Where the Wild Things Are (hint: they’re all under 5’2″ and living in Ethiopia)

Girl running uphill to demand money when I stopped to take a photo

I procrastinated writing this post for so long because it is so difficult to put into words just how unique our experience with the youth in Ethiopia was. We passed thousands and thousands of feral, yet passionate youth each and every day. They greeted us with the biggest smiles imaginable, chased us into the bushes, fought over our garbage, treated us like rock stars, demanded to have the shoes off our feet, sprinted across fields just to say hi, attacked me with sticks, stole everything from our cameras to our outhouse to our bike shoes, surrounded us at every campsite and coke stop, and mimicked my every move.

We first refused to give these kids our empty water bottle but after much harassment, my friend was so annoyed that she threw the bottle across the street, which only triggered a full-blown war.

Interacting with the children, like cycling through the country, was uplifting or draining depending on the attitude I took. One day the kids would be great, the next they were too much to bear. We resorted to screaming and shouting, to chasing them through fields (and even into their homes), some riders even retaliated with violence.

In the morning, I usually had enough energy to wave and greet every kid I passed. The afternoon was another story altogether. By then, I’d already greeted a gajillion kids (as enthusiastically as is humanly possible) and cycled uphill for 6 hours in intense heat with flies swarming around my head, so the last thing I wanted to do was lift my sweaty head, let alone open my mouth to say hi or pick up my pace to prevent the kids from grabbing my stuff. Ugh. I could go on and on about this but anyway, to illustrate how draining and infuriating these wild ones could be, at our Ethiopian camps I overheard such statements (from well-traveled and normally patient riders) as:

“In Sudan, a kid touches my bike and I say ‘hey take it for a ride!’ Here, they touch my back wheel and I want to kick their fucking faces in.”

“It’s a good thing we don’t have access to internet because I would really enjoy watching videos of Ethiopian children getting tortured right now.”

I know this sounds so outrageous, after all we’re talking about children, but I can’t emphasize enough how challenging it was to control our emotions and reactions when we were exhausted, and telling the 5632nd kid of the day that no, we will not give them money.

5631st and 5632nd kids asking us for money

So why can the youth in Ethiopia be so violent and demanding? This is what I think…

Sticks and Stones
Every child in rural Ethiopia carries a stick or stone, theoretically to herd their cattle. To complicate matters, adults also use anything at their disposal (canes, branches, shoes) to whip, kick or hit the kids in an effort to control them. Furthermore, every kid in Ethiopia loves to get the attention of passing “feranges” (foreigners). It logically follows that said kids will mimic their elders and use said instruments to get our attention.

Crowd control

I found the best way to deal with these attacks was to understand this thought process, be very very friendly and if all else failed, to ride straight into the children and hope to hell they moved out of the way before I killed them.

youyouyouyouyouyouyouyou

All the kids in town running to surround us at a typical coke stop

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Money Money Money
Kids in Ethiopia know 5-7 words in English: you, money, where, are, (you) go, and if they’re especially educated, give me. They then repeat each of these words as many times as they can from the time you enter their field of vision until the time you exit it.

Not wanting to see every kid as a rude, greedy little bastard, I tried to keep their demands in perspective by thinking of myself as Santa Claus. “I” come to town once a year on a fancy bike in a weird costume with a bag of goodies attached to the back of my ride. In Canada, kids would demand iPads and xboxes from such a character. In Ethiopia, they demand five cents. Who’s rude and greedy now?

We also liked to play word games with the kids. They yell youyouyou give me moneymoneymoney, we yell happyhappyhappy or mangoavocadobanana or even a rider’s name. Usually, they would repeat and we would feel like we’ve made the country a better place. It was amazing to hear the kids repeat what the faster riders had taught them (and we always knew someone was having a bad day if they kids greeted us in droves with fuck off)

money money money money money money

where are you go where are you go

Olympic Training
It took only about five minutes in this country to understand why Ethiopia is known for its runners. The kids in this country are like really, really f.a.s.t. It was not uncommon to have a toddler (no joke) run uphill beside me (literally) at my pace with barefeet on gravel paths. They seemed to stop only when they bored of me and moved on to another rider, not when they were tired (to my knowledge they never were). This was annoying at first because they would try to grab my stuff or touch me (and of course repeat the same 5-7 words mentioned above), but eventually, I enjoyed the practice and saw myself as a coach preparing them for the 2024 Olympics), demanding they run harder and faster and giving them their speed.

just the fastest little legs on the planet

Positive Thinking
Of course the energy of these wild things was contagious and heart-warming as well. Many welcomed us with song and dance, “I love yous” or giant smiles and frantic waving. Seeing throngs of children running at breakneck speeds across fields, down mountains, and out of homes on an hourly basis just to wave will go down as one of my favourite things about this tour.

There were also several special kids who will stand out in my mind. Some offered to push us uphill on especially tough stretches, some offered the food they were eating, and one, Adam, is the most charismatic and promising boy I will probably ever know (more about him later, I promise).

one of the many pleasant youth of Ethiopia

Adam (middle) with his two younger brothers on his bed/couch

kids getting scolded and chased by riders after throwing rocks

This post is getting long and I’m not even sure it makes sense so let me recap:

As trying as the wild things were, there is no doubt they will be the most memorable and oddly, enjoyable, part of this trip. Thanks to them, I perfected my assertive NO/HEY, climbed hills faster than I thought I could and brought my patience to a whole new level. I worry that they will be a lost generation, with expectations of charity and poor education, but I hope with all my might that their energy and assertiveness will translate into big assets for this developing country.

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Dissecting Ethiopia

First Impressions

Crossing from Sudan to Ethiopia can pretty much be described as going from an elementary school library to a night club. Immediately, we went from quiet, friendly, calm, welcoming and conservative to loud, aggressive, dirty and chaotic. The Italian and Catholic influence on Ethiopia was immediately apparent – cafes, pizza and necklaces with large crosses were everywhere. Every other vehicle on the road is a foreign aid vehicle and, judging by how raggedy all the children are, they seem to be necessary (though their effectiveness is questionable – more on that later). In Sudan, most of the children were in school, in Ethiopia, most seem to wait on the side of the road with rocks and sticks, just in case a juicy target cycles by. Cycling became significantly more difficult as the landscape changed from desert to mountains overnight; however, the most pertinent difference to the riders was the sudden availability of alcohol.

It’s hard for any of the riders to definitively say whether they like Ethiopia or not. There are so many pros and cons to being here but I’ve found with the right attitude, it is a fascinating and unique country. Here’s a brief breakdown of Ethiopia through the eyes of an outsider:

The Good

The Coffee
-coffee (which originated in Ethiopia) is cheap, organic, freshly roasted and easily ordered in any little village we cycle through

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The Food
-injera, fresh juices, shiroo (?) and Italian food, the only thing missing is sushi

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Song and Dance
-I love the simple beats and strings of traditional Ethiopian music, and the crazy shoulder and neck movements of their traditional dances. We tried to mimic the moves at some local clubs and let me tell you, it felt like I climbed a mountain with nothing but my traps and deltoids by the end of the night, but it was one of the best nights I’ve ever had

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The Landscape
-the Ethiopian highlands are stunning; climbing them is an intense workout, while descending them is an even more intense thrill. Days are cooler, and by that I mean not 30 degrees instead of 50, thank f-ing god, and there is a great diversity of wildlife (my most exciting spottings include vultures, baboons, and chameleons).

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The Bad

The Kids
-all week I’ve been moving kids from the ugly category to the good and back again, finally settling on the middle ground of BAD. It’s amazing how one day the majority of the kids, across all the little towns and villages that we cycle through, are friendly and supportive, and the next the majority are little devils. There is still so much to say on this topic, and as I’ll be in Ethiopia for another couple weeks, I’ll save it for another blog post.

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Poverty
-Ethiopia ranks 174/187 on the Human Development Index, ahead of such countries as Chad, Liberia and DRC. That being said, there is a huge presence of NGOs here (Plan, World Vision, Hunger Peoject, UN etc). In the villages we’ve been through (and most of the population is concentrated around the main road we’ve been following) the people appear to be just barely scraping by (ie kids are clothed in really tattered clothes likely donated by the west, have no toys and no shoes, but aren’t starving). Ive seen very little industry, all agriculture, including the transportation of crops, is done manually or with the help of donkeys. The hardest part is seeing the vast number of street kids; I’ve heard there are as many as 5.4 million orphans in the country. I’ve also been told that average Ethiopians can only afford their traditional coffee ceremony once a week (as opposed to daily in the past). Unlike in Latin American countries where there is vast poverty, but also extreme wealth, I haven’t seen a single residence (after a week and a half and two days in Addis) that would pass for a house in Canada. In Egypt and Sudan, separating our garbage into organic, burnable, and reusable didn’t matter so much but we were told once we hit Ethiopia, they will punch each other in the face fighting over our empty water bottles. A few days ago the lunch crew made the decision to not leave empty tuna cans for the locals after kids hurt themselves fighting over the cans the previous day, and the truck was stoned the whole way out of the village.

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The Ugly

Thr Culture of Entitlement
– this of course is my, an outsider’s, biased opinion, but if there’s ever been evidence of how foreign aid can corrupt a culture, look no further than Ethiopia. There is such an aggressive and unabashed sense of entitlement among the youth and adults alike, a result of decades of dependence on donations. I can’t emphasize enough how common it is to have Ethiopians of all ages demand money from us. They expect the shoes from my feet, bike that I’m sitting on, sunglasses from my head and literally the shirt off my back. I’m sure donations have established schools, provided clean water sources and saved lives, buy I also can’t wrap my head around where all the money is going now. Still need to dig deeper on this one…

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The Toughest Section of the Tour

The 8 riding days between Khartoum, Sudan and Gondar, Ethiopia are known as the hardest on the tour. Not only did we have three brutal off road days in Sudan, but also the day with the most climbing.

The off road days felt something like running on the beach, in 50 degree heat, while towing a cow, with tennis balls banging every inch of my body, for seven hours. If I was lucky, I had a choice between rattling my brain on the worst corrugation imaginable, or exerting triple the energy riding through the sand. When I was unlucky, I got to feel every once of fat on my body jiggle as I braved km after km of corrugation. I must say though, I felt pretty badass on the really rugged terrain (once I got the hang of it).

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Then there was the heat. Every day in Sudan was a race against the mid-day sun.  It’s very difficult to describe just how unbearable the heat was, but one day in a useless attempt to record how I was feeling, I noted on my iPhone “feel like I am wrapped in sheet metal that has been cooking in a greenhouse for seventy hours, and have a giant hot blowdryer three inches from my face that is moments away from exploding.” My sunscreen curdled, lipgloss melted, chamois cream separated, water was literally as hot as tea. In the desert and plains of Sudan, sometimes the only relief was crawling under a thorny bush for five minutes of “shade”.

By the third off road day, half of the riders were on the truck. At my lowest point, between the heat and exhausting road conditions, it took every ounce of my energy to ride 1 km at 8-10 km/hour before resting, chugging water, and continuing for another km.

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Navigation was tough, with our direction guided by anything from a dilapidated railroad to power lines to tape tied around some strands of wheat (?).

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Sometimes, we came across locals who had “borrowed” our flagging tape. I got lost once, which was extremely scary, not to mention dangerous, when there are kilometers between villages and you have a limited water supply.

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As if all those challenges weren’t enough, thorns were thrown into the mix. Many riders had 3-4 flats/day, several had 2-3 rolling their bikes around camp alone. To give you an idea of how bad the thorns were, one rider, Ian, dropped his water bottle on the ground at camp and a thorn literally punctured it. Amazingly, I had ZERO flats.

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Just when my hands, bum, shoulders, back, arms and legs had had enough of the corrugation and sand, the mountains appeared in the distance. On our last day, we climbed over 2500m, or something like 200 Mount Everests. Many strong riders, already worn from days of tough riding, didn’t even make it to lunch.

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Then there were the miserable, miserable Ethiopian children. This topic is worthy of a full post, but suffice it to say for now, they swarmed us from all directions, fired hundreds of stones at us (including a boulder which hit me in the hip), pulled our bikes back on the toughest uphill sections, raided our bike bags and demanded money.

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Just when the riding got too unbearable and I wanted to give up, I would ride  into the cutest villages…

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With the cutest kids…

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Then, if that wasn’t enough and I really thought I was going to die, Africa would remind me that I was still alive with a family of monkeys running across the road or a herd of camels…

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Thank you Africa 🙂

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This section took everything out of me, mentally and physically, but I am sooooo proud to say I actually completed every day!!!

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Highlights 

  • Two bikes, and the tour laptops and cell phones were stolen in Khartoum
  • I had my first shower in a week! Imagine the layers and layers of sunscreen, sand and sweat that had accumulated and maybe you’ll understand how invigorating that was.
  • A rider had to leave the tour after contracting some unknown illness in Sudan
  • At least half of our riders have had gastrointestinal issues in the past week, a combination of heat exhaustion, overall fatigue and infamous Ethiopian viruses
  • Several more riders have crashed, but luckily everyone is ok (though the cracked helmet count is now at 5)
  • I hit a top speed of 61.4 km/hour downhill (with my brakes on)
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The Challenge Ahead

  • staying healthy and dodging rock bullets!