20 November, 2006

Sudan to Ethiopia

Next day the Ethiopian Embassy was open and I could apply for my visa, paying the fee required. But it wouldn't be issued until the following day. Back to Rachel's. In the morning we'd finally, at the third go, perfected our goodbye ritual. Maybe it took three times to get this bit right but it was fine in the end. I gave Rachel a lift into her work at the University, she gave me final Sharia-defying public hug and I smiled at her back as she walked off, never turning round. So that's how you do it. Marvelous! I rearranged my kit onto the back seat of the bike for the first time in a month, and headed off into the dusty Khartoum traffic. Just me now, I'll miss her input.

The road from Khartoum to Gedaref was fairly straightforward. A petrol pump attendant was sitting on a stool by his pump reading "A Definitive English Grammar" and the sign posts were all human. Each time you stop at a junction and look a wee bit baffled, someone with a uniform and a dodgy looking rifle approaches with all the usual questions;
"Where you from?"
"Where you go?"
"Why you go?"
"It is this/that way?"
"Yes." (to both.)
"How far is it from here? How many kilometres?"
" It is Xkm from here." (where X is the first number you can think of over 100)

In the morning there was 'the road' to Gallabat on the border which was supposed to be a killer. 100miles of reportedly very difficult terrain. It was a complete pussy-cat for exactly 68miles. A beautiful, smooth, ribbon of relief that flowed through tiny villages and friendly locals. Then it disappeared completely. It just ran out. In front of me was a worn strip of terrain that went off in a direction of sorts. This wasn't a road though, it was a trials riding challenge! 2nd gear for the next 30miles over undulations and rocks and things specifically designed to break motorcycles. As I stood up on the footpegs, I had the curious sensation of the tent slapping me in the bottom (it was strapped to the back seat), and the windscreen hitting me in the chest. Very scary stuff. The road was so fully engaging my concentration that I rolled through a town and onto the bridge separating Sudan from Ethiopia before I'd even gone through any of the border formalities. Ooops! Shouting, panicking teenagers surrounded me and I U-turned on the bridge to say goodbye to the Sudan. They led me back to lots of uniforms, rifles and three different places to go; Immigration, Customs and Security. All fairly straightforward except they kept me waiting for far too long. Little did they know how thankful I was for the break and seat in the shade!! Eventually I just got up and announced I was going for some cold drinks, did anybody want one? Three of those delicious grapefruit-flavoured fizzy drinks later and things began to move. No jail, no extra $80US as the Nicks had encountered. Scottish charm, patience and lots of smiling blessing my progress again! Hurrah!! All done, I donated my few remaining Sudanese Dinars to whatever cause the teenagers thought good and slowly crossed the bridge.

Some of the young lads followed on. They didn't seem to recognise the border much. What a border! Never have I experienced such a contrast. Welcome to Ethiopia! No uniforms. No guns. No gruff exteriors. No endless waiting. I was quickly directed to a brightly painted thatched fairy-tale hut/cottage. Inside an adolescent couple sat giggling behind a desk. "Can we see your passport, please?" they whispered, smiling. No shouting!? I giggled too, unable to control my disbelief. "Why don't you have uniforms?" I asked. "We have democracy," said the girl, her face beaming with delight. Something inside me wanted these two to grow up and get married. They made such a lovely couple. They didn't stamp the passport, they gently and quietly pressed the "stamp" onto the paper, as if not wanting to make too much noise in their peaceful country.
"Welcome to Ethiopia," they said, each shaking my hand. And I really felt I was! "You will find a customs office 37km along the road in Shishendi."

And so I did. When I got there the policeman (in uniform) detected that I looked very thirsty and would I like a Coke? I explained that I hadn't any Ethiopian money yet but he just looked confused by that, went off and came back with one. "I didn't ask if you had money, I asked if you wanted a drink!" he smiled, handing it to me. "I'm sorry (he was sorry!) that we are closed for lunch just now but we will be open again at 9pm." 9pm?? They opened at 3, after the bank across the road had opened specially for me and phoned Addis Ababa to find out how much Sterling was worth to them. No commission. Then they taught me some essential Amharic over coffees while we waited for the Customs House to open. So; amasiginallo = thankyou; backhich = please; buna = coffee; wuha = water; nadage = petrol; manyetakafil = room; migib = food and denadero = cheerio. Got that?

In the Customs office a sign advertised "Come to Ethiopia and be seven years younger!" Not feel seven years younger? No - I began to understand when the lady stamped my Carnet - 5/3/99. Ethiopia does its own thing in everything. It hasn't quite reached the millennium yet. That'll be next September 9th (in our calendar) which is their New Year. So November is the 3rd month. Clear?

The daily time is different as well. In common with many of the Swahili peoples further south, 00hrs is when the sun comes up (0600). Our 0700 is their 1o'clock and so on. It helps to know this when asking when things close or open. It also explains why the customs house didn't, for example, open until 9o'clock, but the bank would be open at 8. (So that'll be our 3pm and 2pm respectively - if you've not worked it out yet.) This is quite sensible only if you live on or quite near the Equator.

No-one else speaks their language, they have thirteen months in the year (another advert read "Come to Ethiopia for 13 months of sunshine"), their writing script is unlike anyone else's on the planet . . . they just do everything differently.

The road ahead was paved with marble! Not that attractive smooth stuff, however, that you get in Greece and other places, but those wee things you play with in the playground. Not glass with bright wee colours inside either, but grey stones. This was better than the last 30 miles because it was at least flat, but it still made handling the bike 'interesting'. Overtaking the trucks puffing miles of dust and diesel behind them was perhaps the major challenge. You know when you go to overtake a lorry at night in the pouring rain on the motorway? That'll be easy from now on!

Children shouted ("you, you, you, you!!!"). Donkeys, goats, zebu (coos with lumps on their backs), sheep and people all ambled peacefully along both sides of the road, in whatever direction they wanted. As the sun began to set and the gloaming came and went too quickly all around, I climbed into hills. The town of Aykel and the Hotel Virut emerged from out of the fading light. 25Birr for the room. No shower but you can have one in this other room if you like. I needed it. As I looked across a tasty cold beer at my reflection in the bar's mirror, I could see an easily discernible tidemark across my forehead where the helmet had sheltered my head from the worst of the dust.

In the cool mountain air, snuggled up under the covers, I slept the best I had in weeks.


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