Most of the people we met in Ethiopia were interesting. This included Eric & Sally with whom we went to the Lower Omo Valley – I mentioned them in a previous post; they live in the USA, and exist fairly close to the financial breadline by choice so that they can save their income for what they rightfully consider the more important things to do such as to afford a few long haul trips abroad each year – and many of the other people we bumped into on that trip and elsewhere.
There is something about travel that seems to intensify not only experiences but also characters.
There was the pleasant lady of about my age with whom I had a brief discussion inside the front entrance to Buska Lodge. I only later put together in my mind her situation. She came up to me and asked whether we’d been to the villages yet. I said that we were due to go to the Karo village the next day, and she asked if there was any way she could join our trip. She said that down in the volunteer village the people wouldn’t go to the villages because they thought it was not politically correct to pay people to take their photos, but she herself was desperate to see what she was missing yet couldn’t afford to hire her own transport. I told her I expected it would be fine for her to join us the next day, but that I would check with our guide. I expected her to pitch up at some later stage, but she didn’t. It would have been fascinating to hear her story of how she was living in the volunteer village (whatever that was – we didn’t find out) whilst being a bit older than the other volunteers and with different ideas.
There was the Japanese lady we passed on the way back from the Karo village. She was on the back of a motorbike which was being driven, presumably, by her guide. I didn’t speak to her, being on the other side of our car. She was heading to the village to stay for a few days. By herself. Maybe the bike was hers, and she was on the back in order to take photos as she went along. Maybe the bike was hired because she was a solo traveller. Maybe the guide was her partner. I don’t know. But she was in the middle of absolutely nowhere, hours along a dirt track, heading more into the bush for the night, and she was the only other tourist we saw that day.
Then there was the crazy looking oldish Swedish guy. He’d painted his grizzled face, or maybe he’d had it painted in a village. He was sitting by the open door of his tour car drinking a beer and it obviously wasn’t his first of the day which still had some time to go before noon. He was heading for the Gambela and beyond. Gambela is a national park, and is really the back of beyond. There are many guns, but few lawyers and not much money, in Gambela. Gambela regularly appears on the travel warnings published by the FCO. Gambela is where you might reasonably expect a photojournalist character like the one played by Dennis Hopper in Apocalypse Now to emerge from the bush, camera in hand. Read the TripAdvisor reports for Gambela, and you can imagine the grin on the face of the chap who wrote it (he’s even older than me, BTW). You’d probably have to go to the DRC to get anywhere more remote. I should probably let Lindsey know that the Gambela is on my bucket list.
And there were the people we surreptitiously listened to in the dining area of Buska Lodge whilst having our meals, those folk with the pristine and manicured safari gear, newly bought for their trip, and the clipped accents of their South African guides.
There was the chap in the honey wine bar in Jinka. I haven’t been in a less salubrious establishment since Malawi in the early eighties.
In Lalibela I spoke to a young woman who turned out to be an Italian anthropologist and had just spent two months living with the Hamar people. And there were the various youngsters who came to Jamie’s party in Addis. Just about every one of them was friendly, interesting, respectful of others, and they all had big grins on their faces because they obviously loved what they were doing and where they were living.
One of them was a seventh generation Greek living in Addis. Seven generations surely goes back to some extremely interesting times in Ethiopia – almost certainly even before Wilfred Thesiger was there. He left Lindsey and I some top quality coffee as a present – he was involved in the coffee business and said that this brand was the best of all. It is really nice coffee.
With any of the interesting folk above you’re not going to fall asleep in the middle of a conversation about, say, whether Edinburgh council should change the recycling bin collection days. Many of them seem to regularly whizz off to other countries, or alternately regions of Ethiopia. Some were involved in peace and conflict studies. All of them had interesting jobs. When I mentioned that I’d seen in the Addis museum some information about the Dawro people and their 200 kilometres of ancient stone wall fortifications, there was someone there who knew more about them.
Apart from meeting interesting people, another reason I enjoy travel is that it often throws up interesting books. You can find on the shelf above the open fire in the Maribela Hotel, Lalibela, for example, long forgotten travel guidebooks to Ethiopia from the early eighties. Many of the other books left by past travellers are classics.
Then there are the bookshelves in people’s houses in far-off places. Always interesting. I noticed a copy of In the Footsteps of Mr Kurtz, by Michela Wrong, in Jamie’s living room, and immediately started to read it, even though there was no way I could finish it before we left Addis. Gripping stuff, yet the title seemed familiar. When we got back to Edinburgh I searched my own bookshelves and found a copy.
It appeared unthumbed, and I don’t think I’d previously read it. It is a great book. It’s my kind of book. About excesses in Africa. I don’t want to give the impression that all of Africa is like this, because it isn’t at all and there are many notable instances of success in Africa (I’ve written about some in the past) but when you get an example of excess in Africa, it kind of tends to top the pile.
It is about Zaire under Mobutu Sese Seko Kuku Ngbendu Wa Za Banga. Mobutu is known as the dictator who looted between $4bn and $14 billion over a 31-year rule. As Michela Wrong points out towards the end of the book, he may have misappropriated vast amounts of money, but he probably gave most of it away whilst securing the temporary loyalty of others. Even the Swiss could locate only about $5 million in their coffers, and the US Treasury came up with a more realistic figure of $40 to $50 million in real estate under his name. And the vast majority of these funds came from the West with the West turning a blind eye to where it went – in return for access to natural resources and Mobutu’s support in the Cold War. I’m not being an apologist for Mobutu, but what went before him, and what came after him were just as bad (but with more killings). America used Mobutu as a bulwark against communism. The French gave him support because they wanted to extend their influence in Africa. The Belgians wanted to retain their toe-hold in Africa. They all wanted access to enormous mineral reserves.
I had not realised that there was a nuclear reactor in Kinshasa, built in 1959. Kinshasa is also the home to some classic fruit-cakes, such as Bernard Mizele Nsemi. In amongst the poverty and corruption are some snappy dressers, known as sapeurs. You couldn’t make this stuff up if you tried.