

  1. By the time I got to the bit about the guano garnish I was beginning to think that this is my kind of travelling – just reading about it from the comfort of my chair. The switchback surfing section convinced me. Bring on the tales of the white men running…

  2. Dick,

    I would highly recommend the trip. Especially Lalibela and Gonder. Think of the reports the kids could write in school.

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