we had an insanely difficult time trying to decide where to go in Ethiopia. it’s a pretty big country, and we only had about 2 weeks here before we were going to meet Joey in Nairobi. to make matters worse, bus travel here is insanely slow due to crappy roads, so anywhere we wanted to go, we had to factor in a ton of travel time to get there. for instance, the “northern circuit” which takes in all the really cool historical sights, ancient cities, churches, and castles takes about 15 days or so to complete… and out of those 15 days, 10 of them are spent on bus travel! ouch! so, after agonizing about it for several days, we decided that we would limit ourselves to checking out the south. there is this area called the southern omo valley and it is the home of 13 distinct and very colorful tribes.

bus travel in Ethiopia isn’t as straightforward as it is in other countries. in other countries, if you want to do a long distance bus trip, usually the bus will set out in the evening and drive all night. but here, there is a law where all buses are required to be off the roads by nightfall, 6:30pm. if the bus wants to get a good 12 hours of driving in for the day (which most of them do), that means the bus needs to set off at 6:30 am. so, in order for the bus to set off that early, you have to arrive at the bus station by 5am. yes 5am. ugh. I definitely wasn’t looking forward to spending the next few weeks getting up *before* dawn. but what can you do? another weird thing about Ethiopia is the way they tell time. for them, the clock starts at dawn, and then ends at sunset. so, what would be 7am according to international time, for them is 1 in the day. 5PM would be 11 in the day. 8pm would be 1 at night. etc etc. in a way i guess it makes sense. the 12 daylight hours are numbered 1 through 12, instead of our time where AM stretches over both night and day. but it definitely takes some getting used to.

in the morning, we woke up in the pitch black, and went out into the rain. caryn had lost our umbrella the night before, so when we arrived at the bus station, we ran as fast as we could through the downpour. the bus station was a see of people all holding umbrellas and frantically screaming at the top of their lungs in amheric. i’m assuming they were screaming the names of cities that the buses were going to. it was utter chaos running through the dark and wet while dodging screaming Ethiopians. eventually we made it onto the bus though. once on the bus, we had to wait for ages as more people filed in, traded seats, got up, walked about, traded seats again, got off the bus, got back on the bus, etc etc.

finally everyone was seated and it looked like we were about to finally get going. then a man with a HUGE cross got on, and while muttering prayers, walked through the bus. people would contribute a few coins, and then kiss the top and bottom of the cross. hrm. was the bus journey so dangerous that people needed to pray beforehand? eventually, the priest got off. the bus started, and we were off. within 2 minutes of the bus starting to move, the lady sitting across the aisle from me, pulled down her babies pants, and had it pee all over the floor of the bus. disgusting! it made me *really* glad that we hadn’t left our backpacks on the floor under our seats. our bags are already dirty as hell, but I’d rather not have piss on them.

we drove for several hours, while caryn and i did our best to sleep as the bus bumped and jolted over the road. eventually, we stopped for food. after eating, i went to go buy some oranges, and this guy came up to me and gleefully handed me a twig of chaat. chaat is this kind of plant that people here use as a sort of stimulant. it keeps you awake and alert and also makes you talkative etc. sounds like it’s somewhere in between coffee and cocaine. people here *love* the stuff though. they eat it for hours and hours. they use it to stay awake on long bus rides. they use it to stay up at night and study for exams. and they use it to just pass the time. when i got back on the bus, holding some chaat, a bunch of people near me got all excited. everyone loves it when foreigners try out the local intoxicants. unfortunately though, i tried to take a nap, and when i woke up, my chaat looked rather wilted, so i didn’t end up trying chaat till much later in my trip…

the bus drove on and on, and i gazed out the window at the Ethiopian landscape of shrubs and dried out trees. the horn of the bus blared almost constantly to get the cows/sheep/people that were on the highway to make way. we’d pass by small villages, some of them having crumbling corrugated tin structures, while others had wooden huts. it’s funny, whenever i see the corrugated tin buildings, my mind always instantly thinks “poor” and i think how sad for the people living there. but when i see a wooden hut, i think “traditional” and think how nice it is that people still live in their traditional ways. but in reality, isn’t a tin house a step up from a wooden hut?

eventually, we stopped in a town called shashamene for repairs. there was something wrong w/ one of the wheels. during our break, i chatted a bit w/ some of the mechanics. when they saw me taking a photo of a goat, they got really excited and pulled me over to the other side of the yard to show me a “huge animal”. it ended up being this gigantic tortoise, and i took some photos of the mechanics with it. walking through town, i got tons of stares. there weren’t any other white people anywhere to be seen. I’ve heard that people in this town can be hostile to outsiders, and i definitely didn’t get any friendly vibes while walking around. i went back to the mechanics shop, where a large group of guys gathered around me. while one guy talked to me (with almost incomprehensible English), the rest of the people just stared at me, and i felt hella awkward. it’s weird when traveling.. you definitely want to interact w/ locals.. but sometimes you get a little too much attention.

finally, the repairs were done, and we were off. it’s the rainy season up in northern Ethiopia, but down here in the south, it’s hot as hell. being in the sweltering bus was extremely unpleasant. to make matter worse, Ethiopians don’t believe in opening windows on buses. apparently, they believe that the breeze will give them a cold. so with the temperature in the bus being unbearable, not a single window was open. once, someone had the window open during a stop, and once the bus started rolling, a riot practically broke out as people started screaming for the window to be shut. when caryn opened our window just a crack… literally it was open less than an inch, a guy reached up and shut it. actually, for the whole trip, he kept nervously checking the windows over and over to be absolutely sure that they were 100% shut.

after the nightmare of a ride, we finally arrived at arba minch, where we would be spending the night before the second half of our bus trip. in most other countries, the 16 hour bus ride would just have been done in one trip, but like i said, buses don’t drive at night here, so we had to stop and continue the rest of the drive the next day. in arba minch, each hotel we tried was full, and only after 3 or 4 tries, we finally found a place to stay.

the next day we got up at 4:45 again. ugh. back on the bus, and lots of driving. today was hotter than yesterday. i looked around and people were starting to sweat. finally, the guy in front of us, with sweat literally streaming and pouring down his face, gave in and opened his window. we did the same. a few others did too, and promptly got yelled at. but we and the guy in front of us somehow managed to keep our windows open the rest of the way.

we eventually reached weito, a tiny village that was basically the Ethiopian equivalent of a truck stop. we ate some food, and relaxed in the shade. and this is where we saw some of our first tribal people. there are 13 different tribes that live in this region, and each of them have unique styles of dress and customs. most of them still live in the same way that their ancestors lived. they still have the same clothing (or lack thereof) that is customary for their peoples. the whole point of coming here down south was to see the tribal peoples and see how they lived, and it was exciting to finally catch our first glimpse!

after a few more hours on the bus, we arrived in Jinka, the first village wanted to see. from the second we arrived, we were instantly harassed by an insane amount of touts. everyone wanted to be our guide, have us stay at their hotel, or whatnot. it was nuts. so annoying, but we managed to avoid them all, get a hotel room, and get some sleep.


8 thoughts on “southbound”

  1. I want some tribal jewelry! Dont’ those metal bracelets get hot under the sun?

  2. they actually sold those brass bracelets for super cheap. i think they were like 70 cents a piece!!

  3. How you doing Vlad? Your photos are excellent. I am still amazed at all you and Caryn have experienced.
    Take care and say hello to Caryn. 🙂

  4. i’m actually doing realy well. been relaxing in nairobilast few days after the hardships of ethiopian buses! i’ll tell caryn yoou said hi…

  5. Ah the memories! I was in Ethiopia back in 1995. Came up from Nairobi by Land Rover with 2 female Brits. Once in to Ethiopia we stopped in some small town and ended up bunking down at the Police compound. Not too many white people driving around then. Am amused to read that the buses haven’t changed all too much since I was there. No peeing though. It’s too bad you haven’t had the occasion to travel by train; especially back from Djibouti – that is REALLY an experience. Hope all’s well. Safe journey!

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