The Road to Lalibela: Cycling Ethiopia’s Ancient Heartland – Page Three
By Matthew Kadey
The following morning we dive headfirst into bureaucracy as we are passed from a policeman to a secretary to another policeman to another secretary all in a futile effort to file a stolen goods report.
Being an irascible man, Scotty is flushed and beside himself at what he feels to be complete ineptitude. Me on the other hand, I’m calmed knowing that I have just introduced someone to the soothing melodies of Guns ‘N Roses and Van Halen.
One More Limp Tire
By the time we roll into Dessie – our largest town since we left the capital, I’m riding on my last two bike tubes. An unidentified problem with my front tire has eaten through my spares faster than the ‘Hef’ does Playboy bunnies.
But that’s not nearly as alarming as what a local boy surrounded by dozens of frenzied teenagers wants to charge me for a made-in-China tube that’s so thick it could be used to raft down the Nile.
After negotiating down to a reasonable white man price, having a spare immediately pays dividends as I’m bestowed one more limp tire just outside of town.
I can’t think of anything I’d rather do less than change another flat feeling like I am only seven inches from the steamy sun with the kids jostling for positioning in case funds are to be distributed.
“You rich, me poor,” one boy barks. My credit card balance says otherwise.
All of a cyclist’s arch nemeses: blazing heat, temperamental wind, everlasting climbs that seem at times like a Sisyphean struggle, filthy bus exhaust, and the occasional in-bound rock from a terrified village child can be found on this highland route.
Becoming One With the Gravel
And the ‘faux’ road can be so deceptively treacherous at times that while blazing down a pass last year, Scotty became one with the gravel resulting in a broken arm and a few missing pearly whites. His smile still tells a story of Ethiopia gone catawampus.
But any notion of putting up a fuss is quashed when I see how hard the people who occupy this land are working just to accomplish the basic necessities of life.
And forget about the men, it seems the women are the real work horses here. A few miles into another long huff and puff climb before the town of Wucale and the road is filled with women both young and old carrying on their hunched backs seemingly impossible loads of eucalyptus firewood.
The mercury is pushing a hundred degrees and they’re doing this with bare feet on the bubbling asphalt.
We also wordlessly pass a group of camel traders. In the pursuit of much needed funds, these men will tramp for two weeks with their camels, resting only three to four hours per day, to find a market where they can sell them.
Speaking four languages helps them find buyers who use the animals for meat, transportation or an income generator by smuggling them into Sudan.
The World is Oblivious
There are countless reasons why Ethiopians face this hardscrabble existence. Perhaps, though, none more significant than the general antipathy that resides between the people and its government.
Politicians seem content to let these families fend for themselves, while the population tries hard to accept what they believe is a corrupt governing body.
Unscrupulous indeed it is. Here is the express version of the last election: People displeased with government, government gets voted out, government forcefully decides it’s going to stay, the world is oblivious.
Even the au courant know little of Ethiopia’s political environment. Indeed, a saddle sore and aching back are no reason to grumble.
The Calls to Prayer
Even with the licking our bodies are taking, getting a good night sleep is proving to be an elusive event.
The pre-dawn gloom is frequently filled with the maddening cacophony of roosters followed by the unbroken chattering of children impatiently waiting for the emergence of the foreigners.
But taking the cake for perpetrating insomnia-induced rides are the calls to prayer. Not bringing enough sunscreen isn’t nearly as big of a blunder as camping in Wucale’s soccer pitch on the doorstep on one of the largest mosques in the highlands.
After three consecutive hours of a priest droning into an amplifier, our spirits are broken and, at the crack of dawn, I drag myself out of a cozy sleeping bag and slide into the spandex. Scotty is still spewing a tirade of expletives towards the spire’s tireless inhabitant.
Ethiopia is a dirt poor country but it’s hard to imagine anybody in this country more destitute than those who live along the 40-mile plateau gravel road leading to the ramshackle high-altitude town of Gashena on the outskirts of Lalibela.
After climbing all morning to arrive up here where a huge sky hangs over glowing fields of teff and sorghum that dance in the wind, the region’s plight strikes us as a rough-hewn villager, wearing just a single plastic shoe holds his young boy in his hands pleading with Scott and me to take his photo in exchange for a small donation.
We oblige and hand over a few Birr to the man whose face is riven from the sun and cold and then head out to conquer the rough and undulating plateau road. It turns out to be the journey’s most striking stretch of gravel.
As we are surrounded by uninterrupted horizons and traditional huts that glow in the disappearing sun, my reverie is further deepened as two children appear out of the soaring sorghum running barefoot over the rocky road kicking around an old coke bottle with smiles that you would expect to beset the faces of children who never have to wonder where their next meal is coming from.
The Ethiopian highlands are a place of many problems. Still, the optimism and indomitable ardent love the people have for their country shines through.
One Ethiopian adage declares that when a spider’s web forms, it can trap a lion. These men and women have managed to trap one of the world’s richest cultural experiences. Just how long will it be before other faranji catch on?
September to February is the dry season and the best time to visit the highlands.
Matthew Kadey is a Canadian-based scribbler who suffers from chronic wanderlust. In addition to Ethiopia, he has taken his trusty two-wheeler to Ireland, Jordan, Laos, New Zealand, Belize and Portugal. His photography and writing can be seen at mattkadey.ca.