Leaving behind the dust, we were once again back on solid asphalt, riding through open plains dotted with round wooden huts. On one side I could see the mountain range that separates the bitter tension between Ethiopia and Eritrea. On the other side there is rolling mountains and open plains. With Mitchell and Tanya leading, we followed the smooth black ribbon of the asphalt road as it wrapped itself around and over the terrain.
I found myself almost falling asleep now I didn’t have to concentrate on the road as intensely as I had to do a couple of days ago. My environment was no longer holding my attention and I felt myself and my mind drifting off. Fortunately for me, Mitchell was still in the lead and I unconsciously kept one eye open for his manoeuvres as the road changed in front of me.
We decided to base ourselves in Wukro to explore the Tiaray region for the next few days. Wukro was the first semi normal town I had come across in Ethiopia, by this I mean the first town everyone didn’t gather around us, stare and repeatedly say ‘You’ in a strong voice and ask for birr (the local currency), pens or clothing. The fact is I was able to stand in the street alone, and have only the occasional inquisitive person stop and ask normal undemanding questions.
Woman who begged for money while the cat begged for warmth.
At 6 in the morning I allowed Mitchell and Tanya to drag my weary body from a deep sleep to a local church service. On arriving, I noted that this church wasn’t anything like normal churches in my country. This one was carved entirely from one piece of stone. Dressed in white, people streamed in through the tall green gates, finding the perfect spot to listen to the priest who stood beneath a colourful umbrella in the centre.
Walking amongst the airy white clad people swaying and praying in time had a ghostly feel against the picturesque backdrop. The spell was broken by the guard who realised we entered without paying tourist price of 100 birr per person ($6) for entry.
People walking to the church in the early morning.
Refusing to abide by the overpriced system, Tanya and I walked back through the tall green gates and waited with the few who didn’t feel the need to enter the holy grounds. In the hours that the sun rose and the service came to an end, I had become friends with a few more people. None had asked me for birr or a pen, until one called out to a blind lady, there is a ferengi (foreigner) sitting here with us. The old blind lady with her shoes in her hand shuffled over to us and starts to ask the young local girl for money. Giggling, the young girl pointed uselessly to me and said no, that’s the ferengi.
This family is very poor and hope people are kind enough to offer some money.
These three little guys acted as my guide for a few hours.
Mostly people sat or stood to listen to what the priest has to say.
The old women repeated the question, this time with her face tilted towards me. The problem is I have no idea what she was asking for, but the children had no issues to translate for me, ‘Birr, birr, she’s asking for money’. I laugh, I cannot even afford to enter the church grounds at 100 birr let alone give this woman some money.
One young man, horrified at this woman’s request, explained to her it is un-holy to ask for money. She shoved him aside and she said ‘they are white, they have money, let them pay me’. Up until now, it had been a perfect morning without the hassles until this woman broke the spell.
The spell was truly broken. In fact I was so fed up I nearly left the following day in absolute disgust. I, like most people who visit this area, come to see the rock temples littering the countryside. With the young local we had met at the church earlier that day, we headed down another sandy path towards the more famous rock temples. This in itself was a bad idea. But it didn’t start out badly, as with our local friend as a semi guide we found ourselves invited into a gathering of people from the surrounding villages in celebration of a person’s life 40 days death.
A lot of people just face the holly church in a trance while the service was on.
Lining up in almost perfect rows, we sit down together. We were each handed a used rusty tin can. Still pondering what it was for, a lady came past and filled it to the brim with cloudy white drink. With one sniff we worked it out to be some sort of local home brewed spirit. Next we were handed a plate, and in tight succession, injera and two types of curry’s. When seconds were dished out, we all had to politely refuse as not only had we just eaten Ethiopia’s most heavy meal, we had breakfast an hour earlier. We made our way back out of the tented off area, saying goodbye to almost everyone.
As I walked down the single dusty path lined with cactus, Tanya and I chatter away while Mitchell talks to our new found friend from Wukro. A woman walks past and reaches out for Tanya, but in Tanya’s confusion, she doesn’t recognise the woman’s desires. I had seen this once before, and I felt the same womanly bond as I had done when standing on a walking bridge in Gilgit, Pakistan, so many months ago when it happened to me the first time. I don’t hesitate and reach out to have my hand folded tightly in both her narrow leathery hands. We bring our faces together and touch each cheek three times. Pulling apart, she forcibly takes my hand and holds it against her swelling belly. She whispers a few words and releases my hand. In this powerful action, I realise by me touching her, she hopes to pass on any good luck I might hold.
Dizzy not only from that powerful experience but the strong alcohol we drove back across the fields to the main dirt track. We stop a couple of villages down and ask for directions to the local monastery. The few adults who answered our questions were lovely, they even shoo-ed away a handful of children asking for money and pens and I honestly thought things might be changing, until we drove towards the monastery.
Riding through more fields, making our way to the mountain where apparently the monastery sat well hidden from view, I got scared when I saw children appearing from nowhere sprinting towards us. Oh, boy I wonder what is in store for us now. Children grabbed at the bike and some were trying to get on behind me. Fighting at them, I say ‘my bike is broken. I cannot take any passengers’. They still try and at every intersection we have to ask for directions. This is where they would try once again to leap on the back of the bike. My blood started to boil. Now, if I had been alone, I would have just turned around and left them in my dust. I didn’t need to be hassled by little monsters.
Parking the bikes, we assign one slightly older boy to take care of the motorcycles and start to walk towards the mountain, with at least 30 children trying to be our guide. We assign one of them to take charge, but he doesn’t have the authority over the other children to stop them from following. The more steps we take the more children gather. Our local friend from Wukro, pulls Mitchell aside ‘I’m really worried, they have plans to throw stones at us if we don’t pay each child’ he says depressingly. ‘I’m shocked, what you say about Ethiopia is true, they are savages!’
I butt in ‘Hey Mitchell, I’m not feeling good about this whole situation. I am going to head back to the motorcycles. You guy can carry on if you want, I’lll wait for you back at the motorcycles’. We all decided enough is enough and we turn around. This confuses the kids, but I’m angry. I’ve been whipped, accident or not I don’t like it, one has tried to put his arm around me and another has lightly thrown a stone.
I’m ready to pack in this area and head straight for my next destination. But first we have to get out of this place safely. Back at the motorcycles, we pay the boy a few coins, he starts to demand 100 birr ($6 AUS) per bike. Mitchell shoves him aside. Next is the assigned guide who didn’t really do his job. He looks down at his few coins and quickly asks if he can get a ride back on our motorcycles, because now he knows he has to share his tiny but appropriate wages with everyone who came along on this little journey. I had had enough and just drove off leaving Mitchell to deal with these annoying children. Sorry Mitchell. I was going to lose the plot.
Driving back to Wukro, our local friend invited us to visit his family home. Our faith in normal people within Ethiopia was somewhat restored after his mother prepared the coffee ceremony of roasted fresh coffee beans, ground up in a tired mortar and pestle. She then disappeared into her separate mud kitchen and placed a charred sliver coffee pot on to the burning coals. We were lucky to end our trying day in this fashion, and riding the last few dusty kilometres as the sun set behind the hills, back to Wukro where it all started in the early hours of the morning at the rock church.