June 02, 2011

Transport, landscapes, books

Let us consider, then, the various modes of transport here in Ethiopa.

First, of course, there is one's feet; very popular, if largely due to necessity. A few people go barefoot, though most wear sandals. Earlier today I followed an elderly man with one foot sandalled and one bare for some time; we moved at the same pace, across gravel-dusted tarmac, though I was booted. Well-dressed women wear heels. And in Addis (though not here, so far as I can tell) running shoes are also very popular. Running is the national sport. At 6AM joggers rove all about Addis Ababa. Some are portly office-warrior types. Some are good. Some are really, really good. The best of the best - Haile Gerbreselassie (sic? Internet too slow to Google), the world marathon champion and record-holder - is Ethiopian.

Here in Axum, the bicycle is also very popular. This surprised me. The Chinese influence again, perhaps? It's not exactly Shanghai 1997 and its river of bicycles, but I don't think I've been anywhere else in Africa where people regularly bomb down the roads on a knobbled hybrid. I bet the mountain biking would be awesome, once you adjusted to the altitude...

My guidebook claims that horse-drawn carts or garis are everywhere, but that was then and this is now; they have been all but replaced by the tuk-tuk aka autorickshaw, painted brightly blue. The few garis I've seen were all scrawny horses dragging overloaded cargo.

Donkeys and mules (er, to my shame, I always have trouble telling them apart. One is smaller and has bigger ears, right?) are popular beasts of burden as well, cushioned with blankets and loaded with bags or bales of firewood. Sheep and goats wander everywhere, but carry nothing.

And there are camels. Camels! Don't get me wrong, I hate the filthy, stinking, malevolent beasts, but they do add a certain wild-frontier air to the place. One hump, in case you're curious, and generally loaded with firewood.

To carry more people, one requires a minibus, or a bus, or perhaps - I've heard talk of these, but haven't seen them myself - a luxury bus, one with a bathroom on board, and free water and snacks. I haven't ridden in a bus yet, to my shame; this trip is bounded by time more than money, which means I've been flying. I have been frequenting Addis's minibuses, though, which are basically exactly the same as matatus or tro-tros anywhere, albeit maybe in slightly better shape than most.


And what of the landscape through which one is transported?

Right now it is dry and stony. Watercourses are barren. The trees and grass are thorny, with one notable exception; Australia's backhanded gift to the developing world, the eucalyptus. (It grows fast, makes for excellent firewood and construction, and provides shade and food for animals - but it consumes a lot of water.) The rains are coming soon, everyone hopes, and indeed the skies spat a few drops on us today, and their thunderous deluge has already arrived in Addis.

And the stones - well. Granite, I think, rather than Lalibela's limestone? But I'm no geologist. Regardless, the landscape is hills covered by stones surrounded by rocks resting on pebbles. The new roads they are building everywhere are patterned cobblestone rather than tarmac, not least because the former are available everywhere. Walls and buildings are generally made of stones piled on stones. Doorways and windows are frequently stopped up with stones.

That last seems inexplicable. I would guess it's some sort of cooling thing, but in fact it's not that hot here; we are still two kilometres above sea level. The sun is bright and heavy, though, and at midday verges on deadly. I am sunscreened up but have twice worn my hat against the noonday sun nonetheless.


The style of this post is, I think, somewhat affected by the great Ryszard Kapuscinski, whose great Travels with Herodotus I finished today, alas. He is accused by some of having exaggerated or even invented some of his many exploits. I suspect they're right. I suspect I even know which ones, at that; there's an arch tone to them which is not present in most of his work. But he's such a good writer that I don't care, second only to Peter Fleming in my pantheon of travel writers.

I read it on my Kobo, which is technology's latest gift to travellers. Three books down (Travels with Herodotus, Surviving the Extremes, and The Outlaw Sea) and three to go (Where Men Win Glory, A Game of Thrones, and - er - Gibbon's Decline and Fall.)) I also started The Republic (it comes with 100 classics preloaded) but quickly grew tired of Socrates's stupid semantic games and gave up. It's easy to see why they poisoned him.

Tomorrow, back to Addis; and then, perhaps, Kampala? We shall see.

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