On the Highways of Abyssinia

Saturday, March 6, 2010 | Ethiopia (map)

Cattle herders walk the roadside near the town of Bahir Dar.
Amid the office towers of downtown Addis Ababa is a massive expanse of macadam—Meskel Square. The square, formed by the intersection of 12 boulevards, resembles a colossal mall parking lot, and is the heart of Ethiopia's highway network. From this hub, the country's roads extends outward in all directions, deteriorating gradually as they grow further from the capital. Paved roads peter out and dissolve—first to gravel, then to rutted dirt tracks.

Outside of Addis, many of these roads were too bumpy to allow for reading, much less writing. Snapping pictures or chatting occupied a few minutes, but mostly Jacqueline and I stared out the window, watching scenery for eight hours a day.

Comments from Yoseph, our tight-lipped driver, were sparse. (Once, as we drove past a dusty track forking to the left: "That is the road to Sudan." Another time, of the truck drivers careening past on
a steep mountain road: "We call them 'Al Qaeda.'")

* * *

While the roads' quality was often lacking, upgrades were underway everywhere. Sometimes we spent an entire day winding our way through roadworks and construction. Every few miles a Chinese engineer, dusty and sunburnt, would remove a hand from the pocket of his blue jumpsuit and adjust his wide-brimmed straw hat to get a better look at us, his fellow ferenji.

Clusters of homes and cafes flanked the roadside; the larger of these congregations might qualify as towns. The crowds of herders, market goers, and children stepped aside as we rushed past. Herds of cows and donkeys milling about would also part, but without fail a single one would meander into our path, forcing Yoseph to brake and honk until the oblivious animal trotted off.

Around Kombolcha, where our route briefly approached the eastern deserts, camels suddenly appeared everywhere, laden with produce. They loomed, gangly-legged, over clusters of petite donkeys like a great Dane over a litter of kittens.

* * *

Towns without an "Obama Cafe" or "Obama Market Store" were the exception, not the rule, as local entrepreneurs sought to cash in on the president's popularity here.

* * *

After two weeks on the road, our aging Land Cruiser was showing signs of wear. The glass of our back hatch developed a squeak, which kept up like a cricket all the way back to Addis. Then, at some point during our departure from Lalibela, our vehicle's steering system succumbed to the rocky trail's abuse. We spent our last two days wobbling slowly back to Addis on misaligned wheels.

Luckily, Yoseph's collection of synthesizer-heavy Ethiopian pop music casettes was sometimes able to drown out the squeaking window, or at least distract us from it.

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