Saturday, February 07, 2015

The Gonder-Aksum Axis

I don't want to give the misconception that somehow Ethiopia is becoming a developed country.  It has 92 million (eep!) people, and the vast majority of them are dirt poor, spending the vast majority of their time tilling the poor dirt.  In fact, the whole country is mostly just differing shades of brown dirt.

At least the northern part of the country is, and that's where me and most of the tourists end up going to.  It's called the Historical Circuit, and it basically consists of four different places.  Bahir Dar was the first of them, and that's where you take little boat trips to see the nearly identical monasteries.  Gonder was the next stop, and I was now on the four hour, fifteen minute bus ride (the LP always lists it at three hours) to this city of about 300,000 people.

Once I got there at about 12:30 my next task, as it often is in these situations, was to try and arrange something for the next day.  I had a tuk-tuk (they're actually officially called Bajaj in Ethiopia, though everyone ends up calling them tuk-tuks) take me to the moderately upscale Quora hotel, because I knew that they had a travel agency.  It was closed, so I left my stuff at the hotel and walked the half km or so to the Lodge de Chateau, which the LP had strongly recommended, and which I had contacted whilst still back in NM.

You see, I was trying to put together a one day tour to the Simien Mountains, which everyone seemed to think was the most amazing place in the world.  But, just as in Djibouti, if you just hired a car and driver by yourself, they would charge over $300.  The trick was to find some people who were already going, and then latch on to them.  The Lodge de Chateau itself was way funkier than the LP had suggested, and the Quora was cheaper to boot.  But the guy there said to come back at 3 because he might have a group of five heading out tomorrow.

So back to the Quora, where I hung out at their patio restaurant looking down on the nondescript downtown of Gonder.  Then back to the Lodge, where the guy said that they hadn't shown up.  The Quora was the much better hotel, though, so I started to trudge back there to sign in.  On the way I saw a little 'travel' office, so I stopped in and the girl there called up someone who said, yes, he did indeed have a tour tomorrow.  But he wanted $110.  I told him that I'd think about it.

For $34 the Quora gave a large clean room with marble floors and bathroom fixtures that actually kind of worked.  I waited about three hours before calling the travel guy back, and got him down to $80.  My next day was now set.

Saturday morning I was up bright and early for the 8 AM pickup.  At 8:30 I had the hotel call the guy, and he said he'd be over in ten minutes.  At 9 the van finally arrived.  In it were five trekkers who were each going on five day treks.  At about $100 a day.  I got to ride shotgun.

Now here's the thing about current day backpackers.  They're mostly nice, polite young people.  They mostly have steady jobs, or are on short hiatuses from somewhat established careers.  But travel for them seems to be a steady succession of xtreem adventures.  Like backpackers of old they almost neurotically stay at bad, supercheap backpacking hotels.  Then they'll pop $500 in order to punish themselves doing the exact same pseudo-dangerous treks, descents, bungee jumps or whatever that every other backpacker on the circuit is doing. 

And it was easy to compute as we were going along that the profit margins that the tour companies make are phenomenal.  It took three hours driving on an easy road to get to the small town of Debark, where we all signed in and picked up a cook and a guide for the trekkers.  Then this old man with a white beard and a white turban and a 150 year old rifle showed up, and the van driver said that he would be my 'scout'.  I couldn't understand what he was talking about.

But twenty km up a dirt road we went, and then the van stopped and they told me to get out.  Turns out that, while the van went further along to drop the trekkers off, my scout would take me on a two hour 'trek'.

The Simien Mountains are more properly a giant raised plateau, ending in a several thousand foot high escarpment.  Now I live in the Southwest, where there are escarpments all over the place.  But, as escarpments go, this one was pretty damn impressive.  My scout led me down the hill to the cliff edge, where I could sit and contemplate, plus enjoy the loaf of bread 'lunch' that had been included in the $80 fee.  It was kind of like southern Utah, only much grander, and instead of red or grey rocks, everything, from the escarpment to the endless badlands to the horizon, was dirt brown.

The scout was a really sweet guy, and he led me along a trail along the cliff edge.  Everything was covered with dry, brown slippery grass.  Also, this wasn't the Canadian Rockies.  The rest of the top of the escarpment, where all the trekkers would be trekking up and down and up again, all looked the same dull, slippery grass brown.  So that when we got to the end of our two hours (all downhill) I figured I had gotten what I needed from the Simiens, without having to submit myself to any stress or strain.

The illusion that my scout had walked straight out of 1870 was shattered when he pulled out his cell phone and called the van.  When it picked us up we drove around a corner, and there were about 15 or 20 of the small baboons who live in the Simiens.  All sizes and shapes, some were much uglier than others, which I've noted before when seeing troops of primates.  But they were all grooming each other (how many fleas can a baboon have?) and/or picking away at that dry brown grass, which seems to be their major source of nutrition.

They were totally nonplussed about someone standing five feet away, so I did that for awhile.  Then I went back to the van, we turned another corner, and there were way more than a hundred of them all neatly spaced on a really large open area, again all picking away at the grass.

Okay, check that off the list, too.  My Simien adventure was complete.  And I also got to hang out with the driver on the way back to Gonder.  You see, what I worry about with the young backpackers is that, what with their ziplines and white water rafting, they're really not paying any attention to the actual people and countries that are around them.  The whole world just becomes some adventure theme park.

Well, that's their problem.  Sunday morning I had set aside for the other reason that people go to Gonder: The ruined castle.  In the 1600s this was the capital of Ethiopia, and the kings then had built a succession of palaces/forts.  In a suitably ruined, though kept up, condition, the compound wouldn't have been out of place in Europe or Asia.  Okay, the truth is that those places have far more impressive ruins.  But the truth also is that nowhere else in Africa is there anything like this.  So it was actually kind of nice to walk around the crumbled buildings, climbing up the ramparts, walking down into the subterranean dark rooms. 

Now it was time to go back to the hotel and get ready to leave for the airport.  I'd finally (kind of) learned my lesson.  Not to mention that, since I had flown in on Ethiopian, I could get domestic flights for half price.  And that the alternative was taking a 14 hour (old crappy) bus ride up and down and up and down all those badlands that I had seen at the escarpment.  Plus the hotel, being a classy place, provided free shuttle service the 20 km or so to the airport.

It's hard to imagine an airport being smaller than Gonder's.  And the plane only left forty minutes late.  Then, thirty minutes after that, we were at the slightly larger airport at Aksum.  I quickly made friends with a middle class Ethiopian upon landing, and so I wasn't ripped off too much on the taxi ride into this town of about 30,000.

Aksum was actually a relatively advanced civilization around the Fourth Century AD, minting their own coins, controlling the hippo hide and ivory trade, etc. Most importantly, they were entirely connected with the rest of the ancient world.  So, archeologically speaking, it's a pretty interesting site.

But not too much has been dug up yet.  And the tourists come for the giant field of giant stelae, or obelisks.  I could hardly wait to see them myself.

When I walked over the next morning, though, I was pretty quickly disappointed.  First of all, there were only two tall stelae, with one of them held up by guy wires.  Nor were they all that awesomely tall.  Worse, the entire stelae area was only about a tenth of an acre at most.  Sure, there were a couple of excavated tombs and a small museum with some interesting items.  But I could quickly see that the two days I had set aside for Aksum were at least one day too many.

Oh, right next to the stelae field was Ethiopia's most important church, but it was built in 1965 so it looked way more Sunday school than sacred.  And right next to it is the most Holy of Holies, a small building that contains the true Ark of the Covenant.  Somebody should have told Indiana Jones and saved him a lot of effort.

So I went back to the Africa hotel ($10 a night; nothing worked).  Since this was Aksum's premier backpacker destination, it was filled with touts trying to sell excursions to the Danakil depression, another Great Rift phenomenon as in Djibouti.  Here, though, even if you joined a group it was about $500 for four or five days.  And I've been to both Death Valley and the Dead Sea.  How much more amazing could this place be?  Not to mention that one of the 'thrills' was climbing a 2000 foot volcano in the middle of the freezing night.  And bake in 130 degree temperatures the rest of the time.

Then there were the tours to the rock hewn churches of Tigray.  Even the LP said that everyone, especially the priests, were obnoxious once you got there.  Plus you had to scale vertical cliffs in the hot sun. 

Instead I was in bed before 9.

That was because the bus to Mekele left at 6 AM, and I was supposed to be there at 5:30.  So I walked the ten minutes or so uphill and found the bus park.  Except that they didn't even open it until 6:10.  Then everyone went running for the buses.  I snagged a semi-decent seat, and off we went at around 6:40.

This part of Ethiopia was slightly greener.  (And I imagine that during the summer rainy season the whole place gets less brown.)  Past endless fields and tiny villages.  I was in Tigray now, and here the houses were built with thin flat stones.

Another friendly middle class Ethiopian got us to the center of town, and here the premier backpacker hotel was a pretty friendly and clean place.  Since the museum/palace across the street was closed, there was nothing else to do except hang around in the restaurant and then go to bed once again.

Because this time I had to get up at 4 so I could be at the bus park at 4:30 so that I could get the Woldia bus at 5.  Once again, though, they didn't even open the gates until 5:15.  And this time I was the only white person in the giant scrum to get on the bus.

This bus had to stop for a flat tire (they were all totally bald), etc., so we didn't pull into Woldia until right before noon.  The touts here immediately tell every white person that there isn't a bus to Lalibela until the next morning.  An American couple from another bus, he with a suitcase about four times larger than my pretty large backpack, fell for it and followed a guy to a hotel.  I knew better though.

I knew that there almost definitely would be a minivan to Gashena, a town two-thirds the way to Lalibela.  And although the bus park people initially said that there wasn't one, it turned out that at least 15 of us wanted to go.  So somebody rounded up a spare minivan, and we all piled in.

Except that ten minutes later somebody came and said that they couldn't get 'permission', so we all piled out again.  One of us, though, was a middle class Ethiopian in a brown jacket, and he immediately set out to write all our names down and then go get an official contract van.

Which he did in about a half an hour.  So we all piled in and set out for Gashena at around 1 PM.  Up, up, and up we went.  All of Ethiopia is on a pretty high plateau, close to the 7000+ elevation that I live at in NM.  But when we got to Gashena we must have been past 10,000 feet.  It looked it, too.  Kind of like the high areas of Bolivia or Peru, with an even emptier brown to it all.  Pretty poor, too, even for Ethiopia.

It was now about 3:15, and I stood there at the Lalibela turnoff, hoping for some ride that I could flag down and then offer them money to take me along.  But nothing at all.  Well, I could always stay at another really crappy hotel...  But at around 3:30 a young guy came by and said that there was actually a bus coming from Lalibela in about ten minutes, and once it turned around it would take me there.  That sounded surprisingly hopeful.  But you can't ever believe what people tell you in these places.

Ten minutes later, though, another guy walked by and said the exact same thing.  And ten minutes after that, sure enough, a small bus was chugging its way into town.  I hurried lugged my stuff the 300 meters or so to where the bus stopped.

I've already remarked how friendly and modest Ethiopians are.  And also that the only exception is at some of the bus parks.  So when I got on this bus the driver annoyingly said that the 'foreigner' price was 150 birr.  I told him I would pay that if he would write a ticket receipt, but of course he wasn't going for that.  So finally I said I would pay 100 birr, and went back to my seat.

But when his flunkies came back to collect it I didn't feel like playing the game any more.  I said that I would pay whatever the regular price was.  Now they started getting really annoying, and said that I should get off the bus.  I said, 'No'.

Now they took it to another level and told all the poor Ethiopians to get off the bus, claiming that they weren't going to Lalibela tonight after all.  I said, 'How stupid do you think I am?  As soon as I get off, you'll tell them all to get back on.

They kept it up.  Finally I had had enough, and decided it was time for my Angry Person act.  Standing up to my full height, so that I was towering above the nearest one of them, I got right in his face and snarled, 'And are you going to make me get off the bus?

In a more martial society those would indeed have been fighting words.  But such cultures also usually have a strict code of honor which would make it unthinkable to try and rip off a foreign guest.

These guys folded like pages of bad origami.  One guy said meekly, 'Well, sir, the official fare is 40 birr.  So could you please give 70?'

But I wasn't letting up just yet.  'It's pathetic how you assholes made these poor people get off the bus.'  Then I pulled out a 100 birr note and waved it at them.  'You want a 100 birr, then take it.  After all, I'm a rich American!'

'No, sir, just 70 please.'

My years of working in diplomacy have taught me that you always need to give the other guy a way out, even if he's a total jerk.  So, point having been made, I gave them the 70, and all of a sudden transformed into Mr Nice Guy, smiling and shaking their hands just to show that there were no hard feelings.  Then I said semi-sternly, 'Now you let those other people back on the bus.'

Which they did.  And then we took off.