Escape from Lailabela

Ah Bahir Dar. Bahir Dar is a beautiful town on the banks of Lake Tana – source of the Blue Nile. After an extremely dirty, hot, dusty journey you find yourself in this oasis, complete with palm lined streets and flowers.

But getting there was something of a challenge.

Arranged to leave Lalibela via a private vehicle – a little more expensive then the bus, but the journey would take only 1 day rather then 2 and I wouldn’t have to leave before the crack of dawn.

Woke up the morning of my departure, greeted the family goat and took a cold shower in the hut – built of large twigs — in the middle of the hotel compound. By this point, the fact that I was showering for all the guests and family living around the place no longer really mattered. Departure was planned for 9:30A. At around 8:30 my friends came running from the town center — apparently the driver I was traveling to Bahir Dar with wanted to leave early. Fortunately, I was already packed, so we trekked up the smallish hill to the town center (and I use that term very loosely).

Wound up waiting until 9:30A for the guy to reappear. Finally a caravan of Land Cruisers arrived and 1 pick-up truck so stacked with luggage it was very close to toppling over. I was ordered into the pickup truck which had a very comfy backseat and lots of additional luggage upon which to recline. My send-off was tremendous — around 30 children waving and shouting “Good-bye Jennifer!”

So we headed to the airport to drop off the tour group, and proceed on our way to Bahir Dar.

After driving down the hill towards the airport (about 4 minutes), we stop. All flights had been cancelled due to the big African Leaders convention in Addis (no planes). The rep from Ethiopian Airlines was stopping everyone before even entering the airport. So the drivers all confer with the group leader, and it’s decided that they would just all drive to Gondor.

I’m still in the luggage truck. This message is conveyed, to which my response was:

“No problem, I’ll go to Gondor.”

Unfortunately, this was not possible. Apparently I couldn’t ride with the luggage. This made me very angry. I really needed to get OUT of Lalibela, and would now have to wait for the bus the next morning.

So I refused to get out of the truck. This didn’t last long since it appeared that the driver was quite prepared to drag me out. Found myself deposited on the side of the road with my bag, hurling profanity at the man who promised me a ride, and appealing to the very comfortably seated group of Canadian Lutherans in their Land Cruisers (the tour group). They all ignored me.

Given my obvious state of annoyance, the Ethiopian Airlines guy gave me a ride back to town. The one spot of hilarity, was listening to the Japanese tour that was behind the Canadians, try to get some sort of information out of the Ethiopian Airlines dude regarding when the flight would actually leave. Went something like:

Japanese business man, completely decked out in serious tourist garb: “You must give us a guarantee of when the plane will leave. We have a very tight schedule.”

Ethiopian Airlines Rep: “There is no plane.”

Repeat the above several times.

Anyway, I cruised back into town about 15 minutes after leaving. All the children are still there. Delighted that I get to spend another night in Lalibela.

This was absolutely NOT going to happen. Finally it was discovered that there was a smallish truck loaded with boxes and people heading towards Woldyia, and they would drop me at Gashen — which is the T-junction for the road to Lalibela and Gondor. So for a mere 40 Birr (highway robbery), I was allowed to smash into the cab with 4 other people and the driver. I refused to pay until I got to my destination.

Ethiopian roads are generally quite hazardous due to all the obstacles that must be avoided. The worst of which are livestock and people. After much observation, I’ve pretty much determined that the donkey is the most sucidal of the animals encountered on the roadway. They constantly attempt to throw themselves in front of any and every moving vehicle. Can’t really blame the poor things, they have a life of carrying heavy loads up hot mountains, with probably not a lot to eat. Strangely similar to the women…

Villagers also happen to believe that if they run in front of a moving vehicle and survive, they add 7 years onto their lives.

This makes for some interesting roadtrips.

So back to my over-priced truck ride. Of course all the men in the cab wanted to talk to me (I had the seat by the door), however, I was extremely cranky, and generally very annoyed that they were extorting such a large amount of money out of me for a trip that was around 20km.

We finally get to Gashene. Gashene has 1 gas station, 1 restaurant (where the bus stops), 1 hotel, and 1 cafe. So I pile out, and pretty much tell the driver I’m only giving him 20Birr since I’m not going all the way to Woldiaya. Of course I didn’t have correct change, so I wound up paying the full amount.

Tried appealing to the policeman who was hanging around, but he just leered at me with a toothless grin.

So I’m standing there (the truck guys invited me to lunch, I declined), looking up and down the road — wishing and hoping for a beautiful land cruiser full of faranji, but with 1 extra seat to roar up and take me off to Bahir Dar. Hah.

But, a very nice man who was on the bus to Lalibela (stopped across the street), came over and asked me what was going on. I ranted for a while about the high-priced ride, and my concern that there were no vehicles. He reassured me that there were 2 buses behind the one he was on.

Thus, I stalked over to the cafe and sat on the porch in the shade. Immediately surrounded by the local youth, a very nice woman handed me a cup of Chai out the window and wouldn’t take any money. Then the man from the bus came back over to give me a pack of chewing gum, and wish me luck.

By this time, the truck in which I arrived was departing. They are shouting out the window to make sure I don’t want to continue on Woldydia (larger city). Must admit that I taught my entourage some not so nice gestures, directed at the truck driver. (Ok, I had a really rough 2 days.)

So I handed around my books, Lonely Planet, Amharic phrasebooks, and every time a vehicle would pass I’d run out to the road.

Waited for a good 30 minutes — at which point I was starting to get very nervous. It was now around 1:00 in the afternoon, and the chance of me getting out of the place was diminishing with every minute. No one drives at night.

Finally, one of the kids came over, pointed at a truck and said he’s going to Gaint — which is where I could catch up with the bus. The kid tried to get 50 Birr out of me, but I just walked up to the truck, looked up at the truck driver and asked if he’d take me to Gaint.


So I climbed up into the giant truck, laughed at the kid hanging off the door trying to get me to give him 10 birr for “finding me a ride.”

And we drove off.

My seat was lovely, very comfortable, and high, I could see for miles. It didn’t really take that long though for me to realize I had just climbed into a vehicle with one of those notorious African truck drivers, and his assistant.

After planning my escape route (never really went over 50kmph, so I figured I could jump out and roll). I asked my driver about his family (pictures all over), expressed my devotion to the catholic church (they take religion very seriously), and made up a very nice fiancé who was expecting me in Bahir Dar, and who I hoped wouldn’t come looking for me.

The driver and the assistant had just gotten a fresh bag of Chat (mild narcotic grown and chewed throughout Ethiopia), so they were chewing away. I declined their offers to partake.

Turns out my karma had kicked in again because both men were really very kind and good trip companions.

We traveled through the countryside, following a truck from the same company, passing through villages with streams of people walking along the roadside loaded with grains, and herding animals.

As we reached one area with particularly heavy people traffic, a oxen leaped into the truck in front. Everything ground to a halt. Priests were called along with the police. While we waited, I was quickly surrounded by villagers — one kind woman gave me a piece of sugarcane — delighting the crowd as I tried to gnaw my way through what is essentially a hunk of sugar flavored wood. Soon the traveling minstrels arrived, and started serenading me — they play instruments similar to a lyre — and make up funny songs ad hoc.

After around 2 hours, the priests, the drivers, and the farmer went off to the side — while the policemen directed “traffic.” It was decided that 100 birr would be paid to the farmer.

We piled back into the truck, with around 5 priests as extra passengers — who inquired whether or not I was available for marriage.

After dropping off our passengers — we hurtled down the side of a mountain, the sunset turning the shrubs and hills a silvery purple, the three of us singing Chaka Khan’s “I’m Every Woman”, while I showed my friends my best chair dancing moves which they soon caught on to. After 4 renditions, my voice was almost gone and my heart almost stopped (the truck driver was also chair-dancing while driving down a steep road), we settled into a comfortable silence, and arrived in a really nasty town filled with truck drivers, prostitutes, and the overnight stop for the bus to Bahir Dar.

After dinner, I locked myself into my room, coated with insect repellent and wrapped in several layers of blankets and clothing. In the early morning, my truck driver friend walked me through the dark to the bus-station, shook my hand and I was on my way to Bahir Dar.

The bus ride was fairly uneventful — with the exception of the elementary school teacher delighted to be sitting next to me so he could practice his English. I was pretty sick and in no mood for conversation, not to mention I had no voice. He kept poking me saying “Don’t go to sleep, I want to talk to you.” Finally he got off the bus, and I got some rest.