An explosion of shouts and calls sound off as a group of young men run in sandals over the uneven earth and encircle us. Robe? Awassa? Adaba? Ferengi, Ferengi! Before we can answer they begin to argue amongst themselves. One tall, skinny man around our age puts his hand over the face of a colleague to physically silence him. Jostein and I are in Shashemene, ~3 hours out of Addis, on our way to Bale (Bah-lay) Mountains located another ~3 hours from here. The men continue to clamor for our business as we slowly walk towards the rows of vehicles, dotted with different colors and shapes. Many are decorated with western brands and painted with Amharic words which dance with the eccentric alphabet. We’re the bull let into the ring of bus-broker-matador’s swinging their flags. Whose color will catch our eye? The tall skinny man runs away for a moment as we contemplate a competitor’s offering. He darts back, cutting into the circle with his hands behind his back. He completes a deep and graceful bow. His arm brings forward a bunch of kaht, a leafy green plant that when chewed rigorously gives a subtle stimulation and complete loss of sensation in the mouth and lips. We decline his offer but can’t help but laugh at his ear to ear grin and general cartoon semantics. After settling on a mini-bus that will take us to Bale for $5 each, we head to the restroom.
Now, it should be clear that bathrooms in bus stops in developing countries need a complete overhaul of Western expectations. If you thought that the rest-stop toilets outside of Denver were bad, or London public bathrooms were vile, come to one of the poorest countries in the world and use a bus stop public toilet made for locals. It’s a row of holes in the clay ground. Has it ever been cleaned? How would one even go about doing so? I won’t go into descriptions of the scents or sights that accompany such heavenly locales, but it’s a humbling experience for any intestinally sensitive person. It can’t be helped; bathroom life in a developing country as Jostein put it oh so well ‘is like talking about the weather’. Back at the mini-bus, we take our choice of least uncomfortable seats. An hour passes as the team of salesmen wrangle people to get on the bus. They argue over prices, seating, and just about anything else. Young boys, old women, and many in between come by and try to sell tissues, coke, and other homemade stomach bombs. As soon as they see a westerner, it’s hard to deter them. We’re entertainment if nothing else. Looking up, the sun is overhead now and the park seems very far away.
It should also be clarified about what a ‘mini-bus’ really is. It’s a damn van. A Toyota van, and not a particularly large one at that. Everything in the cabin has been taken out and replaced with rows of seats, five in total. It’s 7am, and we are crossing the road to get into our first mini-bus of the day. ChuChu (our taxi driver) told us ‘you Russian now, or Bulgarian, we like them’. This advice comes in-case we get questioned or hassled on our travels today. We are immediately put on the back of a mini-bus headed where we are headed. As every seat was full, I assumed it was time to go. But then someone else in crammed in the front aisle. Then another in the aisle behind that. There are 15 of us now. Two more are put in the seats directly in front of us. Some yelling and pointing and one person moves to the row Jostein and I are in, making 4. Bear in mind I’m not a small guy and Jostein is significantly taller than me. The van starts to move, 19 of us now. The ‘bus broker’ now hops on with his small wooden stool they all carry. He yells at the driver, his arm attached to our 21st passenger, struggling to keep up with the van. We are now a clown car, and I can’t imagine the pain the suspension these things must go through over the years. It must be similar to that which my legs will be sustaining in the next three hours. The realization of the awkward angle my hips and legs are fall flat. There is nothing I can do or will be able to but simply sit.
After settling in, I notice there is a man staring at me. Children stare because they are curious, don’t know social rhetoric, and can get away with it. Right now, this man is a child. His head turned at a 90 degree angle, his gaze is locked to me. He is wearing a red and black scarf which covers his head and most of his face. His sclera (white part of the eye) has a yellow-brown tint, and his iris scans my face. Not a word spoken or gesture from the man-child. Stone-cold staring. Minutes go by. He turns forward. Minutes go by, he turns back. And so this goes for some time. I’m not sure what he was so curious about, or if he had a problem with me being there but it was too early to put much thought into it. Whether this classifies as a hostile encounter I can’t say, but if so, it is the first on the trip.
Public transportation in a place you’ve never been can be very insightful into the lives of the locals. In central Europe I encountered clean and efficient systems that reflect the nature of those who built and use them. In Costa Rica everyone rode old school buses that were colored and decorated. They stopped every ½ mile or so to pick someone up on the side of the road, whether the trip was 20 miles or 200. Besides always being the cheapest option, public transport can get you in the shoes of the people. The thing is, while it may be uncomfortable and at times aggravating, you get to wear your comfortable shoes again. Try some out and you may find you look at our own pair a little differently.