Wednesday, 22 September 2010

Friends in Bahir Dar

Gondar's African castle long forgotten, we jumped on the minibus to Bahir Dar. Six hours and a numb bum later, we reached this delightful town. Lined with palm trees and at the foot of the tranquil Lake Tana, we were happy to be there and ready to rest. As soon as we stepped off the bus a new friend awaited us! Abebe was his name and he was to be our favourite character so far. He happened to work at the hotel we stayed at - a clean, restful place - and we liked him instantly.

Abebe showed us our hotel. We ate some traditional Ethiopian food (a large pancake, a pot of sauce), both of us sitting on the fence of whether we liked it or not. For me this fence was a pernament feature of Ethiopian cuisine - apart from its strong, bitter sometimes chocolately coffee. Breakfast the next day was wonderful dark coffee and an enormous doughnut. Ethiopian coffee after the Middle East's long trail of instant Nescafe is like cold water in the desert! My coffee desires are quenched! The doughnut, however, was the last in a long line of dense, white-bread food devoured and my stomach was fed up. I spent the morning in bouts of pain as everything inside me squidged together and refused to be deposited. Devouring a few bananas and some local laxatives, relief came.

In Gondar, when we had been giving out bread, we came across one boy who didn't have the use of his legs and we saw him crawling around with his face staring at the dirty pavement a few inches below. When I gave him some bread, he looked up and made a circular signal with his hands - I thought he was saying thanks, but our Ethiopian friend said he was asking for a wheelchair. It had been heartbreaking enough seeing him drag himself around, and now, knowing no better than to just ask, he looked to me to lift him up. As a westerner he obviously thought that I was able to do something about it where others couldn't. I had just smiled at him sadly, thinking that we only had an hour before the bus left & it was impossible, but it stayed with me. Now in Bahir Dar, I asked Abebe tentitively if it was possible to buy wheelchairs. We ended up spending the whole day, with Abebe as our constant companion, walking around asking people and waiting for meetings that got postponed. At the end of the day, we had a price, but it would only be available the next day & we were leaving early.

It turned out he was a childhood friend of the guy in Gondar & he offered to buy it and take it there on the bus himself and find the boy with his friend. So we decided to trust Abebe & gave him the money for the wheelchair, plus money for transportation & asked him to take photos of the boy once he had it. The ending to the story is bittersweet. The boy did get the wheelchair and we have many photos that show how joyful he is with it. It is wonderful to think of him being able to look people in the eye as he moves around town. The sad part is that Abebe's bus crashed on the way back - nothing fatal, but Abebe did get quite injured - enough to need hospital treatment that he can't afford. We are going to pay for his hospital fees and we are still working out how best to do this.

It is probably worth going back to the unpleasant details of my bowels, since they shape the rest of our time in Bahir Dar. For some the following will contain more detail than desired. If this is you, bear in mind that some of our friends would appreciate even more information on the matter than I will give. After a day's running around with Abebe, we sank into bed tired - me particularly, as the doughnut had exhausted me that morning. About 2am, I woke in incredible pain. It turns out the relief I had experienced was probably not the laxatives but the natural blessing of bananas. I say this because the laxatives kicked in now. My stomach was so cramped I was crying out in pain, and spent the following couple of hours running up and down the corridor visiting the loo. Not a highlight of the trip. The thought of getting up in two hours at 5am to catch our planned 12-hour bus to Addis Ababa brought me to tears. Nick - the man - was keen to catch it. A good amount of crying helped him see that perhaps I was not in agreement. Finally my stomach relented and I fell asleep.

And so another unplanned day in Bahir Dar. I felt as if all my energy had drained out of me and was not in a rush to return. As a treat we booked into the best hotel in town, an Ethiopian place on the banks of Lake Tana. It had spacious turquoise rooms and a bath. The garden led to the water and tropical golden birds fluttered between palm trees - we were slightly obsessed with them and took endless photos. We began to relax. A boat glided us towards an island, home of a 12th century monastery. Despite ancient art and a sweet priest, it was too dark to see much and most of it was deemed 'the holies of holies' - only for the priest to enter. Nick particularly found this heart-breaking, as we both are so excited about us all being wonderfully equal in Christ - all able to receive his amazing gifts! Much more invigorating was a coffee hut we stumbled upon. I saw the coffee tree, the beans being roasted, and then the crushed conclusion. We sipped the dark, rich coffee from little pots and it tasted wonderful. Incense floated into the air - in these common Ethiopian 'coffee ceremonies' incense and coffee seem to be interwoven. It was beautiful to see something I love being grown so sustainably. I am forever challenged on the worldwide circulation of coffee and it was a delight to drink it from a gentle little tree a few meters away!

Our guide - who I think was called Alex, we meet so many people - told us his story. He was a Christian with a living relationship with Jesus, which the Ethiopian's call 'protestants'. He explained that the 'Orthodox Christians' hate the 'protestants' and if he ever spoke out he would be persecuted. He also seemed to get a hard time from the other guides lurking around the water. When we had boarded, one guide had shouted at him in Aramaic for guiding us. As we debarked the boat at sunset, we paid him 100birr. We left him surrounded by the other guides for a moment, as we enjoyed the powerful blue grey clouds sweeping over the lake, an African eagle soaring over towering trees. He caught us up. After a bit of probing, he told us they bullied him. In his pocket he had only 40birr left. Because he was an orphan, he told us, he was vulnerable. He had no family to fight his battles. How can we help this young man? If we tell the hotel, the other guides will beat him. Giving him an abundance of money does not seem to be the answer. Another story, another set of new questions. I'm sure the answer is not to detach and close down our hearts. Creativity is needed - and many hearts, many hearts who will reach out to the poor with their own time and support them.

My tummy had healed and my exhuastion had healed. We set our alarm for 3.20am. The bus to Addis Ababa was on. We were ready for the road again... At least a little more ready.

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?

To Khartoum and onwards

Oh we are so behind on the blog!! Sorry to have caused any worry for being out of contact...

We spent about a month or maybe even two planning this trip - mainly in the Camberwell library. Initially we had a lot of worry about heading through Sudan. The press carry a lot of incidents from there. What we found on more research was that the country is made up of 3 different areas & given that it is the largest country in Africa, these areas are spread wide apart. Broadly you can split it into Northern Sudan, Southern Sudan & Western Sudan (Darfur) - map here. What we read of in the press comes from Darfur or Southern Sudan where there has been conflict for a long time. Northern Sudan, which we are cutting right through the middle of, has been said by other travellers to be one of the safest parts of the Cairo to Cape Town route. So it's a bit like travelling through England when there is fighting in Wales and Scotland, but on a much wider scale. In fact most seem to say that the Northern Kenyan border was the only real worry on this journey.

During that planning stage in Camberwell library we had allowed 3 days to travel down south to Khartoum. Lots of the info we were able to find on the internet and in our lonely planet turns out to be out of date as we travel. Mainly, things turn out to be easier than we thought. Only a year ago, with the help of China, they completed a tarmac road all the way to the capital and also have a load of brand new Chinese coaches (with plastic wrapping still on seats!). So in 12 hours in a very comfy coach (with a/c - phew!) we were able to cross the Nubian desert - the eastern most part of the Sahara that runs right across northern Africa (try clicking on 'Sat' on the map on the right & zooming in to see). This was a long and fairly uneventful journey, except for the 'camel's graveyard' which was a stretch of a couple of miles with literally hundreds of dead camels lying by the road. We got out for a couple of stops and were reminded that it was actually roasting outside, as you easily forget when there is air-conditioning.

We arrived just before nightfall, in a city that can take an hour and a half to drive across, with a vague address of our friend of a friend and their number. Very quickly a couple of Sudanese men wanted us to sit down - one in his taxi, the other at his bus ticket stall. We had got used to this kind of behaviour in Egypt and were very wary of it. But we had heard Sudan was different so we went along with it. We experienced what was to be the first time of many - they were genuinely just looking after us - they gave us tea and water (we don't drink the local water so this was a pray-and-hope-for-no-squits!) and one lent us his mobile to call our friend. We are much more helpless on this trip than we've ever been in London - just calling someone is difficult - and it means help is all the more sweet. Our friend came and collected us and we drove across the city, full of unfinished buildings, a posh hotel built by Gadaffi & many small shacks.

After endless tiny hotel rooms, it was an incredible treat to stay with this couple and meet another family who were staying with them. We joined them for church, we heard all about the community of workers there, we saw such unity and perseverance, it was a real joy. We were supposed to get travel permission from one government department and check in with the police somewhere else (and pay them quite a lot for the privilege) - but we had turned up at the end of Ramadan holidays - like Christmas - and only managed the first part of this. In the end neither was checked or remarked upon, even when at the border I said to 3 different police dudes that we hadn't checked in and pointed it out in the passports!

We also slightly reluctantly forced ourselves to explore the city a little bit - in search of a taxi a Sudanese lady stopped to help us and ended up driving us round the city herself! Again the Sudanese hospitality. She had a one and half year old - her nephew - sitting on her lap holding the steering wheel. Occasionally we would veer off the road a little as she forgot that his steering needed supervision. Then she would say sternly 'No, Dudey!' as Cate is so often heard exclaiming to me. Are you serious?! Did we hear right? Yes, this little one was also called 'Dudey'. We explained to her that we also speak to each other thus and the 3 dudies + lady had a good chuckle as she continued to say 'Well done Dudey' and the like. It was a bit worrying driving past the police as they couldn't see her hands holding the lower part of the wheel, but no-one seemed to mind this under-age driver.

We had to tear ourselves away after a couple of days and get on a bus to Gedaref, towards the eastern Ethiopian border. Another posh bus, with a thermometer reading of inside and out - over the course of the journey it dropped from 40 to 27 (and Khartoum had been 40 night and day). Gedaref was a much smaller town, like many it was dark at night with little electric lighting. Nevertheless we felt safe walking around as we have done since the beginning of the trip. We went to a restaurant where we were offered chicken, lamb or beef. After a lot of miming I got him to make me a fried egg sandwich (and no, I didn't have to go as far as miming laying an egg!). At one point a group of young men invited us to sit with them and have tea. We ended up talking for an hour, mainly to one guy who had excellent English and knew more about UK current affairs than us! He was also what I had really wanted to meet - a sincere and devoted Muslim who spoke English well enough that we could really talk. We all shared our faith, he with us & we with him. Cate shared very well as she always does, from the heart and unashamed. It was also sad, as he explained that he would love to travel like us, but it was far beyond what he could afford. Back to our hotel, which was quite a tough one. Cricket count was only 1 though, which I trapped under a glass. Don't worry, I freed him in the morning when we left.