Thursday, July 31, 2008

A nightmare in Gondar

Peter's already alluded to the existence of a story behind our staying in Gondar for nearly a week (it felt much longer). Indeed while Gondar has much to recommend it (e.g., fine churches, rugged landscape, an impressive castle), I can't image many travellers voluntarily choosing to spend such a period of time there.

The basic fact is this: while riding my motorcycle on the busy 10 kms of road from Gondar to Az├ęzo, I collided with a small child. Such an event is every overlander's nightmare and, for reasons that will become clear, the depth of the trouble is greatly magnified by the punitive and irrational nature of Ehtiopian traffic laws.

It was just before 9am and we (finally) departing Gondar in a convoy of five KLRs (!!!), having spent the previous day with Tom, Tyson and Yeremy at Six's first repairing and then haggling, with some urgency. Everything felt great: the temperature was cool, there was beautiful sunshine, the road ahead is every motorcyclist's dream and we were making an early start that ought to have put us within striking distance of Addis and therefore nearly back on schedule. All of a sudden, I nearly ran squarely into a pack of mules that came quickly out onto the road, seemingly from nowhere. Slightly separated from the lead pack, I reminded myself to take it slow on these unpredictable roads with their multi-dimensional challenges.

I pulled the bike into the centre of the road, as Peter says 'the safest place to ride a motorcycle', and checked my speed at about 50kms. All of a sudden, out of my left peripheral, I saw a streak. That was all the warning I got. There was really no time to react beyond a slight shift to the right in a vain attempt to swerve and sudden application of the brakes. The crunch was sickening and I knew immediately what had happened. After stopping the bike on the side of the road, I looked back and saw a small boy lying motionless near the left verge of the road. I feared the worst. Physically, I could barely bring myself to approach the scene.

Luckily the blow had been glancing rather than direct, since the boy had been running diagonally (with his back to oncoming traffic) instead of directly across the road. Clearly he had run out, most likely to catch his friends on the other side, without looking. Perhaps he believed the way was clear after watching the first pack of three bikes pass. In any case, I can say with a clear conscience that I am not even guilty of letting my attention drift; there was nothing I could have done to avert this collision.

The boy, Gashaw, 12, had broken tibia and fibula in his right leg and had taken a worrisome bump on the head. (As we left town his condition and prognosis had improved significantly; the hospital was preparing to discharge him completely to his family's care.) Immediately after the accident, someone from the gathering crowd urged me to put him on my bike and take him to the hospital. This seemed both impractical and dangerous, but before I could react, a man quickly gathered Gashaw's lifeless form, jumped into a crowded minibus, which then raced from the scene. The crowd then insisted that I wait for the police; a seemingly sensible course of action which we accepted (by this time the other riders had returned to the scene). I was encouraged by the occasional translation of witness accounts which invariably corresponded with my own experience; the accident was caused by the boy's carelessness.

In retrospect, waiting for the police was the right decision, even if it was not the wise course of action. While I have broken some laws and regulations in my life (e.g., speeding), I do respect the law and the police, but in this case the police were clearly working against my interests and the law was stacked against me. But even if leaving the scene of the accident could have saved me and my friends some grief, ethics demanded that we confirm the status of the boy's health.

Once the police arrived, in effect, the next phase of the proceedings began: the legal wrangling and financial haggling. Here's the rub: it turns out that Ethiopia has an administratively simple but outrageously unfair law that makes any vehicular accident involving a pedestrian the sole fault of the driver. Not only does this strain reason and 'justice' by any definition, but it flies in the face of the reality of Ethiopian streets where pedestrian do the stupidest things with abandon and regularity. One can't help but wonder if the street life in that country might be just a bit more orderly if this law were amended.

The bottom line is that I was civilly and, potentially, criminally liable for Gashaw's injuries. A government official told me that if Gashaw were to die, the sentence would be an automatic 17 year sentence. That was indeed a cold shower. But criminal charges seemed unlikely given two facts. First and most importantly, Gashaw's injuries did not seem 'grave' (that is the translation of the legal term most folks were throwing around). It was here that Yeremy and Tyson, medical students back in Canada, came to my rescue. They visited Gashaw in hospital on two occasions, speaking with the doctors and family, getting the latest prognosis, assessing the quality of the care and even leaving some of their personal stock of painkillers. They reported steady improvements and, most importantly, that the head injury did not appear serious or permanent in any respect. Irrespective of the remoteness of criminal charges, the term 'prison' slowly started to rear its head more frequently in discussions between the police and the flaky lawyer I engaged (he subsequently left me in the lurch).

The civil liability was more tricky and ultimately proved tortuous. I still find it hard to believe that I was held liable for an accident caused exclusively by someone else. In any event, the civil liability was a matter to resolve with the family or, if we failed to reach an agreement, in the courts. A court resolution would have meant the end of the trip and a lengthy stay in Ethiopia; neither of which were realistic options. Settling with the family was the only realistic option. Let the haggling begin.

These were not truly negotiations in the classical sense of two parties sharing and withholding information, seeking to swap items in a manner that creates value for both sides. This was haggling in its most basic sense. In fact, we didn't even need a translator or a common language. All we really needed was some time, a slip of paper and a pen with which to write our latest offer and counteroffer. The first demand was for slight north of US$10,000. We failed to reach a settlement that day.

Throughout that first day and the one that followed, my position was considerably weakened by the gleeful meddling of the Gondar police, who frankly seemed to revel in the whole sordid spectacle. The police played their role of slowly sawing away just above my knees by a) holding my bike as a 'prisoner', b) similarly holding my passport and driver's license, and c) ever increasing the frequency of prison talk in the presence of the family.

The only thing we could do shift the balance was to introduce some community pressure into the equation. In this regard, as with many others (e.g., when the bailiff finally arrived to enact the police chief's order to lock me in the slammer, Peter was there to insist that they first call our embassy in Addis and to escort me off the premises amidst much yelling and some clutching at my sleeves), Peter was super helpful. He tracked down a British woman called Kate who was married to a resident of Gondar and was also an active member of the community. She suggested getting some of the 'elders' involvement. She also suggested that a truly reasonable settlement might be about US$100-200. (Apparently a Canadian couple several years back had paid an amount equivalent to US$4,000 at today's exchange rate after the accidentally death of a child.) While her analysis of the 'reasonable' amount was slightly off – she discounted that we couldn't credibly argue that we were willing to try our chances in court because of the opportunity cost of time – her advice to seek some informal counsel ultimately advanced the negotiations considerably.

Ultimately, I hesitantly and unhappily paid the grandfather about C$1,700. Gashaw's medical expenses were expected to be less than $100. The payment felt unjust, injurious and distasteful in that I was supporting those who would seek to profit from the injuries of their loved ones. Perhaps this is small-minded of me, but even after some deep reflection I cannot see another alternative. Beyond the basic facts of the case, my impressions are coloured by several important events from the negotiations: the grandfather refused to shake my hand after I bade him 'salaam' the day after the accident; the opening demand of $10,000; the look of glee and greed on the faces of the family members as they counted their windfall as the police looked on 'neutrally'.

We were glad to leave Ethiopia. We had the impression that the children of Ehiopia, with their sticks and stones aimed at our helmets, shared this sentiment.

So Far Away From Me

I write from Nairobi. We've arrived after far too many days in Ethiopia and a rather harrowing ride down the Bandit Road.

We last wrote from Gonder where we had arrived after a night spent on the road in the mountains. After that day we took our bikes into be serviced at Six's in Gonder. He's a rather famous mechanic and he did fine work. He's also willing to try his hardest to rip off foreigners. He tried to charge us $1000 US for less than a day's work. We didn't bite but all future overlanders should be forewarned.

After two days in Gonder we started out for Addis. We didn't make it far before we had to turn back. It's Sam's story to tell and I shall leave it to him. For now I will just say two things. First, we spent four days in and out of various government offices; at one point narrowly avoiding an arrest by bluffing that it was Sam's right to call our embassy before detention by the police. As the police station had no functioning long distance phone and no police officer had credit on their mobiles we walked away. It's a two-bit affair in Gonder. Second, I've never been more impressed by Sam's composure and level-headedness. And those are two qualities you want in a person you are relying on to go with you across a continent.

We finally left Gonder and headed to Moyale at the Kenyan border. We made the journey in two and a half days, but not before having our breath stolen by the beauty of the Ethiopian countryside and the Blue Nile valley. And not before having several sheppard boys throw rocks andswing sticks and whips at us as we rode by. Indeed, our friend Steffan was nearly knocked off his bike by a boy (more likely a teenager based on his size) who had a real home run swing. This lead to a rather nasty confrontation with a series of villagers that ended with the boy's umbrella shredded in pieces. It's rainy season in Ethiopia and it's going to be a wet one for the boy. It's rough justice in Ethiopia.

As if to confirm how rough this justice is, I was hit on the head by another sheppard boy five minutes down the road. This too almost caused a crash and lead to another rather heated and badly communicated confrontation with a series of sheppards. By the end of our time in Ethopia we became accustomed to whips on the back and rocks to the windscreen. It's enough to say it soured me on the country a little.

We crossed into Kenya at Moyale and began our journey down the shifta or bandit road. It's worse than I ever imagined. The road is a 510 km track of washboard and lava rocks broken up in the middle by the town of Marsabit, perched on the side of a volcano, and ending at Isiolo where the tarmac to Nairobi begins. We were making great time on the first day before hitting the lava field at kilometer 120 or so. Within forty kilometers we both had flat rear tires. We spent an hour working on the tires in the heat before paying a driver to put them on a truck and take us to Marsabit where we repaired the tires the next morning. We rode with the forty other passengers who snoked compulsively despite the dozens of leaky kerosene containers and who were constantly concerned we were going to steal their packages. We arrived in Marsabit in the dark.

We left for Isiolo the next afternoon. We were again making great time, flying over the washboard at 80 km/h. But something had to give and I blew my rear shock at kilometer 160. We then slowly rode 70 kms to Archer's Post, mostly through the dark, where we called it a night. I had little control and crashed twice on the way, once pinning my leg under my pannier until Sam could pull me out. See 'compusure' and 'level-headedness.'

The next day we rode the final 30 kms of dirt to Isiolo and the 300 kms of tarmac to Nairobi. It was a bouncy ride for me, to say the least. We've spent the last day at Jungle Junction repairing the bikes. It's a legendary place for overlanders and well-deserving of its reputation.

We leave tomorrow for Arusha and then Dar. For those of you following the trip closely you'll know that this signals the excising of Uganda and Rwanda from our itinerary. We've lost too much time in Alexandria and Gonder to do this leg of our trip and we've cut it out with no small sadness. I've wanted to go to Rwanda for many years now, but it's still so far away. Another time.

We've had a lot of challenges on this trip and it's been much more difficult than expected. I've gone to bed quite discouraged on many nights. But I've also felt fortunate each morning to face another challenge and to have another day more interesting than the one before. I could write for a long time about the stark beauty of the things we've seen and the richness of the things we've done. The short version is that I am a lucky man to have seen such things.

It's going to be a race to Cape Town but it's something to which we look forward. It's so far away from us now.

Keep looking ahead. (And wish us luck!).

Gonder Show

This post is now ten days old. We've only now been able to send it up.

I write from Gonder, a beautiful Ethiopian city at the southern end of the Simian mountains. It's quite a place and we've had a great day so far. We can't say the same about last night.

When we last wrote we had arrive in Khartoum. I was nursing some sore ribs and a wounded pride and the desert had taken something out of Sam, too. Still, we departed from Kharmtoum with high hopes the next afternoon and we had a simply amazing ride to Gedaref. The change in landscape, housing, and people as you head towards the eastern border of Sudan is simply amazing. This is a country too complex to understand after one visit and we should hope to return someday.

We found a hotel that night with some great Italians we've been crossing paths with along the way. They deserve a post of their own. It is enough for now to say that we would not be writing from Gonder today if not for them.

After having dinner we returned to our hotel to find the proprietor dozing on a couch while two police officers insisted we reregister for the hotel. This is how two-bit police states work: you are asked to give your "fire" and "sure" names, these are put on a form, and then the form is most surely lost and never used again. But you must be careful not to balk too much at such a silly request. People here are jailed for taking pictures, for saying the wrong thing, for refusing to turn over passports to uninformed men without identification. So, this is the riddle of the Sudan: it's full of kind and honest people, it's blessed with a rich and diverse topography and no shortage of natural resources. But it's eating itself from the inside out and its President has been indicted for war crimes. It's a strange place.

We left the next day and crossed the border into Ethiopia. The change in wealth -- a steep drop, to be sure -- is striking. So is the bizarrely intense curiosity of the children and their habit of yelling "you, you, you" while asking for money, touching your bike, clamouring at your jacket and on and on. Don't take me as a person who does not understand the sources of this behaviour. I do, and I appreciate them. But it's quite a test of patience when one is changing a tire or one has just completed 20 hours on the road and is desperate for a tea and nothing else. Our day would include many such events.

Let me leave the description of our crossing to Gonder to short form, first because time is short and second because someone has donated good money to Spread the Net to get the first full account. But as I do, keep in mind that Gonder is only 210 kms from the Sudan border.

1.) We leave the Metema border station at 11 am.
2.) We clear customs 30 kms down the road by noon and finish lunch at 1.
3.) Sam soon notices he has a leaky back tire. It is not until 8 pm that it is fixed. The local tire guy and his crew of helpers do the job incorrectly several times. The Italians come and fix it.
4.) We begin the climb into and over the mountains to Gonder. It is dark and the dirt road climbs into another world. Our high beams tell us the mountains are green. Our ears tell us they are filled with animals. And some empty feeling in the stomach tells you not to ponder the edge. It is raining harder than I have ever experienced.
5.) I lose a ratchet strap which wraps in my back wheel getting into the brake and breaking three spokes.
6.) The Italian's truck breaks down. We take close to an hour to fix it on the side of the mountain.
7.) I get a flat tire in some muddy clay.
8.) We fix the tire, but no one can get out of the clay. It takes us some four hours to travel less than a kilometer. There is a breakdown in communication and I ride ahead three kilometers after I get going. The Italians stop to camp. Sam catches up with me and we pitch a tent on the road marking our spots with our bags. All of our warm clothes are on the truck. We freeze the night away. It must be 3 am.
9.) We wake up at 7 am to the roar of passing trucks. I leave the tent and find three sheperds staring at us. We pack and begin the ride again. The road has dried somewhat and the tracks passing by our tent have packed a trail. We head for Gonder, 30 kms down the road.
10.) Sam gets another flat. The patch from the local job didn't hold. We put his bike on a pop bottle truck and I follow them into Gonder. We arrive at 10 am.
11.) We find a local bike shop and a hotel. We share beer and pizzas with other overlanders we've met. The long day ends and we count ourselves lucky men to have seen and done such things.

We leave tomorrow for Addis Abeba. Keep well and keep looking ahead.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

One road, one desert, one rib

Hello All, We write from Khartoum where we've just received a message from the Canadian government advising all citizens to leave the country. No matter, we planned to depart anyway!

What a week it's been. We finally loosed the bikes from customs in Alexandia on Saturday, July 15. We raced into the desert that night and camped by the side of the road. When we woke up we saw the remains of a rather horrible bus crash. One can only imagine it had something to do with the Egyptian habit of driving at night without headlights. The next day we rode 18 hours to Aswan at the bottom of Egypt. We were slowed by a popped tire and by police convoys which insisted on escorting us, often at half the speed we normally ride. We made the ferry the next day, but not before having to swear a false oath to the police that we lost our front license plates, which we were never given, "while walking around Aswan." Absurdity and bureacracy walk hand in hand.

We arrived in the Sudan on Tuesday and waited until Wednesday for our bikes to arrive on another boat. We then left late afternoon to begin the long ride to Khartoum. The ride across the Sudanese Sahara is something to behold. It begins like a moonscape, all round black mountains and large rocks and occassion patches of sand. And deep washboard. This is best ridden at speed, but it takes some nerve. We camped after 150 kms with some other folks we'd met on the ferry.

We set out Thursday to make the 250 km run to Dongola, after which it is 500 kms of pavement to Khartoum. We had hoped to do it in a day. Here's a summation of why we did not:

1.) Heat approaching 50 degrees.
2.) Deep sand everywhere.
3.) Peter goes over his handlebars and crashes hard on his side.
4.) Peter gets taped up by a local doctor type who makes a clack with his tongue and a chicken-bone-breaking motion with his hands everytime he points to Peter's ribs.
5.) Sam rides Peter's bike to Dongola and hitches a taxi back.
6.) Peter hitches a taxi to Dongola while Sam and Steffan (a German we met) ride the last 30 kms of sand in the dark.
7.) Peter gets an x-ray in Dongola and the doctor assures him he sees no fracture. Unfortunately, the x-ray doesn't include the rib in question.
8.) Sam and Steffan find Peter sleeping in the hospital. He was taken back in after the police kicked him out from outside and a local attendant took pity.

We rode to Khartoum yesterday on a road built by Osama bin Laden. He's a builder, you know. And last night we stayed at the Blue Nile Sailing Club. Now, we live for Ethiopia. It's really been something so far and we're short on words and time to describe it all. But we will in good time.

Keep looking ahead.

Friday, July 11, 2008

With High Hopes...

...we tomorrow spring our bikes from customs. I am typing this on a wood keyboard.

Sam will be giving an itemized list of our adventure so far at a later date. It alternately boggles the mind, warms the heart, clenches the fist, and finds one grasping for words. Or the concealed contents of one's pockets.

Wish us luck! Love from Alexandria. Peter.

Monday, July 7, 2008


Hi Folks. We're still in Cairo, but we're told the bikes may be freed tomorrow.

This is really quite a wonderful, breathtaking, frustrating, and exhilirating city. It exists on a scale I have never witnessed before. I imagine only Lagos and Mexico City can rival it for its sheer chaos and activity.

Sam and I spent today getting a lot of small tasks done: more passport photos (and two big, free, and airbrushed portraits each!), some time at the Sudanese embassy, a letter of introduction from the Canadian Embassy, a beer at a nice hotel, a sail on the Nile, a visit to the Egyptian museum, a few meals on the street, some sheesha, and some medication for the trip. It really was a packed day!

Tomorrow, I get my visa for the Sudan and then Sam and I head to Alexandria to get the bikes. The fun is about to begin! Blogging may become sparse, but please check in regularly and spread the word. (And Spread the Net, too!).

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Cairo to Alexandria to Cairo

After a few days in Manchester and London, I flew into Cairo on Saturday afternoon. Sam, without his bags, arrived a few hours later. We negotiated a taxi to Alexandria on the coast and arrived just before midnight. We checked into a hotel on the ocean and then set out for some food and water and sheesha.

We woke up this morning and left for the shipping agent. With high hopes. As it turns out we have to wait for a few days before they'll be released from customs. It's a long story about how we kicked around Alex today and then arrived back in Cairo tonight. It's enough to say that it was a lot of fun, not a little frustrating, but overall an interesting start to the trip.

More to come in the next couple of days.
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