23rd December 2012

Sudan, into Ethiopia, then homeward bound!

Before I set off from Khartoum, I had one job left to do - I needed to buy a cheap mobile phone that I could buy local sims for. My iPhone is brilliant at many things, but sadly inserting other sim-cards isn’t one of them, so sending texts to my nearest and dearest at 40p a go was proving rather painful! (happy Christmas to all those at 02 by the way, I hope the office party on me was a great night!!). And so I set off out of the hotel in pursuit of a new handset. After walking a couple of dusty, noisy blocks, I started to come across some shops that appeared to be selling home electrical equipment, so I chose the most likely looking one and stepped in. Inside there was a middle aged man standing behind a counter, talking to another man, possibly a customer or just a friend. “Salaam”, I said, “You sell mobile phone?” I asked in what was becoming my standard dodgy Arabised English. “no”, said the man behind the counter. “ok”, I replied “another shop here sell mobile phone?”. The man nodded a few times and made his way around the counter and out of the shop, motioning me to follow him. Once out of his shop, he swiftly proceeded down the street with me half walking, half trotting alongside him and continued for about 5 minutes until we came to another shop. I wasn’t entirely sure, as usual, what was going on, why this man had left his shop to come all this way with me or what the score was here at all, but given this man had so far given me no actual cause for concern, I decided to just let things roll and see what happened next. We entered the shop. A slightly dodgy looking individual was sitting behind the counter surrounded by hundreds and hundreds of mobile phones. My companion started to speak to the shop owner in Arabic, seemingly enquiring about handsets and prices. After a few brief questions to me about what I wanted, we managed to learn which was the cheapest phone in the shop, a humble Nokia. There then ensued some fairly animated haggling on my behalf - any arabic conversation usually sounds more aggressive than it really is, but in this case I got the impression that my companion really was fighting my corner. Eventually they settled on a price and once my companion had checked that I was happy, I handed the cash over to the shop keeper, who put the phone in a bag and presented it to me. This seemed like a good result but nonetheless I felt unsettled and disquieted. In part this feeling always arises when linguistically excluded from dealings done but on my behalf, but also from the fact that I still had no idea what my companion’s agenda was. Was he going to expect a tip for helping me? Or was this a way of currying favours with a single white female traveller? My gut was uneasy. We left the shop and after briefly stopping to pick up a sim card, the man turned to me. “oh crikey, brace yourself”, I thought, just waiting for the punch line. But I was in for a surprise. “Goodbye” the man said with a smile and a small wave, and with that he turned to walk away. I was amazed. “Please wait!”, I called. He stopped and turned. “Why have you helped me?”, I asked. The man stood and shrugged slightly, offering out his palms. “If I no help you”, he replied, “bad for you in shops here because you no local. So I must go with you so you pay good price. Better for you this way.” I was amazed - this man had abandoned his shop, walked well out of his way, bargained with a shop owner and taken all this time with no motivation other than simply to help a stranger from a foreign land. “Well thank you”, I said most sincerely, shaking his hand, “thank you very much, you are very kind.” “no problem”, he said gently, turning away. “if you need me again you know where I am”, he called with a final wave and within seconds had disappeared back into the busy throng. I wasn’t sure whether to be more stunned by this man’s kindness or ashamed of my having cynically suspected an ulterior motive. But particularly after having been so relentlessly seized upon for money by so many of the Egyptians I had only so recently encountered, this artless generosity was a completely unfamiliar but a very welcome surprise. With a renewed faith in humanity, I returned to the hotel and finished my packing.

Given I was still a little under the weather cold wise, I decided that the first day back in the saddle should be an easy one, only 100miles or so to the large town of Madani. I’d checked google maps before leaving the hotel and was quite sure that it would be fairly easy to pick up the correct south easterly road from the hotel. Indeed after a bit of a scramble out of town, I found myself on a beautiful wide band of Tarmac heading in a straight line in what I believed to be exactly the right direction. After a couple of kilometres I decided to celebrate the navigational victory with a fuel top up and pulled into a smart looking petrol station. The smiling attendant duly did his job and as the petrol level steadily rose, I asked him “Madina?” pointing down the road, hoping for some confirmation. The smiling man nodded vigorously. Elated, I paid up and set off down the road. Alas my jubilation was short-lived. Within 3 kilometres, the Tarmac suddenly disappeared and the path swung into some gravelly, sandy ruts. This was undoubtedly a worrying development but I hoped that this was just a short section of road under repair or construction. After all, one or two trucks were up ahead, so surely this was the right path? I set off down the track. The bike was sliding sickeningly all over the place in this soft sand as I struggled to pick the easiest line, hoping to see some blacktop on the horizon. Alas we continued on a few kms, passing one or two cars along the way. I tried to flag them down with a wave to check this was the right route, but each car mistook my wave for a friendly gesture, cheerily waved back and kept on driving - rather disheartening. Having passed one or two small villages, the track was descending into ever worsening sand and there were no other vehicles on the path. I was completely alone. Surely this couldn’t be the major route to Madina? “right Claire”, I told myself, “just stop everything for a moment, there’s no hurry, look around a bit further than your front tyre, what can you see? Any clues out there?”. Alas I didn’t have long to check as my pep talk was interrupted by the crazed barking of several wild dogs that were running towards me at a terrifying speed. “s**t!” I yelled in my helmet, clicked the bike into first gear and sped off hell for leather down these deep sandy ruts faster than you can say “rabies”, making the occasional kicking gesture to one particular mongrel who was getting rather closer to my ankles than I liked. After a good few kilometres, once I was quite sure they had given up, I stopped the bike once again and sighed heavily. It was really hard work riding in this stuff particularly as I was unable to breathe at all properly through my nose and the searing heat wasn’t helping. Free of those dogs, I was now able to take a proper look around myself and to my great delight in the distance I spotted some electricity pylons running at an angle in the direction of this sandy path! And even better, I spotted a big truck hurtling along the same route - if I kept going, soon enough I was going to collide with a major road - what joy!! I steadily rode to the end of this epic track and with true delight, spotted the signs of a potholed piece of asphalt….alongside two gun-toting soldiers. They didn’t look happy as they both rose to question me as I slowly approached. Having had some experience of potentially problematic armed check point soldiers in Kosovo however, I had an inkling that I knew what to do. One of the soldiers came over and bellowed something to do with a passport and my purpose. I took off my helmet, beamed my most disarming smile at the stern guard and implored “I’m so terribly sorry, I was very lost, horrible to drive here on motosickle, very scary!” I said, pointing at my bike and making agonised faces at them to lend a bit of colour to proceedings, “I’m trying to get to Madina”, I continued, allowing no gap in my monologue for any awkward questions. The man blinked at me, clearly a bit surprised by the rather strange girl on the motorbike. “OK”…he said very slowly, thumbing my passport. “Madina, which way please?” I asked with another grin. The man explained that I needed to go left and then right to join the main road. “Great”, I said, “Shukran!” with a big smile beaming with relief, which this time was warmly reciprocated by the soldier. Phew! How glad I was to be back onto the straight and narrow, in more ways than one!

Eventually I arrived into Madina and after briefly enquiring a local policeman as to where a decent hotel might be found, pulled up at the crumbling “Continental hotel”. This old colonial building must have been incredibly beautiful at some point, but by now there was something very faded about its grandeur and set as it was deep in a sprawling garden, I feared it might not be long before it was entirely reclaimed by nature. I checked in, locked Suzi up safely, unpacked my things and went for a nap. A little later I popped out to another hotel I’d heard about for dinner and to use their wifi, as I was beginning to hatch a plan to be home for Christmas and I was really keen to check out my flight options. As a result of all of this Internet scouring, I eventually arrived back at the hotel at 10pm only to realise that if I intended to do a big ride the next day, which for a variety of reasons seemed a good idea, I’d need to be sure of a good breakfast early doors.

I approached the young man sitting behind the reception desk and asked “excuse me, is breakfast served here in the mornings?”. He looked at me a little quizzically. “No” he replied with a smile. “ok, in that case, is there a shop nearby where I could buy some supplies now? Hopefully not far away as I…” but I didn’t get to finish my sentence as the young man had already sprung to his feet and was leading the way out of the hotel. I followed, assuming he was about to point out a shop from the hotel’s entrance. In actual fact, he opened the door of a car that was parked outside the hotel and motioned for me to get in. I was puzzled. “No, I want to walk to a shop?” I reiterated. “No, I take you to big shop” he replied, motioning again for me to get in. I exhaled slowly. How these situations evolved so quickly from a perfectly simple question into moments later being invited into a strangers car, I would never know. A million thoughts threatened to rushed through my head, but I knew this situation could be settled on one simple question - Could I trust him? For some reason, I decided the answer was yes. I got into the car.

As the young man reversed the vehicle off the pavement into a stream of oncoming traffic, he extended his arm over to me and gave me a small handful of some very small, flat, oval shaped nuts, then took one from his remaining pile, crunched it enthusiastically between his teeth, spat the shell out of the window and cruised on down the road. I decided to try one of these nuts myself and put one gingerly into my mouth. Alas this nut crunching skill was one I had not yet acquired and my first attempt resulted in a bitter tasting lump of hard, dry, cardboard-like shell in my mouth. My facial expression must have betrayed my thoughts on the matter as the man laughed openly, saying “you not eat these before?”. I laughed too and shook my head. He demonstrated the correct technique for me and I tried again but without a vast deal more luck. We continued driving for 5 or 10 minutes before I started to grow a little nervous. Had I been mad to get into this car? Where were we actually going? Soon enough however, we stopped outside a fruit stand. “you want bananas, yes?” I confirmed that I did, so we got out and I gestured to the vendor that I would like 3 bananas. Unfortunately as was so often the case, the vendor would only sell his fruit in multiples of kilos not individual pieces, so I was prepared to walk away as I had no room for 1 kilo of bananas, and explained this to my companion. Before I knew what was happening though, he had taken out his wallet, bought a kilo of bananas and presented it to me. “for you” he said. “take how much you want. you also want strawberries or oranges?” My heart sank. I didn’t wish to be bought gifts by a man like this, even if it was just bananas - in my experience, this spelled trouble and should not be encouraged. Alas despite my best efforts to give him the money and regain control of the situation, my companion would not accept it and just chuckled. “what other things you need?” he asked. I was by now a little reluctant to tell him as I feared he would continue buying things for me, so I explained I wanted bread, cheese and water but that I absolutely would pay for these things myself. He chuckled again to himself and led me to the shop. Having selected what I needed and having won my battle to pay this time, we returned to the car.

Once we were nearly back at the hotel, I asked the man how long he had worked at the hotel. “no”, he replied casually, “I don’t work there”. “WHAT? But you were at reception??” I asked, thoroughly thrown by this development. “no, my friend he owns the hotel, I had to use the Internet there. I work as tax inspector” he explained, adding “everybody hates me!!” with a wicked laugh. By this point we had arrived back at the hotel so he mounted the pavement once again and we both got out. Once again I found myself amazed at this man’s genuine kindness and also ashamed that I had doubted him. “goodbye” he said, about to walk off down the street. “wait!” I said, “thank you for your help, I’m really grateful, you’re very kind”. “No”, he corrected me gently with a smile, “I am Sudanese, I must be generous”. And with that and a handshake, he was gone.

Next day, packed with my breakfast goodies, I managed to set off at just gone 7.30am and headed off on the long 250 mile stretch to the border town of Metema. This was to be my first African border crossing alone and I was ready! Or so I thought. I knew this border town, like so many, would be a dodgy, seedy place crawling with undesirables, but had hoped that the Sudanese side at least might be fairly civilised. Wrong. The town of Metema is an incredibly busy place, teaming with people, trucks, fumes, dust, donkeys and general confusion. I decided to keep things simple and rode past a long line of stationery heavy goods vehicles and proceeded to what I thought was the first checkpoint. First error. The leering border guards informed me that I needed to go first to immigration, passport control and the office for national security. “where are they?” I asked, looking around - all I could see was unsignposted compounds and row upon row of shacks. A man scurried up the steep, sandy bank towards the road where I was sitting. “this man help you. Follow him” they boomed. Without much of a choice before me, I did as I was told and gingerly rode down this steep bank towards some of the shacks. Already I was feeling stressed. There was no order to any of this - no signposts, nothing. I had wanted to sort all this out myself but already I could see i’d have trouble. The official helper (as he liked to refer to himself, pointing to a fairly meaningless looking badge around his neck) gestured for me to park up next to some particularly dubious looking individuals. No sooner had I dismounted, I was surrounded by these men, all demanding to know my name, where I was from, did I want to change money, circling me like lions weighing up their prey with nothing but greed in their eyes. I was not impressed and tried to brush them off as I followed my helper to the first of many unmarked offices. This routine continued as we would walk from one office to the next, the pack around me would grow in size and the hassling would intensify, the men coming closer and closer, one grabbing my arm for attention and all of them really getting in my face. I was really gruff with them and clearly insisted “no” to all of their offers, but the message just didn’t seem to be getting through. Once I had finally finished in the last of these offices, I steeled myself for the final burst of this rabble and made my way back to the bike. Unfortunately these men sensed my imminent departure and upped the ante even further, crowding around me as I tried to get onto Suzi and even touching the handlebars. That was the final straw for me. “ENOUGH!” I yelled, my eyes flashing with rage. “Get AWAY from me - you are a DISGRACE!” I boomed, eyeing each and every one of them and looking ready to attack. I held my gaze on them and my posture for a minute and waited for their response. This burst of anger and strength seemed to really surprise them and thankfully they backed right off. Much as I was happy to have shaken these parasitic men off at last, I wasn’t amused that I’d had to resort to such aggression to get there - I prefer to go firmly but politely and peacefully in difficult situations but unfortunately this one had gone beyond that.

There wasn’t much time to dwell on this however as just across the traffic cone demarcating the border with Ethiopia, all this fun was set to be played out once again on the other side. The usual undesirables were waiting outside the passport office as I dismounted and reluctantly left Suzi outside. There was nothing I could do but leave her there, but I didn’t like these men and I wasn’t comfortable. Passport control was swiftly dealt with in an office that displayed a large calendar showing December’s picture of an ice cold pint of lager with beads of condensation dripping down the glass. It’d been a long time since my last cold beer given Sudan’s very strict control over alcohol and on this very hot day, nothing in the world looked more appealing than this poster. In any case once I was finished here, the kind official came outside to point me the way to the customs building. It was less than 100 metres away up a winding little lane just off the main drag, but still he discreetly told me “take your bike with you” just before yelling at the crowd of men who had gathered around Suzi, dispersing them for long enough for me to mount up and get over to customs.

After a 15minute wait for the customs office to reopen again after “lunch” (at 3pm!), the bike’s carnet was soon processed by a friendly official wearing a brightly coloured t-shirt (what a refreshing change after over a month of uniform robes and turbans!). While I was in the tin-shed office, a smiling woman came in carrying a large, colourful dish made of grass matting, from which she offered me some fresh popcorn. I took two pieces and smiled, saying “Shukran!”. The customs official laughed. “we don’t speak Arabic here! In Amharic we say “amesege’nallo!” “oh dear, sorry!” I laughed, before trying and entirely failing to repeat this word he had just said, causing him (as well as a few locals) to laugh all over again. This one wasn’t the easiest phrase to remember but I was going to have to learn! In any case after a few waves and smiles to the little crowd of women who had gathered next to a neighbouring office (something to do with infant health), I was about to put my helmet on, when one quietly called something to me. I stopped what I was doing asked her to repeat it. “We admire you” she said with the most wonderful warm little smile “very brave”. Immediately my hand went to my heart, I felt really touched. “Thank you” I said to her. “Thank you very much”. This was the first chat I had had with any kind of local African woman since I had arrived on the continent really given that most had either been hidden away at home or swamped under cloth - how I had missed them.

It was by now about 3.30pm and it was 100 miles to Gondar, the third largest city in Ethiopia where some of my earlier over-landing friends were also hanging out for a few days. I reasoned that with 3 hours left til darkness fell, I would have plenty of time to cover this 100 miles, but alas I had totally failed to consider that the terrain would completely change almost as soon as I crossed the border - goodbye desert, hello very steep, lush green mountain pastures! Not only that, but the road was lined almost without interruption with village after village, where children roamed with no sense at all of road hazards and likewise donkeys, cows and goats would stroll with terrifying unpredictability. But for all of the stress that these new hazards presented, it was still a joy to be forced to slow down like this - immediately I was loving the vibrancy of Ethiopia - everywhere was colourful, not only shop signs and buildings but also the clothes that were worn, bright purples, pinks and yellows were everywhere, as were women! After nearly 2 months of all male, Muslim societies, it was lovely to see my fellow ladies out and about again. Every child (and a lot of the adults too) were really keen to wave and shout in delight as I rode past - what a welcome! Eventually after 3 hours I arrived into Gondar in the dark and met up with my friends at the hotel they had found - what a great reunion (and the beer has never tasted better!)

The highlight of the next day was the visit to the ancient church of Debre Berhan Selassie, of which the softly spoken Deacon gave us a wonderful personal tour. This church was one of the most peaceful I have ever visited, set within a large walled garden where the only sound to be heard was the gentle calls of the roosting doves. This Christian church is unusual in design as it was built to resemble the same shape as Noah’s ark, but the inside is even more remarkable - every surface of the interior is covered in painted images. The ceiling is littered like stars with hundreds of angels’ faces staring down at whoever stands beneath them, while the walls depict important scenes for the bible for those members of the congregation who, several hundred years ago when the church was built, were not able to read the bible and therefore relied on these pictures to remind them of the stories of their faith. While I would describe myself as a spiritual person, I am not a religious one, but regardless I was amazed by the power of this building - undoubtedly so much care and love had gone into its design and adornment at the time of its construction that was still so tangible in the present day (in part thanks to the thoughtful watch of our remarkable guide, the Deacon), that it truly was a remarkable place to be.

The final highlight of Ethiopia was our day trip up to the Simien mountains. The scenery was stunning and it was a real delight to sit amongst the unique Gelada monkeys who live there undisturbed in their own beautiful and fascinating groups. Despite all of this, the most lasting memory of this day will be one little girl whose name I’ll never know. We were driving in our minibus down from the mountains and had stopped in a major town up there to drop off our mandatory ranger. We had attracted lots of kids as we crawled through the town, all calling out “give me pen, give me money” to us, but as we waited behind one particular road blockage, this young girl, probably 9 years of age, called to us through the window. “Give me plastic!” she cried, much to all our bewilderment. “what does she want plastic for?” everyone asked. “Crikey, this one goes straight for the credit card!” I joked, but we were all puzzled to know what she had meant. As the road blockage cleared, we started moving down through the town, gathering speed as the traffic all seemed to have cleared at once. But instead of giving up, this feisty little thing ran after us. And ran, and ran, and ran. “give me!” she cried smilingly as she sped as fast and gracefully as a gazelle along a wall and over a variety of obstacles in her way as she maintained her chase. Every so often we collectively gasped as she narrowly avoided a variety of potentially very dangerous mishaps, but she never once faltered. On her feet she wore a thoroughly battered old pair of plastic slippers but from her stride you wouldn’t have known she was wearing anything less than the finest running shoes. We were all amazed not only by her grace (broken only every few dozen strides as she quickly hitched up her leggings whose elastic had long since abandoned active service) but also by her stamina - I don’t know how long she followed us for but one thing was for sure, she wasn’t giving up in a hurry. What struck me most though was her most serene, peaceful facial expression, showing no sign of her physical exertion or stress, just focus on the chase, half childish game, half serious mission. Eventually we came to a halt and she caught up with us, approached one of the windows and smiled to us most appealingly. Someone handed her a few bananas and a plastic bottle of water through an open window - she squealed with delight. Suddenly we were on the move again and instead of ending it there, she ran after us again, now followed by what must have been her little brother. Coming to a stop, I managed to get my camera out just before we hit the main exit road out of town. I gestured that I wanted to take her picture and she realised just in time for me to get a shot. As we rolled away for the last time, she ran a few metres and then stopped, blew us some kisses and waved goodbye. An extraordinary girl, so full of life, sparky spirit and fun. She may have lived in poverty but to me she showed a grace, elegance and vitality that was fit for a queen.

And so here I am, now back in the UK for Christmas before I head back on 9th Jan. I wish you all a very merry Christmas and a Happy New Year with your loved ones. ‘til 2013!!