The Journey to Bahir Dar, Ethiopia

Bahir Dar Ethiopia by Overland Truck

By Dana Hearn

Roadside warrior, en route. photo: Dana Hearn.
Roadside warrior, en route. photo: Dana Hearn.

My journey to Bahir Dar, a small town crouched on the edge of Lake Tana, several hundred kilometers north of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, begins with a 4 A.M. wake-up knock on my hotel door.

Longing for an hour or two more to recover from last night’s rounds of Meta Beer and high-pitched music, I groggily wash and stuff my backpack.

Adana, a local guide, meets me outside and we catch a taxi to the central bus station. We join crowds of travelers waiting at the station gates and are sucked inside as the metal bars swing open and the chaos of ticket buying commences.

The scene is a blur of shouting and pushing bodies crating sacks and baskets and jugs and babies-all understanding the signs and systems surrounding us, as I stand unknowing and uncomprehending.

Biking through
Ethiopia’s Heartland

Though the only bus to Bahir Dar is full, Adana helps me to bribe my way onto another sold-out bus headed in the same direction, securing a promise from the driver that he will drop me off in Bahir Dar as we pass through.

My means of transport settled, I stand shivering in the cold morning air, wishing for the warming rays of sunrise. As morning light nudges night sky aside, those around me start in surprising curiosity as they become aware of this faranje being in their midst-and a lone, female faranje at that.

Although I sense no ill will, the weight of my status as the station spectacle grows heavier with each passing moment and I long for a reprieve from the stares and nudges marking my presence.

Bus Loading

At some point, the focus and direction of the chaos and noise shifts from ticket buying to bus loading, and men begin heaving travelers’ crates and bundles onto bus tops, securing the piles with plastic and rope. Finally, some two hours after the station gates opened, black smoke pours from exhaust pipes as drivers rev their engines in preparation for departure.

Following the lead of those around me, I squeeze into a rather nebulous, unstructured queue pushing toward the bus door. A few scuffles and much shouting and pushing later, we are somehow all scrunched onto seats, the floor, or someone else’s lap. Relieved that I have managed to find a place at all, I am oblivious to just how long and for just how bumpy a ride I will travel with my limbs contorted into their initial positions.

Upon reaching the city limits, we pause briefly to allow passengers to stock up on sweets that eager children hand through bus windows and doors. Continuing on our way, we pass through poorer and poorer “shanty towns” ringing Addis-all flimsy shacks and open sewage and mounds of rubbish. Increasingly destitute hovels crouch in sullen testament to the capacity of human beings to adapt to indescribable conditions.

Rambling into the Countryside

With the passing miles, we gradually leave these urban fringes behind and ramble into the countryside. As the land becomes hillier, small clumps of thatched huts emerge from behind each bend. Tiny farms, men and boys plowing the earth, women and girls bundles of firewood-with the land being worked and life being lived as it has been for centuries, Addis seems not only miles but years away.

The road we follow is the only one in sight, and its unpaved surface makes for a rough and slow trek northward. Initially stretching along a plateau, it then descends into the Blue River Gorge, traverses a small bridge, and climbs up the gorge’s other side. With the passing of each small church, passengers cross themselves and murmur words of religious devotion.

Just prior to the approach of a particularly holy site, coins are passed to the front of the bus, where they are collected in a blue plastic bag to be dropped into the upturned, faded umbrella held by a priest gathering tithes by the roadside.

With the passing miles and changing landscape come gradual variations in dwelling and dress and physical characteristics. Round thatched huts with stick walls rather than the sticks and mud of before stand aside yellow haystacks with rocks resting atop. Dark, solid-color pleated dresses replace multicolored skirts, and all women and girls to be seen are now with closely-shaven heads or black, turban-like head coverings.

Morning Chills

As morning chills give way to the sweltering heat of midday, bodies we pass grow darker and limbs thinner, seeming to blacken and shrink with the sun’s ascent.

Filtering the people around me through my Western gaze, the presence of tremendous burden seems inescapable here. Both in Addis and on this journey northward, I have been surrounded by men, women, and children carrying loads that appear much heavier than their physical frames can bear-women and girls trekking for miles on foot with babies, water jugs, and bundles of firewood strapped to their backs; men and boys shepherding cattle and donkeys and goats even as their own bones curve under the weight of awkward plastic and burlap bundles.

The market in Addis Abbaba. photo: Dana Hearn
The market in Addis Abbaba. photo: Dana Hearn

And yet the bearers of these burdens-whether those whose young frames are far more limber than my own or those whose aged bodies are bent and molded by lifetimes of weighted journeys-move as if in state of disconnect from struggle and resistance.

Rougher Roads

Our journey winds through late afternoon, and, in seeming impossibility, the road grows yet rougher and the bus yet hotter.

We pause only briefly-just long enough to allow a tiny old woman to scramble her way toward the front door, one hand covering her mouth in an effort to hold back vomit, the other grasping a small plastic bag in the hope of catching any that escapes through her bony fingers.

The woman is helped out the door and onto the ground, where she crouches in the dirt as a girl pours water over her head from an old, yellow oil jug. A mere minute or two later, both have re-boarded and our journey resumed.

About ten hours after our departure, I sight the sign for Debre Marcos ahead. According to both Adana and my guidebook, this small town is the stopover point on the two-day bus trip to Bahir Dar, so a rush of relief floods my cramped, dust-covered body.

We continue past small concrete shops and continue still as they grow sparser in number. Some minutes outside the edge of town, I wonder that the Debre Marcos bus station could be so far from its center and foresee us all making the trek on foot back toward the small collection of hotels to stay the night.

Keep Going

With expectant naivete, I am still pondering this until we are some thirty minutes out of town. Only then, as we keep going and going and going, do I allow the reality of our yet onward trek settle over my sore, exhausted body.

Since no one around me speaks English, I have no idea whether our actual stopping point is just around the next bend or any number of miles and hours away. Not realizing that bottled water would be unavailable in the small towns outside of Addis, I had seriously misjudged the amount that I should have brought along.

Warned against drinking the local water outside of the capital, I had spent the later hours of the afternoon trying to hydrate myself on soda and tea-the only alternatives to beer and coffee.

Physical Discomfort

As the sky begins to darken, my awareness of physical discomfort due to contorted limbs and suffocating dust is thus gradually edged aside by more serious concern over the dehydration headache creeping across my temples.

On and on we travel through the dust and darkness-though Adana had assured me that no one travels this road after dark. Through my window, I can make out the shadowy outlines of young children standing along the roadside and holding up glass bottles of areki (locally distilled grain spirits) in the hope that passers-by will pull over long enough to purchase a shot or two. With the road so rough the ride so perilous even when the sun is shining and drivers sober, I hope that no vehicle headed in the opposite direction has slowed long enough for a drink.

A very long and dark three hours past Debre Marcos, we at last pull into a tiny town. Only later to discover that this stopover point is Fut as-Salam, I have no idea where we are upon arrival. Unlike the other towns we have passed through, only Amharic signs can be found-not a trace of English lettering in sight.

Scanning the Street

Other passengers shuffle off in different directions, and I scan the street for anyone who might know enough English to tell me where I am, where I can find bottled water, and where I should stay the night. I sight two travelers who appear to be students and figure that they are my best bet. With much, much relief, I discover that they speak English (or at least enough).

A meal and a conversation later, I have learned that the two are brothers journeying to a third brother’s wedding. The elder is a university graduate who actually spent a few months studying physical therapy in Texas before returning to serve in the Ethiopian military. Our conversation eases from introductions to culture to politics, until the hour grows late and my companions’ attention shifts to the African Cup football match blaring from a nearby television.

My own thoughts come to rest on tomorrow’s 5 A.M. departure, so I take a dollar-a-night room next to that of the two brothers. Wrapping myself in blankets and relieved resignation, I drift off to sleep.

Re-Boarding the Bus

Rested if still sore, I rise before daybreak and make my way to the center of town for re-boarding. The knowledge that my northward journey will come to an end by mid-day eases my concern at finding no bottled water to carry along and buffets my spirits against the jarring ride.

As the sun rises in the sky and the miles pass, dry plains dotted with flat-topped trees ease into stretches of lush greenery, palms, and yellow flowers and then back to dry plains again. The promise of a mid-day arrival holds true, and the bus drops me in Bahir Dar around noon. My feet touching ground in the largest town I have seen in two long days, I pity those whose limbs will remain bent and cramped for at least six more hours when the bus will reach its final destination.

Bahir Dar…crouching on the edge of Lake Tana, its streets are lined with palm trees and traveled upon by bicycle-riding locals. Traipsing aimlessly about the town, I am drawn in by the clamor and color of Saturday’s market and soon find myself bargaining for vibrant woven scarves and agelgils, the round, leather containers that locals use to carry injera and wat from place to place.

Later, as I head toward my hotel, I am overtaken by a gaggle of schoolgirls-all in blue and white uniform and full of giggles and smiles. Their shyness quickly yielding to eager curiosity, my pockets are soon stuffed with small scraps of paper-each bearing a carefully written name and address; each pressed into my palm by a dream-stricken soul seeking out a farenje “pen friend.

Returning to Addis

Under the still-gray early morning sky, I negotiate space on the 5 A.M. bus back to Addis Ababa and grab a seat with a talkative seventh-grade boy. Eager to practice his English and curious about other lands, he fills the narrow space between us with questions about plane travel and pop culture and schooling. Reaching his home and final destination only an hour or so into our journey, he leaves me alone to tread in a sea of melodic yet meaningless Amharic.

I soon come to miss the comfort of his presence, for as the bus breaks down for the second time of the day and our driver decides to drop us in a small town without continuing onward, I seek out English explanations and find them lacking.

On the road to Bahir Dar. photo: Dana Hearn
On the road to Bahir Dar. photo: Dana Hearn

By some favor of fate, I discover Sophie–or rather, she discovers me. Although she knows scarcely any English, she learned Arabic during years spent as a domestic servant in Saudi Arabia, and my own Arabic proves sufficient to render communication possible.

I grasp her voice close, willing it to keep me afloat in this sea of words I do not understand and expanses of a world I do not know. A Muslim woman traveling home to Addis after a visit with family, Sophie is poorer and more conservative than most Ethiopians I have connected with thus far.

A thin veil covers her hair, framing a round face lit up by a wide, gap-toothed smile.

Any hint of hesitant distance suggested by her conservative dress is broached effortlessly by her warm, unrefined manner, and I soon realize that chance has graced me with far more than a common language. A genuinely kind-hearted spirit, Sophie exudes an instinct to protect and an eagerness to share what little she has.

She pulls me in by hand and heart, making sure that we both squeeze onto the next bus passing through the town where, mere minutes prior, I was certain I would be stranded.

After hours of what has become a familiar experience on a hot, crowded bus, we stop in Fut as-Salam for the night. Sweating and filthy and with no place to wash, I feel rather unsure of what to do with myself.

Sophie helps me find a dollar-a-night room next to her own, and we collapse on her bed with another lost traveler who she has taken under her arm-a stick-thin girl named Zaynab.

The harshness of Zaynab’s life is reflected in her gaze and echoed in her tentative steps, but she has a beautiful if cautious-smile, and I sense unexpected strength hidden within her seemingly fragile frame. Sore from the ride and suffocating in the heat, the two of us would seem a daunting audience, but Sophie’s cheer proves undauntable.

She feeds us from a small mound of barley piled upon the bedspread and douses us with cheap, horribly pungent perfume. Making us laugh and smile simply by laughing and smiling herself, she radiates pure, unconditional joy. Sprawled out on Sophie’s bed, I feel that much is right and wonderful in the world.

Coffee Ceremony

Later, when the harsh sun has receded, we venture into the small courtyard outside our rooms. With nimble movements of narrow fingers, Zaynab prepares a coffee ceremony on the dirt floor. The warm blackness of night envelops us, and the glow of a full moon caresses our skin with distant tenderness.

Moving swiftly, silently through motions that her hands have traced a thousand times, Zaynab scatters the pale, raw beans on a metal pan placed atop smoldering coals. She lights incense and sets it before us, its scent mingling with that of the roasting beans and soothing our bodies and minds.

Once the beans have darkened to a rich brown, Zaynab grinds them by hand and stone, her fingers moving effortlessly, almost imperceptibly, between this task and others-heating water in a ceramic coffee pot; arranging six small cups on a tray; dispensing sugar from a cone of a wrapped newspaper. Her movements suggest no more thought or concentration than breathing or smiling or waking by sun rays after a restful slumber.

My fingers are soon warmed by a steaming cup to be followed by two others-three cups should be offered and accepted for good luck. Between swallows from her own cup, Sophie passes around a jar of unrefined honey for us to spoon into our mouths and savor as it melts, thick and sweet, upon our tongues.

Zaynab, for all the beauty of her coffee roasting, does not take a cup for herself. With cheerful disbelief, Sophie tells me that Zaynab prepares the ceremony daily for the family that employs and houses her yet does not like coffee and never drinks it. So she sits, cupless, fanning the aroma of the beans toward us that it might fill our lungs and bless our souls.

A few drops of rain touch upon our skin as we sit together under the moonlight, and I lose myself in the sounds of Sophie and Zaynab’s voices. The spirit, if not the meaning, of their words, embraces and soothes and comforts.

As my thoughts drift to tomorrow’s return to Addis, I wish only that this journey in Bahir Dar would not yet end.

Dana Hearn writes from Washington DC.

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