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Published: January 11th 2010
I rise ruinously early to catch a bus direct to the Ethiopian border. The journey is long but not unentertaining. Our driver is imperious, dominating the centre of the road and out-honking any would-be challengers. Sitting directly behind him I look over to see just how blisteringly fast he is going, but, like on all good African buses, the speedometer is broken. I sometimes wonder if this is deliberate sabotage to give drivers legitimate grounds to protest their innocence should they be caught for speeding. But then I have yet to see any semblance of traffic laws or their enforcement. I content myself by watching the scenery develop into the more stereotypical 'African' landscape of my imagination; long, golden grass permeated by shrubs and stubby trees with the occasional collection of yurt-like round huts with thatched, conical roofs peeking tentatively out from the expansive vegetation. I pleasantly pass the rest of the time watching Jackie Chan’s 'Drunken Master', which appears on the bus TV.
The border is no more than a dishevelled little town with an insignificant bridge over a ditch to mark the change in country and my crossing is surprisingly smooth. The next morning, forewarned of the
price, I dodge the underhand attempt to charge me double and hop on another bus for my first experience of public transport Ethiopian style. The journey to Gonder is fantastic and perfectly fits my romanticised image of travel in sub-Saharan Africa. There are twenty five actual seats but we manage a healthy fifty one passengers (my count at the peak density) and a further five children, although I can't be sure there aren't more infants stashed away in corners or under shawls. Arriving fairly early I manage to plunder a window seat and successfully defend a tiny amount of space for the whole ride.
In front of me the bustling doorway is crammed with standing youths who take it in turns to regularly spit out of the door's window. I have heard that in Ethiopia people were superstitiously suspicious of the moving 'bad air' outside the bus, which is believed to spread disease. This belief manifests itself in a determination to keep almost all windows permanently closed. This naturally defies all logic - what do they do when caught outside on a windy day? I'm not sure that this isn't an apocryphal traveller's tale, but, regardless of the
reasoning, the windows on the bus DO stay closed for most of the journey making it extremely hot, but, possibly not by coincidence, mine is the one chosen to be opened most frequently for essential ventilation. Thankfully it is shut at the moment one of the gobbing boys feels the compulsion to be sick down the side of the bus right in front of me.
Ethiopian buses do not travel at night - hence the agonizingly early starts - for fear of 'Shifta' or bandits (I am told that 'gangsters' is apparently the better translation). Travelling after dark would be suicidally reckless anyway with all the tight bends and sheer roadside drops that dominate Ethiopia's mountainous northern regions, as well as the hazards of ever-present people and livestock milling about and, above all, other vehicles. On one steep descent a lorry thunders perilously close by as it overtakes. This unexpected manoeuver startles our lethargic driver who nearly swerves off the road into a deep ditch. The sudden jolt unlatches the hitherto suspiciously flimsy door and a young man is catapulted through it. Only the desperate grip of his right hand clinging to the frame and the lunging grasp
Face on the ceiling
One of 327 according to the priest
of his companion prevent me from witnessing my first African road casualty. As we pass the heavier lorry on the next climb my entire side of the bus erupts in a tirade of angry abuse at its careless driver. Although instinctively averse to confrontation in a foreign land I cannot resist the urge to join in. Poking my head and fist out of the window I hurl a hearty "W*NKER" at the offender, which is greeted with confused laughter by my fellow passengers that unintentionally helps to somewhat defuse the rage of the youths in the doorway.
Arriving in Gonder I spend ages looking for a cheap hotel with hot water for my first warm shower since Aswan and succeed just in time before the clouds gather and the heavens briefly open - the first rain I have experienced in a month of travelling. (Trust a Brit to go on about the weather.) The next day I set about seeing the first of northern Ethiopia's abundant historical sights. The highlight of my exploration is the unmissable old Royal City, nicknamed 'Africa's Camelot'. Constructed throughout the 1600s it has a very medieval air with a bit of Lord of
the Rings and the old BBC dramatizations of The Chronicles of Narnia thrown in and it brings out the small boy in me as I wander amongst the ruins.
Later I hang out with a few local students who I meet after simply inquiring about a good dining recommendation. We spend the afternoon chatting over 'qat', a mildly narcotic legal leaf that is chewed. It has rather a bitter flavour but is pleasantly manageable when accompanied by peanuts and, although I find the effects rather weak, creates a sociably stoned feeling, making it highly popular both in Ethiopia and across the whole of the Horn of Africa. The guys are an interesting and informative bunch so I am not too bothered when they lack the necessary funds for the bill and I must cover the lion's share. My patience does run a little thin however when they invite me out to a bar later in the evening and are incredulous when I say I don’t have the money to cover the entire tab.
Although frustrated at the time - mainly because the episode cut short the evening and ended my time in Gonder on a sour note
- I am not too annoyed in hindsight. Most foreigners passing through have a nice camera, flash clothing and a beefy 4x4, or are involved in the aid business (which is a whole murky topic in itself). Even budget travellers like myself are vastly more privileged that the average Ethiopian. Most locals’ exposure to such disparity and, to be frank, the arrogance often displayed by us Westerners, only encourages an attitude of expectancy. It’s just something you have to put in context and thicken your skin to. I think my real disappointment stems from the fact that one of the best aspects of budget solo travel is the extensive opportunities for interaction with locals and this group were an intelligent bunch of students my own age whom I thought I was engaging with as equals all day. I was quite unprepared for their financial demands at the end.
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