Day 1,434: The New Flower

Tue 04.12.12:

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?

NOT SO!!

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.

Author: Graham

Adventurer, filmmaker, blogger, double Guinness World Record Holder. The first person to visit every country in the world without flying. I currently live on a private island in The Caribbean that I won in a competition.

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