My bus from Addis Ababa to Dessie left the next morning at 5:30am. I made my way to the bus station, wearing flip flops on a blisteringly cold morning because of the blisters my shoes had been giving me, and blearily stumbled around in the dark mumbling questions before being pointed towards my bus. I lined up, got my ticket checked, before an attendant grabbed my bag and unceremoniously launched it into the bus, immediately turning around with his hand outstretched, eyeballing me for a tip; where before I would have caved, I now felt hardened by my travels and refused.
The bus was comfortable and the views spectacular as we meandered through and over mountain passes. At this point in the journey I was still inexplicably excited by long public transport journeys, especially in the morning: the sun rises, piercing through the mucky bus windows, I drift in and out of sleep, read, jot down some notes and observations, and I stare, at the scenery, and at countless locals along the side of the road who walk with loaded donkeys, scraggly goats, thin horses, and stately camels.
On this particular journey, the sunrise reflected the colours of the Ethiopian flag in a manner similar to which the buildings all seem to do: golden red light, lightening pink skies to shades of yellow, green and brown irrigated fields stretching down mountain passes in between well-established towns and villages, the residents of which peered into the bus as it trundled through. The Ethiopian highlands!
We stopped at the foot of a mountain in Debrashe, for a toilet break and a stretch, whereupon I met Mesfit who had travelling on the same bus. In typically Ethiopian fashion he was incredibly kind and warm-hearted, buying me coffee (the full Abul, Tana, Baracka experience), and quizzing me on my home country and my motivations for such a trip.
We then spoke mostly about football – my depth of knowledge in the sport had proved hugely effective throughout my trip and continually proved to do so. Once in Dessie, having woven through overhanging cliffs and flat fields, I casually mentioned to Mesfit that Newcastle United, the team I supported, were playing Chelsea later that afternoon. Dessie was Mesfit’s hometown (he was travelling to visit his parents), and on the way to the cheap hotel he took me to he pointed out a football bar and asked me to meet him there to watch the game. I duly obliged.
In the bar, many Ethiopians wore Chelsea shirts and were quickly bemused when they saw this white boy walk in swearing his allegiance to Newcastle. That bemusement quickly turned to shock and disbelief when Newcastle somehow won the game 2-1; I was giddy with happiness, and everyone in the bar came up to congratulate me, while Arsenal and Manchester United fans bought me beers and Mesfit bought a huge plate of injera for us. It was an afternoon that will live long in the memory – to this day, it remains one of the best football experiences I’ve ever had. Once again, I stumbled home drunk and happy.
The next morning demanded another early start: a 4am bus from Dessie to Lalibela the home of the monolithic rock-cut churches. I sat shotgun next to the driver for the journey, on a smaller, more agile bus that still struggled up the many hills and mountain passes. There was even more livestock on this route, minded by farmers in large shawls designed to combat the early morning chill. They whipped their animals with sticks and canes.
Two policemen sat alongside me in the front, ‘for protection’ (of the bus, not me). They continually shared all their food with me, insisting I try everything (“you know, in Ethiopian culture, we share all our food, so when I eat, you eat”), from the sugar cane, which almost broke my teeth (cue raucous laughter), to the delicious soft popcorn seeds called Komo.
At Gashena, the turn-off for Lalibela, we stopped to change buses, and, of course, to eat more injera. It was heavy stuff, in combination with all the snacks from the journey, resulting in several trips to a dodgy long stop at which I was monumentally grateful at my decision to pack endless supplies of wet wipes. The sign at Gashena noted that ‘the Chinese’ are building a road to Lalibela, which will be completed by August 2017. The current road was brown, dusty, bumpy and hot, weaving through villages of waving and dancing children; the landscape was dry with scraggly green foliage unfussily picked at by ragged livestock.
Once in Lalibela, one of the policemen invited me back to his house. I gladly accepted, knowing that I couldn’t say no anyway. It was a humble home, and his wife made a fuss of me once I arrived, rushing to make injera and coffee despite my protestations. He had a beautiful family, who were further evidence of the incredible genuine and kind hospitality of the Ethiopian people. After the third round of coffee, baracka, I smiled and thanked the policeman (who’s name I inexplicably forgot to write down) and his family before taking my leave.
My experience in Lalibela itself was one of intense loneliness. It’s difficult to describe, because it hit suddenly and left just as quickly. It was probably the point at which I was at my most despondent on the trip. I had been travelling by myself for a couple of weeks, which I thoroughly enjoyed, though I missed the comfortable conversations that came with a travelling companion. My loneliness was exacerbated by the fact that I felt Lalibela had been ruined somewhat by the tourism it attracted through the magnificent rock-hewn churches. While in the rest of Ethiopia I was shown incredible kindness and generosity, with nothing expected in return, Lalibela was the opposite. Money was constantly asked of me, and all conversations about anything else were short-lived in that they quickly turned to conversations about money.
The locals of Lalibela had a set structure of questions designed to rope in tourists: “Hello! Where are you from? What is your name? Do you like the churches? What’s your profession? Do you want to see my shop?” I had the same conversation 100 times, while all the gift shops sold the same things. I had a simple room for $2.50 a night in a place where no one else was staying, as all the other tourists holed up in the more expensive hotels emerging only to see churches.
The tourist fee for those churches was $50, and you were vehemently encouraged to pay a guide to show you around as well. At this point in the trip I did not have that kind of money, so instead I chose to sneak around to see what I could without a pass; this proved difficult as almost everyone I walked by demanded to see my pass, at which point I would feign ignorance, pretend to go back and get one before doubling back around again. I just had to make sure the same person didn’t catch me again.
On the second morning I hiked to Nakuta La’ab, through small villages and plenty of herdsmen. A woman herding two sheep joined me for part of the hike – she walked next to me in silence, occasionally whacking the sheep with a stick when they threatened to go a different direction. After a while, she turned to me smiling, and offered me the stick. I kept the sheep in line as best I could, which is harder work than it looks.
The rock-hewn church at Nakuta La’ab was carved in a cliff overhang from which prayers echoed out through air horns. Villagers streamed in and out, wrapped in shawls, barely glancing at me. Upon arrival I was told that, as a ferrangi (foreigner), I would need to pay $20 to get in. Frustrated, I refused, offering my hat as payment instead. They did not accept. I walked back alone.
One experience I had to accept was honey wine, and I bought a glass that evening instead of buying dinner. It was strong and sweet, though gone all too quickly. I had nothing left to do but return to my dark and depressing room, stomach rumbling, in preparation for my third 4am start in four days the next morning, hoping that the journey from Lalibela to Gondar in Western Ethiopia would lift my spirits.