Travel is more than the seeing of sights; it is a change that goes on, deep and permanent, in the ideas of living.— Miriam Beard
"Southern Ethiopia in the Rain" is a chapter from Without a Spare, a collection of short stories.
Ethiopia defies description. I have never been to a more unique country. The Coptic art and floor-to-ceiling frescoed churches dazzled us, and ninety-nine percent of the time we'd have the places to ourselves. Sometimes when we left a hotel we'd have to make a run for our car because people would be waiting outside to spit on us. We never did figure out why. One morning as Barbara was wiping her arm with a tissue she said, "Did you ever think you'd get used to being spit on?" and we'd laugh because we had. Spit or no spit, no one was chasing us out of that country. We'd never seen a silver market like the one in Addis Ababa, the refined colorful baskets like those of Harar. Two months passed before we could even imagine leaving.
The United States used to have a large air force base outside of Asmara. Two young girls traveling alone in that part of Africa was such a rarity, all we had to do was show up at the gates and the guys would fall all over us. It was like that at all the bases, and since Germany they were our primary source of provisioning as we traveled. No one ever asked to see a passport or any kind of identification. We'd go to the post office, the guys would buy us burgers, we'd see a movie, then use their passes to get into the PX so we could shop. We'd buy enough to fill the trunk with nonperishable things and items easy to cook. Canned tuna, fruits, vegetables, boxes of spaghetti (these were the days before "pasta"), and mustard and ketchup to make the tinned vegetables palatable when we were eating directly out of the can in the car. One time it was almost dark when we stopped in a grassy area and I asked Barbara to put on the headlights so I could select canned food from the trunk for dinner before realizing I'd stopped in a locust nesting site. Barbara rallied for that one. I think because I got so hysterical, she had no choice. We were covered with three-inch-long panicked insects and I got the screaming meemies and fled into the car, opening the window a crack to throw the locusts out as I picked them off me. She got in the car and helped pull them out of my hair. The windshield was solid black with the creatures, pecking as if trying to get in. Life was imitating a horror movie.
We heard stories about the big rains in southern Ethiopia as far back as Egypt. Keep moving, we were cautioned, or you can get stuck for months. We did our best, but there were the border delays, political disturbances and the fascination of Ethiopia itself. So we did hit the big rains, or rather the big rains hit us. Insects the size of small birds smashed into our mosquito nets and everything turned to mud. We dug with shovels to get lodged rocks out from under the fenders of our car, scavenged through calf-deep ooze to find brush for traction when we got stuck. Barb would walk ahead of the car with a stick, directing me to areas where the mud was less deep. At night I slept on the front seat in a jackknife position around the gearshift, Barbara curled up in the back. Both of us were good sleepers, and if the cloth we draped over the windows to keep out the morning light had been thicker, we might have slept even longer than the seven hours we did.
We went days without seeing another soul. When we did encounter other people, it was the whites of their eyes we'd see before anything else. Nude tribesmen hid as they watched us brushing our teeth in the morning. The children always ventured out from the high bush first. When they were sure it was safe, they'd approach the car and entertain themselves decorating their bodies with our nail polish and lipsticks. A ball we made for them out of aluminum foil was quickly confiscated by the intrigued adults. Once we got badly stuck on an angle in a ravine, the left front tire suspended in the air. We read in the car for two days before a man on a camel came by who took our rope and pulled us out. Sometimes we'd have to sit in the car all day waiting for a break in the rain that was becoming a deluge.
We drove from dawn to dusk the times we could, and figured out we averaged a maximum of 3.4 miles a day. I kept our tattered old map and still marvel at the quarter inch it took six weeks to cover. But the flash floods that had created the gorges eons before were filling them with water and we couldn't get down and through with enough speed to get up the steep embankments on the other side. We had to accept the fact that we couldn't make it all the way and would have to stop at the first sign of civilization.
The first sign of civilization was a nameless truck stop with a six-room concrete motel and shared bathroom. Needless to say, except for the maid, Barbara and I were the only women. I'd call her when I had to go to the bathroom and she'd sweep the largest of the bugs away from the toilet and laugh at me as I ran in and out as fast as I could wearing high rubber boots. The place was a pit.
One morning when I was in a deep sleep, the maid came into our room, pulled me out of bed, and pushed me down the hall into another room. An overweight bald man with a badly pockmarked face was in bed and he lifted the covers for me to crawl in. There was money on his night table. Fortunately, he spoke English and I could explain that I wasn't a prostitute.
I learned he was a colonel in the Ethiopian army and the most important man for miles around. He spoke English because he'd worked with the United Nations in the Belgian Congo back in the fifties. Trapped with the unending teeming rain and nothing to do, we started having lunch together. Apparently the bombing of Dresden was not the only thing I hadn't learned in school. I knew nothing about European colonialism in Africa. The colonel's stories were riveting and lunches turned into dinners. He had a house in the area and his driver would pick me up and we'd each sit at either end of a long table while a servant in white gloves served us our meal. The formal setting was surreal considering the surroundings. One evening I commented on an exquisite large wooden sculpture of an African woman on the credenza. "Carved in the Congo," he said, "pick it up," and almost fell over when I did. Solid mahogany has an unexpected density and weight.
Weeks passed, the rains tapered, and Barbara and I decided to make a go for it. I was touched when the colonel gave me the sculpture as a going-away gift. "It's the first time I've ever given a woman a present for not sleeping with me," he said as we hugged goodbye.
It was challenging and difficult, but we made it. Barbara and I learned we were capable of much more than we'd ever thought. We left Ethiopia changed. Until that trip, we had gotten to the age of twenty-four with no idea of what it meant to be really cold, really hot, really thirsty, really dirty or really alone. A hot shower would never be taken for granted again.
When we crossed the border into Kenya, it was as if a real boundary existed. Only ten minutes in, the mud dried, the landscape turned into swaths of high green grasses, and two ostrich chasing each other ran by. When you're unprotected and see wildlife, the majesty takes your breath away. It's not even remotely like seeing animals in a zoo. The rutted potholed road turned to tarmac, and after four months of being jostled around, we'd almost forgotten what driving on an actual road felt like. "Can you believe how smooth it feels when the road is paved?" we kept repeating. We had another opportunity to laugh at ourselves when we stopped and, once again, had to roll newspaper into an improvised cone to fill up the nearly empty gas tank. Neither of us had thought to buy a funnel.
Six extraordinary memorable months had passed since we left Alexandria. If we had known back in Egypt what lay ahead, we might not have attempted the trip. But inshallah, it looked as if we would be in Nairobi in a few more days.