Monday, July 23, 2007

Ethiopian Buses - the devil's spawn

I would like to finish our adventure in the south, but this ethiopian bus rant has been brewing in my head for some time.

Ethiopian buses are the worst form of transportation I have ever used.  Even worse than the horrible experience i had in the 4ft high cargo hold of the Thai ferry, worse than the pickup truck in Cambodia crammed with 20-some people in the least those were one-off things.  In Ethiopia, unless you pay to fly or rent a car your only choice to get around is the government run bus system.

After having spent roughly 5 full days of my 3 weeks in ethiopia riding on these buses I think I am experienced enough to comment on them.  I was pre-warned by other travellers when I was in Uganda about how bad the buses are, but nothing prepared me for the misery I have endured.  In fact, I was going to stay here another week, but the thought of taking one more of these 12 hour bus rides makes me sick, so i'm leaving this country once i find a flight out. 

First, it is now 10am in Addis right now, but I have been up for 5 and a half hours.  Why?  because every bus in Ethiopia boards at 5am!  What that have to get there at 5am to hopefully buy a ticket, so you have to wake up at 4:30, get to the bus station gate before 5am, and while wiping the crust from your eyes crowd around the gate with a huge pack of rabid ethiopians ready to sprint to the bus to buy their ticket first.  They open the gate at 5am, a mad dash ensues, everyone running in every direction, I refuse to demean myself by running.  There are almost always seats available. 

You find the right bus, everyone is crowded around the ticketmaster trying to buy a ticket, fighting, arguing, etc.  Eventually you get the ticket, or maybe you've purchased a ticket the day before (sometimes possible, sometimes not), now everyone crowds around the door, salivating at the thought of maybe scoring a front row seat, and thus less bumpy for the 2 day trip to whereever you're going.  Before opening the door, the ticketmaster lines everyone up around the bus, then leads the front of the line in a circle around the bus to the back door.  This is entirely pointless though, he opens the door and everyone who didn't line up just runs up and starts pushing and shoving, biting and kicking, women tossing babies up probably just to distract you long enough to get in front of you and squeeze through the door.  It's vicious, no rules, dog eat dog, bare knuckle brawling.  Within a minute, all the people who didn't wait in line push the ticketmaster away, open the front door, and steal all the good seats in the front.  One time, I started screaming while everyone was pushing "Push! Push! Push! Maybe you can kill someone this morning, keep pushing, harder harder, i want to see blood"  stacey thought it was funny, most people probably thought i was nuts. 

Hopefully you avoid getting punched or kicked in the balls, you get to your seat in the bus which is usually 30-50yrs old.  The seat is rock hard and the back goes up to your shoulderblades with no head rest.  The seats are spaced to fit midgets and of course there is a sharp metal bar right where your knees go if you happen to be average sized.  It is now 5:05am, everyone has found a seat, we should be leaving at any moment, we have a 12+hour ride ahead, but no, we wait.  For no conceivable reason, the bus waits until 6am to leave.  If you are in addis, all the buses leave at 6am and it takes you another 45minutes just to get out of the parking lot. 

It's ok though, you're tired so you try to take a nap on the metal bar over the seat in front of you.  It's hard, but it's 5am, who cares.  At 5:30am, the bus starts up, since the exhaust is on the side of the bus and the door is still open, the bus next to you kicks up a huge cloud of thick black acrid exhaust filling your entire bus.  You wake up choking, no one opens a window.  No one even seems to mind that they are all slowly being poisoned by carbon monoxide and lead (ethiopia only recently switched to unleaded gasoline, there is probably still a lot of lead knocking around the engines).

It's 6:00am, you start to move, you start to wist back to sleep, only to be shooken awake by the driver blasting "tradition ethiopian music."  It is the same tape played for 12 hours, the same tape on every bus, every time you take the bus, the same awful tape.  Well there are a few, but every song sounds the same.  It sounds like someone skinning a goat alive using a dull blade with a horrible 80s style synthesized beat in the background.  It is ear-piercingly loud and the speaker is probably 20years old and buzzes at every high note...and there are so many high notes.  No matter how high your turn your ipod up, you can still hear the atrocious music blaring in the background.  An ethiopian woman behind you hums along and loves ask yourself how this is possible, but you find every type of ethiopian enjoying this music.  One day you try to buy a tape on the street in order to beg the bus driver to please put some american music on, but the only thing they sell is Celine Dion, Phil Collins, 50 Cent, and a country music mix tape (Africans south to north, love country music, so strange).

You never full adjust to the music or your painful seat, but you make do for a few hours on a nice road.  Then the road gets bumpy, and since you didn't push and fight your way to the front, you get the full effect of the bumps.  It is also getting close to mid-day and it's getting hot.  You try to open a window, it's 90 degrees in the bus and only about 70 outside, but a chorus of angry people yell at you to close it.  Ethiopians have no resistance to wind, they say quixotically.  You look around, shedding all your layers, sweating profusely, and all the ethiopians still have winter hats and their jackets on, seemingly oblivious to the stifling heat.

The air is stale, it feels like there is no oxygen, no one has opened a window in hours!  Between the music, the seat, the heat, and the stale air, you wonder if you will survive the next 6 hours.  You stop for lunch, it is great, you haven't eaten breakfast since you were up at the ungodly hour of 4am, you are starving, craving coffee, you stumble off the bus and find some food.  It is ok, they try to overcharge you for being a foreigner, but you fight them down to the correct price, maybe with the help of some new friends on the bus.

Everyone piles onto the bus again.  Within 15 minutes it is hot, the air is stale, you are listening to the same tape for the 5th time...the goat never seems to die, just wails and wails to that horrible beat, but at least you are not hungry anymore.  Then the bumps come, suddenly people from all over the bus are yelling to the ticketmaster for a plastic bag, the heat and the stale air have caused women and children all over the bus to start puking.  In an hour, 4 children and 2 women have puked, no one opens a window...the air is now stale, hot, and smelling of puke.  The only respite is when they open a window for 30 seconds to launch another bag of vomit out the window. 

In the space of the 12 hour journey, you were undoubtedly stuck for an hour due to mud, a flat tire, someone getting kicked off in the middle of nowhere because the ticketmaster finds he has no ticket and no money to pay, or some other nuisance, but you welcome this since it gives you a chance to get off the bus and get some fresh air.

Finally, you arrive at your destination, only to meet the plonkers at the bus station trying to overcharge you for a room, children screaming "You You You,"  and everyone staring at your everywhere you look.  You want to cry, but that's just what they want, so you suck it up, fight off the parasites, find a room and lay down.  You get some dinner, go to sleep, only to do it again the next day, because it takes 2 full days of travelling to go 300 miles in this country, the roads are just that bad. 

This is why I am leaving a week before i wanted to, and is why I won't be going to Bahir Dar, Gondor, Axum, or Harar.  I'll only come back to this country if the buses improve, I rent a car, or have enough time to spread these bus journeys out to about 3-4 hours and stop somewhere along the way.


Anonymous said...

what's up brotha? Was having a boring day at work and wanted to see what you were up to. As I suspected, you are clearly "going for it" and making me wish i had quit fmp and travelled the world as well. the next time i'm in ethiopia, i'm gonna bring one of those folding mopeds in my suitcase...the bus "system" seems completely fucked. Who is Sarah? Sounds like you've got a little bunny out there man. You been drinking at all? I was gonna ask how ethiopian beer tastes. Anyway i gotta roll, damn i'm envious. me and koglin think you're the man. stay safe, tear it up in egypt.


July 27, 2007 3:50 PM  

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