Ever since I was 21 years old, managed a betting shop in London’s White City estate and hung out with my Rastafarian customers I have always wanted to see Ethiopia… And I should have done it years ago.
Even though Ethiopian Airlines passengers still ask staff whether there will be any food on the flight because they still perceive the country to be in perpetual famine, I can report back that it is one of the most precious places on the planet.
As is usual with much-delayed ambitions and expectations, things didn’t start off too well. Four days of filming my second Bollywood film on a set that was filthy gave me severe dysentery and my first four days in Addis Ababa were spent in bed.
But after that it was all uphill, even though Addis is a city that lies at an altitude of more than 2,300 metres. I did as all travellers do and sought out the railway station and took it from there… To the nearest dirty bar.
One completed World Cup match later I found myself outside the impressive National Theatre with a ticket for the red carpet closing ceremony of The Ethiopian Film Festival the following night. Then I was alone in Haile Selassie’s tomb, admitted by the Head Priest who thought I could get him a visa for the UK (‘Of course etc’).
And so it went on. The next day I saw Lucy, the world’s oldest skeleton at 3.2 million years old and quite possibly the missing link because Lucy was a biped with a small brain and only bigger-brained humans were supposed to do that.
Then it was the film festival, a personal chat and beer with Liya Kedebe, the star of Desert Flower, a harrowing film on female circumcision, an early morning flight to the insane island monasteries on Lake Tana, the source of the Blue Nile and the Blue (more like Brown) Falls before a 12-hour day bus back to Addis.
The following day my mate arrived from London and I had to tell him that even for the England/Germany World Cup match and a booked ticket to Joburg, I would be staying in Ethiopia… He took it well and we got drunk for 48 hours, I won the 35 metres steeplechase at the National Stadium, rode motorbikes and watched every World Cup match we could.
Then he was gone and for once I had a guide-book (they’re like mobiles; once you have one you can’t stop looking at it), but this time it was welcome. I planned a route to the coast in Somaliland, a country that I didn’t even knew existed and then a 30-hour boat with livestock that went to Yemen… TO BE CONTINUED