Cape Town to Cairo 2012

Day 49 to Day 50 - July 15th–16th

The road to Gonder was a short one, about 180 km.  The condition of the road was excellent.  We traveled up through dark green valleys and down through rocky canyons with incredible vistas.


The farmland was clearly lush and fertile, but broken into small tracts, with most of the land reserved for grazing animals.  It is the rainy season here, and though it looked like good farmland, the plots seemed too small and ineffectively managed, which is typical of a subsistence farming economy.


The biggest problem we’ve had on this stretch is that there is very little gasoline.  We checked with five stations, and they were all out of fuel.  We finally horned our way in to one of them and got some fuel. The owner said the problem was logistical—stations waiting on deliveries and so on. The infrastructure is sorely lacking.

Today’s ride to Gonder from Bahir Dar had far fewer pedestrians on the road, which made it much less crowded and more for relaxing for us.  Yesterday was Saturday, market day in Bahir Dar, and the throngs of people walking alongside the road bringing wares to sell were reminiscent of the World War II newsreels of refugees.

We had been told to be extremely careful as we travel through the villages in Ethiopia.  One motorcyclist with whom we talked when we were traveling farther south mentioned that a parent had thrown a child in front of him.  He was unable to swerve away in time, hit the child, and was then brought up on serious legal charges with the family wanting money for the child.

We were very conscious of driving slowly in congested areas and being careful not to hit pedestrians, so at the time we were not as concerned about being hit by pedestrians.  But twice on Saturday, small rocks were thrown at me. One hit the bike; one hit me. Several times people lunged at me as though they were going to jump out in front of me, I assume to get a dramatic response.  Several times people swung sticks at me, but they didn’t manage to make contact.  Today I was rushed by three teenage boys.  One swung a stick.  I ducked and braked at the same time, clipping the side of Vince’s pannier, twisting it.  I was definitely following him too closely.

We wondered why they would menace people driving by on motorcycles – is it poverty, envy, or the fact that my jacket is red?  Is it because the four of us are usually stretched out some distance apart, so there is too much advance notice of more motorcycles coming?  I attributed it to teenagers being bored and having nothing else to do, as in the old maxim, “the devil makes work for idle hands.”  This dynamic, however, will have more serious implications in the years to come for managing a country like Ethiopia with rampant unemployment, where a population bubble of young people moving through the 18-25 age group can cause severe disruptions if their needs are not met.  The 18-25 age group populates the “soldiers” behind most revolutions.  This is an important age group to keep happy.  We later discovered that a couple riding behind us had been hit or lunged at a total of 19 times!

The gasoline problem of the morning got more severe, so Helge brought six gallons of gasoline back to our hotel in Gonder to fill our tanks enough to get to Sudan.  Hopefully there will not be a fuel problem there.  We recently heard that the Sudanese have been rioting over an increase in the price of gasoline.

We sniffed out some hotels and found a glorious one at the top of a promontory looking down on Gonder.  The hotel was magical.  There was a festive atmosphere there, with a lot of locals watching television and a Japanese group on some sort of tour. The hotel staff polished our boots and our motorcycles, eager to help in any way.  The Internet worked in the lobby, and the rooms were neat and clean.

There we met David, a young man running his own travel agency.  He helped Helge and Vince find someone to bend back Vince’s pannier.  The man did an excellent repair job.  We learned that David was eminently honest.  We gave him a substantial amount of money to exchange into local currency.  He came back to us with an unacceptable conversion rate from his moneychanger.  We explained our dissatisfaction to him, and he brought our cash back to us.  This was an anxious situation because he had our cash and Vince’s pannier, but his honesty prevailed.  I was left wondering how this spirit of enterprise develops in the sort of environment we have seen in Ethiopia.

July 16th: Gonder to Gedaref

The road to the Sudan border had beautiful scenery:


and interesting stories.  Here is a man who is a devout Christian and is walking to an Orthodox church with mud on his face.


He explained that the mud is part of a cure for AIDS that a lady in the church had discovered.  He says this cure has made him a more devout Christian.  We met a younger man who had the same mud markings.


Move over Starbucks!  Here is lady who really knows how to prepare coffee with all sorts of spices and herbs – cinnamon and everything else you can imagine.  It was a dog’s breakfast of different flavors.


Helge and Vincent wanted to pack her up and take her back to Seattle to show them how to do it right.

Before leaving Gonder for the Sudan border, I deliberated whether it was worth hanging on to the bottle of Jack Daniels for the daylong ferry ride up the Nile.  I concluded that it wasn’t even close to worth it.  I also considered how hard it would be for me to adapt to the no water/no food regimen of Ramadan – we’ll see what happens.

The border crossing into Sudan was comparatively uneventful.  It took us almost two and a half hours because it spanned lunchtime.  At the border, a lady traveling alone had her bags entirely searched.  They were sewn together and the customs official probed the contents of the bags with long needles.  Though they were not particularly friendly, they were courteous and efficient.

There’s a dramatic contrast between Sudan, a Muslim country, and Ethiopia, largely a Christian country.  We saw far fewer children along the road. Sudan has a fertility rate of four; Ethiopia is near six.  Villages are set back further from the road.


The roads are in better repair, and the transportation system seems more efficient, with enormous Chinese-built European style buses that travel at high speed.


There are large-tract farms in the highlands, both with and without irrigation, and the use of agricultural equipment is common.  These big farms are clearly more efficient and are not based on a subsistence model as the farms in Ethiopia are. Overall, there’s a less impoverished feeling in Sudan.

After we arrived in Gederef, Sudan that night, Roger was scolded for taking a picture of a bakery.  Though the baker seemed delighted to have his picture taken, another man who was not in the picture seemed deeply offended.  We need to be very sensitive about taking photographs here and always ask permission first.

When we arrived at Gedaref, we checked into a hotel that would be a typical mid-class hotel.  For now we will call it a two-star.  You can tell a two-star hotel by several criteria:

-        There is bucket you can use to flush the toilet, and the handle of the bucket is not greasy.

-        The toilet paper, towels, and soap come within twenty minutes of checking in.

-        The shower, however, was a three-star shower.  It had hot water without the electrocution device that I have shown you in previous postings.

We met a teacher who spoke English well and wanted to practice his English on us.  He asked me my thoughts about the differences between Islam and Christianity.  I dodged the question by explaining the similarities: that both believe in the importance of family and raising children properly, the importance of providing charity for the needy, and the Golden Rule. He answered his own question by explaining that devout Muslims “live” Islam, whereas devout Christians practice Christianity.  Here are some of the features of Islam that he described:

-        Five times a day Muslims pray.  Everyone hears the imam – it is not something done quietly in a church.

-        There is a uniform.  For the extremely devout, a woman wears a burka with only a small slit to see out.  The more moderate cover their hair tightly.  That seems to be the minimum uniform for a woman in the Sudan.

-        During Ramadan, they fast during the day for one month and generally only work one-half day.  This is to give them more appreciation of what it is like to be in poverty and desperate need.

-        Friday prayers are devoted in large part to how you live.  For example, a prayer might be a consideration of how you should treat the handicapped or how you should solve domestic problems.

In short, Islam defines a process of living that does not leave a great deal open to interpretation.  My guess is that Ethiopia will not fare as well in the future as will Sudan.  I think Ethiopia will experience more chaos and will have a more difficult time dealing with the dissatisfaction of its population.  The big issue in most of the African countries is lack of benevolent leadership that helps the people and is more focused on enriching a tribe or family.  Ethiopia has had at least two governments elected by the people.  According to people I talked to on the street, both governments were self-serving and not responsive to their constituents.  One individual said that Ethiopia has already gone through two cycles of what Egypt is going through for the first time.  Obviously the Shia laws are not practical in modern societies.  Other Islamic disciplines might be very productive, as we have seen with the systems in Turkey.  Turkey is the gold standard for Islamic countries becoming effectively functioning democracies.  In Turkey, Islam and the army were important influences.  Islam provided a conduit to directly communicate with the citizens in a casual way at prayer five times a day, but in a stronger way at the Friday prayer which virtually every Muslim attends.  The army, generally made up of thoughtful people, provided both a secular focus and an oversight that was used sparingly most of the time.  On occasion they would interrupt a democratically-conceived process.

Tomorrow, we are off to Khartoum, where the Blue Nile and the White Nile meet.  When we get there, we will tour for one day.  Then we spend 3-4 days journeying to Wadi Halfa, where we will catch a ferry up the Nile to Aswan.  We will then continue through the desert all the way to Alexandria, where we will drop off our bikes to be shipped home.

Bahir Dar to Gedaref
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