18 October 2012

Journey South, Pt. 4 Waiting for the bus

A Peace Corps Volunteer in Dinsho invited Muzeyen and I to dinner. He came down the street larger than life, greeting everyone, blond shiny curls bouncing in the wind. Sitting down with us at our breakfast, he introduced himself as Brian from Virginia. When we went for dinner, there was another guy who joined us, a Belgium researcher who was working on hydrological comparison studies of two lakes in the south. The group of us had a swell time at dinner and retired to a music session with improvised percussive instruments including a washboard that Brian made. We explored the paraphernalia he had in his room including bits of animals, skulls, knives, and a sword. He also told us about the tattoos he has been putting on himself. I was so happy to be with a Virginia boy. When we got into his list of Motown music, we were hushed by some neighbors nearby and the party folded before 11pm.

The day came to leave Muzeyen and continue onto Rira and the very nice Peace Corps couple I met in Addis - they are friends of a good friend in Oregon. We had a breakfast and waited for a minibus. It is not easy to get around from Dinsho to Robe and Goba, nearby towns, because of the lack of public transport. When buses come through town, they are usually already full from Addis. We waited. I read a book. Muzeyen was very patient and helpful and paid someone to hold a place for me in the mad scramble for the one minibus that arrived. The man got off and I got on and my things were passed through the window to me. We said our goodbyes, and I was off.

As soon as I hit Robe, my bags were transferred to a waiting minibus (or line taxi as they are called) that was heading to Goba. From Goba I would have to chance getting a bus to Rira, which is a place up over the Seneti Plateau and not an easy destination. The wait began. Tracy and Ramona, the peace corps couple, were in contact and gave me instructions. They said they would try to get a hold of a friend of theirs to help me with the dilemma in Goba. I was to get off of the bus and head to the wall where many people were crouched by big bags of goods. There I was to ask if there were any tickets being sold for Dela Mena. None were. There was a bus going, but it was already full. I waited. Someone started talking to me and then a pleasant conversation ensued. This was rudely interrupted by some nutter out from the mental hospital. Then came Morgan Freeman, the friend of Tracy and Ramona's who is a minibus driver who would help me. Me put me in the bus and we drove to speak to people about the bus. We then went for lunch. It was delicious, the best gomen I have had - this is a greens and garlic dish. Crazy delicious. We ate with a family of cats in our laps. We went back to the bus station. Morgan asked again. We waited. The bus system in Ethiopia is awful - not just for tourists - I could argue that it is too cryptic to get around easily and too intimidating to expect anyone but an ballsy traveler to manage (or a wimpy one like me with Ethiopian friends to help). But really it is not about visitors as much as it is about how unfair it is for the Ethiopians. There is no clear information about when the bus will come or go. They are almost always overfull. The traffic police take bribes and extort the drivers. The buses themselves are not comfortable or in good condition most of the time. Drivers can sometimes take more for the tickets when there is a high demand. There aren't enough buses for the amount of people who need to travel. Very few people have a car in Ethiopia because of the tax. An average used car here can cost $25,000 USD. There is no devaluation of a car. This is ridiculous. This would also be why I see so many Ethiopians walking on the roads. 

So this game ensues. The guy who is in charge of selling the tickets takes Birr off of some people. He puts your name on a list. When the mystery bus arrives at the mystery time, you may then have a place. He does this, and a group of people follow this man as he walks around the dirt and mud parking lot of the bus station, and follow him up to the office where he makes a call to find out where the next bus actually is. People wait anxiously, including me and Morgan Freeman. Then at some point he decides that no bus is coming and gives back the Birr to everyone. I tell Morgan that we should try the road. I will hitchike to Rira. We had tried already to get me onto an Isuzu truck - these are lorries that carry goods (usually illegal goods coming in from Kenya - illegal referring to the fact that they are not paying the federal import tax). They were full. We tried again. Some guys pull over in a white Landrover. They remember me from Dinsho. They explain that they are taking some tourists to Rira tomorrow and can give me a lift then if I am stuck. I get a phone number. They go. We wait. Morgan buys chat. He explains that he is obsessed with chat. He quit his job as a teacher because he did not make enough to support his habit. I asked when he started. In college, in Harare, he tells me. Seven years he has been chewing chat. Chat is a drug that is used in Ethiopia and Yemen. I read a book about it called Eating the Flowers of Paradise by Kevin Rushby before leaving the States. He asked me to try. About fifteen times he asked me to try. So finally I relented and put a wad of leaves in my mouth. They tasted like leaves. I had read that it would taste bitter. I didn't mind it. I did not take enough to make an effect really. I felt immediately relaxed, especially about getting to Rira anytime soon. 

Then the bus arrives. This has been going on for hours, but I figured it would not be straightforward from what Tracy and Ramona told me. People are fighting to get on this bus. The ticket seller says that people bought tickets in the morning and have priority. People have been waiting patiently, without food and water, with small children, squatting in the filth of the bus station (in a way that only bus stations can be filthy - this is regardless of the country). Chaos ensues for another hour. Somehow in this chaos of following the ticket seller, trying to convince him to sell a ticket, he shoving people away from him, looking angry, making deals with some people and not others, loading and overloading the bus, Morgan comes to me victorious! He has a ticket for me. Another bus that has just pulled up is also going over the Plateau. We walk over and wait. There is much scrambling and arguing about what gear goes where. Morgan was very concerned that my bag was going in the trunk of the bus and reminded me to please get the bag at the end. I got on the bus and took a seat at the back next to a slight woman. Some handsome young guy comes up to my window and knocks, making some gesture that I thought was begging for money. He goes away and comes back with a slip of paper that he hands over. "I will love you until my death" it says. I laugh out loud. There are people climbing over the seats and arguing as the bus is overfull. Women and children crouch in the aisles. At least I am on a bus. I will get to Rira today. I am happy.
I will love you to my death guy.

People climb over the seats and everyone is pretty crazy.
We leave the bus station and the bus creeps over horrible roads to and through the plateau. This area is part of the park and is a mysterious and beautifully stark landscape. It is here that you can spot the Ethiopian wolf. Apparently, there are only about 500 of these animals left in this park, and it is the biggest population left in Ethiopia. I looked but did not see any.

Sanetti Plateau
Here is a video someone made in the park. I saw most of the animals featured. On this trip over the plateau I saw rabbits and birds. The scenery made me cry. I couldn't believe it was all so beautiful. When we descended on the other side of the plateau toward Rira, I watched for a long time as a dark colored raptor glided along the vast expanse with a white cloud backdrop. Silent. Huge mountains beyond.

I had been opening and closing my window for the bus ride, much to the dislike of the passengers behind me who all put their headscarves around their faces. Then I was pleasantly surprised that the windows were all opened. I thought, wow, in Ethiopia the windows are never open on the buses! The man who was mouth breathing behind me, with terrible breath, now didn't matter. It was then that the old man who had had his head down puked on the seat in front of him in a loud painful gurgle. The boy sitting there, who had been going on for some time in some sort of discourse, leaped up horrified. Plastic bags were passed back. The old man kept puking. I realized that many people were puking. The windows were opened so that people could stick their heads out to empty their systems. Or throw out the bags of puke onto the road. I couldn't help being at once horrified and laugh. Many of us were laughing at the horror. Night took hold of the scenery. We came into Rira in the dark. I pushed my way to the front of the bus when it stopped. The stop was for people to buy food that was being sold at the side of the road. The people still on the bus told me not to leave, that it was not the right place. They asked if I knew where I was going. I said Rira, but not the exact place. Several minutes later I saw the ghostly white face of Ramona on the road. She flagged down the bus. I disembarked with my gear, happy to have arrived. Tracy went on in search of the nighttime market. Ramona brought me back to their house. We settled in for lamplight dinner, laughter, and planning for the next days I would be there and they would get some field work finished. They have little to no electricity as they only have solar panels and this part of Bale is like a cloud forest. My room was decorated as houses in Oregon are often decorated, with rocks, skulls, feathers, paintings, postcards...I felt right at home.

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