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Gimme Gimme Gimme

Hello one and all!! Greetings from Nanyuki, Kenya - almost on the equator - not that you'd know it, it's overcast and cold! Well, relatively speaking, I'm sure it's much colder back home in Blighty, tee hee hee!!

Well - it's been so long since I wrote last, hasn't it? In fact it's been the whole of Ethiopia long - no coincidence there. I believe it was Dahab where I wrote last, ahhh, good old Dahab. Well we left there at the ungodly hour of 0300 - our lovely leader kindly went to Cairo a day before to sort out the tickets for the flight to Addis Ababa, so we could have an extra day of chilling & relaxing on the beach, bless him. The result was that we left at that time, and got a minibus (well, two, actually - there are 23 of us, and even by Egyptian standards, that's a few too many to fit in one) straight to the airport at Cairo.

I should also point out that one of our number - Mat, the young American who has been the source of much amusement - was wearing a rather fetching, bright pink dress, adorned with gold paintings of the pyramids & sphinx, and a number of pearls and sequins, all set off by a lovely pale green woollen hat! This outfit is...The Mou Mou of Shame! We vote each evening, and whoever has done the dumbest thing in the day, gets to wear it...and yes, I have had my turn - young Natalie has had three, bless her!!

Well anyway, we flew out to Addis, pausing at Khartoum, and arrived some time after midnight. We were met at the airport by our truck...whereupon my heart sank into my sandals. It sucks, big time! Our wonderful last truck had lockable lockers on the outside, a variety of seats - some facing forward, some facing backward, tables for people who wanted to play cards, or whatever - a multitude of windows to look out of...which I did constantly.

This heap has all inward facing seats, with backs so high, there is no view, lockers underneath the clapped out seat bases, which have ripped our bags, not to mention our hands; the lockers don't lock, and the truck has soft, roll up windows, so our stuff is not secure. The CD player doesn't work, so we have to just sit and look at each other, during the long driving days on Ethiopia's rough roads. The tyres are all shot - yesterday, we had a blow out on one of our running tyres...and no spares. The passenger box is flimsy, and bends and sways worryingly as we drive. There was one place to sit with a view - at the front, on top of boards on which the tents are stacked, open to the elements - now broken.

I had already been getting a bit wobbly about being with such a large group of loud people (there are some very loud people) for such a long time, and had been holding on to the hope of the truck, and the days spent staring happily out of the window. When I saw what we had been given to put up with for the next eight weeks, my spirits dropped. I did some serious pondering on whether I could stick it out, or write off the cost of the trip & go it alone. Eventually (after worrying the shit out of my parents) I tenuously decided to stay - though I have had many days in the last month when I have wondered if I've done the right thing.

The hotel where we stayed in Addis was not a brothel - it was a love hotel...the difference is that you have to bring your own prostitute. We got rooms the first night - and the condoms on the bedside table (plus used ones found in toilets, flowerbeds...) and the big mirrors along the side of the bed were a bit of a give away! We actually ended up in this place twice, and on the second occasion - after a number of things had gone missing - found out that the staff there were thieves. As well as clothes, bottles of vodka (& I think my torch...or I may have just lost it!) a CD player was taken - which was fortunately recovered, along with clothes that had disappeared the first time around.

I should point out that they don't really have campsites in Ethiopia - you stay in a hotel that has a scrap of grass, camp (paying up to four pounds per tent for the privilege), and if you're really, really lucky, they may let you use one rooms to go to the toilet & shower in - one room between 23 people - long queues. If you're unlucky, you have to share the squat toilets that the people drinking in the bar use - and the men have a habit of standing at the door & aiming at the hole in the ground - they don't want to get their feet dirty, I guess. In one hotel, rather than us pay for a room to shower in as we wished, they wanted to charge us per shower; Jade got a room, so that we could all go in & use the shower, but they caught someone going in...and turned off the water!

Travelling from Cairo to Addis Ababa was more like travelling in time than space. On our first day there, we saw more donkeys on the roads than cars - they get right of way at roundabouts, I discovered; goats grazed by the side of the roads. Ethiopia is by far the most under-developed country I have ever been to, and one of the poorest. It is also a green and pleasant land, quite unlike my preconceptions of a famine-ridden, dry place. We heard the news of forthcoming famine while we were there, but saw no sign of it. Most of the land is used as farmland, the copious cows, sheep, goats and donkeys that we saw were plump and healthy looking...mind you, in comparison the sickly animals we saw in Egypt, most would look healthy.

When we left the capital, we drove north. I remember thinking to myself, "my, aren't the roads good, I didn't expect this!"...they didn't last long. Within 80 km, the paved roads were behind us, and we were on crappy, broken-up, rocky roads, being thrown around appallingly in the back, while our tyres (pretty poor in the first place) were suffering almost as much as us. It was a tad concerning that we were travelling with only one spare, as three tyres had blown when the driver had driven the truck up from Nairobi. Inevitably, we soon had none. Jade went against orders from head office, and bought one from a rival overland truck.

As we drove along, the small shepherd children - some little more than babies, the animals they herd towering over them - would come running over to the edge of the road, waving up at us. As often as not, their hands would flip over into a begging position, but it was relatively easy to ignore this from the truck. The incessant begging was much more of a problem when the truck was stopped; "you you you - give me money, give me pen, give me bir (local currency), give me hat, give me cigarette..." they wanted everything from the shirts on our backs, to the shoes on our feet, to the water we were drinking. Understandable, I guess, after years of charity they just see foreigners (or faranji, as we were there - similar to Thailand's farang) as people who will give them things.

Walking around any town in Ethiopia was a tiring process, as you'd be followed by a number of people, from small children to older men, constantly demanding stuff, and sometimes trying to take it. The hotel in Addis was not the only place we encountered crime, unfortunately. In one hotel, things were so bad that people actually had their small rooms broken into while they slept in there. Most people woke up, but one guy (Mat, the young American I spoke of earlier - if something bad is going to happen, it usually happens to him!) had his bag containing 15 rolls of film taken - used film, of no use to anyone, but priceless to him. On a different note, we had a great many encounters with peeping toms - who on earth gets a kick out of watching girls wee, I don't know, but it seems to be a popular pastime out here. A couple of the girls had guys get physical, too.

You are probably getting the impression by now that Ethiopia was not one of my favourite countries...well, you'd be right, I'm afraid! We had 30 day visas, and were there for 29 days - largely due to the state of the roads and the truck - a journey that would take a local bus 5 hours, would take us 9...that usually included at least one break down. The other day we had three incidents, firstly yet another blown tyre, then the boards at the front - i.e. the only place to sit on the truck with a view - went, and finally we had an electrical fire. The movement of the truck caused one of the wires hanging down to the defunct CD player to catch alight. When you consider that there is not a single fuse on the truck, and that the fire extinguisher (eventually found after two weeks, in one of the storage lockers, right at the back - current position unknown) holds about a pint of water, you can see that my gripes about the truck are not just about comfort issues.

Anyhow, back to Ethiopia...from Addis we went, via a couple of bush camps, to a place called Bahir Dar on Lake Tana. I took the half-day excursion across the lake, to see the monasteries for which Bahir Dar is famous. As we entered the first, we were told that the pictures (biblical scenes, and representations of St George, Ethiopia's patron saint, curiously...I thought he was too busy looking after England for any moonlighting!) were genuine 13th century, and the paint made from natural plant extracts. In one of the later monasteries, we saw paintings depicting men in trainers, holding rifles! Hmmmm. In a third (there was a forth, but being a mere female, I was not allowed to enter), we saw pots of paint, and men in the process of touching them up. Genuine my arse!!

From there we headed further North to Gonder, where Natalie and I encountered vicious biting ants! We'd headed off to our tent after a fun evening of drinking and playing table tennis. Natalie had just gone in to the tent, I was stood outside when I realised that I was being bitten. I shone my torch on my feet, to see they were covered in bloody big ants! I freaked, squealed & leapt into the safety of the tent...or so I thought! The tent was infested, and soon we were both being bitten under our clothes, where the ants had dropped down our tops & trousers!!

We abandoned tent, and ran up to the hotel reception, still getting bitten. It was not possible to shake or even flick the ants off, you actually had to grab hold of them, and pull them off - we had to enlist the help of the night porters, who would pull the ants off, throw them on the floor & start stamping theatrically on them! We were both laughing hysterically - it really was most farcical - they were shining their torches down our tops, helping us look. We got a room - after managing to convince the night manager that it really would be most unfair to charge us for the tent as well as the room - & had a good lie-in in the morning.

Next on the itinerary was the Simien Mountains, where I had intended to trek, but due partly to being kept awake the night before by the loud drunken people who decided to move the party to the room (no scrap of grass, so we all got rooms) to the room next door - and yes, Natalie was among them - I wimped out. We decided to drive up to the first camp, and then those who wanted to could walk on to the second one. The drive up there was a bit like the film Speed - let me explain. We had an armed scout in the front, and a short way into the drive, Getatchu, our Ethiopian guide, leant out of the door (the window is broken) and shouted up to Jade that the clutch was gone, so we had to go the whole way in second gear.

There were only a few of us - those in the front - who knew what was going on, everyone else thought we were just going slowly to take in the scenery (which was rather smashing!) & spot for baboons (saw lots). The funniest bit was when we came up to the barrier that marked the park entrance - because we couldn't stop, the scout had to leap out of the moving vehicle doing a commando roll in the process, run up to the barrier & raise it, then clamber back in as we drove!

It was whilst in the Simiens that my hands started to become a real problem. They'd got rather burnt, due to sitting up top the whole time - my & my view!! But now they started blistering badly, and the burning sensation that I'd been feeling for a couple of weeks began to become agonising rather than just plain uncomfortable. Also my nails felt really weak, like they were going to peel away, and I had a feeling like someone was sticking pins into the base of them.

It was making me pretty miserable - even more so when one of the nurses on board (we have three, thank god - especially as the truck was minus a first aid kit when we picked it up!) told me I had second degree burns, and that my hands would be sensitive to the sun for several months - D'Oh! It would appear that doxycycline, the anti-malarial drug I was (note the word 'was') taking had been partly responsible for this. Jade had been on that originally, but had to stop taking it, as he had similar side effects...and people really do lose nails through it!! so as you may have guessed, I am now off the doxy, & winging it malarial-wise.

Another of the nurses did a trip in Africa a year ago, where eight people came down with it, including those on all of the various drugs - you either get it or you don't, regardless. The good news is that my hands are now much improved. The new skin is shiny and pink, so I still have to be careful, and although my nails look a bit funny - all discoloured - they stopped hurting a few days ago, so I don't think I'm going to lose them. Reckon I came off in the nick of time!

So with the Simiens marking our Northern most point, we returned to Addis, where we had a bit of a pow wow about the state of the truck, and the news we had received from the company owner. We would have to be in Nairobi to pick up the truck on 15th December, and also to pick up some more passengers that he'd booked to go to the gorillas. This means that instead of Zanzibar for either Christmas or New Year, we would now be in Uganda for New Year, and are supposed to be in Nairobi (AKA Nairobbery, not safe to go out after dark!!) for New Year.

This also means that instead of having eight weeks to do the Nairobi-Cape Town leg (where all the good shit is) we now will have only six, and have to race through. We are not happy campers! I Emailed the owner a very polite but unhappy letter two weeks ago...and when I checked yesterday he hadn't even bothered to reply. So all those people out there that I so strongly recommended the company to (that means you Cheryl - hope I'm not too late), I now have to retract my recommendation, and say don't touch them with a barge pole - a shame after such a good & well organized first trip.

After a few days there, we headed down to the Omo Valley, famous for it's many different tribes, including the Mursi tribe, who's women wear big plates in their lips. We stopped en route at a lake, which was nice, and also visited some hot springs for a couple of hours, which were good. We also stayed in a place called Arba Minch, where some of us did a 4x4 mini safari into a game park there. It was - as we had come to expect in Ethiopia - a bit of a cock up. We had been told to be ready for 6 as that's when most of the animals are around, so got up really early. The guys turned up half an hour late, with one nice Nissan, one not so nice pick up, and a total heap, that was pouring water out of the radiator. After the inevitable argument, they agreed that if the crappy green pick up broke down, we could jump in the other two.

We left the camp...and drove straight to the garage & over the pit, steam pouring out from under the bonnet! We jumped in the other two vehicles...and drove back to the campsite! Another argument ensued, and then it was agreed that we would pick up a different vehicle, so off we set again. We got our replacement vehicle, reached the entrance of the park...and the not so nice pick up caught fire!!!! The guys reckoned they'd sorted it, but the park keepers refused to let it in - understandably.

So back to the campsite we went - for the second time in two hours! Around a third of the people dropped out at this stage, so the rest of us moved into the two vehicles that worked & set off again, after yet another argument. We got in there three and a half hour later than planned, so didn't see much, but I did get to see my first zebras in the wild, along with crocs & a hippo - from a great distance, through binoculars, but still cool!

The drive into the Omo Valley was great - scenery was good, & we saw lots of tribes people - some of the men naked except beads around their waists, bare-breasted women, men in little skirts, with gorgeos, turquoise, beaded earings, & cute little braided hairdos. Really diverse & colourful. We stayed in a town named Jenka, which has a big market on Saturdays, when lots of people from lots of tribes come in...sometimes the Mursi (they live 80 km away, and have to walk, so don't go every week). Natalie and a few of the others went on a 4x4 trip out to see them - I had a few issues with authenticity and exploitation, after my trekking in Thailand, and a few issues with 4x4s after my trip the day before, so didn't bother.

Instead I spent a chilled day visited a small and unexpected museum, run by a German man who has been visiting the Omo Valley for 30 odd years, also wandering around town (bugged by a little girl demanding cigarettes), arguing over the price of water and toilet paper (everything is an argument in Ethiopia), getting wet in a mega rain storm, and - when it dried up - swimming in a creek. a good day. The intrepid 4x4ers returned late afternoon, having had a great if hectic day - they were swamped by Mursi - 30 of them got onto the back of the pick up, water & Natalie's pillow had been stolen. The Mursi charge 2 birr (about 15p) a photo - and woe betide you if you do not pay up...people have been speared for it!!

The next day was market day, but before we went into town, one of the small boys who hung around the outside of the hotel brought the Mursi to us!! It was a bit odd, these warrior people, naked from the waist up, men with spears in hands, women with plates in lips...or big floppy lips when they take them out! And curiously, with bright, plastic whistles around their necks - most odd. I only got around six photos...bit nervous about it all, really. I also bought a bangle made form melted down coins form the arm of one of the women. Some people bought lip plates - one girl wanted enough to make up a set of coasters...hmmm.

Once we'd had our fill of photos, they wandered off to market, and we followed on behind. I went in with Jade & Natalie & the shopping crew, trying to get some food for the truck - lots of arguments, but fun too. When we reached the market, it was amazing - so crowded - a sea of black faces & colourful clothes & jewellery. We were looking at them & they were looking at us. At one stage, I climbed on a step to take a photo, and wondered why everyone was facing the centre...then spotted some of our crowd in the middle, which explained it!

After a while, it began to rain, and we joined the shoppers & sellers in racing for cover under the roof on one of the buildings surrounding the market place. After a while we were ushered into one of the talla-beits - place that sells local beer (really gross, gritty stuff - unlike tej, which is really nice honey beer), where we had a cup of tea. I have a snapshot in my head of standing & turning to look out of the window & seeing countless eyes staring in at me, and beyond that, the odd person in the market standing with an umbrella over their heads & wares.

It was a really great day - a highlight of the trip - and nice to have something good to remember Ethiopia by. Unfortunately most of my lasting memories and impression of the country are negative ones - I certainly won't be racing back there! So from Jenka we headed North to a town called Konsa, which is the place I mentioned earlier, where people were broken into whilst they slept - thankfully, Natalie had persuaded me to upgrade to a sturdier room with a toilet that night. From Jenka we headed down to the border town of Moyale - where they turned the water off on us to stop us having showers.

And that's all you're getting for now. I've been on here for 390 minutes...six and a half hours!!! You will have to wait until next time (not too far away, I hope) for tales of driving through bandit country, and giraffes, and anything else that happens between now and then.

Hope you are all well and happy, and enjoying life. Until next time, farewell.

PS Sorry it's such a long one!!


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