Part One of My Grand Adventure
I want to tell you a story.
The most eventful, exhausting, exhilarating, odd, I mean eclectic, let’s keep the alliteration going, day in Ethiopia to date.
It starts simple enough. I have to go to. Gore, the town about 3 hours away to open up a bank account the Peace Corps has been bugging me to get. Everything is going well, I have a normal breakfast of deep fried bread (pasti) and wash it down with sugar laden tea (Ethiopian tea is 2 parts sugar 1 part tea).
I am pacing up and down the road in Lalo waiting for a bus or truck to head to the next town over, Gordomo,to then take another bus to Gore. I wait there for about 10 minutes and see nothing, no big deal. Although, I want to go soon so I don’t get stuck walking the 8 miles from Gordomo to Lalo on my way back, it has happened twice already.
It’s about 9:30 A.M.. I see two Isuzu flatbed trucks come along and park on the side of the road. I walk up and ask them where they’re going. They say Qoci. Never heard of it, shoot, oh well.
I sit down and grab some coffee. There are coffee places everywhere, I’d estimate around 30 in my town of 7,500, probably more. As I sit there sipping my coffee, locals keep asking them to join them, they are using a word I don’t understand and say celebration.
I have a task, sorry fellas, gotta open a bank account. I see two of my neighbors, who work for the government and speak a good amount of English, hop in the truck. I meander over to Garama and Sisue and ask them what the heck they’re doing. They invite me come to some caves with the tourism department to have a town celebration that only happens once a year.
The bank account can wait, a town celebration! I can’t miss this. Sorry Peace Corps.
I hop in the back of the Isuzu. Let me take a minute to explain what it’s like traveling in the Isuzu. It has a flat bed with bars surrounding it maybe 12 feet long by 6 feet wide, slightly larger than the back of the truck but not by a whole lot. The goal is to stuff as many people as possible into this flatbed. That means 40-50 people shoulder to shoulder, butt to butt, chest to chest. Personal space is unfathomable in Ethiopia. I always chuckle about what it must look like to the people we pass on the side of the road. 50 people in the flatbed of the truck and one giant, white dude sticking out (people don’t believe I’m 23 because they think I am too big). Needless to say I get a lot of stares.
Back to the story.
We’re on our way to this place Qoci. Sisue and Garama say it’s 20 kilometers away – sounds good. The ride is bumpy as usual, dirt, rock laden, mud roads make for an adventure every time. Since I live in the rainforest, it, well, rains a lot here. On this lovely morning our Isuzu got stuck in the mud. Whelp, nothing to do but grab a winch and pull the truck out. I’m in a good mood on the way to the caves, I can help out. Me and 20 other guys pull the truck out of the mud. My community is eating up every minute of watching this foreigner get dirty.
I would like to point out my attire at this point too. I am wearing a gray button down shirt, pleated, dress pants and black dress shoes (Thank you Marshalls). Remember, I was planning on going to the bank.
We hop back in the truck and are on our way. Shortly, we stop along the side of the road and Garama says we’re close, just have to walk to the caves.
Cool, sounds good. We walk up a small hill and one of the leaders of this excursion Khalid is walking with me. He asks if I want to slow down. I joke and say “No! Ani Figa!” (No, I will run).
Everybody laughs then I start to jog up the hill spurring dozens of Ethiopians to join in with me. Little did I know how much I would regret those words.
We walk about a mile through farms. Khalid says we’re here. I’m thinking great, perfect walk to get a sweat going. I was a bit winded, it’s hot and humid out. We weave our way through a tiny farming village with children gawking wide eyed and staring at the first westerner they had ever seen.
Odd place for caves but whatever.
Khalid says ohh it’s just up this mountain. What? Up this mountain?
Turns out nobody but a few locals had ever been to these caves. This was more of a city wide scouting expedition for the tourism department lead by Khalid.
They brought an actual tape measure to measure the distance. Well, this could get interesting.
Off we go.
These caves better be good. We, 100 Laloins and I, are trudging through the rainforest on lightly used farmers paths. We go about a mile and every boy under the age of 20 has already run past me.
It’s a pretty walk, the different shades of green in the forest match the variety of shades of gray in a Wisconsin winter. I’m sweating, but enjoying myself, there’s no shame in walking with the middle-aged men and women, they are the world’s best runners for crying out loud. Then we turn directly up the mountain, any path nowhere to be found.
We must be close. A mile goes by. Sweat is cascading down my face, infiltrating every crevice of my body. I’m long regretting the decision of walking up a muddy mountain with flat soled, dress shoes.
The astounding fact is the Ethiopians are wearing nothing more than sandals. I can only gripe to myself. I have fallen to the back of the pack but there is a group of about 5 Ethiopians staying behind with me. They are constantly telling me “Jabadhu.” “Azio” “be strong” in Afan Oromo and Ahmaric.
About this time I swallowed my pride and accepted a helping hand up a muddy incline. An infuriating aspect of my life in Ethiopia is Ethiopians don’t sweat. It looked like they were taking a leisurely walk down to the market. Meanwhile I’m red as a cherry, have deep bags under my eyes and look like I just jumped in a pool with my clothes on.
Since then I have learned this is a common Ethiopian trope discussing with other Peace Corps member. Ethiopians wear pants from birth in the scorching sun and, are genetically inclined to being wonderful at trekking long distances.
The last mile the Ethiopians including Khalid have formed a pack around me. Two to lead and three behind me, for when I slip.
Thoughts going through my head include: what am I doing? Why John, why? These people are freaks. These caves better be the 8th wonder of the world.
At what point do I throw away any pride I have left and ask to rest. Dress shoes, damn dress shoes John. I wonder how far I’d tumble down this hill if these Ethiopians weren’t here to catch me.
Then the last 100 yards happened.
I can hear the Ethiopians at the top shouting “John! John! Jabadhu!”
Phew, made it. Not quite.
The last 100 yards were at such a steep incline anyone, not just the klutzy foreigner, had to grab trees to walk up. I’m the last person up, literally behind the white bearded grandpa with a walking stick, so any foliage to gain traction is long gone.
God bless the Ethiopians. The younger men walked down to me, grabbed onto a tree then reached out to grab my hand, at this point, carcass.
All but carrying me up the last little bit. I made it. A shell of myself, but I made it. Now, where are these f—- caves.
THE BEST IS YET TO COME —- LOOK FOR PART TWO IN A DAY OR TWO.