Sunday, February 10, 2008

To the Simien Mountains and Back Again!

Next day, breakfast is a cheese omelette and a coffee which I enjoy chatting to the Argentine girl. We talk about how hard Amharic is, neither of us are picking it up at all.

I’m embarrassed to say that I’ve been here about a week and I can’t say a single word. Not thank-you, which is “amesegenallehu” (prefixed with “betam” to emphasise), not hello (well, “halo” kind of works!) or how are you, “tenayistillign neh”. As we eat, a priest appears, and blesses all of the staff by splashing water on each of their faces one by one, saying something as he does so.

I walk down to the bus station, finding the bus to Debark (3 ½ hours). A guy unrelated to the bus tries to screw me of 5 birr for a “luggage service charge”. By the way, today (1st Feb) is 23rd May 2000 according to the Julian calendar!

The bus is busy, and I have an elderly Muslim chap with an impressive projectile beard sitting next to me. He doesn’t seem to get the concept that I don’t understand Amharic, so just keeps saying things to me without my having the slightest idea what he’s on about. The bus isn’t on tarmac for long before it hits a dirt track which we follow for the majority of the ride. Bumpy but could be worse.

We pass through various villages, and every time we stop if I have the curtain back a small crowd will gather to stare at me. I start hiding when we slow down.

In the countryside there’s clearly lots of agriculture going on, but the amazing thing is it’s all by hand. Lines of people use pick-axes to plough fields, and people harvest barley or wheat by hand, pulling it out of the ground and tying it into bundles themselves! What happened to the agricultural revolution? The only use of animals is mules for carrying things distances, horses for riding, and cattle and goats for meat. According to the Human Rights Watch, farmers who don’t support the ruling government party are denied fertiliser and other agricultural aids over which the government has a monopoly.

Debark – Base Town for the Simiens
Arriving, I bounce yet more requests for money for the privilege of transporting my bag, then walk about, up and down the main street, with all the usual hassle. The main street is a dusty busy thoroughfare, mostly with people, but the occasional bus or truck hurtles along throwing up awful clouds of dust. In between these, horses pull two wheeled carts along carrying three people on a seat with a canopy over the top. I get the impression that the Simien national park starts at one end of the street.

Every so often one passes guys with rifles slung round their shoulders, no uniform – these are the compulsory “scouts” to protect you on the mountain. Certainly doesn’t make me feel very safe having dozens of unofficial people pottering about with armed guns. Down at the park office, which is about 500m along the road, and apparently the only smart and well-constructed building in the whole town, I speak to the chap behind the desk about my options.

Looking at the map on the wall, I work out a plan for a four day trek. Not especially ambitious, but seems reasonable. Oh no, says the chap, you can’t do that. He shows me a pre-configured list of options that I’m allowed to do. He then lists out the fees in birr for a four day trek:
Park Entrance Fee: 140
Scout: 120
Guide: 480
Mule: 80 (just one, assuming I carry my own gear)
Mule Driver: 80
Tent: 100
Mattress: 40
Sleeping Bag: 40
Cooking Gear: 120
Cook: 200
Total: 1400
Plus kerosene, food for 4 people for 4 days and tips (10%)

So it will be going on for 2000 birr for the four day trek
2000 birr or about 110 pounds. Cash only.

Given all this, I think I’m going to just day-trip it. I’ve seen the area already, and I don’t like organised trips like this. I could do the trip with just the scout, but I’d still have to feed him etc, and all things considered, given that I’m on my own, I just don’t feel like it. In fact I’m tempted to skip out of town back to Gonder now! Well I’ll leave it till tomorrow and just do a day-hike.

In town, I look for the internet. Eventually I find the one “hut” which is the internet place. Can I use the internet? No. Oh, err, fine. Will I be able to use it later? No. Right, okay. Erm. Why? Because the line is down, they have no idea when they will get phone or internet back! Not even phones in Debark!! Back at the hotel, I have a beer with the young Israeli guy, he seems okay, first one since Yoel on Torres del Paine!

Henry James is Unreadable
I’ve finally found something to top Ulysses – An American Scene. I picked this book up in Addis because it sounded interesting and of course I love New York. Little did I know what was in store. Here’s a random bit I just tried to read, entitled “New York Revisited”:

The single impression or particular vision most answering to the greatness of the subject would have been, I think, a certain hour of large circumnavigation that I find prescribed, in the fulness [sic] of the spring, as the almost immediate crown of a return from the Far West. I had arrived at one of the transpontine stations of the Pennsylvania Railroad; the question was of proceeding to Boston, for the occasion, without pushing through the terrible town – why “terrible,” to my sense, in many ways, I shall presently explain – and the easy and agreeable attainment of this great advantage was to embark on one of the mightiest (as it appeared to me) of train-bearing barges and, descending the western waters, pass round the bottom of the city and remount the other current to Harlem; all without “losing touch” of the Pullman that had brought me from Washington. This absence of the need of losing touch, this breadth of effect, as to the whole process, involved in the prompt floating of the huge concatenated cars not only without arrest or confusion, but as for positive prodigal beguilement of the artless traveller, had doubtless much to say to the ensuing state of mind, the happily-excited and amused view of the great face of New York.

I haven’t picked a bad bit, the entire book is like this. I need say no more. The only question is what to do with it. I clearly can’t read it. I thought about book-swapping it with someone, but firstly that would be rather unkind, and secondly I’d quite like to hold on to it as an example of just how bad classic authors can be. I also ought to confess that given its subject and our shared love of the city, I considered giving it to Sandy-chan, pretending I’d loved it and seeing how far she got.. but that would be cruel!

I’m staying in the Simien Park Hotel, the place to stay (there’s one other hotel up in the park itself, but it’s 110US$ per night), and eating in, err, the Simien Park Hotel, being the only place to eat in town, and I chat with the friendly young guy in the restaurant. He works from 6am to 9:30pm, seven days a week, with no holidays, for 60 birr per month. That’s about 3 UKP per month for a 15 ½ hour day, 365 days a year. And I guess he’s not the worst paid person in Ethiopia. Of course, much below this and you move into the subsistence farming world, where money doesn’t really enter into the equation, but one can imagine the issue that the famine here I remember being on the news when I was young caused if people are so close or below the poverty line.

Back to Gonder
In the morning, I’ve decided I’m not going at all. My foot is hurting, the only other person to trek with is an elderly Israeli guy who smokes, I don’t really have enough cash to do it (this became ever more apparent later) and there’s zero access to credit here, I’d be doing it on my own, and I don’t like the restrictive way in which you can only trek certain distances etc. Instead, I have breakfast, then head out with Fetalew for coffee. As we walk along the dusty road, and I get the usual calls, he makes me laugh by saying he believes half the town to be inbred!

The bus terminal is the usual chaotic fun. Amazingly, he tries to buy my bus ticket with his money – at 18 birr this is a decent part of his monthly salary. Yet another example of Ethiopian generosity. The other Israeli chap, Ron, turns up – we’re taking the same bus. Sigh. Actually though he’s not too bad, though he does tell me that in Addis his trick was to stay at a dirt cheap place near the Piazza then take a combi bus for 1 birr to the Sheraton to use their washrooms. Israelis, they never change! Otherwise though, he’s alright, and we chat on the very bumpy ride back to Gonder.

This bus seems to have substantially less in the way of suspension and legroom than the one coming here.

We make it all the way to the outskirts of Gonder before we conk out and some kind of engine repair is needed. Doesn’t take long though.

In town, we both head straight to the Ethiopian Air office, which to my horror doesn’t accept credit cards! And to add insult to injury, the prices have gone up 10US$ per ticket in the last day or so, one of these “surcharges” that are so fashionable for airlines these days. I guess the Argentine girl did well to book all her flights at the start of her trip, missing this charge. At Bedelez, there is no space at the inn, but the nice security chap takes me across to another place nearby – a similar setup but without the lovely Tigist on reception.

On Ron’s recommendation, I try a layered fruit juice at Sofa Juice, accompanied with a slice of cake. The juice is pineapple, mango, papaya and avocado, each carefully poured in to sit without mixing. The juices here are also so incredibly thick that it seems more appropriate to eat them with a spoon than drink them. Good stuff, and for next to nothing – it’s about 5 birr (25p) for a decent-sized glass like this. How much would that cost in Fresco in Bayswater – 2 UKP 50? More if you buy it in the Whiteleys outlet. And it’s probably all gone up in the time I’ve been away. As I finish my cake the guy running the place sings along with the latest pop songs playing on the radio.

Internet time. Always a joy in Ethiopia! At Magic Internet, I’m told I can’t plug in my laptop here, but if I head to their other outlet, it is possible. (Ethiopian phrase often heard – “izz possible”). Here, incredibly, they tell me they have broadband. Broadband?! Really?!! I’m sceptical but want to believe. He tells me the price is 25 cents a minute, until I tell him I want to use my laptop. Ahh, then it’s 50 cents per minute. Cue argument which ends with me saying I will only pay 25c per minute and if he doesn’t like it I’ll go elsewhere. Of course, the reality is that it’s not broadband, or whatever it is, it’s worse than most dialup I’ve experienced. I can’t even load Gmail, or the BBC News homepage here. I do find out from someone that the government is blocking Blogger, which explains why I’ve been unable to load it anywhere. I wonder why. Local cynics online suggest that it is something to do with the Chinese helping Ethiopia develop their internet infrastructure!

I’m supposed to meet the Israeli guy for dinner, but he doesn’t show at the friendly traditional Habasha (Habesha means Ethiopian, as opposed to Faranji meaning foreign – kids point at you in amazement and say “faranji”!) Restaurant, opposite the Royal Enclosure. Never mind, I have spicy chicken with injera, as ducks waddle about at my feet. Such a strange and amusing concept, I wonder if they “rotate” the ducks into the kitchen – they seem very tame, standing between your feet and looking at you intently. I’m glad I’m eating chicken or I’d feel a built guilty. After dinner, I realise that the English girls are here too, so I join them and am invited on their Bar Crawl tonight. Given my early flight the next day, I hesitate, and am told by Farar to “man up!”!

So, we set off on the crawl, and the first place we go to is an Azmari (wandering minstrel) place – touristy joints that showcase traditional song and dance – the azmari dances about on a grass-covered floor strumming his masenko (single-stringed fiddle) singing in Amharic as pretty girls move their shoulders in ways I have yet to master. All good fun, but I definitely haven’t had enough beer to join in the dancing!! I chat with a nice Israeli girl, who apparently loves Nepal and partially lives there, woo! Afterwards the English girls wink and suggest that my reasons for talking to her were more than just out of politeness – don’t be ridiculous I respond, she’s Israeli!

We head to a couple more places, led by a little guy who follows us about, looking about 15 but apparently older – he was drinking and smoking. I suggest we visit a dirty corner, but in the end, we head back to Belegez for a couple of peaceful beers, where we find the Dutch couple. The girls share a Cadbury’s cream egg, and the Dutch tell us that the equivalent in Holland is called a Negro’s Nipple!! And they seem to think the bad part is the “nipple” bit!!

It’s late (or early) as I wander back to my hotel in the pitch black, using my phone to find the steps. I discover the number of dogs in town – not having noticed a single one during the day I find there are hundreds of snarling beasts at every turn!! I need to wake the staff to get in, and hit the sack.

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