You know when somebody says that something was a breath of fresh air, I can’t describe how apt that saying is when it comes to Rwanda. It is there that you find all that Africa could be if only its scumbag criminal leaders would allow it. But there’s no time to dilly-dally, I’ve got a mission and a damn good reason to get to Egypt in 11 days time… Mandy.
I hopped a motorbike taxi (and for the first time in Africa, crash helmets are mandatory) to the bus station nice and early and before long I was being whisked out of the country towards Uganda, past the green terraced hills and the cute little villages along the way. Since the darkness of 1994, Rwanda has turned itself around like you would not believe. THAT’S what you can achieve with 15 years of half-decent governance and well-structured aid programmes.
Rwanda shouldn’t really be in this position. Don’t forget, it wasn’t just the 1994 genocide which knocked the country sideways, Rwanda was heavily involved in the conflict in DR Congo which claimed the lives of the most number of people since WWII. It’s also totally landlocked with pretty lousy neighbours (the road from Dar es Salaam to Kigali is still not sealed all the way and you can forget about trucking stuff in from DR Congo – there are no roads!) but, against the odds, they have forged a successful state of which all Rwandans (there are no Tutsi or Hutu any more, only Rwandans) should be proud.
Unlike Uganda which sucked the big one. Yup, sorry to report but once over that border (an ordeal and an utter rip off $50 for a one day transit visa) Africa reverted back to its dusty, dirty, unfinished, grimy, sweaty, unpleasant, uncomfortable, stressful, poverty-stricken, pot-holed, manic, dangerous, diseased, dispossessed, corrupt, undemocratic, sticking, grotty, unsanitary, littered, open-drained cesspool that we all kinda expect it to be (and it is).
When you consider that Uganda has only had three leaders since independence back in the sixties (and one of them was Idi Amin) and that the current leader has been in charge since the mid-eighties, you can imagine that this is another place where, to quote the Manics when they were good, democracy is an empty lie. So Uganda finds itself in the same trap as nearly every other African nation – politicians go for the job for the money, not to make things better, the people are nothing more than an inconvenience in the way of the leaders true calling – to skim off a percentage for every bit of oil, gold, diamonds, timber, coltan whatever that is extracted at the behest of the western world with no net gain for the people.
My heart sank as I saw the same skanky shops that line the roads of every country I’ve been through since Morocco. The same shoeless orphans, the same put-upon women carrying the same mosquito-infested buckets of water on their heads, the same grind, the same unfinished concrete hovels, the same the same the same. God it’s depressing. I’ve had seven months of this and I’m sick of it. As I’ve said before, I see no romance in poverty. Life here is brutish, nasty and short. The average life expectancy is 50. The same that it was in Britain 200 years ago. The gap between us developed and them undeveloping is vast and perhaps unimaginable to bridge, but if Rwanda can turn itself around after those dark, dark days of 1994, then there’s a glimmer of hope for the future; if only Africa could rid herself of the gangsters, criminals and thugs that currently run the show. If only…
The mad thing is that these places run by horrible little thieves, bastards and con-men actually get to vote on important issues facing the planet, most pertinent this week being action against climate change. That scum like the miserable turd who is currently running nasty narco-state Guinea into the ground (although I’m kinda intrigued to see how it could possibly sink any lower) are allowed to have a say on any matter beggars belief, but on a matter of such complexity and import as the urgently needed cuts to worldwide carbon emissions it just leaves me dumbfounded. It’s like asking Ian Huntley his opinion on the matter, only he murdered considerably less children. Why are these dreadful men allowed to use international democratic institutions when their concept of domestic democracy involves taking out any opposition with a bullet to the head?
If Hitler were around today, would he get a vote? Looking around the credentials of the current crop of African tin-pot dictators one would have to conclude yes.
Anyway, so what do you want to know? Uganda was same old same old, and that’s all I have to say about it. I’ve seen it forty times before and I’m bored of it now. I think I’ve got poverty fatigue. I just can’t seem to get as excited about it as Mike Leigh or Ken Loach. There is no stoic dignity about seeing half of your children die and having to shit in the streets.
So I passed through Kampala really not caring less, but I will report that – as usual – the people were an utter delight. Incredibly friendly and talkative, and it’s great to see the increasing cross-pollination of the five East African states (Tanzania, Burundi, Rwanda, Uganda & Kenya) in microcosm on the bus. When I have a pop at the state of Africa in 2009, please don’t think for one second that I’m bitching about Africans. I am not. I am bitching about African politicians, who are a breed apart. A breed of psychopaths and sociopaths who don’t deserve the time of day much less a seat in the UN for their twisted cronies and henchmen.
I was a little worried at the Kenyan border that I’d miss the bus as I was last in the queue to get stamped out of Uganda and when I changed my money at the Western Union they took their sweet time about it, so I legged it over the border. Bad call. It was dark and was I really expecting a road in Africa to be, you know, flat? Of course it wasn’t. I went FLYING, scraping my left arm and right hand in the process.
Not an auspicious entry in my 128th Nation I’ve got to say. But an entrance nonetheless and the fact I’ve got to 4 nations in less than two days is a goddamn miracle. I get into the capital of Kenya, Nairobi, at 5am tomorrow. If I can get my Ethiopia AND Djibouti visas in the morning (unlikely) I should be able to get an overnight bus towards Ethiopia and then I really will be on schedule for the boat to Egypt and what lies beyond.
If not, I’m going to be pushing it, not least because Friday is Christmas Day and things (buses, border posts etc.) might shut down. But then again, if I’m in Ethiopia, no worries – they don’t celebrate Christmas until January!
Onward, my friends, onward…
Any time frame you are given in Africa, remember to add a few hours, or even days. Matt and I got up at 6am, just in time to jump back on yesterday’s truck and crack on towards Ethiopia. The Pixies blasting in my ears and the sun rising to our left it was possibly the best trip I’ve had in Africa so far. However, our man predicting that we’d be at the border at 9am was ludicrously over-optimistic and we arrived sometime after 11am.
So over the border and into Nation 129: Ethiopia. A nation that has had its fair share of publicity, but for all the wrong reasons. The only African nation not to suffer the horrors of colonisation, one could argue that Ethiopia proves that Africa would be just as stuffed up as it is now whether the damn whities had bothered invading or not.
Before I go on, it’s possibly important that you know the difference between the era of slavery and the era of colonisation. They are two very different stories with a gulf of some eighty years separating them.
Because history is so badly taught in schools (no linear progression – we just jumped from the Egyptians to World War I to the Romans to World War II to the Vikings to Henry VIII to the Normans with gay abandon) it’s easy to think that the dastardly Europeans rucked up in their ships some time in the past, enslaved the population of an African country and set about selling them off like cattle to toothless banjo-players in Alabama.
What really happened was a little more complicated than that.
Before the invention of Gin & Tonic, there was little reason for Europeans to stay in the tropics. With Malaria rife and Europeans having no naturally selected resistance to it, any trip to a mosquito coast would be a one-way ticket to go join the choir invisible. But after the discovery of quinine, the stage was set for the exploitation of the world – Asia, America and, eventually, Africa.
For the first couple of centuries of European interference in Africa, there was no colonisation. There was just trade. Ships would turn up loaded with iPhones and Nintendo Wiis and trade them with the local chiefs for slaves and novelty beer hats, then bugger off to the Americas (at this point it would be remiss of me not to point out that a greater number of slaves were taken to The Caribbean to work under British slave-masters, so you can put your toothless banjo-player away) to sell these poor guys for a handsome profit.
Okay, the first foray into the realms of colonisation in Africa was in 1652 with the crazy Boars rucking up in South Africa, but let’s ignore that for a moment and, yes, one could argue that Sierra Leone was colonised when William Wilberforce and his mates bought a bit of land in present-day Freetown to stick the freed slaves that fought for the British against the Americans in the US War of Independence. After The British finally came to their senses in 1807 and abolished slavery, (unlike the French, Spanish, Portuguese, Germans, Arabs, Yanks and Africans who continued to practise it with gay abandon (some African countries [cough- Mauritania] still do)) Sierra Leone was used to drop off slaves from ships that had been intercepted by the British Navy en route to the Americas.
The Cape of Good Hope may have been annexed by the Brits in 1806, but it would be another seventy-nine years before what has been called ‘The Scramble For Africa’. Precipitated by journalist Henry Morton Stanley (as in Dr. Livingstone, I Presume) and his travels around central Africa under the sponsorship of the evil King Leopold of Belgium, The Scramble For Africa was undoubtedly the crime caper of the century and one which would have put Ocean’s Nineteen and a Half to shame.
In 1885 the European powers met in a brothel in Berlin, baked a cake in the shape of Africa and sliced it into almost 50 bite-sized chunks for themselves before coffee and cocaine snorted off a naked prostitute’s bottom. Things were much more civilised then, you see.
Much of North and West Africa was gobbled up by the French, Central Africa largely went to the Belgians and East and Southern Africa was largely annexed by the Brits. Germany got a few bits and bobs including Togoland and Tanganyika, Portugal got Angola and Mozambique while the Spanish, having conquered almost all of The Americas were (seemingly) happy with just nicking Equatorial Guinea and Western Sahara.
The greatest heist in the history of the World? I have no doubt about it.
But there is something else going on here – each country’s experience of colonisation was markably different. In the same way that it’s easy to count Africa as one country (as I hope you have seen over the last seven months, it’s not!), it’s easy to see the history of Africa as one big shared history in which all the colonial powers were proper rotten to the territories they invaded – however, that’s not entirely the case. Some were more rotten than others. It would be fair to say that the Belgians probably have the most to apologise for – their conduct in The Congo is up there with The Holocaust as the greatest crime against humanity in the history of the world, but the Brits weren’t blameless, killing 26,000 white Afrikaner woman and children in the world’s first concentration camps in the 1899-1902 Boer War.
Even so, each country in Africa experienced a different form of colonialism to its neighbours, yet all (with the exception of Botwana) collapsed into chaos once the colonial powers pulled out. In countries like Angola, were the Portuguese pulled out overnight leaving just three university graduates in the entire nation, it’s not hard to figure out why the Angolans spent the proceeding thirty years was spent gleefully massacring each other. In countries like Rwanda, in which a successful ‘divide and rule’ policy had been adopted by the Belgians you could almost draw a straight line to the genocide that came close to destroying that nation back in 1994.
But then what’s the story with Sierra Leone? What’s the story with Liberia? Both were set up to be free states in which their citizens could live in harmony. There was no abrupt and inept pull-out, no divide-and-rule tactics to set one ethic group up against another (well, maybe a little in Liberia), there was no rhyme nor reason for the horrific events that took place in the late 90s, just the same old story of greed and corruption that plagues this continent like a reaper of utmost grim.
But my biggest question is what the hell is the story with Ethiopia? Spared from the full horror of slavery (unlike West Africa) by its position near the East coast and spared the tyranny of colonialism, it’s post-colonial history (not that it was colonised) is one of war, war, war a bit more war and a few famines thrown in for good measure. WTF Ethiopia? You should be the glittering jewel of East Africa, the proof that Africa’s modern-day problems are all the fault of colonial greed and reckless European abandon.
Sorry guys, but I’m going to put my cards on the table right now. It’s time to stop the blame-the-past game. In less than twenty years, countries like Poland, Romania and Bulgaria have shrugged off the repressive fifty-year colonialism of the Soviet Union and are now productive kick-ass members of the European Union. India, Malaysia, Thailand, Singapore… all ex-colonies whose economies are booming while nearly all African economies are operating at the level of a barely audible whimper. Ever driven an African car? Used an African mobile phone? Played an African video game? Worn some clothing ‘Made In xxx, Africa’? Nah.
There is just one group of people that are responsible for the frankly laughable state of modern Africa and that’s the African politicians who are happy to run this great continent into the ground while they feather their own nests of golden straw and Fabergé Eggs. Yes, shit things happened in the past, but that is no reason for shit things to happen today. History is there to stop us repeating our ancestor’s mistakes, not as an excuse for making more of them. Africa today is on the verge of a precipice, and when brave men and women stand up to fight the powers that be, it’s about time we in the West gave them the support they deserve.
Africa is indeed a stain on the conscience of the world, not for what was done in the past, but because of our failure to do what needs to be done today. Band-Aid was actually a very good name, for charity only puts a sticking plaster over the problems of modern Africa. It is only by decisive – and smart – action on behalf of the UN and other inter-governmental bodies that the cancer that is deep-routed in almost all African governments can be cut out and the people here can, for the first time in history, be free. The shame we feel in the West about our colonial past should not hold us back. If we continue to fail, the genocide in Rwanda in 1994 will look like small fry compared to the horrors that our grandchildren will be intrigued and sickened to know why we didn’t anything to prevent.
Anyway, back to The Odyssey…
Matt and I crossed the border into Ethiopia around midday, and there we tried to get the first bus to Addis Ababa, the ship I need to be on is leaving on Saturday, so it was fairly important. Unfortunately, all the buses for Addis leave at 6am (bit silly as the border is not even open then, but hey-ho) and the only bus that was of any use at all was one that was heading as far as Yabello, a town just a hundred kilometres north.
Hoping against hope that there would be an overnighter to Addis from Yabello, we clambered aboard this local bus which was fairly yuck and we had the misfortune to be sitting on the back seats so we found ourselves more crammed in than is usual. It took a good five hours to get to Yabello, but at least the road was now sealed (well done Ethiopia, one less mark for Kenya, methinks). We seem to have found ourselves back in the realm of ubiquitous checkpoints, but we only had a few minor problems with the police, and we managed to get all the way to our destination without paying a bribe.
Arriving in Yabello around sunset, we found that there was no bus until tomorrow. I think Matt was just happy to see a fairly nice hotel (three days of The Odyssey will do that to a mortal man), but ha ha it was full and so we wound up hiring a tent (for more than the cost of a room, I might add) and camping for the night on the strangely verdant grounds of the hotel. (Verdant because it was watered pretty much continuously which was a bit odd considering THERE’S A DROUGHT ON, but hey-ho the grass seemed happy enough.)
That night we met a couple of fellow backpackers, Silvia from Swizerland and Asier from Spain. They had been touring around Africa for 16 months now (blimey!), and their favourite place was Madagascar (told you it was good!). They’d be joining us on the bus tomorrow up to Addis so we shared a couple of beers and arranged to meet for the bus at 6am.
Another 6am bus didn’t seem like a lot of fun, but the minibus up to Addis turned out to be quite an eventful one, as after just half an hour on the road we hit a massive vulture at 70mph. It totally SMASHED the windscreen to bits and gave us all a bit of a fright, to put it mildly.
Silvia turns out to be one of those wonderful sheilas who are more than happy to poke a dead animal with a stick, so she jumped out of the minibus and procured a few feathers for our respective hats. The vulture however, turned into state’s evidence and the minibus crew picked it up and threw it on the bus, much to my chagrin, as it was laid out a little too close to number one here for my liking. After managing to get it moved to the front of the bus, we discovered the reason for the roadkill getting a free ride north – it’s illegal to drive with a cracked windscreen in Ethiopia (unlike in Senegal where it is illegal not to) and so the minibus guys had to get the police to write them a letter explaining what had happened or else we’d be high-tailing it back it Yabello and all hope of reaching Egypt by New Year would be dashed.
But we plundered on through dusty villages and dried-up towns. Two things I haven’t seen much of on my journey so far – exceptionally skinny people and flies, legions of flies, cropped up a little too often for comfort, yes there’s a drought here (again) although the government seems more interested in picking the wax out of its ear than doing anything about it.
Lunch in Awasa was pleasant enough, we found a decent restaurant and I used the western flushing lav to squeeze out a dead otter for the first time since Monday morning. I can hold it in for a week if necessary – quite frankly, I refuse to squat. It’s smelly, uncomfortable, demeaning and I hate it. I keep meeting westerners who have lived in Africa for some time and say they prefer it – I find them mad. If you can’t comfortably play Tetris on your Gameboy for an hour then it’s not a trip to the loo as far I’m concerned. The very idea of standing on slippery urine-soaked porcelain and hovering your nethers a few inches from horrors I am not fit to describe fills me with awesome dread. Some other travellers may see this as a weakness, but I don’t care. There’s bog seat on my backpack for a reason – everyone deserves a decent dunny.
Actually, it’s been remarkable how few squatters I’ve used this year. Yes, my friends, we are progressing as a species!
After lunch we pressed on towards Addis, the unlovable sprawling capital city of Ethiopia. About as attractive as John Merrick eating spaghetti. Asier and Silvia joined us in the Dil hotel, the only mid-range place in the guidebook. Notice how I’m suddenly staying in a lot of hotels? Well, unlike me, Matt the Editor gets his expenses back, so I’m happy to abuse that fact for a few days and cadge a free night’s kip courtesy of the powers that be. Of course, if we really wanted to splash out, we could stay at the Sheraton hotel here, where a suite will set you back a cool $8,081 for a night’s accommodation. But, realistically, that place is reserved for African politicians – you know the guys who preside over those people living off less than a dollar a day. Hey, maybe after working for 21 years solid (and living off air) they too could afford one night in the f***ing Addis Sheraton.
When we talk about gaps between rich and poor we really have no idea. These aren’t gaps – they’re parsecs.
Matt got himself an early night while I stayed up with Asier and Silvia drinking and hark-the-heralding in the Christmas cheer.
I’ve come a long way since Comoros, but I’ve got a lot further to go before I’m reunited with Mandy a week from today.
Dar es Salaam to the Pyramids in two weeks, without flying? That’s a world record right there.
After a good three hours sleep, I left the Dil Hotel to go and get a ticket for Dira Dawa on the ‘luxury’ coach. No chance. Sold out. Although the guy really didn’t need to be such a swine about it, especially at four in the morning. I pegged it back to the hotel to pick up Matt and get the hell to the main bus station before the scuzzy buses sold out as well. We got there at 5am – just in the nick of time, cadging the last two tickets on the bus.
So that’s how I spent Christmas Day 2009, on a bus heading across Ethiopia. Well I spent my 30th birthday on a bus heading down Central America, so I guess I better start getting used to it.
Not that it’s Christmas here. The Ethiopians don’t celebrate the birth of that Jesus chap until January 7th. Looks like a managed to find the only Christian Country for whom 25th December is just another day.
Ethiopia, despite being just as infuriating as everywhere else in Africa, is a class act. The only African country that wasn’t colonised by us dastardly Europeans (so they can’t blame us for all their ills Mugabe-stylee) and as such it’s like nowhere else on Earth. If I parachuted blind into Tanzania and somebody told me I was in Kenya or Uganda, I’d be none the wiser; but Ethiopia is Ethiopia through and through – it couldn’t be anywhere else. Not only has Ethiopia got its own alphabet, religion and traditions; it also has its own calendar and time. This is a bit messed up and difficult to explain, but the short of it is that when everyone else adopted the Gregorian Calendar, the Ethiopians stuck with the Julian so it’s not 2009 here, it’s 2002. I think.
The time thing is even more interesting (and infuriating): for Ethiopians, 6am is ’1am’ so if your bus leaves at ‘three in the morning’, that could mean three in the morning or it could mean nine in the morning. Who knows? Luckily I had got wise to this strange way of telling the time before I got here.
Something else that’s weird is the pernicious meme that’s got about that when you’re on a bus you need to keep all the windows closed lest germs get in and make everyone ill. So even if you’re going to vomit, you can’t open the window, you just have to do it on the floor. Which is what a lot of people do, that is if they can’t find a hapless backpacker to hack their guts out all over instead. This is a particular bugbear of many travellers I’ve met who’ve travelled through Ethiopia, but in a land where 85% of the population is illiterate, it’s a bit hard to persuade them otherwise.
The reason why it’s always Ethiopia that seems to be having famines and not, say, Burkina Faso, is because of the awesome number of farmers here.. Pretty much everybody lives off the land – and while you may think that this leads to some kind of rural idyll (and, yes, the terraced hills are really quite breathtaking) it also means that when there is a drought (every ten years without fail) the economy grinds to a halt (nobody has anything to sell) and people die. The incredible number of people living off the land (100,000,000 people) also means that nobody goes to school. In fact, if everybody in the country attended school up until the age of 16, half of the working population would disappear. Nowhere else on Earth have I seen four-year-olds herding cattle across the road.
The journey to Dira Dawa was okay – Matt bribed some guys for their seats so he could have some leg room and I watched Blackadder on my laptop. The only downer was that in the madness that was yesterday’s minibus to Addis, I lost my Vodafone mobile internet dongle, so updating my website and twitter feed is now impossible. I’ve kept that little gidgit safe and warm for eleven months – it’s such a kicker to lose it now at the end of the year. I’ve got nothing but respect for Vodafone for giving me the thing in the first place – it’s been more useful than a Swiss army knife that purifies water and detects single women.
THANK YOU VODAFONE!! YOU’RE THE BESTEST IN THE WORLDEST!
Dira Dawa was everything that Addis wasn’t; ordered, neat, safe. After arriving around 5pm, we jumped a tuk-tuk (or whatever the hell they call them here) to the ticket office for the bus to Djibouti. All my dreams came true when the chap said that the bus left at midnight. This meant that we should be getting in to Djibouti City the following morning – perfect. Dino had informed me that the ship for Egypt had been delayed, giving me plenty of time to get to Somalia and back before clambering on-board the MV Turquoise like a American leaving Saigon in 1975.
Matt needed some shut-eye (it’s been five days on the road now – it’s understandable) so he checked into the hilariously inept Ras hotel for a few hours kip while I headed over the road to the Triangle Hotel for a few hours booze and internetting. Had a good chat on Skype with my brother Mike and my nephew Joe before packing everything away and rousing Matt for his last bus journey.
This was it. The most critical day of The Odyssey so far – make or break, do or die, cake or death. Dino Deasha, that magnificent chap, had cadged me a lift on the MV Turquoise, a huge container ship affiliated with those good folk at CMA-CGM and bound for Suez in Egypt, due to arrive on the 31st December. But first, I had not just to get to Djibouti City, I also needed to get to Somalia and back.
Don’t panic! Somalia is perfectly safe. Well, no, it’s not – it’s the most dangerous country on Earth. What I mean to say is that the part which I intend to visit is perfectly safe – I’m going to Somaliland.
History lesson! (Cos I know you love them soooo…)
In the same way that we had British, Dutch and French Guyana and Portuguese, French and Spanish Guinea, on the east coast of Africa we had Italian, British and French Somalia. French Somalia became the independent state of Djibouti in 1977 while the poor old British Somalia (now known as Somaliland) got dumped with the Italian Somalia which is what we know as Somalia today.
Now as far as basketcases go (and Africa, let’s face it, has a mighty fine collection), Somalia is the basketcase to beat all basketcases. Next time some ill-informed idiot comes up to you at a party and tells you that he’s an anarchist, nut him in the face and Fed-Ex him off to Somalia. With no effective government since 1991, the only law and order in Mogadishu revolves around gangs of armed thugs randomly killing and raping with impunity. Mmm… anarchy… don’t-cha just looove it?
Of course, the international community should really do something about this, if not for the sake of Somalia itself, then surely for the sake of the poor bastards who have to navigate the pirate-infested waters anywhere within a thousand miles of Somalia’s shoreline. I’m sure Djibouti, Yemen, Oman, Kenya, Tanzania and The Seychelles are less than thrilled with the situation. But there it remains, and there it has remained, a horror show for nineteen years now.
But there is one bit of good news – Somaliland. Yep, that old bit of British Somalia that really shouldn’t have been lumped with the madness that was Italian Somalia in the first place, has broken away and now has it’s own parliament, capital, flag, currency, university and (heaven forbid!) multi-party elections. It’s got a damn good historical reason for being an independent nation and it’s got possibly the best current reason in the world for lopping off its malformed and pustulating growth of teeth and hair that is Somalia proper.
So, who thinks, given the circumstances, that Somaliland should be recognised as an independent nation by the world? All of you?! Good, that’s what I thought. If you can give me one good reason why Somaliland should not be recognised as an independent state then I will give a gold star and a jellybaby, because let’s face it, there is no good reason… well, that is if your brains haven’t been recently sucked out through your nose or, of course, you work for the UN. Because the UN says no..
Why does the UN say no?
To be quite frank, I have no f–king idea. The same institution that wants the French to give the island of Mayotte back to Cloud Coup Coup Land and (let’s not forget) facilitates the process in which the most blood-thirsty criminals in the world make trillions of dollars every year by enforcing this idiotic prohibition on drugs, refuses to allow Somaliland the status of being a nation. Blimey, what a bunch of f–ks.
I kinda hated the UN at the start of this trip, but now I really hate the UN, it’s about as much use as a KFC on the moon.
Well, as things are, if you visit Somaliland, it counts as a visit to Somalia, which is useful for me as I have less than no intention of visiting anywhere that might result in my head being chopped off. So that was the plan.
Matt and I jumped the bus from Dira Dawa (Ethiopia) to Djibouti City at midnight, only to find that irritating habit of buses leaving a couple of hours after they say it’s going to leave was still in full force. The latest from Dino was that the boat was leaving today, and I fretted over having time to visit Somalia/Somaliland. After 2am, the bus finally began the long haul to the Djibouti border, arriving at about 9am.
Because the Ethiopian border guards took an age stamping us out, we missed our connecting bus to Djibouti City. At this point, I was beginning to spak out somewhat. The latest intell from Dino (who had been working overtime over Christmas to get me on this ship to Egypt) was that I had to get to the CMA-CGM shipping office as soon as possible, and now it was beginning to look like I would not make it over there until the afternoon (we were supposed to be arriving at 10am).
Matt and I filmed some stuff on the border while we waited for the next bus to fill, and eventually we made it through to the Djibouti side of things. This took another half-hour as the ‘visas’ we had procured from Nairobi was actually a piece of paper telling the border guards to give us visas upon arrival – this confused the hell out of the border guards and I was steeling myself to being told to return to Addis when they stamped us in. Happy days.
What was less than happy was my face a couple of hours later when we were stopped on the outskirts of Djibouti City by a bastard Vogon who found a inconsistency in my visa (the border guards hadn’t filled out the ‘duration’) and wanted me to return to the border to sort it out. By now it was 1pm and time was running short. Unfortunately I only had nothing smaller than a $20 bill to bribe the horrible little toad and, once back on the bus I felt as if my brain was going to E.X.P.L.O.D.E. like the poster for Akira.
I don’t normally get angry enough to contemplate homicide, I’m a lover not a fighter, but since my trials and tribulations at the hands of corrupt African officials, I can’t help but imagine the satisfaction of seeing one of these scumbags heads on a spike and coyly waving at it like Vir in Babylon 5. To add to my chagrin, this was the first bribe I had to pay since I left DR Congo – Southern and East Africa seemed to have sorted out the shop-front (especially were tourists are concerned) and I couldn’t help but feel that the ever-present culture of bribery and corruption that so afflicts West Africa might be on the wane over on this side of the continent. But now I think I just got lucky.
Anyway, fuming and ratty I arrived in Djibouti City only to find that the shipping agency had closed. I was too late.
There was nothing to do but head to the hotel that Matt had booked for the night – the Djibouti Sheraton, no less. Yet more ordeals awaited us. I expected to be able to get on the free wi-fi and contact Dino in the UK and find out what was happening. I mean, I’ve stayed in places that cost less than $5 a night that have free wi-fi, but the UTTERLY RUBBISH Sheraton hotel, which was so rubbish it might as well have been constructed out of used baked bean cans and slop, charged for its wi-fi. And they charged A LOT.
Then Matt got into all kinds of difficulty with regards to his credit card booking. The manager, some latter day Basil Fawlty type, was having trouble getting his head around the fact that Matt had booked through Expedia. Actually, he was having trouble getting his head around a lot of things, how to dial an international number for one. This lead to a hilarious situation in which he demanded to see proof of payment, which would be available online, but refused to give us the wi-fi code so we could actually go online and prove the payment had been made.
I think it was three hours before it was all resolved. Don’t you just love true customer service? SHERATON HOTELS, YOU SUCK. I will never stay in one of your flea-ridden hell-holes again as long as I live and I will encourage everyone I know to avoid your embarrassing chain of joke hotels like the PLAGUE.
While Matt was busy battling Basil in order to get into the room he had paid a lot of money for, I returned to the Shipping Agency under the behest of Dino, who was now acting as my Ed Harris in Apollo 13. If I didn’t make this boat, I would be spending New Year on my own, but more worryingly so would Mandy.
Back at the shipping office, I was greeted by Deyan, Abdourahman and Adbi-Chakour, three of the best guys in the world. For all the trials and tribulations that Djibouti had put me through, I was ready to sling it down amongst Congo, Guinea and Cape Verde as a circle of hell to which I would vow never to return – that was until I met these guys. Now Djibouti is a shining beacon of loveliness and wonder (albeit one that nobody’s heard of). Plus they filmed the original Planet of the Apes here, YOU MANIACS!
Deyan, Abdourahman and Abdi-Chakour not only sorted me out with the ship, the MV Turquoise, they also drove me to the border with Somalia/Somaliland and because they knew the guys on the border, managed to get me across, no questions asked. Huzzah!
Stepping foot in Somalia was a strange experience. On one hand, it was like edging closer to Mordor than anyone but a foolhardy hobbit would ever go (the borderlands were a rubbish tip like you’ve never imagined), on the other hand it was very normal, like stepping over any other rubbish-choked hell-hole frontier. The knowledge that I was actually entering a peaceful, stable area of an otherwise horrifically failed state was reassuring, but there was something about the place… the look on people’s faces that spoke of unspeakable evil happening on their doorstep.
Or maybe I’m just being melodramatic AND IT’S ALL IN MY HEAD.
Ah well, who cares? I made it out alive and everybody got their cut. The guys dropped me off at the Sheraton where I found Matt who was just about ready to kill, kill and kill again. The fact that everything was sorted for the boat and, barring a major disaster, I would be seeing my girlie again in just five days had put a spring in my step. Matt, on the other hand, had been put through HELL by these utter fools in the Sheraton – the funniest thing was that they were so completely unrepentant, like it was Matt’s fault they had all the mental faculties of a recently shredded gerbil who was suffering from Creutzfeldt Jakob Disease.
Matt bought me a beer and we called it a night just before midnight.
The ‘badlands’ of northern Kenyan are not so called because they are full of bandits (although there are probably a few still knocking about), but because they’re no good for farming: dry, arid, dusty – you’d struggle to grow a moustache here (speaking of which, mine has gone, Movember is over). I’ll tell you what they’d be great for, Kenya: building a goddamn road. A nice straight road, made of tarmac, from here to the border with Ethiopia. You know, given that the entire expanse is remarkably flat and devoid of mountains/rivers/cities that may otherwise get in your way. If you ever do the drive down from Cairo to Cape Town, this is the *only* major section of dirt track you’ll come across (I can’t say the same for Casablanca to Cape Town, but that’s another story).
But like this time three years ago, all we have is an exceptionally dusty, potholed, bone-juddering ride up to Ethiopia. Ack, I’ve given up blaming the government. I’ve found something else to blame and it’s not even the UN… it’s the entire system of Presidencies. I swear they are designed to encourage corruption, nepotism and criminality on a global scale. If you don’t believe me, read my upcoming book ‘Machiavelli’s The President’ for a clear-cut examination of everything that is utterly insane about having one guy who is at once Head of State, Head of Government AND Head of The Military. Oh, and the fact that they all get magic immunity from prosecution for anything they do, either from the UN (Robert Mugabe) or the own legal system (Mitterrand) or by way of being pardoned for all crimes by their best mate who magically (and undemocratically) becomes Fuhrer, sorry President upon the former’s resignation (Nixon).
What have I learnt from visiting 201 countries? That the presidential model of government is flawed: epically, fundamentally and irrevocably flawed. But this is a discourse for another day.
We bumped and grinded our way to the bordertown of Moyale, arriving at around 4pm, which was good as this isn’t a 24 hour border crossing. I was stamped out of Kenya without any fuss, walked across the bridge (there’s ALWAYS a bridge!) and entered Ethiopia. It was nice not to have to surrender any more US dollars. I swear, the last couple of weeks have cost me more in visas than I spent travelling over the last few months.
$50 for Zimbabwe, $50 for Zambia, $50 for Tanzania, $20 for Tanzania (first time), $50 for Uganda (first time), $100 for South Sudan (no joke), $50 for Uganda (second time), $20 for Kenya (second time, although I had to argue my way out of not having to pay for a full $50 visa).
My heart goes out to the poor dears working tourism in these parts. $390!! I could have had a family holiday to Disneyland for that (only because we’d sneak in, mind). AND I still have visas to purchase for Sudan, Egypt and Turkey.
Oh Europe (excluding paranoid spoilsports Russia and Belarus) how I love thee! Let me count the Schengen ways!!
Like Mozambique and Tanzania, it is illegal for Ethiopian buses to run at night, so I checked into a little hotel on the Ethiopian side of town, downed a couple of St. George’s while checking my emails and retiring to my room around 9pm. Moyale is currently undergoing a water shortage, so it was a warm bucket bath before bed to rid me of the red Kenyan dust (which was EVERYWHERE). I set my alarm for 4am, exchanged sweet nothings with the lovely Casey who called me on my new Ethiopian number and then got myself some much-needed shuteye.
Yet another early start and by 6am we were hurling north towards Addis Ababa on a brand spanking new commuter bus, travelling along Ethiopia’s impressively smooth asphalt roads. The last time I did this run I was crammed into a minibus with Matt the Lonely Planet guy while he continued his quest to find the only bottle of Diet Coke in Ethiopia (it’s Ethiopia Matt, who do you think is going to be on a diet?), this time was somewhat more comfortable. With nothing left to read, the guy next to me speaking no English and the crappy battery on my laptop only lasting an hour or so, I spent most of the day playing a game of shutty-window with the guy behind me (every time I opened the window, he’d shut it) and observing the beautiful Ethiopian countryside.
Miles away from the images ingrained in the collective subconscious of Starvin’ Marvins living in dust tents, flies all over their malnourished faces, modern Ethiopia is, despite having way too many child workers (the highest number in the world, fact-fans!), coming on in leaps and bounds, with infrastructure, irrigation, sanitation, schools and hospitals popping up all over the country and some of the best roads outside South Africa in Sub-Saharan Africa. The people are epic friendly and aside from the odd pick-pocket, crime is mercifully low. But the countryside: WOW. Most of Ethiopia is up in the mountains, unspoilt hills of rolling green, trees and the occasional terraced farm – it reminds me of Colombia, especially as the bus winds through the narrow mountain roads.
Addis itself is one of the highest capital cities in the world, sitting at an elevation of 2,300 metres above sea level. Like Quito in Ecuador it belies its position slap bang in the middle of the tropics with cool fresh nights and what can only be only described as a permanent state of springtime.
But we wouldn’t be getting to Addis today. As I said yesterday, buses don’t run at night here, and by dusk we had only got as far as the magnificently-named town of Awasa! (bang optional), which sits on the lake of the same name, just a couple of hundred kilometres south of the capital in a north-south belt I’m going to call Ethiopia’s Lake District (maybe people call it that already, I dunno, they should). I had paid for the bus to take me right through to Addis, so I’d be getting it again at 6am the next day. But a guy on the bus whose name was Azmara (his nickname was ‘Isit?’) told me there would be a faster way to get there – a minibus would be leaving at 4am and would get us into Addis for 9am tomorrow morning. As I needed to get an Egyptian visa as well as the aforementioned Sudanese visa (for reasons I will go into tomorrow), this sounded like a good plan – in my experience, most embassies only accept visa applications in the morning.
Isit? said he’d meet me in the morning, bringing the minibus to my hotel. Sweeeeeeet.
After that I found a place to spend the night, ate some spicy roast lamb for din-dins and, after getting online for a couple of hours to deal with some more Qs an’ As (hey! I can get paid for this! Who knew?!!), I dived into bed to get a few hours shut-eye.
I got a phone call at 4am – it was Isit? calling to tell me that the bus was waiting outside. Crikey: when he said 4am I didn’t think he actually meant 4am. I grabbed my things, dropped the key at the front desk and then spent a good ten minutes trying to suss out how to escape this damn hotel – the front exits were locked (good job there wasn’t a fire eh?). Eventually I exited through a back door and hopped on the minibus. We drove around Awasa for a bit picking up passengers and when we were full, we hit the road.
The downside of having decent roads in an African country is that the crashes become more spectacular and infinitely more deadly. The first death of the morning was a hyena, splayed out in the middle of the road, a tyre track through its belly, guts spilled out all over the ground. A second hyena (a living on, possibly feasting on the first) was narrowly avoided through some evasive manoeuvres, but a dog a little further down the line was not so lucky, our minibus crunching over the poor beast, a muffled yelp before eternal silence.
But what I really, really didn’t want to see was the dead human a few miles later. Hit by a car or a truck not more than a few minutes before, his body lay face down, motionless in the middle of the road, brains dashed out across the white dividing lines. The women on board gasped, the men tutted (very similar to the tuts emitted when we ran over the dog), but the minibus did not stop. I asked the driver to pull up, but Isit? said not to worry, the police will come. I asked him how they will know to come if nobody calls them. He didn’t answer. I took out my phone. Even if I knew the number for the emergency services or Medicine Sans Frontiers, I had no damn reception.
‘He is dead,’ said Isit?, ‘it would make no difference.’ I objected to this notion on the grounds that a dead body in the middle of the road is likely to cause another crash further down the line as people either rubberneck or swerve to avoid. Isit? did nothing to allay my fears. He just shrugged and said ‘This is Africa.’ I was uncharacteristically silent for the rest of the trip to Addis.
We arrived, as promised, at 9 on the knocker. Isit? put me in a taxi and I hurtled off to the Egyptian Embassy.
Back when I was in the London for the Olympic Parade, the day before I met Casey, I went to the Sudanese Embassy to ask about getting a visa. They said they could issue me one on the spot, but there was only one problem: it would only be valid for two months. It was September 11, meaning I’d have to enter Sudan before November 11. Even in my wildest imaginings I didn’t think I could get off the Costa neoRomantica (at this point still unconfirmed) on October 28 and make it to Sudan via South Sudan in this timeframe.
This left the option of either getting the visa in my second passport that I was leaving in London with Lindsey or else getting the visa in Addis. After one too many horror stories about getting a Sudanese visa in Ethiopia, I decided to get the visa in London.
To do this without me being there in person required a Letter of Invitation from a company in Sudan. I wrote to the tour agent recommended in the Lonely Planet, Mr Midhat Mahir. He wrote back saying not to worry, I didn’t need to get a full visa, all I needed was a transit visa. This would give me two weeks to waddle from the eastern bordertown of Gallabat to the northern bordertown of Wadi Halfa and the visa only took a day or two to get through. To get a transit visa all I needed was a visa for Egypt as ‘proof of onward travel.’
Now, if I’m to be back in the UK in time for Christmas (it’ll be my first one with my family in Liverpool since 2008) one thing HAS to happen. I *must* be in Wadi Halfa, north North Sudan in eight days time. As it is Tuesday today and it takes at least three days to get from Addis to Halfa, I have just four days to get my Sudanese visa. Monday morning will be too late.
To my shock and dismay, when I arrived at the Egyptian embassy I discovered that to be issued with an Egyptian visa takes three days. THREE DAYS? Are you kidding me? This is the visa that costs US$15 and is instantly available on arrival at all land borders, sea ports and airports. THREE DAYS?!! Even if I got it on Friday morning (any the sign said they only return passports on
I left the embassy, head in my hands. Okay, Plan B: forget about the transit visa, just go for broke Graham: you’ve got four days… get a full one. I had been told that it would speed things up if I had a letter of introduction from my own embassy, so I jumped in another taxi and headed to the other side of town to go ingratiate myself with my fellow Brits. HA! You didn’t think it would be THAT easy did you? For some (quite frankly insane) reason, the British embassy only issues such letters after 1,30pm – you know, after the window of opportunity for submitting visa applications that day is over.
For the love of—
Okay, Plan C: head to the Sudan embassy and have a chat, see if we can come to some sort of arrangement. After all, I’ve been to Sudan before, caused no trouble and I don’t have an Israeli stamp in my passport or even a visa for South Sudan (shh! it’s in my my other one). I queued up and spoke to a nice chap behind the window called Sidir. He told me that if I can get my Egypt visa for Friday morning, they could issue me a same day visa for Sudan. Perfecto!
It was now 11am – Addis is a big city and the embassies are (tremendously unhelpfully) spread out like you would not believe.
I jumped in a taxi. Take me to the Egypt embassy. He didn’t speak hardly any English so I attempted to gesticulate ‘Egypt’ with hand movements, but didn’t get very far, he must have just thought I was a big fan of The Bangles. I roped in a hapless bystander who translated for me, and off we toodily-pipped. Halfway there I remember something the lady told me a couple of hours earlier – that they only accept payment in local currency, the birr and you had to provide a receipt proving how you got the birr.
As there were NO official exchange places on the border with Moyale, this rule seemed as arbitrary as it was retarded: wouldn’t nearly all overlanders needing to get a Egypt visa in order to get a Sudanese transit visa have come up from Kenya? Wouldn’t they have all had to change their money on the border and therefore not got a receipt?? It’s not like we’re talking Brewster’s here – the visa fee was about US$18. But still I needed a receipt. So I asked the driver to take me to an ATM on the way. He took me to a bank out of the way. We got to the bank at 11:35am – the deadline for visa submissions at the Egypt embassy was noon.
I queued up at the cash machine for what felt like an age (I think the woman in front of me was negotiating a business loan with the damn thing), and asked for 500 birr, thinking I’d get a receipt. Normally, if no receipts are available you get a little notice saying ‘No Receipt Available – Do You Wish To Proceed?’ Not this one. Yep, despite the government seemingly demanding proof that your $15 worth of birr wasn’t handed to you by the waterlogged corpse of Osama Bin Laden himself, the Bank of Ethiopia thinks its alright to not even warn you that no receipts will be forthcoming until after your money has popped out.
The number of times I’ve got a receipt from a cash machine and instantly crumbled it up and thrown it in the bin and now, just as I need one…
Urgh. Looking around, I spied a branch of Western Union up the road. To the taxi drivers chagrin I ran up to it. I had dollars I could change: which would mean a receipt.
Now you’d think changing $20 would be a doddle, considering the whole process on the border takes all of – ooooh – 30 seconds?
As the minutes closed in on midday, the guys at Western Union needed copies of my passport, a full set of fingerprints, an iris scan, a sample of my brain tissue, my gerbil’s maiden name, my inside leg measurement, a twenty-seven page form signed in triplicate, stamped with a variety of loops, squiggles and logos which must be garnered from the headquarters of the intergalactic bureaucratic federation four systems down from the Seventh House of Were.
TO CHANGE TWENTY F—ING DOLLARS!
Christ these people must love their jobs. ‘What did you do today, my love?’ ‘Oh, I merely crushed the hopes and dreams of at least a dozen people using the slow grinding wheels of insufferable bureaucracy.’
‘My Hero!’ *hugs*
By the time I left Western Union it was 11.51am. The last thing I needed was a traffic jam.
That’s when we hit a traffic jam.
Luckily for me, my driver knew some back-alley routes across town. We bumped our way down the dirt tracks that connect the main drags and arrived at the embassy at 11.59am.
I practically threw my bags at security – ‘keep ‘em!!’ and charged over to the visa office just in the NICK of time.
I threw down my passport, passport photos, money, receipt for money and my pre-filled form. The lady smiled and told me that the visa would be ready for Thursday afternoon. Fantastic! (The ‘three days’ includes the day of application.)
I thought I might as well push my luck. Any chance I can get it in the morning? I’m a *ahem* famous traveller and I always say my favourite country is Egypt, come on – you guys owe me!
Call on Thursday at 9am and we’ll see what we can do.
THANK YOU THANK YOU THANK YOU.
I stepped out of the embassy a morning well spent. If everybody kept their word I *would* be home for Christmas.
I headed back to Mexico Square (near the Sudanese Embassy) to meet my CouchSurf host, Tadesse. My lovely girlfriend Casey has been sending out requests on my behalf while I’ve been on the road. With Case on the case, I can’t lose. Tadesse is a local lad who works at the Ministry of Roads. We met in the restaurant of the Wabe Shebelle hotel and sat down for a spot of lunch. I had the spicy lamb (I think I’m getting a little obsessed), while Tadesse opted for a vegetarian option, Ethiopians, being a breed of Orthodox Christians all of their own, fast before both Easter and Christmas. Poor guy, having to go veggie for a month – it’s enough to turn anyone to the Dawk side…
After lunch we headed back to Tadi’s gaff in the Kazanchis area of town. We stopped at a pub on the way and I got chatting with an old guy who remembers when the population of Ethiopia was 8 million. It’s now pushing 90 million. You’d think considering the strain all these damn rug-rats are putting on the planet, parents (in general) would be a little less smug, but hey, I don’t have kids (thank God), what do I know? After beer I met with Tadi’s flatmate, a Brit from the New Forest called Catherine. Tadi was staying with his mum that night, so Catherine and I went out for drinkies with her Ethiopian mates. Ah: St George’s, 37p a bottle: that’ll do nicely! Later in the evening we went to a nightclub where I almost got into my first fight of this journey (also millennium) after some guy tried to pick-pocket me. I was more insulted by his ineptitude than anything else. His friends held me back. After that I wanted to call it a night, more out of sheer tiredness than anything else. It had been a long day.
Ethiopia is a remarkable place, not least because it was the only African country not to suffer the indignity of colonisation, and not only for its immensely strong cultural identity: a country which boasts not only its own unique alphabet, but also its own unique was of telling the time (“three in the morning” means “three hours after the sun rises”). It, like Kenya and Tanzania, has pretty good shot at being the birthplace of modern humans. The discovery in the early 70s of ‘Lucy’, for a long time regarded as the so-called ‘missing link’ between apes and mankind, in the Afar Valley cemented Ethiopia as the physical anthropology, primatology, archaeology, linguistics, embryology and genetics Mecca for anybody with the slightest interest in evolutionary biology. Any dimwits who honestly believe the world to be 6,000 years old, look away now: Lucy (or, to give her full name: Australopithecus Afarensis), the first early ape we found that walked upright is 3.2 MILLION years old.
Presuming Lucy is you decent ancestor (she’s more likely a cousin, but we’ll come to that later), there are at least 160,000 generations separating you and her. That’s an EPIC number of births, marriages and deaths.
Today I was up bright and early. I met with Tadi’s other CouchSurfer, a softly-spoken Kenyan doctor who called Dan. Dan had been in town for a medical conference and was flying back to Nairobi tonight, so before he left and with no visa shenanigans to be had today, we decided to team up and go see the sights of Addis Ababa. Top of the agenda: The National Museum… home of a certain Australopithecus Afarensis that I may have just been talking about.
The museum was interesting, but Lucy and her friends were definitely the stars of the show… there’s so many of them!
It’s almost a miracle that any fossils survive at all, so to see this many early hominids all in one place (some were replicas, but Lucy was definitely the real McCoy) was, for me, a treat beyond measure. It was also great getting Doctor Dan’s take on the morphology of dem bones dem bones dem dry bones: although our cranial volume is now ten times what Lucy’s was (a result of runaway sexual selection is the word on the street) the structure of our arms, hands, legs and feet has remained remarkably consistent over the past 3,000,000 years.
It one of the iron laws of evolution: things don’t evolve unless they are forced to: by the pressures of either natural selection or sexual selection. If you’re sitting pretty at the top of the food chain and there’s no advantage to be had by having a slightly bigger brain or brighter feathers than the other males, you ain’t going to see much in the way of evolution for millions of years. It’s the reason sharks and crocodiles have barely changed since the late Cretaceous.
Doctor Dan is currently training to be a neurosurgeon. When he qualifies, he’ll be one of just ten in the entire nation of Kenya: that’s one brain surgeon for every FIVE MILLION people. It’s a wonder they get time to sleep. He’ll enjoy a lifetime of being able to patronise any other living being (with the possible exception of rocket scientists) with the line “well, it’s not exactly brain surgery, is it?”
Rather thinking I may have missed my calling there…
After the national museum, we walked up to the Ethnological Museum (don’t bother asking for directions, the word ‘Ethnological’ isn’t even in my lexicon, never mind the pretty basic English you’ll find in Ethiopia).
The setting of the museum kinda stole the show I little bit: it’s the site of Ras Tafari’s former palace. Ras Tafari… sound familiar? Yes, that’s right: it’s where we get the name ‘Rastafarian’ from. Now put down the bong and listen to Uncle Graham. Back in the 1950s, some (presumably) dreadlocked black dudes in Jamaica were (understandably) bummed out at the concept of preying to the White Man’s God who almost definitely doesn’t exist. As the late great Christopher Hitchens once said: anything that can be stated without evidence can be dismissed without evidence. Now at the time there was a (Godspeed You) Black Emperor walking the Earth: Haile Selassie the Once and Future King of Abyssinia. Born Ras Tafari, Selassie had ruled Abyssinia since 1930. And, possibly because he abolished the Ethiopian slave trade, got Ethiopia admitted to the League of Nations in 1923 and ruled over a country that was the only one in the whole of Africa to survive Europe’s colonial scramble intact, he become a cult figure amongst the Afro-Caribbean Diaspora, soon being elevated to the status of a god.
The Ethiopians were a bit nonplussed by this turn of events. Many Ethiopians didn’t even like Selassie, never mind think he was some kind of god. In the wake of the 1972-74 famine, Selassie was deposed, thrown into the back of a Volkswagen and driven away to prison where he died under ‘mysterious circumstances’ a few years later (nah… he was murdered by his successor, Colonel Mengistu Haile Mariam). Some Rastas saw Ethiopia’s woes in the 1980s as divine retribution for killing their god. You know what though? At least Haile Selassie actually damn well existed, which is more than I can say for at least the 100 gods I can name and the millions that us foolish mortals pray to every day…
Not that he exists any more, you know, since he’s dead. But he definitely *did* exist at some point in history, and in my book that’s one up on Jesus…
Selassie’s palace grounds are now the location of the University of Ethiopia, and his former royal chambers, sitting rooms and the like have been converted into libraries, laboratories and lecture halls. The museum was a dimly lit (actually, there was a power cut, so it was pretty much unlit, good job I brought my video light eh?) collection of Ethiopian stuff: clothing, musical instruments, rather cartoonish murals depicting heart-warming stories from the Bible. Like this one: http://www.thebricktestament.com/judges/gang_rape_and_dismemberment/jg19_01.html. Well, maybe not.
All cultured out, we headed to the Piazza side of town (it’s amazing considering they were only here for a few years, how much legacy the Italians left here – honestly, best place in Africa for a decent pizza) and went for a coffee at the Tomoca Café. Ethiopia is the home of coffee, your daily cup of Joe was discovered here a good few eons ago, possibly by a goat farmer, nobody knows. One thing is for sure: when coffee was introduced to Europe in the Middle Ages, we went crazy for it – so much so that Pope Clement VIII’s minions tried to ban it, saying it tasted too good and therefore it must be the work of the Satan himself.
Yes, even in the Middle Ages, the devil had all the best tunes.
Tomoca is a bit of an Addis institution and while we were quaffing our quoffee, Doctor Dan and I got chatting with the owner who invited us to the grand opening of a second Tomoca tomorrow night – there’d be music, dancing, talks… and free coffee! I grabbed as many invites as I could. With any luck, by tomorrow morning I should have my visa for Egypt and by the afternoon I should be set to leave for Sudan early the next morning. An evening of coffee heaven to top it off? Just what the Doctor (Dan) ordered…
Day 7 of my epic journey home from Juba began incredibly well. I called the Egyptian embassy and the nice lady told me that they were going to let me collect my passport with the visa in it this morning rather than this afternoon. I didn’t have to be told twice. Jumping in a taxi, by 10am I was triumphantly marching out of the Egyptian embassy, passport in hand. Even if the Sudan embassy decided to drag its heels and not give me my transit visa until tomorrow afternoon, I’d still easily hit my target of crossing from Wadi Halfa to Aswan in Egypt on Wednesday morning.
So it was with a sense of triumph that I arrived at the Sudanese embassy. I know now that that sense of triumph was greatly premature. After all, This Is Africa.
After filling out the required forms I handed in my passport together with all the other junk required of me. They had kept me waiting for quite some time, so by now it was approaching midday.
‘And the hundred dollar fee…?’
Crikey. $100 for a frikkin’ TRANSIT visa? No wonder Sudan gets less tourists than Chernobyl. Oh well, cheaper than flying. I suppose. I had over my emergency Franklin and am told to come back that afternoon. If the guy’s boss gives the approval…
What? Approval?? Since when? The guy shuts the window. Why leave it at that? A tense few hours are going to follow. What if I don’t get approval? My scheme comes undone. I won’t be home for Christmas. All my meticulous planning would have been for nowt. And Casey.. I made a promise, goddamnit.
I trudged to the minibuses going back to Kazanchis and clambered aboard. It was beginning to spit with rain and damn it was cold. Given the clear blue skies that greeted me from my slumbers this morning, I didn’t bring my jumper. I sat shivering on the bus thinking of other ways to get to Egypt… the only other viable option being a ship from Djibouti. Then my phone rang. It was the embassy. They wanted me to come back.
This could be a good sign. I hoped it was a good sign.
Not wanting to prolong the agony, I opted to take a taxi back to the embassy. I walked inside, went to the window and was promptly handed back my passport, photos and $100 bill.
‘The boss says you need a Letter of Invitation from Khartoum.’
I argued my case, but it was to no avail. I stepped outside the embassy and let loose the loudest expletive since Brian Blessed accidently slammed a supernova on his thumb.
Okay Graham, think think think…
I texted Casey and Dino and ask them to start looking for ships from Djibouti. Dino’s going on his honeymoon on Sunday, so he only had a little bit of time. He wrote to our friends at Dioryx Shipping to see if they were still doing the Djibouti > Jeddah > Suez run that I hitched a ride on three years ago.
The answer came back almost immediately: no they were not. Casey had about the same amount of luck: CMA-CGM, Maersk, MSC, PIL, Hamburg-Sud: nothin’. If anything I’d have to transfer in Jeddah, which, considering last time it took me 6 weeks to get a visa for Saudi, was completely out of the question.
It truly would be Sudan or bust.
I called my mum and got from her the number for Midhat, the tour operator in Khartoum who I had contacted back in September – the one who told me that getting a transit visa would be ‘straight forward.’ I rang Midhat and explained the situation, could he get me a Letter of Invitation for tomorrow…?
No chance. Being a Muslim country, Sudan’s weekend is Friday-Saturday, not Saturday-Sunday. It would be Sunday before Midhat could even put in the application (all Letters of Invitation must be approved by Sudan’s Ministry of Silly Walks) and then it ‘could take a few days’ to come through. This was not good. A fourth Christmas in a row spent not in Liverpool with my family and friends. I should also let you know that Casey and I haven’t even kissed yet, if that gives you some more of an inkling as to why I’m so desperate to get home as soon as humanly possible.
I could use a good kiss.
Midhat then told me something that stirred hope in my forlorn little ginger heart: he had a friend in the embassy. He’d make a call on my behalf.
I headed over to the Wabe Shebelle for what felt like the longest lunch of my life. Sadly, even the food was against me: the lamb was as chewy as an old boot. At 2pm I made my way back to the embassy at Midhat’s behest, with instructions to talk only to Mr Mohammed Al-Watiq and nobody else. I got within a hundred metres when it started to teem down with rain. I ran into an abandoned building (which turned out just to look abandoned) to take shelter, thinking it would go off in a short while. At 2.45pm I couldn’t wait any longer and did the 100m dash in Addis in the rain. Given the pavement was like a river and as broken as full of unexpected pitfalls as any African sidewalk you’d care to mention, I arrived back at the embassy in sopping wet shoes (my shoes fell apart 3 months ago, it’s only dental floss keeping them together) and shirt soaked through to the skin.
I asked to speak to Mr. Al-Watiq and was told to wait. So I waited.
At 5pm I was asked to the window. Mr. Al-Watiq (I think) came over, asked me some questions and then went away. One of the embassy girls popped up and asked me to write my name down on a piece of paper. I did so and was then asked to come back at 11am the next day.
Ah, but was that the end of my stress?
I jumped the minibus back to Kazanchis and logged-on at the local internet joint. I double-checked all the shipping timetables, but there really is *nothing* going from Djibouti to Europe these days.
Then my phone rang. It was Midhat.
Are you in your own car?
Then you have to fly. Fly to Khartoum and take the bus up to Wadi Halfa.
No, You don’t understand: I can’t fly.
They won’t issue you with a visa.
Sorry, so if I buy a car in Addis, I can drive it to Khartoum, but if I want to take the bus I’m not welcome?
That is correct. They think you might write bad things about Sudan on the internet.
*Graham thinks damn right I’ll write bad things… IF they don’t issue me with this visa!*
Midhat, you’ve been to my website, check my blog. I’ve written nothing bad about Sudan at all.*
I’m sorry, then you have to get a Letter of Invitation…
After I hung up, I put my head in my hands and started to think. THINK. Like when I was a kid, playing all of those LucasArts adventure games… there’s always a solution… always a way… you just have to THINK.
Then it came to me. Midhat is a tour agent, right? My remit is to take public transport where available. In this instance, it is not available. I said I’d get back to the UK without flying. Okay, I’ve made it this far without taking private transport over major distances but the reason for the ‘no private transport’ rule is that Guinness can’t be seen condoning or even acknowledging road races – it’s one thing risking your own life to set a GWR, it’s quite another to put others (hapless pedestrians for instance) in harm’s way. The thinking is that if I’m using private transport I might be tempted to pay the driver a bung to break the speed limit (the irony here being that when I was in Nigeria I was desperately trying to bribe the driver to slow the f— down). In this instance it really doesn’t matter whether I take public or private transport – it’s not going to speed things up at all, I’ll have a day spare to get to Wadi Halfa either way.
So then. Last roll of the dice. Can Midhat send a driver to the border to pick me up, make sure I don’t take any pictures/videos/girl’s virginity that I shouldn’t, take me to Khartoum on Sunday… and I’ll get the bus to Wadi Halfa the following Tuesday?
I called Midhat and put the proposition to him. He said he’d pass it on to Mr. Al-Watiq.
Exhausted, physically and mentally, I trudged back to Tadi’s place in wet socks. I missed the opening of that coffee joint.
*this may not be strictly true