Buses, boundaries and bumps – stopping and starting (and stopping again) on the Ethiopian road
Getting anywhere (relatively) fast on public transport in Ethiopia involves a lot of very early mornings in dark and chaotic bus stations. While the rest of the city sleeps, the predawn bus station bustles with a jarring intensity that’s as effective as the industrial strength local coffee in waking you up and putting you on edge. The touts hustle, the porters barge and bustle and the sight of a backpack-laden foreigner is an invitation for tirades of semi-understandable English and an atlas-worth of potential destinations and modes of conveyance. The 5am to 6am darkness is the hour of rounding up passengers, loading luggage and negotiating tips. As light begins to creep over the bus station walls the vehicles chug into stop-start life and slowly drift to the gates and an open road ahead. This is the way the people travel – far removed from the departure lounges and scheduled take-offs of domestic air travel, a mode of transport far beyond the means of the vast majority of the country’s population.
Actually getting moving – in the more or less right direction – is a satisfying feeling for a weary and harried traveler. Once up to speed the early morning light starts to add definition to the urban and rural and somewhere in-between scenery that begins to rush by. Asphalt can, however, lead in an instant to rubble and dust. A swift smooth ride can turn into the kind of bone-shaking clatter that can lift backsides from seats and readjust a passenger’s or overhead suitcase’s relationship with gravity – it’s not uncommon to hit just the right type of pothole at just the right speed to find oneself in the lap of the previously dozing old man, who was previously sitting by your side.
Things are changing though. The asphalt infrastructure of the entire country seems to be in the hands of an army of Chinese engineers directing countless teams of local workers. The scale of road building and re-building is impressive and if anyone can tame the diverse and difficult landscape then it will be Chinese, arriving with their imported hardware and extensive experience of criss-crossing vast expanses of back-country with tarmac and Armco. The Chinese in Africa phenomenon is well documented but it seems at its most tangible here – tangible to the people whose lives can be transformed by the outward simplicity of a well paved road that links A to B, reduces a journey time and removes a literal pain in the ass. The scale of Ethiopia equals the size of the task – connections of massive and disparate chunks of territory, themselves divided by ethnicity, language and culture. Watching the Chinese at work is a strange experience for a Westerner used Western paradigms of human development and aid – the Chinese just seem to build stuff. It’s an alternate face (from a Western perspective) of Globalization and it’s very interesting when viewed through an Ethiopian bus window.
Back on the road and aside from the varying conditions of the trail, it’s state law-enforcement that has a tendency to break up the progress of a bus ride. Police checkpoints are common, especially in the south and east of the country where ethnic and political tensions have been known to manifest themselves in civil unrest and violence. Generally the process of the vehicle searches and ID checks is pretty painless (and often provides a welcome opportunity for relieving oneself in the bushes), though the exact purpose of the checkpoints and their utility for state social control seems a bit questionable – ‘Hands up who’s a terrorist. Anyone? No? Right, on your way…’
Once moving again it’s time to sit back and marvel at the size and geographical diversity of the country. Nowhere linked to one of the major roads in Ethiopia can really be said to be truly remote – but it’s the giant road-less spaces on the map which really boggle the mind. Off of the tarmac-ed corridors transport is perhaps mule powered or, more likely, the speed of two feet. There don’t even seem to be dirt tracks here to bisect the major road arteries and yet settlements can be seen spreading far off into the distance (and almost certainly beyond). It’s wonderful to see a country unfold by land but it can be a myopic view – so easy to forget what lies beyond the scope of the paved lines on the map, the lines pored over in detail by any traveler looking to shave a few hours off a long haul trek. Outside those lines – inevitably structuring an outsider’s perception of the territory – it’s difficult to imagine state authority seriously penetrating those vast swathes of its territory lying beyond any serious link to the main roads. Not that this is much of a revelation as this is the case for so much of the Horn of Africa and beyond, but the conditioning on geographical scales brought through a life spent in northern Europe make realizations of vastness and remoteness both disconcerting and enchanting.
Busing to the crags of the Simien Mountains north of Gonder brings you almost to the precipices of these immense seams of rock, looking from mind-bending drops down into primeval ravines of forest where the leopards stalk the Ibex in the shadows of the peaks and the coming night. Beyond lie yet more settlements and a landscape stretching off into an eventual Sudanese or Eritrean distance. Such a vista shows up the trivialities of recent human attempts to demarcate the boundaries of what is a continuum of landscape and culture shaped by a geological, geographic (but not political) time-frames and countless centuries of migration and cultural development. Thinking of countries in this part of the world as discrete or distinct ethnic or geographical entities seems a bit silly from such a vantage point.
The road south of Gonder leads down to Lake Tana, the huge and tranquil source of the Blue Nile. The waters of this lake which are dotted by island monasteries and traversed by ancient, effective and elegantly designed papyrus rafts, flow south and curve with the declining elevation of the land into a northern course. The Blue Nile then connects with the White forming the Nile proper and flow several thousand kilometers onward through Sudan and Egypt to the Mediterranean. The scale and impact of this watershed on human activity (the rise of the Egyptian civilization is one small thing, for example) is scarcely comprehendible from the origin of the river, though it’s a pleasant thought to ponder on whilst staring out of a dirty bus window for the tenth hour that day.
Moving east (once again by public bus or a hitched construction vehicle or two) takes the traveler to the deservedly famous town of Lalibela and her marvelous rock-hewn churches. After the slog by road from Gonder it seems funny that so many tourists are able to hop in via the purpose-built airport – ‘where’s the fun in that?’ I wondered to myself – though I quickly remembered to remember that most travelers don’t necessarily view travel as the kind of endurance sport that some of us do (and fair enough!).
The churches of Lalibela were carved straight out of the rock 950 years ago and the architecture is (literally) seamless. The town and its churches remain a living religious epicenter and the tourism is well-managed and quite unobtrusive – regardless of how you make it into town….
Leaving the rugged and culturally-rich North of the country, it’s a different experience getting back on the road south back to Addis and then east into Oromo, Afar and Somali country. The population density of the countryside decreases sharply heading east of Addis as patterns of livelihood transform from sedentary agriculture to nomadic pastoralism. Not long after leaving the capital the shop signs at the side of the road start to turn bilingual – the Semitic Amharic is joined by the Cushitic Oromo written in roman script and similar in origin and appearance to Somali.
About 300km east of Addis the road hits a juncture – turn right for the ancient walled city of Harar and turn left for the modern railway city of Dire Dawa. The two cities (barely an hour and a half apart by road) could scarcely feel more different with their respective charms. Dire Dawa, built in 1902 for the Djibouti-bound railway line, has an ordered architectural feel and breathes with an air of colonial opulence and spaciousness. Sitting in front of a giant screen outside the train station watching English premier league football with half of the town’s male population isn’t a bad way to spend a Saturday evening. Sitting drinking a macchiato in the same place the next morning whilst watching the buzz of the motor rickshaws, can make it difficult to muster the energy to leave. Sometimes it’s physically difficult too. The railway line is under seemingly indefinite renovation these days between Addis and Dire Dawa and although on paper the stretch onwards to Djibouti is still open departures are, at best, unreliable, worst, non-existent. I waited 4 days in the town for a train bound for the coast – a ‘Monday’ departure turned into ‘sometime next week’ and I joined the hundreds of other travelers forced to negotiate that mainstay of Ethiopian travel – the bus. After haggling for a semi reasonable price with the profiteering bus drivers (cancelled train equals bus bonanza) it only took 4 hours to actually get moving. What joy for the sweaty traveler – happy, smiling bus-mates, Somali-pop blasting out he back and, best of all, forward motion. That was until we got literally 30 seconds out of the town and the back door fell off going over a pot hole. Crowbars and bungee cord in hand the driver and his various brothers/cousins/acquaintances were ready to do some DIY reattachment and within 45 minutes we were rumbling along again. For another 2 minutes. The next stop (this time semi-scheduled, I believe) involved loading up the Qaat. Qaat is a plant whose leaves act as a mild amphetamine when chewed. And chewed they are. A lot. In this part of the world road transportation revolves far more around this green shrub than it does living, breathing passengers. Throughout Eastern Ethiopia, Djibouti, Somaliland and Somalia the qaat trade is one industry that functions, and functions quickly. Freshness is everything for these little leaves and the buses are packed tight with the plants. There is some form of customs or taxation for qaat transit and I know this because every time I go through checkpoints in Eastern Ethiopia the old women, invariable transporting vast quantities of the stuff, pass bundles onto me – the stupid foreigner who can be trusted to keep his mouth shut and look confused- when the police board the bus and unload the traders stash for taxation. This is what happened on the ride to Djibouti and I’ve been a willing (if not totally aware) qaat mule several times since. Getting back to the road, we bounced along for 9 hours to the Djibouti border at which we were unceremoniously dumped by the driver. Since the fare was paid for a ride all the way into Djibouti city (and not the border of the country) the passengers were, needless to say, somewhat annoyed. The argument which ensued lasted a good two hours an ended with the driver clattering back down the road we had come from followed not far behind (and at considerable velocity) by the rocks being hurled at him by the abandoned passengers. Perhaps ‘abandoned’ is not quite the right word – another bus had arrived (the driver’s brother/cousin/acquaintance again), it’s just that he was charging another fortune for the connection and his bus was half the size of the original one. I eschewed having to head butt a grandmother for a seat and elected to sleep at the border for the possibility of hitching the next day.
Leaving Dire Dawa in the other direction for Harar, as I’ve done on other occasions, the road looks and feels different again. On the steep route climbing up to the ancient walled city, it’s not hard to appreciate how the turn of the century railway engineers decided it would be easier to construct a brand new town in Dire Dawa rather than lay tracks up here, as was the original railway plan. Harar feels like an urban magnet drawing in the cultures, faiths, customs and commerce of the region into one living, breathing muddle of winding lanes and multi-coloured dwellings. The whole picture is framed by kites circling above ancient trees and at night a trip just outside the city walls leads to the hyena men who feed these ferocious-looking but supremely timid wild animals scraps of meat. From simple observation Harar also seems to be the location of an unspoken competition to see who can carry the largest or most eccentric item on their head. Sitting in the main square it doesn’t take long to spot the contestants – piles of firewood are impressive but whole oil drums must surely take the prize.
Leaving by bus from Harar, like many places in Ethiopia, presents the traveler with a several options of conveyance. Minibuses are fast and expensive. They’ll take you far quickly but its like traveling in a high-velocity sardine can. It would be nice to think that if one was to crash the sheer bulk of human, animal and inanimate-object mass packed into these little buses would act as some kind of giant and all encompassing airbag. I’m assured that this is not the case, and there are no shortages of incidents which grimly prove this. Night travel is an option for those really on a budget as you’ll save on a hotel room. This is quite terrifying given the speed at which these minibus guys drive, although if you’ve really got to be concerned about the cost of a night’s accommodation in Ethiopiathen you’re probably actually destitute and have other things to worry about.
Another option would be the clunking (but somewhat less accident prone) regular buses which seem to be able to fit in, at a rough guess, around 200 people a journey and are invariably falling apart. A reputed third option is a ‘luxury’ Sky bus – large, relatively quick and in good shape. These remain somewhat of a mystery to me as on numerous trips around the country I’ve never found them– I’ll go into the office at the bus station a day before leaving, ask about purchasing a ticket and am always told just to come back the next day. I’ll do this and I invariably get hustled onto whatever looks like it’ll leave the bus station quickest in the direction of where I want to go.
The complexities of the bus station aside, it’s plain sailing (or busing, as it were) further east into what is essentially (ethnically) Somalia and, eventually, that fascinating colonial relic/international anomaly of a place that is the de facto independent Republic of Somaliland. Once again the Chinese are out in force– the fresh asphalt snakes past mud houses and children herding cattle and camels in fascinating juxtapositions of development unfolding beneath the wheels. Lurching up onto the tarmac the bus accelerates and it starts to feel like you’re starting to get somewhere fast. And then you hit the police checkpoint and everything grinds into a halt of bureaucracy and an undercurrent of politic-ethnic tensions. A more apt metaphor for development in this still contested part of Ethiopia would be difficult to find. Leaving the ‘Ethiopian’ town of Jigjiga for a last push to the Somaliland border I think of the area I’m going to in Hargeisa – Jigjiga Yar (‘little Jigjiga’) and realize just how interlinked this entire region is. There’s a cultural linkage which transcends the dictates of the modern nation state and its history of colonial intrigue and creative cartography – the British effectively betrayed the Somalis by granting huge tracts of ethnically Somali territory from here right down through the Ogaden to the Ethiopian state during their colonial tenure in the Horn of Africa. The Ethiopians are still fighting consolidate their grip over these regions (known collectively as Zone 5) and even today the Ogaden National Liberation Front are conducting guerilla and terrorist operations through these porous boundaries in the name of Somali Ogaden self-determination.
Looking out from the bus window at checkpoints and borders and earth-movers the big questions of development and statehood in the Horn of Africa come into focus. But I know that I’m soon going to be considering more mundane matters, namely, how I’m going to keep my backside in my seat when the tarmac runs out and throws the bus into that familiar chaos of bumps and crashes that I’ve become so used to on the Ethiopian road. As it happened, the bus out of Jigjiga heading towards the Somaliland border slowed down even more abruptly than we anticipated – In taking a back road/donkey track on the outskirts of town to avoid a checkpoint we arrived at a gaping ditch right at the side of the main road – which presumably wasn’t there the last time he tried to pull this trick. All we could do was pile off and wait for him to do a big circle (and negotiate the checkpoint without passengers) and then come back. Watching the luggage bounce off into the distance I could do little but hope he was coming back and stare off down the tarmac at the vast plain, scattered nomad huts on the horizon and the Republic of Somaliland somewhere beyond a strangely-placed line on a map.