Few things are more American than the feeling of freedom that stems from sliding our fingers along a steering wheel and pressing a foot to the gas pedal.
We navigate our journeys, mold our expectations as we let ourselves slip into a piece of the world. We can talk to others, we can talk to ourselves, we can talk to God on those miles-long interstate stretches.
The month after graduating from the University of Florida, I did all three when I packed up and drove myself out to California.
I never had a car before and bought the best thing $2,000 could buy (hint: $2,000 will buy you point A to point B, baka.)
Opting for state roads instead of highways whenever possible, that 1999 gold Dodge Intrepid took me through Gulf Breeze (Mississippi), Louisiana’s bayous, all of Texas (geographically, a diverse and beautiful state – as long as you stay ahead of the lightning storms), through New Mexico and Arizona and straight to the Golden Coast.
The 2,000-mile stretch was plenty of time to figure myself out – as I wanted to discover myself. If I didn’t want to stop at a particular exit, I kept going until the tank demanded a refill. If I craved a particular item (sweet tea!), it was at my fingertips. Yeah, these are learning moments, but only in the way that I wanted myself to develop. I met people I otherwise wouldn’t have met, but on my own accord. Our culture is great at that – understanding what we want to understand only when we want to understand. (To be fair, this attitude supersedes borders, regardless of whether we want to admit it.)
After completing that drive, I lost interest in driving. Freeing? Sure. Enjoyable? Yeah. But limiting, and not to mention expensive.
Perhaps Los Angeles isn’t the best city to make such a decision, but it is navigable with public transit. It requires some additional planning and time adjustments, but it can work.
It works, and it’s an opportunity to cross paths, to catch glimpses into others’ lives, to share stories and to discover life beyond ourselves.
Bus by Bus in Ethiopia
Cars cost 300,000 birr (15,000 USD) to purchase and own in Ethiopia. In my site, most families live on 20-30 birr a day (900 birr a month – and rent for a one-room home eats 22 percent of that monthly income). Translated: Most Ethiopians don’t drive cars.
We let public transit carry us to our destinations.
Welcome to a transit town’s station. Buses not only file in and out of the station, but also line the streets to fill to capacity before heading to the destination town.
A quick breakdown on bus travel in Ethiopia:
- Minibus: Think of a Scooby-Doo style van, minus the quirky collection of detectives, plus 27 people crammed inside, sitting on laps and makeshift benches to reach destinations.
- Level 1 public bus: An enlarged school bus, packs about 60-75 people.
- Level 2 public bus: Smaller than a level 1, packs 45-60 people.
- Selam bus and Sky Bus: Charter buses, with televisions and air conditioning (!) that travel along Ethiopia’s paved roads. This is the most expensive form of road travel.
Turn down the music! Close the window! Are you fine? Where are you go? WARAJ.
In the States, we sit quietly on buses. We stare at our phones, our feet, the street ahead, wait for our stop and yank a yellow cord. Maybe we thank our driver as we hop out – most of the time, we probably don’t.
Some buses don signs mandating silence. Don’t answer your phone, keep conversation to a minimum if you must take that call.
Jesus Christ. How sterile. How boring.
From the start, buses in Ethiopia require conversation.
“Wolkite nesh?” – Are you going to Wolkite?
“Ow.” – Yes.
“Gibi! Gibi!” – Enter! Enter!
If you’re one of the first on the bus and have the option, snag a window seat. Nothing is more valuable than window control. (If you’re not sitting by one to keep it open, you can guarantee it will remain sealed shut unless you really pester the crap out of the person nearest to it, or just reach over and open it yourself.)
Music blares from front-seat speakers. As the driver rolls to a stop to pick up people along the road waving the bus down (not every town has a station, and people will wait along the way for an unfilled bus to pick up extra passengers), people climb on amid a chorus of, Selam nesh? Indet nesh? Selam naw! (Is there peace? How are you? There is peace!)
As people fill in next to you, they’ll greet you according to the time of day, ask where you’re going, if you’re fine. If you’re the ferenji on the bus, the questions expand to, Kwankwa tikoyallash? Gobez, gobez. Etiopia indet naw? Yet nesh? (You know the language? Clever, clever. How is Ethiopia? Where are you going?)
You don’t have to answer every question or engage in conversation the entire ride, but a little bit goes a long way. Ethiopians want to make their friends feel comfortable, and guess what? Everyone here is a friend, a part of an extremely large family. Bait the conversation long enough to satiate curiosity, you’ll be taken care of for an entire ride.
For all the talk, all the love, some people are trying to buy time
Bus prevalence makes it the token mode of transportation for getting to a graduation, a wedding, a baptism. It also becomes the mode of transportation for trying to hold off death as long as possible.
Amid so much conversation, so much affection between strangers, so much joy, sitting near someone taking his final breaths is the ultimate dichotomy.
It happened twice in June.
One Wednesday morning, riding into my hub town to submit a camp budget, a husband and wife sat in the row ahead of me, window wide open and a damp cloth resting across the man’s forehead. His wife kept stroking his head, dabbing away sweat dripping down his face. They were trying to get to Addis as quickly as possible. The driver understood their urgency, not pausing to pick up anyone en route to Wolkite, the zone’s major transit point to catch a bus to the capital.
The couple made it to Addis, only for the husband to die a few days later. No one in town knows what happened, what illness he had. He was fine one day, feverish and faint the next.
A week later, on a bus to the capital for our mid-service medical exam, a friend in a neighboring town and I climbed onto a bus as a woman in our row was having a seizure. I’ve never seen a person seize before, and it’s horrifying. It’s horrifying to see the body lose control. Not knowing how we could help or improve the situation, my friend and I took our seats, not staring at the woman, not wanting to bring attention to her distraught mother and husband.
A little more than halfway to our destination, the woman had a second seizure. Her body went limp, and the mother, tears streaming down her cheeks, quietly removed her daughter’s bracelets as the husband removed her rings. A few times, the mother tried flexing her daughter’s arm, trying to circulate blood flow, trying to hold onto a slim hope that her daughter could still be saved.
A boy a few rows ahead of us and sitting in a makeshift aisle seat turned toward our row when the husband began asking for a phone to borrow so he could call someone, anyone. This kid couldn’t have been more than 7 and he looked back with wide eyes. In a country where death fragments families and everyone knows someone who’s lost a parent at a young age, the look in this boy’s eyes made it clear that when you see it, it’s always hard to swallow.
It’s harder, still, to know what you can do to help.
Discovering Faith’s Influence
Religion dominates Ethiopia. During greetings, it’s common to end with an Exchabier miskel (thanks to God).
Children are born into religion and follow their parents’ faith, whether it’s Islam, Orthodox or Protestant. It’s similar in the States, too, yeah, but also common in the States is the personal decision to say, “I don’t agree with this, I can’t practice what I don’t know I believe.
If those doubts happen here, they’re kept silent and guarded. Among non-religious volunteers, we reach a conclusion that amid so much death and disease, it makes sense to lean on God, to have faith that a higher power can ease the intensity of day-to-day living. Is this the wrong approach? Debatable. Is a Western approach? Yes. Is it arrogant, even? Possibly.
Is it how some of us come to terms with how people live amid such extreme poverty? Yes.
The longer I’m here, the more I revisit religion and faith, the more I look at how the two connect, how they mold societies, how societies mold them. I don’t have any answers, and I don’t expect to have any by the end of service. For what it’s worth, I take it in and try to understand it to the best of my ability.
While drivers barrel toward destinations, Orthodox passengers familiar with the routes know where the churches are, and for the split second that the bus zooms by a church’s general area, passengers pause for a quick prayer.
As the months here continue piling up, the more I see religion accepted as religion. I’ve said before that my landlord is Muslim, yet most of the people who rent on his compound are Orthodox. Religion can be a barrier, but in this town, it’s not. Faith gets respect.
On a bus from Addis down to site last October, two men – one Muslim, one Orthodox – switched seats with each other so the Muslim man could have space to pray.
That’s what you get from public transit, here, there, anywhere. You find faith in humanity.