Day 3: The Spy Who Loved Me Tours

I set off at 6am and headed for the airport after the porter got a taxi for me. I say porter, it was a man who sat on a broken chair outside the front gate for which seemed all day and night, wearing an oil stained t-shirt with a worn out suit jacket over the top. But Porter makes it sound like a posh hotel and more in line with what he thought he was. It had rained all night and the roads had become become very slippy with a film of orange muddy sand so the taxi driver seemed to enjoy sliding around corners in his beaten up old Lada scaring me half to death.

The plane I got seemed to be yet another stopping service, it seems to be an Ethiopian Airlines kind of thing! This time we stopped in a place called Mekele before eventually arriving in Aksum at about 10am. At the airport I was mobbed by loads of people trying to get me to go to their hotel. Although this can be annoying and you are unlikely to get the best deal, they can remove a lot of the hassle as they will usually take you to hotel and keep everyone else away. Although if you do this, you have to understand that they do this at another cost…… as far as they are concerned, you are now theirs and it’s their intention to try to get as much money out of you as possible by making you spend money things you never knew you wanted. ‘Tour packages’, ‘professional guides’, ‘authentic clothing’ and the weirdest…. a small carving of Haile Selassie which looked like a Easter Island stone head! So you have to be strong and decide if you want to spend anything, and if you don’t then you really have to switch off even when the hardest emotional heartstrings are pulled. Weighing all this up I settled for a hotel called ‘The Africa’, only slightly less original than the hotel called ‘The Ethiopia!’ I relaxed for a bit in the hotel before heading out as it was only midday and I’d been up since 5am, it’s not natural for me!

As usual I got surrounded by beggars as soon as I stepped out of the hotel and a little while further people started to offer to show me around as a “me-guide” as they would keep saying. The beggars are quite smartly dressed though but what is more surprising, people who are clearly not usually “beggars” walk past on their daily business but when they see me they will put their hand out, say “money” and then just continue on their way as if this is a normal thing to do! Why? This was so strange. Have western tourists just been coming here and throwing money at people under the belief everyone needs money and the people here now expect it? Is this what the charities have done, just thrown money at people? I really can’t get this place at all.

After spending an hour or so walking I headed out of town slightly towards Dungur, the Queen of Sheba’s Palace, only to be stopped by a man accusing me of spying. He had noticed a hole in my bag from which my camera sticks out. I had actually done this so that people were not aware that I have an expensive camera as I’d had hassle in Addis Ababa, it had nothing to do with Spying at all, I was also just heeding foreign office advice which says to keep your cameras and precious items hidden. After all what would a spy be doing walking around a dusty road in the middle of nowhere looking for a historic monument. I don’t ever remember this situation arising in a James Bond film! Amazingly for being in the middle of nowhere, a small crowd quickly gathered, from where I have no idea, while this guy angrily asked me more and more questions. He was going on about the security situation and wanted me to show him what was in my bag, he was getting quite forceful and at one point made a grab for the bag. In the end I figured he was just trying to pretend to be a figure of authority so he could steal my equipment so I just my turned my back and walked off. I hoped this was the right thing to do, but I didn’t hear a single gunshot as I left so I think it was alright! What he said about security didn’t seem to make sense to me. Yes, I was about 20km away from the border with Eritrea which I would think is quite safe distance. The border itself is meant to be a little dangerous still as the war with Eritrea only finished in 2000, having started in 1998. But even if there are still tensions, do I look Eritrean? Mmmmmmmm.

I slowly walked back to the hotel but got followed by an evil looking man from the gathered group. He had a very poorly fitted and slightly military looking uniform on. A lot of the people around here seem to wear ex-army gear, maybe it’s good clothing and they can’t afford new things? But you are never quite sure whether they are really army or just old soldiers. But having said that, old soldiers in this part of the world have a lot of power, so I’d better be careful. After a mile or so speed walk, with the accompaniment of a small child who decided to walk along with me and stare at me constantly rather than look where he was going, I was back at the hotel. I had dinner in the hotel where I met a Dutch guy who was travelling around the country. He was typical of what I would call an ‘anal backpacker’, he went into great detail of how I was travelling all wrong by flying here rather than taking the bus and that he was doing it the correct way….. Arrogant arse, he’s got no idea how much travelling I’ve done, not to mention the time constraints you have when you have a job! I didn’t say anything though as I didn’t want to turn into what he is….. The anything you’ve done……. I’ve done better traveller!