Blanca off the bike in Ethiopia

 

The highlight of Ethiopia? The company of my daughter Amaya

When I opened the door of my room I saw that it was raining again. It was only four in the morning and it was still dark. “The rains are early this year” that is what everybody is saying. The rains transform the paved streets of Addis into chocolate streams and the feet of countless people convert the unpaved ones into sludge. Wim’s Holland House, the overlanders’ hostel that had been my Addis home on and off during my time in Ethiopia, is in one of the unpaved ones.

The streets become rivers

I pushed my freshly cleaned and oiled bike through the mud until I reached the paved road and rode to Meskel Square, where Foxtrot and I were to board a bus to Arba Minch, a town four hundred kilometers from the Kenyan border. From there I was planning to get local buses all the way to the border,  too scared to cycle in this country.

When I entered Ethiopia I was already feelings pretty apprehensive having read and heard accounts of other cyclists. Everybody talked about dozens of children running alongside you shouting “YOU, YOU, YOU” followed by “MONEY, MONEY, MONEY” and how some of them delighted in throwing stones at you. Tired of the harassment, the majority of cyclists end up getting buses at some point. Even those who cycle all the way through the country talk in terms of “It wasn’t too bad, the stones only hit us a  couple of  times” or as Teresie, a young Norwegian I met in Khartoum told me  “It was OK, the rocks were quite small and only once a herder used his cattle whip on me as I went by. I was furious, picked up a stone and and followed him only to see that he was about to throw a huge rock at me”

All those stories were playing in my mind when I reached the border at Metema. I hadn’t even crossed the border when I was approached by Ethiopian young men wanting to “help” me cross, get money and get a SIM card expecting payment for their “help” It took more than fifteen minutes of  assertively saying “No thanks” for them to get the message and leave me alone.

Entering Ethiopia

Not even thirty minutes later, at the ATM, another young man wanted to know whether my card had worked, whether I had Visa or Mastercard and whether he could help me get money out. I could sense how I was begining to build invisible barriers around me and how I was closing down. All it took was for a local to tell me as way of warning “don’t camp in the bush in Ethiopia, you are no longer in a Muslim country” for me to realise that what I was feeling was fear and I hadn’t even started to cycle.

By now I am used to having butterflies in the stomach caused by the excitement mixed with apprehension of entering a new country but I had never felt fear and I knew that unless I managed to control this emotion, it would dominate my experience of the country.

“Open your mind Blanca, open your heart” I said aloud to no one but myself as I pedalled along but however much I tried, I could feel the anxiety drying up my mouth each time I approached a  village. Predictably, I was instantly surrounded by children  shouting “YOU, YOU, YOU” followed by “MONEY, MONEY, MONEY” some of them grabbing at my panniers and although I was spared the stones, I managed to get myself into a real bad estate of mind.

Not all was difficult. These villagers were happy for me to camp by their houses

It all came to a head when on the third day I saw a group of older teenagers walking in the middle of the road. I was going downhill and decided to maintain the speed, thinking that they would get out of the way to let me pass but when I saw that they weren’t going to move I pressed the brakes and one of them punched me in the arm. It didn’t hurt much but the little confidence I had left just drained away there and then.

The landscape was wild and beautiful

As luck would have it, two Englishmen I had met a couple of days, earlier went pass on a pick up truck and offered me a lift to the nearest big town which I  gratefully accepted.  That was the end of cycling in Ethiopia for me.

The visit of my daughter Amaya was a godsend and the perfect antidote for the blues that were setting in. Together we explored the magical chuches of  Lalibela, stood at the mouth of  a volcano, walked through solidified lava fields, saw salt caravans, looked in awe at the incredible landscape of the Danakil Depression, slept under the stars, drunk honey wine, rock-climbed to reach one of the Tigray churches, trekked in the Simien mountains, explored local markets and talked  non stop.  I felt bereft when I saw her disappearing riding on the back of a motorbike on her way to the airport.

Amaya’s visit was a godsend
Exploring the Lalibela Churches
Together we stood at the crater of a volcano
The Danakil Depression was incredible
Trekking in the Simien Mountains was fun

Alone again I decided to explore Harar, a Muslim city in the East of the country, closed to the border with Somalia. It was comforting hearing the call to prayer once more and walking the narrow streets of the walled city.

Exploring the streets of Harar Old City

In Harar they feed the hyenas at night outside the walls of the Old City. According to the locals, they started feeding the hyenas during a 19th-century famine, when the starving animals began to attack livestock and humans and the practice continues until today.

In the dark I took a bajaj (tuk tuk) with Sisay, a local guide, and through bumpy dirt roads we went in search of the hyena man. We found him sitting in a stone with a basket of meat and bones at this side and over dozen hyenas walking around him. The man was whistling and making throaty sounds to get the animals closer. I sat on a rock next to him and he dangled a piece of meat just above my head. One of the hyenas used me as a prop to get to the meat. I could hear the wet chewing of the animal just by my ear,  feel her hot breath on my face and smell her foul breath. It was both scary and exiliariting, a unique experience.

foul,foul breath!

It was in Harar where I met Mengistu, an orthopedic surgeon who had studied for 14 years in Cuba and thus spoke perfect Spanish. When I arrived at his house he opened the door with a big smile in his face. Mengistu is one of those rare young professionals who has returned to work in Ethiopia to contribute to improve the situation of ordinary people in the country whilst a lot of his friends stayed abroad working all over the world as anything but doctors.

Mengistu’s wife, Magaris, made coffee,  my first coffee ceremony in Ethiopia, the coffee slowly roasted over red charcoal and then pounder with a pestle and morter before being brewed in one of the special Ethiopian coffee pots.

The very special Ethiopian coffee pots

I wish I had been able to meet more people like Mengistu and Magaris, maybe if that had been the case my experience of Ethiopia would have been very different. As was, I found it a challenging country, I got very tired of the constant hassle, of people’s rudness and aggression, of being overcharged (in a disproportionate way), of the harrassment everywhere I went.

And yet, when I got to Arba Minch I changed my mind and decided I  wanted to cycle the last few days in the country. I took a couple of buses from Arba Minch to a town called Yabelo to get closer to the Kenyan border and then started cycling. I was enjoying the ride but as it was getting late and I had run out of water  I decided to stop a vehicle to get to the nearest town, a place called Mega. A minibus stopped and the driver told me that he was driving all the way to the Kenyan border. I couldn’t resist the temptation and there and then  I decided I would stay on and go to the border.

When I sat on the crowded minibus I was overcome by a sense of relief and a lightness of heart that I hadn’t felt in weeks, a smile filled my face and I felt happy. I was leaving Ethiopia!

 

 

 

 

44 thoughts on “Blanca off the bike in Ethiopia”

  1. Dear Blanca,
    I am happy that you survived Ethiopia.
    Hope Kenia is better. Come home alive please. Chris The Netherlands

    1. Hi Chris
      Thanks for your message. Kenya feels pretty safe and I have all intentions to come back alive. We need to explore Leighton House together, remember?
      Blanca

  2. Hello Blanca

    My husband and I met you at a restaurant at cat ba last year. We were cycling through Southeast Asia at that time.

    I am following your blog with such admiration for your wonderful spirit. I am so happy you listened to your instincts and got out of Ethiopia safely. I know as a cycle tourist this isn’t easy to do.

    Stay safe dear Blanca

    Janis kelly

    1. Hi Janis
      Thanks for your message. I remember us meet g in Cat Ba when I was with my friend Kath.

      Ethiopia was a fascinating country but not one where I would cycle again. I guess at my age I’m aware of my limitations and I try to be sensible because I want to continue cycling for as long as possible. Bravado would take me nowhere!

      All the best to you and your husband

      Blanca

  3. I can just feel all those people breathing ‘I told you so – the world is SO dangerous’ after reading this. Foolish women! But I’m envious of your continuing adventures, Bianca, as I sit so safely at home! And I’m pleased you continue to survive and explore (on the redoubtable Foxtrot). The landscape in Ethiopia looks both alien and stunningly beautful. Love to Amaya and you too. X Keep on Trucking!

    1. Hi Terri

      Can you believe over one year has gone since we had that Spanish omelette in Bangkok? Yes I will keep going for as long as I enjoy the open road and having Amaya was with me was pretty wonderful.

      Love following you in Facebook.

      Keep well

      Blanca

  4. Dear Blanca, with admiration for your courage and endurance. Thanks for your colourful messages. Good luck!
    Love from Jef, Amsterdam

  5. Dear Blanca,
    with admiration for your courage and endurance. Thanks for your colourful messages. Good luck!
    Love from Jef, Amsterdam

    1. Lovely Blanca reading your blog made me so concerned for your safety. I know you have left Ethiopia but I do worry if you’re on your own. So happy you had a nice time with Amaya. Happy and safe journey my dear. Xx

      1. Hi Michele

        Please don’t worry. I’m ok and would never take unnecessary risks.

        Having Amaya travelling with me was just amazing

        Love

        Blanca

  6. Our instincts are a big part of what keeps us out of trouble. Your’s seem to be functioning well. It’s sad that you couldn’t have a more pleasant experience travelling through Ethiopia, but wonderful that you had time with your daughter and were able to do some sightseeing together. Keep those instincts finely tuned, Blanca, and enjoy happy and safe days the remainder of your journey.

    1. Thanks Dan

      I do listen to my gut but in this instance I’m not sure how much my preconceptions got on the way. Something to ponder about as I cycle along.

      All the best

      Blanca

  7. Dear Blanca,
    Your experience in Ethiopia sounded so scary. I wonder why people are so hostile to bicyclists? Maybe they are that way to others, as well. I’m glad you are safe, and had a few good experiences there. Looking forward to the next newsletter. Be safe!

    1. Hi Debbie

      Thanks for your comment. I did feel quite unsettled and I don’t know why people behaved like that. I’m just happy to be in Kenya

      All the best

      Blanca

  8. So many cycle tourers talk about their hard times in Ethiopia that I guess preconceptions can play their part… Still it’s always better to listen to one’s instinct and if we don’t feel comfortable in one place is because we should move away.
    Btw is it safe again to travel to the Danakil Depression?

    1. Hi Rita
      Thanks for your comments, it’s always great to hear from people. I am sure my preconceptions played a big part of how I felt in Ethiopia and my unfortunate encounter at the beginning of my stay there just reinforced them.
      We did the Danakil Depression in an organised tour and it felt really safe.
      Kind Regards

      Blanca

  9. Staying safe and healthy.

    Your blog reads of a blended mix of fear, open heart, and sharing amazing experiences with Amaya.

    Amazing that you kept your open heart. ❤️

  10. Hi Blanca,
    As always, it’s wonderful to read your blog and hear about your adventures. Ethiopia has suffered so much in recent years, with most of it’s adult population having first hand experience of both drought and civil war. That’s no excuse for the hostility you received, but may be part of the reason for it.
    I’m so glad you had such a lovely time with Amaya! It must have been wonderful to discover and enjoy some of the very special aspects of Ethiopia with her.
    I’m so glad to hear that you’re having a much better time in Kenya.
    Enjoy!
    Lots of love
    Kath xxx

  11. Oh how my heat raced as I read your blog – so glad to know your instinct is keeping you safe and open to an amazing adventures x

  12. Blanca, I am so glad you’re safe and have your mojo back. But also so sad that Ethiopia was such a disappointment. It’s a place I have wanted to go for so long – in fact it is a place we have wanted to have the RacingThePlanet Roving Race – we’ve been holding off and your blog re-confirms that it’s the right thing to do.

    1. Hi Sam, we actually spoke a lot when there that it would be an amazing place for a Roving race (especially in Tigray Region) but the logistics would be challenging not only for the water but also security. We felt safe throughout our trip together but it is a challenging country.

  13. Dear Blanca
    Thank you once again for another of your riveting account of travels this time in Ethiopia. My curiosity of this country was sparked when my father visited on several occasions many years ago in the late ’70s. Things have changed since then. I have always been interested when meeting people from this part of the world or of any news from this corner of the world since mainly due to the harsh weather and war. I wonder how any kind of life can carry on. More recently I came across some slides taken by my father of the coffee plantations so again fascinated to see your photo of the coffee pots and that there is still coffee being produced. Your description of managing your mind and body through hostile groups of people alongside meeting interesting helpful individuals is powerful and a reminder how hard it can be to find the strength to relax enough to be curious and be open hearted. Each time I read your blog I remember us all together in the garden in Ramsgate and feel very special to know you! Looking forward to the next instalment x

    1. Hi Carine
      It is so lovely to get your messages!!

      The coffee in Ethiopia was delicious and what was wonderful was the care with which it is prepared, taking all the time in the world to roast it and ground it.

      Ethiopia was a fascinating country – so much history and culture. So many amazing landscapes. I felt challenged in it but I’m very please I had the opportunity to visit it.

      Much love

      Blanca

  14. Hi Blanca
    Amazing to hear from you and your travels through Ethiopia and how you were able to keep body and mind in one peice in such harsh conditions. We love the photos and the descriptions in particular the hyena! Enjoy Kenya x Carine and Dinks

  15. Eskerrik asko Txuri,
    nik ere oso gustora irakurtzen ditut kontatzen dituzun abentura zoragarri guzti horiek.
    Afrikara heltzen naizenean hobeto ezagutuko ditut lekuak zuri esker. Aupa hor!
    Leo muy a gusto todo lo que cuentas y gracias a ti sabré algo mas sobre Africa para cuando la visite.
    Big hug,
    Txaro

    1. Africa se merece una visita, un continente lleno de gente generosa, paisajes vírgenes y una naturaleza que se impone sobre todas las cosas

      Loads of hugs para ti también
      Blanca

  16. Hi Blanca
    I cycled through Ethiopiha earlier this year (3 weeks) and experienced the same: you you you, money money, pulling my bike, throwing stones, threating with sticks and machetes. It was not nice. But beautifull nature. I know how you felt there.
    Anton Tasič
    Slovenia

    1. Thanks Anton

      A challenging country for cycletournig, no doubt about it, but I’m happy I had the chance to visit it?

      Where are you now? Wherever you are safe riding and tail winds!!

      Blanca

  17. Buff, no sé qué decir a esta aventura en Etiopía. Un recordatorio de la naturaleza humana que todos compartimos? O una consecuencia de las circunstancias tan duras en las que viven en ese país? Yo aún sigo con la idea de ir en bici desde Londres hasta Córdoba en Andalucía (un paseíllo comparado con tus viajes), y ya tengo la bici de Harry Perry Cycles en Woolwich con la me voy ‘entrenando’ poco a poco, en espera a que me llegue el momento adecuado en mi vida para este proyecto. No sé si alguna vez tendré la oportunidad para llevarlo a cabo, pero cada vez me convenzo más de que lo realmente importante no será si lo hago o no, sino el camino que me lleve a una decisión u otra. Mientras tanto, gracias por la inspiración de tus propias andanzas por el mundo

    1. Hola Bernardo

      Es cierto que la gente tiene muy poco y que la falta de infraestructura hace la vida muy difícil para la gente del país y también es cierto que no es fácil ser un viajero independendiente en Etiopia. Al principio buscaba una explicación lógica todo el tiempo pero en un momento dado acepte que posiblemente nunca la encontraría.

      Diles hola a la cuadrilla de Harry Perry y disfruta de la bici. Y sí, es cierto que a veces no importa si realizamos nuestros planes o no y que lo realmente importante es el proceso y el estar en el presente y vivir cada día y disfrutar del pedaleo local.

      A ver si sigues por Woolwich cuando vuelva y te vienes a cenar a casa

      Un abrazo
      Blanca

  18. Cuando deja de ser divertido, mejor que no sea. Así que bien Blanca, con la mente y la sonrisa en un nuevo país, quedarán los buenos recuerdos de Etiopía. Disfruta de Kenia ahora. 🙂

    1. Es cierto, esto no es una prueba para ver lo dura que una es. Ya estoy muy mayor para esas cosas. Kenia, de momento, un placer.

      Abrazos

  19. Well dear heart, another adventure! I am happy about the hyenas and super stocked about the mother-daughter time and very sad for the rest.
    Hugs

  20. Sorry you’ve had such a hard time in Ethiopia. But from a reader’s perspective, it’s interesting to hear about the good, the bad, and the downright ugly too. I’m glad to read of your sense of self-preservation and protection. It’s a comfort when you’re undertaking a pretty difficult journey for most of us to get our heads around. It balances the, ‘is she bonkers?’ thoughts. Keep safe honey. And keep enjoying all those lovely safe bits. Xxxx

  21. Hola Blanca,
    He leído tu relato con el corazón en un puño. Me alegro de que hayas salido, te diría indemne, pero creo que es más justo decir victoriosa.
    Todo lo que hiciste con tu hija fue precioso, ¡vaya aventura!

    Un abrazo

    Mariló

  22. Interesting the associations you find between community hostility and christianity, and your relief at entering another muslim region. More lessons for us westerners. So glad you’re now safely across the border!

  23. I’ve only just read this blog and am v glad you’ve moved on. Poor Ethiopia has been through hell and no doubt white folk are regarded as rich oppressers, including a lovely lone woman on a bike. Sounds horrible (except for your special time with Amaya) so I’m very glad you trusted yourself and your instincts- keep on keeping on. Love & sisterhood xxx

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