Wednesday, 22 September 2010

Northern's Ethiopia's beauty and pain

We rose at dawn to begin our expedition to Ethiopia. We hopped on a three-wheeled tuktuk to Gedaref's bus station, and boarded a three-hour minibus to Gallabat, the Sudanese border town. Within minutes we were thrust into rural countryside, and we saw the land begin to change. Greenery sprung up, gently at first, then bursting out in patches. Khartoum's dusty sprawl and Wadi Halfa's harsh desert seemed as if they belonged to another continent. Circular straw and mud huts decorated the landscape where silent towns of dry square dirt houses had been before.

We reached the Ethiopian border and experienced it's extraordinary system. There seems to be one town at the border, but it is called Gallabat in Sudan and Metema in Ethiopia. You rock up, pay a visit to the police to pick up a form (though this was never checked) and walk over a bridge, filled with people and donkeys going to and fro. You can then sit down, and relax. You are in Ethiopia. We have experienced intimidating night police banging on our door in Turkey. We have entered towering customs buildings in Jordan. We have raced around the desert searching for dollars in Syria. The ease of this experience was bewildering.

From Metema, we waited for an hour for our six-hour bus to Gondar, where we would stay the night. Joy was brought to an otherwise tedious hour by some young guys picking up Nick's guitar and having a strum, as about thirty locals gathered and stared. Our bus arrived and we were on our way - high up into the highlands of Ethiopia. The view was breathtaking. Everywhere stood seemingly magical mountains as if out of a picture book, the slopes carpeted in thick luminous lime grass, perfectly dotted with wide, green trees. Wild flowers sprinkled the mountains with sunshine yellow. Violet flowers graced our winding road, as a baboon scurried in front of us to a the safe refuge of a nearby tree.

We reached Gondar. On these long journeys, I am beginning to feel as if the destination town is a bit like a promised land! I get so tired, and hope we will be there soon, glancing at the clock (yet trying not to). And then I see some houses... maybe we are there... and then a lorry park, a building site... yes, this could be it... a hotel, a restaurant... it must be... and then a sign with the name of the town... YES! We are here! And with awe, I soak in every shop, every face, every cafe - and I know soon my legs will be stretched and my tummy full of food, and it is a very good feeling!

We stayed at a 'pension' - which promised clean, comfy rooms but no breakfast. The hot water didn't work, and in fact leaked through our room, but the place was bright and calm, with a little balcony. Exhausted we gravitated towards the loveliest restaurant in town. Up a hill, it looked over the whole city, and we ate western food, spending the meal talking about the meal in thankfulness.

We woke the next morning ready for more travelling, this time to Bahir Dar, deeper into Ethiopia. Before then we had a few hours to explore the city. With an African castle to see and proper coffee machines filling each cafe, we set off with high expectations. On the way we bumped into a friendly dude who was keen to show us around. We, however, just wanted coffee. I can show you nice coffee place, he told us. Ok, we said, and followed. He then joined us for coffee, teaching us Amharic, listening to our story. We are learning to be more flexible with our plans. The late bus isn't our only refiner. Self-appointed guides and new friends are constantly teaching us the start of what Henri Nouwen learned: 'It has been the interruptions to my everyday life that have most revealed to me the divine mystery of which I am a part... All of these interruptions presented themselves as opportunities.'

And the opportunity this friend gave us was both painful and necessary. We saw two very poor men lying on the road. Nick suggested popping into a bakery and buying fresh bread. We did and handed it to these struggling gentlemen. And then we saw more. And more. There seemed to be beggars everywhere, some sitting, some lying down - and on top of that little children. We bought dozens of bread and went round handing it out, wincing at our skin's connotations, and yet moved by hunger. We saw appauling things - poverty I have never seen before. We saw a man naked who had surely lost his mind on the street. We saw a child with black tape over his eyes, a picture that continues to haunt me. We saw a child crawling on the ground with no legs, begging Nick to buy him a wheelchair. We saw old and blind woman beg, and as I approached one to give her bread she spilled her precious milk all over the street. We ran out of bread and we ran out of time. It was heart-wrenching to leave. A strong pain remained in my stomach, and re-emerges as I'm writing. Would anyone go to Gonder and give these beloved children of God a home? What can be more needed?

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