On Solitude; Exit Ethiopia

Words by Simeon Gready - December 2014

I was just dozing off in the small minibus taxi, alongside 5 or 6 others, when a huge thump and the ensuing cries and exclamations snapped me out of my slumber. Dazed, I took in the wide eyes around me and followed their eyesight through the front windscreen – we had hit a sheep. The driver, Alex, knew this meant trouble.

On cue, shouts and remonstrations echoed down from the small settlement up the hill, and I watched as a clearly incensed villager came sprinting down towards the taxi, while we all filed out onto the hot dusty road. What followed has a long heated exchange in Amharic – they were going to have to settle on a price for the dead animal. Sensing it could take a while, and not understanding a word of what was being said, I spotted a group of kids who’d appeared to watch the commotion, and headed over with my hacky sack.

After a good half an hour Alex whistled me back over. I left the hacky sack with the kids, who seemed more intent on throwing it around than kicking it, and climbed back in the taxi. Alex had had to pay 700 Ethiopian Birr ($30) for the sheep. We were back on our way.

As we neared Gondar, by which point it just me and Alex, my curiosity got the better of me with regard to the orange-yellow fizzy drink he had been sipping on the entire journey: “What is that?”

“Tej. Try some.”

“The… the honey wine?”

“Yes,” Alex smiled.

I took a swig, and immediately recoiled – it was incredibly strong, very alcoholic. I gasped for air, and looked in bewilderment at Alex, who had been drinking it since 4am while driving us. He laughed, while I just gripped harder on the armrest and wondered how we hadn’t hit more than a sheep.

Gondar had the hustle of a small thriving city, buzzing with colour and the sounds of blaring radios, zooming bajaj’s, screaming children, tooting horns, market cries and bus window remonstrations. I found a hotel close to both the bus station and the city centre for $6.50 a night, and headed out to explore, feeling much more alive and positive than I had in Lalibela.

I took a seat at a fresh juice store, tucking into a gloriously full-flavoured mango and avocado juice, and simply watched the busy sidewalks and centre circle. While Lalibela was nothing beyond a tourist town, Gondar was a city where people were going about their daily lives, on the way home, going for a haircut, or going to the market. I felt more integrated, in a strange way, somewhat invisible despite my white skin and blonde hair.

In truth, I felt at peace in my solitude, sitting at that sidewalk café, watching the city unfold before my eyes. It was a completely different experience to my loneliness in Lalibela – I didn’t feel trapped, caught between money peddlers, fearful of everyone’s agenda. I had no schedule, no plan, only the light of the day to determine my movements; sitting observing, present, in the now. This, for me, was always far better than the expensive guided tours or rushed touristic checklists; it gave a better insight into the culture of the place: the sights, sounds, smells of day-to-day life. The sun poked through the cloudy and grey overcast sky, illuminating the grand old church that rose in the backdrop to kids playing a fast-paced football game in a car park. Pairs of men walked hand-in-hand or with arms draped over the other’s shoulder, not as a hint of sexuality but as a recognition of friendship.

The next day I walked to the Church of Debre Birham Selassie, figuring I couldn’t sit at café’s from morning to afternoon. It was a stunning old stone church surrounded by an overgrown garden and a scrambling of lonely arches. It was silent but for the cries of birds and owls alongside the soft prayers and chants of men. Inside the church, a hanging Jesus stood as the centrepiece surrounded by woven tapestry and paintings that plastered the walls and roof, with a particular focus on chubby cherub faces. You are not allowed in the church if you have slept with your spouse in the last 24 hours or, as a woman, if you are in your menstruation period. No shoes or chewing gum were allowed either. There was certainly a presence within the structure, and I was in there a long time. The outside of the church was tinged with yellow-green moss.

Unable to resist the temptation, I returned to my seat at the juice café the next day, and ordered another mango and avocado. As I was to leave the next day, I was able to reflect back on my time in Ethiopia. It is a section of my journey that I remember with immense fondness, for the restless swings of my emotions, and another country in which I am simply bookmarking a chapter such that I may return at a later date. I genuinely appreciated the 4am bus rides, for the ways in which they lengthened my days, while the people held a friendly and approachable outlook. The coffee, as expected, was strong, aromatic, and plentiful, and the food even more so.

The next morning, 4am again, I took a bus to the border – it was time to enter Sudan.