Tuesday, December 5, 2017

A monumental disaster - my view

Interrupting the self-indulgent blawg posts about global gallivanting with a PSA prompted by yesterday's depressing events in Utah....

“Well, it happened.”  I used these words about a year ago as a preface to:  “President Obama created the Bears Ears National Monument!”  in an article for the Utah Adventure Journal.  Now I’m dismayed to use those words as a preface to:  “President Trump eviscerated Bears Ears National Monument AND dramatically reduced the Grand Staircase National Monument.” 

Yesterday Trump came to Utah to sign the proclamation that was effectively created by Secretary of Interior Ryan Zinke after his May visit to Utah.  Not surprisingly, while Trump was in the capitol a few hundred people protested nearby, and I went there hoping to find some solace and solidarity with my fellow Utahns who couldn’t abide by this action, but it was actually pretty depressing for me.  As smart, passionate people created clever signs and took time out of their work day stand ignored on a cold day sequestered far from the building, the People With Power were inside slapping each other on their backs celebrating yet again another victory of capitalism uber alles.  Later I saw this photo:
Sufferin' Sycophants! 
Then this morning I heard an interview with a southern Utah county commissioner on (national) NPR and read an SL Trib op-ed by another rancher who’s on the “Public Lands Council” that were so full of inaccuracies…..well, I cracked.  And I got a few inquiries from both Utahns and out-of-staters as to what the heck is goin’ on, so I thought I’d do a quick blawg post with my thoughts. 

21 years ago Bill Clinton created the Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument standing on the rim of the Grand Canyon (wrong state, but…) basically as a 1996 re-election campaign strategy to win over environmentalists who knew that even though he was generally progressive he wasn’t “green”.  He invoked the Antiquities Act without involving anyone else, particularly Orrin Hatch, who probably has ground through many sets of dentures over that action ever since.  Orrin is a particularly righteous guy and an opportunistic politician (his recent outburst being the most recent example) and he’s been very consistent on this point; he has absolutely hated Clinton for that action and hated the GSENM….because of Clinton.  When Trump became the president-elect Orrin capitalized on both the congressional republicans’ horror at Obama’s creation of the Bears Ears Monument and Trump’s desire to dismantle all things Obama by planting the seeds of reversal with Trump.  

As always, favors amongst the powerful cut both ways:  NPR’s main story about yesterday’s antics wasn’t about the proclamation, but the fact that Trump really needs Orrin to maintain his tottery presence in the Senate, because his likely successor is Mitt Romney, who has and would pose a threat to Trump. 

In the Bears Ears article I wrote for the Utah Adventure Journal I wrote a fair bit about the details of grazing (always was allowed in the monuments) and mining (really?  We need new sources of coal and natural gas, even though the prices for both of those is super low?), and in an earlier article about the GSENM I compared those activities to tourism.  Since then Secretary Zinke went and visited these areas, and I was actually somewhat optimistic; how could someone visit places like Boulder, Escalante, and Kanab and not recognize that those communities are thriving because of the monuments, not despite them?  Home values are way up (if you can find one), new businesses (including hard-to-miss hotels) are blossoming, and the towns are vibrant.  However, Zinke’s visit was so tightly scripted that his handlers didn’t let him actually engage in those businesses; in fact, he did not even meet with the Chamber of Commerce for Boulder/Escalante (who actually have taken out ads in the SL Tribune decrying yesterday’s action), and usually Chambers of Commerce are all about conservative fiscal values.

Which leads to two more things I’ve learned since writing those articles.  The first is that Utah is somewhat unusual in that the sphere of power ironically resides in the rural areas; many of the state’s most powerful politicians are from the rural areas (one was rumored to being considered for the national director for the BLM), and Salt Lake City proper is more liberal and its residents are virtually disenfranchised.  And those state leaders who aren’t from the southern desert are heavily influenced by the traditional older, white, male, ranching folks that populate southern Utah. Which leads to the second important point:  the fact that most of these folks are Mormons, and many (not all, but more traditional) Mormons have a fundamental distrust of the federal government that literally goes back 150 years (for valid reasons), and have a super strong sense of not only self-reliance but also community support.  Therefore, if it’s federal government owned or managed, it’s overreach, and if the ranchers down south think it’s overreach  - even if they are able to graze as many cattle as they want on public land for less than $25/year apiece – their brethren up north will support them, regardless of the on-the-ground veracity of their claims (the county commissioner on NPR today was waxing on about how much conservation   -to undo the damage that 100 years of their grazing has caused? - they’d be doing in GSENM….if they could!). 

So it there is the connection:  the good ol’ boy farmers who graze their cows on subsidized prices complain to their buddies who go up the chain to the state leadership who talk to the Senators and representatives who in turn influences the president who wants to keep those folks supporting him and….it’s proclamation time.  Despite the fact that is the public not necessarily in support of that:  it’s 50-50 in Utah, and the summer’s national comment period was overwhelming in its support to maintain the monuments, facts that Utah’s leadership conveniently ignores and denies. 

A huge part of the Bears Ears aspect was of course the Native American factor, and that’s confounding to me:  despite a continuous chorus of voices saying that they were absolutely against this action, Utah’s leadership  - and Orrin  -keep saying that the tribes are also loathe to the concept of government overreach.  That’s a convenient narrative, considering that they are Native Americans and all, but in this case they are very vocal about their desire for federal protection.  That said, why is there a Native woman in the photo above? 

If you are feeling as hopeless as I am, a great way to feel slightly less so is to make a big part of your annual fall/holiday giving (you are doing that, right?) is to the groups that will be throwing huge resources at suing the Fed over this unprecedented action.  According to my sources, The Wilderness Society, the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, the Friends of Cedar Mesa, Natural Resources Defense Council, Utah Dineh Bikeya, Earthjustice, and the Native Americans Rights Fund are all good. 

And we will be sending money to Alabaman Roy Moore’s opponent Doug Jones to see if we can help tip the balance in the Senate, not to mention our own local hero Ben McAdams in his quest to unseat Mia Love for Utah’s fourth district.  Could I find myself eventually sending money to Mitt Romney?!? 

Friday, December 1, 2017

Bike Touring Ethiopia - part 2

A quick overview of Ethiopia and where we were:
It's on the "Great Horn" of Africa, and we were in the top third of the country. 

This is our route; we were quite close to the Eritrean border, with Lake Tana (the source of the Nile where I had started the rive trip) to the left.  
Back to the trip....

After a good day of tromping around looking at the cool rock-hewn churches we hit the road again, and had to deal with a lot of traffic:
there wasn't any signs for "camel crossing" but they are big enough to be signs themselves

It didn't matter where we were or how remote we felt, there were always folks walking the roads and working:
the Princess Leia look has gotten popular in Ethiopia
And we had riding company at times:
Though ironically, despite long distances between towns, bikes were surprisingly rare.  
The Ethiopian people are super friendly and always waved, and kids in particular got really excited when we rolled through:
Running after us.  And it's easy to see why these folks do well on the international running scene; they were fast! 
The kid thing proved to be a little problematic at times.  Most of the time they'd yell "You you you!" (not sure what that meant) or  - more often - "Money" or "Pen".  I'm not sure who the tourists were who long ago started giving kids pens and money, but they created a million-headed monster.  Sometimes the kids would be running behind us and try to grab our bikes via the panniers or rack, but we developed a good technique for that:  just slam on the brakes, which would result in the offending kid slamming into the back of the bike and the rest would scatter.

We had read some blog posts by cyclists in Ethiopia who had experienced a fair bit of rock throwing by kids, and one reason for contacting the British guy who did guided tours was to get a sense of the areas where this wasn't as much of a problem.  He had assured us that the route that he suggested for us had locals who were more accustomed to seeing cyclists and this wasn't a problem, and it really wasn't while we were in the suggested zone, but....we distinctly left his itinerary, and sure enough the farther from that we were, the more rock-throwing we experienced.  It was never malicious; it was pretty much just 10-12 year old boys doin' what they do, and at times - despite our annoyance - it was kinda fun to "combat" them; Ash once veered towards a kid who was zeroing in on messing with her and he in turn veered away....only to charge headlong into an acacia tree branch "fence" loaded with spines, and I surprised a few by charging off the road and chasing them through fields on my bike.

The older kids hooted and hollered at us  -especially as they got out of their (color-coded) schools:
Ash fitting in well at the Blue School
But generally left us alone.

Since we veered off the suggested route we were flying a little blind in terms of details; we had maps that showed distances and a bit of shading for topography but we didn't really know how hilly the terrain was.  As some of the pics above suggest, we had an easy half day of flat spinning, and then it got a bit more real:
And as we got up around 130km with an hour and a half of daylight left and quite a few more kms to go we once again relied on the kindness of locals to throw our bikes into their pickup and shuttle us in towards the next town.

Aksum is a city that was the capital of Ethiopia for many years (long long ago) and is has a fair bit of stuff that tourists like (churches and museums).  So we obliged:
Our first stop: a bunch of fences that was apparently Queen Sheba's palace.  

It was a good thing that this was our first destination of interest, since it wasn't very interesting!  
In town we found more interesting stuff:
These huge obelisks have a bunch of Christian meaning (I kinda lost track of what it was) 

They apparently were originally raised via elephant-power, and now are held up by big cables.  
There is a church in Aksum that supposedly houses the Ark of the Covenant, which I only knew from Raiders of the Lost Ark; the big chest where Moses kept the 10 Commandments.  Apparently whoever looks inside it dies, as per the guy who melted in the movie.  Fortunately, they don't let anyone inside that church, or else I'da likely succumbed to curiosity and tempted fate and taken a peek.

There was also a church that had an inexplicable rule:

Which made part of our team pretty mad.  And it was pretty cool inside:

But Ash was able to entertain herself with more interesting locals than the sexist monks

and found some peanut butter!

While we wandered about town we had a very distinguished gentleman guard our steeds:
And then we were back on the road
The river in the background is the Takeze, which is a fairly major tributary of the Nile and runs for thousands of miles and meets the main stem deep in Sudan.  This was the physical low point of our tour, at 2700 feet, and it was dang hot, and hilly
some amazing snaky descents.  

the grades were almost never more than 7%, which is a great grade for both climbing and descending.  
We had a bit of traffic:
we loved the pink kit

The crowd was going wild as she charged up the climb! 
The roads were built by the Italians long ago, hence their quality, but they were only paved in the last few years in a huge effort funded by the Chinese government, which has cooked up a great deal:  the Chinese government loans the money to the Ethiopian government with the stipulation that Chinese road makers get the contract and used cheap Ethiopian labor to execute it.  But not without a price:
The goat is unimpressed by the loss of life associated with road building.  
These coupla days were the most remote of our journey, but despite that, there were plenty of people on the roads

And the villages that we passed through always had a good foosball tourney going:
Ethiopians have great smiles. 
There were towns/villages sporadically throughout this region (including some Eritrean refugee camps) and out here in the hinterlands we really attracted the most attention.  In one village I was at a little kiosk buying some water and snacks and we were getting pressed in on all sides by locals who had to touch our bikes and yammer at us in Amharic, and over the din I heard Ash bleat:  "Buddy, I'm getting pretty claustrophobic here!"  I debated for a moment as to what to do, took a deep breath, and very abruptly "blew up" and bellowed at the top of my lungs "ALL RIGHT!  ENOUGH!  GET THE HELL OUT OF OUR WAY!"  and acted really mad, even though I was sorta cracking up inside.  And it worked; my faux tantrum made the large crowd scatter - even as they were laughing, knowing full well I was overacting - and we pedaled onward.  
Not the same crowd, but you get the idea.
 Our destination was the Simien Mountains, which go from about 9000 feet on up to the highest peak in Ethiopia at over 14,000 feet, and also is home to mountain baboons, Ethiopian wolves, and Ibex.   As such, it's a big tourist destination, and also as such, it is home to a couple of phat lodges, one of which is called the Limalimo lodge, which goes for way too much money a night, but is super cool.  En route to there, we stayed in a couple of towns where we guessed we were the first white people to ever stay there, and the rooms were about $6/night, and were worth every penny! (and not a penny more!).  But the food was still great, and the locals were super friendly:
These guys spoke pretty good english and busted out their dictionaries to follow our Scrabble game
A bit of miscommunication in the morning resulted in a bit bigger breakfast than we bargained for:
These white people on bikes must have to eat a lot!
The terrain below the Simien Mountains was quite hilly itself, and we had a lot of great climbs and descents;
note the rocks in the road.  Not a lot of traffic in these parts; we probably saw an average of about a dozen cars per hour.  
and we knew that there was one long section of unpaved, bouncy riding, which generally is not a big deal but it also corresponded with a steady 5000 foot climb and the day we did it seemed to be unusually hot.  

Knowing that I rarely let a bike tour go by without at least one day of solid bonkage and dehydration I tried to camel up on food and water, but to no avail; I was fading down the rabbit hole.  We stopped for a rest and I tried to hammer down more water, but within a few minutes I was pedaling squares again, but as fate would have it, we came upon a spring; one of the only springs we saw on the trip. 
However, this didn't cut it.  I needed something else, and things were a bit grim; there was almost no traffic so it wasn't very hitchable, we still had a ways to go, it was getting late, and my legs were cramping from my ass to my feet.  A car came along with two Ethiopian couples who stopped to also water up at the spring, and of course asked if we were ok (since I was pretty much pale as a ghost and collapsed on the ground) and Ash said "Do you happen to have any Cokes?"  Alas they did not, and drove off.  I tried to ride again, cramped, and retreated back to the cool shade of the spring, while Ash tried to figure out the next move.  But suddenly, about 20 minutes later, the car we had seen earlier came barreling back down the road, the guy leaped out, and in his hand were.....two ice cold Cokes! Such great people.  

I drink about 3 Cokes a year, and generally am not psyched about either the product (too sweet, even for my sweet teeth) nor the company (huge global influence promoting bad teeth and obesity via addictive marketing of a fizzy caramel drink).  But that day I slugged those two Cokes down and they pretty much brought me back from the dead.  Within 5 minutes I was able to leap onto my steed and rage up the last third of the climb!  

That is, until we hit the plateau and saw the sign:  "Limalomo Lodge, 800m".  Since I rarely drink such sugary drinks in big efforts I also rarely get the post-buzz crash, but as we neared the top of the climb I kinda felt it coming on.  But whatever, 800m; how hard can that be?  But in that last 800m up the gravel driveway we probably climbed 200m.   I ground slowly up the driveway feeling worse by the half-second and feeling the familiar cramp in my legs -and this time, in my arms as well - and at the end of the drive it turned to a steep path.  We pushed our bikes on up to the lovely lodge perched on the mountainside, and as all the white tourists were in the large living room checking their phones, sipping their cocktails, and enjoying the sunset they looked up, surprised and horrified as I stumbled in, caked with dust and dried sweat, pretty much swooning, and only able to utter one word:  "Coke!"  

Next up:  the Simien Mountains and Lalibela. 

Friday, November 17, 2017

Bike Touring Northern Ethiopia - Part One

A new friend trying out Ash's steed
The first installment of a series of posts on our travels in Ethiopia.  The Blue Nile river trip came first, but the bike trip is now foremost on my mind and chronology doesn't really matter anyway.....

Ash and I connected easily at the Addis Ababa airport, and got onto a connecting flight to Makele, one of the capitals of Tigray, which is (maybe?) the state that comprises most of the north of Ethiopia.  I was a little concerned that the bike boxes might be too big for our plane, and after spending $400 to get our 2 bikes to Ethiopia it was going to hurt a bit to pay yet again, yet we were checked in with no mention of either luggage size or additional birr (the Ethiopian currency, which conveniently was devalued by the Prime Minister while I was on the river; good for exports (??) and tourists, but not great for the local economy.....).

Ash had a quick nap and a decent nighttime sleep and was ready to launch on our 100km first day.  As we rolled through town a guy came up behind us and said "where you go?" and I was surprised to see that he was on a pretty nice bike.  Turns out he's not only a road racer type but also a mechanic, and he insisted on giving me his phone number "just in case" we had some bike issues, which seemed like a good idea.
Gigi, the first of our many spontaneous and gracious Ethiopian benefactors!
We rolled out of town and up the first climb we were surprised to see a small pack of full-on roadie guys doing intervals on the 1000' climb on the outskirts of town.  And even more surprised to see another posse, and then another.  Apparently Makele is a hotbed of road cycling, and it was odd to see these kitted-out guys on sweet bikes amongst the other rattletrap bikes that plied the town roads.  I tried to get a pic but they flew past us in both directions too fast for me to grab my camera!

It is not a solid Ash and Tom bike tour without a major mechanical issue to happen in the first bit (broken derailleur in Boulder, UT, a fallen-off crank near Price, a frozen freehub in Vietnam), and this adventure began accordingly.  I was rolling along when suddenly my rear wheel skidded to a stop, almost throwing me over the bars.  I glanced back and my heart sank:  a split rim.
 Old school (ie non-disk) brakes wear down rims  - especially in places like sandy southern Utah - and I hadn't noticed that my rim was deeply grooved.  The only fix was a new wheel.  I immediately thought of our new bike wrench friend Gigi back in Makele and I said to Ash "we gotta go back to Makele (knowing how much we both hate backtracking) but she said "call him and see if there's something ahead.  As always, she has wise thoughts, so I called him and he said the next town had a shop, and as I hung up Ash flagged down a passing pickup and we were on our way.

"Bike shops" in Ethiopia basically consist of a guy alongside the road with a toolbox. 
at the bike shop
We found that town's local guy, and he said "no problem", and next thing I knew he was stripping my wheel of spokes.  I've seen other people tape the new rim to the old and move spokes over, but apparently that's not the Ethiopian way.  Once he had it stripped he leapt on his bike, raced off, and a few minutes later returned with a brand new rim.  An hour later it was laced up and ready to go.  To be sure, it took a lot of finessing and I still have a bit of a lump-lump in the wheel - which doesn't help a butt that's lost its saddle-toughness after a month+ off the bike - but it spins, and that's all I need.  And I guess one gets what one pays for; the whole deal was about $10.
The mechanic's honey spoke good english and was excited that we had actually done the 24 hours of Moab featured on her shirt!
Back on bikes we continued to roll northward on a beautiful, uncrowded road (though it was the main highway) towards an area that was polluted with the "rock hewn" churches that this area is known for.  Around the 6th century as Christianity was taking hold in Ethiopia they decided to make easily-defendable and durable churches by digging straight into sandstone cliffs up high and building churches literally into the rock. As such, of course it's a big draw for dork tourist white people.   And also as such, it's a ripe area for a couple of phat lodges that cater exclusively to dork tourists, and we were headed for one:  Gheralta Lodge.  We knew that it was owned by an Italian couple and was nearly impossible to book due to its popularity, but when we rolled up we found that a large crew had left (by helicopter!) a day early and they were wide open.  We are suckers for these fancy eco lodges, and we had no problem throwing down plenty of birrs for the sweet place and delicious Italian food (due to two occupations by Italy, the "other" food in Italy is Italian, which is handy if cheesy white folks tire of injeera and roasted lamb). 
Our notso humble accommodations

Ash roughing it in deepest darkest Africa
We met a great English couple there; the guy is a surgeon who specializes in cleft-palate reparations; when you see those tear-jerking mailers from philanthropic NGO's who sponsor this surgery, this is the guy who is actually doing it!

hanging out with other new friends. 
Africa is clearly tough livin'....
And the next morning we rolled down the road 10km more to the....next Italian-owned eco lodge with scrumptious food!  (complete with actual swiss cheese that had been hand-carried by other customers from Switzerland). 
Ash once again roughing it.

The terrain looked a lot like Utah; we wondered why we had flown halfway around the world to get Zion-esque views! 

A traffic jam in Ethiopia's Moab
Given the fuzzy beta we had we hired a guide to take us to a couple of the churches.  These Christians earn their worshipping!  One involved a 1500' climb up a steep lower slope, a mid-cliff slot canyon, and then "moki" (Ethiopi?) steps carved into sandstome to ascend to the church.
a fun slot canyon approach

The other involved an easy fifth-class medium-length climb to a 2-foot ledge with a 200m vertical face below; not for the faint of heart (and we saw a few white folks who were a bit faint of heart).

Some are caves, some are combos of cave and built-on, like this one.  

The idea of digging into solid rock for a church construction method itself was remarkable, but the interiors were equally so.  Huge columns held the place in place:

the books are really big (made of goat skin) and really old...
and the frescoes inside were incredibly detailed, colorful, and painted even on flat and rounded ceilings.
Mary the babe are almost always featured prominently
Ash hanging out in the cubby hole that apparently was carved so that the monks could sit and look out the window as they meditated.  
One of said monks
Looking pretty regal....
 shoes are not allowed in the churches, so for this one they aren't allowed on the last climb either!  
The first church was up on the peak to the left.

another bizzy day for the "guards" of the churches.  The guy in the middle just got up and wandered up to the church with us, then asked for about $8 to do it! I gave him about $4 to be nice....
we needed a tuk tuk to get to this one.  I wondered if he had 3WD? 

After a full day of rock-hewn church-ogling we retired back to the lodge for another evening of roughing it in the wilds of Africa.  And we began to plot our next move.  As I mentioned in part zero, prior to the trip we had paid a nice guy to help us create a good route in Ethiopia, but as we rode and the maps started to take on more life, we became recalcitrant customers and basically decided to throw out his route and do our own, despite our good rationale for hooking up with a guy who knows the country and the best bike touring pretty well.  Our new route would be a near-loop and take us up into the Simien mountains - which is one of the biggest/baddest ranges in Ethiopia and has lots of wildlife - and into the city of Gonder that has plenty of dork tourist things to see. And Dork Tourists we were:
"which way to the sights?!"
Enough for now....more riding and touristo sights to come, and I'll also take the time to show some mappage to put Africa, Ethiopia, and Tigray into perspective.