Date- June 19, 2019
Written by George Balarezo, Intrepid Global Citizen
The information on Ethiopia is out there. Upon checking blogs by several seasoned tour cyclists, they all agreed that Ethiopia is the most challenging country to cycle in. Treacherous mountain passes, blood thirsty hyenas, rock throwing children and a population that is often under political duress were just a few of the reasons cited by other adventurers. The masochist inside of me jumped for joy and looked forward to bringing pain on myself. This is it. I needed this to grow stronger!
It was hard to gauge author credibility regarding my Internet research findings. I attempt to stay humble in everything I do and know I am not the second coming of Rocky Balboa, but I have fought several battles while tour cycling and live to tell the story. A few of the bloggers complained about the lack of varied diet in Ethiopian villages.
“Pasta and injera (the crepe-like fermented bread is the national food staple) is all I have been eating for weeks,” said a cyclist.
If they were complaining about the food, how rough could Ethiopia really be? Anything tastes like a five star meal if you are hungry enough. I am still the same guy who looked forward to bread, tea and butter for every meal while cycling along one of the world’s highest altitude roads in Tajikistan, hiked with five armed military escorts in Pakistan and was displaced by AK-47 carrying policemen while camping in Xinjiang, China. I survived many hardships during my previous tour cycling journeys and felt like I could handle anything in the world. I convinced myself that it would not be as terrible as the Internet reports claimed and decided to blaze a trail in this mysterious land.
Ethiopia has been on my “must visit” list for years. The only country not to fall victim to European imperialists, the nation stands alone on the African continent as one with little Western influence. I was excited to take a much needed break from the fast food restaurants and overpriced cafes that plague Seoul’s neighborhoods. I expected Ethiopia to provide me with a much more authentic cultural experience than any other place in Africa. The thought of cultural exchange, ancient wisdom acquisition and Ethiopian spirituality made me feel like I was in the presence of a beautiful woman for the first time.
Ethiopia is home to more than eighty different ethnic groups with their ancient customs still intact. For example, the Hamar tribe enacts rite of passage ceremonies where men leap across fifteen bulls in order to gain permission to marry. The tradition also includes women proudly accepting beatings from men until their back and breasts turn bloody. Women beg for men to continue and accept the ritual as a way of showing love and support to their potential spouse. Their scars give the women the right to ask for the man’s help in times of need.
A place with such alien customs would be like stepping into another world. Would I be able to take off all my clothes and try my luck at impressing a young lady by sprinting across the backs of horned beasts? Many people across the world tattoo themselves to express their views or artistic side, perhaps some lashings would be in my future. The scars would become souvenirs of toughness reminding me that no pain in life is too much to endure. I was chomping at the bit for the Ethiopian fantasy to become reality.
Mountains have always moved my heart in ways other landforms can’t. Their energy puts me into a state of ecstasy that lakes, oceans and forests can’t compete with. It is as if feeling so small in the face of giants gives me the perspective I need to stay humble and grounded in my life. The Great Rift Valley runs right down Ethiopia’s spine, making it the most mountainous country in Africa. Images of hyena lined highways filled my imagination. They chuckled at the silly light skinned guy moving slowly up their mountain clad terrain, letting me know how different I looked from the other humans that passed by. The world’s most ancient coffee crops would give me the caffeine high needed to make the extra push through the valleys and peaks. I usually do not drink coffee and regularly refused the beverage on trips to Vietnam and Colombia. Now I anticipated taking a whiff of the coffee scented villages in the country where bean cultivation first began. Visualizing myself taking a sip of the potent caffeine laced beverage gave me a surge of energy that even three shots of espresso could never match.
This would be my first experience cycling on the African continent and I remember clearly how beat up and weak I was from backpacking and hitchhiking in Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe, South Africa and Mozambique six years before. The day I returned back to my apartment in South Korea, I dropped to my ice-cold apartment floor and wrapped myself in blankets while my body vibrated like a massage chair. That day I felt colder than a Siberian husky that just shaved off all its fur. I prayed I did not have malaria to a God I doubted even exists. Later I learned it was only an intense fever, the result of taking overnight buses and sleep deprivation, which must have taken a toll on my immune system. Nothing could have prepared me for that trip, but I still live on to tell the story. Despite the hardships, I thirsted for more. Ethiopia was the answer.