Ethiopian flag (left), Somali state flag (right)
Many associate this part of the world with ‘long distance running’. I am in Ethiopia. And like Kenya where the most recent leg of my journey began, this great nation is renowned for producing some of the greatest long distance runners the world has come to know. Fortunately, I will never be a great long distance runner: My twelve mile attempt this morning is testament. It was agonizing, painful, grueling and fell short by a couple of miles. Inspired by the gracious brightness of the full moon and the predictable certainty of the rising sun, I set out stride by stride. Alone, down the streets of Shashamene, I panted as my eyes traveled up and down ahead of me and to my sides. As my eyes traveled here and there, my mind wandered in the nowhere (where I had been). I wondered.
A stop for Dhuhur (midday) prayers
I struggle to find more fitting words than ‘gratitude’ to describe my sentiments towards Nairobi. As a matter of fact, in a fantasy that personifies Nairobi in a body of physical matter, maybe a hug would come close. For my experiences then and now, I am indebted.
In spite of my love for Nairobi, I had no qualms about leaving and proceeding with my long journey up north into Ethiopia. So much so that I nearly had a heart attack when I overslept and almost missed the 4:00 am bus from Eastleigh. Thanks to a certain motorcycle taxi rider, and the inevitable power of the Kenyan shilling, I made it onto the bus in the nick of time. My luggage was shoved into a sack to shield it from dust and hauled over the bus. Shortly after chaos that laid claimed to my precious motorcycle helmet procured in Kampala, we left Nairobi.
Moyale Liner at a prayer stop heading north from Nairobi.
Soothing, hypnotic Qur’an recitations oozed out of the crowded bus’s sound system as it slithered into the highlands. In futility, fatigued passengers writhed in place as they sought fleeting comforts fit enough for rest. As if looking at into their own reflections on the glass windows, others stared blankly into the distance, static, and withdrawn within themselves as here rapidly became there. Trees became shrubs, goats became camels and grass faded into sand.
In the northeastern plains of Kenya, nothingness is circumscribed with vast and bold mountain ranges in the distance. Its bareness which can be synonymous for barrenness is pristine. Human existence is scarce and often only evidenced by plastic bags perversely scattered by winds. In the areas where communities have settled, livestock roam sans herdsmen and hut like dwellings whose architectures vary as readily as the landscape cluster. Most of the inhabitants are nomadic. Purposeful wanderers.
When I look around me, I cannot help but wonder what drives my fellow travelers to their destinations. What draws there presence with enough conviction for them to subject to the unforgiving pains of the road up north? Traveling standby takes a whole new meaning for many on these roads. If you didn’t begin your journey in Nairobi and you ended up on the bus, it means that you will be standing all the way to your destination. It is probably the case that you waited by the road side with no assurances of travel for a long time. Hence, traveling standby. Most of the seventy nine people in the fifty sitter bus are headed to the border town of Moyale. A journey that demands a contribution of roughly sixteen long hours depending the conditions of the road, vehicle and khat wired driver.
The inevitability of time is that it passes. No matter how long. Eventually, after the sixteen hours of travel, a handful of stops for salat, and to everyone’s relief, the Moyale Liner decelerated to a final stop under the veil of near pitch blackness. A kilometer away, Moyale Ethiopia glared in the darkness.
I put myself up for the night in the first and nearest lodging that I saw. And it was conveniently located right next to the bus stop. I am certain that many brave souls have succumbed to the same misfortune. Many more will in the future.
The room was filthy. The pillow was an excellent chromatography of the different shades of brown and goats must take up residence in the absence of paying patrons. Lingering essences reveal this assertion as a open secret. I stood there, in my room, in a half inch deep puddle of what I hoped was water. At that moment, I thought of the lakeside cabin bed and breakfast I called home for one night in Wisconsin on a road-trip from Denver to Boston once upon a time. The tables were almost turned. I now had a lake in my room; literally. The caretaker did not think any of it. Or perhaps I did not convey my disappointment effectively enough. To be completely honest, I didn’t. I was tired and already language had separated him and I. Like once upon a time in Wisconsin, my only lamentation was that I knew that I had overpaid.
In the many ways I have come to describe my expedition, I have often used the term ‘Road-Trip‘. I now wish to withdraw that terminology for it presupposes a certain level of leisure that is foreign to many (including myself) of those who I have shared the road with. In its place, ‘journey’. Journey implies a greater sense of purpose for the enduring the present realities of the road. It consists of a series of destinations: Checkpoints. Reliefs and challenges in no particular order. An endurance whose euphoric triumphs are often delayed and come in small proportions eventually culminating in one glorious climatic moment of triumph. Much like long distance running, a journey has its wears and tears. It is costly.
I am most impressed by my ability to invent and cook up foreign addresses and phone numbers at border crossings when asked to provide details about my destination. I usually have no clue as to what cities I would be going to let alone where I would be sleeping. Somehow it always works out. The Ethiopian immigration authorities were adamant about me providing an address in Addis and a phone number. I fiddled with my phone, counted twenty five Mississippi s all the while jotting down on a piece of paper and voila!! I could have been playing angry birds, pausing now and then to write. It was like magic, and this time the illusion was further peddled by a 100 Birr bribe which was demanded of me with neither subtlety nor poise.
Almost as soon as the entry stamp came down hard on my passport, the beat of life changed. A cloud of loneliness cast its shadow over me. Everything had changed too drastically. From the diet, the nature of human interactions, modes of public transportation, right to the access language provides. I have rarely felt so foreign. Beyond words like Konjo, Salem and a few others, my ignorance of Amharic is (was) total. This clear linguistic barrier was the primary proprietor of my isolation. Ubiquitous loneliness in swarms of people.
A fussball pickup game in Shashamene.
I dare say that there are few, if any, lands on this earth with more beautiful people per square kilometer. This beauty transcends physical appearance into the richness and diversity of the cultures and the landscape. I spent the whole of Tuesday in Moyale, Ethiopia. I ate as much Tibs and Injeera as a man can eat in a day and drank a proportionate amount of Bunna. When the shadows disappeared, I ushered myself into a dance hall where my shoulders vouched for my enthusiasm for the riffs of Ethiopian music. The girls giggled, approached, and left giggling.
The next day, having had but an ounce of sleep. I called upon the reserves and was able to make it to the bus station in time. I parted with an extra 120 Birr for my luggage which was viciously ransacked before it was loaded onto the bus in addition to the 170 Birr I had paid the previous day as my fare. I wanted to protest. If only I knew the words. Eventually the bus slowly rolled out of the bus terminus.
The moment of inclusion that extinguished my loneliness came in the form of a spontaneous yet highly sophisticated and organized smuggling ring of sorts. A couple of kilometers before the first of a series of police stops, I was struck by a universal oddity within the bus. Items of clothing of different kinds were frantically changing hands over the seats eventually being piled onto warm bodies in the sweltering heat of the sun with grave urgency. For obvious reasons, I found this to be odd, but I played along when I was handed an extra pair of jeans, a t-shirt and a Hummels Jacket. A man called out from the front before he tossed the bundle across four rows of seats, “Ras! Ras!!” Almost everybody complied or was willing to help out however they could. Take this for commitment, a couple of ladies seated in the row of seats to my left, one with a suckling baby girl, shared the treasures of a 90l sack of flowing polka dotted lightweight skirts. The skirts were piled on, one after the other. The baby wasn’t left out of the equation either. She too bore the weight of a couple of identical green dresses.
We powered through the police road blocks with no major incidences other than undeniable airs suspicions and my having to produce evidence of legal immigration status. It was obvious that I was from somewhere else. Perhaps even a carrier of Ebola according to one policeman.
Six police roadblocks punctuated the journey from Moyale to Shashamene. A journey whose laggard meter was laborious. The bus ascended the hill sides faster than it descended. It rattled like a piggy bank crafted from a tin can and hissed like a senile, ailing old man. Gauging from the way it sounded and moved, I doubt it was making any retirement savings for its owner. On the bright side, through the frames of the bus’s windows and the longest sixteen hours on as many detours as roads, I was witness to the spectacular magnificence of Ethiopia’s southern countryside. To put it simply, breathtaking.
A Bajaj commute in Shashamene
When I arrived in Shashamene, I looked like I had been rolling in dust.
The next day I went to the Shashamene Rastafarian Nyahbingi Tabernacle. As I entered to meet Sister Ijahnya Christian, I was confronted by the words of Marcus Garvey on the door post.
“So few of us can understand what it takes to make a man; the man who will never say die; and the man who will never give up; the man who will never depend on others to do what he ought to do for himself; the man who will not blame God, who will not blame nature, who will not blame fate for his condition; the man who will go out to make conditions to suit himself.”
With Ras Bangis at the Nyahbingi Tabernacle in Shashamene. The backdrop shows the Emperor Haile Selassie I slaying the dragon (Mussolini)