The night in Debark turned out rather badly. Though I was pretty much recovered from the shit-barfs, my cough was back with a vengeance and I awoke around midnight to feeling utterly parched, with a hacking cough. I looked over and saw that my water bottle was empty – so I got up to refill it and was going to steripen it and drink a whole liter ( I was very dehydrated from the prior day’s exertions) – when I discovered, to my horror, that there was no water coming out of the tap. I looked over at Mike’s stuff – he was out of water too. None of us had refilled prior to going out the night before and we’d only drank beer with dinner.
I tried to go back to sleep, but found that I wasn’t able to and started getting a headache from the dehydration. Around 630 am, I decided that maybe someone might be up downstairs and could point me towards a functioning tap. I dressed and walked down the four flights of stairs only to find that it seemed like the whole hotel and/or block had the water turned off. I begged for hot water from the kitchen, since they were undoubtedly going to make an entire cauldron of coffee for the buffet breakfast that was due to be ready by 7. No one understood me. I went out into the street and walked along for a few blocks when I saw a security guard dozing in a garden of a building that appeared to have a hose attached to a tap. I walked over and showed him my empty bottles and he kindly turned the tap and miraculously – water came out!
As I hurried back to our room to treat the water so we could drink – I was stopped by a man in the lobby who told me that Tadele (our asshole tour operator) had told him to come and get Mike and me to go to the bus station. I thanked him, but explained that we were planning to eat first and head over to the station around 8 o’ clock. That’s when he said we would need to leave by 7:15 because sometimes the bus showed up at 07:30 am – early from Gonder.
Frustrated and panicked, I rushed up the stairs, woke Michael up and told him we had 15 minutes to get up, pack and be heading to the station. It was not the morning I had envisioned but we made it to the station by 0730 and anxiously waited for the bus to arrive, where presumably, someone was sitting in our seat from Gonder to ensure someone else didn’t take it. It’s a strange system.
Our guide who’d brought us disappeared and the minutes ticked on by with no sign of him or the bus. Eventually, around 0815, I went and found someone who spoke English and he told me that the bus from Gonder usually showed up around 9am, or later.
All that rushing for no reason.
Additionally – the “guide” eventually showed back up and I asked him why he’d told us to come for 0730? He repeated that sometimes the bus showed up that early. Then I asked whether he knew the guy who was actually on the bus reserving our seats. Turns out that he did. I asked whether he had that guy’s cell phone number? He said he did. So, logically, I asked him “Why on earth didn’t you just tell the guy to give you a call when the bus was 15 minutes away from Debark?”
He stared at me, and then responded “Thank you. That is a very good idea.”
I’m still not sure if he was being genuine or if he was the first African I’d met who understood the concept of sarcasm.
In any case, the bus eventually showed up on the street at around 9:15am and there was total pandemonium. Some guy grabbed our suitcases and hauled them up to the roof, and then started demanding money. People were yelling and squeezing to get on board which had standing room only. Our guide literally pushed us on board where we played squeezing musical chairs to get into our seats for the journey.
Finally, we were on our way. Despite the fact that the journey first to Shire was only 180 kms or 100 miles, it took over 9 hours to arrive. The bus literally struggled to keep moving forward on the bending mountainous roads we covered. It was incredibly hot, and since Ethiopians just hate direct sunlight or a breeze, most of the windows either stayed shut, or if by the grace of God they were open, the curtain was pulled all the way across preventing precious fresh air from getting in. It was an exhausting and claustrophobic journey – and we were lucky enough to be seated! Many people stood this entire way.
We stopped a couple of times to pee in the bush, but I definitely arrived in Shire dehydrated and tired. Mike had the smart idea to gather all the faranji folks from the bus (there were about 7 of us) and we each paid for 2 seats on a minibus for the final hours’ drive to Axum and subsequently, we were able to leave straight away. The room and open windows in the van were an incredible relief – even more so to the few passengers who’d begun their journey that morning at 5am from Gonder!
We finally arrived at our chosen hotel for the night – aptly and generically named Africa Hotel. Mike and I wandered off to an international hotel for dinner and ordered some delicious tomato soup and then we shared a burger (my appetite had still not fully returned.)
We chose to rest the following day as we were both spent from the Simiens and what was an even more arduous day of sitting on the bus the day before. I did laundry and tried to edit photos – though I was having some major technology issues that was taking hours to work around and in the end I gave up and went for a walk and had beers with Mike at a lovely little restaurant he’d found called Kuda Juice and Burger that had this delightful outdoor green space. I felt a little better after having a good cry with Mike (I don’t quite remember what was upsetting me at the time) – he is certainly a good listener and I appreciate him for that very much.
It was time to pack and head out again – this time we would be traveling through the region known as Tigray which had some famous 5th and 6th century rock-hewn churches to visit and would be a nice way to kill time as we made our way to Mekele from where we would join a tour with Ethio Travel Tours to the Danakil Depression.
The agency we booked with was located in our hotel and we were given the choice of a one day drive-thru to Mekele visiting a couple of churches, or a two-day private tour where we could visit four or five churches. Not being an avid history aficionado, and certainly not someone to whom visiting churches, however historical, is that appealing – I told Mike I wasn’t really bothered about which tour we did and could do whatever he felt made the most sense. Mike opted for the two-day tour as it would include a visit to Debre Damo – a monastery atop a mountain that was only accessible by men and involved a 15 meter climb with rope and a priest helping to haul you up the vertical cliff. He liked the idea of the challenge since he has a fear of heights. I wanted to support him in that brave quest.
The next morning we met our driver who said his name was “Sneetchie” – I have no idea if I’ve spelled his name correctly or not. He was 22 years old and played some awesome music for us in the minivan that we had all to ourselves. We arranged first of all to visit some of the historic sites of Axum including the Stelae field (which date from 300 to 500 A.D) which most likely served as funeral monuments and pre-date the arrival of Christianity to Ethiopia (Ethiopia was the second country after Armenia to implement the practice of Christianity) The tallest one still standing is 24 meters, and the Great Stele probably fell down during construction – was 33 meters in length. When Italy occupied Ethiopia under Mussolini’s regime in 1937 – the five broken pieces were taken by truck and ship to Rome as ‘war booty’ and put back together, not getting repatriated back until 1947!
These Stelae marked the center of what at the time was one of the most powerful kingdoms in the world – the Royal Kingdom of Axum, and they are still quite an impressive sight. There are tunnels and burial sites that you can walk through – and though they were once filled with incredible treasures – they have since all been looted and robbed.
We spent a few hours walking around and then when it was time to leave – we couldn’t seem to locate our private van anywhere. Worse yet, Axum has some of the pushiest cab/tuk-tuk drivers anywhere and we were asked every two minutes whether we needed a taxi. Getting hungry, I started eating a dry sweet roll I’d bought earlier that morning and some guy walked over and told me to stop eating in public because other people were fasting that day. I told him that I wasn’t fasting or a Christian. So, not a very comfortable place to sit around waiting. Though we did get to watch and photograph these gorgeously cute sheep who were napping on each other on the side of the road.
After wandering around a while longer, we came across a funeral procession and a few of the modern churches that were dotted around the Stelae field and the Queen of Sheba’s baths (though they looked like disintegrating rock walls to me.) The official Ark of the Covenant was supposedly also housed in some museum in Axum – but our guidebooks stated that there was no credible evidence that it was actually here – so my Indiana Jones’ notions were crushed.
Eventually, Sneetchie showed up and we headed in the direction of Tigray.