To experience a new place, cars are often the preferred mode of transportation. They allow us to see great amount of things quickly and comfortably. On the other end of the spectrum is walking. Walking allows us to not only see an area in more intimate detail than being in a car, but it also adds the sounds, smells, and interaction with the environment that being in a car does not. The only problem with walking is that we move quite slowly, especially when trying to experience large areas. So this presents a problem. A car allows you to see lots, walking allows you to truly experience a little, but if only there was a way to experience a lot. The solution? A three letter word: RUN.
Leaving my hotel early in the morning as the town of Jimma is still walking up, the powers of running have taken me down hidden streets, into farmer’s fields, and down small dirt pathways between houses. That is the beauty of running, its ability to allow my mind to drift, letting go of my consciousness in favor of allowing myself to be immersed in the sights, sounds, and smells as I experience Jimma on my $29.99 blue and black suburban-Boston-Target-purchased running shoes not only caked in layers of mud, but now caked in memories. Allowing my mind to drift, not thinking about the dangers of pickpockets, my coming northern Ethiopia travel plans, or the research study I am developing, in my opinion that is the beauty of travelling.
My first solo run in Jimma, I made my way out of town as the road turned from pavement, to cobblestone, to the old remnants of pavements, to packed dirt, and then to mud. One block from my hotel, I took a double take, and a strange sense of sickness overcame me as I slowly rounded the corner. Now, in Jimma it is common to see people (mostly men, but the occasional woman), sleeping in the grass on the edges of roads. Now, at first glance, it looked like there was a man in a ragged old blue suit sleeping on a small hill on the edge of the road. (Reader discretion advised if you continue reading). But no, in actuality there was a rope around the man’s neck, connected to a low branch of the tree a few feet higher on the small hill, and the top half of his body was suspended above the grass. A small group of women stood on the road nervously glancing over at the man, and as it was only 6:20am on a weekend morning, no one had yet informed local authorities, but there it was, only a few feet away from me, my first dead human being I have ever seen. Outside of that description, I don’t know what else to say, as I didn’t know what to feel at the time nor do I as I sit here typing. But what to do? I didn’t know, so I simply kept running, out into the fields outside of town, where the mountains surrounding Jimma were still hiding behind the early morning fog. Before I knew it, I had ran and ran until I had to stop and re-evaluate. Before me a wide smooth runway appeared on the far side of a very wet-looking grassy ditch. I crossed the ditch, letting my curiosity get the best of me, sinking into the mud with every step I took, but then there I was, standing in the middle of the Jimma airport runway. After knocking as much mud as possible off of my shoes, I begin running down the runway in the direction of what looked like a terminal off in the distance. As I ran, I did what anyone else would do, I took a break, first cautiously sat down on the middle of the runway, and then proceeded to lie down on my back. It wasn’t the most comfortable attempt at a nap I have ever had, but lying there, eyes closed, the rising sun beginning to heat my black asphalt resting place – I felt free. Eventually I got up, and kept going on my adventurous first solo run in Ethiopia, but for you adrenaline junkies out there, next time you are near an airport, try it out, make your way to the far end of a runway if an airport is busy (safety is important, it greatly helped that I was there at 6:45am on a Saturday morning). I made it back to my hotel eventually that morning, after getting very turned around and slightly lost while running back, but I figured it out, and by 7:05am on a Saturday morning, I had done all that* (*see above paragraph). The warm cocoon of sheets and blankets can sometimes put up a really convincing fight when the alarm goes off at 6am, but adventures like this counter back in the debate of whether to turn over and shut off the alarm or to wake up and put on the mud-caked shoes and head out the gate of my hotel.
I know I have talked about solo running all through this post, but the beauty of running is that when you find a running partner-in-crime, the experience can often be even better. Having someone next you mirroring your grimace as you run up that big hill, or exchanging a “Yep we just did that” smile as you stand hunched over after sprinting the last stretch of a long run. Now, back in Halifax, I am lucky enough to have found the best running partner-in-crime anyone could ever ask for. Her name is Becky, and she is not only my girlfriend, fellow social entrepreneur, travel partner, boss in our student union leadership department this past year and most importantly, love of my life, but she has developed over the last 6 months into a fantastic runner. My good friend Esa here in Jimma, even though we have only run once together so far, is another fantastic running partner-in-crime. He claims he doesn’t run very often, but is in such good shape that running with him gives me that “If we go any faster I very well could throw up” feeling, but our early morning run on the road to Sudan was incredible. 40 minutes of hills on the main road out of Jimma, the road that you would take if you were heading northwest to Sudan marked our first run together. Although we did not make it to Sudan, (about a 33 hour drive from Jimma) we made it out past Jimma University’s quickly growing IT campus, and up countless hills. When we first started our run, the valley below JUCAVM (the campus I spent every day on here in Jimma), was hidden behind thick walls of early morning fog. We began our run on the muddy road wet from the previous night’s rain, and as I glanced to my right, a circular disk began appearing through the fog from behind a mountain. In the course of about 3 minutes, that sun got rid of the fog coating the valley like a feared bully in a school yard with a menacing look on his face scaring all the kids back inside. Before I knew it, my run with Esa was made all the better by the picturesque valleys that we passed on both sides of the road, leading me to have a perma-smile as I climbed the hills behind Esa, experiencing a new place in the best way possible – running.
Apologies for my stealing of the last five-ten minutes of your life, running brings with it experiences and emotions that are difficult to describe in only a few words. Thank you for reading “Running the Road to Sudan,” a post about running into the unknown to discover the wonders of new places, and occasionally actually running the road towards the country of Sudan.
Running to experience new places is not something unique to Ethiopia, whether in Halifax, North Vancouver, or St. George, Utah, or somewhere else in the world right now, just go, see, smell, listen –who knows what you will discover. And next time you decide to get some exercise, put on those running shoes, and instead of going your same familiar route, take a chance, turn down that unknown street you may have passed hundreds of times, because who knows what experiences are only a few strides down the road.
What great discoveries have you made on your own two feet? Post to the comments below. And once again, thank you so so much for taking the time to read “A World of Oysters.”
P.S. My most profound yet gut-wrenching experience here in Ethiopia wouldn’t have been done justice as a piece of this post, so follow my blog to read about my “Running with the Herd,” I will post about it very soon, I promise.
P.P.S My Canadian colleague Amanda is also keeping a great blog while here in Ethiopia, and brings to it a very different perspective than I do mine. Interested? Here is the link: http://amandalevy91.wordpress.com/