The Best Laid Plans…

Robert Burns once wrote, “The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men gang aft agley”. He must have been a bicycle tourist. Whether due to mechanical failures, health problems, uncooperative governments, police or military rules, weather, terrain, roads, or just a grumpy attitude, I’ve had to adjust my plans countless times during this trip. The last week was no exception.

With no Sudan visa in sight and no other practical way around the country, I decided to fly to Ethiopia. So the day after Christmas I boarded an Egypt Airways flight to Addis Ababa, arriving at 3:00 am.

My first couple days in Addis were a bit surreal. Firstly, their calendar is based on the older Alexandrian calendar which itself is based on the even older Egyptian calendar. So their dates are more than seven years behind the Gregorian calendar we all use. I bought a map there and the date on my receipt was April 4, 2001. Can you believe it? I was wondering what I would do for New Years Eve until they explained that their new year was was four months ago. There is only a small celebration December 31 for the expat community. Curious about this phenomenon, I did some research on the Gregorian vs. the Julian calendars. If you are interested, read on.

The Gregorian calendar resulted from a need to reform the method of calculating the dates of Easter. Reform was required because too many leap days are added with respect to the astronomical seasons with the Julian scheme. On average, the astronomical solstices and the equinoxes advance by about 11 minutes per year against the Julian year. As a result, the calculated date of Easter gradually moved out of phase with the March equinox. The Romans were aware of the discrepancy but it was evidently felt to be of little importance at the time of the Julius Caesar. However, it accumulated significantly over time: the Julian calendar gained a day about every 134 years. By 1582, it was ten days out of alignment from where it supposedly was in 325 during the Council of Nicaea. It was than that Pope Gregory XIII convened a commission to consider reform of the calendar.

The recommendations of Pope Gregory’s calendar commission were instituted in 1582. Ten days were deleted from the calendar, so that October 4, 1582 was followed by October 15, 1582, thereby causing the vernal equinox of 1583 and subsequent years to occur about March 21.

It took a while for everyone to adopt the new calendar. Can you imagine the confusion? Workers demanded to be paid for the missing days. How about my rent? Will I have to pay again at the first of the month?

How Ethiopia manages international commerce with this system is beyond me. I guess they are used to both systems.

OK, enough digression.

The Poorest of the Poor

The other thing you notice about Addis Ababa is the poverty. It’s not something you just observe, it comes right up into your face and hits you in the gut. You can’t breath, you can’t escape it. Every few feet there’s a filthy beggar with their hand out croaking for a few coins. The breadth and depth of it is overwhelming. There are blind people, legless people, deformed people, old men and women who can’t even stand up, mothers with their filthy babies in their arms, dirty kids running barefoot. One woman had like elephantitis in her leg. It was swollen to the size of a tree trunk. I wanted to just run away. You try to give a few dollars but then you run out and still there are more. Finally I decide I must ration my charity. I only give out a few pennies each time, and then only to the most awful, the really deformed or decrepit. I saw one guy with no legs and only one arm. He was dragging himself around. Another old man was half dressed in rags lying on the ground eating grass.

The lack of decent health care, preventive medicine, insurance, and nutrition, as well as  ignorance about health in general, all play a part in this tragedy. No wonder the life expectancy here is only 48.8 years. That’s about my age now.

I will return to this topic in future posts I’m sure. But for now a thought: no matter how awful you think your life is, you’re infinitely better off than the poor of Ethiopia.

Many of the beggars seemed to congregate around churches. Here are some people praying at St. Marys church and a typical scene: a begging mother with child.

Ras Tafari

Its remarkable how little you know about a place until you visit it. I had never been to Ethiopia. In fact, I didn’t even know anyone who had been there. All I knew about it was long distance runners, famine and Haile Selassie. I spent some time with Rastafarians while in the Caribbean a few years back. But I did not realize that their religion was based on the ruler Ras Tafari, who became Emperor Haile Selassie in 1930. In Jamaica, where Marcus Garvey’s ‘return to Africa’ movement was established, many saw the emperor’s coronation as fulfillment of the ancient biblical prophesy that ‘kings will come out of Africa.’ Apparently Selassie was a bit embarrassed to have a religion named after him, although he did allow a Rastafarian community to be established in southern Ethiopia.

Here is the crown of former emperor Haile Selassie, aka Ras Tafari.

I visited the National Museum, where the skeletal remains of Lucy are kept. Lucy is one of the oldest bipedal hominid skeletons ever found. She lived around 3.3 million years ago and was discovered in northern Ethiopia. Fully grown, she was just over a meter tall.

Here is what she might have looked like.

Finger Lickin’ Good

One surprise about this place is the food. It is cheap and delicious. I immediately fell in love with something called buzeno. The food is served on a large thin pancake called injera, something like a cross between a regular pancake and a crepe. Then they just pour piles of ground up beans, veggies or a chili-like substance on the injera and you tear off pieces if of it to wrap around the bits of food and mop up the juices. It is filling and cheap: a full meal with a beer costs about $2.50. There’s no utensils to wash up, but your fingers get a bit messy (or maybe it is just my ineptitude).

Here is a waiter ladling out the buzeno onto my injera.

Coffee is big in Ethiopia. It is their biggest export and with good reason. Here is probably the best macchiato (espresso with milk) I have ever tasted.

Here is an ironic sign posted at the entrance of the National Museum. The “Ethics of Public Service.” It seems out of place in a nation where corruption, nepotism and incompetence are rife.

Here is a photo I took in a restaurant of a woman and child.

Well it is time to start riding again. I have not pedaled once since rolling into Cairo on December 13. That’s over two weeks! I will leave Addis on Jan.1 assuming I have a manageable hangover. My plan (hehe) is to work my way south and cross into Kenya in about two weeks.

10 thoughts on “The Best Laid Plans…

  1. Capt. Don Kilpela Sr December 31, 2008 / 3:32 pm

    Happy New Year, Kev. We’ll be heading to Florida on Feb 1 and staying there through April. Should we start planning a reunion for next summer or will you be on the road?

    Very interesting post. Perhaps after you’ve seen the worst in Ethiopia, the rest of Africa will be mild.

    Snowing and very cold and windy in the Harbor today. See you later…

  2. Capt. Don Kilpela Sr December 31, 2008 / 3:36 pm

    Incidentally, I would like to know more about how you manage to look so neat and well groomed. I mean how many sets of clothes do you have? And how do you manage to keep them clean, rather where do you do it? In lakes? Rivers? Hotels? In short, the logistics of your travel must be overwhelming, the setting up and tearing down and hauling stuff around at night. Amazing!

  3. Katrina December 31, 2008 / 4:18 pm

    Hey Kev!
    Glad to see you are safe. Ahmed emailed me and said he thought you told him you were going to India!

    I have always noticed that the Ethiopians have such beautiful faces. Their high foreheads with such delicate and gentle features. And the rich brown skin. What a shame with all the poverty. Surprised I didn’t see more of it in Cairo.
    Had such an incredible time wandering around with you 3rd world style, Kev. Thanks for being my male accompaniment. Are there any vendors where you are begging you to “just look! No buy!” ?

    I miss you. 12345

  4. Alix December 31, 2008 / 10:04 pm

    Kevin–I really enjoy reading your blog, it is the perfect blend of cultural awareness, entertainment and intellectual stimulation!
    Your description of Ethiopia is very descriptive and poignant, it made me feel a very deep and human sense of sadness. Good to be made aware of such feelings sometimes.
    Be safe!
    Happy New Year, wherever you are! Alix

  5. Kevin Koski January 1, 2009 / 4:18 pm

    Alix, thanks–I always thought Africa would be the most challenging part of the trip. Safety is a concern, of course, but also corrupt officials, bad roads and infrastructure, and lack of food and water, etc. Then there is the poverty which I hope I can get used to. But people see white foreigners as incredibly rich (which we are, compared to them) and so fair game for everyone.

    Don–I have a couple pair of cycling shorts and a couple pair of dress clothes. So I end up washing something just about everyday. Usually I can do this in a hotel or washroom, but sometimes in rivers or lakes. And I don’t always look well groomed. I just don’t post the photos of me after four days camping.

    The packing/unpacking may seem a chore but you just accept it as part of the experience. I have a system so that everything has a place in one of my bags. When I pack up in the morning I try to touch something only once. I pick it up and it goes directly in to the pocket where it belongs. I can actually pack up fairly quickly because I have been doing it for so long. I will post a before/after photo of one of my campsites.

    Kat–the vendors are not quite as bad as in Cairo, at least in the main market. On the street they pester you and follow you for blocks, selling sunglasses, tissues, DVDs, maps and even old Newsweek magazines (I actually bought one). But the market is tricky: I almost got my pocket picked by a couple thieves. One “accidently” bumped into me while an accomplice tried to lift my wallet in the confusion. Luckily my defense system was on high alert and I caught him with his hand in my pocket (literally!) A few curses, a clenched fist and a mean look sent them away quickly.

  6. Kimberly January 3, 2009 / 3:07 am


    Ditto what Alix says…I will have to read the others I hadn’t read so far! Kudos for your strength to persevere. Now I understand better the email you sent yearning for home…I would not be so quick to come home though you may feel a tad bit homesick. As I said in my reply…this is YOUR time. Enjoy all of it…in the eyes of poverty is God’s love…see that instead of filth and hunger and trauma and you will survive it. I wish you much peace, joy, and safety…Happy New Year…2001 or 2009 wherever you are and whenever it may be…-smile.

  7. Ben Kilpela January 8, 2009 / 4:03 pm

    Kev, your gmail address didn’t work. You got a new email.


  8. Emily Criddle April 15, 2016 / 8:04 pm

    I know it’s been almost 8 years since this trip of yours, but I have a random question for you. I adopted a boy from Ethiopia, and this woman with her baby, and the little boy next to her are exactly the situation my boy’s family was in at that time. Also, the woman bears quite the resemblance to my son.
    Did you by any chance take any more pictures of this woman, her baby, or the little boy with her? Did she have her husband there with her?
    I have met the father and the older brother. I found your blog as I was searching for a baby picture of my son. I just want to know if you took any more pictures of this little family?

  9. Kevin Koski June 16, 2016 / 2:41 pm

    Hi Emily,

    No I do not have any other photos of this family. I just took the one photo as I was passing by. The photo was taken in Addis Ababa.

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