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To begin with, I was reluctant to be on that trip. I traced seeds of ambivalence in my heart and it was hard to ignore them. Right up to the last minute I was looking for reasons or excuses. This was quite contrary to my initial reaction upon hearing of the possibility of travelling for days; I was hooked in an instant. However, I spent the night before the morning I was set to join a good friend and his social anthropology students from Bahir Dar University, in a blurry state of mind. The pace at which everything turned from a vague misty dream you would love to indulge yourself in, to a clear and present reality freaked me out. I wanted certainty. Some definitive cause which would tell me in an assured tone, “You should go because this is exactly what you need. It’s like the Universe is conspiring in your favor. Chances like this are rare. Don’t even stop to catch your breath, just grab your bag and hit the road.” or “No. You know this is a crazy idea. It’s not the right time for you to welcome and entertain adventures. You are running against deadlines. There is simply so much to be done in the coming days. You can’t leave such a mess behind.” This of course was not a totally new experience. Indecision is in my blood. I always tend to have a foggy mind whenever it comes to situations like this. (If you believe in astrology, that is, because I can see both sides of an argument) But time was completely indifferent to my quandary and sooner than I realized it, it was morning; a brand new day.
I wanted the phone to ring and not to ring at the same time. It did ring. The bus was coming to my place to pick me up. I had to be quick and wait for them by the road side, said my friend. Hopelessly confused, I was left with no alternative but to obey his words like he was endowed with some sort of omniscience and knew perfectly well what was right for me. I fully surrendered and silenced the part of me which bothered me with ceaseless questions and did whatever I was told to do; I followed wherever I was led to. It was easier that way. So, less than an hour later I was inside the bus with more than forty people, riding to one of the farthest places I had ever been; the South Omo Zone in the southwestern part of the country. (At one point I was only 72km away from the Kenyan border.)
It had only been a month since I left my teaching job to concentrate on writing as well as editing a struggling magazine. I was smart enough to realize the neurotic Addis Ababa was not giving me the space and ease I needed to evaluate the tapestry of my life; to see how I was doing and where I was heading. There was so much noise, and an inescapable conglomeration of contradictory voices and politics and a neck-to-neck struggle with survival, that I was starting to develop a feeling of slightly apathetic scorn towards, well, everything. In fact a dark emotional numbing sensation was slowly enveloping me. I wouldn’t hate getting away for a while. Actually that is a bit of an understatement. I love travelling. I have a restless soul and nothing fills me up with joy and passion like getting inside a car and moving.
I have always dreamt of (or fantasized about) having a road trip that would span months and take me all over the country, kind of like what the American author John Steinbeck did in his own country, back in the sixties. I would wander from north to south, from east to west. I would meet people and become a firsthand witness to the life of my countrymen. I would seek all the remarkable wisdom hidden behind the unremarkable gates of monasteries. For an ordinary Ethiopian like me this is asking a lot. Or is it? Anyways, I guess this must be one of my dreams deferred. (Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun?)
In “Travels with Charlie: in Search of America”, the book he wrote after covering more than 17 thousand km and spending ten weeks on the street with his dog Charlie, Steinbeck says the main goal of visiting places has much more to do with having an ‘I have been there’ brag than seeing places. That is why people on the road spend much of their energy and cash on buying souvenirs or taking pictures of themselves in front of land marks. But I am not particularly a fan of taking pictures (of myself) and I am definitely not into buying souvenirs for that matter. Sometimes, I remind myself of a saying by another American writer Toni Morrison, who pointed out that occasionally, it is better to leave beauty for itself. Enjoy it and move on. Don’t take pictures or compose poems or paint. It is perfect as it is. It is enough if you appreciate it at that moment fully. Don’t try to make it eternal. Let it go. The truth is I love travelling per se. I enjoy the act of sitting inside a car, look out through the window and think. I love stopping by small town hotels, have lunch, gaze through dusty streets, scribble on my notebook and ask the odd passersby, ‘where can I get a decent cup of coffee?’ I like road trips, not for the reason that you have to reach somewhere and see a place, but in the sense that they serve as a metaphor for a bigger, more significant inner journey. Maybe realizing this once again soothed my tense nerves somehow. Or the beauty of the scenery we were passing through, the significant openness of the land, the magnificence that engulfed our bus, the presence of which was impossible to miss, awakened the romantic in me. I began to be conscious of the feeling of being relaxed.
There was a lot of catching up to do with my friend, whom I hadn’t seen in a couple of years after he moved to teach at Arba Minch University and then Bahir Dar University, from which he brought his graduating students to learn about the customs of the South Omo people. And before we knew it, we were driving past many small and some relatively bigger towns I had known only by name. Everything seemed fine. Beautiful scenery, enormous mountains, an abundance of green fields, young eyes full of wonder, a succession of country rock songs … now this looks like a Cameron Crowe movie, I said to myself.
I was indeed happy to go to the areas famous in bestselling books, pop songs and Television documentaries; places with names like Hamer, Buska, Konso, Keski and so on. But not because I am interested in people’s cultures (I am not anthropologist at heart). [Those of you precisely interested in following our itinerary might like knowing this: In the next seven days our group managed to move through Butajira to Arba Minch, through Karat (a small town and capital of the Konso district) to Jinka, to Dimeka (the capital of Hamer district) and further to Turmi (a rural village), back to Arba Minch, then via Hawassa back home to Addis.] As a reader who has come this far may easily notice, I am quite an introvert. What goes on inside of me absorbs me more than the outside hustle and bustle. If some people choose to see this as a form of narcissism, in my defense, I prefer to think it’s just that I value the Socratic “know thyself” principle above all the other things.
Yes, I was mesmerized by the natural spectacle of the area. (This certainly is not sweet talk and I couldn’t care less for political correctness.) And like everyone else, I admired the conservation techniques the Konso people use. I was touched by the amount of respect and courtesy we received from the Konso Kala (king). I found the welcoming gesture of the Hamer people refreshing. When the old men showered us with blessings in a dramatic manner, the fact that I couldn’t comprehend a word seemed beyond relevance. I have to admit though, just like everyone else, I was a little disgruntled concerning one annoying habit, I came to learn, the Hamer developed after tourists began to flock following much buzz concerning their lifestyle. We were being asked to pay for every endeavor we liked and wanted to engage in. Money was needed to take pictures, money was required if we were to attend an Evangadi dance event.
Yes, I was glad to have gotten all that knowledge in the museums and research facilities we visited. Above all I am grateful for the friendship I have established with the students I accompanied and strangers I met in various places we had been stationed. I am still disappointed about the apparent hedonism many of the youngsters in our troupe (oh God, I feel old) seemed to indulge in. The not – explicitly – articulated motto the students bowed their heads to (in my understanding) was, “SERIOUSNESS KILLS! DON’T THINK! JUST BE MERRY!” Yet, all the way through the journey, I couldn’t stop thinking about home. More often than not, I caught myself whispering to the windowpane statements like, “I wish there were more open spaces in Addis.” “I wish Addis was situated by the sea.” “I wish people in Addis were more down to earth.”
It is in fact ironic that the farther you go away from your home geographically, the closer you get to it emotionally. You start to see the high and the low with better objective clarity. Your life feels more real. I live in Taytu’s town by choice, not by accident. I revere the constant surprises it offers but it doesn’t mean I don’t have grudges against it. Maybe we go to other places to understand our own.
On the return ride, as we were about to enter the womb of the alarmingly widening and fast expanding city. (Believe it or not, there is no distinction between Addis, Dukem and Bishoftu anymore. We not only lost fields and open spaces inside Addis Ababa, but those around it are also slipping away. It is sad to know that the picturesque fields on which children used to run and play wildly are about to be remembered with nostalgic longingness. Maybe they will simply sink in the ocean of oblivion and posterity won’t have a clue what was once there.) I found it difficult to accept that I had been away only for a week. Is time and space directly proportional? When you go far in space why does it feel you have been absent for a long time?
When we finally arrived at the famous Mesqal Square, I left the bus which had been my home for a week and faced my own reality humming to myself: “Welcome to Addis where you spend half your life in a taxi or waiting for or fighting for one. Welcome to the place where its inhabitants look as if they were at the verge of mental breakdown and everybody screams, everything shouts.”
In his 1962 book, Steinbeck lamented the death of localism. Everywhere he went, (thanks to the then fashionable television and the spreading of big franchised companies) people were abandoning their local way of life, color and value system to replace it with homogeneity. Every small town he had set foot in was on the way to look like New York. What he didn’t see coming was, in the next half a century, a monstrously strong empire called globalization was coming into existence and now localism is dead, not only in America, but everywhere. A disgustingly monotonous sameness was to be the norm of the day. This was what I felt when I was in Karat. (If Bekoji is the town of runners, then Karat, in Konso, is definitely a town of bikers. Motorbikes are used as a personal vehicle as well as public transportation.) A Korean pop song which is causing sensation all over the world was streaming loudly from the coffee house I sat in and then a Porto Rican star who kept telling us he was “an international lover” followed.
Dimeka is the capital of Hamer district which is home to sixteen nationalities. There is no electricity except generators owned by a hotel (Turmi Lodge), a small shop where the local people charge their mobile phone batteries, tourists buy refrigerated water (The number of batteries waiting in line to be charged was so big that I guessed it might take days to have the last in the queue done) and a small tented hall in which the town’s folk watch the English Premier League games. Maybe this is one of lessons of going there … every day we are getting more and more alike.
Certainly this was not my Motorcycle Diaries road trip. (The one Che Guevara took before deciding to pick up the gun and fight for the oppressed.) I didn’t grow anymore socially conscious nor had I a political epiphany at the end which would turn me into a revolutionary communist (thank God!) But I have learned a lot and in a mysterious, obscure way I may have changed. Who knows?