The Donkey Did It.

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Southern plains of Ethiopia. Below a new traditional home under construction.

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As I moved to make time to get to Awasa I noticed groups of women carrying large round ceramic containers colored brown and with a narrow top and ringlet handles tied to their backs. The rounded belly shape seemed awkward and uncomfortable, but hundreds of women for miles carried these roadside. Still in some villages young men had concocted make shift wheel barrels with simply a flat board and no sides. The wheels were steel and only about 5-6″ in diameter and they were carrying everything from bricks to vegetables and concrete bags. I wondered why they didn’t use larger wheels. Or even rubber or pneumatic. Hard work.

Men sporting turban like headdresses walked in and out of the villages and clogged the narrow shoulders of these newly paved road. At one point hundreds were in a nearby field standing side by side and forming a large circle where other men where dancing and shaking musical instruments. I stopped to watch, but soon became the object of their attention rather than the dancers and musicians. It’s a funeral. And it will go on for 2-3 days I’m told. Two men in the now ubiquitous headdress stood nearby in street clothes with automatic weapons slung over their shoulders. Were these police ? Sec ur ity?

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I passed through dozens of villages as I made my way to Awasa. Each could only be described as a dense mass of humanity where crowds of people ten to thirty deep crushed against each other so they wouldn’t spill onto the tarmac. Then there are the donkeys.

My love affair with the donkey actually stems from my respect of the dumb animal. And there’s a long history. So let me entertain — or bore — you. In October 2005 I shared a cabin with Leroy, a 79 year old motorcyclist who the year earlier was zig-zagging his way around donkeys loitering the main road through a remote Mexican village when he was thrown into the air after a donkey walked onto the tarmac and t-boned him at 50mph.

Leroy was lucky. Clayton wasn’t.

While I was recovering from my Bolivian broken leg fiasco, I eagerly followed other motorcycle travelers making tracks around the world. Clayton left Seattle in early May 2006 full of dreams and adventure as he took of on a dream of a lifetime motorcycle trip from Washington to Argentina. He would take three to four months before entering law school that fall. Though barely three weeks later he tried to maneuver around a donkey outside Acapulco. But the donkey was startled and ran into him. Clayton woke up to find himself paralyzed from the waist down. His trip ended before it really started. But Clayton remained positive and thanks to the generosity and support of the motorcycling community Clayton was able to enter law school that fall. Sadly earlier this year Clayton took his life.

Clayton’s mishap in May 2006 taught me to respect those four-legged dumb asses. As stupid they are, the donkeys demand respect. Perhaps no where in the world are there more donkeys than Botswana. And then Malawi. Tanzania. And the list goes on. But I finally had my run in with a donkey today.

I was riding into one of those congested Ethiopian towns south of Awasa when the masses of humanity crisscrossed the road, and trucks and busses weaved in and about. I was trolling at about 10mph trying not to hit any number of obstacles while keeping Doc on the tarmac which as barely wide enough for a single bus and a motorcycle. A huge bus moved into my lane as it tried to avoid the crowds of people. I throttled down even slower while keeping a keenful eye on the crowd and roaming animals. There were donkeys everywhere. But not on the road. Packed with water, firewood, clothing — you name it, they seemed to wander freely in the dirt area on either side of the road. I didn’t see the bugger, but before I new it, a lone donkey with an empty load walked up beside my bike and was nearly overtaking me when his harness struck the right handlebar. I had no speed and no space to throttle as the bike veered toward the bus crashing into its side before slamming down with me into the tarmac.

My reflex action was spot on as a bolted to attention while the crowd grew around me, spilling even more into the road. I enlisted a couple of them to help me lift the bike while noticing that the excellent work Cristof and I did in Nairobi to the Jesse bags and brackets was for naught. Another dent in the side of the bag with the bracket pushing the support block toward the gas tank. Oh well. I glanced over at the bus and noticed a slight ripple about three feet long. Musta been the other handle bar as I went down.

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Soon the crowd was in the hundreds. And forming a suffocating circle around me. I tried to keep an eye on everything. Then a transit cop of some sort starting breaking his way through the crowd by swinging a narrow diameter stick about 4 feet long, often smacking the heads and shoulders of those in the crowd. He spoke no English. Finally a man in his early thirties pushed his way through the crowd.

“Can I help you,” he asked with a look of concern on his face. Meanwhile, I noticed the bus driver had come up close to me. I explained what happened.

“This man wants to know what you will do about his bus,” he explained while the transit cop continued to whack people who got too close to my motorcycle or spilled onto the road and blocked traffic.

“I want to know who is going to fix my motorcycle,” I objected while pointing at the damage to the Jesse bag. This is when I realized that I was okay. The bike was, for the most part, okay and while perhaps my bike put a mild dent in the bus, it too was okay.

“Where’s the donkey?” I yelled confidently and with a sense of anger in my voice. “It’s the donkey’s fault,” I explained. The man translated my concern to the transit cop and the bus driver. Passengers were leaning out of the bus looking down on the commotion in the street. Hands touched the bike, pushing switches and trying to blow the horn. One man fancied looking at himself in the broken mirror. “And my mirror is broken,” I explained though not truthfully acknowledging that it was broken earlier.

“Where is the owner of the donkey,” it was time for me to entertain myself while testing the waters of this slight predicament I was in. “I want to speak with the owner of this donkey now!”

More chatter in Amharic of which I knew a total of about ten words.

“This man would like you to pay for the damage to the bus,” my English speaking friend explained for the third time.

“It’s not my fault,” I postulated. “The donkey ran into me and caused me to crash. It’s the donkey’s fault and the owner of the donkey should pay.” I further explained testing my abilities in tort and liability law. But this concept was unknown to the people in this remote village more than a days drive from Addis.

“No. You hit the bus, so it’s you who must fix,” the man explained.

“I want to talk to the owner of the donkey,” I demanded while drilling the bus driver and translator with eye contact.

You have to understand the ludicrousness of my statement. Nobody knows who owns these donkeys. That is, until the donkey is hit by a car or injured or killed by some accident. Then you’d be surprised how many owners of the one donkey start to come forward. The donkey wandered around the crowd with another thirty or forty in company. I knew there’d be no talking to the owner of the donkey, nor would I ever be able to communicate the idea of negligence or contributory negligence to my translator or the bus driver.

“The owner of the donkey isn’t here,” I was told.

“Then I’ll wait,” I just sat down on the motorcycle while pushing more roving hands away.

I could see the furor in the bus drivers face. There were other dents and scratches on his bus. But here was a white man with a big motorcycle. In his eyes, I am a meal ticket. Winning the lottery. I just sat there.

To be fair, my translator understood my concern. But the crowd continued to grow, the transit cop continue to smack people with his stick and the traffic continued to jam up this small town.

“Can you just give the bus driver something so he can go away,” he asked.

“Okay,” I said finally emoting some sort of hint that resolution would follow. “I’d be happy to work this out in the office of my embassy in Addis,” again suggesting the impossible, “and I would like to have the owner of the donkey and the bus driver present. Then we can decide if I need to pay something for the bus driver.”

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The bus driver continued to exude anger and dissatisfaction. I remained stubborn. It was a test of patience and will. Who could stand it longer. Free roaming donkeys are a hazard. People are injured, die and property is damaged. Donkey owners need to accept some responsibility. This was my position. And while as insane as it sounded to these people, my translator agreed. I repeated my request for a meeting at the Embassy. Then I suggested the Ethiopian consulate.

My requests were falling on deaf ears and the bus driver was hanging tough. That’s when I pulled out my insurance card and handed it to him.

“Okay. Jot down my insurance information and feel free to call them and they’ll pay for the damage,” I rambled on as the translator explained in Amharic to the bus driver. “What about the other damage to the bus,” I asked. “Who paid for that?” The bus driver was livid. And I was laughing deep inside. The crowd just stared.

As the sun inched lower in the sky and my afternoon entertainment quota fulfilled, I decided it was time to get out of there. So after another ten minutes of talking insurance and embassies I planted about 40 Ethiopian Birr into the palm of the bus driver — about $5. He looked at disgustedly and then started grabbing at stuff on the bike. Whack. My transit cop companion smacked his hands with the stick. Nice move.

“You have more?” I threw another 50 birr and showed my pockets with only about 25 Birr more.

“I must buy petrol,” I explained. The bus driver withdrew and the stick whacking copy cleared a path through the humanity and I rode on.

Damn donkeys. I love them.

I made it into Awasa 30 minutes past nightfall and after jockeying around traffic circles where the only traffic were pedestrians and bicycles and the occasional small cc motorcycle or scooter. I looked for the lake. Then stumbled upon a guest house with a restaurant attached. Italian. Italian in Ethiopia you ask? Not so unusual as while it was never colonized, Italy was mildly successful at colonizing neighboring Eritrea in the late 1800’s and efforts over the next fifty years by the Italians have left an indelible impact on some of the culinary arts in this African country. Perhaps Ethiopia is most proud of the fact that they are the only country that defeated a European power when it finished off Italy at the Battle of Adwa in 1896. Though in the early years of World War II, Ethiopian enlisted the help of the British Royal Army to help push out threatening Italian expansionists.

Happy to devour a plate of pasta and drown in a cold Ethiopian beer I relished again in the quite courtyard of this hotel while making my plans for touring Ethiopia and praying that the Sudanese will grant me a Visa in Addis Ababa.

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