Burnt and Blistered in Southern Ethiopia

I finally got back on my bike after three weeks. It was brutal. I left Addis Ababa out of shape, overloaded and lost. It was a bit nerve-wracking: everyone was shouting and yelling at me. I guess a white bicycle tourist is not a very common sight.

I also quickly realized that Ethiopia is nearly on the equator and I was at 2000 meters (6000 feet) altitude. By the end of the first day I felt like I had been basting in an oven. By the third day despite copious amount of sunscreen, by face and arms were burnt to a crisp. Even worse, my lower lip had been burnt. Who ever thought to put sunscreen on their lips.? Well It got so bad I had trouble eating or drinking and my lower lip became swollen and blistered. At night this weird liquid oozed out and glued my lips together. Yuck. I could imagine having to take a rest day due to diarrhea, sore legs or just general fatigue, but a sunburnt lip? Who woulda thought? But that’s what I had to do. I could not go on until I let my lip heal.

Meanwhile, riding in Ethiopia has been a very strange experience. EVERYONE stares at me and shouts. It’s even worse than China. Kids come running from the fields in their tattered rags yelling, “faranji faranji!”(foreigner). Others yell out, “you you you!”, “money”, or “where are you go?” Occasionally I get, “I love you!” or “you are a good man.” It’s a bit overwhelming. Some kids ran behind me while I was struggling up a  hill in the dirt and stole my Nike warm weather jacket which I had tucked behind me. But at this point I don’t think I will be needing it. Here are some of the photos I took of people on the road.


Ethiopia is largely rural so there are thousands of people farming or raising cattle or goats away from the cities. I pass hundreds every day on the road. Most have donkeys carrying their sacks of grain or something. Here is a typical scene.

If I stop for a rest or a drink I am immediately surrounded by dozens people, especially kids.  Most ask for money, which I never give, but if they look interesting I will take a photo and give them 1 birr (10 cents). Many people do speak some English, but in the country the kids work the fields and rarely go to school; the family can’t afford it. So they only speak the local dialect. Now this is amazing: there are 85 official languages in the country. Amharic is supposed to be the standard, but many small tribes don’t speak it–only their local language. So I learned a few words of Amharic and Oromia, another language spoken in a town I stayed in. But the next day when I stopped for lunch to try out my new words, they said in that area people spoke yet another language. This was only about 50 km away!

I rode one day on a rocky dusty road. Whenever a car passed it kicked up a huge cloud of dust. I had to wear my Bedouin headdress that I bought in Jordan. Just call me Ahmed.

As I said before the food is great. Here is a serving of bayaynet, which is injera piled with meat sauce, beetroot, boiled potatos, and chopped vegetables. As I mentioned before, you tear off a piece of injera and wrap it around the food. The concept of using individual plates and utensils is a foreign one to the Ethiopians; everyone eats from the same plate of injera.

I mentioned the strange Ethiopian calendar, but their timing system is different as well. It has an appealing simplicity to it and makes you want to adopt it. In the morning, one hour after the sun rises it is one o’clock, after two hours it is two o’clock, etc. Same thing in the evening. One hour after after sunset is one o’clock. I love it. Since the sun always rises at 6:00 am and sets at 6:00 pm I guess it makes sense to use such a system. But it is confusing to foreigners: I was told that check out time at a hotel was 6 o’clock. I was incredulous until I realized that 6 o’clock is noon by “regular” time (six hours after sunrise).

This is the first country I have encountered where internet access has been difficult. The connections are slow and there are daily power cuts, sometimes for hours. So it has taken me several sessions at various locations just to write this and upload the photos. Plus this is the holiday season here. They celebrated Christmas on January 7 so everything was shut down.

I stayed one night in a small village where tej (pronounced tesh) was popular. Tej is a mead liquor made with fermented corn and honey. It’s a cheap way to get drunk in Ethiopia. As I walked down the street I was cajoled into entering a tej beat, a bar where guys (no women) sit around getting sloshed on tej. Here’s a shot of guys swilling the stuff. It’s actually pretty tasty.

A couple of characters in the tej beat who wanted their photo taken. I love the suits.

Ethiopian bicycle repair shop.

In towns you have to watch out for various farm animals.

African tree.

I am about four days from the Kenyan border, assuming my lip heals. The terrain has been quite hilly, with constant short steep hills. The great rift valley runs through this part of Ethiopia. But towards Kenya it looks like it gets flatter, but it’s also more desert-like apparently. Something to look forward to.

One other good thing about Ethiopia: no police roadblocks yet.