Sunday, 29 June 2014

The Worst Trip Ever Pt 2 - The Last Tirade

This past April-May, I spent 20 days in Ethiopia on a photography tour that was unequivocally, indubitably and incontrovertibly the worst I have ever been on in 5 years of such activities.

Highlights from the first 10 days of the trip (the so-called 'Northern Route'), are chronicled in my posts about the night hike up active volcanic crater Mt Erta'ale (itself an unmitigated disaster) and a day in the hottest inhabited place on Earth. Sweeping first place in the hall of shame though, are the latter ten days of the trip (the 'Southern Route'). While the night hike was akin to a blitzkrieg, the Southern Route was an interminable siege of the body and mind.

It was like a twilight zone of endless suffering, in which I spent all my time and energy crawling up the cliff-like lowest two tiers of Maslow's pyramid. No wonder the higher order functions like self-expression thru photography never quite hit their stride.



All McCurry-ed out!

We stopped at lots of markets to take people portraits. With limited time, this often degenerated into taking record shots. Markets became our daily de facto shooting location..for portraits. During the first ten days, we shot portraits. In Gambella, we shot portraits. Later in Tulgit, we also shot portraits.

It got really old, as travel photography to me is also about shooting people in their environment, and the surrounding landscape. Ethiopia is a beautiful country, and I am not just talking about the people!


Leaving Gambella, I was a little happy(er) when it rained, and mist enveloped our area. The lead car did not stop to take any shots of the inclement weather so the result of begging our driver to stop for short, stolen moments only yielded this.  

The guy in front looks like a zombie from The Walking Dead, don't you think?
We stopped at a wayside town for the night, and to my joy it had a hot shower and secure environment. This happiness was short-lived, as we were later reprimanded at dinner for stopping on our own accord to take pictures without the lead car's consent. Apparently we were denying them the opportunity to take sunset shots (of more markets?!). Never mind that the lead car (also containing the guide) would often leave us clueless and biting its dust after shooting their fill of a scene.

The conversation turned into a shouting match (surprisingly, without me as one of the opponents). Harsh words were exchanged, tears were shed and feet were stomped. I fell asleep reading Paul Theroux's 'Riding the Iron Rooster' (his journey thru China by rail in the 80s) and feeling slightly envious - while the toilets would have been abominable, at least *he* could hop off anytime he wished. 

We were headed into the Omo Valley the next day. We made the obligatory market stops and seemed to be making good time, even on dirt road. Unfortunately, the rains that had produced such surreal, moody pictures the previous day turned out to be our undoing. Our vehicles got stuck in a section of road that had degenerated into mud slush, about 20km from our destination.

Two tribesmen happened to pass by (and if you're wondering, they do look like extras from the set of the movie 'The Gods Must Be Crazy'). One had a Kalashnikov slung over the shoulder and both were carrying long sticks (which are their traditional weapons). Our guide went with one of the tribesmen to get help, while the other stayed behind (with the gun). These dudes belonged to the Suri tribe we were going to shoot (with cameras, that is). He forbade pictures, but I managed to sneak in this one from afar.
Suri boys shooting the breeze
After standing around for a few hours, the Suri boy got into the back seat beside me. Clad only in a skimpy toga-like shift, that meant his bare ass and genitals were in contact with the seat below. I tried to scrub the image from my mind (with Dettol).

I had to pee. Numerous days on the road had inured me to passing scrutiny - modesty was flushed down the toilet (pun intended) as my carmate and I would sometimes just pee with minimal cover by the roadside bushes. But now, I had a problem. The mud outside was like quicksand, and there was a half-naked, armed boy from an untamed tribe curiously watching me at arm's length. In the end, I settled for an awkward straddle of the half-closed car door and a foot in the godawful mud. No wonder the adventure travel space is still dominated by men :)

The Suri had an immoderate interest in my hair. He kept trying to touch it, while I kept trying (demurely, of course, remembering the gun) to swat him away. Other than that, he kept to himself and was very well-behaved, making not a sound.

A group of about six Suri rocked up as carmate and I were trying (more to pass time than anything else) to get the mud off our feet and the interior of the car. We looked at the Suri curiously and they at us. The women were particularly fierce-looking, with scar tattoos around the breast, short cropped hair and unsmiling faces. We knew better than to try to take pictures, as there was no 'free' in the Suri vocabulary when it came to tourists (an interesting dichotomy indeed, given this area is described by Forbes as one of the world's 'last great undiscovered places'). Ha.

Evidently, the reverse did not apply as they started gesturing for some empty water bottles I had stuck behind the driver's seat. I was happy to hand over trash that was someone's treasure; however, they started gesturing again, this time at my *full* bottle. I gestured back no, I needed it. They got more agitated, gesturing insistently and muttering ever more loudly amongst themselves in Suri. The windows were wide open in the heat, and I figured any moment now they would make a grab for the water, and who knows what other merchandise they fancied from our little treasure chest of modern material goods, docked and wide open to plunder.   

Throwing pride to the wind, I squealed for our driver. The cook showed up instead, said abracadabra, and off they disappeared. I nearly cried with relief. He (the cook) was a man of many talents, whipping up egg sandwiches for dinner from the crowded roof of the 4x4 in fading light.

Our guide finally arrived on a tractor after a total of 9 hours. He had walked quite a few miles to fetch the tractor, only to have it break down halfway. He then had to walk back again to get help for the help. The tractor extracted the cars with ease. We piled into one car as the other was damaged. Luckily there was shelter nearby, so at around 1230am, in pitch darkness and rain, we were hustled into a small house. It belonged to a plantation and served as workers' quarters. We bathed under cold tap and a naked bulb. I spread my sleeping bag over someone's iffy mattress and fell asleep almost immediately.

My bed in the plantation workers' quarters - tripmate slept on floor
The next day, rain prevented us from moving on to Tulgit for most of the day. There was nothing to shoot at the plantation canteen except... you guessed it...people portraits!

With a small group, costs inevitably go up per person. Not that this was my problem, but it became my problem when we got screwed on accommodation and food. Our cook was very busy for a major portion of the trip - he cooked at least 1 meal on 7 of the 10 days, and all 3 meals for 2-3 days. It was very tasty for what it was, but also cheap and basic.

As for accommodation, our initial itinerary had budgeted 5 nights in the nice lodges in the Omo Valley. We ended up staying only one night in the swanky place below (at the end of the trip). My God, luxury does exist in Ethiopia if one is willing to stump up money for it!

I had taken the single supplement option, and was told prior to the trip that if I wasn't given a room of my own with an ensuite toilet, a refund would be payable for that night.

You have read at length about conditions in the plantation workers' quarters. The next two days were spent in a missionary's home in Tulgit, which had one toilet (pictured below) shared amongst 8 people (participants and crew).

Water again was cold only, with a very weak generator to charge electrical appliances (it eventually broke down under the strain of so many hungry plugs).

I did not think it unreasonable to ask for a refund on principle for the above accommodation, so appalled was I at these ratty backpacker facilities, on top of the travesty of Gambella. The organizer chose to pass the buck to the guide, even though he had been the one to inform me of the policy.

However, the most irresponsible statement was yet to come, and I quote the organizer, who said he was 'doing [me] a favour' by letting me tag along on this trip. I know inflation is eating a hole in everyone's pocket, but last time I checked US$5K+ can still buy a lot more safety and comfort than the disorganized budget adventure we were on.

Continued in Pt 3 -> Kingdom of the Bleeding Cows

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