Minibus (Part I: Welcome to Hell)

Minibus from hell

Minibus from hell

At 3 am the horn honks outside our hotel. It’s dark and cool outside. Mark and I are both packed and waiting to go. I have indulged in a glorious 4-minute freezing cold water-bucketing.

Despite the fun we’ve had in Harar, we are ready to say goodbye to her, her hyenas, her ancient walls, and her wonderful people. The driver is on time, which makes me happy. It is the last pleasant thought I will have for 12 hours.

The night guard waves goodbye and the driver points us to the minibus, which in the dark looks unassuming. Our transport to Addis Ababa. A minibus. Like every hotel airport shuttle. A bus-van hybrid, low roof, sliding door, maximum seating capacity ten average-sized people, eleven vegetarians, or twelve female gymnasts.

We swing around Harar in the dark morning picking up the rest of the bus’s passengers. There are two women near a shantytown here, a man coming out of a patch of woods there. Another man carrying quilts jumps in as the bus slows, but doesn’t stop. He is small, dark, with trim hair and a half-goatee. He leaps into the only solo seat just behind the sliding back door, instantly unrolls his quilts, stretches his miniature form out as far as it can reach and covers himself from head to toe in quilt.

Anyone else who comes in the door trips over his outstretched legs and he literally whines at them. The nerve of the old women stumbling on his legs in the doorway in the pitch black. Mark and I exchange a glance of pure hatred that can only be bred from being crammed into a minibus before 4 am: we loathe him.

Let’s discuss Ethiopian physics. While the minibus from hell would safely and comfortably transport ten or eleven people to Addis Ababa, the Ethiopian driver running this bus service does not see it like that. What he sees is the wasted opportunity to stuff nine more people into the bus in order to make as much money as he can on this run.

By 4 am, the bus is packed. Packed. There are nineteen people in a minibus meant for eleven. They are squashed into seats and sitting in the only aisle on gasoline cans. They are sitting sideways in front of other passenger’s legs and pressed against the dashboard. We are four in the backseat clearly meant for three. The last asshole to get in asks if he can have the window, and in a moment I’ll regret for the rest of my life, I let him have it. Since we are packed in like Tetris cubes, he has to slip in through the back window.

At about 4:30 am we pull into what we recognize as the square outside of Harar’s city walls. We had been in its hectic embrace the afternoon before, but the mood now is completely different. The place is teeming with men, fucking alive, breathing, pulsing with activity in what should be the quiet of predawn. Men literally stomp around fires, both of the bon and random varieties. Men press themselves against the windows and glare at us in aggressive curiosity, their mouths open, their eyes unwavering.

The whole thing is a scene out of a movie. One of those scenes during which you stretch out your legs on the couch, sip your drink, stuff another handful of popcorn into your maw, and say, “Boy, that would suck.”

An argument breaks out as the driver’s assistant tries to stuff a 20th person in the minibus in the 12-inch gap in front of Mark’s seat. Mark and the man in front of us – the two tallest men in the bus – argue vehemently that while they might see a gap there, there will be no place for Mark and this other man’s legs to go. After ten minutes, the driver’s assistant finally escorts the 20th Man from the bus with a bitter look of resentment on his face.

Mark says, “If they try to put someone there again, I am headbutting that driver in the face.”

It’s at this moment, pinned uncomfortably between people in a muggy, stuffy minibus dreading a ten-hour ride that hasn’t begun yet, that I think three things:

1. How did I get myself into this?

2. Can I get myself out of this?

3. Fuck.

Mark and I discuss our options, perhaps we’ll get out and try to find a flight. Perhaps we’ll just rent a car. But before any of these thoughts can be developed, the minibus from hell roars back to life and we embark into the dark African morning.

Does Mark headbutt the driver? Does the small guy in quilts get more annoying? Do we pick up another person? How do baboons figure into this ride? To find out, tune in on Monday for Minibus from Hell (Part II: The Ride)   

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