Thursday, December 15, 2011

Ethiopia trip (part 3: river)

At the border of Burji and Konso there is a small river called the Segen River. It's a seasonal river, and the satellite images of that area on Google maps must have been taken during the dry season, because we didn't know the river was there. It's about two feet deep and seventy feet wide. There is no bridge, but one is being built.

If our driver had known a little more English or if we knew a little more Amharic, we could have had a conversation about what to do when we came to the river. But we didn't, and when H stomped on the gas and drove into the water, we just yelled "fe'tan!" - fast! - and hung on. We actually made it through the deepest part of the water and were approaching the far bank when we got stuck in the mud. The mud was strange - you could stand in one spot and not sink at all, then take a step and sink up to your thigh. Our Land Cruiser got stuck to about halfway up the wheels.

Of course two ferenjis stuck in the mud does not go unnoticed. (Any car on the Burji-Konso road would be noticed. We hadn't seen another car since leaving Soyema.) Very soon there was a crowd of people around the car. They were absolutely wonderful. They worked for about five hours trying to get the car out. There were enough people who spoke Amharic that H could talk to them, and they tried all sorts of different ways of moving the car. They pushed branches and rocks under the wheels, they pushed it forward, they pushed it back, they rocked it, they tried to lift it... unfortunately the only thing that happened was the car sunk deeper. T and I tried to be useful but even the frailest-looking old man was stronger than us. We eventually were sent to sit under a tree and wait. We took turns wandering back to the river and trying to offer helpful suggestions - Ahya alle? - Is there a donkey? - but were met with blank stares and laughter and sent to sit under the tree again. After a couple of hours I climbed back in the car and while it was being wildly rocked side to side I grabbed our prescription medications, water, filter, cameras, guidebook, and shoes, shoved them in a backpack and took them over to the bank, thinking that we could walk to Karati, the nearest town. But when we asked one of the people who spoke Amharic he told us that the town was thirty-five kilometers away. So we decided to wait some more.

As we were waiting we were concerned and worried, but we also felt incredibly lucky and privileged. We've both had enough similar experiences in other parts of Africa that we knew without any doubt that we would be OK. We're white Americans with money. The absolute worst thing that could happen was that we would spend an uncomfortable night by the side of the river and the next morning walk the thirty-five kilometers to town where we could arrange for help. In contrast, literally on the other side of the mountain, a group of six families was so desperate that they took their children to an orphanage. Once we thought about that it was pretty hard to feel sorry for ourselves.

T had been trying to see if he could get cell phone reception and eventually he got it by standing on a specific tree stump. First he called the person who'd connected us with our driver, but he just said, "These things happen." Then he tried to contact the operator of the bulldozer from the nearby bridge construction, but couldn't reach anyone. Then he called our friend S in Addis, who immediately started trying to think of anyone he knew in the area who could help. He ended up calling his cousin in Arba Minch who tried calling a friend in Konso, but the friend's phone was off. Then I had the brilliant idea to call a hotel in Konso. We picked the most expensive, tourist-oriented hotel out of the guidebook, and called the number. We learned later that we actually called the cell phone of someone in Addis, but regardless, that person called his friend who was a tour guide in Konso, and that tour guide started working on getting a car to drive out to pick us up. The whole experience, with so many people willing to help us, from the people at the river to the people calling each other all over the country really strengthened my faith in humanity and reminded me again how privileged we are.

While we were making our phone calls the people at river were still working on the car. They worked until the cows came home (literally). What amazing, generous people. Finally it started getting dark and everyone gathered their things. I got out some money and approached the group to pay them. There was an argument about how to distribute it, until H in a stroke of genius called out, "shimaglioch!" - the elders! - and everyone immediately went and sat in orderly groups behind their particular representative. H gave out the money and everyone left except for about five guys. Then one of them explained that there was "and kilometer 'chiqa" - one kilometer of mud - so we needed to walk to drier land for a car to come pick us up.

So we left the car in the river and started walking. Pretty soon it was completely dark. There was a lot of mud in the road and one of the men was steadying me as we walked. All I could think was, I am walking through the mud at night in the middle of Ethiopia holding hands with a guy with a Kalashnikov. (We never did figure out the reason everyone had a Kalashnikov. I asked if it was for jib - hyenas - but got a blank stare.) Finally we got to a camp. The people who'd gone ahead were sitting around a fire. We figured out they were part the construction crew and were staying in a temporary building while working on the bridge. I really did not want to sleep there that night, especially because some people were drinking, which made me nervous. We sat off to the side and tried not to draw too much attention. I heard H tell the group that we hadn't eaten and that we don't eat meat, and someone brought us a papaya. We waited there for about an hour. Then, off in the distance - could it be a moving light? More time passed, and then the light became two lights and they were headlights, and miracle of miracles, there was a van, and Chuchu, the English-speaking tour guide was inside! T and I have decided that our best memory from Ethiopia is the hour we spent with the boys, but a very, very close second is the moment when the van rolled to a stop in front of us.

We got in the van along with H and a few other people and started down the bumpy road to town. About an hour later we were safe in Karati.


  1. I am so absolutely in love with your sense of adventure and your amazingly positive attitude! I think my husband might have a coronary just reading this adventure, but I think it sounds kind of fun :)

  2. You have painted a vivid picture with your words here! I can visualize the scenes, and I got a good chuckle of them sending you off to sit under a tree (and essentially, get out of the way). :) I'm glad it all worked out well in the end - what an adventurous day you had!

  3. What wonderful adventures you'll be able to share with your children! I love how so many people helped.