Saturday, November 17, 2012

Back to Bora, Ethiopia Trip -- Day 2

This was the longest day of the trip.  It started with me rising on my own, just before my  6:30 AM wake-up call.  I boarded the 7 AM shuttle for the airport, and was at the gate by 8, a couple hours early.

It was there I met up with the balance of the Vision team -- sans Curt, who was already in Germany, and would be meeting us on the ground in Addis.  We sat in the waiting area and chatted each other up a bit, all of us trying to get a feel for the other.  This group was going to spend a lot of time together over the next nine days, and we all wanted to feel as comfortable as possible.

The flight, on a new Boeing 787 Dreamliner, was routine, although for me it was a little uncomfortable.  My last trip to Ethiopia (when we adopted Thomas, a little over a year earlier) had included free upgrades to business class both ways.  I'd had my hopes up for this trip as well, but no such luck.  I ended up with a bulkhead seat -- lots of leg room, but the adjacent middle seat held a large man who tended to spread into my space when he slept -- you all know that scenario.  Thirteen or fourteen hours later, when we arrived in Addis Ababa, I'd managed to sleep a couple of hours, watch a couple of movies, and edit over one hundred pages of one of my novels.

Yeah, I was pretty tired.

Customs was fast, and my bags were already out once I hit baggage claim.  Our entire team, including Curt who waited for us in the baggage area, were out in record time.

Alas, our African companions for the trip (Dawit, Million, the van driver, and Ally -- who is an honorary African, actually holding a U.S. passport, but living in Ethiopia), were not yet at the airport.  We spent a little while alternately guarding our bags, and soaking up the warming morning sun.  Eventually, the van arrived, supplying us with one of our bigger challenges for the trip.

Including our driver, the party had eleven people, and the configuration of the van was such that every seat had to be filled.  That included the narrowed rear seat where I sat, and the torture seat in the first row with a metal bar across it.  We were very cramped inside.  And every available niche, plus the luggage rack on top, was completely packed.

Soon afterward we began the ten hour drive to Arba Minch, which included dramatic scenery, hazardous driving (mostly due to sheep and cows wandering in the road), and one incredibly sore set of backsides.  After stopping at Hosana for lunch, we continued further south, getting to within about an hour of Arba Minch just as the sun was starting to set.

That's when the crazy stuff started.

The last 90 minutes of "road" to Arba Minch is largely unpaved, and since there had recently been some heavy rains in the nearby mountains, the road had several streams flowing directly across it.  We drove through the first swollen creek, which had water about a foot deep, without issue.  The second one was more than twice that deep, and I was feeling a bit nervous about the water levels as a local waded across in front of us, and the water climbed past his knees.  We got through that one, too.

Creek three, however, was at least another foot deep, and the flow was strong.  Just downstream of the crossing point was a ten foot drop -- a mini-waterfall.  I envisioned the van floating in the stream, hitting the rocks at the base of the waterfall, flipping over, and getting pushed even further downstream.  I would have a front row seat if that happened.  I considered how difficult it might be to squeeze out one of the back windows, and decided it would be nearly impossible.  I started wondering if I could release the rear door from the inside.

One of my companions asked if there was a way around this spot, and indeed, I knew of one -- at least a four hour detour.  No one was excited about that option.

A bus ran through the creek as we watched, and seemed to have little problem.  Of course, our van was much smaller, but our driver seemed convinced he could make  it -- at least that was my interpretation of the rapid-fire talking going on in Amharic.

I and a couple of others suggested we all get out and wade across, letting the van go forward without passengers.  But before the idea could even be considered, we were moving forward.

Of course, we didn't make it.

The van became stuck in the deepest, swiftest part of the stream.  My theory -- the strong flow of water pushed us downstream a few feet, and our tires became lodged against rocks too large to easily roll over.  We were held fast, but at least we weren't floating.

Within minutes, a pack of Ethiopian men and boys, people just hanging around the crossing area, were in the water trying to give us a push out.  The van rocked back and forth repeatedly, but couldn't seem to break free.  I saw a truck on the far side start to get a strap out, and thought we would be towed to safety (the truck drivers were undoubtedly getting a bit impatient as we were blocking the road for a good twenty minutes prior to this), but this plan never seemed to go any further..

That's when the engine to the van died.

Water started to seep into the van, as we seemed to settle deeper and deeper into the stream.  We finally concluded we needed more muscle on the outside of the vehicle and less weight inside, and  all the men (except for the driver) and Ally piled out into the water to push.  Of course we were all in our clothes, which, in cases like mine, were supposed to last at least one additional day.  Whatever we could manage to get off the van's floor, which eventually ended up with about three inches of water on it, was put on the seats.  Unfortunately, that didn't include my suitcase, which, unbeknownst to me, was under my seat.

While we waited for things to get coordinated, the women (Carrie and Kristen) were forced to toilet in a plastic Target bag.  Welcome to Africa!

It took about two minutes for all of us to push the van out of the stream, first going back a little to steer around the submerged obstructions, and then making up the far bank.  I was thankful for the help from all the men and boys at the stream -- we couldn't have gotten out without them.  Our Ethiopian guides dispensed tips to the leaders totaling approximately $30, perhaps the best money spent on the entire trip.

By now it was dark, we were personally soaked, some of our baggage was wet (including my main bag), and the van wouldn't start.

We tried calling to Arba Minch, appealing to the DOMA Medical Team for help traveling the remaining one hour to our hotel.  They had been in Chencha that day running clinics, and hadn't yet arrived at the hotel.  In fact, don't think we could even raise them on the phone, and I'm not sure what they could have done that wouldn't have taken at least another two to three hours to implement.

Then a miracle happened.

After draining the air filter housing, and monkeying with some of the engine wiring, the diesel van actually started.  We all piled inside, soaked to the skin, and continued on our way.

It became obvious that the van wasn't working properly as soon as we hit an uphill section of the road -- power was minimal.  Fortunately, Arba Minch was basically downhill from where we were, and we managed to limp into the hotel parking lot.  I knew that tomorrow's trip included a steep climb at grade, and the van, in its current condition, would never make it.

But that was tomorrow's problem.

Once at the hotel, a very nice one by rural Ethiopian standards, I unpacked my wet things extremely thankful I had taken the time to put nearly everything in plastic garbage bags before leaving home.  I hung the few wet items in my room to dry, and followed that up with a hot shower -- the last for several days.  Afterward, I walked over to the hotel restaurant, and we met the Medical team.

Unlike my last trip I took with DOMA International, where the medical team was roughly the same size as the vision team, this time the medical team was huge.  With translators and guides, their group numbered, I think, 16.  I was far too tired to try to deal with all the names, so I sat down in the next open chair, and met those around me -- figuring I'd have plenty of opportunity to get to know everyone else during our next three days in Bora.

I had little appetite, could barely keep my eyes open at that point, and was happy once the dinner was finally over.  Curt, who was my roommate at the various hotels, and I walked back to our room, and I considered how we had been both lucky and unlucky that day.

Unlucky to have the van stall out in the middle of the stream, but lucky that there had been all those Ethiopians loitering near the crossing who were willing to help us get out.  Sure, they expected to get something out of it, but I reflected on how unhelpful most Americans would have been under similar circumstances.  Ally had even remarked that if this had been Kenya, all our luggage would have been stolen in the process -- perhaps a slight exaggeration, but I understood the point:  Ethiopians are kind, respectful and friendly people who are willing to lend a hand when needed.  And as far as I've been able to tell, they don't take advantageof a situation.  Maybe these generalities are not true in every case, but in my experience it has always been the case.

It is one of the many reasons I enjoy traveling to this country.

As I drifted off to sleep, I knew tomorrow would likely present additional problems -- particularly with the van.  But I wasn't worried.  Everything would sort itself out eventually.   After all, This Is Africa (TIA).

Here is Curt's photo of the van, midstream.

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