Hard Rains Come & Gone

When I started this journey nearly three years ago Ethiopia wasn’t on my list of countries. And I’m not sure why. But I’m more than pleasantly surprised. And happy.

It’s hard to express. This feeling I’ve got about Ethiopia. Beyond the images of malnourished children, the stories told by Bob Geldof or the warnings of the U.S. State Department might publish about travel to the only African nation never to be colonized, I find myself seduced by the beauty, friendliness of its people and its cultural diversity. And I’ve only been here a few days.

I can’t say as much about the internet access here. But that goes with the territory, as the adage stipulates, I guess. Walking down the road from my hotel in Moyale, passing camels and inquisitive eyes locking onto me and my camera, I followed a local to an internet café he promised “was really fast.” Turns out it was perhaps the slowest I’ve had since the highlands of Peru. But it was more fun just lingering with the locals rather than trying to get anything productive done with email or blogging. A few very attractive girls pitched me on a product that was guaranteed to cure all that might ail me, now and in the future, and provide me good luck and millions of dollars in income. Yes my friends, while high-speed internet hasn’t made it to this remote Ethiopian outpost, multi-level marketing (read pyramid) has. And I’m not sure this is a good thing.

I was hoping to make a trip deep into the Lower Omo Valley which is north east of the Moyale border town and over a tasting of spicy Ethiopian food, complete with the ubiquitous spongy engira, and two Ethiopian wines and the local brew, I chatted about my plan with a local guy who offered guide services.

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Gouder. The local wine in Ethiopia. It won’t give South Africa much competition in the global wine awards, but I was suprised to find Ethipians making it.

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I had to stop to pump more air into the tires after my ill-fated attempt to gain access to the Lower Omo Valley. As usual, the cauldron of people gather to watch this rider perform his rituals.

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At first the road was in pretty good shape.

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Smiles and colorful garb describes the people of Southwestern Ethiopia.

The Omo Valley is home to perhaps one of the most primitive cultures Ethiopia, and the world. It’s a place where human rights activists could have a field day, give women’s advocacy rights groups eternal heart burn, and the animal rights folks of Peta a splitting migraine. What makes the Omo Valley so interesting is the cultural diversity. No where else in Africa can you find so many different types of people living so close to each other. The Hamer people perhaps are somewhat like the Himba people who I encountered in Northern Namibia and Southern Angola, where the women apply to unique headdresses a mixture ochre, water and animal fat and where the men where an assortment of adornments that symbolize and boast the number of wives they have. Then the Mursi people whose men engage in aggressive stick fighting and women who stretch their lips by wearing metal disks more than six inches in diameter. And many of these and other cultures engage in a frenzy of whipping, screaming and beating during a “jumping of the bulls” ceremony. And Pamplona has nothing on this ceremony where young naked men must leap a line of 15-30 bulls-back to back. If they fail they’re whipped and teased by women. Not only that young female relatives of the boy beg to be whipped. The deeper the scars they “earn” on their back, the more loyal they are to the boy and his family. You might think it’s sick, cruel or unbelievable. But they’ve been doing it for hundreds of years.

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Some of the toughest roads since Malawi.

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I’m sure she’d qualify for AARP status in the states, but she’s still working. Hard. I gave her water and some bisquits as I made my way toward Konso.

Turns out my potential guide has no transportation and would like me to pay him to ride on the back of Doc and take me into remote villages in the valley. To be sure, it’s best to be accompanied by a local or a “friend” of the community rather than show up solo on a noisy motorcycle. But the idea of riding through some of Ethiopia’s most challenging roads and terrain with a 175lb passenger wasn’t appealing. Instead, he sketched me a decent map and gave me the address of a local who I could ask to take me deep into the valley.

I was greeted by cheers and high-fives as I putted through the road-jamming mass of people at the Yabelo turn off where the road turns to dirt and rocks sizing from small pebbles to baseball sized stones. The road gently carved through rolling hills of green while winding around a river. Local people walked along the road dressed in colorful grab with geometric patterns and bright colors. Hard laborers all of them, either tending to livestock under the sweltering sun, or carrying bundles of wood or crops many times larger than their bodies. I rode slowly working hard to make eye contact and when I did universally I was greeted with a return smile.

The first few bridges were washed out, but I easily negotiated the drying mud or easy flowing stream. At my slow cruising speed over these roads I was still hours from Weyto or Turmi when I came to a crossing that I considered but realized to do this alone out here in the middle of nowhere would be too risky. It was deep. It was muddy. And the rise on the other side looked menacing. It was obvious that only the most capable 4×4 could make this crossing and climb. I sat and waited for the usual crowd to develop. This time a couple young boys and woman showed up. But they couldn’t help me. The sun was falling and there was no way I wanted to turn around and ride several hours back to the turn off. What a waste. Sure, this was a good ride and the stunning scenery coupled with the colorful flavors of people was perhaps the most unique in a long time. But I wanted to get the Omo River — and the valley. Seems the torrential rains that devastated the roads south of the border and made my journey from Kenya most challenging, wreaked havoc on the roads here in Southern Ethiopia. Sure, what did expect? This IS the rainy season after all. Bad luck? Or simply bad timing? Either way there was no time to fret and mope about. I made the u-turn and headed back to Yabelo. Slightly dejected and worried about where I’d lay my head this evening.

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Working hard to bring high-speed internet to Southern Ethiopia.

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Far from the deserts of Kenya or the Middle East, but my timid friends with the crazy hump were scattered throughout the lowlands as I rode towards the Omo River.

I set me sights for Awasa, hoping to make it before nightfall. But my hopes were shattered as I couldn’t help myself stopping to meet the local people and to chat with the crew of hundreds, led by a Chinese foreman, who were laying fiber-optic cable roadside. The trench had been dug for more than 100 miles and when I spotted the work crew I learned the Chinese won the contract but employed local laborers to finally bring high-speed internet to Southern Ethiopia. Maybe next time I can get more work done in Moyale and have a better shot at the Omo Valley — in the dry season.

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