How does the saying go? Out of the frying pan and into the fire? Well, by the time our departure from Ethiopia was drawing near, we were starting to burn. As a result, and despite its poor reputation in the west, Sudan became a promised land for us, full of nice, helpful people who didn’t try to rob you at any opportunity. ‘It will be better in Sudan’ ‘it won’t be like this in Sudan’ ‘the people will be nicer in Sudan’ ‘they can’t be any worse’ was our usual refrain.
Don’t get me wrong, our time in Ethiopia started very positively, we met so many nice, generous and welcoming people. But as we gradually worked our way north, and then round in a loop to Lalibela and back to Gonder, the sights became more interesting on an inverse scale to the decency of the people we encountered.
And we cracked. Big time. Here’s the how and why.
It was common for people to try to charge us more for everyday things, like a bottle of water or a roll of toilet paper, all over the north. But the real issues began once our driver dropped us in Mekele after our tour of Tigrai. It was late in the day and we boarded what was probably the last minibus heading south to Alamata that day. As almost the first passengers we found some seats with a little leg room and waited for the bus to fill. Unfortunately, that didn’t seem to agree with everyone in the bus station, and as more passengers arrived there was much arguing, shouting and pulling of potential passengers this way and that. Some were forcefully loaded onto another minibus, but eventually they were all transfered to ours. Finally full, we were expecting to leave when everyone suddenly got out and ran to the other minibus, a smaller bus, and once we had removed our bags from the roof of the first, no space for us. ‘You’ll have to wait for the next one’. Well, after waiting for almost an hour for the first one this just wouldn’t do. We played them at their own game, shouting, pushing, I even softly punched the conductor, until they moved two passengers and gave us their seats. It’s dog eat dog in Ethiopia and we weren’t just going to get eaten.
The next day it got worse. From Alamata we headed to Woldia where, at the bus station, no one would tell us where the next bus to Lalibela or Gashena (en route to Lalibela) was, and just kept trying to get us into empty minibuses for a private fare. In the end we had to get someone from the local tourism office to help us. After finding the minibus to Gashena the conductor tried to charge us double. Again lots of shouting and swearing and forcing them to give us a receipt (all pre-written) before we got the correct price.
In Gashena things got worse still. The price for white people on the bus to Lailbela? Five times the price for locals. After so much hassle on the previous buses (it’s difficult to explain how much shouting and arguing we had to do to get a fair price) we were already pretty over Ethiopia. But this really was the icing on the cake. And nobody helps, a bus full of people, everyone understands we’re being robbed, but nobody helps. After prying the receipt out of the hand of the man next to me, and finding the real price there inscribed, we had something to go on. The conductor wouldn’t budge, said he would remove our bags from the roof if we didn’t pay, I demanded to be taken to the police, he left and I followed. But just before I did I gave Ethiopia, or more precisely our fellow passengers, who were all too happy to watch us be robbed, a piece of my mind. While they sat there with their religious headscarves and their crosses round their necks I gave them a quick lecture on common decency and Christian values, and thanked them for their help (sarcasm) before singling out the priest in the front row for particular ire. ‘And you’re a priest and you just sit there and watch while people get robbed right in front of your face, what kind of priest is that?’ etc, etc. It seems to me that for most Ethiopians, Christianity is a big show. They wear their crosses and headscarves and go to church but it seems to have no bearing on their everyday life whatsoever. It is a religion I have developed a deep lack of respect for. Even priests pester for money in the churches.
Anyway, when we finally reached the ‘police station’ (I’m dubious) the price dropped to double the local price and when the ‘police man’ (when I asked to see his badge he showed me two weird pieces of plastic stuck together) laughed as I explained the situation, and the bus conductor continued to remove our bags from the roof, we grudgingly agreed to pay. After a final lecture on Christianity for the passengers, from Guilherme this time, we were on our way along the very hot, very bumby and very dusty road to Lalibela.
Lalibela is hailed as the jewel in Ethiopias tourism crown. Eleven subterranean churches chiseled out of the bedrock in the 11th century, with countless rock hewn outhouses and cubby holes, all linked by rock cut passages and winding tunnels. While the churches were undoubtedly impressive we couldn’t help but be a little underwhelmed, especially after the distinctly less touristy rock hewn churches of Tigrai. Nevertheless we were happy to tick off Ethiopias main sight and after a day exploring we set off for the bus station to buy our tickets for the following day.
After nearly three weeks of hassle by almost every street vendor and child we came across, since leaving Tigray we had given up all attempts at being nice. Shouting ‘NOWHERE’ in the face of a child who asked me where I was going probably wasn’t my finest hour, and after the churches we decided to try to be a bit nicer for out final two nights in the country.
So on our walk to the bus station we ended up with a child each, showing us the shortcuts and trying to sell us handmade wooden crosses. And that’s when it happened. After crossing a road, and waving back to some particularly cute kids as I went, I heard an almighty crash. When I turned round there was a small girl lying in the road and an autorickshaw in the ditch. As I ran back some women picked up the limp child, Guilherme had some cuts and a torn t-shirt, from the autorickshaw as it swerved and tipped over, but was basically okay. I tried to get the women to put the girl down so I could assess her (she was at least unconscious but I fear it was much worse) but instead they ran away with her before running back, the child dangling by the arms, and shoving her in the back of another autorickshaw bound for the hospital. The driver and passengers appeared not too badly injured and were taken to hospital once the ambulance arrived. Guilherme saw the whole thing. The girl was running to him when the autorickshaw hit her. It’s common in Ethiopia, lots of tourists give out pens or sweets and the first thing we heard from most of the kids was ‘give me pen’. So maybe she wanted a pen, or a sweet, or maybe she just wanted to touch Guilhermes hand (also common). We’ll never know. The whole thing was so sudden and over so quickly it was difficult to process. We don’t know if the girl lived or died. Guilherme got his cuts bandaged at a local private clinic.
As if we weren’t already, we were now desperate to get out of this god forsaken land. An all day bus to Gonder the next day, followed the day after by a few minibuses from there to the border and (after the customary hassle, attempted overcharging (for the first time a fellow passenger actually helped us) the refusal of the first minibus to go to its agreed destination, arguing for some money back and then repeating the argument for the correct price of the next) we were finally out of Ethiopia.
Ethiopia had given us some of our best experiences of the whole journey but also the very worst. We met the most generous people and also the most obnoxious. It is a poor country developing fast. A land of contrasts. And a challenging place for independent travel. We managed it but at times our conduct wasn’t the best. Maybe it was travel fatigue after so long on the move. Maybe it was the longer amount of time we devoted to Ethiopia. But writing this from Sudan, with a bit more perspective, I still feel like it was the people of Northern Ethiopia. And maybe they act the way they do because the place is so poor, but in the rest of Africa we never experienced such aggression, such hassle and such deceitful, immoral people as we did in Northern Ethiopia. In a way we became like them in an effort to survive. Ethiopia destroyed us. And as I told anyone who asked in our final few days, I was glad to leave. I will never be back.
Time on public transport: 24hrs
Distance travelled: approx. 801km
Countries visited: 1
Time on public transport: 14days10hrs
Distance travelled: approx. 15,474km
Countries visited: 11