Ethiopia Retrospectum

[Originally published in the Bikepacking Journal no.2, 2019 with photos by Logan Watts. Shared here with my photos.]

Maybe none of us believe the myths of remembering as a transmission from the past through to a crystalline recollection. It’s refracted through drapes of emotion, self-narrative, the dreams since, and an assurance that the universe doesn’t tell or hear stories just one way. And so happenings have no precise tack of time, they’re an unfolding, created, cosmic elasticity with no static coordinates.

We’re hardly nine latitude degrees off of an equatorial December sun when we set out from the center of Addis Ababa. In my memory, the side streets and alleys and dirt paths across vacant lots seem incompletely constructed. An injudicious conceit that there’s such a thing as a finished urban landscape that resists motion and invention. There is density and exquisite noise, moiling traffic, geometric windowed blocks. These give way to a countryside of dirt lanes linking villages through hot farmland. This land right here, this land has been peopled as long as human beings have existed, so everywhere but especially here there can’t be the slightest pretense of being an explorer. Virginia, Joel, Logan and I have ridden enough, we hope, to have outrun that story. 

The sense of festival and buoyancy blend together, with every next collection of huts and buildings a crowd around us. Questions, curious touches. A school teacher beams as he takes us through mid-morning lessons, the principal and head of curriculum taking time to relate triumphs and horizons. We thread with care and revelation through dozens turning into hundreds of young people reaching out to shake hands. In another town, from the middle of a happy throng we order samosas and they’re passed ten hands through back to us, the money ferried to the shopkeeper, smiles glinting, and I whirl my attention around to acknowledge the shy, small wonderings. Do you get cold in Ethiopia? How old are you? What does your name mean? Are you Chinese?

We’re not explorers and we never were. We’re tourists, maybe more charitably we’re seekers after our own understanding, something achieved probably not as often as we wish. Pedaling in far-off places in the hope for transformation through seeing with one’s own heart what this world is, the ways and whos of it. Threshers waving from beyond the road, teenagers running alongside practicing their English, strangers insisting that we stop to share a drink. So many of the recollections of being happily received, invited in, looked after. It’s all real. It all happened. But they can shade into self-congratulations of our openness without a full reckoning of how our hosts felt about it. Again and again, then, we return to the memory to try to achieve honesty.

There’s a day riding through craggy swelter in Awash National Park to rendezvous with sunset in a tent circle that we create. Solo Ethiopians lead cattle parallel to the nearby train tracks, greet us with curiosity and nods, and at some point a group of men with walking sticks crouch with us, witticisms between them. We’re back and forth all of us, as friendly as our lack of a shared language allows, and when we bid goodnight and retreat into our shelters they linger for awhile in convocation, something familiar and fundamental to all of us no matter the chasms of culture. I’m asleep when they stroll off, no words are spoken of their gift of company. 

Then I wake to the sound of hyenas very close by. Logan murmurs something and we’re all open eyes now, radaring their loping movement around us. Hyena attacks on human beings aren’t unknown but they’re not common, either. I drift off again to their low to high whoop, taking on urgency just as we tamp down our fear, picturing their puzzlement at the thin fabric windshaking mounds. I don’t remember my dreams of that night, but hope that my body welcomed the anchoring vulnerability. 

There’s a river crossing at the edge of a medium-sized town. Cattle are prodded across in threes and twos, the deepest part of the water reaches their chests. Along one side is a zag of boulders for the stream of people with parcels on their back and heads, and for us as we suitcase our bikes. I’m most of the way to the other side, an old woman is taking studied swaying footfalls, each one wobbling a fraction before she commits. We reach each other, lock eyes, the dust on my face creasing. I try to say without saying. At that moment—a long time for creation—I’m cuing up my stupid transactional generosity, my wanting to be a good guest by being helpful, all my beliefs about honoring this person whom I want to welcome me. All of that will implode into memory’s inexistence and all there is is that we are two human beings accelerating opposite vectors. The resultant is her hand without hesitation on my arm, of course she heaves and leans and grips past me. She doesn’t, in her body or blink, thank me for helping her. It’s not that those rituals don’t ever matter, but here the better acknowledgement we can receive as travelers is for just an instant to become invisible in the self-assembling structure of a day.

In the pooling darkness we resolve to ask at a farmstead whether we can camp in their yard, this unfenced expanse where we can’t discern the boundaries or the beginnings. Our headlamps are on—we realize too late that they’re a metaphor for our selfishness—the light emanating from a sacral spot of consciousness for oneself to light just one direction. As we speak gently to try to make ourselves understood, we realize that the men who have come out of the grass roof hut are trembling and frightened of us, their hands raised against our threat. And we have no way to apologize, to tell them that it’s all a misunderstanding and to nervous laugh that it was us who were afraid as we walked up to them. Realizing that there’s no way to follow our light, as if it could illuminate the goodness that we think ourselves to have, we try to protest how sorry we are. Later, camping in a spare roadside clearing, we’re quiet with one another, trying to realize the humility empathy reason of our place in this place.

The storm that was so long mere in the distance finally crashes to the earth. Virginia and I ride hard for a few minutes to get to a covered mud pen, we squat shivering among the hoof prints of the animals that are kept here, and the woman in the nearby house registers us, doesn’t invite us in but doesn’t gesture us away either. The storm isn’t special, us needing shelter isn’t a crisis or urgent, there’s no need for a big show of the circumstances. That, I see now, gives it an equanimous legible reality that I should have appreciated more in the moment, though the cold and sideways drops shivered me elsewhere. I should have appreciated the community shown without disruption or remark, I should have marked that her wariness of us, the whos and the ways of us, was perfectly right.

The paths through the landscape that leap to our eyes, the worn trace of ground walked over coming home from school, the mule and camel tracks with the nibbled greenery on each side, the cart wheel double grooves—these are the lines that fit into our conception of movement and passage. Some are available to the satellites orbiting outside of all imagination and comprehension to form maps that then have to be validated, grounded in vibrant visceral reality. We’re following our own inscriptions on Ethiopia, hopeful that our writing is more or less translatable, hoping that it doesn’t cross or deny or ignore or void the traces that are already there. We encounter a man with his mules walking toward us, back bent and brow wrinkled from reading seasons. He volunteers to lead us; we follow even if it’s not the bits and flash of the direction on our GPSes, even if by compass or other impersonal marks of where and there it’s not what we intend. At that moment we want to read this landscape along with him, have him read it his way, our curiosity respect receptivity like the motes that we kick up trying to keep up.

We don’t go to places wanting to have people turn their backs on us. But neither is a place itself without its frictions, its fractures, its coping and expressivity. I’ve known my travel companions for a long time and have done countless trips in tough conditions with them. We travel together in a sense of openness that we try to sculpt into something different from naivete. It’s not true that if you just smile enough there will be an inevitable human connection and a guarantee of a happy ending with a story of how amazingly friendly everyone is. Thinking that it is true is just to bring yourself when so much is better left behind.

On a different day than the church or the river crossing or the school visit, the crowd of a dozen turns into twenty. Heartbeat, silence, heartbeat. Thirty maybe forty, and I’m separated from Virginia, Joel is at the edge waving his hand, we’d better go. I nod but I’m also trying to amplify and project calm, I don’t remember myself as frightened but as knowing that this situation demands alertness to ways of reaching across whatever might separate me and their angry faces. We strangers were on some path that the gathered villagers didn’t want us to be on, we don’t know why but that doesn’t matter because this isn’t our home. 

Virginia has called something out and it’s in a pitch that reminds me of looking out into the ocean from the beach and seeing an unusually formidable wave swelling and gathering. Logan’s near her now, and now that wave is louder, it needs to be quieter but it’s louder, and they’re trying to pedal as they’re getting hit with sticks and rocks and getting punched and yelled at. They’ve broken free, Joel, Logan and Virginia are now pedaling full tilt on the main road with a score of fist shaking figures in flight after them. I’m reciting postures of peace and a regard that though we don’t know what it is, we’ve done something wrong and for that I’m going to keep being open, keep returning to sameness over difference, keep insisting. I’m in the middle standing still, can’t pedal anywhere, not that I could have left, not easily, not, perhaps without being pulled and pummeled.

There is a crackling half calm, and the men around me don’t reveal a plan. Just let me go in quiet apologies, just let me follow my friends. No!, emphatic and final. Surrounding me, they hold the bars of my bike and guide me at a slow pedal. I think perhaps I’m being escorted to the edge of town where they’d let me free, but I remain captive far beyond the boundaries of the huts and small rectilinear government made buildings. There is no suffocating menace, there is no drowning immediate disturbance in the way we were together. Altogether sheepishly a teen walking next to me asks if I have money—robbing me would at least put a frame to it—and I say that I have only a little and that I need it, and this is accepted. I feel the sunglasses in my jersey pocket drawn out and now one of my captors is wearing them, he doesn’t seem of a mind to give them back and in me this is accepted. 

We walk fast for some time, maybe twenty five minutes. We’re all sweating in the evening stillness, I make decisions on who my allies are and perceived enemies. Are they escorting me to the mid-sized town that I know to be a couple of miles away and where I assume the others are anxiously looking back? I’m waiting and watching for something to change, to signal me into a course. A motorcycle with three riders rolls up traveling in the opposite direction, they stop and there’s an exchange. The words get shorter and quicker, the men on the motorcycle point to me, my companion captors shoo them away. I try out different translations in my mind, imagine the motorcyclists saying, let that man go, he’s just a fool on a bicycle, he’s neither friend nor danger, he just is, like clouds or yesterdays, just a part of life. The sky and ground are static but everything seems to me to be in motion. The twenty-year-old who’s been holding my arm so that I don’t slip away loosens his grip so that he can swing his stick and hit the motorcycle passenger across the skull. He comes off the moto and now chests and yelling and pushing.

I ride away, looking back then forward into the acceleration. 

Widening your arms to embrace someone is an elevating faith. There can be a selfishness in it, too, too much assurance, another thing forced on someone who didn’t ask for it. If you’re giving your warmth as something true, give it. The expectation of getting it back, that you will be embraced back, is only taking.

Four bikepackers were attacked by a crowd in Ethiopia. Who will remember it that way? We were in Ethiopia for twelve thousand minutes, we hugged the woman and her two daughters who in a corrugated steel shack made the best shiro we had ever had, we posed with a village head with his gun and grin, then chewed khat, listened to stories and howled joyously together. We stayed up long past moonset talking to the families who offered us ground to unfurl our curiosity and sleeping mats and confessions that we were there to learn and hear about ways that are different from ours. Virginia teamed up with a group of women to move their goods and her bicycle over boulders, Joel was waved to the cooking stall because the three laughing, fist bumping men wanted their pictures taken. We slept on the veranda of a church on a hilltop and embraced everyone who climbed to see who we were to sit and eat and party from music played out of mobiles. There were especially orange pink sunrises. I remember the texture of the dress fabric and headscarf on a cattle woman who sat to help us clear the mud from our wheels. 

The only tiny thing we gave back, all we could, is that we respect that we’re alive together and making meaning together and writing and rewriting memories. We are not owed anything, not kindness or regard or being taken care of. If these things are not given, we still owe our own herculean colossal effort of understanding. 

Of Ethiopia I remember we left early in sadness, and I remember now that I’m not sad to have gone or seen or been.