FORWARD PREFACE EUROPE The beginning to Chapter III is CHAPTER I EGYPT on this web page (Part 1) CHAPTER II SUDAN CHAPTER III NORTHERN ETHIOPIA CHAPTER IV ADDIS ABABA & SOUTHERN ETHIOPIA Chapter IV to the end is on CHAPTER V KENYA a second page, click here to go CHAPTER VI EAST AFRICA to (Part 2) EPILOG THE RETURN
I (Martin Friedrichs) wrote the following narrative in the summer of 1974 with help in the memory and typing departments from my traveling companion, Annette. The contents are based mainly on memory and a small diary of events kept by myself. This report does not claim to be well written or complete, rather it is meant to give an idea of what it was like to travel overland from Cairo to Nairobi. It is for this reason that parts of the trip before and after that period, as well as some other parts (such as the animal parks), are only mentioned briefly for continuity. This story is meant to be both informative and enjoyable for the reader as well as to serve as a permanent record for us before we either forget some of what happened or can no longer believe what we remember to be really true.
In the spring of 1971 Annette and I decided to travel to Europe together, she also wanted to visit Cairo and I suggested if we were going to go to Africa we might as well go to Kenya to see the animal parks. Knowing we could not afford to fly across Africa we planned to go overland, one way or the other. On June 22nd we took a charter flight to Frankfurt with 80 days before the return. We traveled a little in Germany, through Austria, and into Italy where we visited Florence and Rome. We took a pleasant ferry ride to Greece and spent a few days in Athens prior to hopping over to Istanbul.
Istanbul, although beautiful and fascinating, seemed rather primitive with its stand-up toilets and bottled water as well as its overall dirty conditions. We took another student discount flight back to Athens so we could head on to Cairo. We were delayed a day while our two-propeller Egyptian Airline plane was being repaired. Although the mechanical condition was of dubious nature, the plane’s interior was sensually lush; complete with faded red velvet and golden tassels. Once on our way the flight was relatively uneventful except for the navigator trying to convince us to smuggle some liquor and cigarettes in for him. We arrived in Cairo at 11 p.m. to be greeted by a most oppressive heat and humidity as well as well as the fact that all the hotels were booked. With another passenger from the plane we finally ended up sleeping in some obscure park hoping we would wake up on our own accord the next day without our throats cut. The next morning we met our navigator to return his liquor (some of which had been stolen that night in the park) and he in turn paid for a taxi to take us to the pyramids as a thankful gesture. We visited some mosques and the famous Cairo museum that contained almost as many sandbags as relics. The Egyptians continually feared an Israeli air attack and wanted to protect as many artifacts as possible.
In Cairo we tried to straighten out as many of the visa problems that we could that we had not been able to take care of in New York. We bought train tickets to Luxor and ferry tickets for going down Lake Nasser behind the Aswan Dam. From there we planned to take a train ride to Khartoum and Port Sudan. We hoped to sail from Port Sudan to Kenya thus avoiding a great deal of overland travel. It all looked relatively simple. We planned on about a 13- day trip with 8 days in Nairobi and returning the same way. This would still give us time to see Morocco and Spain. After almost a month in Europe we were now ready to start our trip into the “Dark Continent”.
It was July 20th when Annette and I left Cairo in an air-conditioned sleeping car for Luxor in southern Egypt. As the train traveled further inland the scene was of farmers pulling their wooden carts, of palm tree groves along the river, and of a lazy sun setting in a cloudless sky behind three distant but still giant pyramids. We could really feel we were entering a different land and had a growing need to discover and under-stand what we saw. We arrived in Luxor at 6 a.m. and checked in at the local youth hostel. This was an old three-story build-ing with numerous dirty rooms and assorted people. The center of the building was open since according to the local people there, it only rained about once every three years for about five minutes. After dumping our packs we headed into the center of Luxor to find out how to visit the ancient city of Thebes and the Valley of the Kings (the burial ground of the Pharaohs).
Once in town a local resident convinced us to follow him to a small raft that would take us across the Nile to where we could rent donkeys for our ride to the temples. We hired two donkeys and an 11-year-old guide who was slightly crippled. We refused to be talked into renting a donkey for him unfortunately thinking that the 4O-cent cost of this expedition was enough and he should come with his own donkey. We found that we were already thinking in local currency. Luckily we allowed ourselves to buy tickets to only three of the many monuments. Our miniature guide then started what turned out to be a 10-mile donkey ride over what must be some of the hottest, roughest, and most uncomfortable country in the world. In some of the steeper sections of the mountains, acting as if he were tired, our guide would whip my donkey ahead and jump on the back of Annette’s donkey and grab on. He seemed to grab onto Annette a lot more than the donkey. Annette was not particularly enthused about being felt by a dirty 11-year-old with only one hand in the middle of nowhere. I tried to convince her not to get too excited since he was the only guide we had, and we had not the slightest idea where we were. Around midday we finally did arrive at the underground tombs. The nicest thing about these was their cool 70 to 80-degree temperature. On the way back we decided to shorten our trip to just one more temple site due to our exhaustion and the 100+ temperature. I am sure no one has visited all 15 sites in one day. Upon returning to Luxor we ate in the only restaurant we could find. The only other living things in the dining room besides ourselves and possibly the waiter was a rather large lizard on the wall and a fine assortment of bugs in and out of our food.
The next morning at 7 a.m. we left by train for Aswan to the south of us where we would catch a ferry on take Nasser going to Sudan. Unlike our previous train ride this one was 3rd class. It was an old train with wooden seats and the people were packed in almost like a New York City subway car. Those who got there first took the best location, namely lying lengthwise in the luggage racks. This of course meant everyone’s lug-gage was on the floor and seats. Numerous young girls (about 5 to 8 years old) crawled along the floor collecting the tiny cigar-ette butts apparently to see if they could find any unburned bits of tobacco from which they would make new cigarettes to sell. Goats and chickens were also scratching along the floor but did not seem as successful as the little girls.
We arrived in Aswan five hours later and there we learned that we would have to take another short train ride to the ferry. We got a bit to eat but then found we had missed the train and the ferry only left twice a week. Since we already had our ferry tickets and we were about to leave Egypt, we did not have enough Egyptian money to take the long taxi ride to the ferry. We ran into a German student, Peter, who had also missed the train and had lost his traveling companions as well. The three of us finally got a cab to take us. Being late we had him speed down an old dirt road next to the railroad tracks until he stopped quite suddenly. He turned around, yelled at me, and pointed to Annette saying “Nubian, Nubian”. We finally understood that he thought Annette was a Nubian, as he apparently was himself, and he would not drive while I had my hand on her knee. Due to the lack of time I did not argue and I removed my hand. He then adjusted his rear view mirror so that it now focused on Annette’s knee and sped on keeping both eyes on the rear view mirror.
We had bought our 7-dollar ferry tickets in a fancy office in Cairo where we had been told the ferry left at 5 p.m. and arrived at 5 a.m. We had only purchased deck tickets as we had on the ferry from Italy to Greece. We were expecting a similar ride and were wondering if there might be a pool on board. In the meantime however someone had told us that although it did leave at 5 p.m. and did arrive at 5 a.m. that was three days later and they suggested we bring along a little bread and cheese, which we did. Now we were a bit worried because we heard there was a communist revolution taking place in Sudan and we thought they might close the border. I spent most of the taxi ride trying to brush Annette up on her Marxism.
The arrival at the ferry was a sight to behold or rather I should say a very severe and profound shock. This “ferry” was a small, old, rickety wooden barge and as a ship looked barely floatable let alone seaworthy. On top of that there were literally hundreds of Egyptians and Sudanese trying to get aboard. We went through customs and entered the boat. Annette, nearly frantic by now, and I split up to look for a spot to put our backpacks down and stay. I went on to the “top deck” of the boat to find the only covered area (with a tarpaulin) was so jammed with people that one could not even walk there. Annette looked in the hole of the ship, which was one large area with a wooden floor. This was also packed with people and already had a retched smell that could only have gotten worse in the course of three days. The only comparison I could think of to these conditions was a slave ship and I was beginning to wonder what we were doing here voluntarily. The one vacant spot we could find was on the uncovered part of the deck with no railing. Annette did not want to spend three whole days dehydrating in the open sun in what could reach 130-degree temperatures. This part of the Nubian Desert is only about 100 miles from where the world’s hottest temperature was recorded. I convinced her that we had no choice and we should grab this spot before it was taken. Peter, his two German companions (Alfred and Rosie), 3 French students, and an Algerian (all the non-locals on board) joined us as we staked out our small territory from the ever increasing number of people piling on to this little ferry. We combined our ponchos and tarps and by using some beams and boxes we were able to fashion a tiny 8-man tent area with some protection from the sun.
It was then that I learned there was no food to be gotten on the boat. Much worse there was nothing to drink for the three days journey. We only had about a quart and a half of water in our backpacks. Before the boat departed I found there was a young boy selling some sodas on board. I bought as many bottles as I could carry hoping these might last us through the trip. The boy insisted that I drink my some dozen bottles now so that he could take the bottles back. I offered to pay up to four times the price of the sodas (in American money yet) to keep the bottles but to no avail. Apparently the bottles were worth much more than that compared to the sodas (tasting the soda gave some hint of why). We drank some of the sodas and returned those bottles but we kept the rest hidden anyway. Although not trying to cheat the poor boy I was at this time more worried about lasting this three-day trip with so little water.
The boat finally left in early evening and the eight of us settled into our tiny home made quarters. We played a three-lan-guage game of scrabble on a small set I had brought along, nib-bled on some of our cheese and tried to go to sleep in the intense night heat. In the morning I found there was only one small bathroom for the hundreds of people on the boat. Flushing the toilet consisted of throwing a pail over the side of the boat, hauling it up by a rope and using this water to flush clear the area around the hole used as a toilet. Due to the fact that there was so little water and food this one bathroom seemed to suffice. The part of the boat we were on although packed with people who almost certainly could not swim had no railing. There were of course no lifeboats anywhere and had the boat sunk (which seemed quite possible) practically everybody would have drown. The land on both sides of Lake Nasser was totally barren and deserted so that even if one could swim to shore it would not have done much good.
The “1st class cabins” we had not taken turned out to be tiny open rooms with wooden bunks (no mattresses) on the lower deck. These were not much better then our quarters. Our scrabble games would begin with a vigor and usage of different words but as the day progressed and the heat increased the words became rather simple and short. It got to the point where you would be happy to just add an “S” to a word. To combat the 120+ degree heat we would take turns collecting each other’s clothing, tying it in a bundle, attaching it to a rope, and then one person would go out in the heat and throw the cloths over board. We would then all put on the wet clothes and wrap a wet towel around our heads to cool off. This had to be repeated every half-hour because even in the shade our clothes would dry out completely by then. One of the French students insisted that this was a sure way to get pneumonia. The last thing you wanted was to get sick here since there were no medical facilities what so ever, but it seemed a choice between that and heat prostration. The French girl with us had already fainted twice. The heat alone might have been bearable were it not for the lack of food and water that made us so weak. I had to force myself to go out in the sun just to take a few pictures of the boat.
We picked up two bits of news from a Sudanese “Boy Scout” (one of the few who spoke English) who also gave us some of his bread. He told us that although the trip should take just three days it was usually delayed a day or two (luckily this did not turn out to be the case on our trip). He also said that he had heard that the old Sudanese government had taken control again but fighting was still going on. It seemed to make very little difference to these people who ran the government. In the evening the boat pulled up to shore and the pilot got out and went to sleep on shore. Eight hours later he returned and we left. One person told us he was simply tired and there was no copilot, but someone else said since the boat had no lights and there was no moon out he could not see well enough to travel. The next day we realized we would not be able to ration our small supply of hot water over that long trip. We faced the inevit-able decision of having to drink Nile water. Although the German students shared some of their iodine tablets with us there were not enough to go around. Since we had no choice we could only hope that if the local people could drink the water we too would survive.
We were told that we would be passing Abu Simble in the evening but we were to tired to make any effort to see it, even though originally this was one of the things we had been looking forward to seeing by coming here. In the morning we had to stop because the return ferry going the other way had broken down and they needed the help of our pilot to fix it. The three French students and the Algerian decided they would spend a few days in Wadi Halfa. (the Sudanese town we were to land in) to recuperate. The only thing I was grateful for was that we had not decided to stay in the hole of the ship because the stink was terrible and it seemed just as hot.
We finally docked at 9 a.m., unbelievably only a few hours late. It took us six hours (others even longer) to get off the boat because there was only one “doctor” to check our shots and one only one passport official. Most of the people were pushing like mad to try and get off as soon as possible. Although I did not like the boat much either I was never quite sure why there was so much of a rush for most people to get off. We changed some money on the dock when I noticed that Peter’s 100 Mark bills had a picture of Karl Marx on them. When I asked him why he got upset and would not answer. Later he explained he was using East German Marks (four of which can be gotten for a West German Mark in Germany) and was able to get the West German exchange rate because no one here knew the difference. He was able to do this all the way to Kenya on the black market and therefore traveled at 1/4 cost. We now had to take a short jeep ride across the dessert to Wadi Halfa from where we would take a train for 24 to 36 hours to Khartoum, the capital of Sudan.
When our jeep drove into Wadi Halfa our hopes of getting a good meal and some rest faded rapidly. Wadi Halfa consisted of about a dozen one-room mud huts. One of these was a train depot, another a “general store”, and the rest were for the poor people who had to live in this God-forsaken place. There was not a single sign of vegetation to be seen anywhere. We found out the original Wadi Halfa had been buried under Lake Nasser after the dam was built and they had not got around to rebuild-ing it yet. The French quickly and unanimously decided this was not the place for their recuperation.
The train we were to take had four classes and Annette insisted we go first class even though it was much more expensive. I suggested that she check the train out first, after which she came to the conclusion that all four classes were the same, namely miserable, so we might as well go 4th class. We hur-ried on board to try to get some space in what was essentially a slightly modified baggage car. There was sawdust on the floor, wooden seats, and broken wooden shutters to close the window openings (there was of course no glass). After taking a corner location and leaving a guard behind we headed into “town” to see what was edible. Since there was no way to find out when the train might leave we had to hurry for fear of being left behind. There were only two trains a week to pick up passengers from the two ferries.
The general store had almost nothing in it; we could not even get a soda. They had some home made lemonade, sardines from Red China, and some local bread. On this we stocked up for our train ride being as there was no food or water on the train and we did not know when, or if, it would stop. Most of the local people had apparently brought some type of food with them. There was a water pump near the tracks but the water that came out was very hot. Even so we soaked some of our clothing and filled our canteens. We assumed that hot water was better then Nile water, even though I am not sure that it did not come from the Nile. Due to the heat and lack of food we all felt constantly faint and had to walk slowly. One of the French students came back to the train with of all things a watermelon. He informed us that someone in town was selling them. Although the train looked pretty full I risked going back into town to get one for us also. I found the man with three left and gladly brought the only one that did not look rotten. I never did figure out where he got them.
The train left at 6 p.m. across a completely barren, Nubian Desert. There were hardly even any rocks, and we only once saw a vulture-like bird to show us life did exist here. We divided up some of our sardines and bread, saving the watermelon for later, and tried to arrange a place to sleep. Some of us slept on the benches while the rest of us slept on the floor like everyone else in the car. The car was too stuffy to close the shutters but with them open, and even with those we did close, the wind blew sand in all night. When trying to sleep it felt like dry rain on your face all night long. By morning our back-packs and ourselves were covered with sand and there was no way to get rid of it. The wind finally stopped but you still could not open the shutters because of the intense sun that would beat in. Yet to avoid the stuffiness the shutters had to be opened on the non-sunny side. We were almost heartbroken when we opened our watermelons to find they were mainly rotted and just juice, but grateful for anything we ate them anyway.
By midday the train started going through small towns and we were seeing small shrubs again. After over a week of a completely cloudless sky we spotted our first cloud and it felt like the temperature must have dropped to close to 100 degrees. In one of these towns there was a boy selling mangos by the side of the train. These were my first and best tasting mangos ever. We devoured as many as we could laughing at our warnings never to eat fresh fruit in these countries. In the early afternoon we stopped in the town of Atbara and here the train filled up to the point that there was hardly any standing room. Now we could see the advantage of the first class area, because of the higher cost probably less people poured in there. We passed another train going in the other direction that was so crowded that people were even crowded on top of the car roofs. We were grateful at least that we did not have to travel that way in the sun. The water in this town was suppose to have chlorine in it so we filled our canteens, even though at this point it probably did not make much difference.
On the train we were now hearing rumors that 27 people had been shot in Khartoum over the past days, and that all the com-munists were being executed. We heard that the airport was closed and most out-going transportation from the city had been stopped. We began to worry now that if we ever did get into Khartoum that it might take a long time to get out. At 7 p.m. we stopped in the town of Shendi and were told that Khartoum had a 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. curfew after which people on the streets would be shot on sight. Since Khartoum was still six hours away we would only leave Shendi at 1 a.m.. Shendi was a bustling slave town at one point in history when it was the mid point of caravan routes from the desert, but now it was just another decaying spot on the map that meagerly existed in the desert. Here, at least, we got some more mangos, but the one “restaurant” we found only sold yogurt and lemonade. The yogurt was better than nothing even if it was not first class quality. We slept on the train that night to make sure we did not miss its leaving at 1 a.m. and because someone con-vinced us the ground had poisonous snakes.
We pulled into Khartoum on the morning of the 27th, passing tanks and troops along the road. It was now the 6th day since we had washed or eaten a real meal. The train station was rather deserted and we walked over to the youth hostel only a few blocks away. As hungry as we were we spent most of the morning standing in the showers and washing our clothes. From some of the others in the hostel we got a little food and a lot of information. We learned that the major battles of the coup had taken place right in front of the hostel. An American girl who had been there said that about three hundred people had been killed in the streets while trying to free their Communist leader who was locked in a house across from the station. The entire hostel had to evacuate, and there were fresh bullet holes in the window above our bed. We also picked up such valuable information as where the black market was in Nairobi and the problems of getting out of this town.
We had to cross town to check in with the police (and eat) but were told basically to keep off the streets as much as possible. In town we noticed bullet holes and tank blasts in numerous build-ing, including the American Embassy (where a marine had died defending it). All this had taken place just in the last few days and fighting was still continuing at night. Due to the coup almost all restaurants were closed but we finally got a local man to show us an out of the way one that wasn’t. In lieu of a menu we went into the kitchen and looked into the few pots they had and pointed out what we wanted. As hungry as we were the food still tasted pretty bad. We had hoped to travel up to Port Sudan and go by ship to Kenya, but we were unable to get it con-firmed by anybody that this was possible. The number of ships going south had been reduced since the Suez Canal was closed and no one knew if those that did go would be willing to take us or how much it might cost. In general, information in this closed up town was even harder to get than food. It seemed that the only way out of Khartoum to the south was by air. The one weekly plane to Kassala (near the Ethiopian boarder) would be booked for two weeks if the airport opened. Previously their had been a bus that went toward Ethiopia but Eritrean rebels (trying to break away from Ethiopia) had blown the busses up one by one as they crossed the border in order to rob the passengers. Now the company had no more busses. The only way left seemed to be to fly all the way to Asmara in Northern Ethiopia. This was a longer (more expensive) trip then we wanted to take and still depended on the airport being opened. Not even this was easy to do since to get tickets into Ethiopia one also had to buy plane tickets out, to show that you would not get stranded there, which you could then try to cash in once you were in the country. We made reservations for the next plane on the 29th figuring at least we could expect a good meal on the plane which might make it all worth while.
That night we could hear gunfire still going on in the city and one could see the troops and tanks searching the streets. In the morning we went back to the city in search of food and considered ourselves fortunate to only be stopped and searched by troops once. The three Germans decided to fly with us to Asmara in northern Ethiopia while the three French male students were giving up and were going to try to head back north when they could. The French girl was determined to continue but could not afford the plane fare. Against all reasonable advice she finally decided to hitchhike toward the border and see what happened. It was questionable if there were any real roads, let alone cars going that way, and that even if she did reach the border we were told it was closed.
Khartoum International Airport did open the next day and we got a taxi to take us there for our flight. The airport consisted of a one-room dingy building completely surrounded by tanks. Due to a many hour delay (during which we were stuck in the one room airport) our Royal Ethiopian Airline plane decided it was too late for supper and brought no food aboard. After begging the stewardess we got a few left over sandwiches from their last trip. Once in Asmara we would head south to Kenya.
We arrived in Asmara very late at night and by the time we got through customs it was very close to midnight. We had a lot of trouble getting transportation from the airport to town but finally found a small bus that would take us. Alfred and Rosie, being very stubborn, insisted the man was trying to cheat us (probably true) and decided to walk to town a few miles off. Peter and we took the bus into what was a very old and medieval looking town. Many of the residents still spoke Ital-ian, which was left over from Mussolini’s occupation in the 30’s. The bus dropped us off and we started to wander down the dark and narrow streets in search of a place to stay. The only other people in the streets were hooded men in rags all carrying large wooden clubs. These we later learnt were guards for people’s homes and shops. It seems there are a large number of gangs and thieves that wandered the streets at night. Needless to say all of this created a rather spooky atmosphere. We finally found a rather run down place to stay (with a fancy name of King George’s Inn) with one of these hooded creatures standing guard in the courtyard. When we left our room he would escort us to the bathroom (an attached outhouse). I do not think any of us felt any safer with him around but since he did not speak English, or anything for that matter, there was not much to do.
Still in search of food, our “inn” had none, and trying to find information on how to travel south, our innkeeper heads us in the direction of a bus depot. We were afraid of being stuck in Asmara, as we almost were in Khartoum, and we wanted to know as quickly as possible what were the possibilities of leaving. We had been able to find nothing out at the airport. Not knowing what we would find in terms of food and information at 1 a.m. we hesitatingly headed out into the streets again. After wander-ing through the streets we finally found the depot with a small store that was still open. One of its three occupants was play-ing a strange sounding one-stringed instrument; the other two appeared slightly drunk. They could offer us no food and none spoke any English. With sign language (which we were experts in by then) we determined that there was one bus leaving for the south the next day at 7 a.m. and it appeared there might not be any others for a few days. Since the trip was already taking longer then we planned we decided to take this bus and try to pick up some food on the way. We also were hoping Alfred and Rosie might find out about this bus and meet us here. We traveled back through the dark streets to our inn, with its club carrying guards, and got a few hours of sleep before dawn.
In the morning we were able to pick up a little bread in a local shop on the way to the depot. The houses and streets here looked a little better than in Egypt or Sudan but the people looked just as poor, and maybe even worse. The bus ticket seem-ed expensive at 7 dollars for the three-day ride to Addis Ababa. Except for the three of us (Alfred and Rosie did not make it) the bus was full of local people. All of them were wearing a kind of dirty white cloth (rag). Both the men and women pull this around their bodies and across their faces never showing them to us. Most of these people seem to be only traveling one or two stops on the bus and no one appeared to stay on the whole way with us. The only exceptions were the bus driver and two bus boys (men) who were in Western dress and obviously considered themselves above the local populous. Our luggage was thrown on the roof and we we’re off.
The bus (a very old American school bus) rattled off down the dirt roads into the countryside. The country very soon turned into an unbelievably green, lush, beautiful landscape. There were jagged jungle-filled mountains, steep gorges, and bright green open fields. Upon leaving the city the houses disappeared and the dwellings turned into small straw and stick huts. The people in the country looked even poorer than those in the city. They all were in miserable dirty rags and most had obvious signs of disease. Despite the lushness of the land the farmers who did have plows only had wooden ones and pushed them by hand. Most of the fertile land lay unused. The only signs of any livestock were some sickly looking goats and a few skinny chickens.
The bus would stop in almost every town picking up and letting off a few local people. The people would get on and off with all of their gear, and if they were too slow they would practically be pushed off by the bus boys. One old lady was half stepping on the bus with a huge bundle when the driver drove off leaving her standing there. When someone finally convinced the driver to stop he made the woman run about a 100 yards with her bundle. It would not have occurred to the bus driver, to back up for her, and the moment she got one foot aboard he zoomed off.
The bus varied from about two thirds full to having people sitting on the floor. But no matter how crowded it got the bus boys never let anyone sit next to us. Apparently they did not think the dirty peasants should sit next to us foreigners, better that they sit on the floor. The bus boys also wanted us to move to the front of the bus where (according to their sign language) it was less bumpy. It was hard to believe it could have made the slightest difference so we did not bother. The bus driver seemed to enjoy going at breakneck speed down the narrow windy dirt roads that went up and down the steep gorges. When going through a town he did not have to stop in he would just honk and let the people scatter.
Most of the local people did not seem to be used to this type of driving and they continually vomited on the floor, or sometimes simply in their laps. It seemed one of the main jobs of the bus boys was to convince the passengers, begrudgingly, to vomit out the window. Since the busboys did not speak the local dialects most of this convincing was done by force. In amidst of all of this the bus driver had a radio turned up to a blaring volume. It only played a selection of three songs (apparently hits) for the entire three-day journey. One particular tune still goes through our heads even today.
We stopped for lunch in one of the bigger of the small towns (one that had mud huts rather than straw). The only things that we could get that appeared to be edible were eggs. They were about one-third the size of American eggs, which is more then I can say for the chickens. The only other food they had was a type of bread (injera) which looked and tasted more like a grayish sponge. As for drinks, we had a choice between tea (chi), and what at first appeared to be Coca-Cola. At least it was served in an old Coke bottle. The taste however, convinced us otherwise and in the future we only drank it in desperation. I wondered what Coke people in the USA would say if they knew what was being sold in their bottles.
In the evening we stopped in another small town to sleep. We were exceedingly grateful the bus had no lights with which to travel at night, so that we could recuperate. We noticed again in this town that the further south we traveled the worse the health of the people seemed to get. Most of them were ter-ribly diseased, and it was getting almost impossible to find a healthy looking person. Many had smallpox (or its scarred remains) or infections of every sort all over their bodies. The most basic concepts of hygiene and sanitation were obviously non-existent. Bathing here for children and adults apparently only took place a few times a year, if at all. Eating any food prepared by these people was only slightly more appealing than starving and was made possible due to our ten days of near fast-ing. The local diet here consisted mainly of eggs, injera bread, and a kind of raw grain (like unpopped popcorn). For our supper we could also afford to get a plate consisting of chips of goat meat. It was impossible to imagine them killing one of their precious goats for meat but we tried not to think of what it might have died of, and how many months ago that might have happened. Being that there is of course no electricity there is also no refrigeration and therefore, in this hot climate it was hard to see how any meat could be kept fresh. Probably for this reason the meat is prepared in such an incredibly hot sauce that it can not be tasted. As a bonus each of us got one bone on our plate that we were suppose to gnaw on. However none of us found anything to gnaw on. Later as they cleared our plates I noticed that they carefully saved the bones and then put them on the plates of someone else getting the same (and only) dish. This seemed to be the general practice and they did not even try to hide this fact.
After this grand repast, and upon leaving the restaurant (a slightly larger mud building), we met two American Peace Corps fellows (who spoke English). They told us conditions were much worse off the main roads that we were traveling. They said that there almost everyone was sick (they were vaccinating against smallpox) and the people did not even have grain to eat. Some of the people’s total diet consisted of eggs.
Most of the people on the bus were bedding down on the ground around the bus, but we set out to find some better sleep-ing accommodations. Numerous children tried to lead us to their huts to stay the night. We picked one who looked like he came from a slightly better off home and followed him. His parents led us through their hut to a small courtyard in the back. They had converted a couple of goat stalls into bedrooms and called themselves a hotel. The conversion consisted of placing a cot in a five by seven-foot area and cleaning out most of the manure. At half an Ethiopian dollar (15 American cents) the “room” seem-ed over priced but it was the best accommodations that town had to offer. The price also included two candles which they gave us before they left, We were grateful for at least there was no mattress on the cot and thus, less hiding places for bugs. Annette went to work with her limitless supply of Lysol and wash ‘n’ dries so that finally we were able to crawl into our sleeping bags and try to get some sleep. Even after the exhausting day we had the bugs and humidity made sleeping almost impossible.
After what seemed like only a few hours of sleep we were awaken in the morning by a young boy who implied that we should hurry and get up. It seems that the bus was going to leave at 5 a.m. and the bus boys had been looking all over town for us. The bus was full when we got there and must have been waiting over half an hour for us. Nobody seemed to mind even though I am sure the bus would not have waited one minute for a local person who was late, and they certainly would not have searched the town for them.
We were off again up and down the narrow gorges on the rutted dirt roads at breakneck speed. I never realized how strongly made those school busses were. After one particularly hard bump, my plastic chess set (one of my few luxurious possessions), that had been on the inside luggage rack, fell off and broke open on the floor. Unfortunately it fell right where the man sitting behind me had just vomited. He immediately started to pick up the vomit-covered pieces, wiping them in his rags, and returning them to me. I tried politely to refuse but he simply could not understand that and persisted in his task. I eventually gave up and accepted the pieces but I was reluctant to use the set again.
When we stopped for lunch later that day, we were told that we could order chicken. We realized, however, that the man in the restaurant would have to go out and bargain with someone who was willing to sell a chicken, pluck it, and then cook it. Since we did not have the time, and because we were afraid that some family might then even have to go without any eggs (not to mention that we did not like the looks of the chickens that we saw running around) we ordered goat meat again. While waiting for our “goat chips” I made the mistake of wandering behind the hut to find an outhouse. This was simply a partially enclosed area of the manure-covered courtyard. There I saw part of a goat carcass hanging up that looked like it had been outside for weeks. The flies were having a feast. Still worse was the sight of a woman cutting up a piece of goat meat (what I feared was to be our lunch), on the dirty courtyard floor. When Annette complained about a rather large bug in her food, the man simply took it out with his fingers, never quite understanding what she had complained about. As we were leaving we met the only other non-locals we had seen (other then the two fellows from the Peace Corps), who were headed north in a Landrover. They were photographers for “National Geographic” (what else) and told us of the much more primitive tribal conditions in the backcountry.
That afternoon the bus did not make any rest stops for an unusually long time and everyone had to relieve themselves rather badly. As long as the bus driver felt no need to stop it did not matter what was happening to the rest of us. Then he did stop the local people, as usual, simply used the street, but Annette (who was practically dying by now) was determined to find some type of outhouse. Since this little town had no obvious restaurant or center she just ran into the nearest hut. Using the usual sign language she made her needs clear to the rather surprised family. They showed her to a corner in the back room used for that specific purpose and the whole family stood there watching and making conversation with her the whole time. By this time in the trip we all had a rather constant case of diarrhea and other stomach ailments but it wasn’t so bad due to the minimal amount of food we were eating.
As we got into the higher country, it got rather cold, in fact, so cold that we put on all of our sweaters and our raincoats, and would sit with our sleeping bags tucked around us while riding on the bus. It was rather sad to see the people shivering in their rags but one could only just feel sorry for them. There was nothing else to do. The people in the higher country, however, appeared to be a little better off and healthier. The faces of these people were very slender and elegant. Their noses were quite thin and straight and coupled with their smooth, dark skins and intricate corn-rolled hair made them intriguingly beautiful people. Annette and I were fascinated for hours and never tired from watching every movement these people made. On one of the many occasions when our bus broke down, it was right next to a group of young boys tending to some goats. I tried to get a picture of them but they would always run away screaming when I raised my camera. That evening, we settled into another stall-room with our candles for light. This seemed to be the usual accommodations in these parts. It rained so hard that night that we thought the tin roof, which was already rotting, would cave in, washing us into the street.
Most of the people on the bus only went a few stops. It seemed that we were the only ones going all the way to Addis Ababa. Shortly after leaving Asmara, almost no women were got on board. But then again, the women were not seen very often in the towns. The only towns we passed that were of a reasonable size were Axum and Gondor which had sections of each built in the Middle Ages by wandering crusaders. The remains of old castles with their walls and towers looked exceedingly out of place in this country. It was in one of these towns that we got our only non-goatmeat or egg food and it was a small plate of spaghetti. Surprisingly enough, the spaghetti was quite good and very saucy. The countryside was still beautiful and we passed Lake Tana, which is the source of the Blue Nile, and later, in Uganda, we would also reach the source of the White Nile. By now it was the evening of August 1st. It had been twelve days since we left Luxor and during that time only in Khartoum had we had a chance to wash fairly clean, eat somewhat adequately, and sleep in some comfort. Now we were about to enter Addis Ababa. There, we hoped to rest, wash and eat well for a change, (not necessarily in that order), before heading south again into Kenya.