25 November 2007

It is Sunday afternoon, and I am sitting in the living room of my new Ethiopian house in Debremarkos. KB is napping, our supervisors have gone home for the day, the stores are closed, and my landlady insists that I must not go walking on my own…so I will take this time to recount yesterday’s travels, a task that was far too daunting last night in my wearied state.

We arrived at the bus station in Addis Ababa at 5:00 in the morning, with our site supervisors and the bulk of our worldly possessions for the next two years. Even in the early morning, the bus station yard was already crawling with people. Buses traveling to destinations all over Ethiopia cleared their ways through a pulsing sea of people to line themselves up in one of four constantly shifting rows. As each bus parked, they closed in around it, with little swells closest to the vehicle. A ticket seller would emerge, shouting, “GonderGonderGonder!” or, “JimmaJimmaJimma!” or another one of seemingly infinite varieties of this chorus – and then take off RUNNING at a full clip as all of his would-be passengers shoved, grappled, and swarmed after him, too numerous by far for even three buses to hold. Each new call brought a new current swirling into existence, so that the entire station yard ebbed, flowed, and surged like an angry ocean in some terrible storm. In almost the exact center of this frenetic whirlpool, we stood, three light-skinned farenji, three blue-green eyed, straw-haired Americans, three Ch/Kristens headed up the main road toward Debremarkos and Finote Selam. We formed the one eddy in that churning sea, anchored down by our collective 240 pounds of luggage and three gigantic Peace Corps issued metal chests. Needless to say, we were quite a spectacle standing there with out site supervisors – KB and her no-nonsense director, who darted back and forth between neighboring groups trying to solicit information; Straw, usually standing alone as her timid counterpart was frequently swept away in current of nearby activity; and me with my gentle giant of a supervisor, his graying head towering nearly a foot and a half above mine.

Eventually, we heard our call: “MarkosMarkosMarkos!” At that cue, the three supervisors sprang into action, rushing in the direction of the beckoning voice. Shoving, grabbing, and all other manner of minor scuffling broke out as people fought for position in the semblance of a line that began to form. Our prizefighter, my towering giant, was sent into the fray. After an initial push to breach the perimeter, the scrambling mass swallowed him. For some time, we caught only glimpses of the silvery top of his head, but then our champion emerged victorious with six tickets. Having finally secured the right to enter the bus, we began the next ordeal of actually boarding. Our supervisors entered into heated negotiations with the luggage men over the fee for loading our mountain of unwieldy baggage. Not for the first time, I wondered if our future colleagues were beginning to thing that this whole Peace Corps volunteer thing was proving more trouble than it was worth. After a lengthy exchange – our supervisors repeatedly lifting my metal box (containing a pillow and an empty plastic bucket) to demonstrate its lightness, and the luggage men thumping KB’s (packed full) to indicate its cumbersome weight – the price was settled at 120 Ethiopian birr (about US$13). One by one, our massive bags and boxes ascended the metal ladder to the roof of the bus, perched precariously (and, I regret to say, probably rather painfully) on the neck and shoulders of the luggage men.

Once we were all seated on the bus – three Ch/Kristens to one bench seat – a new uproar arose when the passengers, having now had time to examine their tickets more closely, realized that they had each been overcharged by 15 birr. The whole crowded bus erupted into noise. Indignant passengers demanded change. The hassled ticket taker fetched some sort of managing authority figure, and arguments commenced in earnest. The engine was turned off. The power of the angry mob eventually prevailed, though, and the green-jacketted money man was forced to make his way slowly down the aisle, distributing birr to each of the bus’s 60 passengers.

The engines were restarted, and the bus finally lurched forward, leaving a cloud of rancid black exhaust in its wake. Passengers bought newspapers, tissues, and snacks through the windows from vendors running alongside the moving vehicle. We maneuvered our way through a now greatly depleted sea of waiting people, to the station gate, and out onto the main road. We were on our way.

The trip to Debremarkos was long and trying. We had laughed when the bus made its first pit stop just outside Addis, about 20 minutes into its journey. We were no longer laughing when, three hours later, bladders full and stomachs empty, we were told that the second stop would not be made until after we had passed through the Blue Nile Gorge stretching in front of us – a feat which, in and of itself, takes two to three hours by public bus. The Blue Nile Gorge is beautiful, cutting through the rugged Ethiopian terrain like a wide and verdant Grand Canyon. As we descended down into the gorge on the winding, now (thanks to the Japanese) partly paved road, we passed the circular, thatched-roof mud huts and the corn fields on the people who call the Abbay Gorge home. One home supported a satellite dish. We passed the people themselves, hauling grasses and herbs in large straw baskets on their backs, making the laborious climb uphill alongside their flocks of sheep and goats. We twisted and turned and snaked out way downward on the large public bus. The afternoon sun beat down mercilessly on the vehicle, which, windows closed against the dust billowing from the rolling tires, heated up quickly. Reaching the bottom, I had my first glimpse of the Nile, as well as the bridge that would carry me across it. There was a large construction project underway. KB’s supervisor informed us, “They are building a new bridge. This one is cracking.”

Our large public bus, with its 60 passengers and our 240 pounds of luggage, rattled its way safely across the bridge and began its ascent out of the gorge. If the way down was slow, the way up was excruciating. Once out, though, the bus made its way without incident. We finally made our long-sought stop in the town of Dejen, and an hour and a half later – six and a half hours after our departure from Addis – we were driving into Debremarkos. Tired, sweaty, and stiff, KB and I stepped off of the bus to greet our new home for the first time. Poor, exhausted Straw had yet another two hours to travel to Finote Selam.

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