16. Home?

Green grass, the sound of birds, beautiful flowers and a nice morning sun. By closing the eyes, this could be Ethiopia. But it’s not. It’s the Netherlands. 5,5 months after we’ve left our jobs, sold our house and said goodbye, we’re back. The world is turning upside down and we are whirling with it.

2,5 weeks ago we were still in Ethiopia, relaxing at a nice camp spot in the North at Lake Tana. We’ve heard many stories about this country: the most beautiful nature in Africa, special tribes and stunning offroad tracks. But also: civil unrest, kids that throw rocks to your car and overwhelming busyness. So while making plans we’re curious and aware at the same time: where to go and which area’s to avoid. On our 3rd day at the camp site a Dutch couple joins, Coen and Floortje. It’s been a few weeks since we’ve met fellow overlanders so it’s nice to share drinks & stories. After a few days we decide to travel together trough Ethiopia; starting with a beautiful multiple day track in the Simien mountains. 

But while making these plans, there is a word that increasingly joins our discussions: Corona. It’s vague, but it’s there. We see some news flashes from Europe, we read about increasing numbers of affected people, we hear about friends that need to work from home. But everyone we know back home is healthy so no need to get restless. And Africa seems to be ok. So we continue to plan our journey: a few weeks of exploring Ethiopia, finishing with a well known beautiful off road border crossing to Kenya.

But then Kenya closes its borders. The first Covid-19 measure that directly hits our travel plans. We re-discuss our plans, pro’s, cons, and for the first time the option of going home to the Netherlands finds our discussion. But we don’t see the need. Ethiopia is safe, we can travel around and we decide to enjoy Ethiopia on a very slow pace, waiting until Kenya opens its borders again. In the meanwhile, messages from back home get surreal: empty super markets, friends do not know whether they can have a drink in a bar or not, people get angry when someone coughs, etcetera. Scenes from a movie, not from real life. But it is really happening. Though we still decide to stay. Better enjoy the beautiful Ethiopian nature than sitting at home in the cold Netherlands. And we don’t even have a home anymore. It’s Sunday night and we decide to start driving to the mountains on Tuesday morning.

But things develop fast. On Monday, the Dutch prime minister speaks to the Dutch people. We are aware of the fact that this is a historic moment; the last time this happened was in the seventies. The message is clear: the Netherlands (together with so many other countries) is facing big challenges. Schools close, restaurants close, working from home as much as needed and keep distance. While reading articles we get introduced by new terms like social distancing and vital professions. We have phone calls with family and re discuss our plans. In the meanwhile, two Greek overlanders, Dimitris and Vasilis, have joined our group, so we’re now with 6. We again weigh all the pros and cons. Borders in Africa seem to close fast, health care is far from sufficient in most African countries, how long will this all last and are we still able to fly to the Netherlands when needed? But also: we are in good health, Ethiopia is a huge country so fine for weeks of exploring and we can always return to this safe camp site. So we decide to stay: we will drive the next morning.

But then there is other news: our Greek friends just arrived at the campsite, and encountered some negative emotions towards white people. Ethiopian people yelled ‘Corona Corona’ to them and it felt tens. And we hear similar stories from Sudan. This changes the discussion: so maybe we are not afraid for our own health, but what if civil unrest gets worse and we are the ‘ones to blame’? In ‘their’ eyes, we as white people bring the Covid-19 virus to Africa. So we are to blame when things get bad. When people get sick. Or even worse, when people die. Economic decline. And so one. 

The next morning our Greek friends have decided they want to drive to the capital Addis Ababa, and take a flight home from there. We are confused, not knowing what to do anymore. We decide to make coffee and have a final discussion with the 6 of us. It’s difficult; we’ve all been dreaming about this travel for a long time, invested lot’s of time, love and money, left our home and job, and we are so not ready to go home. There are so many African countries still to explore. But we cannot decide different than to drive to Addis as well- mainly because of the expected unrest. We know it’s a long drive; at least 1,5 day. So we pack and go. The moment we leave the campsite, we receive an informal message from the Dutch embassy in Ethiopia; travelers should leave the country as soon as possible. There is our confirmation. 

And then our journey begins. We’re a bit tens, not knowing (after a week on the campsite) what to expect from daily life in Ethiopia. Already in the first village people start yelling ‘Corona Corona’. Ok, it’s real. Actually we are happy when kids yell “money money” in stead of “Corona Corona”. And in the meantime we receive many updates with one clear message: leave the country before the airport will shut down. We decide to not only drive to Addis, but also to book a flight back home as soon as possible. The drive is exhausting and beautiful at the same time. We drive through many busy villages, there are always people, animals or trucks driving like crazy on the street, and in the meanwhile we see stunning nature: mountains full of green, enormous trees, flowers and animals. The road is (mainly) in good condition and meanders through this magical landscape. We definitely want t come back to explore this country when things settle down.

At the end of the first driving day we park our cars at a local hotel. Immediately many locals stand  around our cars, laughing, saying corona corona and trying to touch us (it seems like you are cool when you dare to touch a white person). We see the conditions of the rooms and facilities and decide to sleep in our cars. We book 3 rooms anyway which allows us to park our care safe in the backyard, have dinner, drink a beer and relax a bit. In the meanwhile, friends and family help us out by booking flights.

The night is short- we go to sleep around 11PM and wake up at 4:00AM. We decide to drive in the dark: not only to be on time in Addis, but also to avoid crowded villages (and with that, the corona yelling). The first 1,5 hour is difficult: it’s fully dark, truck drivers drive (again) like crazy, people and donkeys on the road without any light and the road is good but with potholes and many curves. We are glad when we see the sunrise- not only for safer driving but also for the incredible views on the landscape. Along the road we pick up 2 Americans on bikes- they don’t feel safe anymore and we give them a ride to Addis. Along the road, many people hold their clothes for their mouth when they see us. We also notice that beggars and police man don’t come to our cars anymore while standing still in traffic. Is that a coincidence, or are they afraid of us?

Our feeling is ambiguous; we would like to go home now with all these recent developments, but in the meanwhile we see this insanely beautiful country, and – besides the corona yellers- often nice locals who smile or even shout ‘welcome to Ethiopia’. We really hope we can go back to create new memories here. 

In Addis we are lucky to be able to park our car at the Dutch embassy- the safest place we can think of. The people at the embassy are super kind and even give us 2 suitcases- of course we did not bring any ourselves. We feel emotional and tired while packing our stuff and while preparing our car/home to stay there for – probably- at least a few months. To close our journey we enjoy a meal in a hotel with the 6 of us. We’re glad we could share this journey together and make plans to visit each other in Europe- whenever possible.

After dinner we head to the Airport. We’re with the 2 of us again and fly from Addis to Londen, and from London to Amsterdam. 2,5 days after we decided to go back, we arrive in Amsterdam. We see the first Corona contours: lines at the toilet for washing your hands and shops that are closed. Merle’s sister Rachel (who helped us incredibly with booking our flights) picks us up and brings us to our new home. We are lucky: a good friend owns a house in Culemborg (center of Holland) which he does not use. It’s a lovely villa, surrounded by green and a good place to catch our breath and understand what just has happened. We left Africa. And we left our car. 

At the moment of writing, we are back now for 2 weeks. We slowly get used to the Dutch cold weather (but luckily are treated with a lot of sun as well!) and we have made our home a nice cosy place with the help of neighbors and family. It feels super weird to walk in the Albert Heijn, Hema or other Dutch shops. It’s such a difference with the past 6 months. We even forgot to bring our payment cards the first time; we only had African cash money in our wallets. But of course at the moment everything is weird for everyone. So we’re kind of part of that weird bubble now. And we’re happy to be close to friends and family- we don’t see them in real life but the feeling of being close is nice in these times. And obviously, we’re happy that we and the people around us are healthy, that we have this nice home, with great nature for hiking around and that we collected already so many nice memories in the last 6 months.

From here we’ll see. We try to help around where needed, we started online courses and we walk around. It’s a nice bubble in weird times. We do not plan further than today or tomorrow. And of course, we hope to continue our travel as soon as possible. But when that is, we’ll see. Let’s first beat this virus. We really hope that the African countries and their people will be ok, because with their fragile systems this could turn into a disaster. We deeply hope that scenario will not occur.

Take care of yourself and the people around you! And thanks for following our journey together with us; we’ll hope to be back soon with an update! 

15. This Is Africa (TIA)

“So, you can either go back to Saudi to get an approval for your car, or wait here in the harbor for 4 nights and we will arrange approval”. It’s Wednesday 17:00. This morning 08:30 we arrived – after a 12 hour ferry- in the harbor of Suakin, Sudan. The status end of day: we are allowed into the country, but our car is not. According to the Customs officials, we need an additional approval to import our car. Three men help us out that day, debating with customs, running around, talking to unidentified other persons, etcetera. We’re not sure if they are fixers or harbor officials, but it’s nice that they help us out. Or at least, try to. Because at 17:00 our car is still behind the fence. We’re tired and get upset now; we don’t want to go back to Saudi nor want to stay in the harbor. Finally, at 17:55 a Customs official invites us in his office, makes an exception for us and gives us the papers and stamps we need. We still don’t understand what was wrong but hey- TIA (This Is Africa). We thank the Customs official a thousand times and with huge smiles on our face we drive into Sudan- literally screaming of joy.

Other than in the previous countries, we now have a time schedule/ planning in Sudan. Max’ sisters are visiting from the Netherlands, so we have a few days to drive to Khartoum to meet them there. The drive towards Khartoum gives us a chance to get a first glance of Sudan. One thing that (again, as in most other countries) we notice is the kindness of the people. At a first encounter, many of the Sudani look at us as if we are aliens. But when we smile, we receive large, big white smiles in return. “Sank you Sank you” they yell, or “Helloooo, welcome”. Furthermore, we see a desert landscape with small villages with mud houses, self made tents, lot’s of garbage alongside the road and donkeys carrying food or wood. It’s a complete different world after a few months Middle East. What is also different, is the shortage of diesel in Sudan. Already for quite a while there is a shortage of gasoline and diesel, which results in endless long lines before the gas stations. Some people even wait overnight. It’s a huge problem, and the black market seems to offer a quick escape. Alongside the road, small shops (secretly) sell diesel. But this – obviously- comes with a high price.

Khartoum feels like a big village- not like the huge capitals we’ve seen so far. Only a few high buildings, many buzzling streets with little markets and the Nile meandering through like a calm, steady flow, taking care of the city (the water of the Nile is used everywhere; from drinking water in shared big cans at restaurants to the many small tabs alongside the road where people wash their feet). The vibe in Khartoum is busy but relaxt; there are many people on the street, we have many small chats, but we can also just sit down, watch our surroundings and enjoy a drink. In daytime we see women with headscarfs, in the evening we see young girls with European- style clothings. It’s an interesting mix in this Islamic country.

At Sunday night we pick up Max’ sisters – Marlou and Meggie- from Khartoum airport. It’s super nice to hug family (in law) again! We’ve planned 10 days traveling together, where Max’s sisters will have their own car and a driver- a group of 5. But, TIA: when we meet the driver he does not speak any word English. So last minute an English speaking guide is arranged and we leave Khartoum- 2 cars, 6 people. Our guide- Mohamed- has set up an 8 day program: heading North from Khartoum, crossing the Nile a few times and then back South. From day 1 we step into Sudan history, where we learn about the original Sudani- the Nubians-, the Egyptian invasion and Christianity in Sudan. We visit the oldest city in the world- Kerma, where they show the start of civilization in a very interesting museum. Small pieces of jewelry and kitchen ‘tools’ are shown, some 8000 year old (!). We visit sights where foreign universities and/or historical institutes excavate churches from Christian sights. We see archeologists at work, brining history to life with recovering stunning wall paintings, many of them well kept. We visit pyramids and tombs and watch the early morning sunrise on a beautiful Egyptian temple in Soleb. One of the most special aspects about the sights is that they are far from touristic- there are no fences, you can freely walk around (literally stepping on dunes that cover pyramids still to be excavated) and there are hardly any other tourists.

The Sudani we meet are kind, curious and welcoming. They do not have much -we can clearly see poverty at some (most) places- but they seem to be able to take care of each other and themselves on a (very) basic level and keep a good spirit. We drink many tea’s at the typical Sudani tea spots; small places where women serve tea and coffee for 10 eurocent from behind their little ‘desk’ and we stroll around market places. It’s a full program (especially after 5 months without having any program) and in the beginning we surely have to adjust with camping with 6 people (in stead of 5 months being just with 2), but it’s definitely rewarding. Unfortunately on the last day on the road, Marlou brakes her ankle while playing soccer with some kids- so the last 24 hour of our time together in Sudan is mainly spent in the hospital and hotel. Luckily they can still catch their planned flight and surgery can be done in Holland. Nevertheless we all look back on a very special Sudani 10 days.

Our last days in Khartoum we enjoy city life with a few hours of sailing on the Nile, we visit a local Friday prayer (Whirling Deverish) and have dinner with some fellow overlanders. We also try three times to visit the National Museum but it’s closed because of no electricity- TIA. We close our Sudan adventure with a visit to a huge farm near the border with Ethiopia. We were introduced to the owner of the farm in our Khartoum hotel, where he got us excited with his stories. It’s quite a ride to get there, we get lost several times, drive trough very small villages where we are thrown back in time, people stare at us and ask for water and we make wrong turns in the middle of agriculture fields (where Max steps out of the car to check the road, gives an enormous scream, jumps in the air, runs to the car and only can say: SNAKE, SNAKE, a big brown SNAKE). Right before dark we arrive at the farm, are welcomed by the owner and enjoy a shower and a good sleep. The next day we get a full tour on the farm- it’s harvesting season and we see how soja beans, water melons and cotton are harvested. The farm has 2500 people working on the fields, making sure the products are harvested in time, so the land can be prepared for seeding again before raining season starts. For harvesting cotton, the farm hires many of the workers in Ethiopia: they are picked up at the boarder, sometimes bring their whole family, their sheeps and donkeys and sleep in self made huts on the land. They work for a whole month, sometimes 20 hour a day (!), to be able to make some money to bring back home (unfortunately Ethiopia has a high rate of unemployment).

The next morning we drive towards Ethiopia. Again we get lost a few times and we get instructions from locals: keep on the left side of the mountain, which is actually quite a broad range (“How do we get to Ethiopia?” “Sopia? Ahhhh Sopia! Yes yes Sopia nice, you go left from the mountain!), but after 5 hours we see the border. Our Ethiopian adventure is about to start.

Nb: at the moment of writing we are at a camp site at Lake Tana in the East of Ethiopia (Sopia). As aspected, the Corona virus has found Africa including Ethiopia as well. It’s quite an exciting time, because borders are closing; i.e. Kenya (our next country) has now closed its borders for a month. It’s been an interesting (and not always fun) first Ethiopian 4 days because of this news, where we’ve discussed different scenarios. For now, we decided to stay here – we’ve met a nice Dutch couple and plan to travel together for a while- of course we will be careful with hygiene and take notice of important changes. For our readers; take care wherever you are, we hope you all are and remain healthy.