I felt like Columbus, unaware of the obstacles and the extent of the odyssey ahead of us. Our presumption being our curse. The children chasing after us, asking for money, pens or food. We marched through the town of Debark, where the journey had started. Accompanied by the scout, Ali with a rifle and an umbrella strapped over his right shoulder, the mule man, Djargo, with a long shawl wrapped as a turban around his head, and his nameless female mule.
As the houses started to thin out, the climbing began. The plan was to walk up to the first lodge in Sankaber on the first day. It took an exhausting eight hours day, with sun, wind and rain to get up to the lodge. Unfortunately, we had overestimated our hiking skills and underestimated the thin air at two to three thousand meters altitude and the difficulty of the steep mountains. Ali, the scout, didn’t speak any English, but one word he desperately kept repeating on the climb up was “bus”, pointing to the car loads of tourists being chauffeured up to the easier part of the trail for exorbitant prices.
I first met Ali and Djargo in Debark, on the morning of the first of four days together. Ali just pointed to himself, said “Ali. Ali Muslim”. I just nodded to show him that I understood and tried to hide my confusion and slight discomfort. We met groups of children several times on the road. They would sing or play the masinqo, the whining Ethiopian guitar. Ali would then ask them if they were Muslim or Christian. I don’t speak Amharric, but I could make out the words “Muslim” and “Christian”. It seemed like an important issue for him.
Although I almost collapsed on the first day, the view was breath-taking. The Simien Mountains are a long chain of high peaks, with clouds hanging in-between them, like white necklaces, covered with opulent green trees and patches of rocky moon craters.
I do have a confession to make at this point. I am terrified of heights. You must be wondering why I even considered climbing up 3000 meter high mountains. I’m not a masochist or anything, I’m just easy to convince into trying out something new and adventurous. Most of the tourists I met in Ethiopia were either heading to the Simien Mountains or had just came back from a hike there. It really is worth the trip. It is breath-taking up there and I don’t only mean the thin air and steep climb.
In Sankaber, we stayed at the spartan lodge with two groups of other tourists, guides, scouts and mule men. We cooked our dinner on the petroleum cooker. The noodles were very al dente. I believe it was due to the low air pressure that led the water to boil at a lower temperature and not my poor cooking skills. It didn’t stop the thick-billed ravens from lurking and attempting to snatch some of our dinner. Their nasal croaking sounded like an acknowledging “Ah, ah”. In the evening, we all sat around the bonfire, relieved and tired. Luckily, it turned dark at around 6 p.m. and I was happy to call it a night a few hours later.
The next morning, a boy, about 15 years old, came up to us and offered us coffee at his house. He had full lips, a feminine face and a soft voice. He wore a scarf around his head and shoulder, that it was difficult to tell if he was a boy or a girl. While one of the women was preparing the coffee, he told us sad stories of poverty, the hardships of being an orphan like himself and how he would have liked to continue going to school but he couldn’t because he had to work as a cook for the tourists that went hiking in the area. At the risk of sounding harsh, after having heard about 1001 tales of the sort in Ethiopia and many other places I’ve visited, I found it very hard to feel pity or sympathy for him. My caution was confirmed when he charged us one to two hundred Birrs for 3 coffees, which is about five to ten times what you’d usually pay in Addis Ababa.
I must say, one of the few things that bothered me about Ethiopia was that the white people were, not always, but often, treated like cash cows, being told pitiful stories, often chased by beggars and children, just shouting “You! You! Give me money!”, “Give me pen!” or just making gestures asking for food. I know I sound like an arrogant white lady, but I just think that charity sometimes causes more harm than good. I believe cooperation and education are more long term solutions, preserving the dignity of the people and the balance of the relationship between foreigners and locals.
After drinking the most expensive coffee in Ethiopia, we decided to head back to Debark instead of trying to continue the hike to Geech, the second lodge in the Simien Mountains. We decided to cover the distance in two days instead of one due to my lack of strength and overstrained muscles. I’m a computer scientist in real life, so you can probably imagine the shock my muscles had when I forced them up these mountains.
Next stop, Buit Ras, halfway between Sankaber and Debark. Day two was more relaxed since we had all day to accomplish a four hour hike. So we took our time to admire the Gelaba baboons, with their long blond manes, red chests and their cozy delousing rituals.
The “lodge” in Buit Ras turned out to be somebody’s house. They had a spartan guest room with two beds, a toilet house a few meters away from the house and a main room where the scout, the mule man and numerous members of the host family spent the night. We arrived in the early afternoon and soon became the main attraction. We sat in the guest room. Ali and Djargo wrapped themselves in their scarfs and seemed to doze in and out of a nap, while the children just stared at us. I was bored, frozen and tired of being stared at so I started playing some games with the children. They taught me how to count to ten in Amharic and to whistle by cupping my hands together. Unfortunately, both these lessons didn’t really stick.
Again, we cooked noodles in the evening, with the help of Ali and Djargo. The pots that we had rented at the tourist office didn’t have isolated handles, so Djargo got two pebbles, pressed them against each side of the pot and heaved it off the cooker flame. When washing the dishes, the few drops of water used to clean one dish were poured into the next. These little details made me admire Djargo’s improvisation skills and the need of preserving a scarce resource like water. It just seems to put everything into perspective… The wastefulness in our western society, the helplessness when creativity is called for.
The next morning, Djargo and Ali were preparing the mule for the last day of our journey. They were strapping the bags onto it’s back when Djargo started waving at me. I came closer. He pointed at his mule and then turned his ear to the bag, gesturing to me to do the same. I was expecting to hear anything, from the donkey’s indigestion to a sudden “eeh-aw”… I leaned closer to the mule and listened carefully… “beep, beep”… “beep, beep”… I looked up at Djargo and we both started laughing. I had forgotten to turn off the alarm clock and it had just gone off. It was like an audible GPS on the donkey. On the four hour hike back to Debark, we could hear the alarm echo between the mountains, helping us locate our four-legged companion.
She guided us most of the way. She seemed to have memorized the route, running ahead of us, down the rocky mountains, to then peacefully dine on some green herbs while we tried to catch up. Every once in a while, Djargo would run after her, his walking stick in one hand and the other holding on to the turban on his head. He would slap her rear end with his stick, as if to demonstrate his authority and sometimes to keep her from falling off the edge of a cliff. A complex relationship…