December 30, 2010

The Wheels on the Bus

Wow…I have SO much to write about, most of it so ginormous that I literally don’t even know how to begin…as my facebook friends know, I’ve been robbed (twice), been in a bus accident and gotten stitches, had my first German Christmas, spent so much time at Immigration I feel like I should be paying them rent, and found a badly injured dog, and was able to get his leg amputated at the veterinary university (and am now, with the help of my amazing friends Dallas and Tommy, desperately trying to funds together to get him to the US so he can get a forever home and a good life. Even if you have $1, you have NO idea how much it would mean to me if we could give this dog a chance).

Needless to say, it’s been a busy few weeks, and I’ve got a lot to say.  A LOT.  I could start with one of the aforementioned stories, each of which are actually important, but every time I try, I get overwhelmed a couple of paragraphs in, so in typical Chelsea-fashion, instead, I’m going to write about something far more mundane: busses.  That’s right, busses.  In spite of all of my recent (mis)adventures, it is still part of my intention to utilize this blog to examine cultural differences, and as trivial as it sounds, compared with the bigger stuff, I think it’s often the mundane details which reveal the more nuanced aspects of culture—the sort of things that you can’t quite put your finger on, but somehow manage to drive you mad, fill you up with joy, and shape your impressions of the world around you.  And in my opinion, busses are a prime example of this.  Either that, or the four hours every day for the last two weeks that I’ve spending on the bus to and from Addis to sort out visa issues have given me a permanent case of the road crazies…but either way, you’re getting a blog about busses.  You’re welcome.

When you travel internationally, unless you are entirely fluent in the local language and cultural norms, one thing that you quickly learn to get used to is the fact that most of the time, you pretty much no idea what is going on.  At first it’s kind of nerve-wracking—all around you, people are talking, laughing, yelling, reacting to things you say or do, behaving in ways that seem erratic, trying to tell you where to go, what do do or not do, strangers trying to explain things in broken English with wild gestures. It is initially quite difficult to tell whether you’ve just done something terrible or rude, whether the people around you are trying to help or taking advantage of the fact that you are clearly unfamiliar with the culture (there’s always a little of both).  But after a jarring few days of anxiousness, you learn to just go with it.  Sometimes you get mislead or taken advantage of, but usually things work out.  Which is good, because I was initially so baffled by the bus system, I’m quite sure I’d still be stranded somewhere in the middle of Ethiopia if they didn’t. 

Unlike in the US, busses here do not run on a schedule.  There is no external source one can consult on when and where a bus is going or may be caught—and, indeed, there isn’t even a clear routine in place.  When you arrive at the bus rink, you encounter one of two circumstances: a dizzying scene of people rushing about, crowding onto busses in their business suits or tattered farming clothes, carrying briefcases, chickens, teff, huge baskets of injera, and anything else one could conceivably carry on a bus, while young children follow you around trying to sell gum and snacks (I encountered someone hawking Tic Tacs using the Mentos jingle…made me a wee nostalgic for home, I must admit), and bus attendants aggressively yell things like “Come on! Come on!!!” “You! You! You!” “Where are you go?!” “Farenji! Farenji!” along with extraordinarily garbled names of their destinations, as they grab your arm, trying to load you on their bus (even if you tell them that you are not headed for their destination—they seem to think that you won’t mind getting off one hundred miles in the opposite direction of where you were trying to go).  Or when you arrive at the bus station, it’s entirely deserted: a few empty busses, one or two bus attendants, so terribly bored they fail to even notice a Farenji…nothing but dust and some candy wrappers; one can almost imagine a tumbleweed blowing through, just to punctuate the scene.

As you can guess, despite the intensity of the former situation, it is the more desirable of the two—by a longshot.  You see, in Ethiopia, since there are no formal bus schedules, no formal bus routes; drivers simply do what is most advantageous for themselves—arrive at the station whenever they feel the most people are leaving, travel only to the destinations which they feel will attract the most passengers, and leave only when the bus is one hundred percent full (or more).  So, if the bus station is busy, the odds that you’ll actually be able to catch a bus are significantly increased. 

The whole “fill ‘er up and go” approach seems great, if you have the luxury of going to a popular destination, leaving from a popular destination, and picking a popular time to leave—then the busses seem to fill up almost as they arrive, with nary a moment’s time wasted waiting.  But if any one of these factors—time, location of pick-up, or final destination—isn’t spot on, the failures of this approach rapidly become apparent. 

For example, if you pick an unpopular time or destination, you may, quite literally board a bus and wait for hours before it leaves—even if the trip itself is short.  There have been times when I have been on a bus that is almost completely full, except for one person, yet we waited upwards of an hour for the last person to arrive.  If the destination from which you are leaving is not one of the main pick-up points, you may not only have to wait hours upon hours, but you may actually never be able to catch a bus at all—since the drivers refuse to leave until the bus is entirely full, there is no room to pick up people along the way.  (Incidentally, in my opinion, this only increases social and economic disparity by further isolating members of rural communities and limiting their access to resources available in city centers.)  If the trip is long and a few passengers get off before the last stop, many drivers refuse to continue until the bus is full again, and will circle repeatedly, shouting at passers by (and in my case, often advertising that there is a Farenji on the bus to try to drum up business)—as though if they shout enough, someone will spontaneously decide to drop what they are doing and get on the bus.  So, even once a bus departs, it is unclear when you will arrive, because if you have the bad luck of catching a bus with a few passengers getting off early, your trip could be delayed by hours. 

Worse yet, because drivers have the liberty of determining their routes on a whim, there is no way (at least for an outsider) to predict when or if you even can make a trip.  For example, if there is a celebration in one village on one day, there may be absolutely no busses going to any other villages that day.  If a bus advertises that it is going to one village, but it is not filling quickly enough, the driver may announce (in Amharic, of course) that the bus has changed destinations, and everyone must disembark (which of course means that as you’re happily waiting and listening to your iPod, waiting for the bus to leave, suddenly everyone gets off, for no apparent reason…). 

Another extremely curious aspect of bus transport here (at least curious to me, as a foreigner) is that often a bus will advertise that it is going to one destination, then, midway through the trip, call out the destination, and when you affirm that that’s where you’re going, they pull over and throw you off—clearly not where you intended to be—or grab you by the wrist and shove you on another bus.  (Again, remarkably jarring when you have no idea what they are doing or whether you’ve just been abandoned in the middle of nowhere [hehe, MON!]).  And, again, this seems to be entirely dependant on the driver’s mood, so you can never tell whether you’re taking a direct bus, or will have to transfer (or how many times you’ll have to transfer), or how long your trip will take.  For example, in my trips to and from Awassa, there have been times I’ve gotten a direct bus, which has taken about 3 hours, and other times I’ve had to transfer, up to five times, in which case it’s taken well over 6 hours—and I left at the same time on the same day of the week!

Additionally, because drivers make more money for more trips, their MO is clear: go as fast as they possibly can, even when they are very clearly putting all of their passengers at risk.  Drivers are widely regarded by the general public as greedy and reckless, and, as a broad stereotype, I can’t say I disagree.  There have been many, many, many occasions when I’ve been on a bus and literally every passenger has been yelling and pleading with the driver to slow down, but with no success.  And the worry is genuine—I’ve passed fatal bus crashes on nearly every single long bus journey I’ve taken, and (as mentioned earlier), I’ve even been in a minor crash myself (thank GOD it was as minor as it was and a few stitches were all any of us needed).

In terms of the busses themselves, the quality varies dramatically.  There are two types of busses—minibuses/combi’s, which are essentially vans that seat 15-20 people (not comfortably!)—and large busses which seat maybe 100 people or so.  As consistent with Ethiopian culture, most busses are elaborately adorned with accessories reflecting the drivers’ taste—typically including religious art, futbol team merchandise, brightly colored curtains, faux fur and tassles, or some combination thereof.  Most busses have a great deal of exposed metal, and some form of cushioned seats, though some are made of plastic, and literally look more like giant toy leggo busses, than actual human transport.  The glass in the windows on the busses is ordinary glass—not special shatter-safe car glass—a fact which is brought to your attention every time you go over a bump and the entire bus makes a loud clinking sound.  In Ethiopian culture (as with Batswana culture—it seems to be almost a pan-African view, based on other travelers I’ve talked to), it is considered extremely bad luck to have windows open on a bus, so, in addition to being crowded, busses are also usually quite hot and stuffy, and an attempt to open a window or curtain is typically met with a flurry of hands rushing to slam it closed.

Now, as with most of my writings, I should be clear—this is not intended to be critical, merely to point out the cultural differences which one must adapt to when residing outside of one’s own comfort zone.  And as I said, I think it actually illustrates some of the more subtle manifistations of the broader cultural differences which exist between American and Ethiopian culture.  For example, my most frequently-cited difference: that of the individualistic culture versus the collective culture.  From a collective approach, it makes more sense to organize busses this way—the majority of people reach their destinations faster and more effectively, and no space on the bus is wasted.  From an individual approach, however, it’s quite difficult to swallow, because, while the majority is well-served, those who do not happen to be fortunate enough to be headed in the “right” direction at the “right” time from the “right” starting point, are left in the dust—literally.

It’s also incredibly demonstrative of the difference in the cultural approach to time and planning.  It is literally impossible to create a travel plan with any more accuracy than what day you’ll be arriving or leaving—and sometimes even that isn’t feasible.  To a member of a time-conscious society like the US, it is almost inconceivable to have so little ability to manage your time—it’s not even the waiting that’s frustrating, it’s the lack of understanding and control over the situation that’s difficult for a Westerner to grasp (well, was difficult to grasp—the benefit of this sort of travel is that that sort of thing kind of stops getting to you…most of the time…).  But here, it’s simply expected—things just happen as they happen, and it’s okay to arrive somewhere “late;” plans are flexible, and people genuinely don’t mind the lack of control.  Being faced with such differences, at such a simultaneously micro and macro level is one of the benefits, and stress-factors of travel like this, and really does force you to grapple with the impact that your own culture has had upon you.  And I have to admit, while I appreciate the differences, I really am an American.  But more on that later (in theory, anyway).

Anyway, this blog seems to have come to its natural end, so I’ll just say I’m so sorry I haven’t been writing more; it’s NOT for lack of things to say; I’ve just actually had work to do, made friends, and kept extremely busy—pretty much the opposite of Botswana (and a much more Peace Corps situation than being there was), and as it turns out, being busy basically means I don’t have as much time to contemplate and document everything….but I really am hoping to soon, before I forget it all, and before I return to the US and get sucked back into the cushy web of technology and  hot showers (*sigh* hot showers…*sigh* ;oP).  Love you all so much, and still miss you like crazy, even though I’m really, really loving it here! if you have a spare buck or two—it would mean everything to me!  Three more weeks…so crazy…!!!