Dispatch from Ethiopia – Part II: Transportation: Part Mystery, Part Adventure

For those of us who are wanderlusters at heart, there is a persistent internal voice that whispers promises of something more: more than the cubicle in which we dwell, more than the paycheck we receive for it, more than the grind most of us resign ourselves to as a means to an end. But what do you do when the means come up woefully short of the end you truly desire?

The little kids in the neighborhood get excited every time they see Paul.
It’s one of his daily joys. Contributed photo.

Meet Paul Voigt, a midwest native and communications professional who began scaling the corporate ladder, and realized it was time to take the path less traveled instead. Paul has graciously agreed to guest blog periodically, sharing his experiences with us from his new home, in Ethiopia. (Thank you, Paul!) This is the second installment of his story, sent from Ethiopia. Read Dispatch from Ethiopia – Part I here.

Traveling in Ethiopia is always part mystery and part adventure. When I want to go somewhere, I can’t just hop in a car and drive. I’m at the mercy of a mysterious system of public buses. Even some my Ethiopian friends have yet to master this system.

Very few Ethiopians can afford a vehicle. People here travel by bus. And in the west-central highlands Ethiopia they travel by bus on roads that resemble a dusty lunar landscape of ruts, rocks, bumps, twists, and turns. Bus drivers on these roads are underappreciated. With steering wheel in hand, the driving process is more like wrestling a bear for six hours than driving. 

The entrance to my bus station. Unfortunately I don’t get to make to many trips
in the nice new Toyota minibus shown pulling in to the station. The bus station
is my least favorite place in any town. Contributed photo.

Before even getting on a bus, you have to survive the bus station. Some bus stations are more organized than others. Most are intimidating. Passengers, pickpockets, poor and handicapped beggars, bored urchins thriving on the action, and the mentally unstable blend into a sea of heterogeneous humanity. Every word on the buses and at the station is written in Amharic symbols, further confusing the ferenji (foreign) traveler. Long bus routes leave at 6:00 a.m., others don’t follow a schedule and leave only when the bus is full. I’ve waited as long as two hours for a bus to finally depart.

For short distance trips, you can’t buy an advanced ticket. You show up at the station at 5:00 am and wait for the gates to open. At my least favorite bus station, people stampede through the gates in a mad rush for their buses. Buses fill up fast; if you’re slow, you’re stranded. Station attendants shout out the names of different towns in front of the buses and you try to pick up your destination on the run.

Once the passengers are on the bus, the parade of non-passengers begins. Women and children climb aboard selling tea, bombolinos (deep-fried Ethiopian doughnuts), gum, tissues, and other odds and ends. Then come the beggars. Many of them carry an official purple-stamped letter describing their affliction or tragic story. They make their way down the aisle. Some are pushy, some are passive. Some don’t even need the money but beg as a “side job.”

Two public buses make their journeys on dusty roads. Contributed Photo.

The insides of the old buses look like something out of the 60’s. The dashboards and ceilings of the buses are decorated in shag carpet, faux fur, fringes, Ethiopian religious pictures, and decals of Premier League soccer teams depending on the driver’s taste. The driver also plays his favorite music. It’s only fair. He’s the one wrestling the bear.

The least coveted seat on the bus is backseat/window. Three problems with this. First, the back seat is made for five people. Usually you’ll have to suck it in, turn sideways a little and make room for a sixth. Second, the metal-backed seats in front of you don’t leave much leg room. If you’re tall, you don’t want to be stuck here. Third, as any kid knows, the back seat is the bumpiest. There’s no shortage of bumps on these unpaved roads and you bounce around like popcorn. After hitting a big bump, the fortunate people in front laugh at the back seat bouncers. You can forget about taking a nap.

bus bouncing: It’s not your eyes. This picture is blurry because on this stretch of road,
you bounce around constantly. Some people are trying to take naps with varying
degrees of success. Contributed Photo.

One thing is guaranteed on the bus. People will throw up. They aren’t used to traveling in vehicles and get carsick easily, so he buses are stocked with thin plastic barf bags. To further complicate matters, during the dry season the windows need to stay shut as passing vehicles kick up a huge cloud of dust that envelopes the bus in a temporary brownout. The heat of the day builds and with the bumps and bounces you have a recipe for disaster. Hands go up and the wayala (bus driver’s assistant) passes along a barf bag. The women have the best system. They pull their head scarves over themselves and discreetly throw up in the bag. I once sat next to a mother who was simultaneously breast-feeding her baby and throwing up under her scarf. It was multi-tasking at its finest. 

Buses and trucks share the road with cows, oxen, donkeys, sheep, and goats.
Contributed Photo.
The journey, however, is usually very pleasant since someone near me usually knows enough English to carry on a conversation. I always bring family pictures and a postcard map of the U.S. to show people a little about myself. People love to talk about family. If there’s a language gap, I can use some of the local language to communicate along with the pictures. Passengers are always willing to share their qollo (roasted barley) or shonkora (sugar cane) with me that they’ve bought from street vendors at rest stops.

The best part of any bus trip is always returning home. The little kids on my street notice I’ve been gone and come running up to me for a handshake or a hug. Some of the mystery of the transportation system fades with each bus ride, but the memories won’t fade anytime soon.
Join our community of travelers on Facebook: www.facebook.com/RollerbagGoddess

Paul Voigt was a corporate communications writer and freelance copywriter in a former life. He gave up pop culture, Midwest winters and softball to serve for two years as an English teacher with the U.S. Peace Corps in Shambu, Ethiopia. Paul is currently helping to raise funds for early grade reading centers in Ethiopian communities. If you are interested in helping them reach their goal, visit: https://www.booksforafrica.org/donate/to-project.html. Locate Ethiopia on the right-hand side bar, and scroll down to “Early Grade Reading Centers (Jennifer Miller) – Ethiopia. Click to donate.
Look for additional updates from Paul Voigt in the near future. You can also send him your well wishes by leaving a comment here. 
Creative Commons License
Rollerbag Goddess Rolls the World by Charish Badzinski is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.
Based on a work at rollerbaggoddess.blogspot.com.

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