Omo Valley, Ethiopia - A Genius for a Guide
'Well Mate', I replied from the Patrol, which at that time was following our friend Neil's big Ford along a bumpy eroded Ethiopian road, heading to the Omo Valley, 'It's when something is not good, like this road which is bumpy, washed out and rough ... that makes it ratshit', I said.
'Aaah, so 'ratshit' is not good, Mr Ron?' Biruk answered in confirmation ... anything to keep the conversation going over the radio which he had only learnt to use the day before and of which he was now captivated with.
Next day we were again on a rough and bumpy road when Biruk, who was taking his turn in our vehicle, turned and said to me, 'Mr Ron, .... this road is shitrat!'
I broke up laughing. Hesitantly he asked 'Shitrat, yes?'
In-between laughing I agreed that the road was indeed 'Shitrat', and from then on, long after Biruk had left us, anything rough or bad was termed 'Shitrat'.
But this was just one of his many sayings and terms of phrase that endeared him to us.
Along with all of that, there are the fantastic monuments, castles and churches (does the fabled Ark of the Covenant still reside in one of the rock hewn churches – many Ethiopians believe it does), along with an unusual and varied cuisine that has won world wide acclaim.
It is also the cradle of mankin, with direct links to our ancestors reaching back millions of years. In Addis Ababa, the country's capital, there is the 3-million year old skeleton of 'Lucy'. Added to all that is the grandeur of the natural scenery, some of the world’s most unique and rare wildlife … and 73 million people crammed in to a country twice the size of Texas - or the size of South Australia! Yep, it sure is different!
Biruk though, did seem to know everyone - police, pretty tribal women, doctors and hospital staff, shop keepers, border guards, brothel keepers, other guides and shady characters we would not have been game to stop and talk to without him around. And with him doing the bargaining we got to sleep in pretty well protected spots, including a police station, a border post, and in the grounds of the only hospital in the whole region - that was an eye opener!
Then a few seconds later, more urgently, impatiently, Miss Vivvie, Miss Vivvie, are you there? ..... over'
Viv's reply of, 'Okay okay, Biruk, dont get your knickers in a knot!', was met with complete silence.
Hesitantly, Brook came back on the radio, 'Miss Vivvie ...... Miss Vivvie .... er, what is this .... er ......don't get your knickers in a knot? .......over.'
In the background we could hear Neil and Helen, breaking up with laughter, and it took some explaining by Viv, what 'Don't get your knickers in a knot', really meant. Perhaps though the meaning was lost on Biruk, 'cause unlike 'shitrat' , we never heard him repeat it!
Another day we were yarning when he said, 'I love everyone, does not matter what skin colour, or tribe', then lowering his head, his eyes closing slightly, he went on, rather conspiratorially, 'I hate those muslims!' You had to laugh at the intensity of Biruk, but his feelings weren't really surprising in a country that is mainly Christian surrounded by Muslim countries that aren't so friendly. And anyway, political correctness doesn't rate highly in Ethiopia.
Photographing the many individuals though here is a battle. Now, I don't mind paying as I'm getting something from them so it is an exchange and they are so bloody poor. But here in the Omo Valley it was a bargaining battle of wits amongst a dozen, sometimes more, people wanting their photo taken, demanding you take 'their' photo as they thrust their hands into your face, pushing others out of the way, scrambling to be in the pic. At times we just walked back to our vehicles to get away from the hubbub. It was a meat market. The pics - one pic - for each individual was just 2 birr (about 30cents) - kids 1 birr - and Biruk would always be there 'helping', coming back to us with a pretty young woman, or a couple of kids for us to take a photo of him with. Then he would casually say to us, 'You must pay her (or him), 2 birr!' We would have to stop him otherwise there would be an unending stream of photographic subjects, always with Biruk standing in pride of place.
At the small village of Kofele, Biruk took us to meet his family. That created quite a stir in the community that sees few, if any white tourists. We were greeted warmly by his parents, his father taking us inside to meet everyone and then heading back out in the now heavy rain to keep watch over our vehicles while we were inside the home. The hospitality was overwhelming and we were fed a huge meal. Again from my diary:'They served up a meal of local bread (Injera), nice bread rolls, spicy beans, spaghetti, potato and salad. At one stage Tshgye (Biruk's mother) fed us by hand, putting the food in our mouths – which is the custom, then Deslagn (Biruk's sister) brought us some sodas.' It was obvious that they had raided their meagre money supply to put on such a feast and we gave Biruk money to give to his parents for the food. It was a very, very humbling experience - one of many we have experienced on our travels around the world.