Bumping Along

Travel is pretty funny here.  Or frustrating.  Or ridiculous. Or scary.  Depending on all sorts of variables.  As Peace Corps volunteers we are forbidden from driving our own vehicles or riding in private cars with strangers.  We can’t spend much money – since we don’t make any – finding more comfortable alternatives.  This leaves public transportation.  Upon arrival in country we were given a report from the State Department’s Overseas Security Advisory Council which said that “public transportation is unregulated and unsafe; if travelers do use public transport, they should use taxis, not minibuses or large buses, and ensure they are the only passengers in the vehicle.”  Haha!  Thanks for that advice; next time I’ll be sure to ensure that I’m the only passenger on a 25 seat bus.  I guess this epitomizes how Peace Corps is different from other government organizations.  Peace Corps has decided that our modest budget and community integration (I mean street smarts) justify the use of public transportation.  The following are a few anecdotes and accounts of travel in Ethiopia.

Looking out the window on a dusty ride in Ethiopia.

Looking out the window on a dusty ride in Ethiopia.

‘Riding’ the Bus

I arrived at Abi Adi’s bus station a few minutes before 6 AM to find the Mekele bound bus nearly full.  I got on the bus and took the only seat left; back row bench seat, center.  As you may have read on this blog, the road between Mekele and Abi Adi is all messed up as they pave the 90 km stretch.  Anyone who has ridden on a school bus knows the fun of sitting in the back of the bus.  The bus acts like a lever as the chassis revolves around the fulcrum of the rear axle causing anyone in the rear to get tossed in the air from any and all bumps in the road.  So I wasn’t too excited about the only seat available.  I took it anyway and the first half of the ride was actually pretty tolerable.  When we started the big descent from the highland town of Hagar Salam things got wild.  I found myself bumping around until I realized how to ride the bus.  I put my feet on the cross bar of the seat in front of me and basically stood up to absorb the shocks and bumps.  It’s similar to posting when riding a horse; you are anticipating the movement of the animal in order to minimize wasted motion and discomfort.  We were moving as one.  Except this this time the horse was an Isuzu bus in Ethiopia.

An Isuzu medium size bus waits for us at a pit stop.  These are the work horses of Ethiopian ground transportation, along with Toyota Hiace minibuses.

An Isuzu medium size bus waits for us at a pit stop. These are the work horses of Ethiopian ground transportation, along with Toyota Hiace minibuses.

The Bus Station

“Long before the hummingbirds of Africa announce the break of day, and well after sunset is marked by the crane’s swift flight past the terra cotta line of the horizon, the bus terminal is alive with furtive gestures and desperate schemes.” Nega Mezlekia – Notes from the Hyena’s Belly: An Ethiopian Boyhood.

Abi Adi has a pretty decent bus station.  This town isn’t popular enough to cause major transportation shortages or to have to deal with a lot of people passing through a connection hub.  Usually buses wait for passengers and then leave when full.  It’s a pretty clear and straight forward system of first come first serve.  Of course there are exceptions to the norm like when everyone wants to travel for a holiday.  I went to the bus station with my friend Hagos one morning to ride to a nearby town.  Coincidentally there was a local holiday happening so there were not enough vehicles running on the route.   As soon as a bus arrived, people would make a mad dash for seats pushing aside elders, children, and friends.  Complete chaos.  It’s a pretty terrible situation to be in.  If the station master is feeling confident enough, he may make a list of names, but enforcement is optional.   I wrote in my journal, “after 2 hours of fighting, bus re-loading, and cut-throat mobs we left the wretched bus station.”  On the ride to the next town I taught my friend Hagos a bit of slang: Clusterf*ck.  I think that word really captures what can happen at the bus station.  We still joke about it 6 months later.

Maychow’s bus station seen from above illuminated by early morning light

Maychow’s bus station seen from above illuminated by early morning light

Too Fast or Too Slow

My bus climbed up the hill away from Mekele towards the highland town of Hagar Salam while I watched the scenery go by.  I noticed a few birds riding the wind coming down from the plateau.  They were going the same direction as us and were keeping the same speed as us despite being only wind powered.  They weren’t even flapping their wings.  These birds stayed with us as we crept up the hill all the way to the top.

Of course, the flip side to this is going too fast.  Usually speed is limited by gravity, weak engines, and bad road conditions, but drivers will push the limits of their machines whenever possible.  Luckily I have yet to feel really endangered as a passenger, but other PCVs have some pretty scary stories.  Like this one which was in our safety and security handbook distributed during Pre-Service Training: “I was riding through the highlands on a winding bus through the mountains. We were about 6 km from our destination when I noticed the driver frantically spinning the wheel while the bus continued forward, toward a cliff. He slammed on the break and attempted to fix the problem. My solution was to walk the rest of the way.”

I see the evidence of crashes on almost every bus trip.  The most dramatic I’ve seen was near the highland town of Hagar Salam.  As the road descends, there is a sharp turn.  If you don’t make the turn you will hit what looks like a ski jump and go flying.  Last time I passed this turn there were the remnants of two big trucks which both lost control and couldn’t turn in time.  One was a Sino dump truck with the cab completely destroyed from the nose dive.  The other was some sort of tanker truck.  The tank separated from the rest of the truck and settled 50 meters away.  The truck’s chassis crumpled into a pretzel of twisted metal and has been left there for at least two months.  Maybe it’s a reminder to others to slow down and check their breaks before descending.  According to my friend, who is a dump truck driver himself, at least one of these wrecks was fatal with 3 people killed.

This white tanker truck didn’t make the turn and went flying over the hill.  This was a fatal accident with 3 people killed.

This white tanker truck didn’t make the turn and went flying over the hill. This was a fatal accident with 3 people killed.

Close the Window!

There is a nasty rumor circulating among many bus riders in Ethiopia: wind from outside the bus will cause you to get tuberculosis.  While it’s true that TB is transmitted via airborne droplets, the real threat is from other people in close vicinity, not the open window.  Therefore bus rides often consist of subtle battles with your neighbors to keep windows open.  I’ll open the window, then someone behind me will shut it.  I’ll let it be for a minute or two then open it up a bit.  Then they’ll close it again.  On and on.

Some Ethiopians want the window open as well.  During one ride from Hawasa to Addis Ababa, the window in front of me was opened all the way by my neighbor.  As the bus picked up speed and the wind increased, people around demanded that he shut the window.  When the guy finally agreed, he found the window was stuck all the way open.  I was pretty happy with this “broken” window.  It took the bus boy and a few passengers all their strength to close the window.

I wonder what misguided public health message caused this erroneous tuberculosis rumor to circulate.  My colleague at the health center had me help him print out a bunch of posters for international TB day.  We had pictures of buses and windows with the slogan “Open the Window to Prevent TB!!” printed below.  Outside of the office, I’m working on correcting this piece of misinformation every bus ride I take; “This wind is good for your health!”

A man struggles to close the window

A man struggles to close the window


Transportation is regulated by a few roadside traffic police.  They wait in random places out in the middle of nowhere.  When a bus passes, it must stop to be inspected to ensure that it’s not overloaded with people or that the passengers didn’t overpay the government set ticket price.  I am thankful for these cops.  They keep the prices honest and keep passenger overloading to a minimum.

Despite the regulation, both overcharging and overloading still exist.  Some buses will stop before the police checkpoint and will kick all the extra passengers off.  These passengers will then run around the checkpoint and get back on the bus…or the driver will just pick up different riders.  The drivers always know where the cops are because of hand signals from other drivers going the opposite direction.  It’s like how in America some drivers flash their brights at oncoming cars to warn them of speed traps.  The last traffic cop I saw get on our bus told the driver not to drink and drive.  He wasn’t, but it’s still a good message.  In a country plagued by unsafe travel conditions we’ll take what we can get, so thank you Traffic Police.

A traffic cop questions the passengers about ticket price

A traffic cop questions the passengers about ticket price

The Numbers

So what about the statistics…?  Like most public health numbers in Ethiopia, these ones should be viewed with skepticism as well.  However they are pretty startling.  More people die in traffic accidents in America than in Ethiopia.  A lot more, according to a WHO 2009 report.  USA: 42,000 Ethiopia: 2,500.  But the population of Ethiopia is only 80M versus America’s 300M.  Plus almost everyone in America drives and/or owns a car.  There are 250,000,000 registered vehicles in the States and only 240,000 in Ethiopia.  Plus the general population uses them less frequently in Ethiopia.  If you compare deaths per 100,000 vehicles then Ethiopia looks pretty bad.  About 1,030 deaths for every 100,000 vehicles.  There are just 16 deaths for every 100,000 vehicles in the United States.  In fact Ethiopia nears the top of this list among all countries in the world.  So although people don’t ride in vehicles as much here, the risk is much higher.  I guess the real number would be deaths per vehicle kilometer driven…but good luck collecting those statistics in any country.

Most (91%) of the world’s fatalities on the roads occur in low-income and middle-income countries, which have only 48% of the world’s registered vehicles.  2009 WHO Report

This Isuzu medium truck was destroyed by a head on collision with a big Sino dump truck.

This Isuzu medium truck was destroyed by a head on collision with a big Sino dump truck.

This Isuzu medium truck was destroyed by a head on collision with a big Sino dump truck.

This Isuzu medium truck was destroyed by a head on collision with a big Sino dump truck.

Wave to the Kids

I’m not sure how common this is in the rest of Ethiopia, but it seems like the bus has a bit of mystique to the countryside kids.  It’s common to see them wave and/or chase the bus for a while.  I wonder if it’s similar to the excitement that I used to have for passing airplanes or trains when I was a kid.  In this part of Ethiopia, I never see planes overhead and there are no rail lines.  Therefore the next most exciting form of transportation is a bus.  For a lot of rural Ethiopian kids, taking the bus is not a very common experience so seeing a big vehicle passing by probably conjures a bit of excitement and wonder.  I don’t know…  Regardless, I wave back.

Wave to the kids!

Wave to the kids!

Cats and Roosters

I was listening to my ipod on a minibus ride from Maychow when I heard a cat dying.  That’s what it sounded like to me anyway.  All the passengers looked around in confusion to find the source of the noise.  We never found the cat.  Maybe it was in a bag or was hiding in the undercarriage.  Or maybe it wasn’t a cat at all but someone’s ringtone?

I usually find myself in the company a few chickens during bus rides.  People will bring roosters on the bus with them and put them by their feet for the duration of the ride.  Crowing roosters have woken me up from mid-trip naps more than once.  Those poor disoriented chickens…

Puke Bags

Motion sickness is really common here.  It’s so common that all buses keep a stash of plastic bags just in case.  Once used, these bags get tossed out the window or left under the seat.  Once I had to pull a few bags of vomit off of a bus before sitting down.  But more commonly they will get tossed out of the bus during the trip.  Curvy sections of road are littered with exploded puke bags on the asphalt.  The situation is made worse by closed windows, overcrowded buses, and passengers facing backwards.  It’s pretty gross seeing exploded puke bags on the road, but is better than this story:

“No sooner had our bus started to roll out of town than some of the passengers began to moan, and show signs of distress.  These newcomers to the bus were peasants from deep in the mountain who had seldom had an opportunity to ride any form of vehicle. A family of three, two rows behind me, were the most pitiable.  When they first boarded the bus, their six-year-old boy was all smile, full of anticipation for their grand adventure to Asebe Teferi.  As the vehicle rolled out of town, he leaped up, counting out trees as they passed us, before weakly staring into the distance as his head began to spin.  He collapsed almost immediately.  His mother picked him up and laid his head in her lap, before doubling up over him.  She pressed her shaking hands to her ears, to block out the rumbling sound of the engine.  Minutes later, the boy’s father leaped up, struggling to open the window.  Before he could figure out the mechanism, he had thrown up on the glass.  The conductor cursed up and down the aisle, and made the man clean up his mess before he would open the window for him.  Before returning to his seat at the front of the bus, the conductor lit a stick of ood that smelt like a sickly mixture of wildflowers and manure, and handed it to the man.”  Nega Mezlekia – Notes from the Hyena’s Belly: An Ethiopian Boyhood.

Fly Over It All

You know you’ve been riding too many buses when you refer to the airport as the plane station.  Whatever you call it, flying in Ethiopia is awesome.  Ethiopian Airlines operates a fleet of modern and comfortable planes serving domestic and all sorts of international routes.  The flights are safe, clean, and fast.  It took me about 3 days to get from Mekele to Addis Ababa by bus.  It’s a 50 minute flight.  They serve snacks like the legendary vegetarian-meat sandwich and the green-jelly-speck muffin.  Some of the most comfortable seats in Ethiopia are onboard of Ethiopian Airlines jets and I’m always happy to get the chance to fly.  But then I think about all the ‘fun’ stories I would be missing if I just flew everywhere.  I’m sure there will be more stories in the future as I explore Ethiopia from the back seat of a bus.

A Bombardier Q400 turbo prop waits to take me back to Mekele from Addis Ababa.  A brand new Boeing 787-8 Dreamliner sits in the distance.  Ethiopian Airlines was one of the first carriers in the world to fly the new Dreamliner and now operates 5 of them.

A Bombardier Q400 turbo prop waits to take me back to Mekele from Addis Ababa. A brand new Boeing 787-8 Dreamliner sits in the distance. Ethiopian Airlines was one of the first carriers in the world to fly the new Dreamliner and now operates 5 of them.


About copelaf

photographer, writer, engineer, eater, traveler, and - occasionally - a thinker.
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8 Responses to Bumping Along

  1. Elizabeth D says:

    Great post Forrest! In my upcoming visit to Malawi, I was thrilled to find out that the friend I’m visiting has a car which means no public transport there. woot woot! But in Kenya, we’ll be public transporting it. Also, are you all not allowed to hitch? Not sure what the environment’s like there for hitching, but in Malawi, I always hitched between the big cities. Of course, it’s much better when hitching with friends.

    • copelaf says:

      Hey Elizabeth. We are not supposed to ride with strangers…so hitch hiking is technically not allowed. But it happens. haha. Passing cars usually dont have room anyway since they are so few and far between. Enjoy the rides in Malawi in your friend’s car!

      • Elizabeth D says:

        I’m actually not even sure it was allowed in Malawi, but it wasn’t a hard and fast rule like the bike helmet rule. Love reading about your experience, keep up the awesome posts!

  2. Dawn Whipp says:

    Forrest, great post! You are such a good writer, in addition to having a great eye with your camera. Yes, on our bus ride from Mekele to Abi Adi, the driver kept stopping in various little towns for unknown reasons. We’d just stop, and he’d get out. Once, he got back in with a 2-liter bottle full of something very scary looking…like thing honey full of black hunks of Who Knows What. And then he proceeded to drink almost the entire bottle before we arrived in Abi Adi. I was absolutely certain that we were going to join that vehicular carnage. Some of the turns on those high roads were pretty scary. I kept wondering if I was going to have to grab the wheel to keep us on the road as we were veering all over the place. Yea, what a trip. I was happy for the private car for our return trip!

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