A lost soul in Ethiopia
I have slept badly in a small town in the Ethiopian Highlands where rain is coursing through the rutted streets. Now I have a 14-hour rickety bus trip to Lalibela, but some wonderful churches, cut out of rock in the 13th century, are waiting for me there. It is five o’clock in the morning.
An unwashed, bearded holy man with a wild look in his eyes and steam coming off his overcoat moves down the bus and, with an excessive gesture, shoves a large wooden cross under each passenger’s nose. He wants us to plant a kiss on the feet of Jesus and give him some money.
We climb into the mountains and the air becomes cooler. The bus has a puncture and the passengers climb down. Some children, looking cold and famished, arrive to watch. I look around but cannot see a house for kilometres.
The mid-morning stop in a small town is welcome. I wander away to take a few photos. I stop to have a mixed fruit juice, which seems to be a fusion of a drink and softening ice-cream. Afterwards I sip one of those wonderfully sweet, savoury Ethiopian coffees and watch goats and camels strolling by. Sauntering leisurely back to the bus I am surprised to find no bus. OK, so I’ve made a mistake. I haven’t understood what the driver said. I walk the small town twice. No sign of either the bus or of any of my fellow passengers whose faces I am valiantly trying to recall. With only a few words of Amharic I am like a powerless child.
I analyse the situation. The bus station, I think. It must have gone there. It is a 15-minute walk but there’s no bus. What can I do? I scour the town once more and then conclude they’ve left without me and I must hitch a ride. I walk to the outskirts of town with little optimism — eight hours to go on mountain roads. I have only the clothes I’m wearing but I do have my passport and some money.
The passing traffic is mainly donkeys, oxen, camels and curious locals on bikes. Some of the cattle brush against me as if I don’t exist. In my frustration, I have the impulse to swing a kick at their rears but I am not sure of the locals’ relationship with their bovine friends. Are they as sacred as in India? I just don’t know.
People stare at the white man making weird signs with his thumb to passing traffic. There are no cars but a few four-wheel-drive vehicles pass. They signal they are turning left or right down the road.
An hour passes. It’s part of travel, I tell myself, this unexpected dilemma. I’m wondering if I will see my bag again. Will someone walk away with it? Will some kind Ethiopian-Orthodox soul hand it in to the police or the bus station in Lalibela?
Suddenly, a young boy cries, “Bus Lalibela”. Totally surprised, I swing around and see it coming around a corner from town. I blink and look again before I dare believe. Immediately I begin to feel guilty and think, “They have been searching for me.” I practise saying the word “sorry” in Amharic. I step into the bus with the word on the tip of my tongue. But, as I open my mouth, I see, down the full length of the bus, that people are smiling and then a big round of clapping breaks out. I close my mouth. Everyone is relieved. I take my seat; I feel great. The prodigal son who was lost has been found.
Tackling a rough Ethiopian mountain road by bus