29 November, 2006

Kenyan Bandit Country.

I don't know whether it was what Cathy had told me or it was just my perception but the people in the South of Ethiopia had something of a threatening 'edge' to their shouting. There were more cars too, and tractors in the fields - I hadn't seen those in the north. More wealth generally all around.

At the last hotel in Ethiopia I was told "Firenjy [foreigners] pay double!" I laughed and smiled at this, paying 90Birr for a similar room to the one that had cost 40Birr the night before. I needed to get rid of my Ethiopian currency anyway and it was about time that I got ripped off by someone. I thought I could easily afford it until I found out, too late, that this rule extended to the restaurant and bar as well! By the time they'd opened the wine and told me the price, I hadn't enough left for food. Tough, it seemed. So I went through the daft rigmarole of moaning about how in Scotland this would be correctly termed 'racism' and it was all wrong, they must take the wine back and let me buy some food. But they must do no such thing at all and I could just drink the wine and shut my stupid, moaning firenjy face. So I did and I had wine for tea. Not exactly nutritious, but I'd had some fruit earlier.

I stopped next morning at a roadside cafe which had the rare novelty of a menu - with prices. I found I could afford an omelette, coffee and water. Not a bad breakfast. With no Birr left at all, I arrived at the border.

Leaving Ethiopia was not quite the same joyous experience as coming into the country but still fairly straightforward, fewer smiles but still no guns.

A little man in a leather jacket approached offering to 'help' and get me some Kenyan Shillings. I didn't much like the look of him so I looked up 'the book' and found he was offering a lot less than he should. I went about my business and left him alone. He followed, and I wasn't rude but I was tired and tried to ignore him as best I could.

Formalities complete I crossed into Kenya. After things were concluded on this side (lots of smiles and uniforms) I asked about the banks. They had closed only 15 minutes ago. Luckily, loitering outside was my pal with the leather jacket. Tired from the day and lack of nutrition, I changed 30GBP for 100Ksh/Pound, so he gave me 300Ksh. Taking the money, I went to look for a place to sleep. At the Police station where the Nicks had stayed I asked if I could camp. No problem. The kindly policeman then told me about the price of food at the Police canteen, where I was welcome to eat. But it couldn't be 85Ksh just for some chips! That was 8.50GBP!! slowly, slowly it dawned on me. The little guy had ripped me off - he should have given me 3000Ksh, not just 300!! I had barely enough for food, and he'd given me about 3quid for my 30! Well I was WIDE awake now! I rode back down to the border where the Kenyan Authorities allowed me to re-invade Ethiopia. There wasn't much hope of getting my money back but I could at least warn the Ethiopians about this guy. The guard on the other side insisted we looked for him. To my surprise we found him AND he gave me back most of the money. I had already decided that if he gave me back it all, I'd give him something back for his 'honesty' and for my stupidity. But he wanted to keep 300Ksh as 'commission'. With little alternative, I confirmed with him that he would be quite happy to sleep soundly with his decision and not suffer overly from guilt, and then walked back to the bike. Not too bad - I now at least had enough for food, shelter and to pay for the truck in the morning.

When I went to buy some food at the wee shop, I was amused when the lady at the counter said "50 Bob"! I knew they used shillings but had no idea they'd call them 'Bob' like we used to. I don't remember too much about Lsd, but I was a Cub Scout doing "Bob a Job Week" well after decimalisation.

I had been told that it would be wise, because of the washed-out muddy roads, for me to put the bike on a truck for the journey to Marsabit. With the front wheel bearing chirruping like a troupe of demented sparrows, this seemed wise indeed. And there were bandits out there! The last thing I needed was a collapsed bearing in Bandit Country!

I managed to get the price down from $150US to $50, rode the bike onto the truck in front of a huge and appreciative audience, bowed dramatically to much applause and climbed onto the top of the cattle truck. There were no cattle but a comfortable seat was not an option as there were no seats at all. The truck was full of teenage schoolchildren going home after their long term at school, some ladies who had been trading across the border, and me. There were some bars across the top of the truck in a sort criss-cross pattern which would support a tarpaulin from suffocating the cattle. This tarp had been drawn back so that we human passengers could make ourselves comfortable on the bars. It was exactly like holding on for your life as the driver did everything a bucking bronco could do unseat us all. I couldn't believe this was an accepted mode of transport. Meanwhile the bike rattled around below me and I began to get very worried.

40km (25miles) down the road the truck's clutch-cable snapped. Aren't they all hydraulic now? While we waited I got chatting to Paur, a Kikuyu from Nairobi who had been in Moyale mending and servicing photocopiers for the government. He explained that these were all Borani people who liked nothing more than to argue with each other. As a Kikuyu he was as much a foreigner on the truck as I was and would have to avoid any involvement in the arguments if he wasn't to be thrown off and left in the bush. His English was excellent and, as we were of a similar age we enlisted one another as friends almost immediately. He had been in the back of the truck, trying to keep out of the dust. It took hours for the clutch cable to be mended during which several of the kids jumped on passing trucks to get home earlier.

We got another 40km before we came to a huge truck-eating mud puddle. I'd heard of these but always thought them to be wild exaggerations. On a fully-functioning bike I could have made it if I'd kept closely to the sides. I'd have fallen off loads of times but there were lots of people only too happy to laugh at the daft mzungu and then help. A truck had become bogged down in the middle and was sinking fast. Other trucks and mini-buses and a couple of 4WDs waited patiently for the road grader to pull it out. After an incredible amount of shouting and not much happening it was pulled out and the other trucks took turns at ploughing up the puddle. Some knew what they were doing and slowly chugged through on low revs. Others, learning nothing from their more careful colleagues, took a run at it and quickly got stuck and had to be pulled out by the grader again. Once out all waited on whichever side to see how the rest got on. It was already getting dark when the truck before ours dived into the puddle, screaming its engine and then, catching a very big rut, teetered for a moment, engine screaming, before slowly falling over with a great splash. The passengers had already got off so nobody was hurt. Just the driver's pride. It wouldn't sink because he had got as far as one side of the puddle. The road was now completely closed because the grader had no lights. The truck would need to be unloaded by hand in the morning and then righted using ropes. All the other trucks would stay the night, even though they didn't need to. "The bandits may come and we will only be safe if we are many more than they." But I wasn't to worry, bandits had struck a convoy last night and probably wouldn't come tonight. Also they usually didn't rob mzungu (whites) because they had great respect for the work they (NGOs and charities) did. I felt a bit left out, and something of a fraud. The people from the fallen truck were to sleep in ours since we'd lost so many passengers during the breakdown. This was really unpleasant since among our cargo were some poorly sealed drums of paraffin. That stank enough to sting eyes and lips. Then they closed the roof to keep out the rain, even though it wasn't raining! Paur and I decided to sleep on the roof of the truck. I had anti-mosquito spray and at least there we could breathe!

People were jammed in so that they could not stretch out but they laughed at our daftness as we climbed onto the roof. It was noisy up there with croaking frogs in the swamp all around, but we could see the stars and breathe at last.

In the rush to get onto the truck that morning I'd missed breakfast. Few of our fellow passengers had eaten either since the promised lunch stop was another 80km further on, beyond the giant slithery rutted puddle of doom. A woman in our truck had a box of biscuits that she might sell at the right price. But she had to sell the whole box and nobody could afford that. She laughed when Paur and I offered to buy it and share it out. After some persuasion that yes, in fact we really would, it was sold to us, we took our share and gave the rest away to much more hilarity! We must be mad! All were at last happy that the Mzungu and the Kikuyu had done something useful, if crazy. The biccies were past their best and soft but they were food and tasted very good with fresh water from my thermos! Eventually I found a reasonable sleeping position and I dosed throughout the night, watching the progress of Orion whenever I woke.

No bandits came in the night and in the morning the truckers began unloading and righting the fallen truck. Neither had there been any rain so the puddle had dried a little and so each of the trucks bumped and slithered through.

The bike was very poorly 'secured' to the truck and I realised pretty quickly that I could easily have destroyed it for much less than the $50US I'd given these guys. I would have taken it off but, thinking I was being sensible, I had purposefully not filled up with fuel back in Moyale. The next petrol station was in Marsabit so I was trapped on the truck for the duration. No amount of girning or bawling would get them to reconsider the positioning or security of the bike. They had little regard for their own truck and so couldn't seem to understand why I gave my machine so much value. I tried to convince the owner of the truck that treating his property with some gentleness and care might mean it would last as long as mine had. I was whistling in the wind. He just laughed, 'but it would take so long!' My valuing of a machine was just foolish sentimentality. Who cares about machines? Well, not even me if I'm honest. It's more about the experiences they can provide you with, and the valuing of money thing instilled in me from birth by various role models!

We battered into Marsabit where I insisted on buying Paur his dinner. If it hadn't been for him explaining things to me all along, I would have gone mad with the frustration of all the useless shouting and nothing happening.

We found Nomad's which had hot showers. Paur was concerned I shouldn't get into any trouble in this unlit frontier town! I looked into the mirror and laughed, Paur and I were the same colour - both grey men from the dust of the road! Just as well for the dust too as my Factor 12 suncream wasn't nearly cutting it against the tropical sun!

refused first go at the shower and instead went off to his workshop to get himself cleaned up. I got in the shower fully clothed in the hope that some of the dust might rinse off. It did!
I was to collect the bike from the truck at 8am (2pm!) in the morning.

28 November, 2006

Help ma Boab! - Scots in Addis. 8627miles

So the only real obstacle to the rolling road down to Addis was the Nile Gorge. The road suddenly just ran out as a priestly figure gestured at me to stop by his tiny church. I did and was treated to a magnificent view where the escarpment fell very sharply and then rose just as steeply on the other side of a wide brown river, the Blue Nile. I'm sure the priest gave me and the bike a blessing as we drove off - this didn't bode well! The road down to the river was indeed, "strewn with cutting flints" and worse sometimes! More battering for the poor bike and my aching forearms. As I descended somebody turned the heating up far too high and on reaching the bottom of the gorge there was the river, and traffic lights. I slowly overtook a line of trucks, grateful to get in front of them so easily, and waited. Why is it only ever trucks, and me!? Never any cars? There were Japanese guys all over the road looking through those things on tripods that surveyors use and others holding up metre sticks. They seemed to have left the hardest part of the road till last and were just about to seal it properly. I was trying to convince myself how lucky I was to experience it before they sealed it over forever. I knew there was no way I could ever have convinced the bike though!

The lights turned to green after a convoy of trucks from the opposite side had belched their filthy, unbreathable diesel reek all over those patiently waiting. I started across the bridge and up the other side. This was almost a rock face where at times there was no 'road' but just the bare rocks all washed shiny, smooth and slippery by the rain and passing tyres. If I had stopped at all I'd never have got started again. I was in first gear, desperate not to stall, more times than I can remember.

I kept thinking of Ted Simon and how he'd done this just a few years ago at the tender age of 70! What a guy! I'd admired him after reading his book "Jupiter's Travels" about going RTW starting in 1974 on a 500cc Triumph twin, a road bike. One justifying theory for my own trip had been that if he could do it then, on that, surely I could manage now, on this. But, before ever I'd got the chance to do the trip for even my first time, he'd gone round again - at 70! He must be made of superhuman stuff because I had to dig very deep into reserves I did not know I had to get the bike up this mountain!

We battered, clattered, slithered, bounced, weaved, slid and skidded all over the place. The moment-to-moment concentration on just where best to even try to put the front wheel next, avoiding this sharp rock, or that definite death drop, seemed to take over from the fear of getting it all horribly and terminally wrong. It wasn't as if there was any alternative. In Europe anyone would have the sense just to turn away and find another route. But here, this IS the main road, get on with it!

Entirely without falling off (but I later found, having lost some tools from the back seat!!) we reached the top. Almost all present and correct, I was back on firm asphalt after 26miles of motorcycle torture.

The next day, still in the countryside. I rolled quietly past a sign which said "Addis Ababa - City Limit". I was a bit baffled but two miles later I went over the brow of a hill and there it was, sprawling in a fantastic basin, surrounded by sheltering hills. What a sight to behold. I've never entered any city with such a dramatic preview. As I wound down the hill colours began to brighten in concert with the smiles. I thought I saw a Saltire on a shop front and stopped to investigate. There was no connection but the shopkeeper became immediately friendly and let me use his phone to call Andy, who had volunteered his family's hospitality.

Andy, Cathy and their highly entertaining daughter Isla live in a quiet house [photo copyright Andy Wightman] surrounded by a tropical jungle garden. Pigeons in the trees above give an "Ooboop bedoopy-doop" call. Very amusing. It turned out to be Friday so for the first time I really did get to stop on a Friday and relax for the weekend. A phone call to the Kenyan Embassy confirmed they wouldn't be issuing visas till Monday morning, and you couldn't pick them up till the following day.

The play at the front wheel was only about twice as bad as it had been when I left Khartoum - not too bad then! And I'd just covered 1000miles. Another 1000 and I'd be in Nairobi! I settled down to relax for the weekend in the excellent company of this lovely Scots family. They even had Scottish flags, left over from Isla's 10th birthday, hanging up in front of the house! What a welcome!

I'd met Andy before at some conferences in Scotland concerning Land Reform. We'd spoken on the phone and e-mailed a few times. All this on a strictly ProAm basis, with he the top professional and me the complete amateur.

We all went for tea at the local curry house (mmm, good food and company!!) and then on Saturday morning Andy and I searched all over to get me a new camera while Cathy and Isla went to dance classes. Cameras were unbelievably expensive, even in the huge market we explored. So we all went for lunch at the Hilton - as one inevitably does! But actually it was at a very reasonable price. Then some crazy golf at which both Andy and I managed to score holes-in-one!. I innocently won by a few points before it was decided that the winner got to buy the ice-creams.

On Sunday we searched for a National Park mentioned in the Lonely Planet. The directions were very poor and we took a long while to find the place. When we did though, it proved to have been well worth the effort. Andy had admirable driving skills and later confessed to having been a ghillie in the Scottish Highlands where he'd learned how to drive Land Rovers properly over any terrain. In the Park there were three small campsites - and leopards! We didn't see any of those but we did see a Collobus (sp?) monkey, lots of small baboons, and some defiant-looking warthogs. I'd definitely camp here if I came back. Very cool and lots of hiking to be done. No advice on what to do whenever confronted by those never-changing spotted types. I'm sure the wardens knew, however, because the place had been a National Park since the 14th century!

Cathy works for an Aid agency in Addis, Mercy Corps. They're engaged in conflict management, agricultural livelihoods, economic development and pastoralists' livelihoods, and now they are working on improving conditions for people in Addis Ababa. She put me right on one or two issues. It seemed that things were not as idyllic as I'd at first thought. How could they have been? There were tribal conflicts in the south and west, domestic difficulties concerning the mistreatment of females needing to be entirely removed from the culture, and most people were less than pleased that the Tigreans from the north seemed to control the government. A bit like the Scots controlling the UK government, only on a more permanent basis! Oh, and they still couldn't agree with the Eritreans about their new border and had the odd go at fighting them in Somalia from time to time.

However, I had a fantastic weekend imposing myself on this excellent wee family group and bid a very sad farewell the following Tuesday morning, waving them off from their own house as they all went off to work/school.

For my birthday I got to put another hole in my trouser belt, a Kenyan visa and a tankful of petrol. The road south was hard to find and the anti-malarial drugs Auntie Cathy and Uncle Andy sensibly insisted I bought were doing strange things to my heid! I stopped early that day, found a reasonable hotel and went quietly to sleep. I needed it. Things were about to get a whole lot more challenging before they got any better!

20 November, 2006

Defying Description

In the morning there was only black-market fuel as there was no other petrol station for another 30miles and I'd have run out long before then. I rattled and battered the bike and myself over those next miles through some of the most photogenic country I'd ever seen. Just as well I lost my camera or I'd have been stopping for photos at every hilltop and corner! Very little progress would have been made there!

And my first proper wildlife - a huge lizard about 2m long but half of that tail, wiggled across the road. I looked down from the hillside and what we'd call, in English, a starling, or in Scotland a 'stookie' in a Spiderman outfit flew alongside me - bright red body and bright blue wings and head!

After the junction for Gonder there was as smooth a road as any in France, Switzerland or the Dolomites. Just finished by a Japanese company, it twisted through fantastic scenery all the way to the Nile where it dropped and rose 1500m into the chasm and out again. 26miles or 42km of rocks and boulders and slippery bits to rival the last 30miles of Sudan. I had simply to maintain momentum at times in order not to fall off the mountain! When I stopped at the Hoteela Yeethiopya later that evening I saw that I'd lost a useful hammer as well as the special BMW exhaust nut spanner from the back of the bike. But more of that later.

All hotels (hoteelas) are en-suite here. You are issued with a small basin and a bottle of water, not for drinking, but for washing your feet before bed. The basin, after the feet-washing, is for any necessities in the night.

I had a very entertaining guest that night though in my cheap hotel room. Lots of insects flapped and jumped against the walls and the metal door as I tried to sleep in the pitch dark after lights-out. At one stage I woke to hear a loud crackling and scraping behind my head and felt that this was just a little too close even for me. Putting on the light, I saw gratefully that it was coming from the pillow-case I wasn't using on the other side of the bed. A baby's hand appeared to my semi-conscious brain to be trying to escape from the pillow-case! I shook myself out of this nightmare and decided it had to be some sort of large insect. Now, I didn't really want to cuddle up to a creepy-crawly insect all evening so I took the other end of the pillow and leant it on the opposite wall, open side up, the 'thing' at the floor. But this 'thing' wasn't daft. It started immediately to move up the pillow towards the light! It was going to escape! Adrenalin at last rushed into my brain! All kinds of thoughts came to my mind, the best one hoping it was a lovely (if large) furry caterpillar. It would be all colourful and maybe it might even be cuddly and it could stay and I'd tell it the story of "The Very Hungry Caterpillar" and we'd make friends by the morning! But it was still moving up the pillow-case and I couldn't watch it emerge, bit by creepy bit, to frighten the very life out of me. So I decided in my highly assertive way that I was the adult and I had to assume full control of this situation. With about 3cm left for it to go I leapt athletically across the room and deftly grabbed the bottom of the pillow, turning it quickly upside down. A HUMUNGOUS, shiny, black beetle the size of a very, very big gerbil fell onto the floor with a crack, all legs waving and antennae searching! Suppressing a manly shriek, I swept it out of the room and shut the door quietly behind. But not far enough away and so three shivery seconds later it crawled slowly back under the door, back into the room to get me! This time I had my sandal (there could have been anything inside my boot!) ready. I got it well out of the room, down the step and got myself back into the room. Insects don't usually bother me too much but I had no more sleep that night. Large crickets were still jumping senselessly against the metal door. A thorough search of every available hiding place took an hour and then I read until the light came, and the insects went, at 6am. Exhaustion eventually brought me some welcome unconsciousness with my book on my chest.

In the daylight though, words honestly fail me for an adequate description of this place. A far better author than me is required, although all I had read beforehand was no preparation. You'll just have to see it yourselves, that's the only way. 'Beautiful' doesn't quite do it. 'Paradise' comes close. Perfect temperatures, incredible vistas, friendly people (too friendly children!), the smooth road. And all in a 1930's rural landscape. No cars. No fences. No pylons. Lots of bicycles, some trucks and a few buses. All others on foot. This, I suppose, is how Scotland and much of Europe must have looked 70-100 years ago. And how it might look again in another 50-100 years if we keep on the way we're going. The only fly in this otherwise perfect ointment was the regular appearance of burnt-out tanks [photo copyright Andy Wightman] along the road. It was difficult to understand what had happened to them because they were always alone, but quite regularly spaced along the road. I didn't count them but there must have been ten or fifteen along the road between Gondar and Addis.

I tried to think where the place reminded me of - some bits like Rannoch Moor, others like the road up to Bettyhill, others again like the B709 down by Eskdale. A few pointy peaks but mostly rolling, if tall hills cultivated to quite a height. Everything is high here, the plateau itself being between 2000 and 3000m, peaks rising to over 4000m. That's 12,000ft or three Ben Nevises. The bike felt it and I fiddled with the timing till it ran better. Can you still retard timing or is it more PC nowadays to give motors timing difficulties?

Ethiopia claims to be 'the cradle of humanity', where humanids first walked upright and held hands along the road of life. This can't be so, however, since no-one in their right mind would leave such a fantastic place. Droughts, famine and wars aside, there seems no reason such a place should suffer such things. "This is a poor country," Yohannes, the Culture and Ethics teacher at the local Secondary School told me. "But now that we have democracy, we can be happy and progress at last because we have abundant contentment!" (That's the away they use English, by the way, "in order that we may facilitate . . ." they'll say. Old-fashioned grammar in between excellent vocabulary.) I truly hope so because they so obviously deserve it. The rest of the world, I reckon, could learn much from Ethiopia, at least in terms of how to use the environment.

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.

11 November, 2006

Leaving Khartoum 7672miles

Those parts arrived in double quick time and I've done what little I can. It isn't anywhere completely mended but I'll spare you all the detailed technicalities. Alex, a new contact in Nairobi, has a friend who used to work for BMW (usually more useful as they don't need to follow 'the book'). So all should be mended perfectly if I can just get as far as that. Alex tells me the rains have started in Northern, muddy Kenya, but I'm not so proud that I can't throw the bike in a truck for the slippery bits. I'm told even the great yardstick motorcycle adventurers Ewen and Charlie were known to use trucks for the muddy bits (and not even those they took along with them!).

And Andy, who knows everything there is to know about Scottish land ownership has flitted to Addis Ababa and offers accommodation.

I tried leaving today, packed up said all my goodbyes to Rachel and headed off. The Ethiopian Embassy only (!) took two hours to find (no addresses) and then they were closed. But they'll be open tomorrow! Keep grinning. So now I'm back in the iCaff waiting to see how best to blag another night on Rachel's balcony!

I find I'll miss Khartoum! I've been here two weeks and I know the neighbours' kids. I wish I could find them some chalk for their pavement drawings. I wanted to buy them a football! I know all the good iCaffs and I get familiar shouts and huge extravagant hand-slapping handshakes that start away high in the air from people who know and recognise me and the bike. I think I'm even getting used to the heat as well.

Rachel and I thought we'd perfected the Khartoum night out last night when we went for BBQ chicken at the restaurant we found that first night, with cold drinks from across the street, and then got ice-creams on the way home! Delightful, but later we concluded there must surely be even more.

I'd like to stay and help Midhat fix his old BM. And then there's the leaving a place again. I was getting used to leaving places a while back. It must be the lack of momentum again. Having familiar things around in Rachel's flat and having her familiar face to 'come home' to, has become 'comfortable'.

Alas, these aren't the comforts of RTW travel, and I must get over all that nonsense! Amazing, though, how easy it is to fall back into the familiar and easy ways, and how easy it is to become established in a new place. Of course part of the truth is that I have become comfortable here quite secure in the knowledge that I am passing through. Rachel has to stay for seven months, and I'm far less certain I'd have become quite so comfortable with that prospect in mind. I'm less sure, also, whether I'd have become so comfortable had I arrived and tried to set up here on my own. It would have happened, I know, it might just have been a good bit slower. I've lived in foreign cities alone before, but none quite so basic as this one. And never without any language at all.

So, definitely away tomorrow, a night in Gedaref, then the dirt road to the border. Hopefully quickly through that (but the Nicks spent some hours in jail there!) and then up to Gondar in the cool Ethiopian Highlands. I read in one of the guide books that there's a famous brewery to be visited in that town! I might be in need of a wee rest by then!

Apologies, by the way, for the lack of photos. Rachel put them onto disc but we can't find a computer that'll open it! Now she's going to try and get them copied and send them on to me in Nairobi. There aren't any photos for Sudan anyway, they're not allowed (well . . .).

Wish me luck - I will need it this time - any religious types, please feel entirely free to do your thing!

05 November, 2006

A Cartoon in Khartoum

After a wild flurry of e-mails between MotoBins, friends at home and BMW Nuremberg, the parts are now ordered. The phones don't work too well here either and I don't speak German. MotoBins insisted that they needed to know exactly which wheel was fitted to my bike so that they could send the correct parts. Thanks to the efforts of those at home, the information was obtained and all is well. It all goes to show that even thousands of miles from home, friends can still be invaluable, and the whole trip can depend on their efforts! I've no idea what I'd have done with out such assistance, and further information was also forthcoming about the extent of the damage done! (Thanks Roy!) So now ALL the parts I need should arrive, and not just the ones I thought I needed, which would have left me in the same situation as I'm presently in. Thanks again to Midhat, who showed me the DHL office that will pick the parts up, as well as the travel agents' that can give cash from a Credit Card - at an extortionate rate!

Anyway, MotoBins just need to confirm that all is well on Monday and DHL will give me a wee number so that I can watch the progress of my parts as they whoosh towards me. It's only going to cost $198 for delivery. (ONLY!!!) Of course, yesterday was Saturday, so no pick-up as it was the UK weekend, followed swiftly by Sunday. So, Monday pick-up then? Ordinarily it would only take five days to get here but Friday, well, that's Sudanese weekend so maybe Saturday. Then I have three days to fit the parts and get to the Ethiopian border before my Sudanese visa runs out. I'll have been in Sudan by then for three weeks.

At least now that I've done all I can possibly do, I can relax a bit and start the tourist thing.

It's funny how when there's a bend to go round, a hill to see over, a truck to overtake, a bus to avoid, food to find/cook, a campsite to find, a tent to put up, a hotel's price to negotiate, petrol to buy, an ATM to find, maintenance to monitor (not too closely it seems!) . . . that takes up all of your head. As soon as there's nothing to do, no momentum, just waiting, staring at a screen, looking out over the balcony, trying vainly to keep cool, drink water, eat fruit, just nothing to do - that's when you get hameseek!

Thankfully now at least I have an idea when I'll go, I can look forward towards that. Midhat is a life-saver. He seems to know everyone and rides his bicycle through the traffic faster than I can ride the motorbike! He organises trips into the desert for anyone interested. I'll see if I can get his website address.

Rachel's flat is small and has all you could need but very few luxuries. The telly doesn't work, but my wireless does and there is a lovely big fridge which we keep well-stocked with drinks and fruit. At last, thanks to my landlady, I learned how to open and eat a mango without making too much mess! The only air-conditioning, in Rachel's bedroom, is broken and makes far too much noise. She sleeps with it off. It would never be capable of cooling down the whole flat. So I make my bed on the balcony. It's a bit noisy on the balcony but it is airy and not too far from the fridge. Any effort at all creates uncomfortable amounts of moisture. The temperature is a comfortable 38Celsius during the day, plummeting to 32 in the evening (brrr!). We are reading all the books in the house!

Positive things about Khartoum - if you smile at almost anyone they'll smile back. This works especially on the road. I think they're amazed that I'm on a bike. Most 'whiteys' are in huge 4x4's with 'UN' along the side. The tea ladies - they go through such a rigmarole involving ginger and cinnamon long before coffee or tea are introduced. Made friends with Mohammed, the local shopkeeper, when I bought most of his reserves of delicious grapefruit fizzy drink! Streetside barbecues - restaurants fall into the street of an evening and provide tasty bits of chicken and shwarma with bread. Mmmm! Finding the cheapest, best places - this iCaff is only 150SD per hour (about 50p) and has excellent air-conditioning! Eating Nile perch overlooking the Nile. Mad driving which means you can smile at the policeman directing traffic and he'll wave you through! Driving the wrong way up one way streets - there are no signs so how am I supposed to know - nobody bothers!

Today I went to the BMW garage (why not?) to get my relay mended (not too many Halfords this side of Wadi Halfords). I had to ride another 6miles to the workshop but once there was fed cold drinks (free!) while together we (the two mechanics [one female - yes!!!], the electrician and I) sorted out which relay it was and mended the bike. At the end - 'how much?' says I.
'It's on the house,' said they.
'But you've spent over an hour working on it!' I protested, feebly.
'No, that wasn't work, that was just some fun!' they laughed. I really appreciate that wherever you seem to go with BMW, the mechanics are real enthusiasts. It's like their job is their hobby! But I think as well that they get a bit of a laugh at the 'ancient technology' of this bike. BMW have developed quite far since 1981. Two Wheels in Edinburgh, however, take note! Did I mention the free coffee AND cakes at Nuremberg?

And, while they couldn't let me use their workshop for hours next week, I was provided with a map (no addresses here!) to 'my brother's workshop' where I should be able to find space! Other than that, there's not much to report except to especially thank Enfie and Roy at home for their help in the more intricate technical aspects!