Ndale squeezed the silver Toyota Landcruiser between the donkeys, people and potholes of the busy Addis side street that our Stay Easy Motel was on, and beckoned Glen and me to jump in. Our guide Fitretu had given us thirty minutes to set packs down in our room and be ready to run. Although I was exhausted and the bed’s invitation to be horizontal after twenty four hours of travel was tempting, the cacophony from the Addis Ababa streets below was tickling my imagination so intensely, I could hardly wait for Glen to get his camera gear locked up so I could begin breathing and sweating in Ethiopia. Fitretu said we would drive to Entoto, a popular training ground for the country’s elite runners.
Two hours earlier, as the plane wheels touched down at Bole International Airport, I returned a wave to the thin, smiling, dark man in weathered khakis, whose tiny shack sat in the grass, next to the runway. I was smitten by the intimacy of this novel experience and it allowed the reality that we had actually arrived on the continent of Africa, to sink into my bones. To travel here had been a lifelong dream and realizing that it had become my reality, ignited passion in me that I couldn’t contain; the confluence of humbling gratitude, enormous love for my husband Glen sitting next to me and ecstatic joy in living life so fully, instigated a flash flood of tears and I hid my face in his shoulder and hugged him, as the plane came to a stop. I knew we were on the trip of a lifetime -our honeymoon – and that it would be an adventure requiring that I let go of all agendas for satisfying my usual desires at home, but my fingers and toes had been crossed during all three flights, in hope that I could RUN.
I knew right away, that Fitretu Getachew was an excellent guide,
because he listened to the deep desires of his clients and then went to the ends of Ethiopia, to satisfy them. A half mile outside of the airport, I made it known to him, that I “really hoped” I could run, during the seventeen days we were with him. When I found myself sitting behind a guide named Malak in the ‘cruiser an hour and a half later, he a seasoned runner turned guide, I knew that our experience of Ethiopia with Fitretu at the helm, was going to rock.
The trip up to Entoto required a solid twenty minutes of weaving and wading through multiple intersections of cars, people and animals coming from six to sixty directions, with no traffic light. One of the beautiful things about Africa, was that held within these diverse and apparently congested scenes, was the space for all the cast of characters to move at their own paces: the elderly inching along, perhaps at the speed of one of the thousands of tired, old donkeys hauling loads just barely light enough to manage; mothers walking with infants wrapped around their backs while guiding animals; toddlers being held by siblings only months older than they were; teens huddled around one mate who had a slick looking motorbike or turning a friend’s shoe-shining operation under a tent into a mini party; small groups of adults sitting on benches low to the ground, enjoying Ethiopian coffee and the company of one another; tuk-tuks driven by dare-devilish young men, delivering riders in a less crammed fashion than one of the giant buses tilting under the weight of people and luggage; beautiful women, dressed to the nines, sauntering down the dusty streets in high heels; men and women in extreme poverty laying, sometimes face-down, in the gutters or on a round about; students and beggars; business men with briefcases; men selling root vegetables in shacks made of salvaged plastics and banana leaves, doing business next to a shop selling cell phones; those dressed in white – mostly elders – walking to or from church; those sitting on a curb, chewing quat. Ten days later, I would find myself asking Glen why I can’t stop gazing upon these scenes, which beheld such diversity, yet never seemed to change. He told me it’s like watching a fire, or the waves hitting a beach; everything is constantly moving, yet it stays the same. This was one of the many paradoxes about Africa, which made my soul itch.
I looked at Malak in the front seat, his long dreadlocks loosely bound by a purplish-blue scarf, noticing the light and vibrancy emanating from him.
I wondered what made him so. I learned as he and I ran together, that he had been a top runner in his home land in southern Ethiopia, but eventually was weeded out, to make room for the best of the best. Once a runner, always a runner; the hope, desire and willpower harnessed to transcend perceived limitations and see a goal to it’s end, not to mention the affirmation that one really can “fly,” each time we set out on a run, carries us through our entire lives and into other facets of life. I sensed that he pined for living the life of a directed athlete and that the task of taking us for a run was helping him dust off his wings again.
I had learned about Entoto in 1998, as I did my research on the teams competing in the Bolder Boulder 10k International Team Challenge, to share the job of of color commentating with Frank Shorter. I was fascinated to learn of how the Ethiopian runners gathered early in the morning, stopping first for coffee and a pastry. They then loaded a bus to drive to Entoto. The women went first and the men followed, a few minutes later. As the group motored along, if one seemed to be dragging, she or he were put on the bus. The women were challenged not to let the men catch them.
Ndale dropped us off at a widening of the road where the pavement ended. The drive to this point was steep, full of switchbacks and people. Many miles below our drop off point, we saw women and children, bent at forty-five degrees from the waist, carrying giant loads of eucalyptus wood, breaking forcefully under the weight with each step, in in cheap, Chinese plastic shoes or no shoes at all. Later in the trip, we would see the exact same scenario, but on a dirt and rock trail, twice as steep; the strength and athleticism of so many in Africa, who are not identified as “athletes” but rather are simply living their daily lives, is mind boggling.
Our run began with Malak one-stepping me a bit, and I supposed this was to make sure he didn’t get “chicked.”
I experienced this with every runner I was graced to stride alongside during my adventures in Ethiopia, Rwanda and Kenya and only one of these “guides” besides Malak, kept his manhood. As is typical for me, my lungs relished the high altitude air and I immediately began gobbling up the fresh, pressurized environment. It was obvious Malak hadn’t been training much; it was also obvious that he was an elite athlete: his stride was smooth and he knew how to calibrate himself. Glen is a mighty strong runner, but not known for starting fast. Eventually, nature calling me to the eucalyptus forest, gave both me and Malak a welcome break and Glen a chance to catch up with us. By the time I got back to the road, I found Glen and Malak chatting and we decided we’d run together. The initial euphoria had worn off a bit and my body was beginning to feel the sleep deprivation, so I was happy to mellow out a bit; I was just happy to be out there, soaking up the mystery. The dirt road was nice and wide, with fields and farmers off to our left and the dense eucalyptus forest, extending far to the right. Another pit stop later, when I thought I had scoped out a private spot, I was surprised to hear and then see, groups of women walking with large loads of eucalyptus wood on their backs, or minding donkeys who were bearing the burden. Where had they come from? Whenever I thought I was alone in Africa, someone – or many people – were near, or even staring at me; often, theses realizations came when I was making a pit stop, mid-run! At first, this feeling of constantly being watched (during a pit-stop, or not), was disconcerting and even annoying; I often heard myself saying inside: ‘dude, you’re in my bubble!’ Over our five weeks in Africa, my sense of personal space would all but disappear (I swear I was unconscious, but by the time we were flying home at the end of the trip, Glen photo-bombed me drooling on the shoulder of the thickly muscled west-African man sitting next to me, deep in sleep). My initial resistance to not having any “personal space,” brought to my awareness a rather sharp edge I have, but had never had challenged in our American society which so highly reveres having “privacy” and “space.” I appreciated noticing the anxiety in me rise when “my” space was impeded and then promptly and happily letting go of my need to be separate. This run in Entoto, was my first pass at softening the sharp edges and melting the boundaries. (Ironically, as I write this, I have just chased my husband out of the room, so I can “concentrate.” The melting continues …).
After a while, Malak and I found ourselves separated from Glen again, as we descended to a crossroads where people and cars were gathered. When we reached this surprising hub of commerce on what I thought would continue to be a rather quiet, dirt road, we slowed to a walk and I had a chance to gaze around me. Up to the left, on the embankment, a man lay in the grass, watching us; just behind him, on a single track leading into the woods, a young man in a robe scurried past, in the direction of a fascinating sound bouncing off the hillsides; to the right, the proud owner of a blue van painted with professions of his love for Jesus and images of Mary on it, stared at us as he waited to to get a full load of passengers, to make his trip back down the mountain worthwhile. Straight ahead were three sets of people selling supplies for those on a journey: bottles of water, small packages of nuts, bananas, mangoes, coke products and juices. Everyone stared and stared hard, at me. This was a good callousing which would prepare me for much more of the same, the rest of the trip. In the distance, that fascinating sound became clearer: bells and methodical, reverent singing. “What’s that?” I asked. Malak said it was the call to prayer of the Orthodox Church. We were near a permanent encampment of the sick and mentally ill, who are bussed or walk there if they have no money, all the way from Addis and stay, until they are “healed.” The people believe that this is a Holy site, due to the spring water coming from the hillside. They believe that if they drink this water, they will be healed.
I whispered with extreme excitement. Malak seemed surprised but also energized by my curiosity. We continued walking in the direction of the prayerful sounds. We stopped on a steep downhill which led to a beautiful valley below and waited for my other half. As soon as Glen got to us, I excitedly told him where we were going, banking on him agreeing to go. He did, and we descended; Malak said it would be about a mile. Always true to his inner skeptic, I had faith in the Glenman, that while traveling in his beloved Africa, the resistance meter would be low. He is a seasoned traveler and whether he knew it or not, he’d met his match, in terms of a shared desire for adventure. The three of us took a moment to snap a picture on this steep hill with the expansive valley below and continued on, jogging slowly. Women stared harder, the more we descended; it was uncomfortable, but I was determined not to let my fear of the unknown get the best of me; I softened my gaze at times, shifting into a more “wide angle” view, to buffer myself from the questioning looks. One of these women hissed and ran toward us with a spurt of aggressive energy which made me and Malak pick up the pace; this made my adrenals spout a good shot of adrenaline into my bloodstream. People on the road were either striding with purpose with large, yellow jerry cans in their hands, or forlornly sitting, on the side of the road, emitting a moaning sound from deep inside. When Malak and I realized we’d gotten too far ahead of Glen again, we stopped and turned to see him racing at top speed towards us and heard a grunting sound that sounded aggressive. I saw a stone hurtling through the air his direction and Malak and I both started sprinting toward him, in protection-mode, with Malak grunting himself, with an “oh no!” We both watched the woman in a tattered yellow dress who’d hissed at me earlier, throw another softball sized stone at Glen as he ducked and ran. Malak turned on his elite speed and assertiveness and ran after the woman, who had a stone ready to throw at him as well, until he sternly sputtered something in Amharic, coupled with multiple, quick raises of both of his arms, which sent her running into the woods.
The woman reminded me of a deranged dog;
I felt sorry for her, at the same time feeling some hostility toward her, for attempting to hurt Glen. “She is not ok in the head,” Malak said later. A half mile below, we would find hoards of people much like her, abandoned to this place with the hope of healing. I wondered how, in this environment, they would ever overcome their maladies. After this shot of excitement, we all three stuck closely together and walked; we’d had enough running for the time being. Malak led us down a single track trail off to the right. We walked in silence, absorbing the density of the energy there. When I had the courage to stare back at those staring at me and allow our souls to meet, I felt in them both light from the hope of healing and deep weariness from longing to be free of their anguish.
The only immediate sounds were of mangy dogs barking to announce the arrival of the sacrilegious faranges or the bells singing from the necks of restless goats and cows wandering around. All human sounds seemed to be on mute, even though volumes were being spoken through the soul’s window, our eyes. A few young children, when they saw the faranges approaching, came running with fascination, half naked, to the edges of their yards to stare. With children, a smile and a wave went a long way and the friendliness was reciprocated. This was not so for any of the adults we encountered in this intense place and I finally asked Malak why the women were so vitriolic towards me. I had felt like a very boyish looking girl, in my zip off pants – turned capris, Newton BOCO trail shoes and bright gold Boulder Mountain Warriors t-shirt and wondered if the women, all of whom donned flowing, if dirty, skirts and beautiful head scarves, resented me. I secretly wished to look more feminine, knowing that somehow a simple change of wardrobe would help me blend in, but it wasn’t going to happen on this run. Malak said that women are not supposed to show their legs in this holy place and the people were worried that I will bring bad luck to them. Upon hearing this, I began to temper my wild curiosity and actually told Malak that I was ok with heading back. He wasn’t to be deterred, just yet. Since I had originally expressed a desire to get to the colorful church from which the priest’s chanted prayers were emanating, Malak was determined to get us there. The prominent sounds, buffered by a constant breeze which added to the mystery, were the prayers and then drumming, singing and mournful cries and shrieks from a tin roofed shack just below us, where exorcisms were being performed. We and all the people around us were mute, with only the sounds of radical transformation allowed; there was serious spiritual work being done here, and if it wasn’t successful, life ended here. It was a powerful place indeed, with so many people believing that the devil could be extracted from their bones here. The evil stares continued to be tossed at me like daggers as we approached a trail that would lead us past the exorcism station and up to the church. Inside, I was putting on the brakes and then when Malak said: “take off your shoes -we are not allowed to wear them past the holy place” and “there are many shits on the ground – watch where you are stepping,” my inner compass immediately reoriented towards Addis. Glen and I looked at each other, concurring that the adventure wasn’t worth being stoned to death or taking a digger on fresh, human poo.
We both sensed that even Malak was unsure of continuing on and it only took half a second for him hang a left on the goat trail before us and ascend back up. We began jogging slowly and quietly slipped back into the still-new dimension of reality which was Addis Ababa. We had been in Ethiopia for a total of five hours and already, the journey had gone bone-deep and beyond.
We took the scenic route back, on wide, dirt trails among the towering eucalyptus trees, trails which I learned later, the elite runners stuck to. It was a great day of “training,” on many levels. Malak called Ndale from his cell phone and we bumped into him with the landcruiser, partway down the paved, winding road.
I was excited to eat my first Ethiopian meal, right in our hotel. As exhausted as we were, I still wanted to walk down the street before the sun went down, to feel it and all that it held. I relished watching the owner of a furniture repair shop perfecting a piece of his art and watching a young man try to sell as many avocados to passers-by as he could, before the workday ended. My stomach did flips when we gazed over the edge of a bridge at a river bed, turned garbage and sewage heap, at the rotting corpses of a few goats, their intestines floating on the scummy surface. The circle of life: life, death, rebirth, is up-front and personal in Africa. Paradoxically, being confronted with death, dying and suffering, on this day, added more life to my living. As it should be; our treatment of death in the United States is dreadfully limiting and uncomfortably hidden. I had already fallen in love with the rawness and aliveness – including the decay – of Africa.
I enlivened my being with a wonderful meal of injera and shirro, a bubbly water called Ambo and treated myself to an orange soda called Mirinda, which Glen and I would drink many of, in the weeks to come. When we returned to the room, I had no trouble accepting the bed’s invitation to get horizontal; I fell into bed and didn’t budge for nine hours. I made sure not to unpack anything more than my toothbrush; we’d be on the road to Arba Minch at 8am the next day.