Metal, Rubber and A Broken Bicycle- Ethiopian Adventures
Date- September 18th, 2019
Written by George Balarezo, Intrepid Global Citizen
“The slimming of an elephant and the losses of a wealthy man are not noticeable.”
My next stop was the town of Mekele, capital of Tigray province. The Tigrayans are known for their immense amount of pride. They view themselves as mighty warriors who fended off the Italian imperialists in a battle in the city of Adwa. Therefore, during much of Ethiopia’s independent years, the Tigrayans have been in control of most government seats even though they are an ethnic minority composed of only eight percent of the population. I was excited to explore a new region of Ethiopia and get to know a new group of people, but heard more than my fair share of negative stories from the majority Amhara and Oromo people. Tribalism is alive in Ethiopia. The Amhara people provided me with plenty of surprises and always kept me guessing. I was ready to interact with a new ethnic group and anxious to understand their quirks.
I cycled through a towering mountain range on my way to Mekele. Villagers tended to their animals and swatted at them with long wooden canes. I maneuvered up switchback roads at a leisurely pace and much to my surprise, the children were much more subdued. They stood still as one thousand year old trees with roots embedded deep into the earth’s crust. Their blank glassy eyes followed me up the path and their necks twitched in my direction. What a difference it makes not worrying about being stoned or assaulted with gardening tools. This was a welcome change.
I snapped out of my daydreams and realized that if I failed to move swiftly, the Ethiopian night would cast its spell on me. I needed to pick up the pace in order to reach the next village before dark. I was spinning on my metal machine, my waist hoisted high above the seat, pumping my legs back and forth as my bike and I battled a headwind that refused to let up. The breeze was becoming cooler by the minute, as the sun hid behind mountains in the horizon. Ethiopia was more silent than a South Korean library on the day before the university entrance exam. I enjoyed the tension of knowing I needed to act fast and make a quick decision regarding my next sleeping spot.
“Bam!” the sound of metal crashing broke my inner nightfall deliberation. My bike stopped dead in its tracks. Was it my tire frame that busted? I would never be able to find proper sized spokes and a frame. All the Internet information warned me- self sufficiency is a must in Ethiopia as there are no supplies that fit North American or European bikes. I turned around to see the luggage rack being held up by my rear tire. Ah! What to do? One option was to ditch my two bags right there and use my tools to pry the rack off my bike. The other alternative was to hitch a ride to Mekele and look for a mechanic to take care of the issue.
I pondered on traveling with nothing. Complete freedom. One pair of clothes, passport and money. That is all I need to get by. No extra weight to carry and no fear of having my goods stolen or tampered with. Unattachment. Gautama Buddha walked through India and Nepal with nothing before achieving enlightenment, so an average guy like myself should be able to survive with nothing in Ethiopia.
Time is the most important commodity in my life. My time in this universe is limited and I can never obtain more of it. For eight months out of the year, I give the majority of my waking hours to my students. This provides me with purpose, meaning and a higher sense of self worth. The rectangular pieces of paper my university hands out is a bonus. I have more than enough money to buy one pair of clothes, eat two meals per day and keep myself hydrated in the steamy summer months. One day I might need money though, if not for myself than for others I am responsible for taking care of. A car could strike at any moment, catapulting me into the world’s most expensive hotel bed. My doctor’s visit could result in an exchange of paper for a medical treatment necessary to fight off a fatal disease. Preventing the nausea accompanied by the unexpected twists and turns on the roller coaster of life should be my first priority.
I thought about all the cash I spent on the bags themselves. They ran me nearly half of my monthly studio apartment payment. My paneers were more expensive than all my worn out shirts, Mongolian tent and spare tubes combined. All that hard earned money down the drain. Perhaps during my next trip I will leave the bags at home and take nothing with me. The taste of freedom accompanied by non-attachment from material items must be more succulent than a fire red apple after a week long hunger strike. That flavor would have to wait for another day.
Lets hitch a ride. I might as well try to fix the bike in town and salvage my luggage. I waved down a van headed to Mekele and watched the workers tie my bike to the roof luggage rack. A man about half my size rested the bottom frame on his shoulders, grabbed the ladder with one hand and pulled himself up each step, all while maintaining a shiny-toothed grin. His display of strength, coordination and positivity was simply stunning to observe.
We use trunks in the United States and in Ethiopia items are stored above. Somehow I view people from the economically developed world as overprotective of their material possessions, as I am sure the Ethiopian way of transporting goods would bend all the uptight people in the economically prosperous world out of shape. How ironic. Those that own fewer items are less attached, while anyone who pays for airfare to the African continent can afford to spend the average Ethiopian’s monthly salary in less than one day. Who is more enlightened anyway? My vote is for the one who gets less agitated. Nevertheless, I was still much worse off than the locals. I did not have to say a word. The man read my facial expression like a professional fortune teller.
“Don’t worry. You no problem.”
It is quite refreshing to spend time in a country with fewer rules to follow. Coming from a place where one can fall victim to a lawsuit due to slipping on the ice if a neighbor does not shovel their driveway adequately, I felt free of worry about even my most prized possession. Even if my bike fell down the mountain to the bottom of the canyon, I could always buy another and bring home an Ethiopian souvenir. There was no reason to get irritated over a big piece of metal and rubber.
I made it to Mekele that evening after a two hour ride in the van. It would have taken me at least one full day to ride through all the switchback roads and steep inclines. It was surreal being in a motorized vehicle after nearly two and a half weeks moving at an overweight turtle’s pace. The trees and people zoomed by us, but nobody in the van paid any mind to the world outside our little safe compartment. As we passed by people on the street, I wondered if we would have became friends and had a chat if I were on my bike. I suppose we were not destined to meet in this life and would have to wait until next time to find out.
Mekele is a well developed city that resembled an average small town in South Korea. Shopping malls, posh cafes and upscale hotels filled the downtown area with a buzz I had not experienced in any other area of Ethiopia. Much of the government funding made its way to the Tigray province since many of the national politicians are natives of the area. Economic prosperity was very evident at first glance. Everyone looked good! Men wore designer sunglasses and sparkling high top shoes. Women painted themselves with imported makeup kits and flaunted high heels. For a split second I thought I was in New York City looking at runway fashion models in action.
After fixing my bicycle, the following morning I organized a trip into the Afar region, a remote area where armed guards and permits are required to accompany visitors and is famous for being the hottest place on earth. Unfortunately, rumor has it that it is impossible to cycle in the Afar region as locals said I would be turned back if I attempted to enter the zone where militant attacks targeted at tourists are common. The alternative was pretty good. I was happy to get off the bike for a day and rest my legs while everything was taken care of by the tour company. I was ready to sit back, relax and enjoy the two day trip to hell.