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.

The Liebster Award

liebster4

Thank you Chelsea from Adventures of an Expat for the nomination!!! I really enjoyed reading your blog, and I’m glad you enjoyed mine! I’m going to Turkey soon, so it was great to get some inspiration from your writing. I’m looking forward to hearing more about your adventures in Turkey!

This is a cute way to get to know other blogs and nurture online relationships with like-minded writers — sort of like a chain letter, but without the “if you don’t send this to five people in the next five minutes, all your hair will fall out” nonsense. Less superstition and more paying it forward/community building. Let’s do this.

Here’s the Liebster Award “rules”, should you choose to accept:

1. Thank the person who nominated you, and post a link to their blog on your blog.

2. Display the award on your blog — by including it in your post and/or displaying it using a “widget”.

3. Answer 11 questions about yourself, which will be provided to you by the person who nominated you.

4. Provide 11 random facts about yourself.

5. Nominate 5 blogs that you feel deserve the award, which have a less than 1000 followers.

6. Create a new list of questions for the blogger to answer.

7. List these rules in your post. (You can copy and paste from here.) Once you have written and published it, you then have to:

8. Inform the people/blogs that you nominated that they have been nominated for the Liebster award and provide a link for them to your post so that they can learn about it (they might not have ever heard of it!)

***

11 Random Facts About Me

1. I get the hiccups almost every day.

2. I’ve been to 18 countries so far.

3. I ate kangaroo tail once and it was just as horrible as it sounds.

4. I went through a Ouija board phase in High School. One time, whatever my friend and I were “talking to” gave us a phone number and the name, May. So we called the number and asked for May, and the lady on the other end of the phone said, “Hang on a sec, I’ll go get her.” Never played with a Ouija board again.

5. I’d like to try bee keeping.

6. My favorite TV shows are Orange is the New Black and It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia.

7. My cure for homesickness is watching The Gilmore Girls, because my mom and I used to watch the show together when it first came out.

8. One of my favorite parts of travel is long bus or train rides, especially if I’m alone. I love having all that time to myself. I do my best thinking looking out of the window of a moving vehicle.

9. I’m a minimalist — the only material things I really care about are books & plane tickets.

10. I have more anxiety over parking lots than I do about snakes or spiders. Snakes and spiders are predictable, but you never know what sort of driver you might accidentally bump into, or whose spot you might steal, in the parking lot — they could be sweet as pie, or they could be crazier than a shit-house rat. I’ll take my chances with snakes any day.

11. Vietnamese coffee is my one true love.

***

11 Questions from my Nominator:

1. What is your favorite place to be in the world?

On my way to somewhere I’ve never been before.

2. Who do you look up to and why?

Martha Gellhorn. She was a war journalist, novelist, traveler, and endured a brief marriage to Hemingway. I love her writing and her attitude. She was hilarious and intrepid, and had the courage to live her life exactly how she wanted to. One of my favorite quotes from her memoir, Travels with Myself and Another:“… we react alike to our tribulations; frayed and bitter at the time, proud afterward. Nothing is better for the self esteem than survival.”

3. Where is the next place you hope to travel to?

I’m hitting the road again in August! I’m going to Kyrgyzstan, Turkey, India and England.

4. What is your favorite food?

Malaysian Laksa & Vietnamese Pho.

5. What is your dream job?

I love the idea of having a small farm, with chickens and sheep and a great big garden.

6. Where do you feel at peace in the world?

In the outback in Australia, and in the mountains, especially the Rockies, but any mountains will do.

7. What is a book everyone should read at least once in their life?

Self, by Yann Martel (the author of Life of Pi), is my favorite book. I’ve read it a handful of times, and I always get something different out of it. It’s a fictional autobiography with a Kafka-style twist; on the narrator’s 18th birthday, he wakes up to find he’s changed genders and all of a sudden, she’s a woman. Really interesting look into identity and gender. And there’s lots of travel in it, too.

8.  How many siblings do you have and where do you fall within them (youngest, oldest, only…)?

I have one younger bio brother, and two step-sisters. I’m the second oldest.

9. Explain a time you were put out of your comfort zone and what you learned after.

I’m out of my comfort zone all the time when I travel; just the act of getting on a plane is eschewing my comfort zone. Because Chuck Thompson was right: Comfort is the enemy of creativity. Leaving my comfort zone behind — whether it’s spelunking a dodgy cave in Laos or swimming with alligators in Bolivia or herding uncooperative cattle in Australia — is where my best stories come from. And now, I get bored when I’m too comfortable for too long.

10. Are you religious and/or spiritual?

I’ve always been an interested party. I went to Christian bible camp one summer in junior high, I’ve spent time in Buddhist monasteries (one in Canada and one in Taiwan), and I took a handful of religion courses in University and studied everything from the Greek pantheon, to the Koran, to the 333 million Hindu gods. Religion is endlessly fascinating.

11. If you could go back to school, what would you study or if you are in school, what are you studying?

I got my undergrad degree in psychology and it was awesome. 10/10 would do it again. If I went back, I’d take English Literature and Anthropology. If I were better at science and math, I think I would have liked to be a doctor.

***

11 Questions for my Nominees:

1. What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever gotten?

2. What’s one of your best/favorite memories?

3. What’s one book everyone should read?

4. What’s your favorite country?

5. What’s the weirdest thing you’ve ever eaten?

6. What’s one thing you’re glad you did, but would never do again?

7. What’s the first thing you do when you arrive in a new place?

8. What’s the nicest thing a stranger has ever done for you?

9. If money wasn’t an object, and you could do anything at all, what would you do?

10. Who do you look up to and why?

11. What inspires you?

***

And the Nominees are…..

Bamboo Igloo

Rebe With a Clause

I’m not lost, I’m just exploring

Internationally in Debt

A Ducks Life

Into the Abyss. Again.

“It was my good fortune to be wrong; being mistaken is the essence of the traveler’s tale”

~ Paul Theroux, Riding the Iron Rooster

*
I returned to Darwin from the cattle station disaster feeling both deflated and grateful. I escaped the outback hag, but now I was broke and unemployed. And I was feeling a little sore about my itchy feet leading me astray.

It is commonly the backpacker experience to be treated horribly by our employers – we are taken advantage of, verbally abused, underpaid, etc. Get a group of backpackers together and before long they’ll be regaling and one-upping each other with their terrible tales of employment misadventures, most of them having to do with fruit picking. Fish stories for the young traveler. It seems to be just one of those things when backpacking around Australia, like bedbugs and over priced hostels. At this point, however, I was having a hard time seeing the humor in my situation, perhaps due in part to the fact that I had no one with whom to compare stories. I was alone in Darwin and wondering just what in the hell to do now.

Lucky for me, Darwin is one of the easiest places in Australia to find work. Even in November when the dry/tourist season was wrapping up and the build up to the wet/slow season was mounting. The humidity was off-the-charts disgusting, and there was no reprieve. It was just as sweltering during the night as at high noon. I thought of the instructor at a Bikram’s yoga class I took in Melbourne lecturing on how good it is to sweat; I was in good shape here, then.

It took me only a morning’s work on the internet to find a job – a live in nanny position on a twenty acre property with a pool in a suburb of Darwin. Their house was right next to the Crocodylus Wildlife Park and in the afternoons we could hear the lions roaring and carrying on. And thus began a period in my backpacking tenure that I like to call ‘being normal for a while’. It’s strange to live with a family that isn’t yours, but it’s also comforting, especially following a bad experience.

I stayed long enough to tire of domesticity. While there is a pleasant simplicity in spending afternoons watching The Bachelor and folding laundry while the baby sleeps, I am not ready for prolonged normality just yet.

**

I installed myself at the, erm, illustrious Frog’s Hollow hostel and went about organizing my next adventure. This particular hostel was the not one of the relatively clean, tourist oriented and package tour offering hostels on the main drag in Darwin, it was, rather, full of cockroaches and transient looking characters. The first night there I was savaged by some bug or other and it looked like I had the Black Plague for the next two weeks. They had a complimentary “continental” breakfast each morning, i.e. white bread and jam crawling with ants, and a sign on the door that read: Do not take more than your fair share of breakfast. When you go to Coles to get your alcohol there is also a food section. Use it.

One night, the hostel’s long term-ers invited me to have a few beers with them. We sat outside in plastic chairs, drinking warm Victoria Bitters (colloquially and affectionately known as “Vomit Bombs”). The center of attention was a bearded and dread locked drifter-looking sort with a great tan and deep laugh lines who followed the fruit harvest around Australia. He was in the middle of explaining that koalas are assholes when the passed out body on the concrete next to us shifted, writhed around and moaned. We all watched while, with considerable effort, he pulled his pants partly down, rolled to one side, relieved himself and passed out again. Dreadlocks covered him with a blanket and we moved the party to the backyard. The next day I decided to try out Couch Surfing for the first time.

Most of what I’ve heard has overwhelmingly been positive experiences with couch surfing. I did not have one of these. The guy I stayed with appeared to have confused the couch surfing website with e-harmony. The worst part was that his overtures were so clumsy and awkward, it was like being hit on by one of the guys from The Big Bang Theory. Needless to say my couch surfing experience was very short lived.

At this point, I finally had some luck with accommodation – and it was about time, too, I was becoming rather disillusioned. I found a bed and breakfast in which I would exchange a couple of hours work for a room. I had my very own room, with cable TV and en suite bathroom. It was heaven. One afternoon a couple of women were asking me questions about my travels and one of them said, as many people do, “wow, you’re brave to travel by yourself”. Her friend countered with, “no, you’ve got to be brave to travel with your friends”. It’s funny, sometimes, the timing of certain conversations. I had been thinking a lot about traveling alone. It’s my preference, by a long mile, even though I get frustrated by the occasional limitations of being a girl traveling alone. Since leaving the farm in Esperance, I’ve felt as though I’ve really gotten into the meat of solo traveling. I’ve been broke and lived on instant noodles, been flush and able to afford the good beer, I’ve gotten myself in and out of all kinds of situations, and I’ve survived. As Martha Gellhorn says, “nothing is better for the self-esteem than survival”. I had a few days of delicious solitude at the bed and breakfast, in which to reflect and recharge before cracking on with it again, and I felt somewhat like I’d been sucked into a cyclone and spat out, all disheveled and disoriented but elated, too.

***

“And if you gaze for long into the abyss, the abyss gazes also into you”
– Nietzsche

And just like that, I’m in the outback again. The strange and inexplicable pull of all this beautiful empty space has really gotten its hooks into me. This time, I’m around 300 km from Alice Springs working at an everything store in a remote aboriginal community. And loving it. Eventually I got it right.

Merry Christmas from the Outback!