The Road to Lalibela: Cycling Ethiopia’s Ancient Heartland – Page Two
By Matthew Kadey
At roughly a mile long, it would be wise to make it through this treacherous darkness before any one of many screeching diesels takes us out.
Knowing Scotty has made it through here before unscathed is of little comfort as my front tire bounces off a rock that sends me careening into the path of an oncoming diesel beast.
Several four letter expletives later we emerge from the blackness relatively unscathed and joyful to once again feel the warmth of the big, yellow orb.
“What do you expect? It’s Ethiopia,” Scott brightly says with a guilty smirk. Indeed, it is.
Malodorous White Guys
Riding into Senbete, it becomes increasingly obvious that us faranji are going to be the center of attention everywhere we go.
“It’s like the circus has come to town,” Scott fittingly puts it as once again we’re consumed by hordes of wide-eyed children in this rather scruffy sprawled town.
Growing at a rate of 2.5 percent a year, Ethiopia’s population is predicted to reach over 100 million in about 15 years.
This, combined with the fact that most of this mass of humanity is rural, it’s little surprise that no matter where we are, there is someone standing on the side, often a young kid, frantically screaming “You, You, You, You, You,” “Mister, give pen,” or running away in a panic at their first sight of a malodorous white guy on a bike.
Even doing our business in privacy is turning out to be a rare occurrence. There’s something surreal about being asked for money while you’re trying to lighten your bowels in a corn field.
It’s been another long day of childishly flirting with the beautiful Amhara and Oromo females, exchanging salaams with nearly every roadside local, and soaking up the copious views under a sun humming with rapturous clarity, so we’re grateful when a group of very bored guards in Senbete eagerly agree to let us camp with them.
For what reason they were watching over an empty brick building, I’m still not sure.
Like so many of our campsites, this one involves setting up our tents and then spending the next several hours amusing our guests around a campfire with information from the outside world.
Bighearted Camp Guards
Being gregarious, Scotty is providing the atmosphere. More reserved, it takes me longer to adjust to the celebrity status bestowed on us.
Our guards, toting AK-47’s that appear to date back to the years when the Italian’s made their ill-fated colonization attempts, are keen to know what it’s like to live in a good country like Canada and, strangely more importantly to them, how to spell both our names and those of our fathers.
By the end of the night, we’re simply known as “Scott-Matt” and without every meeting him, my dad is a GREAT man. Their English turns out to be much better than my Amharic.
Intermingled in this casual conversation is the unmistaken undertone of jealously for having so many opportunities. For too many of Ethiopia’s able and educated men such as our bighearted camp guards, a lack of job opportunities following schooling usually means the army is the only viable option.
The recent conflict with neighbouring Eritrea claimed some 70,000 of them. Unfortunately, this statistic pales in comparison to the number of Ethiopia’s capable labor force that has been decimated by AIDS.
I can’t help but notice that the villages we are passing by are populated primarily by the elderly and young. Left with this heavy dose of reality, I retire to my tent and lie languidly as satellites wink across the night sky.
Scars of Deforestation
With its rocky cliffs, winding river gorges and car-free paths, the Ethiopian highlands are tantamount to mountain bike Shangri-la.
But, despite these assets, it’s difficult to overlook the scars of severe deforestation. Losing roughly 90 percent of its sylvan slopes in favor of teff (a traditional grain used for injera) and coffee plantations, along with livestock overgrazing has resulted in dire soil erosion and exacerbated drought-induced famines.
Screaming down the asphalt towards the village of Kombolch, my heart sinks as a man points over to a strong and proud Juniper tree and says simply without hesitation “that one’s next.”
The Beautiful Game
Setting up camp behind a shady-looking bar in Kombolch, in which the owner claims we are her first foreign guests, gives us the chance to cheer on a group of school boys as they kick up the tawny dust playing ‘the beautiful game.’
Full of vigor, the only thing other than the setting sun to interrupt this football match is two rambunctious bulls charging through the playing field.
Like long-distance running, Ethiopians have a strong passion for soccer. Unfortunately, many games are played with a rag wrapped around a rag wrapped around another rag.
I’m tickled pink to see the exultant look on the team captain’s face after handing over one of the several new balls we had brought with us. The enthusiasm as they kicked around their new toy in the final moments of illumination was in itself worth the journey here and the challenges we’re enduring.
Too bad that during the game someone’s sticky fingers were relieving me of the iPod in my tent.