02 September 2012

Trip to Sodo, near to Omo River

This is from days passed...trip out of Addis to Sodo last week.

We got up early in the morning and packed up our things. I vacated my room and stored my things downstairs, to the throaty and earnest words “you’re things will remain safe,” from Brother Dejene. Father Ayele and I left in a truck with another Brother. The morning was gray and cold as many of the mornings were in Addis since I arrived being their winter. Given the announcement that the Prime Minister Meles had passed away, no one was quite sure what to expect. It was Father Ayele’s suggestion that we leave the capital and go to the south, where he is from, so we would be safe from anything blowing up. Plus Father Ayele was very eager for me to see the south and tell him what I thought of the Catholic sponsored projects and see the way the people there live. The south in Ethiopia is the marginalized part of Ethiopia. There is a very high density of people and very high poverty. Though this is not typically the place where the famines break out because the land is fertile and there is much water, though drought has come time and again, including earlier this year. I would not like to see the place when this happens.
We stopped at a service station, gassed up and started to drive. I fell asleep in the back seat as the two men in front kept talking and the same city sprawl scene moved passed our windows. Eventually we came to a bus station – bus stations here are really just a big dirt parking lot place full of various types of buses and wandering men and boys. There are people trying to hustle people onto each bus, calling out the destinations, and then offering different prices. I guess the price probably reflects the speed with which we’d reach the destination. Father Ayele spoke to a few people from the bigger buses, which are colorful and often topped with all sorts of things, including animals sometimes. I took a photo of a loan goat laying atop a bus against a huge mass of bright yellow water jugs. We moved off to the minibuses. We secured two seats and waited until they had filled the things past capacity. We were four people over in the bus – they made additional seats with stools jammed between the benches. I luckily had a seat on a bench seat. The Father unfortunately got stuck on a stool, he gave his seat up to a woman, so he rode the next 5 hours with no back support. Because we were overpacked, the was no room at all and my paranoia about my bag with medicine in it was in between my legs for the journey. There is a strange phenomenon that occurs when traveling in minibuses in developing countries. People are afraid to open the windows. It drives Americans mad, including me. I kept asking for the boy next to me to crack the window, which he would do begrudgingly for a moment and then close it again. He would sometimes open it only to close it again immediately if the driver opened his window. I had heard before of a fear of two windows open at once – the draft is credited with making people sick – but this was sort of torture. The smell of bodies was not that disturbing, two years in Oregon had prepared me for this, but the temperature and humidity that seemed to be mounting each minute was enough to knock me out. I don’t know how long I slept I cannot remember.
When I woke up we were traversing a savannah – we had descended some thousand meters from Addis. The sun was shining and the landscape spread in either direction, green grass, tall leaved trees – the kind with flat tops that you imagine a giraffe to be pulling leaves off of…the ground appeared to have some rock debris, this is all volcanic rock and remnants – the Great Rift Valley. I don’t know how to communicate how amazing it is to me that I not only saw the origins of the River Nile, but also the Great Rift Valley! These names have been bouncing around in my imagination for decades. Now I was here. I could see vast lakes in the distance, shimmering blue. Suddenly we were upon them, the lakes. Maribou storks hunched like old men in the trees and on the lake shore in flocks. Other birds with long legs and longer beaks hunted in the mudflats, and the whole place was alive. We flew by on a good road, but I still got an eyeful.
We eventually rolled in Sheshemene. This town has a reputation. During the time of Haille Selasie, he granted land to the Rastafarians in this town. It is still a popular destination for western travelers to search out weed and chat. But everything I had read said that it was the least friendly town in all of Ethiopia toward foreigners, especially horrible for women travelers. I braced myself to get off of the bus, because it was in Sheshemene that we had to transfer. There was, of course, nothing to worry about. Nothing bad happened, aside from seeing a few young men high on chat. I saw almost no rastafarians about, just one museum. The Father and I took a break, he had the rest of his strawberries: the bus had pulled over at one point on the road to purchase strawberries from a local farm. (I so very much wanted to eat them, they looked amazingly red and everyone on the bus was sharing them out, but I knew that it was not safe for me to eat them. Fresh fruit and vegetables is the most common thing that foreigners get sick on in Ethiopia. It is such a shame. I am not sure that I will stick with this avoidance for the entire trip. How can I?) I had an Ambo – the local fizzy water. I mentioned to the Father that I loved these little three-wheeled taxis. They are imported from India – called Tuk-tuk or Bajaj. They are, like the short distance minibus taxis and car taxis, painted blue and white. It is a very good system that you can identify public transportation by the color. We then took a ride to the other side of town, toward the road we needed to travel on, on a Bajaj. He showed me a nice cafĂ© where he used to work when he had to work in Sheshemene for a time and then we ran into a boy filling a taxi to the south.
We caught a very nice ride with two men headed to Arba Minch to pick up a pile of foreign travelers for a touring company. They had been all over Ethiopia in the last two weeks with this tour. The tourists had flown to Arba Minch, and they were bringing the vehicle. It felt like a safari truck. The last 100+ km of our journey was then in this nice vehicle, though not less packed, so there was constant physical contact with the other passengers, and eventually I stopped apologizing for banging elbows or knees. The man driving was shouting about something to the other man in the front and Father Ayele also got involved. I did not realize how much Ethiopians talk, but I was to find out over the next week, that especially the priests I was staying with, passionately discuss things all the time. The landscape was changing, the soil bright red from rust – high iron content which also contaminated the water and caused local people to have this permanent brown staining on their teeth. The flat lands had been replaced with rolling hills, slumped eroded hills, gaping valleys with brown rivers, trees all along the road, and lots of small farms – with banana trees, maize, beans, and lots of other things I never identified. One feature I forgot about was flower farms – we passed about a dozen of these along the way – very nice greenhouses, must be outside money investment as the infrastructure is completely different to the rest of the place. I read about this flower trade from Africa to Europe similar to South America to North America. I tried to drift off to sleep but was awake to attention when I saw my first hyena. It was, luckily for me, not so luckily for it, dead and bloated at the side of the road. The things was HUGE. I do not really want to see one of these guys while I am here, because I fear when I do, it will be a bad situation.
The going was slightly faster on this last leg because we were not continuously pulled over by the highway police. So many times in the bus the police pulled us over and the boys driving talked them out of whatever bribe they were looking for. Everyone smiling and laughing in the end. Each time I managed to hide my white face from the probing officers. I didn’t want to be the cause of any bad dealings. The larger buses were not as lucky. I saw countless numbers of these buses with all the passengers on the side of the road and the cops going through the top gear or going through the passenger’s bags. Corruption I was told. Indeed, I remember this well from traveling in Serbia with Adrian many moons ago – how many tickets we talked ourselves out of, I do not remember now. Five, six? I also noticed many more people on the road. This would also be a scene I would witness much over the next days. The road is where everything happens it would seem.

When we arrived in Sodo I was excited as it is perched on a mountainside overlooking more lakes, but it is a city and I was sort of hoping for a town. It turns out that Sodo is the perfect sized place – and if I can make it back there for any duration, I will surely do so. Though the 8 hours it takes there is a bit of a deterrent. The fog was drifting on the mountains surrounding the town and we arrived at the sanctuary of the Friary, a well maintained compound with large blossoming tree in the center, and Italian style design one level monk space. The place was simple and lovely. The resident head Father welcomed me and immediately offered to cook me an egg. This was the first egg I had had in weeks and I was so overjoyed! I immediately took a great liking to this fatherly man with totally peaceful vibe.
I was shown my guest room, which again was simple cot in a clean space with adequate bathroom adjoined. I had enough time to unpack when F. Ayele called to me to tell me that an American doctor had come to see me. Apparently someone called him or he heard there was an American here and came over by motor bike with a local kid. We then commenced to talk about all manner of things, but mostly about his life. What an absolutely amazing man this is! He and his wife came to Ethiopia, specifically to Walayta, to work with women in their retirement – he as a gynecologist, she as a teacher. They had heard that the death in childbirth was 1 in 16 here, for a variety of reasons. Also the rate of females going to school is super low. This has many reasons really, but poverty would be the paramount reason, as I was soon to experience first-hand.

The Father had called for a coffee ceremony. My first. The coffee ceremony is central to much socializing in Ethiopia, especially in the rural areas. They offer an ear of corn, usually grilled, but undercooked, and coffee – the special coffee has butter in it. I was tempted to dip my corn in the coffee. And though I thought I could not finish it, I did out of respect. It reminded me of a time I had mistakenly put salt in my coffee rather than sugar – it was sadly the last bit of coffee in the apartment – and as soon as it touched my tongue I did a spit take. Not this time, luckily. The doctor invited me back to his place on Sunday to meet his wife and after we took a tour of the schools on the premises, he headed home. F. Ayele brought me to an adjoining “slum” neighborhood. He said that this was one of the poorest neighborhoods in Sodo, but there were some people he wanted me to meet. We found a modest home with several unrelated people residing there. A young girl was trying on her graduation uniform, with motorboard. She was graduating in two days. A woman and her young son greeted us. Another woman who appeared to be tough as nails and who works as a mechanic. A boy was called for, he arrived and gave the Father a huge hug. All of these people live together because F. Ayele got them together and then paid the rent for the place. The two teenagers are orphans, the mechanic was also an orphan, and the woman was a cook at the Friary, got pregnant and the guy split. It was touching grouping and everyone was happy and chatting. F. Ayele had worked in this Parish for 6 years, but had been gone the last 2 years working on the Somali border with refugees and orphans, and the US military. The entire time we were in Sodo, it was difficult for us to move far on the road without someone coming to hug him or greet him with smiles and happy tones. F. Ayele also wanted me to see how simply people live – he said yes, you see the green all around, it looks like a rick lush land, but inside there is nothing – the people have nothing. And indeed, this I did see.

We ate dinner in community with a mess of other Brothers and Priests including some very old Italian men who came to Ethiopia decades before as missionary brothers. One in particular was a very funny man who felt like a grandfather, Father Mariano. He convinced me to eat all manner of fruit and food that I had never seen before. Local cheese, ox, local wat, a fruit called bull’s heart: he is the resident mechanic and gardener with thick thick hands always creased with dirt. He also lent us his car to travel with over the days we were there. F. Mariano and I watched the European news in Italian for part and in English for the other half, discussed some politics, had a good laugh and retired. I was so excited to fall asleep to the singing of tree frogs. I was also super excited to sleep inside of my mosquito netting – it felt more like the tent I used to have on my bed when I was kid. I was not super excited to be woken up in the night by howling and agitated barking of the compound dogs. I was terrified imagining that a hyena had made its way into the compound, especially punctuated by the yipping and screaming of one dog and following dead silence.

things for coffee ceremony
 Father Ayele and his self-sponsored graduate
 near meles funeral tent in Sodo, foreground is a Bajaj, background are people coming to demonstrate.
 Typical street scene - there will be more to show the life on the street. These kids are helping a donkey pull the heavy load on the cart.