3am and I'm up, wide awake. My phone disappeared yesterday. Probably down the side of the one taxi not belonging to Vaseline, so not easily traceable. (Vaseline, incidentally IS traceable. He appears at random moments in various areas of the city and despite being incredibly boring and having absolutely no sense of direction has managed to invest in a smart yellow and green saloon as oppose to a battered blue Lada, he even proudly displays a sign reading 'taxi' on his roof. The light on it doesn't work but small steps and all that...)
Having no phone means no reliable alarm clock, I don't trust the one attached to my laptop. I've already had to cancel one of my nights in Bahir Dar owing to full coaches and don't really want another night at the Iteague Tatty.
I'm worried though. Well, more mildly apprehensive.
My bus time says 04:30am (or 10:30 sometime in 2009 if you go by the weirdo Ethiopian 12 hour, 13 month Julian clock thing) The buses don't actually leave at 04:30, they don't even roar into view until about 5 but they expect you to be standing on Meskel Square with your baggage ready to go at that time.
Vaseline has arranged to pick me up at....04:30.
It's a short 15 minute (maybe a bit less this early) hop across town to Meskel Square. It's the focal point of the entire city. Even Vaseline can't miss it.
Or can he?
I hand my keys to a man dressed in a blanket (Ethiopians seem to potter around in blankets throughout the early hours, they look quite cosy)
There's a taxi outside, it's a battered Blue Lada. A tout approaches me.
I explain I'm waiting for Vaseline.
"But what if he not come?"
Yes, that's a real possibility. You’ve met him haven’t you?
Feeling a touch of guilt aimed at poor Vaseline, I launch into negotiations with the tout (the driver looks on, I'm not entirely sure why they do this. I think the tout must get a small commission, bit pointless since the driver is standing there and I know my numbers in Amharic)
I offer the tout 100 birr (about £3.90) I know the driver won't accept this but it's still quite a lot!
The driver feigns disgust. At this time of night and with the driver knowing I have a bus to catch I'm realistically not going to get below about 200.
I offer 150. The driver butts in, making the purpose of the tout entirely pointless and asks if I am crazy.
The driver waves his arms in air and shrieks hysterically. Am I trying to bankrupt him? Me this rich American (??!) and him this poor famine stricken Ethiopian with 15 mothers and a herd of goats to feed?!
While he's busy shrieking, a yellow and green saloon homes into view and I hop in.
It's not Vaseline.
I realise once the door is shut and I quickly negotiate 150, we take off leaving a furious Lada driver with his arms in the air. As we turn onto General Wingate Street and head towards Downtown, another modern looking saloon turns the corner, its driver looking quite cheerful despite the early hour.
I meet his eye.
Meskel Square is muddy and dark. Various blanket clad figures lurk in the shadows, a few men wheel carts of tissues, water bottles and those strange stick things Ethiopians use to freshen their breath. A few bajajis rumble into the clearing dodging coaches. They aren’t allowed within the urban bits of Addis so presumably someone has had a long torturous ride in from the suburbs.
The coach turns up on time and we begin the long pre departure rituals, of which I still have no idea why or what the purpose is!
Everyone walks around the bus in a procession, blankets flapping in the breeze, before queuing (Ethiopians can beat the Brits in the art of patiently queuing, unusual for Africa!) with their bags. Each person in turn tells the driver where they are going (Bahir Dar, there is only one destination for this bus) the driver then slowly writes out a tag which he sticks on the bag, before leisurely deciding where to put it. Luggage stored, the passenger then plods around to the other side of the bus and joins the queue outside the door.
Reaching the front of the queue, the passenger hands the driver’s mate/random hanger on their ticket and tells him their destination (Bahir Dar, there is only one destination for this bus) the driver/random hanger on then carefully examines the ticket (which clearly states the destination…Bahir Dar surprisingly)
The passenger finally then boards.
Seating is pre allocated (the owners of Selam Bus aren’t that unwise…)
The passenger takes his/her seat and introduces themselves to the person next to them.
The driver/random hanger on then wanders up and down with a clipboard, has an argument with a passenger who somehow managed to board despite wanting to go to Dire Dawa.
Dire Dawa passenger naturally has baggage stored in the hold.
Everyone disembarks with their little yellow luggage tags and a search is begun to find his belongings. Bags fly everywhere and someone takes the opportunity to wander off for a relaxed pee on one of the Coffee Pot statues.
Meanwhile, across the Square, a coach clearly marked ‘Dire Dawa’ in both English and Amharic squiggles is revving its engine, ready to start the long trek east towards the Somali border.
Dire Dawa passenger is starting to panic.
Finally his bag is located and he tears off towards the departing bus, almost getting run over by a stray bajaj.
Before we can re-embark the luggage has to be boarded again.
We set up a new queue for the next batch of yellow tags.
Finally, we get our tags and troop around to the other side, where the driver/driver’s hanger on asks our destination. (Bahir Dar, there is only one destination for this bus)
I’m half, perversely tempted to say “Mekelle” or “Axum” simply to see the reaction but I bite my tongue.
The driver checks our tickets. Someone left theirs on the bus when they got off to play ‘Find the muppet’s luggage’
We wait patiently while the driver boards, locking the doors in search of the lost ticket.
He returns, struggling to open the door, he’s locked himself inside his own bus.
He kicks the door open.
“Which seat were you?”
The passenger tells him.
The driver climbs back on, locking the door again.
A few minutes later he reappears holding a green Selam stump.
It’s already been torn and a line through it!
The passenger reminds him that’s because he (the driver) tore it 45 minutes ago.
The driver accepts this and we all re-board.
Across the square, the Dire Dawa bus is taking a hiatus, its luggage strewn all over the mud as a queue forms to store our former passenger’s bag.
On board, our engine starts. An Orthodox priest climbs on just before the doors close and begins the blessing/collecting coins ritual, chanting in Ge’ez as he makes his way up the aisle.
The driver screams at him and we watch through the pre-dawn gloom as an offended Ethiopian vicar stamps towards the Dire Dawa bus, money bag clanking.
It’s a torturous journey, 11 hours on African mountain roads. Ibrahim next to me is thoroughly enjoying the sitcoms being blasted out on the overhead TV, cackling hysterically. Ibrahim speaks fluent English as do a surprising number of young men here. Old people and women of all ages seem not to for some reason.
Ibrahim instructs me to open the window for fresh air. The instant I do, some little hands appear followed by “Yooou! Yooou! Yoou! Money Money!”
Ibrahim slaps them away. “It’s all they know. Idiots”
We pass some tribal people with huge sticks and exotic looking scars making their way across the road to some beehive huts.
A pensioner says something to Ibrahim quite sternly and he closes the window, apologising.
Rural old folk in Ethiopia believe that viruses/bacteria travel through the air and if you open a bus window they will float in.
Hence why we suffered for nearly 12 hours, to avoid the AIDS and Ebola that was lurking just outside waiting to grab us.
Probably wise we did close the window.
Imagine the queuing if the Cholera had managed to board.