(From a long, long time ago, when travel called and we answered readily, “drinking life to the lees”, as Tennyson would have it.)
Meki, Ethiopia – At the unkind hour of 5:49 a.m., a gentle rap on my door stirred me from a fitful sleep. It was the morning after the wedding in Meki, and we were off to Arsi Province and needed to make an early start of it.
Our driver – a man we took to calling Big Belay to differentiate him from our friend and host, Belay Wolashe, the runner – was evidently suffering from a keening hangover, as we found him passed out in the back of the Range Rover incapable of assuming even an upright posture, much less his driving duties.
“Big Belay, he sick last night,” said friend Belay, master of the obvious, in explaining the incense sticks burning throughout the car.
It soon became clear that the two Belays, cousin Andinet, and his friend had all slept in the car last night, as Mike Long, Rich Jayne, and I had taken the only three remaining single rooms at the tiny Ghion hotel.
Finding this out after the fact made us feel guilty as hell, but we hadn’t realized – nor been told – that there weren’t enough rooms to go around when it was suggested all three faranji (foreigners) bunk together in room # 8 last night. After our protestations, rather than inconvenience their guests, our friends simply acquiesced and slept in the car.
By 6:20 a.m. we were on the road, a mangy collective of mouth-breathers until the warm air could divest the vehicle of Big Belay’s overnight involvements. We soon dropped Andinet and his friend off upon coming to the main road to Addis Ababa. Then we continued on our way toward Asela.
After another hour, the Range Rover began to misfire, until we finally were forced to pull over to the side of the two-lane road. Parked atop a high wind-swept vista overlooking the Awash National Park, we took note as the Range Rover’s starter churned unsuccessfully in its attempt to catch.
No Triple-A to call here, so the two Belays got out and stood peering into the engine compartment searching for clues with a clutch of woefully inadequate tools they found in the boot. We were having another of what our Belay called, “oh, it is no problem” problem.
Conical thatch-roofed mud huts called tukuls, common in the countryside of the Arsi region, sat bunched some 100 meters off the road atop this pearl in the string of surrounding mountains. The valley below spread for miles upon miles, a misty washed-out hew of brown grassland partially covered in scrubby bush and accented by airy-topped Acacia trees.
Finally, Big Belay emerged from the raised hood with the carburetor in hand, holding it up for inspection before blowing out the dust that had clogged it. Satisfied with his work, he quickly reassembled and refitted it. Amazing. And off we went.
After driving through kilometer after kilometer of open brown mesa, Arsi Province presented itself as the first area where trees grew upon the hillsides. Located in the Oromia Region about 175 kilometers from Addis Ababa, the city of Asela sat in almost the exact center of the Ethiopian land mass. With a population of around 50,000, it had given birth to many of Ethiopia’s greatest athletes, including, most famously, two-time Olympic 10,000-meter champion and numerous time world record holder Haile Gebrselassie.
Back in Addis, we had arranged to meet national marathon coach Dr. Yilma Berta in Asela. But after scouring the town along its dusty streets, including a visit to the local track, there was no sign of him. At one stop we heard we might find him at the town’s high school where there was a meeting of the Arsi Sports Administration.
When we arrived at the school, we were escorted up to the second-floor auditorium where we discovered the meeting already in progress. On the stage, a man was making his presentation, so we quietly made our way to the back row of chairs where we sat, scanning the room for Dr. Yilma.
“Do you see him?” I whispered to Mike, who just shook his head.
“Belay, where is Dr.Yilma?” he inquired.
After we sat there for a while listening, the room itself turned quiet, and every head, maybe 80 to 100 in all, turned in unison to inspect us. Well, (cough, cough) we soon found out this wasn’t a sports administration gathering after all, but a town council meeting.
Feeling quite a bit sore-thumbish, we got up, and in as dignified a manner as we could, exited the room. Seems Dr. Yilma had left before our arrival, but had already met with the regional coaches.
LUNCH IN NAZRET
On our drive back to the capital, we stopped in Nazret to call our hotel in Addis to ensure our reservations for the night. We found a phone at The Mereb Butchery/Restaurant, so of course, Belay bought half a raw cow, and said, “bela, bela. Eat, eat.”
“Belay,” I said, “I do not have stomach enzymes or parasites which are used for breaking down raw meat. I’ll get sick. Then what?”
I didn’t want to cause the grown father of three to weep openly in front of onlookers, but I held my ground just the same until a small cast-iron charcoal brazier was brought out especially for me. Rich and Mike were more conforming, and after the meat had been taken off the wooden rack and carved into dark, blood-red chunks by the butcher, they dug in.
Since we were eating at a between-meals hour, why not drink in the same fashion? Release the hounds of alcohol! And so out came bottles of Gouder Red wine, produced by Awash Wineries. 11.5% alcohol by content.
We drank. We ate. Belay was again my friend (at least for the next hour and a half when he’d next want to stuff more food down my throat). Three bottles of wine, meat for five – prime cut – six bottles of Ambo water, and six Cokes, total cost, 104 bir ($14US.).
By 5:30 p.m. we were again on the road to Addis as dusk settled over the wide expanse of interior Ethiopia. Finally, with 519 kilometers behind us for the day, we at long last checked back into the Crown Hotel in Addis Ababa.
While the loss of my luggage by Alitalia had branded the trip to date, I had yet to be put off my water. The experience of the Ethiopian people themselves, especially in the person of our friend Belay Wolashe, has been transcendent.
The jarring travel along dusty, broken roads up mountains and through narrow, clogged streets at break-neck speeds had reflected the general bureaucratic impediments one must all but assume in this part of the world. Yet despite the endless palavers with officialdom, conversations that never quite amounted to yes, but correspondingly never managed to achieve nullity, either, failed to besmirch the positive experiences we had encountered.
Whether in Addis, the capital, or in the countryside towns like Meki, Asela, or Nazret, – even in the vacant expanse of the endless areas between – the people had been inquisitive, gently wanting, but always smiling and courteous. Consideration of one’s guests as honored people remained constant. A sense of responsibility to others that convenience and the drive to achieve, whether in life, liberty, or the pursuit of happiness had somehow excised from our own society.
“Come, my friends, ’tis not too late to seek a newer world.”