In hindsight, I think we were being driven to get robbed.
Now thankfully this is ultimately another story about nothing. But it was certainly on the way to being something. Something I’m sure that wouldn’t have ended well for any of us.
But today I thought, was going to be just another Ethiopian cross-country commute in the slowest and most uncomfortable (but yet cheapest) form of local transport available (something I’m certainly not unfamiliar with); and so with that this is, somewhat regrettably more of an editorial rather, than a pictorial.
It was 05:05 and Lena (my travelling companion) and I had just exited our Bajaj at the gates of the Lalibela bus station (read fenced off paddock where buses park for the night). Our destination for the day; Mekele, some 424km of Ethiopian roads away.
Whilst we were advised to be their early we weren’t entirely sure as to why we had to be ready before they (the gates) opened at 05:30; but it all became clear at 05:15 when the gates did open and with it commenced the veritable stampede of people waiting outside toward their respective buses through the headlight lit paddock of dust.
It would seem that departures from our location were vastly insufficient for demand, so not wanting to fall foul of process Lena and I similarly made haste toward our bus. Although not actually knowing which bus we narrowed the field as negotiated the chaos of headlights and people cris-crossing our path.
What is a Bajaj? Well its exactly that – a Bajaj. And how much should you, a faranji expect to pay for this privilege of transport? Well, exactly half of the price your initially quoted.
Small Priviliges for White People Faranje
Finding our bus, and with the bus already half-full and filling fast we were pleasantly surprised to see unquestionably the best three seats on the bus still free; a single opposite the driver and two behind that with what I would best describe as business class leg space (again, something I’m not too unfamiliar with).
Now finding the best seats on a bus to be free when much others are taken is actually a semi-regular occurrence when travelling around the less traveled parts of the world. Particularly on routes that are known to be frequented by a small but yet steady stream of
foreign travelers faranje.
And one of the few perks often afforded to offset the otherwise variably inflated pricing (depending on how good you negotiate) is the privilege of receiving the most desirable seats that are often kept open until the last minute.
And so with pleasure Lena secured the pair of seats whilst I went outside to supervise our bags being put onto the roof and until such time as sufficient other baggage had securely fortified our bags. And it was then when Ben arrived, who, after similarly securing his bag ventured inside to claim the (third) best seat on the bus.
And so there we sat until 06:05 when the driver had decided the people:space ratio was sufficiently high as to deplete the oxygen content to just above life-sustaining levels. And so we set off.
Hello Mr Orange
Four and half hours of bumpy back roads and ear-bleeding-ly loud African Gospel (I’m definitely not against the genre, but the volume was a little excessive) through some spectacular scenery later we pulled into our first stop, Weldiya. And being the the first of the three Faranje to exist the bus, I too was the first to meet the man in the Orange Shirt, Mr Orange.
Mr Orange was the typical tout known to await buses arriving on routes known to be frequented by Faranje. These type of touts are either directly associated with the next bus you’ll likely be needing to take, or otherwise will gladly assist you in finding your next bus in return for a small commission on the (again variably inflated) ticket you’ll be about to buy.
For the most part I dismiss such touts but on this occasion, given the three of us were all headed to the same direction and the extra negotiating power thusly afforded I saw no reason but to answer his inquiry regarding our next destination. For which, or course, happened to be his bus.
Lena and Ben soon joined me aside and whilst Lena headed of to find a bathroom (did I mention local buses seldom, if ever stop for such purposes), Ben, myself and Mr Orange moved to the back of the bus to receive our bags as they came down from the roof.
Hello Mr Green
Ben was first to receive his bag, followed by mine and then Lenas for which Mr Orange offered to hold.
Now again for the most part, actually almost without exception neither myself or any other backpacker will NEVER, EVER, let ANYONE carry our bags. But on this occasion, and given Mr Orange had already intercepted Lenas bag as it made its way toward me I saw no reason no not accept his offer.
I did however (Lena if your reading this) keep very close attention to it and any people that approached.
The concierge (among many, many others) at the Five Star Trump International Hotel Las Vegas did find my reluctance to remove my backpack during check-in particularly puzzling. As did the receptionist who frequently invited me to remove my backpack during the process. But after three months of it then being strapped to me throughout Central America, it actually almost becomes easier not to take it off. Plus, and lets be honest, whilst I might’ve managed to secure myself a suit a Vegas five-star hotel, I’m not not about to be paying five-star tips when it can be avoided.
Having now secured Lena and my bags, Mr Orange and I moved over to where Ben was waiting, having now been introduced to Mr Green.
Mr Green had informed Ben (as best he could) that it was him who retrieved our bags from the roof and it would thusly be proper for us to provide an appropriate compensation.
Now to what extent Mr Green participated in the retrieval of our bags I don’t know; but having already paid an additional fee for the privilege of having OUR bags accompany us on OUR journey, neither Ben or myself where about to hand over anything else. Particularly as we did neither ask, nor want for his help.
The Impatient Mr Green
Mr Greens discussion with Ben proceeded to switch between the customary questions any tout asks to try and establish a bond in between periodically returning to the question of his outstanding remuneration.
After a time Mr Greens attention diverted to me, but by now had decided to dispense with any pleasantries and immediately set upon the task of Faranje currency extraction. This pretty much set the tone as he continued to switch attention between Ben and I, slowly transitioning from suggestion to demand as our responses, and mere acknowledgement of his presence continued to fade.
Big Problems for White People Faranje
Lena was soon approaching and so Ben and Mr Orange started to move slowly toward our next bus, for a moment leaving just Mr Green with me as I waited for Lena to arrive.
And it was now that Mr Greens tone changed significantly.
Inside the bus station, no problem. But outside, BIG problem!
Seeing the return of another target he started to move toward Lena, deciding to spare her from Mr Greens efforts I did, as we Aussies like to say, a Sheppard that would’ve put me well up the draft list. To which, as is often the response of the Shephard-ed, not well received.
Following on to Ben and Mr Orange we reached the next (mini) van and after placing our bags on the roof hopped into the front row behind the driver. Strangely tho, Mr Green then settled himself into the row behind us quickly resuming his demands for money.
Mr Green entering the van was, or rather should’ve been the first sign of trouble. And by this alone we should have excused ourselves from the mini-bus and sought an alternative driver. The fact that Mr Green was allowed to site in the minivan and continue his quest was, on reflection a clear sign that their was more between Mr Orange and Mr Green than we knew.
Mr Orange then hoped into the front seat adjacent the driver; and this should’ve been the second sign.
All local leave-when-full type transportation following a fixed route always operates in much the same way, no matter the location;
- The bus/van/car/cart/motorbike (the latter far quicker to fill up) will not leave until full, or sufficiently close that the Driver or Conductor is confident the remaining spaces will be filled quickly after departure and before people start getting off.
- The Conductors job before leaving and at any stop is to tout the location of the bus and ensure filling of any vacant seats as fast as possible.
- During the trip, as the bus will be subject to stop at any time to unload passengers on request, and pickup any passengers (at any location) should there be a space available. The Conductor is also responsible for coordinating passenger movement, collecting the fare and in the case of a mini-van operating the sliding door. And it is for this reason that the conductor ALWAYS positions himself in the back. And NEVER in a seat that could be occupied by a paying passenger.
If Mr Orange was in fact a tout for the minibus he would have returned quickly to the job of advertising our destination in order to the fill the bus. And whilst he did vacate the front seat for periods of time very little came of any endeavors that he may have actually made.
When Mr Organge did vacate the front seat, Mr Green was quick to relocate such that he could address us directly instead of trying to gain our attention from behind (which was continuing to be futile). It was also on one of these relocations when Mr Green first advised us on what exactly the fee for service was to be.
50 Birr, or there’ll be BIG trouble outside the station.
But for him there was no outside, WE were on a bus and heading to another city, HE was not, and what should have been a bus full of passengers there would be no trouble. IT would be fine.
50 Ethiopian Birr (ETB), (or approximately 1.77USD). Frankly, not a lot of money for a Faranje, even a backpacker Faranje, and particularly given this was to be split between the three of us.
But it wasn’t the value that was in question.
Neither of us were about to be extorted for something we didn’t ask for, didn’t want, and as far as we were concerned had already paid for.
And so Mr Greens continued demands for compensation continued to go unrequited until at some point Mr Green returned to the back just before Mr Orange arrived, closed the door, and we started to move slowly out of the station.
With Mr Green still on the bus, we definitely shouldn’t have been. But we’d forgotten about him.
There are no locals on the bus, where are all the locals?
Lena was right.
And this should’ve been the fourth sign. And for a brief moment it was. But just outside the main gate some touting of destination did occur and we were subsequently joined with one, or maybe two others.
Which at least for the moment eased our concerns.
Unfortunately, we’d also continued to overlook a now very silent Mr Green.
200 Birr for the Driver
We proceeded up the road and after not more than a minute Mr Orange turned around and requested the agreed price of 200 Birr (each)…. “ for the driver”.
And finally this was my sign.
The driver NEVER collects the money, and the money is NEVER said to be for the driver, or for anything else for that matter.
Furthermore, money is NEVER collected this early on in a trip; it is only collected once the bus is full or just prior to when people are starting to depart. The conductor does it this way so he can remember who has, and who hasn’t paid.
And so in reply to the question of money I assured him that it was no problem and we’d pay when we arrived.
“No it’s ok, no problem, you pay the driver now” said Mr Orange.
“Yes, it’s no problem, so we pay in Mekele” said I.
And such did the conversation repeat until some minutes later, an Amheric discussion between Mr Orange and the driver, AND Mr Green (who I’d continued overlook until now) resulted in the bus coming to a screaming halt, the door being flung opened and us ushed out.
My first thought was that we were getting kicked off, and frankly neither of us had any problems with this and so as we motioned to get our bags down from the roof further discussion (in Amheric) resulted in a request for us to get back on the bus.
“Ok ok, we take you to the bus station where you can get the bus To Mekele”
I thought the sudden stop was a threat tactic (which clearly backfired), and the bus we were on was actually a feeder van to get to another station where the actual bus left from.
And this would explain the lack of local people, Mr Orange not sitting in the back, Mr Greens presence on the bus (as we weren’t actually leaving the city), and the demand for the ticket money upfront as we were likely being up-sold a ticket by Mr Orange with him keeping the spread.
In struggling to keep up with urban sprawl, having multiple bus stations all serving different parts of a country is very much the norm for many cities. And arriving to one station and then finding the requirement for a cross-city commute to reach another similarly common, particularly for cross-country routes
Lena again expressed her concerns, but having both Ben and I willing to continue on for a short while given the new context we decided to re-enter the bus and resume the journey.
But Where is the Bus Station?
On re-entering the bus, and almost in perfect unison we started checking Maps.me and our travel guides to ascertain the location of this new bus stop and the validity of the claim now being made.
Normally I’ll know EXACTLY what stops I might need to make and the transfers required for any journey before setting out. But as a result of a very last minute decision to commence this journey, and the lack of usable wifi in our previous abode we necessarily set off with an otherwise insufficient knowledge of our journey to recognise the lie now being told.
“Where is this bus station, have far is it” we asked, and asked, and asked again before being told that in fact we were now headed toward Mekele.
STOP THE VAN WERE GETTING OUT!
I can’t quite recall if it was one, two, or all three of us that said it, but we must have said it loudly enough as the van to pulled over immediately.
But we were not exactly being let out just yet.
The additional passenger picked-up when leaving the station appeared to be holding the door closed from the inside, making it impossible to open. Whilst the driver sat silent looking straight ahead out the window Mr Orange started telling us it was ok, we were going to Mekele and no need to get out. Mr Green had also became similarly obstructive in our exit.
Sitting in the middle seat I leaned forward to identify the ignition keys; preparing myself to leap over and remove them should the driver have attempted to restart the bus. But whilst I’m still not entirely sure how the driver fit into the puzzle I knew this wouldn’t have happened without Mr Orange’s say-so as he (the driver) sat calmly among the developing chaos.
Eventually, and somewhat forcefully we exited the vehicle closely followed by Mr Orange, Mr Green and the other passenger previously obstructing our exist.
Still trying to convince us to return to the van and doing there best to obstruct any movement; when it was clear to them we were leaving I noticed Mr Green motioning toward an ascent of the roof via the step-ladder at the rear of the bus.
Not F**K*N Likely
Is Mr Green going ANYWHERE near our bags, and so standing on the side rail with the door open I hoisted myself onto the roof and untied our bags.
Reaching Bens first I went to pass it down with Mr Green attempting an intercept. But being somewhat taller it wasn’t hard for Ben to provide offence and receive his bag.
Next up was Lenas, but after assessing hers to be the lighter of mine I instead passed mine down to Lena (huh?) who was similarly able to defend Mr Greens intercepts, before strapping Lenas to my back and jumping of the roof (oh, ok thats why).
The Final Assault
Regrouped on the ground we pushed our way forward amidst the now very aggressive demands for money and attempts to block our progression. Reiterations of payment or trouble were coming thick and fast and whilst I didn’t recognise it until later, this was Mr Greens final assault.
Continuing up the street Mr Green was soon alone in following us when his offence finally turned to defense (of his pride) in failing to extort anything from these Faranje; a battle he’s no doubt all to familiarly with in Victory.
It was when the demands for money turned to commentary of our sexual practices, the comparison of our physical representation toward the female genitalia and discussion of the inherently negative attributes bestowed to all of us at birth on account of our skin colour, that I knew he was done.
I’ve been insulted before, actually on more than one occasion, and whilst the preludes have not been quite as escalatory, on each encounter insults have marked the recognition of defeat in failing to relieve me of what ever it was they felt entitled to at the time. And so with with some irony, the verbal abuse did come as somewhat of a relief.
A 45 minute walk back through the city returned us to the main bus station we were able to secure a lift in another mini-van that ticked all the boxes…. including Lenas intuitive approval.
By now it was 11:45 and after a number of stops to exchange locals (and chickens), at 13:40 we finally pulled into our second stop at Alamata where we, and our our bags were transferred to another mini-van.
Which, after filling the remaining seats departed at 14:10.
But we didn’t get far.
Not long out of the station the bus pulled over with the Driver and Conductor hastily exiting. Lena thought she’d heard a loud bang, Ben thought he’d heard something about blown shocks, and I thought….. well, F*CK.
In customary for a western male, Ben and I of course also exited the bus to make an inspection, and whilst car mechanics is not exactly my strong point I knew enough to know it wan’t the shocks and that we weren’t indeed F*CK**D, so somewhat relaxed I got back on the bus to wait.
Passengers still in tow, it was when I felt the front of the van being jacked that I again exited the vehicle to see what was happening (sidenote, almost all of the vans occupants remained seated during the entire process), to find the wheel being removed and a brand new set of Brembo Brake Pads ready to go.
I later noticed that the transportation of spare brake pads (and other servicing consumables) seemed to be quite the norm in Ethiopia. Maintenance Optimisation as its FINEST!
Initially impressed by the speed at which both front pads were changed in less that ideal surroundings, I was soon shaking my head when the Conductor retrieved a bottle of Dot 4 (break fluid) once BOTH tires were back on and we were otherwise ready to go. But sure enough come 15:20 we were off, again.
18:45 and as we pulled into Mekele we said goodbye to Ben as we exited to find a tour office that was to be our final destination in order to try and arrange for transport to the Danikil Depression in far north Ethiopia the following day (something which just can’t be done independently) and the reason for today’s journey. But that’s another story.
I’ve taken more forms of impossibly slow, cramped, hot (but cheap) modes of local transport to cover comparatively short distances in absurdly long amounts of time that I’d really care to remember.
And aside from the ever present risk of balancing dehydration and not creating for yourself a very unpleasant situation (I did mention these types of buses seldom, if ever stop for comfort rests), the worst I’ve experienced is the odd mechanical issue, inflated ticket pricing and extreme optimism in the face of an arrival time.
Something I attribute to more than just goodluck.
But on reflection, on this day, I’m quite confident that had we stayed in that van in Weldiya; once outside the city our day would have ended very, very differently.
I’m also sure that similar efforts to ruin my day have been made in the past, but the signs were seen and actions was taken long before needed. I just don’t remember doing any of it.
But for what-ever reason today I didn’t see the signs, or maybe after travelling through some of most unfriendly (but amazing) destinations on earth my comfort levels for different situations has now just exceeded beyond what is safe I need to take a step back and re-calibrate.
All I know is today Lena first saw the signs, and that I’ll never forget.
not quite the end
But it wasn’t quite the end just yet.
Some six weeks later and after just walking across the Uganda – Kenyan border; with onward transport secured and waiting to fill-up and leave it was my then travelling companion Kelsie who told something that I’d never been told before. But something I definitely needed to hear.
Pick your battles Sam, you don’t wan’t make an enemy and wind up dead in a place like Kenya.
And that something is the reason I wrote this story. As that something, as simple as it was, in retrospect quite possibly became my third life changing event. Not long before I had my fourth in downtown Johannesburg. But that, is a very, very different story.