Kyle in Lake Assal, Djbouti

Monday, January 31, 2011

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Days 7 - 14: Dire Dawa, Harar, Valley of Marvels, and Amhar Mountains

Day 7: After a big breakfast and some last minute re-packing, I left Dire Dawa for the city of Harar. It’s only a 48km ride, but leaving Dire Dawa meant climbing a long, winding road up to 2,200 meters above sea level. This 20km stretch took just under 3 hours, but I was finally on pristine tarmac that made the ride a lot easier than the previous days had been.
Once up high, I turned left to head east toward Harar. On the way, I started weighing my options. I have only 21 days remaining on my (single-entry) Ethiopia visa, but I still have a valid visa for Somaliland. If I go past Harar to Jijiga, I can then cycle to the Somaliland border and on to the city of Hargeisa. The nightmare of getting a new Ethiopia visa in Djibouti City convinced me that if I went to Hargeisa, there’s a good chance I’d be stuck in Somaliland and not be able to get back to Ethiopia. My only option at that point would be to fly, which would cost too much money, especially with the bike. I also don’t know if I could get into Somaliland on a bicycle as they have strict rules for foreigners traveling outside Hargeisa – everyone must hire an armed guard from the government to follow them everywhere they go.

Visiting Somaliland, then, would most likely meaning leaving the bike behind in Ethiopia and traveling Somaliland by public transport. When I first had the idea of Low2High, I wanted to do the entire trip by ‘human power’. To me, that means ALL travel by bicycle or walking, even on days off. If I need to repair the bike, apply for a visa, go to a restaurant, etc, all travel would be by human power and never by car. I always pictured a true claim that the whole expedition was human powered, from beginning to end. Basically, no riding in cars for 3 whole months. Maybe that’s a bit extreme, but to me, that’s the purest way to do this expedition.

By nightfall I had made up my mind. I was going to skip Somaliland, but still aim to see Jijiga in the far east of Ethiopia. I got a hotel room for the night and went to sleep.

Day 8: I woke up early to start the ride to Jijiga. I left most of my gear at in Harar since I would be coming back through on my way to Addis. After about an hour, I decided that Jijiga was not that important, and I could use the extra day to get to Addis Ababa. I rode as far as the Valley of Marvels, just past Babile
The Valley of Marvels sounds much more impressive than it actually is. The rock formations are interesting, but I don’t feel they were worth the trip out there. If you happen to be going to Jijiga anyway, then stop and explore. I had to pay a guy with Chat-green teeth 20 birr to guard my bicycle, and was too paranoid about it being stolen to really enjoy the excursion.
I rode back to Harar and arrived at 2pm. I put my bicycle in the hotel room and then walked around the city. Harar is an ancient Muslim city. There’s an old wall built around it to keep the pesky Christians out. It is built like a fortress, but is now open for all to move freely in and out. The new city is all around the old walled city. Modern restaurants and hotels, banks, and businesses pepper the outside. I was more interested in the old city, so I wandered inside the wall. I first went to the Harar Coffee Factory to buy my favorite Ethiopian coffee right from the source. A whole kilo of roasted and ground coffee was only about $4.50 USD!

After that, I decided it was time to get some camel meat. I went to the camel market where raw meat is purchased from butchers. Across the courtyard from the butcher is a restaurant where you can bring your own meat, and they will cook it for you. I had a kilo of wonderful, tender, juicy camel meat with Somali spices.
Above the market, hawks perch on the rooftops waiting for any meat to be dropped. A guy whom I had met earlier that day named Ramadan showed me just how good they are at grabbing stray food. He asked the butcher for some scraps, threw them straight up into the air, and 2-dozen birds of prey swooped down in a choreographed swarm. Not a single piece of meat hit the ground, and within 5 seconds, all the birds were back on the rooftops, silently waiting for the next freebie.

After a quick rest back at the hotel, I was off to see the Hyena Man. The people of Harar have always shared the land with hyenas, so they came up with a way to live in harmony. Every night the Hyena Man, a job apparently handed down from father to son for years, would bring scraps of camel meat outside the walls of the city as an offering to the hyenas. By keeping them fed and happy, they would not enter the city to threaten people. This tradition has now turned into a big tourist attraction. The original charm may be gone as vanloads of tourists pull up with their thousand-dollar cameras and shine their headlights onto the animals, but it was still a bit of a thrill. I’m a tourist in Ethiopia myself these days, but I still feel this separation from other tourists having lived here for 2 years.

The hyenas looked threatening, but behaved like tame dogs as the Hyena Man brought out the night’s offering of camel scraps. He dangled meat in front of the large predators, and they playfully jumped through the air to grab it in their jaws. After a few more feedings to show how gentle these hyenas were, it was time for the audience to feed the hyenas. I jumped at the chance, and Hyena Man gave me a stick to hang meat from. First using my hand, one hyena calmly walked over and snatched it off the end of the stick. The Hyena Man then took the stick and put it in my mouth, meat dangling. Another hyena walked over and chomped down on the meat. As she did, she let a puff of hot breath out of her nostrils that made me jump back.
After the feeding, I had a beer with Ramadan, but then went to sleep. All night long, hyenas could be heard howling outside my hotel. Harar is definitely a city like no other.

Day 9: Heading west from Harar toward Addis Ababa means traversing the Amhar Mountains. Stretching a good portion of the range’s length is a relatively new road, paved and impressively steep at times. This is where the riding got hard, not just because of the mountains, but because of the famous rock-throwing, bike-grabbing, tourist-harassing, foul-mouthed children of Ethiopia. Other cyclists have told me the horrors of cycling through some parts of Ethiopia, but this was really my first taste of it.

I have to be clear, I have lived in Ethiopia for more than 2 years, and have a strong fondness for this country and its people. The children in the small towns on this stretch of road were so horrible that I wanted to pack it in and quit this whole trip, giving Ethiopia the finger as I fly home. I was hit with 2 rocks in the lower back that both left welts, another in the shoulder, and several dropped from a clifftop that bounced off my helmet. Children were pulling water bottles and whatever else they could find off of my bike, which was easy-pickings for them since I was so slow on the constant uphills. They yelled ‘Fuck you!’ at me in every village. One child spit in my face, and another tried to put a stick through my spokes. They all do this with big smiles on their faces like it’s a big game. I tried getting angry, chasing them, yelling, being nice, speaking in Amharic, and NOTHING worked. They were unstoppable. The parents did nothing to stop them, and often cheered them on. It was the most horrible part of the trip thus far. I was humiliated and physically harmed by a constant barrage of undisciplined little fucks for two days straight. I hated it.

I could go on about the horrible treatment, but I won’t. There is still a lot to be desired about this country I’ve called home for the last 2 years, so for the rest of the blog posts covering this section of riding, I’ll focus on the good moments.

At the end of Day 9, there was a bit of redemption. I climbed the final hill of the day into a town not on my map called Caramille. The kids were amazingly helpful. They helped me find a cheap hotel, and even offered to help push my bike up the last bit of hill. I was so happy to feel welcome again that I let the kids help me and had a nice chat as we rolled into a hotel compound. One kid in particular was so helpful that I bought him dinner at the restaurant next door.
At that same restaurant, the bartender, Seid, was very curious about my presence in this small town. He spoke near-perfect English, and told me stories about visiting Saudi Arabia to see his parents who are working there for a wealthy family. We spoke for about half an hour while I ate, and I welcomed the change of pace of sitting and chatting with someone so interesting. We exchanged emails, and I went to my hotel room. The Christian call-to-prayer sang me to sleep.

Day 10: I left Caramille at dawn. It was foggy and a bit chilly in the mountains. It was hard to imagine that I was below sea level a few days earlier, and now cycling at 2,200 meters elevation. Ethiopian mountains are impressive.

The first half of the day was more misery. Hard peddling and misbehaving kids. By lunch, I was in the lowland town of Hirna. The downhill ride into town was fast and fun, and I probably coasted for 4 or 5 minutes straight. I ate a lunch so big that I had to sit for an hour and digest before I could start cycling again. The people in town were very curious about my bike, and we all had fun looking at my map. It was hot, so I was quick to convince myself to sit in the shade and relax.
Around 1pm, I started the ride climbing out of Hirna. It was a big climb, and it took me 2 full hours. However, my legs and body felt good. I peddled the whole 2 hours non-stop. I had a lot of energy, so I took advantage of it. The afternoon was a bit more up and down, but the kids in these villages were so much nicer. They greeted with ‘Hello’ instead of swearing, and generally let me be. The day ended with a long downhill ride into Asbe Teferi where I got a hotel room. It was the last big town before leaving the Amhar Mountains, so it was a good place to stop and enjoy some better accommodations. The hotel was playing loud music until late in the night, which was irritating, but I finally drifted off into a deep sleep.

Day 11: I left Asbe Teferi very early. The sun wasn’t even up yet. I had a gradual downhill for 30km to the next town, Mieso. The downhill gave me a huge advantage, and I covered the 30km in under an hour.

Mieso offered nothing, not even a restaurant that looked worth stopping, so I continued toward Addis Ababa. I rode about 40km west of Mieso, and then had a fairly bad breakdown. My rear wheel made a sound like wood splitting, and then locked up, bringing me to a screeching halt. I was lucky not to have an accident, it was so sudden. I got off the bike, unloaded all my gear, and took a good look. Several spokes had broken on one side, and the spokes, unbalanced, bent the rim toward the other side, jamming itself against the frame. The whole wheel needed some serious care.

Ignorance and arrogance - Both got the best of me. I needed to remove the gear cassette to replace the spokes, but I didn’t have the tool to do that. I was stranded. It didn’t take long to realize I needed to get to Addis Ababa to fix the wheel. I carried my bags out frm under the tree where I was inspecting the damage to the road. The very first car that came by stopped and picked me up.
We strapped my bike to the roof and tossed my bags and me into the back of the Land Rover. The people who picked me up were four Ethiopians that work for an NGO in Bahir Dar. It was great to talk about my city again! They were very kind, and took me all the way to the front door of my American friends’ house in Addis. I unloaded my bike and all my gear, went inside, and took a shower. It was Friday afternoon, so there was little point in trying to get anything done. I took the rest of the day off.

Day 12: Rest day in Addis Ababa. Saturdays in Addis are tricky, as most important places are not open for business – ie Embassies. Also, the African Union Summit was going on, making it near impossible to get around the city. Streets were closed and armed police were turning pedestrians away from certain routes. I wrote off the day and spent time with friends.

Day 13: Sunday in Addis Ababa. Everything closed. Rest Day.

Day 14: Monday! Time to get things done. I left early to get to an ATM machine for some cash. After that, I went to the Kenya Embassy to apply for my visa. They told me they need to keep my visa until the following afternoon, which annoyed me a bit.

Later in the morning, I was at the bike shop. I was able to get my hands on the tool to remove the gear cassette from my rear wheel, and then it was a quick job of replacing the broken spokes. To prevent future mishaps, I bought the tool I need to carry with me. I also bought 20 spare spokes since I’ve already exhausted my supply.
Back at my friends’ house, I spent the afternoon truing the wheel and tuning up all the moving parts of the bike. I tightened the steering, replaced the chain, rotated the tires, and inspected the bike from end to end. After a test-ride, the bike seems good to go, and I should be back on the road on Wednesday (Kenya visa coming late Tuesday). My pride is hurt a little since I was foolish enough to not be prepared for this kind of breakdown, but I will have to the tools and parts before I leave Addis again in case this happens again. I’ll hitch a ride back to where I broke down, and Low2High will continue from there. My goal of a total ‘human-powered’ expedition has already been shattered, but I’m still going to carry on. Lesson learned.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Days 1 - 6, Lac Assal, Djibouti to Dire Dawa, Ethiopia

Day 1 (January 18, 2011): After a fun, but expensive vacation in
Djibouti, it was time to start the big ride. The dive company through
which we snorkeled with the whale sharks also does a car tour to Lac
Assal. It’s apparently a fairly popular tourist attraction since it’s
the lowest point on the continent, is as salty as the Dead Sea, and
has had some of the highest recorded temperatures on the planet.
Sounds like a great place for a bike ride! We had a translator, since
none of us speak French, explain to the driver that 3 of us and a
bicycle are going to Lac Assal, but only 2 are coming back. The
interpreter laughed, asked if we were serious, and then smiled as he
repeated it all in French. It was an amusing scene, but we were all in
agreement, and we set off the next morning.

The drive from Djibouti City to Lac Assal took about 2 hours. We had
our own SUV, and the road is paved. It was my first chance to scout
out the conditions, but way too late to back out. As we kept going
further and further downhill, I started to feel like I made a mistake.

After visiting the obligatory craft vendors at every vista point on
the road down and hearing the military jets buzzing through the
clouds, we finally drove until we could go no deeper. The lake is pure
blue. There is nothing in it but saltwater. Nothing lives there
permanently. It was hot, but January is the ‘cool season’, so it was
only around 100 degree F. At the actual lake shore, we wandered
around, picked up big crystals of salt that resemble ornate
chandeliers, and took in our surroundings. We carried on to the main
shore, where vendors sell some of the same crystals we had just picked
out of the lake ourselves. The salt level is so high that anything
left in the water will be coated in salt. They were selling large
mammal skulls covered in salt. They were cool, but I doubt they are a
natural occurrence as I didn’t see any animals for miles.

We walked the shore some more, and the girls decided to go swimming.
They came back covered in salt from head to toe. I opted as my next
shower might be days away and I don’t need any issues with my skin
right off the bat. While they were swimming, I methodically assembled
my bicycle and loaded all my gear onto it. I added a 2-day supply of
water (16 liters / 4 gallons) which added a lot of weight.

I walked the bike down to the shore, shot some video, and rolled the
tires back into the gentle waves, making sure to only get the salt on
the rubber tires and not on anything metal. I stood with the souls of
my shoes in the water next to the bike, and Low2High: Africa was
officially a go!

I peddled the bike back up to our car where the girls and I parted
ways. I had been traveling for a week with Jennifer and Danielle, and
we were close through our 2 years of Peace Corps service in Ethiopia,
but this was goodbye. I don’t feel like I gave that moment proper
credence because I was so preoccupied. They took off in the truck, and
I started cycling. I was on my own.

The junction from the main highway to Lac Assal was 17 km away. I was
sure I could make it in the half day I had remaining. The climb was
constant, but gradual enough to allow me passage. However, about 30
meters above the lake, the real issue became apparent. The strongest
headwind I’ve ever encountered was blowing straight down the hill in
an unforgiving, constant gale. The breeze was hot and moist, and the
sweat was pouring down my back. Since we arranged our ride through a
tour group, the time was only semi-negotiable. As a result, there I
was peddling out of this hot hole in the earth in a 30mph wind at high
noon. Not the best planning. At around 1:30pm, after some pushing,
swearing, and messy urination, I decided it was time to find some

There are no trees. Zero. I found a rock with a slight lean that
provided just enough shade for my head and torso. It was good enough.
I stayed there until 3pm when it got a little cooler and carried on. A
few other tour groups passed me on the way up, giving me looks of
amazement mixed with ‘what an asshole!’

Up higher, the road was a bit windier. This turned the headwinds into
crosswinds strong enough to push me over. Sometimes I’d be forced to
lean over so far I’d have to jerk the handlebars to the side to
compensate. Next thing I know I’m perpendicular to the road with my
front tire sinking into the soft gravel shoulder looking over a 10
foot slope. I’d have to slam the brakes, get off, back the bike up,
and start again. It was demoralizing.

It started getting dark. Being close to the equator, there’s very
little twilight. I knew it was a full moon, an d the wind was calming,
so I thought about riding in the dark at least until the junction. I
never made it. It was too cloudy to travel by moonlight, and there
were no cars or people to be seen or heard. I pulled over short of the
17km junction, and pitched my tent behind a row of acacia trees,
hidden from the road.

I left the rainfly off of my tent. It was nice to have the breeze come
through, and I wanted to be able to see out. I fell asleep easily at

Day 2: At about 2am, I heard a car door close, followed by men’s
voices. The men walked into the woods where I was camped, probably to
go to the bathroom. One spots my camp, and walks over, assault rifle
in hand. He looks right into my tent with a smile on his face, says
something, but all I can reply is ‘non Francais’. The man says
‘Francais!’, gives me thumbs up, and walks back toward his car.
Another man walks over, we exchange the same banter, and he too
returns. The car drives off, and the world goes silent again. I can’t
sleep at all, so at 4am, heart still racing, I pack up my camp and
start an early-morning, moonlit ride. In my haste to get going, I left
my camelback behind. I didn’t realize this for several hours, so
decided to write it off and continue.

I reach the junction point as the sun finally rises. After all that
work, I’m still only 17km from where I started. Not the motivating
start to a day. I cycled the remainder of the road around the Gulf of
Tadjoura to meet up with the main highway. Once on that road, it was
faster going. The road is pristine tarmac, and the wide shoulders gave
me a large buffer from the trucks. The volume of traffic was low, so
most drivers went around me, leaving me plenty of space. Although the
highway is modern and a joy for cycling, the terrain on all sides is a
brutal desert.

A sandpit would be a nice way to describe it. I started counting the
mummified animal carcasses in the dusty grave to my right as I went
by. In the distance, small twisters of sand would kick up, travel a
bit, and then die off. Nothing seemed alive. Again, I’m here at high
noon. For a ginger on a bicycle, it was a living hell.

I made it to the last junction where the road splits to the 2
Ethiopian border posts. To the right, all the cargo trucks carry goods
through the west on a paved highway to Addis Ababa. To the left, a
less well maintained road goes south to the shorter, but harder
crossing to Dire Dawa. That’s the route I was taking. The gradual
uphill and still present headwinds made the going tough. I could hold
a steady pace, but was hot and exhausted. I didn’t even make it to the
border. I had to stop in the last town in Djibouti, Ali-Sabien.

In town, I asked for directions. The stoned-on-Chat men were useless,
so I asked some kids. They honestly didn’t seem to know. I turned
around and headed back to get my bearings when a man pulled up next to
me in his truck and handed me a bottle of water through the window. I
thought, Hey! What a nice guy. He asked me where I was going, and I
said I was looking for the road to Ethiopia. He said he was going in
that direction, and he’d drive slowly so I could follow him. When we
got to the road, he rolled down his window again. He said it was too
late to find a hotel, so I should stay at his house. Great!

His name is Sabir. He’s an engineer from Tunisia working in Djibouti.
He doesn’t speak French or Somali, so he has only one close friend in
town. A man from Pakistan whose name I have sadly forgotten. He came
over, and the three of us had a dinner of roasted sheep, grilled
potatoes, salad, and dates from Tunisia. It was a wonderful turn of
events. I had a shower, slept in a bed, and got an early start the
next day.

Day 3: After breakfast with Sabir, I hit the road. It took only an
hour to get to the Ethiopian border. The crossing was surprisingly
easy. I was stamped out of Djibouti, and was able to exchange some
Djiboutian Francs for some Ethiopian Birr at a good rate. The surprise
came on the Ethiopia side. After a bit of hassle crossing this exact
same border on the way into Djibouti (Ethiopia didn’t want to let us
out), and the massive ordeal at the Ethiopian Embassy in Djibouti in
which we had to work with the Ambassador himself (be warned, you
CANNOT get a visa for Ethiopia in Djibouti unless you are a Djibouti
resident. They changed the rule 2 weeks before our arrival, and they
only made an exception because we had been Peace corps Volunteers in
Ethiopia), I was expecting a giant avalanche of bureaucratic bullshit.
Luckily, I got through, no problem, and was on my way.

My good mood quickly changed when the road turned to shit. The best
way to describe it hard, wavy concrete, covered in cat litter, with
occasional sharp rocks sticking out of it. And of course, it continues
to gradually go uphill. This road went on and on for 200km. More on
that later.

At the town of Ayshau, there is supposedly a junction. Town names and
road signs are all but irrelevant in this part of the world, so I went
through the town, saw no junction, and continued on. At around 4pm,
Truck drivers started waving at me to turn around. I checked my map,
figured I was on the easterly road to Dire Dawa, but I want the
westerly road since it has more towns (towns = food and water). The
easterly road put me right near the Somaliland border as it was
getting dark. One man was very helpful with my map, and then pointed
to some mountains and said ‘That’s Somalia right there!’ Not
necessarily a bad thing, but combined with the warning from drivers, I
started to get a sinking feeling. So, reluctantly, after traveling
25km past Ayshau, I turn around and went all the way back. On the
upside, I got to watch a camel caravan walk across the desert at
sunset. It was a hauntingly beautiful sight that I would have missed
otherwise. It’s hard to believe that in the year 2011, people still
carry goods across the desert on the backs of camels. It was a jump
back in time, and worth the extra riding. Back in Ayshau, I hopped
over the railroad tracks and laid out under the stars for what turned
out to be a great night sleep.

Day 4: I waited until sunup to pack my camp and get moving so I could
ask people for this westerly road. Finally, a man was able to show me.
It follows the tracks just like it should according to my map, but
it’s even worse than the road I had been on. No vehicles are taking
this road. Bus after bus came barreling down the road from the day
before so, yet again, I turn around and head away from Ayshau to
travel the same stretch for a third time.

The mistake wasn’t really a mistake. I knew where I was, I just
thought I wanted a different road. Plus, with the information I had at
the time, I feel that I made the right call. I cost me 50km of riding
on a painful road, but I had a safe night and was passing through the
questionable stretch of road in the day time along with the other
trucks. All in all I played it safe, so I was content with how it
worked out. It did, however, mean I was in for another night in the

I carried on to a town called Biye Kobe. There is only one restaurant.
I stopped there, at some Shiro and eggs and chatted with the local
police. It was odd to see 10 police officers in a town of 50 people,
so I asked them about it. They said it was a high-security area so
they were assigned there. None of them actually grew up in the town.
The server was a Somali girl named Niami. We spoke in Amharic, and she
was amazed at my journey. I showed her my ‘I am not a spy’ document,
which is a copy of my hometown newspaper where an article about me was
written. She was so impressed that she said she loved me and wanted to
marry me. I politely declined, even though she was the prettiest thing
I’d seen in days. I hopped on the bike and rode until dark. I slept
under the stars again in a drainage ditch, hidden from view from the

Day 5: ‘Today is the day!’ I told myself. I had wanted to get to Dire
Dawa in 3 days. It was now day 5, and I’d had enough of this damn
desert. My American contacts were having a barbecue, and dammit I
wanted some! I rode hard. The sun was unforgiving, but the wind had
basically stopped. About 40km north of Dire Dawa I received the best
gift I could have ever wanted… tarmac! Even though it was covered in
gravel, it wasn’t rutted and full of holes like the last 100+ km had
been. My ass was grateful.

The bad news was it was a lot of climbing to get to Dire Dawa.
However, after another hard mountain pass, I saw my first glimpse of
Dire Dawa in the distance. I was so happy, I peddled non-stop to the
edge of town. I called my contacts, but they didn’t answer. I rode
straight to their house, hoping I hadn’t missed the big feast. At 4pm,
I sat down in a chair, opened a cold beer, and ate like a king. It was
good to be out of the desert.

Day 6: Rest day in Dire Dawa. A part of the bike had actually broken
on the ride. There is a threaded hole in the frame that a bolt goes
through, holding the rear pannier rack in place. The bolt had sheared
off, leaving the shaft inside the hole. I simply moved the rack to a
different pair of holes meant for the rear fender. Today, I was able
to find a machine shop open (on a Sunday!) that had a tap and dye set.
It was fixed properly in 10 minutes. I also had to patch 2 tubes that
had punctured, and of course, upload this blog and photos to the

The day of rest has been great. My body surely needed it, but I think
it’s good for the mind too. Tomorrow I’m off to Harar to feed some
hyenas and eat camel meat! It’s a big, 20km climb out of Dire Dawa,
but it’s paved all the wat to Addis Ababa, so I’m not going to
complain. I’ll update again from Addis. Until then, cheers!
Add caption

"The route from Lac Assal, Djibouti to Dire Dawa, Ethiopia. The yellow
dot is where I started, and the blue dots are where I've slept each

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Low2High is Underway!

Kyle left from Lac Assal, Djibouti (the lowest point on the African continent- 155m below sea level) on January 18 at 12:20pm on his bicycle. He is filming his expedition as he goes and will check in from Dire Dawa, Ethiopia in a few days.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Greetings From Djibouti!

Made it safely to Djibouti. I'm getting the run-around from the Ethiopian Embassy here about issuing me a new visa, but after speaking to the Embassador himself, I think we'll have it sorted on Monday. A little Amharic goes a long way!

I'm still trying to sort out a ride to Lake Assal to begin the Low2High ride, but we're not finding anything for less than a few hundred USD. Hopefully I'll find something cheeper. Tomorrow is off to swim with Whale Sharks in the Gulf of Tadjoura for some well-desrved R&R.

Hopefully I can update again before I go, but if not, hopefully I hit the road Monday.



Photo 1 - Cycling in Dire Dawa, Ethiopia
Photo 2 - The beach in Djibouti City
Photo 3 - Passed out in the hotel after 30+ hours of bus travel

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Djibouti Visa Secured

The reality of planning an expedition is a lot of forms, permissions, and paperwork. First, I need permission to enter Djibouti, which I got yesterday morning when my visa approved, stamped, and signed by the Djibouti Embassy in Addis ababa, Ethiopia. The Embassy was wasy to find, and the whole process took only a few hours. The employees speak English really well, and since I am an Ethiopian resident until tomorrow, they let me pay in Ethiopian Birr instead of US Dollars.

My multiple-entry work visa for Ethiopia will be null and void as soon as I leave the country. I'm traveling to Djibouti by bus, so as soon as I get stamped out of Ethiopia at the border, the visa is finished. I'll have to get a new single-entry tourist visa for Ethiopia at the Ethiopian Embassy in Djibouti City before I leave. After I cycle down to Addis Ababa, I'll have to get my Kenya and Uganda visas. It's a continuous process that has to be done in the right order.

The paperwork continues, not only to fully out-process from Peace Corps, but I finally verified my travel insurance policy. All volunteers get a free month of health insurance after finishing Peace Corps, so I'm extending that policy for the duration of Low2High. I opted for the more expensive policy which offers international medical evacuation services. I figured it's worth the extra money considering what the next few months of my life are going to be like.

My budget for the days I'm actually on the road is about $10 USD / day for food and lodging. I figure about 80 days of cycling, so $800 USD. It'll be relatively cheap to live once I'm actually going. In contrast to that, if I figure roughly $40 for each visa (a low estimate) x6 countries, that's $240, plus 2 additional months of health insurance for $326, and I'm at $566 USD. It's pretty incredible how quickly the other expenses add up. I haven't even factored in the cost of climbing Kilimanjaro, which will be the biggest of all. Conservative estimates are around $1,000 USD per person. It's a cash cow for Tanzania, and people will pay it. I hope that most of the money stays in the pockets of the people who guide on the mountain and work to conserve it.

I've gotten way off point here. I have my Djibouti visa! The first legal hurdle has been crossed. Fingers crossed that all the visas are this easy.

Time to study French some more.


Sunday, January 9, 2011

The Final Week

Addis Ababa may be a major city, but it's still Ethiopia. I came here a few days early to take care of visas for Djibouti and Somaliland and get my bike in for a tune-up. None of these have happened. Between the holiday, being out of town to visit my family, and the fact that everything is closed on Sunday, I feel that I've accomplished nothing. I'm starting to get nervous.

Monday through Wednesday are already booked up for Peace Corps business. There's a lot of paperwork, medical tests, and a departing interview I need to do. Somehow, I need to take care of all my Low2High business on the side in the same 9-5 schedule. Fingers crossed.

If all goes well, I'm heading to Dire Dawa by bus on Thursday, and then another bus to Djibouti City on Friday. I'm traveling with 2 friends. We'll have a day to enjoy Djibouti City, and then on Sunday we have a dive booked to snorkel with whale sharks and scuba in a reef. I can't wait to see the ocean for the first time in almost 3 years. Being a fan of the mountains, I never thought I'd miss the sea, but I definitely do. Diving will be a good vacation before hitting the road.

Monday, January 17, 2011 - I'll be off to Lake Assal, the lowest point on the African continent - 155 meters below sea level, and the official start of Low2High: Africa! If I can hitch a ride, I will, but Djibouti's reputation for being very expensive means I might be cycling to the starting line. I'll do what I have to do.

For now, I'm off to enjoy some cheap and decent food in Addis Ababa. I've been stuffing myself lately. It's better than the boring diet of eggs and PBJ I was forcing myself to eat for weeks in Bahir Dar. I'll see if I can talk my friends into getting some burgers!


Saturday, January 8, 2011

Visit with my Host Family in Ambo

In Peace Corps, our 3-month training is done in-country. When I first arrived in Ethiopia, I didn't go straight to Bahir Dar, but first spent 10 weeks in a medium sized town west of Addis Ababa called Ambo. I lived in a home with an Ethiopian family, eating their food, and sleeping under their roof. It was an experience like no other. I was a complete stranger to them, and I was lost in a new world where I didn't know the language or customs.

My first night, I was given a drink with dinner that scared me. My 'sister' poured it out of a pitcher into my glass. It was brown/grey, had chunks of something floating in it, and smelled like an ashtray. My first thought was, 'Oh my God! Is THIS the water you got out of the well?' I started thinking about all the lovely parasites I researched before coming out, and made myself sick with paranoia. I soldiered on, drank the drink, and alas did not get sick. In fact, I got a bit tipsy. The drink is called Tella, and is a homemade beer. The chunks were barley pieces that the strainer missed. It actually tastes a little sweet, and is now a favorite drink of mine at weddings and parties.

Getting back to the family... I was clearly lost. This family was kind enough to take me into their home and teach me suimple things like how to wash my clothes by hand, and how to catch a chicken that is still loose in the yard at dusk. Very helpful things for life in Ethiopia. Whenever we couldn't use words to communicate, we used a lot of pointing and miming, which almost always led to hysterical laughter. They had big hearts and made my training much more bearable.

The family is not traditional by any means. There's a mother and father, but they are in their 70's. All 4 of their own kids are adults, and living all over the world with their own children. 4 kids do live at the house, but they are from outside of Ambo and their families pay rent for them to stay at the house while they go to school so they don't have to commute. It's like they already had 4 adopted kids, and then they adopted me as well. One big, strange Ethiopian family.

Yesterday I went to visit the family for Orthodox Christmas. I wasn't able to catch a ride on a bus as the drivers were off for the holiday. I waited around and was lucky enough to hitch a ride in a car with a man in his 60's. He spoke incredible English. I told him I was a Peace Corps Volunteer heading to Ambo to see my Ethiopian fmaily. This just made his day! He then explained to me that in 1963, he had a Peace corps Volunteer as his 8th grade teacher in Ambo. Thjis teacher taught him English, but also encouraged him to be assertive and reach for his goals. It seems to have work as he's now happily retired, driving his own car, and bragging about how both of his daughters are doctors. Small world, and a gold star for Peace Corps' reputation.

I finally made it to the house at 4pm. Much later than I hoped, but I made it nonetheless. I was greeted with huge hugs, smiles, and enough doro wot to feed Rhode Island. I ate, talked, and had some more obligatory Tella. I went outside with the kids for an hour, and then it was time for dinner! I ate so much food that I thought I was going to rupture my internal organs. It was great!

My old room was made up for me to sleep in. The larger dog of the compound took up his old post just outside my door, guarding me from harm while I slept. I awoke at 3am to pee. I went outside and looked up to see some of the brightest stars I'd seen in months. Away from the city lights of Addis Ababa, and Bahir Dar for that matter, I was able to clearly see the Milky Way and dozens of constelations. With almost no light pollution in Africa, the stars could literally be the brightest almost anywhere in the world.

Morning came, and the feast started up right where it left off. Eggs, bread, and a local food called Noog. It's made from a yellow flower, and is burnt to a crisp. In the end, it's like a bad tasting cookie that resembles a hockey puck. I ate it, but washed down large pieces like I was swallowing aspirin. More Tella, and of course, a traditional Ethiopian coffee ceremony.

We were all so happy to see one another. The trip was short since I had to get back to Addis this afternoon. However, I'm swinging back through Ethiopia after Low2High to collect some things I'm leaving behind, so I'll visit one more time.

Biological or adopted, make time for family.


Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Twenty Percent

I've reached more than 20% of my fundraising goal (2,500 Pounds) already, and I haven't even left yet! Thank you all that have donated and helped put me over the 500 Pounds mark! Keep them coming! All donations go to helping the New Day Children's Centre in Bahir Dar purchase a new and larger compound to serve more disadvantaged children. 100% of your donation will go to this cause, not to me, and not to any staff salaries or overhead costs.

Donate to New Day Children's Centre


Final Days in Bahir Dar

Two years. When I applied to Peace Corps in 2008, I thought it would be impossible to spend so long in Africa. It might as well be ten years. Looking back, I’m barely scratching the surface of understanding Ethiopia after two years. I could stay another two, and still not know everything there is to know about this huge country in the Horn of Africa.

Today is my last day in Bahir Dar. I’m leaving on a bus at 5am to Addis Ababa, the capital city. It’s shaping up to be a busy day, which means I’m out of opportunities to enjoy some of the wonders of the city, like a walk along the lakeside trail. I’m heading over to the New Day Children’s Centre to donate some clothes and toys, and I’m having dinner with the staff and students. It’s the last time I’ll see them before heading out on my bike. It’s the last of many sad goodbyes.

Last night, the staff of my primary HIV/AIDS project threw me a small party. We had a traditional Ethiopian Coffee Ceremony, and had some good conversations about life in Ethiopia and America. After the party, the project manager took me out to dinner. He’s a very busy man. Between his demanding work and his devout religious practices, I rarely get to just sit and talk with him. We spoke of philosophy, and non-traditional lifestyles. He really likes that I’ve decided to see East Africa by bicycle. The fact that I’m 27 and not married is shocking to some Ethiopians, but he appreciates that I’m living my life the way I want to, and not settling down just yet. We spoke of the changes we’ve seen in Ethiopia, and how there’s a slow movement toward stronger national pride that could mean huge improvements for Ethiopia in the coming decade. It was one of the most fulfilling conversations I’ve had here, and it made me feel hopeful. After my final project was botched, it was good to reconcile and end on a high note.

So, tomorrow I am off. My bicycle and gear went to Addis yesterday in a private car, so I’m taking the public bus with only one bag. I’ll stay at a friend’s house for a night, and then travel to Ambo to see my host family from training for Ethiopian Christmas (January 7). I feel that I’ve said proper goodbyes to everyone in Bahir Dar, so I’ll say my goodbyes to my friends in Addis now. I’ve also arranged to store some things at an American couple’s house long term. My MacBook and bass guitar are not coming on the bike, so I’ll leave them in Addis and pick them up after Low2High.

For so long, this trip has felt like it’s so far away, but now I’ll be at Lake Assal in less than 2 weeks! It’s here. Showtime!