Biking 2016 - Ethiopia - Day 1

- by Fred Schlomka -
Day 1 & 2
27th & 28th January
Tel Aviv - Addis Ababa, Ethiopia

Up early and off to the airport. Sunita was a sweetheart and drove me at 5.30am. The packing had been a bit frantic the day before but I managed to do a partial dismantle of the bike and cut down the box to 1/2 the original size, on the theory that a smaller box, properly bound with rope handles, would facilitate gentle handling by the airline employees.

After an uneventful four and a half hour flight I extracted the bike from baggage claim. The box was in good shape but upside-down with the large printed ‘UP’ arrow, pointing to the floor. Oh well it was a good idea.

Customs was a bit of a giggle. I had heard that they sometimes charge customs duty on bikes because the resale value of good bikes in Addis Ababa is very high. So my strategy was not to stop at the customs counter and brazen it out. I had just paid $50 for a 2-week visa and was not about to shed any more precious dollars.

I just kept walking as the customs officer asked me where I was from and if there was anything else in the box. I called out “jerusalem” - “and it’s just a bike”. At the mention of Jerusalem a big grin spread over the officer’s face and he waved me on. First hurdle passed.

My driver, Sheme, is waiting as planned. I enter another world. The Land Rover had a door hanging off on one hinge, non-functioning seatbelts, and gave a loud belch of acrid smoke as we drove off. It is warm. Hot even. There’s a pungency and a texture to the air, which combined with the 2,400-metre altitude for a potent mix. I hang out of the window to drink it all in, likely shortening my life by a few months at least.

New construction is everywhere. Multi-story concrete buildings are being erected, temporarily held up by spindly-looking this logs in leu of steel scaffolding. They look scary - ready to tumble down. We hurtle along a 4-lane road (I hesitate to call it a highway) into the city. Shanty neighbourhoods are everywhere. Mostly rough concrete-block single-story structures with corrugated iron roofs. Some have blankets instead of windows, and everywhere a sea of people surging this way and that.

The roads are surprisingly clean, and street level entrepreneurial activity is everywhere, from shoe-shine boys to old ladies frying donut-like fingerfood and an old man with an ancient mechanical sewing machine under a greasy awning. This is my kind of town.

The Orange Lion Guest house is near the top of a steep cobble-stoned hill and surrounded by a 4-metre wall topped with razorwire - a reflection of the massive disparity between Ethiopia’s neuvo-rich and the other 99%.

Jos greeted me. We are colleagues with similar social/business missions. He has been bringing groups of deaf people of tours to Israel & Palestine and Green Olive has been assisting. His company also is conducting tours in Ethiopia and part of my visit is to forge a new chapter of our relationship. Green Olive will soon be offering cultural tours in Ethiopia, and some biking tours.

I go for a walk past the Israeli Embassy to find a sim card in a strip of phone shops and am successful. Not too expensive too, which is interesting since a single company seems to have a monopoly on mobile services. I had my photo takes and also my passport photographed. Apparently the government wants to know exactly who has each phone.

As I pass the Israeli Embassy again on my way back to the guest house, a plain clothes cop blocks my path backed up by two serious guys in uniform with semi-automatic weapons at the ready. Suspicions were aroused by a white guy (me) walking past the Embassy twice. I entered the country on my UK passport but I tell the cop I am also Israeli. More suspicion. He was polite enough but I was clearly detained while he telephoned Embassy security who sent out an Israeli agent to check me out. I presented my Israeli ID card and soon all was well with smiles all around.

I take Jos out for dinner. We walk through barely lit alleys and streets to a hole-in-the-wall establishment where we enjoy a meal of mixed fruit shake, Injera (local flat bread) and an amazing salad of mixed veggies and fruit. I learn that religious Christian Ethiopians are Vegan for two days a week by order of the Church. Go Vegan !

We following morning we have a 7am meeting with another colleague who is an avid biker and organises biking tours around the country. Very productive meeting, and hopefully we’ll have some bike tours up and running by summer.

I put my bike together. There was a moment of panic when I thought I had let behind the front axle, but it eventually appeared. I had a bit of an audience from the friendly hotel staff and a helping hand when needed.

Then Jos and I, and a couple of his clients, went off to meet the Director of Dires, a local NGO that specialises in programs for disabled people - sports - business development - teacher training and more. It was very impressing. We are planning to integrate visits to their programs into the tours. I also witnessed my first Ethiopian coffee ceremony there. It’s very similar to the Bedouin ritual.

We scooted around the city via public transport, which in Addis means squeezing 16 people into an 8-seater van. The fare was about 12 US-cents or 50 Agorot for a 20-minute ride.

Lunch was the most delicious mixed fruit shake, expertly layered with pureed avocado on top. Certainly the best smoothie I have ever had!

Now late afternoon I am squirrelled away at the Beshale Hotel, an allegedly 4-star establishment with wifi - $1.50 for a 24-hour password. Not too bad.

Fred Schlomka is the CEO of the Green Olive Collective. He spends months adventuring on the road with his bicycle each year, while managing the organisation via phone and laptop. If you are interested in joining Fred on one of his adventures, please contact him through this link.


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