Last days in Ethiopia

We left Lalibela early in the morning and reached Bahir Dar by 4pm. This is how we would have liked to introduce this part of the text, but alas, it all came differently. When we stopped on the dirt road just some 40kms after Lalibela, Jan’s bike refused to start again. We soon realized it was the battery, but after checking all fuses, cables and trying to jump start it from Anne’s bike we also had to see we could not fix it ourselves. A small crowd had gathered around us at this time, the older women busy shoo-ing away the younger ones (who were very unimpressed by this), and when a truck stopped and offered to give us a lift to the next town, we were very happy to accept. Jan went on the truck with Hamba-Hamba (and tried his best to keep it from toppling over during the very bumpy ride), and Anne drove behind. In Geshena, the next “town” and crossroads, we tracked down a guy who had a battery charger. Unfortunately, they had a power cut just when we arrived, but they turned up a generator from somewhere (both things very TIA ;-)). We spent several hours in Geshena, trying to jumpstart the bike with a Tuk-Tuk battery, then directly with a car, rolling the bike up and down, stripping it, putting it back together – until we finally had to make a decision either to stay there for the night, and hope that a whole night of charging would do the trick (provided there was no power cut and the generator would not fail), or try and find someone willing to take the bike on his truck to Bahir Dar. Not being able to speak Amharic always means that we have to rely on finding some people who do, and who also speak enough English to understand us. We had found the battery-loading guy only thanks to another guy on the truck who stayed with us and translated, and we only found the truck to take us to Bahir Dar thank to yet another guy. With the tips these guys got from us, plus the tip for the first truck driver from Lalibela to Geshena, plus the fee for the battery charger and the second truck driver to Bahir Dar, and then tips for him and the guys who helped us load and unload the bikes, and then of course the tips for another Amharic-English translator in Bahir Dar and the fees for the guy who actually MANAGED to repair the battery…

We actually don’t know how much it cost us in the end, but it was still definitely less than the rear shock we had to have shipped to Dar es Salaam. Plus, we had an unforgettable experience: How else would the two of us had gotten on an unforgettable truck ride through one of the most beautiful parts of Ethiopia? After loading both bikes on the truck (both bikes, because we knew we would not arrive before 10pm, and did not want one of us to ride alone in the dark, let alone the expected rain), we first drove on the back of the truck to three different spots in the countryside to load huge sacks of lentils and peas – which very nicely stabilized the bikes on the truck :-). When the truck was loaded to the brim, we put a cover on top and then squeezed with Josef, the young “loader” guy (his official title being Assistant Driver), on the passenger seat in the driver cabin. The truck driver shared his Khat leaves with us, and we shared our last Tanzanian peanuts. All this with maybe 5 English words understood on their side, and 2 Amharic on our side. This way got along jolly well, but when we reached Bahir Dar at night, the language barrier proved again to be quite difficult. Turned out our driver had planned to drop us off at the hotel and return the next morning with the bikes to unload. We had understood that we would unload the sacks of peas and lentils first, and then drive to our hotel to unload the bikes. We were very tired after the long drive (the Khat had not helped as much as promised), but Anne was very unwilling to let the bikes get out of our sight. It must unfortunately have looked like a deep distrust for the truck driver and Josef, but how to explain with no Amharic that these bikes feel like they are a part of our body by now? In the end, and once again with the help of many people, we shifted the sacks and managed to get the bikes down from the truck – sweating like pigs and breaking a metal ladder in the process. Jan’s battery was still broken, but we had made it, and we were in Bahir Dar at Lake Tana, and our bed had a clean sheet and the shower was hot… life was good for now.

Priority #1 in Bahir Dar was to get the battery repaired, and to our luck this worked out very well. A true story of African ingenuity and resourcefulness. The receptionist of the last night was still on duty and managed to find somebody with “spare time” at hand to find me whatever I need to fix the battery. So while Jan was swapping the bike batteries to settle on the battery as the actual source of the problem, Shambucca (Hope I spelled this correctly) showed up and told me about the best motorbike mechanic in town. Yared is a very knowledgeable guy and with the fixers time and translations, we spent more or less 7 hours to have the problem solved – with the aforementioned African ingenuity. Jan’s bike has a sealed battery but the negative pole broke the seal. So Yared and his crew took out that pole, welded a car battery pole to the battery and sealed the battery again. Anne had her own little repair highlight when she fiddled together a charger for our GoPro camera, cannibalizing a universal charger and an indicator light that Jan carried as a replacement. The joy of having created the solution herself was only surpassed by the joy over being able to use the GoPro again!

Also for non-repair-related needs, Bahir Dar was a perfect place for us at that time: a laid back, tidy little town at a lake, with pelicans swooping over our heads and huge gnarled trees leaning out over the water. We walked along the lake and around town, shopped for souvenirs, drank avocado juice (yummy!), ate lots of anjera with fish and without, and got 20GB worth of movies from a Canadian we met at the hotel. We realized we really needed that break!

After two days though, we had to get going again. Our timetable is already clocked to taking a certain ferry from Sudan to Egypt now (which only leaves once a week) so we got on our bikes and drove to Gonder, our last stop in Ethiopia. The town itself is a lot less appealing then Bahir Dar, but the sights are very impressive: A compound of castles, built between the 16th and 17th century, as well as the oldest church in Ethiopia to survive the Muslim raids a few hundred years ago. Both places have an eerie fantasy atmosphere – partly because they are in part a bit overgrown, partly because there are not many visitors, and partly because of this peculiar mixture of known and unknown – familiar and unfamiliar structures and images. We strolled down little paths, walked through giant halls, and of course took way too many pictures.

Another thing that struck us in Gonder was less pleasant: The poverty. We had seen very poor people on our trip, and some of the poorest where in Ethiopia. Especially, when you get off the big roads, in the rural areas. But Gonder gave us a kick in the ass to show us what real poverty means. We had already seen dozens of street kids begging, but it was the three guys we met the morning of our departure that really showed us what living on the street here means. Our bikes were parked in a building site / parking space next to the hotel, and while we were packing them for the road, they were having breakfast there. Someone had put all the leftover food from the hotel restaurant in a bucket, had thrown the contents of this bucket on a piece of cardboard, and in front of this the three guys were crouching, eating the tossed-together leftovers with their hands.

Very fitting to out gloomy mood, we got a little farewell rain to speed us on the way. But we were again lucky: the sky did not really light up, but the rain stopped, the clouds lifted a bit higher, and we got some spectacular views on the Northern Ethiopian hills and mountains while swerving towards the border. A proper goodbye from one of the most beautiful and culturally rich countries we have ever seen, with some really friendly and lots of very tough people.

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