I met Wilko, and many of the other volunteers early in the morning,
before sunrise, in the reception of the hotel. Our car, the Toyota
turned up first. I was glad that we had this car because it was the
most comfortable and easily big enough to take the pair of us and our
luggage. We were being driven by Dereje, an experienced VSO driver. I
was later to find out that he had been a driver for the army.
One thing that did worry me slightly about the journey was the limited
number of tapes. The journey was scheduled to take us up to the north
of the country, quite close to the Eritrean border. A distance that
could easily take two days by car. Hence, the small number of tapes was
a worry, albeit petty.
We headed out of Addis at about 6:45, with the sun lighting up the new
day. Again, despite it being early, I was amazed at the number of people
walking somewhere. People, often in pairs, were walking, empty handed into
Addis, presumably to start their day's work. The donkey trains were also in
full force, sometimes walking in the owner's intended direction, sometimes
deciding just to have a little run with the owner chasing behind waving their
stick. Occasionally they would decide to stray towards the path of the car.
Dereje was quite an accomplished horn blower, and knew how to position the car
so that the donkeys would move in the correct direction. It couldn't have been
luck that we didn't hit anything. Really, it couldn't.
The air was a good temperature to me, and still relatively clean before the
pollution of Addis had built up. However, to the locals, the air was quite
chilly. Both men and women walked with large shawls wrapped around their bodies
and their heads so that only their faces were visible. We had been given a short
lesson on these shawls, and how sometimes they can be worn upside down to
indicate that there is something wrong, e.g. a death in the family. They have a band
of colour at one end in case you're wondering which way is up.
This was really the first time outside of Addis, and it seemed that a car horn is
essential outside of the towns as well. It was now that I realised that it was not
being used in an aggressive way, it was merely being used to tell people that the
car was there. For instance, most vehicles drive in the middle of the road unless
there is oncoming traffic. In fact, some of them drive in the middle of the road
regardless. However, if you approach a lorry from behind, you bib the horn to say
that you are passing, and they then move over to the right to allow you to pass,
returning to their central position afterwards. When driving through villages and
towns, the horn is also essential because it seems that many people do not understand
the dangers of cars and will quite happily mill about in the road. Considering that
nearly all of the places we drove through had roads but no pavements, it seems quite
obvious that people will walk in the road. It's not just children that are oblivious
to cars, often it is older people. Having said this, when children realized that a
car was approaching they did move the fastest. We passed through several villages
scattering children to the side of roads, and sometimes into bushes, with a quick
blast of the horn.
It did not take us long to leave Addis behind us, the best way I have of describing
the countryside immediately outside Addis is that it was quite flat, and looked
very much like England, just with the colour turned down a bit. We are currently in
summer and the harvest has been and gone. Agriculturally, it's probably closer
to autumn or winter. Again, all the cattle and people we saw looked healthy.
Large buses are used to transport both people and goods. Sometimes the goods are
livestock. Small livestock, such as chickens might be carried by people inside the
bus. And, according to other VSOs, it could be on your lap. Larger livestock are securely
tied to the luggage racks. This sounds worse than it looks. The animals do not
appear to be distressed at all, and they are securely tied and so cannot hurt
themselves. It can't be comfortable, but it does get them to market or wherever. One of
the buses we were following looked a little bit odd. Dereje told us that it was new, but
that wasn't what was odd. I asked Wilko and he agreed and had seen the same thing as me.
The bus's axles were not straight and it skated slightly sidewards like a shopping trolley
with wonky wheels
Following immediately behind you could see not only the back of the bus, but also
a slither of its left side. Note to self: check buses carefully.
We passed several houses that were unlike those in Addis. They were much closer to the
sort of housing I was expecting in Africa. Although not the round, squat huts. These
were rectangular houses built from very thin logs. They had thatched rooves, two windows
and a door. They were a bit smaller than a porta-cabin. Throughout the day's journey, this
design was repeated many times. Some of them were also thickly covered in dried mud. Unless
I had been told, I would have assumed that they were brick because the mud was so thick and
often painted. Another variation was a corrugated iron roof. Apparently, these can be used
as an indicator for the wealth of a community. With projects that attempt to generate income,
such measures may be the only mean to judge success.
The wild dogs were a common sight. I did notice that all of them had their tails held high,
each dog thought that it was the big man.
After Addis, the next major town was Debre Birhan, famous for blankets and spring water.
This was the first town that had horse drawn taxis. The buggies had two wheels, were
constructed from wood and had plastic sheeting for a roof. Mostly they were used for
transporting people but we did see several carrying large loads of wood. It was
here that we stopped for breakfast at a very nice cafe inside a hotel.
On leaving Debre Birhan, we could see a different type of house, these were mostly
round, and made of stone. We also passed loosely organised fields of wheat and
onions. It would be difficult to neatly arrange the fields because of the
rolling countryside. We were yet to be truly in the mountains but the landscape
was definitely heading that way. Dereje handed us some chewing gum. The packet
claimed that it was mint. The taste confirmed that it was not. It tasted more
As we passed along the roads, we were flanked by electricity pylons and telegraph lines.
There seemed to be a stretch of road where people just wanted to sell hats. But we
weren't slowing down for any of that. Dereje told us that we were about to go through
a cave, which turned out to be an unlit tunnel built by the Italians. Once
through the tunnel, we started our descent down the side of a mountain. It was only
now that we realised how high we had been. The drive down took a very long time, curving
round tight hair pin bends, and passing an increasing variety of trees and cacti. Part of
the way through the descent, we passed a penal town in which offenders from all over
Ethiopia are sent to do their time farming or in some other way. There was a large group
of men in their prison uniforms by the side of the road, and on the other side of the
road stood their guards with their rifles resting in their arms.
Camels are also used by Ethiopians and we passed several caravans. Questions were floating
through my head. Where are we? You're doing what? So this is the actual VSO thing? Those
camels they're not in a photo, and there not in a zoo? A little bit further a puzzle took
my mind off the questions. At fairly regular intervals there were patches of red on the road.
I watched trying to work out what it was. They were red onions, pitched over the side
of a badly loaded truck.
The slightly bumpy road changed into a new piece of road. It was vey smooth and wide, and it
reminded me of an Irish road - it had the 'hard shoulders'. Considering the heat, the road
was not sticky, and there was no melting of Asphalt. UK roads agency, please have a look
at these. The road didn't stay smooth all of the way, in fact there were quite a few breaks
in the road where it reverted to a rough surface, although it will be completely smooth once the
upgrade is complete. At one of the breaks, it looked decidely egyptian, or at least what I would
think of as egyptian. There were camels and there were tents, it wasn't clear whether they were
connected with the road construction in someway or had always been there.
We stopped just outside Dessie, a very large town, for lunch. Because it was a fasting day
(Weds. and Fri.), only myself and Wilco could eat meat, being Ferenj. However, I chose
the fasting food because I actually prefer this with injera. Up to this point, Pepsi
had definitely been winning in the war of the signs. Nearly every hotel had a sign
with its name on it, and an advert for Pepsi. Immediately on leaving the diner, Coke made
a strong come back. And as we entered Dessie itself, Coke had asserted itself the supreme
winner of shotgun marketing. The town itself was very dusty and had many shops. Large
satellite dishes could be found atop and outside some of the smarter buildings. Nearly
every sign hanging outside a shop had an English translation. They did not all make sense,
however. Although there were many people in Dessie, they wasn't anybody loitering. This might
have been because of the time of day rather than the town. Many of the men were walking
holding hands. In Ethiopian culture, men
openly hold hands as a sign of friendship. It doesn't take long to get used to seeing it, but
it still seems a bit alien if it's your hand they're holding.
On the road out of Dessie the huts once again became wooden and we certainly seemed to be heading
into a more rural area. We had been descending for a long time and were heading for much
flatter land. Going in the opposite direction to us were several UN vehicles, each was a large
white land rover type vehicle with a huge aerial stuck on the front. There is a rumour amongst the
VSOs that UN people never actually get out of the cars, let alone shake hands with the locals.
They do get nice accommodation though. Other vehicles that we saw were trucks packed full of people,
and destroyed tanks, relics from a previous conflict.
If you are an Ethiopian man,
you must have a stick. I think it's in their constitution. If you are not doing anything with
the stick, then you put it behind your head and hang your arms off it. If you're an Ethiopian
woman, then you could be seen with either a ridiculously large stack of firewood on your back,
or a large, heavy looking jug.
As it approached 17.30, we passed several houses with their fires lit, presumably dinner was being
cooked. Also, men carried ploughs over their shoulders while young children drove the animals
back from the fields into their pens. The ploughs looked heavy, and mostly consisted of one or two
large pieces of wood. This is where the mandatory stick came in useful. The plough would be balanced
on one shoulder, say the left. The right hand held the stick and used it as a lever on the right
shoulder to balance the load.
We had a decision to make: whether to stop at the next small town or press on to Alamata. We decided
that we would press on in order to make better time the following day. Progress was being made on a
smooth road to Alamata, but it was not yet ready. Instead, a rough road that would first run along
the left of the new road before swapping sides repeatedly, took us the short distance. Although
Alamata was not far, the road was tough going and we were unable to make it before it became dark.
As we approached Alamata we were having difficulty finding the road. The rough, gravel road had
almost disappeared, and the land cruiser had to pick its way through deep puddles of water. It
stalled just after clearing one of these, which did worry me a bit, but started instantly and
got us back onto something more recognizable as road. Just outside Alamata the dust was incredible.
After any vehicle had passed, we were forced to slow due to lack of visibility. Over-taking a truck
was a very delicate operation.
Once in Alamata, we needed to drop off some letters and boxes to the VSO living their. Once we
had found her house, we were surrounded by children. 'You You', 'Ferenj' - the standard
response by many children in Ethiopia. An old man started to wave his stick at them, lashing
out at a couple. This seems to be common - for nearly every time you are being hassled,
you will find a man with a stick (remember it's in the constitution) willing to scare the children
We then headed off to our hotel, and a pretty poor night's sleep. They promised a hot shower. They
failed to deliver, and I was so glad that I had some 'soft' (tissue paper) with me. Thanks, Sarah,
for putting those two small packs in.
If you're interested, on the tape deck we had: Amharic Tape I 7 times, Bryan Adams 3 times, Simon
and Garfunkel twice, and a selection of other Amharic tapes.
We had to get up early today for the long drive ahead of us. I had
previously thought that I was going to be flying to Mekelle, but I
think it was an economical choice to take me by car, with another
volunteer, Wilko, who's placement took him to Maichew, a fairly short
distance before Mekelle.