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Just Another Day in Paradise: When an AK-47 no Longer Makes You React…

June 26, 2012

After being out of Africa for almost a decade my mini-adventure last weekend, complete with a crazy driver, lots of baboons, and a couple of AK-47s, was a good little re-introduction to the Continent.

With two new foreign friends J and P, and our Ethiopian friend, Y, I was headed to the Negash Lodge and Mount Wenchi, a few hours outside of Addis.

View over Lake Wenche, Oromia, Ethiopia

P reasonably decided he wasn`t comfortable risking the company car on the mountain roads. His car is a Toyota forerunner, maybe 5 years old. Well I had to laugh when the car we rented instead showed up at our door, a completely delapitated 20 year + Toyota visibly on its last legs. What we didn’t know when we agreed to rent the car was that it came with a mandatory driver, Birhanu. Now for those of you who have been with me for awhile you`ll remember many colourful characters from my earlier travels such as Captain Red Hat from Peru or our Mongolian driver who developed such a special fondness for me our group eventually nicknamed him my “Mongolian boyfriend”.  Well Birhanu is going in the books as yet another memorable driver.

Gratuitous shot of me and my mongolian driver, a.k.a. my mongolian boyfriend [SIC] circa 2007.

Now I`ve had many experiences travelling in groups where we had many complaints about the excessive speed of the hired driver, or in many developing countries, a driver`s intoxication, but Unsafe and Excessively Slow was a new experience for me. Birhanu would slow down to a crawl and honk 15 times when a goat appeared on the road 200 metres ahead. That`s a nice change we thought…until he started passing other trucks on winding roads in the dark when we could see headlights approaching.

In any case, thanks to Birhanu`s impeccable driving skills we reached our destination much too late to do the hike we had planned for Day 1 of this mini-adventure. Instead we had a leisurely lunch in the bar up in the trees of our lodge and recovered from our slow but harrowing drive.

One of the huts at Negash Lodge, Ethiopia.

We then headed to the pool for a dip in the natural springs…P was smart and jumped right in. By the time I was ready for a dip there was unfortunately a young man who had decided to hack up every last piece of phlegm in his lungs and spit them into the pool…needless to say I didn’t make it into the pool that day.

The locals were just as confused by our behaviour; why we were laying out baking in the sun was their first worry, but spending hours beside each other, not talking, but quietly reading books – what is wrong with these farenjis (foreigners) anyway? Well farenji or not, P and I both happen to be at the end of a lovely novel set in Addis, Cutting for Stone, that was worth every last confused stare from the locals.

At sunset we sat on the porch with glasses of Amarula (a South African liquor similar to Bailey`s but made from the Marula fruit) watched the monkeys, and finished our books.  As into the final pages of the story as I was, my mind kept wandering, thinking how similar this scene was to one more than 15 years ago; sitting watching the sunset in South Africa at the end of my year as a Rotary Exchange Student. And thinking of all the things that have happened to bring me back full circle, to a sunset in Africa, 15 years on.

View from the porch, a baboon and a little vulture friend in the background.

The next morning we were raring to go on our hike, the big event.  I didn’t know much about the hike so I had no idea of the beauty that was to come.  The drive from our lodge to the lake was the most memorable part of the day for me (ok, that and the Ak-47s). We were only 160 km outside of Addis but 100 years away. We passed through little villages with people from many different cultures,even the language had changed from Amharic to Oromo.

Donkeys on the road to Wenche.

Smiling family, as curious as we were.

To market, to market, Oromia, Ethiopia.

The hike was almost as spectacular as the drive, with lush greens surrounding a lake inside an extinct volcano. We met many villagers on their way to market and some on their way back from church. We crossed the basin of the valley, walking by waterfalls, goats, and many children following us for sections of the path.

Back from church.

View down into the valley, Lake Wenche.

A beautiful little girl we met along the way.

We then took a small boat to a local Orthodox monastery on an island in the middle of the lake.

Orthodox monastery in the middle of the lake.

We rode horses up the final steep section of the hike.  The view on horseback was wonderful as you really got a feel for the villages.

Some children along the way.

View of the valley from horseback.

We passed one thatched house where a lady had just emerged from the house sobbing and covering her face. We were told a 6 year old child had just died from an unknown sickness, within the last 10 minutes. There is a medical clinic in Ambo, only 5 kms, but might as well be a world, away.

At the end of our hike we decided to reward ourselves with some cold drinks at a local watering hole. Well. After a few minutes a group of about 40 men showed up and stood directly behind us.  At this point I turned around and there was a man wearing traditional robes but as an accessory had an AK-47 laying flat on his forearms about 1 foot from where I was sitting.

Now you know you`ve been out of Canada for a long time when the sight of an AK-47 in the hands of a robed man does not make you run. It did put me on alert, but not enough to leave behind my Coca-cola.

So J continued to tell Y and I a story she`d been in the middle of while  Y and I began stealthily surveying the situation. Something was up. It had nothing to do with us but we were definitely in the wrong place at the wrong time. I noticed things getting tense and whispered to Y that  I thought we should go. J later told me she noticed the scheming going on between Y and I but thought it better to keep telling the story as if nothing was going on. At this moment, P arrived back from his bathroom search, completely oblivious to what was transpiring. He assumed they were just there to party. Behind us, things were getting tense and it was clear to me things were about to get physical.

At this point I revisited the AK-47 issue and tried to make some NOW-eyes at P, got up and walked quickly to the car. The others followed. Y and our guide followed closely behind and this time Birhanu was on the ball and got us out of there in a hurry. Y told us that right before we started to move, one of the group had asked what the foreigners were doing there and another instructed them to grab some stones. It was apparently a clash between the local Oromo peoples, larger in number, and the Tigrayan peoples, who although fewer in numbers, largely control the wealth in the area. Nothing to do with us but we were very close to really being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

So to take a line from Phil Collins and Ghosh, one of the characters in Cutting for Stone: Just another day in Paradise.

Until next time!

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. Betty permalink
    June 26, 2012 9:53 pm

    Hi Allison, It’s wonderful to follow along on your marvellous adventures. I’m so happy for you in all you are doing. Take Care and stay safe, Betty

  2. Megan permalink
    June 28, 2012 12:49 pm

    Finally got to catch up on some reading… keep them coming!

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