Train graveyards, tinsel and Toyotas: a brief guide to getting around in Ethiopia
Where: Addis Ababa, Awassa, Bahir Dar
What: Joy on wheels. Every day from dawn til dusk the streets hum with benign blue-and-white minibuses ferrying their dozen-odd passengers along the arteries of Addis Ababa. The best place to get one is from one of the minibus stations dotted around the city, where fare-collectors rattle off destinations at great speed, before hopping on themselves when the bus is full. Once you know what they’re saying, the city is yours.
Pros: I owe them my independence: they opened Addis up to me, revealing its strange beauty inch by inch through dirt-specked glass, and drawing a mental map that lets me navigate with ease. I can go anywhere, get off and walk, walk, walk – then hop on another and weave back. Almost anywhere you could want to go is easily accessible (and yet there aren’t too many routes), and you never have to wait more than a few minutes for a bus.
They also encapsulate, for me, people’s endless individuality, and the small, idiosyncratic ways it’s revealed. Each one is a unique mix of some or all of these elements: chair fabric, music, cassettes stuffed in slats in the ceiling, transfers on windows (my favourite: ‘I love you’), religious and/or premier league paraphernalia, dashboard fluff, hanging stuff.
They’re also safe (no theft) and sociable – a great place for conversations, with a palpably warm atmosphere (the downside being there’s nowhere to go if your neighbour’s trying to chat you up…)
Cons: at the roadside, they don’t always have the space/inclination to stop for you, and they don’t have seatbelts, so avoid the front seat (true in all road vehicles: addis ababa has a very high road traffic accident rate). And whatever comes out of the exhaust pipe is definitely suspect. They’re hard to get to grips with at first, but repay the effort endlessly. Caveats aside – perfect.
Price: 1-3 birr (5-15p). (Actually, it’s 90 cents etc – an odd price policy, but hey, there’s people standing at the side of the road with piles of change, so I guess it creates a few jobs).
Where: The leafy avenues of Bahir Dar
What: This speedy little three-wheeler is the provincial answer to the minibus, and fits a snug three (or a crushed four) in its curtained back seat. You hail it from the side of the road.
Pros: The thrill, if you’re by the door, of being ‘semi-enclosed’, as Tori put it, watching the road blur and rush beneath you as the wind buffets your face. The décor is the best thing, though – as idiosyncratic as the minibuses, but possibly with even more aesthetic abandon. Clashing colours, tinsel, premier league stickers, it’s all here and more.
Cons: Just don’t fall out.
Price: you haggle it: probably 10-20 birr (up to a pound)
Where: Debre Zeit, a million tiny towns on the road to Lalibela; everywhere, probably
What: A horse and cart with bells on (literally).
Pros: Fresh air in my lungs and a soporific trot that let me fully appreciate the rural life all around me. So much fun…
Cons: …until I saw the state of the horse we’d used: pleury eyes, scabby skin, haggard body. Most looked a lot better, but animal cruelty is a huge problem here. Maybe not worth the thrill, in the end.
Price: you haggle it: 30 birr+ (£1.25ish)
What: In Ethiopia, the car in front IS a Toyota, probably a 20-year-old, slightly battered trailer-type affair*. Who knows why – maybe because all the cars here are ancient and it’s the only make sturdy enough to last.
Pros: The upside of this is a dazzling display of bad 80s bodywork, especially orange lightning zigzags. And it’s a lot of fun to sit in the boot…
Cons: Environmentally unfriendly and liable to breakdown. Oh, and one of my ex-students has a new nickname, ‘toyota carola’.
*except if you work for the UN or, to a lesser extent, an NGO, in which case it’s an ostentatiously-branded, midlife-crisis-sized beast of a 4×4 for you.
Where: Addis Ababa
What: The lazy/rich/tourist alternative to the minibus. If it ain’t beggars or vendors shouting at you, it’s taxi drivers trying to snare your custom with their own taxi-based lexicon of inanities. They tend to lurk in packs by their cabs on street corners. (Actually, though, they’re mostly pretty fun to talk to).
Pros: Pretty much the only way to get around after about 9pm, and good for bantering with the driver/practicing your Amharic. Also prone to exciting décor, with a great line in fluffy fluorescent dashboard covers.
Cons: Drivers like to charge more than agreed by pretending they have no change. Be firm, always have change, and ALWAYS agree the price before you get in.
Price: you haggle it: for an average daytime journey, about 50birr (£2); at night, expect at least 100 (£4)
Where: Addis Ababa – Bahir Dar
What: ‘German technology at Chinese prices’, the onboard electronic display declares proudly, and you can’t really argue with that. Shiny and new, the Skybus has cut down the previously overnight journey to Bahir Dar to a mere 10 hours (including an hour stop in Debre Markos for lunch).
Pros: comfortable seats, pretty fast and you even get breakfast – a giant cake in a giant box – and a bottle of water, not to mention a choice sampling of Ethiopian TV. You pass some amazing landscape too, and cross the Blue Nile…
Cons: It leaves from Meskel Square at 6am – who needs sleep?
Price: 240 birr (I think) – £10ish
While we’re on the subject of buses, if Addis’ minibuses aren’t your thing (weirdo) there’s also, er, lion-buses, yellow buses with the lion of Judah on their side that shuttle you across the city. My guidebook told me they’re thieving hotspots and to avoid, and, as they rattle ominously past, the silhouettes of crushed and listless-looking commuters just visible through filthy, steamed-up windows, I’m happy to oblige.
They do, however, make nice pictures:
‘by number 11′ (walking)
Where: in-between places, Addis Ababa
What: Method of, well, necessity, for the majority of Ethiopians. Drive down any road anywhere and you’ll pass smatterings of people treading the dust for hours on end to get to market, or to town, or to anywhere. ‘Keh asser-and kutur’, or ‘by number 11’, is slang for walking (get it?), awesome.
Pros: in tandem with minibuses, the best way to get to know Addis Ababa, to explore the bits where tourists never go and to chat with the locals you pass. It’s all about slow travel, man.
Cons: if you’re a white, young female on her own, you’re a magnet for genuinely nice people and complete idiots alike. The problem is you can rarely tell until it’s too late.
Where: Awassa, Bahir Dar
Pros: Serene journeys through deep blue waters to hippos and extraordinary island monasteries – what’s not to like?
Cons: Did you know hippos are the most deadly african animal? very hungry, eh…
Price: a few hundred birr
and finally… trains
Oh yes, there are plenty of trains in Addis Ababa…
And lots of track…
Running south to Debre Zeit and beyond…
…just don’t expect to go anywhere.