Friday, 18 May 2012

The Year that almost Killed Me

An eventful year has passed, with more highs and lows than I would be comfortable to live through again. I got heavily involved in working for a local NGO in Ethiopia and helped to start a shelter for 17 vulnerable young girls; a real high. During that time some back pain began, my stuff was stolen, and I was struck by typhoid; enter the lows.

I returned to Syria to help Bidna Capoeira prepare for our first big project, leaving days before the revolution began. After my return to Ethiopia my back pain was diagnosed as spinal tuberculosis or cancer. I recovered back in the UK, met Kenny for Christmas in Kenya, and in the process met the love of my life.

Chewing Gum Boys' Goha Farewell

It's been a long time coming; this is the story of that odyssey.


Kenny & I read about Yenege Tesfa in the Lonely Planet shortly after arriving in Gondar in late 2010. We were enthusiastically greeted and plunged into the realities of life for orphans and street children in Gondar – a bustling town in the Ethiopian Highlands. After 20 minutes in their office we were committed to getting involved.

Three months flew by as we threw ourselves into the work, creating a website and helping to address some of the serious challenges Yenege Tesfa were facing. In the process I got deeply attached to the whole family: Fenta, Etenesh, Hibiste and especially Nigisti & the kids.

Escape to Djibouti

Before we knew we'd overstayed our visas and our welcome; Kenny and I were summoned before a judge 800km away in Addis Ababa – my first and hopefully last court appearance. We were ordered to leave the country within 10 days so we escaped to Djibouti. Our 48 hours exodus lasted just long enough to soak up some of Djibouti City and for me to get reacquainted with the sea, with a mesmerising dive with giant turtles and a whale shark.

We returned to our adopted family in Gondar, feeling like uncles to the children of Yenege Tesfa and many of the street kids. It became hard to imagine leaving but leave we must. We'd arranged to meet two friends Eve and Vivi in Mombasa, Kenya for a cycle to Dar Es Salam and Christmas celebrations in Zanzibar.

I didn't get there.

Riding out the storm

We'd waved a teary farewell to our friends, the kids, and Nigisti and we'd set off. I had to leave. I couldn't fail to try. I'd got on my bike, I'd left – but my heart and mind remained. The cycling was some of the most stunning yet also gruelling of the trip but all the while I felt like a shadow of myself.

With Yenege Tesfa I'd found a connection to my work I'd never felt before, able to really help and visibly change lives for the better. It felt purposeful - what I should be doing. In my heart our Zanzibar holiday felt out of place. It would be at least three months until I would get back and it was too long.

For the first time since London cycling felt wrong, cycling away from Gondar was a charade. It took two weeks to face up to my feelings and make the call I had be dreading. Eve and Vivi were devastated, as were many others who'd they'd encouraged to support the cause. Fate seemed to cast its vote as after 10,000km my back wheel cracked and I had to hitchhike and bus the final kilometres to Addis.

Luckily Kenny – the most loyal of friends - kept his word to met the girls in Mombasa; saving the day, and their holiday. Both Eve and Vivi have shown a lot of understanding to forgive me but my decision has left a scar on our friendship which will always remain.

Karma Police

I should have been happy to return to Gondar but the Zanzibar storm cast a long shadow. At this point my health took a turn for the worse. After a day picking up one too many kids my back reminded me of my mortality by forcing me to lie flat for a few days. Pulled muscle, I thought.

Rob – one of my oldest and best friends – visited me on his way back from Zanizbar, where he'd flown out to meet me as a surprise - doh! (You can justifiably think that I'm a complete idiot at this point). Blogs and photos are the boring, ugly sister of experiencing Africa first-hand and it was it was so good to share my experiences with him first-hand.

In the midst of all of this the place I was living in with Nigisti was burgled. Most of my kit - camera, laptop, journal, iPod, photos and a lot more - got stolen. At first I was shocked, then philosophical, then pissed off. I have no idea where it ended up but when I totted up over £1200 of stuff missing – however in a country where the minimum wage is equivalent to £5 a month, it's hardly a surprise.

The fact this isn't truly critical to my wellbeing is a sound reminder of how lucky I am. New plan: if my new camera gets stolen I'm taking up sketching.

Fly-by revolution

In February I returned to Syria for a few weeks to assist preparing Bidna Capoeira's first international project in the West Bank (occupied Palestinian Territory). It was a huge success for us to be given a funding by UNWRA and our privilege to run a three month project for 500 kids in 5 different refugee camps. It was a great reward for the months of hard work the team and I had put in while working in Damascus.

This wasn't a time for celebrating however. No sooner had I flown through Cairo than the bloody revolution there began. Our friends and most of Syria stayed glued to the unfolding story with hearts racing, always behind closed doors and curtains. In Syria there is always someone watching.

The Egyptian revolution provided a beacon of hope for Syria but also practical fears. We had a social media team working in an unregistered office. Facebook and Twitter defined the revolution. If suspected as a threat by the Syrian mukhabarat (secret police) our team especially the locals faced arrest and possible torture. It was a stressful, tense time. We closed our office down. Work continued, discreetly.

Days after saying goodbye to many good friends, the revolution in Syria began. A year later it is hard to see an end. My thoughts and hopes are with my friends and people who made Syria my home for one of the happiest times of my life.

Our Bidna projects in Syria and the West Bank continue to this day. Read more about the amazing developments and progress on the Bidna Capoeira website - continuing big respect to Tarek, Ummul and the team.

Mumma Africa

I hereby put my vote in for best Mumma in the world. She flew out to Ethiopia to meet me and arranged to teach English for 6 weeks at a local school in Gondar. It was amazing to be reunited. We drove through the spectacular Highlands, visited the rock-hewn churches of Lalibela and delivered books and writing materials to a rural school Ken & I had been introduced to on our ride.

The weeks passed all too fast, not helped by the amount of work I'd taken on, with six projects on the go, I was stressed and my health was wavering. Our time together was capped with a magical trek through the Simien Mountains. We were encircled by baboons, dwarfed by Giant Lobelias and surrounded by some of the most spectacular scenery on the planet.

Body break down

In the weeks after my Mumma left, my health faded. I'd been putting a brave face on what I thought was a reoccurring bout of gastroenteritis for several weeks. After spending another few bed-bound days, flat on my aching back, I felt as weak as I have in my life; really scraping the barrel. The running joke was that I was getting 'life experience', but the truth was this was an experience I could have done without. Before long I was diagnosed with Typhoid.

With a week of vomit-inducing injections behind me, my Typhoid was destroyed but so was my body. I was moving like an old-man from my weakness and continuing back-pain. To make matters worse I had to haul my ass 800km to Addis to renew my visa. Tadessa, my house-mate and physio at Gondar hospital suggested I get my back scanned while I was there – it was good advice.

As I came out of the scan I could see a perfect 3D model of my spine… and the radiologist shaking his head. This is not good he said, pointing to a hole where some spine should be. 'I'm 95% certain you have Spinal Tuberculosis or Cancer'. Boom! No breaking it gently. There it was - the word we dread to hear - the c-word.

He referred it to the specialist who was back in on Monday. It was a nervy weekend I can tell you. I kept the news from home but was grateful for my friend Debbie to confide in. I was more relieved than freaked out, had it not been for my visa run I could have stayed in Gondar thinking it was a disc problem for months.

Tarot Stress Card

To provide distraction Debbie and I did a tarot reading. I've never been particularly convinced by these things but the most significant card did provide a very useful perspective. It was the Stress card – a one man band, juggling, balancing precariously, exhausting himself, a moment away from a big fall. This was a metaphor for the last few months of trying to do too much and it resonated deeply within me. Another lesson learned – it is easy for a man with too much ego to try to do too much. I had and it was a reminder to be more humble.

Monday arrived, the diagnosis remained the same. The Spinal TB or cancer couldn't be confirmed without a painful and expensive biopsy. I was prescribed a super-strength cocktail of medicine and to pack my bags – it was time to come home.

Home Discomforts

It had been 2 years since cycling off from the UK, at first it felt like a different lifetime. After 9 months in Ethiopia everything felt so excessive, even in my own home; the plethora of kitchen utensils, the rows of CDs, DVDs, even the books – How much did all this cost, all these stagnant things? How can we accept this waste when hours away others suffer?

My mind swirled heavy on medication and coming to terms with a sense of failure at being back without having made it to Cape Town. I was like a zombie. I felt anti-social, even slightly uncomfortable around my best friends. Time passed fading in and out of streamed TV series, medical tests and sleep.


Mumma's cooking, time with my nephews, rest and good-old western apathy soon made me feel a whole lot better and after umpteen hospital visits I was told I could quit my medication. The specialists weren't sure what it was yet but it wasn't Spinal TB or cancer. Relief!

Schmorls Node

Months passed as I regained some strength and finally the diagnosis of my spine condition was given. I have Schmorl's Node. In basic terms it's the damage caused when the spinal discs break through the wall of your vertebrae and start destroying the soft tissue; painful, but a hell of a lot better than cancer. Only when pain is very severe do they operate; mine is a regular presence but not worth high-risk surgery.

After months of rest the soft tissue left has hardened and although my spine is now weak, if I'm careful not to put my back under stress then I'm alright. It's a bummer, no more capoeira or lifting heavy things for the foreseeable future, but otherwise I'm back to feeling healthy and I'm very grateful for that.

London Living

I continued supporting Bidna and Yenege Tesfa while living under my Mum's watchful eye. I also took the opportunity to refill the bank account a bit by designing a few websites. In other words I ended up working a lot, welcome back to London living. It was all too easy to fall back into this pattern – what had I learnt from being away?

One Friday night I'd just had dinner with my Mumma and was about to settle back into some work when my brain got perspective; 'why are you working and not spending time with your friends? You will be going back to Africa soon… it's Friday night!'. One call to Rob later and I was on my way out – no other night has changed my life more. Amid drinks and dancing I met Manoela, the beautiful Brasilian woman who is now my wife-to-be.

My return to Africa was delayed as I was in the lap of love, and there was (and still is) no place I'd rather be.


I'd planned to meet Kenny in Kenya at Christmas and I was determined to get there. Kenny had had an epic year since we parted, cycling solo around Lake Victoria and making an outstanding contribution to many many projects on the way, particularly in Naivasha. I my absence he'd really kept the Better Life Cycle spirit alive.

We spent 10 days seeing the progress of the three projects he'd helped there – all of which impressed me greatly. We were graciously hosted by the Nicklin family, who Kenny had stayed with in his 6 months there and were also treated to an unforgettable game drive by Liz & Ruli Tsakiris. It was easy to see why Kenny got so involved here – his new home in Africa. I will I return in a few months' time and hope to continue the legacy he left.

Ethiopia Goodbye

My bike was still in Ethiopia and so I returned to finish my work with Yenege Tesfa. The organisation has almost doubled in size in the last year both in terms of staff and children supported by the shelter, education and healthcare programmes. It was a difficult farewell, lessened by all the positives that have come out of it both for the organisation and for me. Seeing the new Girls Shelter was a great reward for all the efforts the team and I had made - 17 girls who were living lives surrounded by poverty, hunger and abuse, now have a home a family and a bright future; that alone is worth the journey.

The New Girls House

My back will never fully recover but I felt as strong as I had in a year when I set off from Addis Ababa to cycle for the first time in almost 18 months. It took a few days to reacclimatise to life on the bike, not assisted by a torturous few hours where I was pedalling with the back brake locked onto the wheel; clearly a little out of practice. It was a tough mountainous cycle at times however the prospect of being joined by my lady in Nairobi was all the incentive I needed to keep pedalling.

The 700km to the border was like a metaphor for all of my time in Ethiopia, full of challenges and annoyances overcome with joys, friendliness and beauty.

A New Beginning

After a quick return to London to help Manu prepare her things and say a final farewell, I am now prepared to complete what I set out to do: cycle to Cape Town. I hope the lessons learned and outcomes of my efforts made are repayment for all the support I have received. The path I have chosen is longer and more involved than I ever imagined - the journey is more important than the destination as they say - nevertheless I'm determined to get there.

So on with the show and I couldn't be happier than I am to be able to share this experience with the love of my life at my side – a whole new kind of adventure.

Manu & Me

*I've been a little short on cycling detail here but if you want any advice about cycling in Ethiopia or volunteering on your travels, get in touch, I'd be more than happy to help.