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Published: December 22nd 2008
I want to describe to you how it feels to travel through Ethiopia. I want to take you with me, so that you feel like you are sitting right here next to Jos and me on this torn, itchy, plastic seat in this totally dilapidated minibus decorated with gaudy, colorful, beaded pieces of cloth that sway against each other with every jerk, creating a sound not unlike one you would get if you shook a Rastaman with beaded dreads really hard by the shoulders in rage. Sometimes Jos and I, one ear-bud for each, sing obnoxious African songs outloud out of boredom - think Toto, Lion King and Jungle Book soundtracks, and the whole bus of locals both laughs and stares at us in wonder. Shortly after our musical debuts, the driver inevitably turns on his own music that blasts through the bus’ speakers - loud blaring of something that sounds fun for 15 minutes and thoroughly annoying every second afterwards. More often than not, it’s this famous politically controversial singer who is currently incarcerated on bogus accounts of traffic violation (according to the government.) I forget his name not because I don’t care but more because it had too many
our hair was just THAT dirty
syllables, but if you travel in Ethiopia you will be asked every other day if you know of him. And you will, and you will tell everybody that you love him too, because the Ethiopian public idolizes him.
The air in the bus smells sour with a familiar scent that you will come to recognize as East African body odor. I want to somehow include a scratch ‘n sniff sticker in cyberspace so that I could share this with you, but alas… That body odor engulfing your nosehairs, your eyes, your head, your whole person. Inputs of diet and genetics, somehow it smells different to what you or I smell like after a basketball game in humid heat. That mixed with dirty, filthy dust kicked up from the road. There is so much dust in the air, you wouldn’t believe it. You have to cover your face, you frantically roll up the window when you see another truck heading towards you. After washing my hair in the morning, by mid-day I can’t even run my hands all the way through - my fingers get caught up near the crown, the very top where I try to start. Jos can
stand his hair straight up, it is just that dirty. We could look like we’d been electrified. Your body has adapted to the hot, stuffy air trapped in the bus, carbon dioxide and TB circulating through you and all other twenty people on board. Your left forearm burns as the African sun shines through the window, you try to pull the sad excuse for a thin curtain forwards for shade, but the Ethiopian man behind you is hogging it and has it practically stapled to his little section of window. You give up and try to concentrate on readjusting your clothes so that the sweat doesn’t soak through, stick to your back and seat. Your core temperature is further heightened by the sweaty body of a tall Dutch guy laid asleep across your lap, and you curse yourself for even worrying that his head is hitting the metal bar two inches from his face with every bump in the road.
Public transport through northern Ethiopia is a different experience. To be honest, there isn’t much choice aside from flying, which isn’t expensive but is about 30x more expensive than the bus transport. Northern Ethiopia is also really mountainous, forcing
said public buses to climb unspeakable heights through the ranges, hugging the sides of mountains inches from the terrifying fall over the precipice. These are by far the highest, most dangerous mountain ranges I have ever seen a vehicle drive through. This cannot be legal. I nearly shit myself about 57 times and have to distract myself with Jos and singing to keep my mind off the fact that we actually have no idea what kind of qualifications, background, exactly who these people who claim to be “bus drivers”… who they really are and if they can actually drive. In these conditions, the buses must go so slow and in such roundabout routes, that - brace yourselves - it takes 3 days of bus transport to travel a map distance of 200 km. No, yeah, really. And it takes us 9 hours, from 6am to 3pm, to travel from Axum to Mek'ele en route to Lalibela. It is also pretty much guaranteed that every bus you take in Ethiopia will have to stop unexpectedly for some reason, flat tires, overheated engines, side delivery to an out of the way village… Our bus stops 3 times on that leg of that
route alone for a rock avalanche, for food, and for no reason at all.
I’m not going to lie, this would have been rather painful travel by myself. Not that I haven’t done it yet in Africa, but I am pretty glad that Jos and I are doing this one together. Jos has proven to be rather useful in many ways. He kills insects obsessively, teaches me pick-up lines in Dutch, and even lets me use his iPod on long rides. Just as a side-note, Ethiopia is not your destination if you seek 5-star luxury. Aside from the Addis Sheraton, I’m pretty sure even if you were dying to spend the money, you just won’t find anything too nice to throw it at. In these little shit Ethiopian towns we spend nights in transit, we have fun and always find kids to play soccer with in the street. Some of these towns have no electricity and I would be lying if I said that I’d rather spend nights in total darkness by myself. Sure, the rooms cost $3 for two people, buckets of cold, dirty water for showers, and never a real lock. Sometimes you have no door between
your sleeping area and the toilet (if you have a toilet in the room at all - a real treat) and a real toilet is a rare sight, particularly if you don’t need to manually flush it with buckets of water yourself. But Jos and I still manage to entertain each other, the company is good and easy on the eyes.
When I’m not distracting myself with Jos in transit, I’m looking out the windows. Probably all in all you spend more days on a bus in transit in these conditions than at your actual destinations themselves. 90% of Ethiopians earn their living off the land, particularly in subsistence farming. Their national economy depends heavily on agriculture, principal exports being coffee, oil, seeds, flowers, veggies, sugar, foodstuff. Ethiopia also has a strong livestock sector, trading heavily in hoofs, hides, and skins of cattle and goat. The rural landscape is full of fields brimming with injera, cotton, bananas… famers herding their animals everywhere in between. The landscapes from those mountains to these fields are, hands-down, amazing. I don’t think I will ever forget looking out those windows, for hours and hours on end, days in a row, never getting tired
of what I was seeing. While I complain about traveling on land rather than flying over, in the end and all things considered, this is the only way to see Ethiopia properly. You shouldn’t do it any other way. And while over 50% of their population is under 20 yrs old, Ethiopia is no longer that struggling country of famine we are all so quick to picture. The famine was concentrated around the Lalibela area and is a thing of the past. Kids starving in Ethiopia? Not any more than the rest of Africa, maybe less, that and the disease infection rates are much lower due to the elevation and climate. No, no worries here, Ethiopia is doing just fine.
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