The call for prayer that we have been hearing pretty much since we entered Tanzania a while back was unusually early in the past mornings, around 4.40am. Sunrise is at 6. I have always enjoyed it though so this is not a complaint and often it coincides with my call of nature anyway.
Yesterday’s drive to Moyale, wich is the border town between Kenya and Ethiopia, was another draining 15 hour drive over gravel through the Dida Galgalu Desert with an armed escort. It’s a black shattered lava field with the occasional thorn tree. Surprisingly every once in a while we passed four to five huts and I wondered why people would pick this spot to live in, especially if they keep cattle. There was nothing green in sight.
We arrived at 10 pm, much later than anticipated because the roads were so bad. I remember reading about this bit in “Dark Star Safari” and I wish I hadn’t given the book away.
Camp was set up for ‘a small donation’ (for some reason the campground wanted $15 per person) inside the police compound. We skipped dinner and I also skipped the toilets as they had at least 30 huge cockroaches crawling inside. At this point it’s second nature to me to hang my bare butt into the wilderness.
Toilets are hit and miss here anyway. In South Africa toilets were in good conditions but almost everywhere lacked locks. After 4 weeks there I gave up on even bothering locking them if I could. Traveling up we get locks but usually no toilet paper so we bring our own. In Malawi we came across great clean Western style toilets with paper and door locks but no running water for flushes or sinks. In Tanzania we encountered the first drop and squat toilets, usually a mix with western style toilets though. In Kenya it’s mostly the squat type or no toilet at all. At the border I got a key – for a squat toilet. Anyway, sanitizing spray becomes a good companion as there is usually no water to even wash your hands, and even then we will sanitize because it’s probably rain water.
Leaving the Kenyan side was fun, a posh and not crowded border post with plush seats and very friendly immigration guys. Unfortunately I wasn’t so lucky on the Ethiopian side. My visa is in the old passport and the immigration officer absolutely didn’t want to let me into the country no matter how much I argued that the Ethiopian embassy in Washington had ok-ed this beforehand. He was of the not listening after having asked a question kind and he just talked over me, the entire logic of still having matching documents with corresponding dates went out of the window, and the fact that all my personal details are the same in both passports and even my pictures pretty much look alike didn’t help.
Cat, our tour leader, tried everything but he wouldn’t have it. We sat down and let him process all other group members while coming up with alternatives between us. There was really only one: I would have to catch an overcrowded local bus back to Marsabit across the horrible desert road, and from there make my way to Nairobi. I could apply for a visa there (and just recently they changed the rules so they would send my passport to Germany for it which means I would be stuck in Nairobi for at least 2 weeks) or catch a flight to Addis Ababa in Ethiopia and hope that I get a visa directly at the airport. I was in no way keen on this option, days of traveling by myself on bad roads at additional cost, plus I had just changed all my Kenyan shillings into Ethiopian birr. I couldn’t just buy another visa right there either.
So we prepared to offer a bribe, call various embassies for help and even prepared sad scenarios that would trigger tears in case I would have to play the helpless vulnerable sweet girl that I am.
There was another officer in the room who was much more understanding and didn’t seem to have any interest in being an asshole but unfortunately he wasn’t the one in the uniform. Our problem officer waved blank pages of paper at us proclaiming that a visa on this paper wouldn’t be valid just because my name was written on it. Fair point but it didn’t get us anywhere.
After 2 hours Cat sent me out of the room and played the tour leader with responsibility for a female passenger card. She must have given one hell of a show. I just heard her yelling and then I saw the immigration guy frowning into a cell phone from which some official probably told him the same. In the end the friendly guy stamped me through, all smiles and welcomes, while the other one was seriously pissed at the situation. Evidently Cat had previously insulted them with the bribe offer.
So here I am, Ethiopia, with no idea if I will make it into the Sudan in 5 weeks. We will apply for the Sudanese visa in Addis Ababa and the passport situation could be a problem again. At least then I would have seen this country and I can take a tarmac road back to the next airport and fly to Egypt directly.
Due to the delay at the border the rest of the day didn’t quite go as expected. Instead of a lunch break we pulled right into the first and only city for miles to go shopping. However the supermarket was closed and we only got a bit of fruit at the market. We sat down at a local restaurant though and asked what they offered. The waiter asked what we wanted but since we didn’t know what was on the menu we just said yes to the first thing which turned out to be injera (the sour flat dough that is the basis for all meals. It looks like a huge pancake and can often be mistaken for the napkin. Having said that I haven’t seen napkins since I left Germany three months ago. Anyway, you tear off little pieces of injera and use it to pick up the rest of the food that is sitting on top of it) – with spaghetti on top. The group after us got goat and the one after that got chicken, all with the same order. They had run out of food with each order.
It was a messy meal given that you can only eat with your right hand and no utensils. We also had an audience though they got bored quickly.
After this very late lunch we only had 100km to go on gravel road and we managed to need 6 hours for it because we overshot by 60km. It was quite amazing that we missed the only right turn there was for miles considering that there was absolutely nothing to distract us. On the way back we asked some locals (usually shepards) where our destination, Konso, was and nobody seemed to know – or didn’t understand. Luckily we found it in the end and we were rewarded with a brand new hotel, 7 days old, our own rooms with western style bathrooms (still no toilet paper), power outlets to charge our cameras and ipods, and a bar that was still open. So my first impressions of Ethiopia… a very different place. Amazing how quickly things change when you cross the border. For one we now drive on the right side of the road again, the first time in 3 months. There are plenty of camels around. People no longer speak Swahili or English but Amharic which is both difficult to read or pronounce or even pick up basic expressions. It makes it hard to identify exactly what kind of shop you are looking at as all looks the same and it’s even stranger to communicate with anyone. People definitely see walking dollar signs in us, we attract a crowd wherever we go and the kids don’t wave and smile but yell “you you you” and “give me money” with outstretched hands and an attitude. We also heard the occasional “fuck off” already and I wonder if they learned that from white people who just had enough of the aggressive begging.
People also look different, they generally have hair in various styles (until now we’ve mostly seen shaved heads, definitely on all men) and it shows that the country is muslim. Many men wear the what we refer to as the ‘naughty nighty’ with skull caps and some women are covered head to toe. Obviously the hand me down from other countries tshirts are still omnipresent, according to his tshirt our local guide Dasta was a finalist in the Nashville women’s soccer league in 2004, and the waiter last night proclaimed in German that ‘sex makes you thin… come on, let’s get super skinny together’ (“Sex macht schlank…komm, lass uns knueppelduenn werden”).
More than ever we see men holding hands or walking around arm in arm which is ironic considering that in Ethiopia homosexuality is not only illegal but also gets prosecuted. Supposedly if people even suspect that someone may be gay there can be consequences; tourists have been thrown out of hotels for requesting a double bed etc.
The clock is different here, we are 7 calendar years behind and 6 am is midnight for the Ethiopians, 6 pm is noon.
We are heading into the Omo valley, a very remote place with absolutely no chance of internet or phone reception. Many different tribes live here and Dasta is determined to take us to cultural villages that are not mobbed by tourists. Already the tribes charge for having their picture taken.