There's nothing quite like flying in over a golden sandy landscape, dotted with spreading acacia trees and lumbering camels, to tell you "You are somewhere else now." I left egregious forehead prints on the windows of that little jet that took us to Dire Dawa from Addis Ababa, I'm sure, but I couldn't get enough of what I was seeing. I wanted to physically grab it all up and stuff it into my brain so that I could live on it for the rest of my life.
The sun-parched strip of tarmac outside the Dire Dawa airport somehow proved to be of a more comfortable temperature than the interior of the terminal, but it still felt scorching. We ambled down the steps of the plane that had been filled with families, businessmen, young journalists headed toward Somaliland and an English guy we'd see every few days or so throughout our trip, and it was just us two and a mother and toddler who stopped to gawp at a monkey in a tree. Dignity and excitement, oil and water.
We hopped into one of the waiting taxis outside of the terminal and were shortly on our way into Dire Dawa. Each passing foot of scenery hit me right in the pleasure center of my brain. The dramatic trees throwing their branches out wide, the trotting goats, the donkeys loitering by corrals made of lashed-together trees, the camels. The camels, you guys. I love me a dromedary.
Our taxi driver was familiar with the drill of what we wanted to do: move on quickly to Harar. No offense to Dire Dawa — an attractive town in its own right, with broad, tree-shaded avenues and a reputedly colorful market — but time was short and we were keen to push on to this place that had been bewitching our imaginations for the past few months. This is not uncommon for travelers flying into Dire Dawa. The alternatives for getting to Harar from Addis - a painfully long train, or a painfully long drive - make flying in and taking a 2 hour bus ride rather more alluring, particularly with the bargain-basement prices on Ethiopian Airlines.*
The taxi driver took us to the bus ... area. It's not a station, just an open area between some buildings where buses congregate, par for the course in a lot of places we've been in the past. In a helpful gesture, the taxi driver asked the crew of one bus if they were going to Harar, and when they replied in the affirmative, prices started bouncing around. Mr. Taxi was trying to do right by us, and the bus crew were keen to maybe squeak out a few more birr. When I chimed in with "30 for one, 60 for two" in Amharic, it was something of a surprise to them. My hours of feebly trying to memorize words that I've found useful in other languages worked a charm. That very reasonable price was agreed upon amid high fives and fist bumps and shoulder touches and smiling.
I don't mention that to be a braggart, all "You guys, my Amharic skills are really top-notch." I mention it because it illustrates what great things can happen when you put in a little effort and try to be respectful. Of course, you also have to give up worrying about making mistakes. I suck at Amharic, I know nothing, but I tried a little bit, in a horrendously bad accent, and six little words made us a few friends who we got to hang out with for the next few hours.
Actually, it was more hours than we anticipated. Even with the knowledge that in situations like this, the "schedule" is "minibus will leave when minibus is full, and minibus will stop intermittently in towns and along remote roadsides to disgorge and/or pick up new passengers." However, our schedule was:
- Sit in bus yard for relatively short period of time.
- Pull out of yard, head toward outskirts of town. Hooray!
- Just outside of town, pull over into other lane, driver and assistants talk to a statuesque woman all in black.
- Turn and drive back into town.
- Drive down a street, park in the shade, open doors.
- Sit for an undetermined amount of time in excess of an hour, as driver and assistants leave and come back at random intervals.
- Watch as several Ethiopian passengers get frustrated, get out and leave, giving a few choice words to the crew as they walk away.
- Temporarily forget what the driver actually looks like, and what he was wearing.
- Oh yes, a green shirt.
- When everyone from the crew gets back in, hope, with an intensity you haven't had to tap into in about a year's time, that you will actually be leaving.
- Exhale heavily upon the turning over of the ignition. Inhale deeply as the bus is put into gear.
- Drive toward the outskirts of town.
- Pull over to the side of the road outside a blue building.
- Feel your sanity quake as the driver and assistants get out and walk to the building, which seems to have a cafe out front.
- Tell some kids out the window that you're very sorry, but you're not giving out money.
- Wonder what is going on.
- Don't question it when the driver and assistants get back in the bus, rev it up and drive at breakneck speed out of town, coloring outside the lane lines as they go and sharing qat with the very high dude riding in between the driver and his front-seat assistant.
From there on, it was smooth and very entertaining sailing. The guys in charge of the bus asked me what else I knew in Amharic and they and the rest of the passengers seemed entertained by my meager collection of words. More handshakes, more smiles, more laughing across language barriers. An offer of qat, a gift of fried fish and bananas at a roadside stop.
Eventually, we rolled down Harar's lengthy introductory boulevard and pulled into the bus yard. We piled out into the swirling activity, and exchanged handshakes, shoulder bumps and farewells, the interval of "what the hell is going on with this bus?" long since forgotten.
*Price not indicative of service or quality. Ethiopian Airlines is a fine, fine organization and perhaps they would like me to edit their in-flight magazine? It could use a red pen here and there.