With elections here tomorrow, what should a governance adviser do? Probably not take 3 days off to go travelling. However, with my time in Ethiopia drawing rapidly to a close, I was keen to see a bit more of the country beyond Addis. So, armed with my special pass which is needed in the election period for foreigners wanting to travel out of Addis, I set off.
So, on Wednesday, I flew to Arba Minch – in the Southern Nations, Nationalities and Peoples Region – via Jimma. The flight was fine and it was interesting to see the landscape and vegetation – very very green, coffee and real and false bananas I think. I got a bus – a “blue donkey” – into Sikele, one of Arba Minch’s twin towns along with Shecha. Then I got a bajaj – a tuk-tuk – on a dirt road to Paradise Lodge.
Paradise Lodge is very very nice and comes highly recommended. I had asked for a hut with a view and the view – over Lake Abaya, Lake Chamo and the Bridge of God that separates the two – was amazing. I spent the afternoon wandering around Shecha, getting my bearings and chatting to the locals, to the extent that my language skills and theirs permitted. I was also working out my options for the following day. There lots of police of various varieties around – more than is usual I was told. Someone was being shepherded off with the help of a couple of big sticks with lots of people looking on with concern.
In the end, I made arrangements via Paradise Lodge for a trip to Nechisar national park. Paradise Lodge told me that it was too muddy to go on a road trip, so I ended up taking a boat. Given that the taxi/bus that took us to the boat got stuck in the mud leaving us to walk it was probably a good idea that I’d not tempted fate and risked getting stuck in the mud in the middle of the national park. Boatyard didn’t look too promising, but the boat we were using seemed OK. No sign of a life-jacket, but we did have a gun. Other than shooting things, I’m not sure what the gun was for, but it didn’t reassure me very much.
The trip on the lake was lovely with views of the mountains all around. After about an hour we reached the other side and then went for a bit of a walk into the national park. It wasn’t long before we spotted some deer and then quite a few zebra, really close. Not quite the animal spotting extravaganza I had been hoping for with a road-trip, but pretty cool and the national park itself was beautiful, with or without the big five, most of which are extinct in the park, partly because some folks have opted – understandably – to live in the park and eat the animals.
We wandered back to the lakeshore where my guides purchased some fish and we watched two people fishing and bringing their nets in. The way they clobbered the fish on the snout to kill them – I averted my gaze, which my guides thought amusing – put me off eating fish, at least for a little while. We then set off back to the other side of the lake.
More stunning views and then lots of birds – pelicans, cranes of various sorts – before we got to the hippo spot. They are MASSIVE and can move much faster than you would expect. Thankfully, my guides had realised that I’m a bit of a softy, so we didn’t go too close. And then having got over that excitement we moved on a little way to the “crocodile market”. Not a market at all, but the place where the crocs sun themselves after a busy night of eating. There were maybe 10 crocs visible, within about 10 metres of the boat. Some of them were huge – about 5 metres long. Plenty big enough to swallow me. I hadn’t expected them to be quite so big or, again, so fast moving.
After that, we boated back to shore and got the bus back to the hotel. A bit of negotiation later and I set off – along with an Ethiopian couple, which made the price slightly less exorbitant than the $100 I had paid for the boat trip – into the mountains at the back of Arba Minch, to the Dorze village. This was a great trip, really interesting and well-organised, with a sense that the entrance fee was well-used to support the community.
We got a tour of a homestead – various huts for sleeping, eating and cooking – a demonstration of processing the false banana plant, a taste of the bread that is made from that plant, and the alcohol (75% proof) araki that is made too. They have huts that you can stay in. Another time, I might stay there.
While there, we met a local man who was working for the EU electoral observation mission. It was interesting to hear from him about how he was selected – he was very clear that only neutral people are selected. I kept my views about ethiopian politics to myself, but enthused about the value of good electoral observation.
We then went on – back down the hill a bit – to the market where hundreds of women were selling their produce, mainly potatoes, onions, chillies, and spices. As it was nearly market-closing time quite a lot of the women were sitting around drinking alcohol out of calabashes. The practice is that two people drink from the same calabash simultaneously, to emphasise the sharing.
We wound back down the hill for an hour, back to Paradise Lodge, where I was greeted by news that my flight back to Addis the next day had been cancelled as there were only due to be 3 people on it. Ethiopian Airlines gave me the option of waiting til the Sunday flight, with all accommodation and expenses paid for. However, I was due to have a meeting last night and I had – rather hurriedly – seen the main sights of Arba Minch, so I opted instead to get the bus back. 10 hours is what it said on the tin.
After an early dinner. Shiro, not fish, that night, with the memory of clubbed fish fresh. And a very early start. Up at 4.30 for a taxi to the bus station at 4.50. Bus station was very chaotic and pitch black which didn’t make things easy, but someone helped me to find the right bus and I was on it and ready to go by 5.15. The bus became more and more packed with people until we finally left, just as the sun was coming up at 6.00.
We didn’t get very far. We had been going about 5 minutes when the bus stopped and turned around. Apparently there was something wrong and we needed to go back to a garage. The problem was reportedly minor, but we sat and waited for 4 hours while various people – mechanics and random people with hammers – hit things and sighed. We then tried again, and gave up again after another five minutes. Tempers were getting frayed as people were keen to get home and be safe before the election and felt that the bus company should have put us on their other bus.
I got chatting to some of the students from the teacher training institute. They were extolling the virtues of the UK’s democratic tradition and saying that they would like it if Ethiopia were the same. I zipped my mouth and said that I should probably not comment, much to their amusement. While this was going on, more things were being hit with hammers and the passengers managed to persuade the driver to forget about the problem and just try to get us to Addis. Not knowing whether it was a problem with the brakes, or a less serious problem, I was not over-keen on winging it, but with everyone else apparently OK with that, I wasn’t backing out.
The first 4 hours were grim. A new road is being built. But the old road is in a very bad way. Huge pot holes. Fords where there once were bridges. That sort of thing. At about 2.30 we arrived at Sodo, in the Wolaita region. I was befriended by a couple of blokes and whisked off for more shiro and injera, before we set off again at 3.00, up until the hills. The problem with the bus, or at least one of the problems, soon became apparent. The bus had no ooomph and uphill could go just faster than walking pace. We spent about 3 hours going up hill, covering maybe 15 miles in that time. The women walking home from market, almost faster than the bus, were most amused. I, being a bit of a worrier, was thinking about whether the driver had a plan, or sufficient brakes, if the bus decided to start rolling backwards down the hill.
We passed through Hosaina (in the Hadiya area) – a strong-hold of opposition political support – with daylight fading. I was trying to find out what the plan was. Were we going to carry on to Addis or stay somewhere overnight? (I had understood that travelling at night was not a good idea, given the state of some of the roads and vehicles). I got mixed messages, so just sat tight. We carried on and on, stopping briefly near Butijira to buy kolo nuts and water, as it got darker and darker. By 10.00 pm it was looking good. We were only 2 hours from Addis. And then the bus gave up.
This time it gave up good and proper. Cue more standing around, this time not even hitting things with a hammer, which is clearly a sign that things are really too far gone. Everyone took it well. There was lots of laughter and joking around. I guess that such inconveniences are what life is like in Ethiopia. I resisted the temptation to ring someone at the Embassy, thinking that I could hardly disappear off in a landcruiser leaving my fellow passengers to their fate, and that try as we might we wouldn’t fit more than 10 people in.
By about 11.30 it was really cold and there was no plan other than wait til it’s light, so people starting going to sleep in the bus. Not comfortable. Very crowded. Very smelly from being crammed with 60 people on a hot day and a long journey. At 12.30, another bus turned up from Addis, but – rather than take us back to Addis it was going to sit there until daylight and then take us on. I wasn’t very happy about this and tried briefly to suggest that the new bus take to addis those that wanted to go now, and return to get the others later. But, most people seemed happy to wait, so – casting aside a brief plan to pay the bus driver to do an extra trip – I moved to the new bus where I could at least lie in the gang-way and get a couple of hours sleep.
We set off at 3.30 and made it to Addis a couple of hours later. All the men had to get off the bus at the check-point. I – as a ferengi – was grouped with the women and children, although a soldier did actually get on to search me and ask for ID etc. He picked up a small notebook from my bag and saw there was nothing written in it, and somehow missed the satellite phone which I might have had a harder job explaining.
By 6.00 we were at Addis bus station, which was very busy with buses getting ready to set off to various parts of the country. I managed to find – with a bit of help – a minibus that was heading towards the hilton, so got on that for what was a thankfully uneventful journey. Last night, sleeping on the gang-way of the bus, I was wondering whether I should have taken Ethiopian Airlines up on their offer of paying my way for 2 extra days. But, the bus journey was interesting. I got to see bits of Ethiopia that I wouldn’t otherwise have done, and got to use my amharic much more than I would have on a one hour plane journey.