Road Trip I
Feb. 14th 2003
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.

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 like linseed.

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 away.

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.