Letter from Ethiopia
...ferenj do not travel on buses, they go by Landcruiser
important must be done early. Very early. And a bus journey to Addis
Ababa is important, since its not just all literal roads that lead
there. So by 5.45am I am standing in front of a vehicle that with
generosity could be described as a bus.
It is still dark, the people milling around the bus are not able
to detect the presence of a ferenj (white person), particularly
since I have my trusty multi-purpose patterned cloth (dust shield
/ tablecloth / skirt / curtain / blanket / pillow / sunhat) wrapped
around my shoulders. I fondly imagine this to create a certain aura
of traveller-chic, although some stay-at-home friends
have declared it ridiculous. The fact that Im not supposed
to be there also helps me to remain unnoticed ferenj do not
travel on buses, they go by Landcruiser.
By 7am the bus is nearly full. Sacks and random chickens are fitted
into any remaining legal spaces. The really wonderful thing about
public transport in Ethiopia is that the law is strictly enforced
regarding the number of passengers. Everyone must have a seat. The
yang to this legal ying is that Ethiopians believe a breeze to be
quite deadly. Windows are firmly shut on the hottest of days. Given
the unshakeable British faith in the value of fresh air (Skegness
is so bracing after all), this is something of a trial.
priest walks down the aisle, encouraging the passengers to place a donation
for the church in his upturned, red and gold braided umbrella. So that
we may fully appreciate the righteousness of his cause, he has a megaphone
attached at the waist. Light sleepers know to their cost that religious
devotion in Ethiopia is measured in decibels.
The actual departure has a few false starts, and we have yet to be visited
by the boys selling soft. That is, packets of tissues. It
is a mystery how the market for tissues is sustained, given the vast roadside
retail industry that depends upon this humble product. Having declined
a number of tissue transactions, I start listening to a man standing in
the aisle who is telling his life story. Apparently he fought in the war
with Eritrea, walked home when it finished, lost his government job, now
his wife has left him, he has many children to feed, and there is no pension.
Given the well-worn story and the already benevolent passengers, his polished
speech receives the high accolade of a Notes-only collection.
Finally we are on the road. The curtains are hastily drawn to block out
the morning sun, and all hands turn to the serious business of closing
windows. To my delight, and everyone elses horror, the window next
to me refuses to shut. Many softs are quickly produced to
be used as wedges, but the window knows its rattling business and resists
all attempts at closure. To balance this small triumph, the in-bus entertainment
system kicks in, effortlessly drowning out my walkman with the worlds
The bus conductor starts the first ticket inspection of the
day. Our conductor is very gobez a word somewhere in the vicinity
of strong and feisty, with a sound that captures its meaning perfectly.
His technique is simple and impressive. A few passengers are surprised
to discover they need a ticket. They are given a (very) brief moment to
explain their lack, in which they choose silence. The bus then slows down,
the door is opened, and they are ejected. A hushed awe descends upon our
community-for-a-day. Truly gobez.
We reach a small town in the middle of the floor of the Great Rift Valley
(mostly rift at this point). Twenty minutes to drink the best coffee on
earth. The only other ferenj on the bus is a Frenchman who speaks almost
no English, and judging by his appearance has been travelling for a while.
He lights up a cigarette, then appeases his conscience by pointing out
that since I am eating meat, our karma equation balances. The language
barrier turns out to be a blessing, since Jean-Claude (or whatever his
name is) moves onto spiritism and the benefits of urine therapy (with
gestures). I look for the bus.
Not to be outsmarted by Ethiopian timekeeping (a strange and confusing
mix of punctuality and laissez-faire), I return to my seat which any right-thinking
buttocks would condemn as cruel and unusual punishment. A
uniformed woman appears and starts a less than rigorous patting of all
the bags on the bus, apparently searching for contraband smuggled
across at the Kenyan border. Todays token search does not expose
any Kenyan/Ethiopian crime syndicate however.
An age later, we enter the cloud of fumes officially known as Addis Ababa.
A woman preparing to leave the bus rummages around behind a large sack
on the luggage rack, and removes a fine collection of shampoos and beauty
products. I think I last saw such brands in Kenya.
The conductor asks for my ticket (again). I am bewildered by this request:
we have been together for an eternity and this is the fourth time of asking.
He replies (so my creative interpretation would like to have it): This
is my kingdom. Fair play to him.
© Andrew Rogers October 2002
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