A lost soul in Ethiopia

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - NEWS - DONAL CONLON

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

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