May 8, 2009

The descent / Vers le Sud


The horizon forever faces south: solitude on the “unforeseeable”

Often in the throws of such travel, one chooses not the routes to take, but simply marks destinations with sloppy circular blue markings on their Michelin then proceeds to connect the dots. We've been, until this point, remarkably blessed in such chance decisions. Roads can be difficult, dangerous, and even non-existent in regions of little development; a fact which becomes more concerning as we descend equatorially early rain season. But this is a tale of voyage which would be incomplete and sadly lack-luster were it without a muddy lane and smoky trail depreciating the poor snout of some haphazard bus mid jungle.

We are well adjusted at this point to such frequent pauses as flat tires (particularly common on the rocky slits spiraling the high peaks of Ethiopia's landscape) and hourly (and humorless) armed road stops. But generally speaking, our expectations of “African” roads has been met by an entirely unanticipated preparation on the part of drivers for such familiar setbacks (another example of how under-developed inner fantasies allow our suppositions great disappointment in fieldwork – where oh where did “primitivism” hide). Normally only seconds after a problem has been detected, the drivers and any male accompanying the trip leap from their seats, descend, and gallantly slay the source of concern. Rarely are these stops for long enough to fill a single journal page. But there there are exceptions to these auras of luck which seem to have traveled with us thus far, there are days which overwhelm ones motivation to continue. Our journey south from Addis Ababa marks an extended period of unmanageable bad luck, which finally completes our testimony of hardened expedition.

IMG_8367[3] Of these blue circles scattered about the face of our trusted map, the only two (of particular importance which landed between Addis and the frontier of Kenya were Asela and Arba Minch (both which contained orthopedic and prosthetic rehabilitation centers funded by the ICRC – part of a project ongoing). There are not many choices of direction reaching either, both being parallel to the main roads, so the travel line was forged with few considerations in mind. Asela is only 160 km from the capital, a mere 70 km past Nazareth, and the roads are all paved, clean, flat, and wide enough for buses to drive on. Somehow, still, it took nearly five hours to reach (a reality which has yet to settle upon any memory of causal rationale). This is, I remind my dear readers, after sitting needlessly in wait, seats full and motor running, in the parking lot of the bus station for two hours. Apparently there had been a “choosing straws” system of bus scheduling around the time we boarded the bus at 5:00 am, and our driver must have picked the shamefully inadequate straw. The remaining savior of the Ethiopian personality caricature is that they can patiently sit still, quiet and with the pervading air of attentiveness with implausible ease. I on the other hand, am not so obedient by nature.

After the usual argument when leaving a bus in this country,

“This is not your stop, get back on the bus!”

“This IS my stop, thank you, but please release my bag.”

“NO! Shashemene (or Bali Mountains, or any other tourist trap) is not for four more hours.”

“Is this Asela?”


“Then let go of my bags!”

We strategically crossed the street to find a room directly facing the bus station entrance. This technique of hotel browsing has a number of clear benefits for travelers such as Eugénie and I. Firstly, regardless of the distance a bus travels, nearly all buses in Ethiopia are scheduled to leave between 5 and 6 am, so we buy ourselves a bit more sleep if we need only cross the road. Also, assuredly the hotels near the bus stations will be full of prostitutes for the lonely traveling laborers who are accustomed to dirty rooms and no bathroom or running water, making the rooms significantly cheaper than the hotels closer to the commercial centers. Finally, most bus stations are surrounded by local market vendors simplifying the early morning search for grilled chickpeas and bananas before a long trip.

IMG_8325[3] It would be untrue to say that Asela is an interesting town. In truth, there is literally no reason for someone without business in Asela to go for a visit. But, perhaps for this reason, it was one of the most livable and pleasant towns in our travels throughout Ethiopia. Every street in bloom with University students and couples, pop music smearing from one block to the next, and a pleasant mood infecting the air. Even as the soft sky hardened and singed with electricity, the terraces flooded with content bodies. It became our first “rain season” downpour, knocking out the electricity and turning the unpaved streets to a smooth red stew swishing to and fro in every direction.

It wasn't till we awoke to the muezzin in the morning, a sound so at the core of our journey which we had missed dearly in Ethiopia which is predominantly Orthodox Christian, that we could reflect on how the power outage might affect our work in the town. Since the machinery and lighting were down; we would have to spread our work at the center out over the course of three days. When not working we spent our hours exploring the markets, and speaking with the regulars at our preferred tea shop. It was a muddy but lovely weekend getaway in this lost town. We discovered that it was impossible to travel directly to Arba Minch however, not from Asela at least. We had planned on meeting with the managing director of the center in Arba Minch on a Thursday, but would have to reschedule to Friday as we were leaving Asela at daybreak Wednesday, would have to stop in Shashemene for the night, and continue from there the following morning on the bumpy trek to Arba Minch.

Shashemene is most famous in Ethiopia for it's enormous (though fairly unimpressive) market (being the stopping point between the major border town to the south, Moyale, and the capital), and most famous in the world for being the figurative Mecca for Rastafarians (and the last remaining bastion of evidence of the Rasta movement in Ethiopia). It was a depressing layover, a dirty town, and an uncomfortable social scenario for farengis who are not particularly known for being popular amongst the inhabitants. In reality, it was a fairly typical Ethiopian town (with few to no rastas still there), and it was a clear indication to both of us that we felt ready to be moving on to the next border swiftly.


Arba Minch was constructed in the valley beside Lake Abaya, the invisible boundary of the tropics storybooks define as the African climate, we had yet to fully experience. The humidity rose immediately as we arrived to town, the vegetation lusher, and the tribal colors exploded with the palettes of fruit and bird life. The unrestrained banana plantations and jungle surrounded us and the sky buzzed with torrents of storks and gigantic vultures. The lake sits languid as a puddle of oil, protected all around by thick greenery and mountains.

Sellers of dripping mangos hoard the bus-side of the road. For one birr, and bushels of the world’s finest mangos on stand-by, they do not lack customers. Enter Arba Minch, a relatively touristic town at the gateway of the South. Most visitors here come for it’s close proximity to the famous tribes who wow their tongue dangling audiences with their abilities to walk across the backs of cows as if they were mere stepping stones (a spectacle, I promise you, we did not partake in). Most tourists come equipped with their 4X4’s to maneuver slyly the torrents of rain season and the harshness of the terrain. There were certainly moments when I envied such luxuries. The children from the region, whose reputation had been vocalized often to us before our arrival, was dead-on. Between the thrown stones, the crass English vulgarities yelled constantly to your back, and the unending annoyances, we would eventually leave this place earlier than expected just to be rid of their company. It’s a good thing Eugénie knows the age-old fear tactic of banging on shanty doors and pointing the children out to their mothers. I could hear the screaming a valley away.

IMG_8375[3] We continue our journey to the mountains in peace. In Ethiopia, the collective-consciousness and educational-rearing of children is dismally absent. Mostly, when an adult is present during a moment of morale opportunity and lesson giving, she/he does not react to the misbehavior or verbal abuse of a child of five years old. Instead she/he responds with a big smile, "He is a normal child, you know." In no other country we had crossed thus far was such behavior nearly as tolerated (least of all from youth). But that is not to say we did not spend a wonderful afternoon stroll in the mountains with the better seeds of the village. Upon our arrival to town (and a few detestable incidents on the street) we quickly booked a bus towards the south.

To reach Moyale from Arba Minch, the border town to Kenya, Konso is a necessary pit-stop along the way. Unfortunately, that doesn’t mean it is an easy one to leave, once you stop. There is a market twice a week in the town, and there is only transportation leaving on the two days following the market days. That would mean Tuesday and Friday. We arrived on a Saturday and spent our first five or so hours on the road hoping a single car would pass which would take pity on two hitch-hikers in the rain. Unfortunately, as everyone from town had already explained to us, this was impossible as not a single car passed on the only road out of town. A couple days later, after long negotiations and too many teas under the tropical showers, we managed to catch a ride in the back of a large transport truck bringing cereals from the market. Eugénie sat with the driver and two other men who chewed chat silently for the whole trip. I was laying with two laborers upon the heaps of cereal: watching the rain pass with distance, the sun coming out as flocks of children and tribal herders fought for my attention from the back, the sun falling and the brash drone of wind through the plastic cover of the lorry giving way to deep reflections on the country we were soon to leave behind. The rainfall during the day had flooded the dirt roads making the ride a slow and dangerous one. It was sometime just after midnight when the truck broke down and we stayed stranded until the following afternoon in the desert.

IMG_8616[3] The desert here was redder than those we had crossed before. There was evidence of large animals and migration, termites and bright spotted turtles. It was a lively desert, though a frustrating wait. Finally a truck came with a replacement tire for the one which was irreparable, but only five minutes on the road, it blew again. When a caravan for local workers passed another hour down the line, the driver arranged us a smooth finish to our voyage towards Moyale (a town which is spilt halfway between Ethiopia and Kenya). We spent our last evening in Ethiopia saying our goodbyes to Injera and surprisingly “winning” against some black-market exchangers. Little did we know, that this back-and-forth of good and bad luck would continue for the next week as we crossed into Kenya for yet another long and tiring and dangerous truck ride, just after being the VERY FIRST tourists who paid the new half priced visa fee (a rule which the office was faxed while we were waiting for ours).


Vers le Sud, petits moments de solitude sur la route du Kenya

Nous quittons Addis Abeba après un mois de bons plaisirs. Notre route se poursuit vers le Sud en direction des villes d’Asela puis d’Arba Minch où nous sommes attendus pour visiter des centres orthopédiques de la Croix Rouge Internationale. Ces deux localités n’étant pas sur la route principale, nous avons bien conscience que le parcours risque d’être alambiqué. Rejoindre Asela située à 160 km de la capitale est notre premier objectif ; notre premier enfer. IMG_8122[3] Sans aucune raison apparente le bus part quatre heures après notre arrivée à la gare. Le véhicule étant presque vide le trajet est confortable, les quelques passagers ont malgré tout du mal à se convaincre que nous ne sommes pas là par erreur. Les premières pluies de mousson surgissent sur la route et inondent les environs. Asela est l’unes de ces villes sans grand intérêt. Située loin des lacs qui font la réputation du Sud du pays, elle n’attire pas grand monde. Dans la rue principale pleine de vie, les enceintes s’affrontent à grand coup de musique pop. Le ciel d’un gris ténébreux menace la ville, pourtant il y a du monde aux terrasses. La région est majoritairement musulmane, le son des muezzins nous avait bien manqué.

Rejoindre Arba Minch est une autre affaire, une étape à Shashemene située à trois heures de route de là s’impose. Shashemene est connue pour être un haut lieu de regroupement de rastafaris. Ils sont aussi réputés pour être odieux envers les blancs « ces vilains étrangers » venus ici en quête de vibration rasta se faire prendre en photo avec de vieux bonhommes à dreadlocks. Autre mythe de voyageur, ici il n’y a pas plus de rastas qu’ailleurs, ils ont été noyés dans une population croissante, la ville étant devenue un carrefour commercial depuis quelques années. Il va sans dire que dans la région l’électricité et les connexions internet laissent plus qu’à désirer.

IMG_8577[3] Réveil au son du muezzin pour le bus. Comme souvent il n’y a pas assez de place pour tout le monde, les moins rapides reviendront demain. Les vendeurs de thé et de beignets encore chauds envahissent le bus, ils laissent ensuite la place aux mendiants et aux prêtres ambulants, il est cinq heures du matin. Nous nous avançons sur une route de campagne, quelques tronçons sont en construction ou en réparation, il est difficile de faire la différence. Le lac Abaya marque la frontière invisible des tropiques. L’humidité  monte d’un cran, la végétation devient luxuriante, à présent les plantations de bananes et la jungle nous entourent. Les marabouts, ces grands oiseaux perchés au sommet des arbres veillent sur les environs. Au loin le lac brille comme une flaque d’huile entourée de montagnes et de verdure. Les vendeurs de mangues rouges et juteuses se succèdent sur le bord de la route, vendues 1 birr la pièce, ces derniers ne manquent pas de clients. Arba Minch est une ville relativement touristique, c’est la porte d’entrée de la région du Sud réputée pour ses tribus tant appréciées des touristes venus à grand renfort de 4X4. Les cours d’eaux aux alentours sont encore secs mais avec l’arrivée des pluies, ces derniers ne devraient pas tarder à gonfler.

Les enfants de la région dont la réputation est déjà bien faite sont comme on les espérait, exécrables. Par groupe ils hurlent sur notre passage, jettent des pierres et surtout nous suivent sans cesse dans un vacarme pas possible. La solution adoptée n’est peut être pas la plus sympathique mais elle demeure, je vous l’assure, la plus efficace. IMG_8574[3]Semer la terreur dans le village en hurlant quelques mots d’amharique et en tapant à toutes les portes est efficace. Nous poursuivons notre route vers les montagnes en paix. En Ethiopie, la conscience collective et l’éducation des enfants parfois trop nombreux posent de sérieux problèmes. Pas un adulte ne réagira aux insultes d’un enfant de cinq ans à votre égard, on vous dira plutôt avec un  grand sourire, « c’est normal c’est un enfant ». En Egypte, au Soudan ou même au Kenya la population ne laissera jamais un bambin vous adresser la parole de la sorte. En Ethiopie, la population n’est définitivement pas facile à gérer. Il est temps pour nous de quitter le pays.

Pour rejoindre Moyale, ville poste – frontière, il faut passer par Konso, ville au bout de monde. A partir de Konso les transports publics deviennent plus de rares, il est temps de commencer à voyager dans les petits camions Suzuki qui traversent la région chargés de marchandises. Il faut attendre 8 heures à la terrasse d’un café pour trouver une place dans l’uns des rares camions, on a de la chance, le notre a prévu de se rendre directement à Moyale, en principe. IMG_8585[4] A Konso les pluies d’une intensité étonnante immobilisent la ville plusieurs fois par jour, on ferme alors les échoppes, les clients s’abritent dans les cafés où l’on ferme les volets. Plus rien ne bouge. Quelques minutes plus tard le soleil revient, le sol est devenu un sable mouvant et les torrents débordent à grands flots pour la plus grande joie des enfants. Notre camion embarque 3 passagers devant aux cotés du chauffeur et quelques autres derrière entassés sur les sacs de haricots, Seamus fait parti de ces heureux élus. De pneus crevés en pannes diverses et variées le camion n’avance pas bien vite. Après une nuit passée au milieu de nulle part faute de matériel, nous nous réveillons dans la savane parcourue par de grands troupeaux de bétail et parsemée de termitières rouges qui s’élèvent vers le ciel. Au bout de la troisième crevaison nous quittons le convoi pour un bus. Le véhicule fait office de navette pour les travailleurs et les marchands venus des régions éloignées. Epuisés, couverts de poussières et affamés nous arrivons à Moyale, toujours du coté Ethiopie. Pour profiter d’un dernier injera nous traverserons la frontière demain. Nous avons de la chance, dans la nuit, le prix du visa pour le Kenya a été divisé en deux.