by Zack Kushner
There’s nothing like a 30-hour bus ride for escaping what ails you.
Lost in the swirling dust, the sun scalding our scalps and our pursuers gaining, we go for broke. In order to escape Ethiopia, we resort to madness.
High above the Ethiopian city of Gondar, 17th century castles square their shoulders and face the sun. It is as if one of the exuberant potholes on our ride from Addis Ababa dropped us clean through to Portugal.
For months now, my wife and I have wandered on honeymoon through Africa. We are calloused to the travails of low-budget travel, but Ethiopia cuts through our thick skin. We know being a foreigner means inviting conversation. We also expect these conversations to turn to polite requests for gifts. Children on the street solicit pens. Young men insist you need a paid guide. In Ethiopia, however, everyone wants help. Even businessmen in suits tug your sleeve.
They want your help in leaving Ethiopia.
The need is suffocating. The appeals, more than I can accommodate, wear like sand on sunburn. Each request I deny chafes me until I feel too raw to bear another. As our weeks in Ethiopia stretch on, my wife and I grow wild-eyed. Our laughter takes on a tinge of insanity.
We came to Gondar to see the castles built for Emperor Fasilides. Gondar was the second largest city in the world once, twice the size of Istanbul. The town has since declined significantly. Now the streets are unpaved. The hotels promise little and deliver it.
In the Royal Enclosure, the milk tea-coloured castles shelter plaster walled rooms, cool as cellars. Helpful guards sneak us into hidden areas and smile shyly when we tip.
On the streets, we collect urchins like burs. They are all very sweetly demanding. One in particular, Gebeyanesh, tracks us from town to town. We tipped him in Bahar Dar and he will not forget it. When he spots us, he explodes in a head-shattering grin and starts to dance in the Ethiopian-style. We mimic his movements but end up looking sadly epileptic. With shoulders jerking and head quaking, his dance resembles a team of lithe jackhammers on a Stairmaster. We like him. Gebeyanesh almost makes being conned pleasant.
From Gondar, we press on to Aksum, home of the largest single piece of stone worked by man. The drive to Aksum takes fifteen hours by bus. Since Ethiopian law wisely forbids buses from driving after dark, the journey lasts two days. A car could make the trip in a day if we could find one. Desperate to escape our growing horde of adopted guides, we risk the bus.
This is a mistake.
At 4:45 in the morning, we trudge Gondar’s empty streets to the bus station. They said our bus left at 5:30 but at 5:15 the gates remain locked and apparently under siege. A crowd of locals wrapped in traditional white shawls pushes against the fence while a lone guard keeps them back with quick whacks of his lathe. To our surprise, he calls us forward and allows us in. Only us. It is surreal, like being elected mayor of a town you only stopped in for gas.
We wander through the fenced yard past sleeping buses. We count around fifty vehicles and that seems to be their age as well. A porter identifies our coach for us. We stand beside it with an Austrian man who curses quietly in German. He has not bought a ticket ahead of time and the porters say they have no seat for him today. Entitled, he declares they will find room. He is wrong.
At 5:30, one of the porters throws our luggage on top of the bus in exchange for a few birr, the local currency. He shows us to our seats on the empty bus. We sit there, confused and alone, for half an hour. Then they start the buses up, all of them, and we sit there choking on fumes, confused and alone, for another thirty minutes. At 6:30, the gates open to release a frothing torrent of bundle-laden, anxious Ethiopians.
A conductor controls the flood at the bus doors, strictly admitting passengers by ticket number. Each enters when called and takes the prescribed seat. When the bus is full the conductor make an announcement and everyone immediately stands up, embraces someone near them, and swaps seats. Some lean out the windows and sell their seats to those still waiting in the chilly dark. At 6:47, the engine noise and fumes combine in the correct proportion and density for us to attempt motion. All the buses try to fit out the gate at once.
The road to Aksum leads across rolling farmland, but our bus does not so much roll as judder. I feel as if my bones are playing seismograph. The message is clear: run for the hills.
Mid-morning, just past our breakfast stop in the crossroads of Debark, I see by my guidebook map that we are already half-way to Shire. If we get there early enough we might make it to Aksum tonight! Alas, I have not taken the Ethiopian Grand Canyon into account. It opens before us in a display of ochre and maroon spires and vales. The road traversing it is as straight as Will Ferrell.
With the speed of corporate reform, our bus trundles down switchbacks so sharp we need to perform three-point turns to navigate them. Every turn comfortingly dangles the back of the bus over the cliff. We descend the troughs and ascend the far side thinking that we have navigated across. Not so. The twists and turns continue all day, up and down, up and down, up and down. To comfort us the driver puts on some music.
Ethiopian music at the best of times sounds like Cyndi Lauper being throttled by a gang of howler monkeys. In this case, the effect is amplified by the cassettes, which have been sitting in the baking sun since 1974. They are played in a tape deck powered by positive thinking and, I believe, cow manure. The result almost makes us laugh. Almost. Even the Ethiopians clamour for quiet. On the bright side, the music does combine fruitfully with the mint-puke odour of expectorated qat and the constantly billowing dust to create a near-perfect maelstrom of comic despair.
In the late afternoon, we reach the river that cuts the canyon. A decrepit Italian-made bridge breaches the flat sandy course. The bridge is not the only evidence of the Italian occupation. Rusted remains of tanks by the roadside remind of how Ethiopia evicted Mussolini and his army in the only example of an African nation defeating a European one to date. The way my head swims from heat, dust, and dehydration, I wonder if the Italians were lucky.
On the opposite bank, soldiers stop us at a small village consisting of a dozen stick and straw huts plus a cement barracks. They check papers to ensure we haul no Eritrean miscreants or Sudanese refugees.
There is a ruckus. The fellow behind us does not have any identification. My wife, a grandmother up front, and I decline to get involved. The rest fervently weigh in, drawing air-diagrams indicating delays or meaningfully waving automatic weapons, depending on their point of view. The automatic weapons win. The soldiers lead the poor gentleman away and, perhaps, force him to listen to Ethiopian music as punishment. Eventually he is released and we press on.
Up, up, up we climb towards the setting sun. Around, around, around swims the choking dust. At last, after thirteen and a half hours of travel, we putter into Shire. The usual fight to retrieve luggage precedes the standard duel to avoid those who wish to lead us to hotels, taxis, restaurants, or our doom.
By the time we stumble up to our hotel, night has fallen. They have a room for us, but no working light bulbs. Also, they apologize; Shire lacks running water this week. I look at my wife. Somewhere over the course of the day, she has gone grey. Not just her hair, but her face, her clothes, and I expect inside her clothes as well. We are so full of dust we cannot breathe. I understand how the cremated must feel.
At dawn, I wake up suffocating, my nose corked with grime. My wife wakes minutes later to loud Ethiopian music. She complains before we realise that what we have mistaken for Ethiopian music is actually a chicken in distress. Under the circumstances, this has us rolling on the ground, cackling with half-mad laughter.
The last leg of the trip to Aksum involves physical altercation and attempted robbery. The same old same old, if you will. All told, we have traveled over thirty hours. One glimpse of Aksum and we know; it was not worth it.
To be polite, there are many nice things about Aksum. The people stop to say “welcome.” The traffic is minimal. The Africa Hotel has water, reasonable beds, and a quiet courtyard for retreat. On our first day, we wander over most of the town and then ritually purge all of our possessions of dust. In my many years, I have experienced only one thing more satisfying. That was when that same afternoon we purchased airline tickets from Aksum to anywhere else.
We survive the days until our flight out by slowly going bonkers. When the children approach us on the street, smiles wide, hands outstretched, we beat them to the punch. “Give me pen!” we holler. You can see the power of this tactic roll over their faces like a monster truck. First there is shock; “Pen? I don’t have a pen!” followed by confusion, “I was about to ask you!” and finally droll understanding; the foreigners are crazy. The kids jump around like a flea circus and we all play “find the pen.” The game holds limited appeal, but nobody has a pen so what can you do?
We tour the giant stellae for which Aksum is famous. Cut and erected in the 4th century, they are as exciting as big crudely carved rocks can be. We visit the royal tombs. Essentially, they are also big rocks. We point at the church that the Ethiopians claim holds the Ark of the Covenant, which in turn contains the original tablets of the Ten Commandments. We decline to see the Ark because absolutely no one is allowed to see it under any circumstances whatsoever. Then we have four days left to spend with our six guides, seventeen urchin-burrs, an obsequious tour agent, and a troupe of traditional musicians who stalk us to restaurants and threaten to begin playing whenever we drop our guard.
As in most of Ethiopia outside the capital, the culinary choices in Aksum are limited. You can get Ethiopian food, overcooked pasta in ketchup, Ethiopian food, and occasionally some sort of men’s casual shoe in a bun. I order the shoe.
If you have not tried Ethiopian food, you really should. Just make sure you don’t invite me along. The fare is comprised of a large, soft, slightly sour pancake called injera, made from a local grain called tef. Various curry-like dishes go on top of the injera: a spiced chicken leg, vegetable with sauce, grilled diced lamb. You break off a piece of the pancake/tablecloth and use it to grab bits of the toppings. The flavours are interesting and quite enjoyable in moderation, like say blue cheese or kumquat. It is when you are faced with eating Ethiopian food three times a day for a month that problems arise. How often could you eat blue cheese before you chose hunger as a reasonable alternative? Would you happily order shoe? I lasted two weeks before I started skipping meals and praying it would rain cans of tuna fish.
It was then, somewhere between missed meals and the ritual non-exchange of pens, that we found ourselves on a dusty plain, staring madness in the face.
We had set off towards the Queen of Sheba’s palace, called this despite the ruins having nothing whatsoever to do with Sheba. Children trail us leaving town. We walk a hundred meters and they magically self-propagate. One becomes three, three become six, and six become seventy-thousand. When we get halfway between nowhere and nowhere else, they make their move.
“Excuse me, good fellow,” their leader inquires, “would you find yourself at liberty to donate a pen to a worthy cause?” Or he may have said, “Give me pen!” I can’t recall.
Others join in. A harmony forms from their song, their voices rising in requesting chorus. It is a lilting interlude to the smothering heat and dust.
Then they cleverly spring their trap in full. Like all pen-addicted urchins in Ethiopia, they have secreted about their persons a supply of gewgaws attesting to the ancient Christian history of their country. With a practiced flourish, they whip open their bundles to reveal an astonishing number of faux-relics. The mood turns dangerous. We are surrounded in a sea of crosses, each wielded by a committed salesman. There is no escape from this trap. It is practiced, flawless, and deadly.
I feel like an East German, caught in a spotlight near Checkpoint Charlie. I try to smile but fail. Backing away slowly, I try a useless “No thanks.”
“Why not you buy cross?” they holler with their preternaturally advanced sales technique.
It is a deviously clever question. What can I do? There is nowhere to run. No hiding place for miles. I cannot take them by force nor afford to submit. Reason will fail and time is on their side. I have no choice. At last, I go completely crazy.
“I cannot buy a cross,” I explain, careful not to make any sudden movements, “because I am a vampire.”
A hush falls. A moment passes. To my amazement, the mob does not fall upon me with pitchforks and torches. Instead, they fall back a step, their chorus quiet and their bundles lowered.
The leader stands forth.
A vampire?” he repeats accusingly. I nod, adding a universal “so sorry, nothing I can do” combination shrug and hand gesture. He paces alongside me for another moment silent and processing.
“Vampire cross no good,” he reluctantly admits.
I watch doubt and tenacity compete on his young, eager face. He tries another tack, unwilling to concede defeat yet. “Where,” he demands, “you from?”
It is a tense moment. “Where you from?” is a magical gateway to endless sales technique. I cannot risk blowing my gambit with a slip now.
I reply as casually as possible.
“Venus?” he asks incredulously, pointing at the sky.
“Yes. I am vampire from Venus.”
“How you come Ethiopia?”
I mime using a ladder. Bless him, he laughs.
For a few minutes, there is no dust or desperation. He asks more questions and I make up increasingly dumb answers. We share an insane smile. And we escape Ethiopia, together, for a little bit.
Zack Kushner is a writer from Melbourne, Australia. This story won the Gold Award for Funny Travel in the Second Annual Solas Awards.
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