Saturday, January 19, 2013

Trekking In Addis Ababa - Part One

I was fortunately blessed to go trekking in Ethiopia in July 2012. It was a wonderful trip, which I finally got down to writing recently. Perhaps you may enjoy this narrate?

I stare at the screen and the email in unbelief; turd, I curse, then again, turd! This is the last thing I need, after all the careful planning and hours spent shopping for the best deals. My tour guide in Turkey is cancelling his commitment to take me trekking around Mount Ararat, close to the border with Iran. There a minority Muslim community I am eager to meet and Mt. Ararat has a reputation of some wicked trekking trails. I call to yell at him but loose stem soon enough; the poor guy’s wife is having premature labor cramps and may deliver early. I forgive him; a wife in labor is agony – to the husband. Darn it! I was so looking forward to this. There goes Istanbul with her yummy kebobs and steamy, skin cleansing, super rejuvenating hamaams. Turd!

I vent my frustration at my friend Gulaam Chotaaro who calls shortly; he says his friend recently went trekking in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia and had a ball; maybe I should look into it as I was going to Tanzania anyway? Trekking in Addis Ababa? Hmmm, interesting. I change my trip route, look up hotels, find a local guide, compare costs, show a net saving by going to Tanzania via Addis on Ethiopian Airlines, book and buy tickets and am on my way to the land of Jaffer Tayyaar!

Addis is drizzling and kind of cold when we land. I shiver as I wait in a slow moving line of foreigners waiting for a visa; one is stamped on my passport without a question as soon as I part with twenty US dollars. A problem: the hotel pickup is not at the airport. I borrow a pestering cabdrivers cellphone and call the hotel. A female voice in perfect upper-lip British accent informs me the car has just left the hotel and will be there shortly. The cabdriver looks crestfallen; a dollar bill placates him. Addis is not unlike any other metropolitan African city; sprawling, chaotic, grimy and polluted. Decades of Soviet influence are at once apparent; ancient Lada vehicles stinking of gasoline fumes and drab box like building structures, sturdy but eyesores. 

The boutique hotel is adequate at best but Internet connection is fast so I am content. I take a walk after resting some; I need a local cellphone chip. There are very few pavements, so walking is precarious on roads with cars splashing recent rainwater on me. I am surprised to see most women cover their hair, a thin white shawl draped loosely over their head; are they Muslims? But churches abound, with unceasing prayer hymns wailing from loudspeakers. Language is a problem, I speak no Amharic and my Arabic is as good as my Cantonese. These two languages are most spoken in Ethiopia. I locate a corner shop ready to sell me a local cellphone chip. The young salesgirl speaks good English and helps my needs. I ask her if she is Orthodox Christian; she looks affronted. Humph, I am a Muslim! she declares; I quickly apologize. She tells me there are millions of Muslims in Ethiopia, that Ethiopian Orthodox Christians wear a headscarf similar to Muslims, so distinguishing the two is not always easy. So I inquire about halal food. She shakes her head sadly. There are many, but quite far, you’ll have to take a taxi. I purchase few sweet mangoes and bananas for dinner and sleep, look forward to begin my trek tomorrow.

Although I have set my alarm for five, I awake to a faint calling of azaan, but that may be a reverie. It is pouring outside; my spirits sink. My guide Alan and his driver show up at six as promised. Allan tells me I have come to Ethiopia at peak of rainy season and I should be prepared to trek with a raincoat and an umbrella. He goes to purchase these as I have my breakfast. We drive some twenty miles outside of Addis, through an awaking city still shrouded in early morning fog and mist. As requested, the trek company has made arrangements for a halal lunch box, so we stop at a restaurant to pick this up. By the time we reach the base of the trekking mountain, the sun is out and my spirits lift. We start the accent.

It is eerily quiet but beautiful in the forest, under a canopy of tall eucalyptus trees, some over three hundred feet up, but we have to look down since the tracks are wet and slippery. It is not too long before I have broken into a sweat, even though the temperatures are in the fifties. While Alan tells me about him and his life as a tour guide, thunder claps and with fascinating speed, the sky darkens and opens up. Exactly at this time, a hut appears out of nowhere and we run to it and ask for sanctuary, which is readily given. It is dark and murky inside, with a lingering smell of doused cooking fire. We share the hut with an aged woman, her daughter, a grandson and about a dozen chickens. I am a guest so given the only stool to sit on; the rest park themselves on rickety beds of wood and sisal ropes, void of any mattresses. I try to make small talk and am told the child is sick so cannot go to school down to the village. A chick senses comfort in my sneakers, climbs over and settles in contentedly; it pours and cracks thunder outside; I shiver in my raincoat.

When the rain intensity lets up, Alan tells me we need to make a move since there is plenty of climbing left. The chick is not happy to be disturbed, so she rewards me with a poop on my sneaker. We thank the host, Alan tips them about two dollars; we climb over two thousand seven hundred meters through treacherous, muddy and waterlogged tracks that sometimes threaten to drag us down. Both of us are heaving and exhausted by the time we make it to the top. Mr. Ali, quips a panting Alan, you are a strong man. How old are you? Forty? My response is typical of a fifty-five year old man; I grin ear to ear.

It has begun pouring again; we seek shelter in an ancient church with others. It is cold and I am dying to light a cigarette to warm me up but Alan cautions me not; the church grounds are hallow. I hang my head in shame, considering what I do outside HIC back home. We have our lunch in a wonderful and scenic setting when the sun eventually struggles through the clouds; the meat is so tough, I end up eating only the bread and vegetables of the supposed hamburger.

There is trouble awaiting us when we begin our trek down. Some children offer to take us to an underground cave if we’ll pay them five dollars; Alan offers one dollar and they agree. I notice a subdued raggedy teenage girl, not more than about fifteen, follow us. As I talk with the kids about school, she suddenly shakes my hand and tells me she is a mother of a child already. Where are you from, the kids ask me. I tell them I was born in nearby Tanzania but now live in the United States; there is instant considerable excitement. And you offer us a mere dollar? Alan tries to explain but the girl takes away all the attention. She gets into an animated Amharic conversation with Alan; they all burst out into rapturous laughter and everybody’s attention is on me. Mr. Ali, says Alan, this teenager wants you to marry her and take her with you to the US! Hahahaha. It turns out the girl is not a mother, just retarded from birth.

To be continued – with photographs.

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