Princes and Whale Tails
Sep. 14th 2004
At 07:30 Ali and I went to the Yonnas hotel to be picked up by the tour guide, Firew. The two land cruisers arrived on time. As we were later to find out Firew was more Ferenji than Habesha when it came to time keeping and many other things. The money for the trip (USD 876) had been burning holes in our pockets and we were glad to hand it over to him in the hope of being able to relax and spend some time in Ethiopia with someone looking after us. We had paid not to be "on our own".

When you earn about USD 120 a month, this is a very expensive trip and we all had tried to work out how much cheaper we could have done it if we had arranged it ourselves. On reflection, the cost was reasonable. Car hire is very expensive here (about 100USD a day with a driver), and arranging permits would probably be too much of a hassle. Even with this knowledge, it still stings a bit for a trip around Ethiopia.

At the Yonnas, Firew picked up sandwiches for our lunch time stop and introduced us to the drivers, Teriku and Tadesse, and our cook, Luleet. Leaving Addis, the rain clouds made the presence known once more but the only interruption in the journey was to stop near a garage just outside Addis to pick up a replacement radiator cap for the second car. Firew explained that they could not take a car into one of the main garages for fear of something being stolen off of it. It was also at this point that a third car joined us with four men from the United Arab Emirates. They had asked Firew if he would be a guide previously but he had said no he was busy but if they came in their own car then they could tag along with us for a few days. This wasn't much of a problem for us, at least not at the moment. Their car was a big, modern, powerful petrol land cruiser. Painted on the outside was a map of the world and their pictures. Each year they would spend time driving in another country and having a look. They claim to be the "first team drives around the world". I'm not quite sure how the English works on that but it was there, on the side of the car.

Having driven a short distance, Firew brought all the cars to a stop to take us to the source of the Awash river. Bear in mind that the rains had been quite recently so the waterfall at the Awash river was giving a rather good display. We clambered along narrow rocky ledges overlooking the water about 30m beneath us. Local children accompanied us and probably found our awkward movement along the rocks funny. After returning to the cars, we could see the first difference between us and the arabs. As VSOs we could all quite easily say no to any chancers hanging around the cars asking for money. We could even do this in three of the national languages. However, it seemed that the arabs had no intention of saying no and as we drove off a fist full of one birr notes was thrust out of their car. This caused quite a reaction in our cars. Mostly of mild condemnation. We all try hard not to encourage chancing, especially with children because they should be at school. Today was the day that children should have gone back to school after the summer break. We know that our way is not the 'one' right way but we were worried about how this would look.

A later stop involved a look at an archeological site. The finds included ancient human and animal remains, and the weapons and tools used to kill and skin the animals. There was a good deal of obsidian here and we were pointed to some hippo bones but they didn't look like much really. The rains had left the site muddy and we had to work hard to scrap the mud off of our boots - doubly so for one of the arabs in his calf-skin boots. It was at this point that we realized that there was entertainment value in them at least.

Our next stop was a rock-hewn church. These are common in the north but we were told that this was the only one in the south. Rock-hewn churches are carved from the rock rather than built from stones. The drive to the church give us an example of how green parts of Ethiopia can be, trees were surrounded by seas of grass. Houses had small maize plantations outside surrounded by fences made of bushes or thin logs. Many of the houses we passed would have a small child standing by the entrance of the 'compound'. In England it seems that it is old men in string vests sucking on a toffee or chewing an apple that perform the important duty of watching the world go by. The occasional flash of orange showed us that the meskel bird could be found in the south as well as the north. As a backdrop, small mountains surrounded us.

The rock-hewn church was more interesting for me than the others. Not having travelled in Tigray I hadn't actually seen any. Having said this, although I was more interested I can take or leave churches but I would like to see the church of St. George at Lalibella. This must be the most photgraphed place in Ethiopia. It is a large rock-hewn church cut into the shape of a cross. After leaving the church, Alison and Terri were surrounded by children coming out of an English lesson. It seemed that they could say words but had no understanding of what the words meant. The arabs meanwhile where fiddling with their oversized video camera.

Another stop took us off-road a bit to visit a burial site with many large, carved stones. The symbols on the stones were not fully understood. It is believed that dagger shapes showed how many people this person had killed. At the bottom of many was a more interesting shape. We were told of two theories - either a representation of a false banana tree or one of the pillow/stools used by the Karo people. I would like to suggest a third theory - it's a whale's tail. Sure, Ethiopia doesn't have a coast any more but there is nothing stopping it being a symbol from past times. The occupants of the graves were all, apart from one, buried in a seated position and in a different alignment to Christian burials.

Having left the graves behind we were now into Gurage territory and could see some changes such as the horse and carts (gary) were very different. We also had a near miss with a donkey. I mention this because it was tied to a piece of leather and at the other end an Ethiopian. The leather however seemed to be elastic and the donkey could reach much further than expected but not quite enough to end it all. As well as the donkey, we could see food, such as chillies laid out at the side of the road to drive. I'm surprised that they don't lose this because of cars driving over it.

We had our first hut stop. The way Firew did this surprised most of us. He would stop the cars at some seemingly random location, go into the hut and ask if they would allow a bunch of strangers to come in and take photos and ask questions in bad Amharic. Amazingly nearly everyone said yes. Firew agreed a payment with them before we were actually invited in. Our first stop took us to a hut with a woman living with the effects of polio. She required crutches to support her while walking. The inside of the hut was dark, the only light coming through the doorway and a few holes near to the top of the high, steep roof. A small fire meant that the hut was also smoky. Posessions could just about be seen hanging on the walls.

The drivers then took the cars to Zeway for a tea break. Here I got more of a chance to talk to the arabs. I'm surprised that Ali didn't hit me because I was goading them a bit. Especially with one of their arguments about adoption. I also reacted badly about their comment that the greatest gifts from god were children and money. I'm not sure about the money thing. Especially when they seemed to be patronising by telling us how we were doing good work. The hidden message of "couldn't you get a real job in your own country" seemed to be hidden rather badly. So as well as allowing them to look stupid in their arguments, we found out some more information. One of them was a policeman, or a customs official with two masters degrees. His story didn't always tally. Another was a jeweller, one was somehow connected to the royal family, and the fourth was a friend of the one with royal connections who he had met at Harvard.

The landscape was changing from being very green to more sparse and acacia trees were becoming a common sight.

Our stop for the night was at Lake Langano. A nice (well just about adequate by European standards) hotel was situated next to the lake. Being able to see water in Ethiopia is a novelty for us. Not because there isn't any, it's just rare where we live. The drive into the hotel off of the road held children selling small wooden toy cars and necklaces.

Before dinner we settled to a serious game of scrabble and Ali told us her theory of the arabs. She reckoned that the one with royal connections might have quite good royal connections, and that the policeman/customs official was really a body guard. He was quite a big guy and having masters would make sense if he had accompanied his charge while he studied. We couldn't pursue this line of investigation further because the arabs were not staying at the same hotel. They had gone off to posher accommodation, possibly approved by the local police.

There was a little bit of a problem with the food. Mine was rather hotter than I was expecting but tasty. However, Daniel's contained ham. He had specifically asked for carbonara without the meat in Amharic. When we called the waiter over to complain we were told with typical Ethiopian waiter logic that ham wasn't meat.