Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Bahir Dar, Ethiopia

Luckily after 2 grueling days we had a very easy day into Bahir Dar, a city located on Lake Tana. Everyone was very excited to have some time off to recover their legs and a p-party celebration at 8:00 pm. You had to dress up as anything that started with a "p". We got to Bahir Dar fairly early (around 1:30 pm) and after eating and exchanging money people went shopping for accoutrements for their costume. I went as "Poncho Villa" as I had a poncho! I was hoping people would get the "cleverness" of my idea but most people didn't have a clue. I had two toy guns, a belt as a holster, a red bandana and hankerchief (sp?). I also painted on a moustache with black eye-liner. People were very creative and we all had so much fun. Examples of costumes were: potted plants, peacock, permanent bag, PVM energy bar, pope, pampers, an African pygmy, a general practioner doctor, 2 proctologists, peanut butter man, 2 Peter Pans, a present, 2 punks and a picture frame. We got loose on the dance floor as several IPODS were hooked up to their sound system. Believe me, this party was much needed! The next day I decided to visit 3 famous monasteries on Lake Tana. How great it was to be on a lake again! I miss my Lake Michigan. The water was cold, the boat ride relaxing, and the monasteries intriguing. The islands that they are located on are lush and filled with coffee, mango, and papaya trees. Amazingly preserved 11th century paintings of stories from the bible yet given an Ethiopian slant are plastered inside the monastery walls in bright blues, reds, yellows, greens, and black. They are a sight to behold. We were told that the monks pray from 3-6 am and stop when the rooster crows. I am not sure how many dedicated monks there are but if I were to become one (actually a nun) I would pick this area because at least you would have lots of natural beauty that surrounds you! Not only in Bahir Dar, but there are many Christians in Ethiopia. As we have been riding, almost every person we have come across is wearing a cross of some fashion, even the kids. What we have heard is that the Christians live in the highlands and the Muslims live in the low-lands.

The rest of the time was spent doing laundry, drinking coffee, eating great food at the hotel restaurant, attempting to use the slow internet but giving up, tinkering with our bikes, and arranging our red box/permanent bag system!

The next 5 days of riding to the capital, Addis Ababa were also challenging but fun. The highlights were great scenery, rich agricultural fields, curious kids, lovely camp sites, awesome descents, a broken collar bone (we are not supposed to mention names on our personal websites but just know that this person is ok, doesn't need surgery, but will have to take 4 weeks off of riding), a mild concussion (not me again but a male rider who avoided a kid running across the road trying to catch him off balance and a car trying to overtake him on a curve; he is ok too but shaken up-so are the two girls who witnessed it), and on a positive note: the BLUE NILE GORGE! So far, two mild injuries are pretty good. You never know what can happen in Africa but I do promise to be careful!

The Blue Nile Gorge is what we had been anticipating for quite some time. We had heard of the infamous 20 km descent and 20 km ascent up tight switchbacks and scorching heat. Because our previous day ended 10 km earlier, we had to add it to the enormously calorie burning day. Anticipation was high in the morning. We ascended about 500 meter before getting to the edge of the gorge. The lunch truck was positioned here and we made sure to eat much more than usual: 2 tuna sandwhiches instead of one, a banana, oranges, a power bar, and fast fuel. The descent was awesome. It wasn't paved the entire way so we endured lots of fun jostling on our bikes. It's hard to believe that our bikes can survive the stones and corrugations. It kept getting hotter and hotter as we descended the 1400 m to the bridge that extends across the Blue Nile. You are not allowed to take any pictures at this point because of national security and our tour leader, Duncan, keeps reminding us that if you do, you'll be shot! Duncan was there right after the bridge for the people doing the time trial to refill their water/fast fuel and grab a banana. Yep, I decided why not time trial it. I wasn't too serious about it but just wanted to have fun. He said that it typically takes people between 2-3 hours. I was set: 3-2-1 go. The first two kilometers almost killed me! It was 40 celsius but I just kept telling myself that every hill you climb it'll get slightly colder. It worked! I had to stop 3 times: once for a potential biting dog, and twice b/c my camel back was leaking. Other than that, I made it up all the way without stopping. Let me tell you, this 12km was a major accomplishment. It was lovely in terms of the gorge that you were able to gaze upon when you had a breath (which was few and far between) but completely and utterly exhausting. I pushed it up the last 2 km as fast as I could because my stopwatch was turning 2 hours and 50 minutes. I made it in 2:57. I collapsed afterwards for about one hour, rested my legs on top of my red box, and had a recovery drink of milk,sugar, and tea! When I finally had enough energy I walked over to a great view of the gorge and took it all in. What a day! Our fastest rider made it in 2:37 minutes. Wow!

Entry into Ethiopia

Our group of 60 odd riders entered Metema (border city of Ethiopia and Sudan) on Feb. 7th. Entering was without the usual bureaucracy; just a stamp here and there, a chat with the police and then a 2 hour wait for the Ethiopian officials to hand-write the information from our passports! Hah! While waiting we enjoyed our first cold beverages since the dry country of Sudan. That first night in Ethiopia was busy; we had to put on knobby tires for the rough terrain, change money, and try and get showers at the local brothel. Yep...border towns are seedy!

The next two days were exceedingly tough and we had all heard from one previous rider that most people lose their EFI status (biking every day during the tour and never hopping on the support trucks) in Ethiopia. All we had to do was to make it two more days until our rest day in Bahir Dar. The scenery is gorgeous with undulating hills, mountains in the distance, curious villagers, and dirt roads. Since my exposure to American media I have always believed that all of Ethiopia is dry, dirty, and extremely impoverished. Well, the poverty and dirt are true and there are the kids that have flies stuck to their faces but it is also an extremely pretty country. Who knew! As we rode along kids would pop out of their houses to run and greet us. It is true though: Ethiopia has a TON of children. The music that you hear as you ride is a cacophony of children's voices that yell "you, you, you," "give me one birr," and "where are you go!" Who taught them English? Several times I would stop and try to teach them the proper way of saying "where are you goING" and to greet us with "hello" instead of "you, you, you" but my efforts failed me! My Amharic is getting better though and I can say "hello" (salaamno), "good-bye" (chiao, chiao), "my name is" (semie Kerri), "thank-you" (amasayganalo), don't throw stones (dinguy atawerewere) and "how much is this" (sin ta know). I try and greet everyone that we pass (and believe me when going through villages this is a lot) because we are tourists in their country and I feel it is polite. I am also hoping to dissuade some of the youngsters from throwing rocks/sticks at us. Yes, we have heard that this is quite common in Ethiopia. And, several of our riders got severely pelted with rocks (lots of bruises and bruised souls) and one rider got "attacked" with sticks by four teenagers while climbing a hill. That's the problem there are so many hills to climb that you are fair game as you just can't go that fast! On the second day in Ethiopia (and the hardest so far) while I was climbing a hill these kids offered to push me, well, they don't take no for an answer. So, while pushing they were also sifting through my bike bag. I realized this too late. A rider that I was with chased them and recovered my pad of paper (Shanna, you gave this to me and it has been invaluable). They got away with my bike lock! Since then, I have become more ingenious with bungee cording my bag and sticking the zipper pulls inside the velcro to make it harder for them. Aside from this incident, I really have enjoyed biking through Ethiopia and find most of the kids and adults extremely pleasant, friendly, and interested in what we are doing.

I do want to describe the second riding day in Ethiopia. It competes with the toughest day in the Nubian desert in Sudan. Right from the get-go, we were climbing. It took us 4 hours to go 30k or approx. 18 miles. If you look at the GPS read out, it goes straight up! I felt surprisingly strong though and although I was slow on the hills, I never once got off the bike! We didnt' even get to the lunch truck until 1:45 pm. At this point, several people decided to get on the truck as the afternoon promised to be tough as well. Well, it was! However, there was still fight in me and I wasn't sick like a lot of people who were suffering from nausea as well as diarrhea. At km 94 we saw one of our trucks. We were speeding down this dirt hill and applied the brakes hard. Duncan, our tour leader was there to give us final instructions! We had another 12km climb to the Goha hotel. And, PAVEMENT! It was a huge relief to hit the pavement and we got a little cocky and got a coke. Hmmm...not necessarily a mistake but what we didn't realize is that these 12k were practically all uphill. And, the last 2k were switchbacks up to the hotel. Seriously punishing, especially after a long day's ride! There were many congrats when we reached the top and people looked truly wasted! That day we were riding for approx. 10 hours. The thing that saved me was the temperature. The heat was killing me the past few days and this day, Feb. 9th we had some cloud cover and it really wasn't that hot, only about 85 F. I still can't believe it was possible to bike for 10 hours with only a 45 minute break for lunch. Still EFI! Our reward was a hotel room and a great Ethiopian buffet!

On a different subject, In terms of what people do here, it seems that most are farmers or pastoralists. I have never seen so many people with stick in hand herding their animals. Lots of donkeys, goats, and cattle. No more camels like in Sudan. Kids learn how to take care of animals early And, lots of road kill. You'll see the odd dog splattered in the middle of the road (so sad-I cringe every time), as well as a donkey that had its last breath and collapsed on the side of the pavement. As far as I can tell, they farm garlic, onions, teft (a grass like product that they make injera (the fermented spongy bread) into), potatoes, tomatoes, and hot peppers. They also have mango, papaya, banana, and coffee plants. Ethiopia is known for its coffee and I must say it is good. It is never served in Starbuck proportions but it isn't that expensive either! It is different from the Sudanese coffee which is spiced with ginger and cardamom.

Sunday, February 3, 2008

Khartoum, Sudan

First of all, I would like to say that I really appreciate everyone's comments to my posts. It is fun to read them, they inspire me, and I feel connected to y'all! Even though I don't have the time to respond to everyone's comments, I am thinking about you as I read them. Also, I apologize in advance for spelling/grammar mistakes; long days of riding as well as "funky" Arabic keyboards are to blame!

It took us 4 days from Dongala to get to Khartoum. Our riding schedule consisted of 130k, 140k, 130k and 96 k. Most biking days we had a tailwind and plenty of tarmac. So, reaching 30k or 18-20 miles/per hour wasn't hard at all and sometimes we were pushing 26 m/hr on a mountain bike which is the fastest I have ever rode my bike except on downhills! The vastness of the desert is amazing; aside from the tarmac desert is all around. Along the road we encountered many pastoralists who make their living trading camels and camel products as well as sheep and goats. Every once in a while, while riding you come across a huge caravan of camels about to cross the pavement. For a stretch of road we also passed the "camel cemetery" as there were dead camels half-buried in the sand on either side of us. Poor camels.

The hardest part of this stretch has been the occasional headwind as well as the stinging sand coming across the roads. The wind is almost always blowing. Needless to say, sand is in everything: eyes, food, toothbrush, coffee mugs, tents. One night the wind didn't stop and before we went to bed we had to unclip the tent and shake it out as a layer had already encapsulated our sleeping bags and mattresses. Oh-and going to the bathroom deposits sand in places that you would rather not have bothered. But, as we say this is the cheapest spa treatment ever!

Once again I am amazed at the weather. It has been downright cold at night and in the morning sometimes we have woken to temps in the 40s. My hands have been so cold cycling in the mornings that it almost reminds me of the North Pole! :) Who thought deserts were warm? Of course, it warms up during the day but not until around 1:00 pm. I have been cycling in my long sleeve merino wool icebreaker jersey every day thus far. I have a feeling I will be switching to short sleeves once we reach Khartoum.

We had a police convoy into Khartoum that actually was efficient. Escorted by tourist police, we cruised for about 20 miles through the western side of the capital. Once again we were a spectacle; loads of people lined the streets watching us. Our film crew was busy capturing it all. Crossing the main bridge over the Nile we spotted the confluence of the Blue and White Nile rivers. No-you really can't tell a color difference. We were led to the National Camping Residence where Sudanese male and female runners train. Because we are ahead of schedule we will have 2.5 rest days. My tired legs could use them!

After setting up camp, we all ran to the showers which were the best we have encountered so far. And, warmish water to boot. Feeling clean again does wonders to the soul! That night several of us went to see the "Whirling Dervishes" a mystical sect of Islam where twirling around in circles to the drum beats gets you closer to "allah." It is a type of religious ectasy. Their ceremony was not meant for tourists but now it has turned into quite the attraction with local people setting up little stands for shay (tea) and coffee and loads of them forming a large open circle to watch the music and dancing. The religious ceremony happens every Friday, outside of an old looking, green painted mosque. Men in long, white "dresses" line up and face each other across a self-imposed circular sand courtyard. They start chanting and the other side answers them. The drumming starts out slow and then increases with intensity. You can't help but move. Seemingly random, some people who are "feeling" the beat move to the center and start to twirl themselves into a trance like state. All the while this man with dreadlocks, dressed in a red and green "dress" and yielding a big stick goes round and round the circle of spectators making sure the courtyard remains open for the dancers to whirl. A man with a red and green "sorcerer's cap" follows the steps of this man and offers to fan incense into your face. I haven't smelled that good in days. We didn't quite know what to make of the experience but it was surely interesting. Afterwards, we lucked into finding a pizza joint and woofed down some large pizzas.

Khartoum is a sprawling city. It is dusty, warm, and there isn't much to admire. We are staying 10k south of the "main" center and the landscape is composed of half-built low-cement buildings, shops, and a large shopping mall. Yes, a mall. With Gloria Jean's coffee shop located there, a lot of us have been willing to pay the $4.00 for a cappuchino. It is an expensive city as well. Some folks checked out Nubian wrestling and the souk, which is the largest market in all of Sudan.

We are off to the southeast tomorrow towards the border town of Gallabat. It should take us 4 riding days. Once we reach Ethiopia we will begin climbing! I pray for even stronger legs. It is widely known that Ethiopian kids will try and take anything they can off your bike so I'll need the legs to cruise past them. We won't be able to casually leave our bikes and items around as we have done in Sudan.

Oh-we are NOT going through Kenya. We are all disappointed but in light of the recent "ethnic cleansings"/"fightings" b/c of election disputes our tour director has made the appropriate decision. Besides, most people's insurance policies would disqualify them since we would be voluntarily entering an area of "civil unrest." We will bike until the border of Ethiopia/Kenya and then will have approx. 12 days in which to occupy ourselves. I might do the Serengeti again or try to explore the more remote areas of the Gombe National Park and Mahale Mountains where groups of chimpanzees live. Several groups of riders are talking about attempting Mt. Kilimanjaro and relaxing afterwards in Zanzibar Island.

I assume we won't have internet access until Gonder, Ethiopia. I hope you are all enjoying winter!
Oh-the people pics are of Ashleigh and Josh, our expedition riders who won the 20k time trial. Let's just say, it wasn't my best day! Congrats to them!