“A person who has not crossed an African border on foot has not really entered the country, for the airport in the capital is no more than a confidence trick; the distant border, what appears to be the edge, is the country’s central reality.”
Paul Theroux, from Darkstar Safari
The Sudan/Ethiopia border was another 4 hour “hurry up and wait” exercise. This time questions about travel to the Congo and an infrared thermometer pointed at our foreheads served as safeguards against Ebola. Money changers were busy in the neutral zone between countries so we were able to load up on Ethiopian birr at a rate exceeding that offered by the banks in Gondar. After finger printing, mug shots and some very assertive passport stamping, we walked our bikes into the 3rd country of this adventure and exchanged birr for beer while we waited for our support vehicles to clear customs.
There were some armed demonstrations in the streets of Matema as we rode our bicycles a short distance to where the military forced us to board arranged mini vans to get to our destination in Gondar. Later we saw some burned out farm houses and passed several military check points. From our understanding there are disagreements between the tribes (there are over 80 ethnicities in Ethiopia) of this region stemming from the policies of Ethiopia’s new Prime Minister, Abi Ahmed. It is unfortunate that the unrest is situated in our path as Ahmed is well regarded at home in general, as well as in international circles. He has forged peace with Eritrea and created political stability and impressive economic growth all in a short period. 50 % of his ministers are women. Great stuff, but we still were relegated to the bus.
The topography en route to Gondar quickly becomes mountainous and could easily be mistaken for that of Arizona, especially with the appearance of prickly pear cacti to go along with the Juniper, fig and purple flowered jacaranda trees in the city. It has been a fascinating transition from the desert we were beginning to think might never end, to the mountains of East Africa’s Rift, Agriculture, architecture, natives, dress, food, drink, SIM cards, the air temperature here at 2200 meters of elevation and so much else have all undergone makeovers that came quickly, even at the rate of progress a bicycle allows.
2 rest days now in Gondar, known as the “Camelot of Africa”. This city became Ethiopia’s capital in 1636 and grew as an agricultural and market town. The former magnificence of the palaces and gardens is evident by what remains of the (World Heritage Site) Royal Enclosure, at the base of the bowl of hills that mark the city. They were constructed over almost 2 hundred years before the capital was moved and the city plundered and sacked. Ethiopians take pride in never having been colonized, but the Italians did overrun the country in 1936. The British chased them away in 1941, but Gondar became Mussolini’s last stand and some of the monuments suffered further damage.
“You will get sick on your days off”, we’ve been warned, “and it will likely happen in Ethiopia.” At the same time we’ve been encouraged to sample one of Africa’s finest cuisines. Last night we had our 1st local taste of injera: a gray, spongy bread made from fermented grain and spread over a whole large platter like a thin pancake. It is topped with sauces called wot and small mounds of meat, vegetables and a boiled egg. A vegetarian version falls under the “fasting food” title on menus. It is meant to be eaten by tearing off pieces of the injera by hand and scooping up the toppings. We were not impressed with this dish last year in an Ethiopian restaurant in Brooklyn, but this version was delicious. So far so good on the “sick” front btw.
Throughout Sudan and now here in Gondar the group has indulged in the tea and coffee offerings of women installed at small “stations” within ramshackle lean-to style gathering places we refer to as “coke stops”. With practised technique they create wonderfully aromatic and invariably sweet concoctions. Boiling pots of water and Italian style coffee pots sit on expertly managed charcoal burners (or more often on the charcoal itself) that do little for the surrounding air quality. They draw from shelves full of jars containing various tea leaves, coffee and spices to make their brews. They will not be rushed. Since crossing the border the ladies are roasting their own coffee beans (Ethiopia has among the finest in the world) and grinding them on site with huge mortar and pestle set-ups (including a robust piece of rebar in one instance). A small pot is served rather formally on a tray with 4 small cups for 30 birr – $1.25 Canadian. It is a gift.