Sunday, August 30, 2015

The Road to Aksum

I left my alarm clock at home since I hadn't needed it on the last few trips, then I gave my phone (which had also served as an alarm clock) away to Karla from NL TZ, who had her phone stolen when she was attacked and would be traveling in Tanzania and Uganda, which I had plenty of helpful numbers. I had searched for an alarm clock in Merkato, but hadn't found any. So these 5am buses have been proving extra tricky without an alarm clock. Thankfully I have a good internal alarm, and also the hotel night clerk banged on my door at 4:30am to wake me as requested.

Bleary-eyed, I grabbed my stuff and walked out of the hotel and into the empty dark night. I walked down the block to the main circle and caught a bajaj to the bus station. I arrived to the bus station at 4:45am for my 5am bus. Already people were waiting outside the closed gates. But the guard would not let anyone in. At 5am, he began to let all the people who worked on the buses and in the station in through the gates. I just stood, locked out and annoyed at Ethiopia for its strange bus system. Finally around 5:30am, they opened the gates for passengers, and immediately there were chants from the bus workers previously let in: Addis, Addis, Addis; Bahir Dar, Bahir Dar, Bahir, Dar. It was a bit of a clusterfuck for this tired, uncaffeinated soul.

But I found my bus and ran the gauntlet to get on. The seats were basically small cramped metal bench-seats on a small cramped bus. It took us almost another 45 minutes to leave while all the seats and luggage got sorted out. Finally we were off as the sun was almost up.

I slept a little bit, only to wake up as the bus broke down maybe 30 minutes out of town. Something was wrong with the engine and the water valve. We stopped and a crew of people stood around watching the bus people try to fix it. It was 7:20am, and I decided that if the bus was not moving by 8am, I probably would not make the connection to Aksum, so I would turn around and go back to Gonder and skip Aksum and Tigray and head on the Lalibela. The bus was 124 birr, about $6 so I felt I could scrap it, and either walk, catch a minibus or hitchhike my way back into town, and maybe catch up with Samme and Fita to head to Lalilbela, or go on my own.

At 7:50am, I had enough and decided things looked hopeless so I started trying to climb to the roof of the bus to get my backpack. Someone told me to hold on, and that the bus was fixed. I didn't really believe it, so I walked around front. Sure enough, it was working again. I was a bit worried we wouldn't make it through the Simien Mountains pass that we would need to cross, and thought maybe it was best to turn around, but figured I would see how far we got and figure out the rest.

So back on the small cramped bus, and I napped for a bit on the metal poll in front of me, as I used my sweatshirt to soften my knees against the cramped metal seat in front of me. And just my luck, for the second straight time, I was right under the speaker blaring music. But I did sleep for a bit, and woke up just before we arrived in the town of Debark, just before the Simien Mountain park (I'm kinda convinced that Debark is named for “de p-arrrk” ie the park).

We stopped for breakfast, and a fellow sitting next to me and I went to little local restaurant that served spaghetti and sauce in injera. I had a fun time eating pasta with my hands and the sponge bread. My friend did not eat, because he said he got sick on trips.

After some traditional coffee, we got back on the bus. I broke out the Polaroid camera I had leftover from NL Tanzania, and snapped a few of the leftover pics I had of the bus mates. People were amazed by the Polaroid, and the few people I was able to take pics of were beaming. An old couple thanked me with some of their bread crumb snacks.

We were off again through the Simien Mountain pass. And it was beautiful. We drove along the narrow mountain roads with the clouds hanging on the peaks and settling low below. We drove around tight curves and through the mountains, as we passed mountain goats and monkeys swinging. My seatmates switched with me, and I had a window. And I stuck my head out the window like a dog in the car, taking in the cool mountain air, and thinking how lucky I was and how glad I was that I hadn't turned around.
As we drove through mountain roads, the kids in the little mountain villages waved to me. We passed pastoral life of mud and stick-thatched villages with goats and cows. The drove through the beautiful mountains and on down. At some point my neighbor had to switch with me because he got sick. Just my luck, the fellow next to me started yakking. I moved into the aisle. Thankfully, I was able to move back to my seat in the aisle, and the guy in my seat took his middle seat back, while the sick guy got the window.

We continued the long trek through the country, through hills and river passes. We crossed into the Tigray Province, and the landscape shifted a bit. It was a bit hotter and drier, and we saw a few camels on the road. I was struck by the villages of stone houses that we passed. They struck me as something so ancient, as if relics of millennia past yet somethings never change even over thousands of years.

We continued the long journey on, and finally arrived to the dusty town of Shire (“She-ray”). Thankfully, it was about 4pm, so I could still catch and onward minibus to Aksum. After being in transit for 10.5 hours, I did not relish the idea of traveling another 1.5 hours, but it was a better prospect than getting stuck in the dusty Shire. So I caught a minibus on to Aksum, ahead of darkening skies. We drove into higher elevation, alternating picking up and dropping off passengers along the way. The minibus was kind enough to drop me in front of my desired Africa Hotel.

I settled into Aksum as the rains started coming down. The power in the hotel quickly went out, so I went across the street to an internet cafe with a generator. When the power at the hotel came back on, I went back over. The rains started again, so I opted to have dinner at the hotel. No sooner had I ordered some tomato soup and a burger, but the power went out. I ate my dinner by the romantic light of candles. The tomato soup was actually pretty good. Ethiopian tomato soup has been a pleasant surprise with lots of cooked garlic thrown in. The burger was as lackluster as expected. Not sure why I ordered it other than I had pasta for breakfast and needed a change from Ethiopian food.

I returned to my darkened room to continue watching Star Wars, and passed out early after a long day.

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