While taking public transport might be a huge hassle when traveling--you have to pay closer attention to your stuff, it can take longer and you might not have a comfortable place to stand or sit--it does offer one a glimpse into the idiosyncrasies of a particular society. When I travel I often choose to take public transport not only because it saves me money but more importantly because of the things that can be learned about a place just from traveling amongst the locals.
This week I had the opportunity to travel on public transport between Bahir Dar and Gonder. Interesting doesn't even begin to describe the adventure I had aboard the mini bus. The distance between Bahir Dar and Gonder is 200 kilometers and takes roughly 3 hours by mini bus. By private car the trip would cost you 1000-1200 birr ($60-80) and would take around 2 hours. For me, the bus ride, costing 80 birr ($4), was the perfect price for someone traveling on a tight budget--at least that is what I thought at 10 am when I boarded the bus bound to Gonder.
By 11:30 am my cost saving mentality was slowly waning as the 12 passenger van, that had already needed one minor repair, continuously circled Bahir Dar in search of more passengers. You see 4 people are not enough for a mini bus to go. In fact, 10 in a 12 passenger van is still not enough. A "full" bus consists of 20 people and so we drove around Bahir Dar calling out of the window for 16 other riders.
1 hour and 45 minutes after I jumped into the van we finally started to pull out of the city of Bahir Dar and I was thankful to finally get on the road until the girl sitting next to me pulled out a small plastic bag and leaned her face into it. Great, I thought, this is going to be one hell of a ride.
So here I sat, one of 4 farajis or "foreigners", crammed against the window with my bags on my lap next to a girl holding a black plastic bag full of her own vomit as we sped down the winding country roads of Ethiopia. As we drove past people and through small villages the "first mate" called to people out the widow "Bahir Dar! Bahir Dar!" A mere wave of the hand and the bus whips to the side of the road. People move in and out. Seats are shuffled. Money is exchanged. Sometimes bags of grain, lettuce and onions are piled aboard. Shepard's with their staffs are accommodated as are those with live chickens.
Zigzagging around cows, cars, and carts we were finally making headway towards our final destination. Ethiopian music was carrying us through the countryside as we all settled into our seats. And that's when I saw a slender hand reach into the backpack in front of her and pull out a plastic bag. No more then a split second later her head was inside the bag and vomit was oozing out of small holes in the bottom and onto my lap. "Jesus Christ," I yelled as I jumped from my seat trying to save my lap and my belongings from the biohazard that was ensuing. "Pull over! Pull over!" Oh, right they do not speak English and so in a moment of desperation I swatted the first mate and gestured to the girl, the pile of vomit that had now collected on my seat, and the side of the road. Words spattered out of his lips and soon enough the girl was out of the van and puking over the cliff.
After recollecting ourselves and cleaning up the vomit (oh, wet wipes do I thank you!) we were back on the road but this time a little more tense. The bus smelled, the sick women still looked rough and I sat on a seat soaked in vomit with still 1 hour to go. The future some how did not look all that bright as 20 of us sat in complete silence when Celine Dion's "My Heart Will Go On" came on the radio. I'm not a super religious person but at that moment, as we rounded one mountain bend and the green hills of Ethiopia opened up and Celine Dion sang, I believed some God existed. All of us reconnected as we quietly sang along and I knew at that point the rest of the journey to Gonder was going to be alright--even with a flat tire in our future.