"Bus"-ting My Ass

Trip Start Jul 25, 2006
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Tuesday, October 10, 2006

This is the most accurate quote I have read concerning Africa in relation to my trip so far:

"Nothing in Africa is adjacent to anywhere." - James Cameron, Point of Departure: Experiment in Biography (Grafton Books, 1969)

In Ethiopia, time and space exit in an alternative reality. The trip to Lalibela is about 600-650 kilometres from Addis Ababa. In Canada, this would be a 7-8 hour drive, tops. In Ethiopia, this is an epic two day journey. To average 50 kilometres an hour is a staggering rate. Certainly one reason for this are the roads. Roads seem to come in the following varieties in Ethiopia:

1. Paved - This is a rare beast indeed and the traveler who comes across one of these in the wild should consider him or herself lucky. Possibly extinct.

2. Vaguely Paved - quite common around Addis Ababa and some of the larger towns. These tend to be made up of an asphalt like material generously mixed with gravel, dirt, and potholes large enough to house a small family of four or five. Sometimes one side of the road is paved while the other is dirt (though true two lane roads are a rare enough entity of their own). Due to the varied surface of the road, your driver will shalom his way along the road at high speed, dodging the larger holes where possible, driving your seat about 10 inches up your sphincter where not. These roads more or less run about half way to Lalibela.

3. Dirt - Perhaps a misleading as the word "dirt" has at least some connotations of softness. In its most delightful manifestation, this turns the road into a cheese grater like substance which has the capacity to shake fillings loose and dislodge internal organs.

4. Donkey Trails - in fairness, all roads in Ethiopia could be considered this because all of them are filled with wandering herds and small groups of donkeys, cattle, sheep, goats, and occasionally, camels. Your bus driver will spend much of his time dodging, cursing, blowing the horn at, and occasionally, bouncing off of these animals. As a general rule, this term is to identify those roads that you simply can't believe anyone would ever, ever drive on.

(Note - As I write this with the hindsight of the horror to come in northern Kenya, I grow almost misty eyed at the simple, bone shattering rattle of Ethiopia's roads - like the missed caress of a lover's touch.)

The up and back from Lalibela did inspire me to come up with an invention I think I could get rich from selling to budget travelers. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you - Ass Velcro.

As I mentioned before, Ethiopian buses stick five seats in a space more suited for four. Now, for the average, skinnier, Ethiopian this does not seem to pose much of a problem. But for a fat North American butt like my own, it is a bit different. Sitting on the outside of a two-seater nearly always meant one cheek hanging over the edge of the seat, gently wafting above the free space between it and the floor, while the other cheek clinched in desperation, trying in vain to seek some purchase on the seat to prevent your entire body from sliding onto the chicken, orange peel, vomit encrusted floor. This is not comfortable. Enter Ass Velcro. A cuttable pad of both materials with a sticky, peelable back to attach it to your pants, and any seat-like substance and viola - added security and stability. A fortune I tell you.

Metaphor for an Ethiopian Bus Ride

Picture your favourite lunch box from when you were a child. You know, when they were still cool, before your angst-ridden teenaged brown bag stage. Maybe it was Scooby Doo, perhaps Strawberry Shortcake, maybe even Teenaged Mutant Ninja Turtles if you are a bit younger. Mine was Starsky and Hutch. Remember how much you loved that lunch box. How proud of it you were. Everyday at lunch you would pull out your peanut butter and jam sandwich, chow down on your chocolate chip granola bar, throw out your celery and carrot sticks, and poke your straw through the top of your juice box (except in my case; we were too poor for juice boxes. We got juice bags with that little rectangle of thicker plastic across the middle that you were supposed to stab your straw through. This never worked and either resulted in an exploded bag and a lap full of juice, or a sad, crippled straw. If you were like me, you simply bit the corner off the bag and sucked the whole thing down in one go.)

Still have that image of your childhood lunchbox in your mind? Good. Now, imagine sitting in it with the lid closed... for two days. Now imagine the school bully (you know, the one who seemed so big, but in retrospect was just fat) beating it on the pavement of the school playground for those two days... under the school bus muffler. It's a diesel. Every once in a while have him bounce it off a cow, or donkey. Hell, even a camel. Now stick a live chicken in the lunch box with you and have someone puke in it. This is pretty close to your typical Ethiopian bus ride.


So why? That same two day bus ride (one way), is about an hour's flight from Addis Ababa. The cost is about $100. Granted, this is a lot of money for the budget traveller, but do-able. So why the bus? What makes it worth it? Well, putting aside my Maritime and Scottish heritage of intense, almost heroic stinginess, there were two reasons - the countryside itself and the people.

First off, I was completely taken by surprise by the geography and weather of Ethiopia. The first two days in Addis were more spring like than the baking African heat I expected after the searing temperatures of the Middle East I had grown accustomed to. And it rained, both days, for at least an hour or two - the first rain I had experienced since a freak rain storm in Istanbul at the very beginning of my trip. Once outside of Addis Ababa, heading north, the landscape was spectacular. Along the entire way were incredible mountain scapes, fantastic valleys, terraced hills, and green - green everywhere. It looked like a cross between Switzerland and Bali. This was not the Ethiopia of World Vision commercials and the television images of famine from the 1980's I had grown up with. Scattered around the countryside, with what would be million dollar views in any Western country, were small, round Tukul houses made from stone, mud, and thatched roofs. Occasionally the road passed through small villages where the buildings of choice were small, corrugated tin roofed cinderblock houses. Along the road, people walked, stood, or sat often with blankets wrapped around their bodies and heads. Most of the men and many of the women and children carried walking sticks. These they would use, desperately beating their livestock to get them off the road as the bus barrelled down on them, horn blasting.

Many of the people working the hardest - hauling water on their backs in plastic, jerry cans or herding sheep along the road - were children. Some were very young, looking five years old or less. Many of the pastoralist people in the rural areas of Ethiopia can't, or choose not to, send their children to school. Many people simply sit on the side of the road - no apparent purpose other than simply watching the day pass by. A common sight are women walking along carrying huge loads of branches, water, crops, or supplies on their backs or heads, while men sedately walk alongside carrying nothing more weighty than a walking stick. Often they are accompanied by donkeys, or occasionally camels, carrying supplies or agricultural goods.

Private vehicles outside of the larger towns are incredibly rare - just the occasional land cruiser. What little traffic there is seems to consist of other buses, large trucks carrying Coca-Cola and other essentials, and heavy machinery. People walk everywhere, sometimes seemingly in the middle of nowhere, seemingly kilometres from the nearest building or village.

The second reason the bus was worth it was the people I met along the way. While baggage handlers, hotel touts, and taxi drivers seem to thrive on trying to take advantage of faranji (white people), the everyday Ethiopian lives by a code of hospitality and respect. Although I constantly attracted stares and curiosity, I was treated with kindness almost to a point of personal discomfort. On the trip back, I acquired friends who spoke a bit of English and who watched out for me, whether it helping me find a cheap place to stay or offering to share their food with me.

Ethiopians, by and large, are a very attractive people. I was constantly bowled over by the beauty and grace of the women here. The men, as well, I would generally deem handsome (I'm secure enough in my heterosexuality to recognize that). I feel the people here have some the most beautiful smiles of any people I have seen in the whole world. They are wide, white, toothy, and full of mirth. Often as the bus passed slowly through a village I would catch the eye of an unsuspecting person standing on the side of the road, give them the eyebrow jiggle that seems to serve as hello here, and watch a smile explode with delight onto their face. The novelty never seemed to wear off, for them or me.

I was the only white person on the bus in four days of travel, and one of only two faranji (foreigners). The other was a black English woman from London. She was a Rastafari (Ethiopia is the spiritual homeland for the Rastafari religion - I'll explain later. She seemed to be on a quest to re-discover her roots. I'll talk more about her later.) I feel I interacted with people and saw the landscape in a way other tourists, jumping around the country by plane, did not. During the occasional bus stops along the way when I stepped off the bus it was the circus had come to town. Most adults were content to stare, perhaps laugh, and discuss with their neighbours about the faranji in town, but the children would come running with cries of "Faranji! Faranji!" and "You! You! You!." Some would ask for pens, others would ask for money, and some would simply giggle and try and hide behind each other. My favourite, whether young or old, were the seeming dumbstruck. These people, with no pretence of subtlety, would simply stand and stare, and stare. Occasionally they might only be a few feet from away, unblinking, sometimes a fine strand of saliva connecting their slightly parted lips. If I moved, or someone else blocked their view, they would shuffle about until they once again had an unobstructed view of DJ Church - celebrity faranji.

The midway point of the road to Lalibela was a town called Dessie. I'm not sure if I have ever seen an uglier town in a more beautiful setting (Author's note - I have. See Moyale, Kenya Both town and setting.). Basically, the town stretches along one road for a couple of kilometres high in the mountains. Ugly cement buildings along a torn up, dusty road with people walking up and down the strip. On the way to Lalibela, I stayed in a hotel that backed onto the bus yard. It was cheap at about $2.50 a night, and was made an even value by the $5 dollar bedbugs, and $40 of crap clogging the squat toilets. But nothing matches the experience of waiting for the Dessie bus station to open at 5 a.m. in the morning. Thousands of people were packed into the side street standing in the dark, waiting for the gates to open. People jostled and jockeyed for position. A palpable sense of anticipation was in the air. Suddenly there was a huge roar as the gates opened, and a massive surge of humanity raced forward, backs and elbows flying. It was like watching water pouring down a drain when you pull the plug, or like those videos of the opening of the gates during the running of the bulls in Pamplona, Spain. Whether you wanted to or not, you were pulled into the irresistible tide of people pouring through the gates. It was one of the crazier things I have experienced.
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