Gondar to Axum: The 2nd Worst Bus Journey

The bus trip from Gondar to Axum was the kind of horror journey Martha Gellhorn would have appreciated.

We were up at 4:30 in the morning to get to the bus station for 5:30. Our bus route would take us North from Gondar to Shire and Shire to Axum. Axum, way up in the north of the Tigray region, was the first capital of Ethiopia. The ruins of the Queen of Sheba’s castle is there and the Ark of Covenant is allegedly hidden away in a small chapel (1).

The bus station, shrouded in darkness, was a cacophony of shuffling feet and disembodied shouting. We were directed towards a green and beige local bus with seats designed for children. It looked like it may have been one of the first school buses ever to exist. Aggressive luggage porters tugged at our bags and extracted a tidy fee to throw the bags up on to the top of the bus. We sat in the too-small, uncomfortable seats for close to an hour while the bus filled up; buses in Ethiopia don’t leave until they are full. The air was stale and smelled of khat. The man in front of us had several ropes of garlic and kept spitting on the floor. I spotted a young man bringing a live chicken on board, carrying it upside down by its feet, and more than one person had a rifle on them. Another man a few rows ahead was turned around in his seat and staring at us with wide unblinking eyes.

It was going to be a long day.

“We’re not heroic like the great travellers but all the same we amateurs are a pretty tough breed. No matter how horrendous the last journey we never give up hope for the next one, God knows why.”

– Martha Gellhorn, Travels with Myself and Another

Finally, the bus was full enough and we got moving. The overflow passengers sat on buckets in the aisle. The sun rose up over the mountains as we drove away from Gondar. A man a couple rows back hummed, loudly and atonally like a wannabe Bob Dylan, the same tune for the first two hours of the journey. When the driver put the stereo on, he only got louder. The same CD played on a loop for the 10 hours it took to get from Gondar to Shire. The bus drove slowly through the mountains, carefully navigating past the usual farm animals and around switchbacks and potholes and fallen rocks. It was a beautiful road, even though the scenery was somewhat marred by the carcasses of other buses rolled over on their sides, windows blown out, in ravines beside the highway. It was dusty, hot and uncomfortable. It was impossible to sleep – the seats didn’t come up far enough to be able to rest our heads on. We didn’t stop for a break for hours; we avoided drinking any water for as long as we could and nibbled on cookies. A child soiled herself and her parents deftly cleaned her up with a scarf and dropped the mess out of the window.

The landscape began to change as we approached the Tigray region. The chiselled escarpments of the Simien range subsided into swaths of arid flatlands dotted with dusty red sandstone and limestone mountains. Camels appeared, loping along the highway and across parched fields.

We went through a military check-point when we crossed the official threshold into Tigray. Soldiers climbed on top of the bus and rifled through the luggage. Male passengers had to deboard and go into a small building to get their IDs checked. The old people, children, women and farenjis were allowed to stay on the bus. I took the opportunity to go for a swift bathroom break. There were four other farenjis on the bus; I made eye contact with the Dutch couple as they wordlessly followed me out to the side of the road. The scorching heat pressed down on us. Trash collected in the shallow ditch beside the road. Their faces mirrored my state of mind: faraway looks in their eyes, mouths set in a grim line.

As we got closer to Shire, we drove by the Mai Aini refugee camp, one of the largest refugee camps in the country that houses thousands of Eritreans. Despite the recent peace brokered between Ethiopia and Eritrea, Eritreans are in limbo and their safety, should they return to their country, is far from certain; the draconian political climate of ” repression, indefinite conscription and economic hardship”(2) remains the same. Along the flat desert highway lies evenly spaced rows of uniform buildings, with corrugated metal roofs and rocks placed on top. I could only see a handful of people. It was a glaring departure from the usual cheek by jowl, colourful and bustling Ethiopian houses.

In Shire, we were gratefully released from the bus and deposited into a dusty bus station with more shouting and corralling towards a minibus to Axum; another two hours of driving. After all that, it wasn’t even the worst bus trip we took in Ethiopia – that honour goes to the horror journey between Mekelle and Lalibela at Genna; a story for another day.

My first impression of Axum was of inviting, wide cobblestone streets lined with palm trees and sidewalk cafes. As the minibus pulled over, there was a woman standing on some concrete steps and screaming. The man she was screaming at tore off down the street. A group of men chased him, caught him and frog-marched him on the sidewalk towards wherever they were taking him. It was New Year’s Eve. We went for dinner and straight to bed.

 

 

 

 

Sources

(1) https://www.smithsonianmag.com/travel/keepers-of-the-lost-ark-179998820/

(2) https://africanarguments.org/2019/01/15/ethiopia-border-open-why-eritrea-sudan-fleeing/ and https://www.newsdeeply.com/refugees/community/2018/08/16/fear-dampens-hope-among-eritrean-refugees-in-ethiopia

 

 

 

Hostel Crimes

Martha Gellhorn said, in Travels with Myself and Another, that the root of any horror journey is boredom. I’ve had my share of horror journeys, and I can say with authority that the most execrable part of being stranded in the outback after a car crash is the hours of walking to get home. But at least then I was in forward motion. The only thing worse than a horror journey is going nowhere.

And so it was, in a hostel in Perth during a searing Australian summer, that I was going nowhere, and horribly.

I was waiting on a job, and my strict budget only permitted ramen noodles, three dollar wine and the occasional kebab. There was a group of us in the hostel who were waiting on work, or for something interesting to happen: myself, two German girls, our good friend Roy, a trio of Welsh kids on their gap year and a smattering of interchangeable backpackers that drifted in and out. Welcome to Western Australia: Wait around, because we’re a world away.

We congregated day after stifling day in the back section of the hostel: two and a half walls and three long, lumpy couches surrounding a dirty table. Some days, we were too lethargic to speak. We sat in familiar silence, sweating and staring absently, like cats. Other days, the conversation got weird.

“So that farmer I worked for, he had a litter of puppies,” said M., “well, his dog had the litter. Anyway, he said the puppies were useless and stupid, so he was going to drown them.”

“Jesus,” I said, “that’s like killing a baby because he can’t hold his head up on his own.”

“Yeah, right, like what a stupid baby, can’t even feed himself.” said A.

A newcomer we’d neglected to include in the conversation, a wiry Irishman with tattoos screaming from his biceps, said, “I’d kill a baby.”

The girls and I looked at each other with bulging eyes. M. clapped a hand over her mouth. The Irishman went on to say that if the baby was from the enemy side — he was fresh from a tour in Afghanistan — he’d have no trouble killing it. What he couldn’t abide was how the Australians shot kangaroos like vermin.

“Anyway,” said M., “who wants to go to the bottle shop?”

*

It might have been the next day or three weeks later; who can tell when all the days are the same and so fantastically boring that my memory rejected them, like an incomplete job application. At any rate, it was another day, and I was buried in a book when I heard an expletive floating out of the kitchen. That was nothing new, so I read on. Soon the kitchen sounded like it had been invaded by a mob of squawking and profane crows. I put down my book and went to see what the kerfuffle was about.

Someone had, over the course of one night, drunk five gallons of milk. Milk pilfered from the plethora of cartons in the communal fridges. Whoever it was had drunk all of the milk. The hostel was collectively outraged. It was one thing to nick a dollop of milk or butter or a slice of bread here and there. There is a kind of backpacker karma: one day you mooch, the next you give. But to drink five gallons of milk that is not yours? Unconscionable. And anyway, how is that even physically possible? He must have had accomplices. Or been tremendously high.

The surveillance cameras were consulted, but the milk bandit had remained in the blind spot and was unrecognizable. It appeared, however, that he had worked alone: only one shadow was visible on the cameras. Smart enough to avoid detection, and capable of drinking obscene amounts of milk… what kind of monster were we dealing with?

*

Over the course of the next few days, items continued to disappear. A whole loaf of bread. A Swiss army knife. One shoe. People started locking their things away and regarded each other warily, like circling coyotes. In the months I had been there, this was the first time we’d had trouble with theft from within the hostel. A chilly, Soviet-style pall fell over us. Everyone was ready to turn in their friends on a soupçon of suspicion. Only the trio of Welsh kids, usually chatty, fell silent whenever the milk bandit came up, which was all the time. The corridors were full of whispers: Did you see anything last night? I think somebody went through my bag. Where the fuck is my shoe? Who is this jerk?

Tension hung in the air like clothes on a line that morning. Roy stalked into the back room, his face dark and murderous, and announced, “I’m missing one hundred dollars.”

A collective gasp; more swearing; surly mutterings about punching the thief right in his larcenous face. Roy turned around and went back upstairs, to the dorms, leaving the rest of us to speculate and seethe.

*

Meanwhile, Roy had a plan. He was going to catch the bastard red-handed.

Whenever a person stays in a hostel for a prolonged period of time, he or she will snag a bottom bunk and drape that bunk in bed sheets; the pretense of privacy. This is just what Roy had done. When he sat within his makeshift tent, he had a clear line of sight to the cupboard at the foot of the bunk, but no one could see him. And thus, he sat and he waited. Like a lion in the grass.

Before long, a lanky figure came into the room and sidled up to Roy’s cupboard. Roy couldn’t see his face, and since many in the hostel were tall and awkward and pasty, it could have been anyone. The thief opened the cupboard, slowly and carefully, put his hand inside and withdrew a cigarette from Roy’s pack. Roy didn’t budge; a borrowed cigarette is the white lie of hostel crimes.

Ten minutes later, the figure returned. He went straight for the cupboard, more confident now, and used Roy’s deodorant. Roy shuddered. Still, not a large enough offence, so Roy remained quiet, holding his breath until the bandit with no boundaries left again.

Another ten or fifteen minutes passed, and the bandit crept into the room for a third time. Roy was sure he’d get him now. The thief once again went into Roy’s cupboard, pulled out a 5 dollar bill and slipped it into his pocket. Roy stepped out from behind the sheets and clapped the thief on the arm. “Busted.” he said, “now, give my money back.”

*

Roy returned to the back room wearing his aviator sunglasses, and he dropped down beside me on the couch with a smile. He told me that the owner of the hostel was kicking the milk bandit out as we spoke. “So, who was it?” I asked. Roy slid his sunglasses down his nose an inch and nodded his head toward the opposite couch. There were only two Welsh kids now.

 

 

* some details have been changed and names omitted, except for Roy, because he is a legend.

Notes on Trekking: The Hate Spasm

About five years ago, I was traveling through Argentina with Yuval, and we made a week long stop in Bariloche, the threshold of Patagonian Argentina. It looks like a postcard — bucolic streets and charming restaurants, glistening cobalt lake, fringed with snow capped mountains — and it’s besieged by tourists. Bariloche is a mecca for all sorts of hiking and biking and other such outdoorsy pursuits, and so the droves of tourists are largely of the granola eating, trek pole toting, fit and weathered sort. I’ve never seen so many outdoor stores in one place before or since. Nor so many chocolate shops. The streets are swimming in chocolaterias. Remember that episode of The Simpsons where Homer daydreams about a land of chocolate? It’s just like that.

While I was content to hover around the chocolate fountains and spend evenings eating steak and drinking Malbec, Yuval was itching to join the outdoorsy people in the mountains.

We agreed on a short and “easy” two day hike.

However, by “easy” Yuval had meant “we’re going to climb the leviathan of mountains”.

The hike to the base camp was quite nice; the trees cut the wind and it was just cool enough for comfort. We walked along the river, through expanses of bamboo-like trees that looked really out of place but are actually native to the region, called colihue in the indigenous language, Mapuche. The area is called Parque Llao Llao, named for the orange spongy spores that look like golf balls and were everywhere. A fungus infects the trees which react by swelling up and creating a tumor on the branch. The tumor produces fruit, the orange sponges, called llao llao or “Indian bread”. The llao llao can be eaten raw, but the Mapuche typically add it to their homemade alcoholic drink, chicha.

When we arrived at the base camp, which was already dotted with a few tents and hikers settling in for the night, I thought that we were finished and I was congratulating myself on a job well done. But — to my boundless delight — it was just the beginning of the ascent to the top of the mountain, upon which was the whole point of this excursion: Lago Negro (the black lake).

We trudged steadily upward for a preposterous amount of time. The summit was a mirage; it remained stubbornly at arm’s length for hours. Lactic acid seared holes in my muscles, I stumbled over the rocks that littered the path, and practiced my cursing in Spanish. I had approached my breaking point. Now above the tree line, the wind howled ferociously and tried its best to throw us off the mountain. A crust of effervescent snow flanked the mountain side. A waterfall spouted from an adjacent peak like water poured from a teapot.

So much hate.
So much hate.

And then. And then: Yuval asked a woman making the descent how much longer we had to go. She said thirty minutes. I could have cried. Yuval patted me on the shoulder and made a lighthearted comment about the snow and I had a vision of chucking a snowball at his head. A parasitic fungus of hatred bloomed within me, necrotizing my thoughts. I hated the snow. I hated the other hikers and their stupid poles. I hated Yuval. I hated my backpack that was cutting grooves into my shoulders. I hated my shoes. I hated the people who made my shoes. And I bloody hated this godforsaken mountain.

“We can always turn around and go back to camp,” offered Yuval, helpfully.

“No!” I spat back at him, “We can’t come all this way and not make it to the top.”

He rolled his eyes and murmured something about me being insufferably stubborn. I wallowed in my sour mood, rolling around in it like a dog in a fetid puddle. And I decided that I wouldn’t let this loathsome mountain make me cry; I would reach the top.

And reach it I did. Lago Negro was tiny, dark and wind tossed, a puddle in the mountain’s navel. The wind was vicious and cold; it was like sitting in a wind tunnel filled with broken glass. We ate huddled beside some tortured looking trees, and I stretched out my screaming muscles. And then we went back down the mountain to make camp, with me in a much better mood. That night, the wind roared all around the tent, and it was like falling asleep inside a waterfall.

~~~

It wasn’t until a couple of weeks ago that I learned, from a friend of mine who runs marathons, that the hate spasm I experienced is perfectly normal, and to be expected whenever doing some sort of prolonged physical activity. This is wonderful news. With my six day trek in Kyrgyzstan fast approaching, I’ve been thinking back to the Lago Negro debacle and wondering whether I’m jumping in over my head. And while I almost certainly am jumping in over my head, now that I know to anticipate the hate spasm, it won’t be so appalling or discouraging. And I know that it will pass.

 

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