One week into my trip, I felt like I had more or less adapted to traveling in Ethiopia. My previous frustrations in Ambo dissolved into nothing more than a blip in my memory.
It helped that my bus ride to Jimma from Nekemte turned out to be damn good fun, which I never would have predicted given my thoroughly unpleasant minibus experience a few days earlier, but I hoped that was a one-off (knock on wood).
I checked out of my hotel in Nekemte around 5:30 am (11:30 Ethiopian time) in order to make it to the bus station for 6:00, apparently when a single bus departs for Jimma, a 7-hour ride south of Nekemte. The hotel desk clerk, who had been sleeping behind the counter on a mattress when I woke him, called one of his friends to give me a ride to the station in his Bajaj.
When we arrived in the early morning darkness, a big crowd was already waiting for the station to open. As soon as it did a few minutes later, we made a mad dash through the chaos of people scrambling to grab a seat on the right bus. The driver insisted on helping me in this mission, carrying one of my bags as we ran through the crowd, guided by the voices of drivers frantically shouting out their respective destinations.
People were quickly piling on board the bus to Jimma when we found it, but I made it with room to spare. This is a great example of a stranger going out of their way (or beyond their job description) to help me. The Bajaj driver asked for very little birr given the early morning call when he was probably still asleep, and I gave him double.
I brought my big backpack on board (instead of having it tied to the roof) and offered to pay for two seats to accommodate it. This ended up being a smart move, and I made a mental note to repeat this strategy for long bus rides from this point on—the ride was much more comfortable because I had extra leg room, and my bag acted as a makeshift pillow. No awkward body contortions needed. I also wouldn't have to wait for someone to offload my bag in Jimma.
The road was paved and very smooth for most of the way, and we passed through multiple small villages, the bus occasionally stopping at police checkpoints and once for some young boys selling khat (or chat) to passengers through the open bus windows.
Khat is a plant grown in Ethiopia (mainly in and around Harar in the east) that has mild amphetamine-like effects, which are experienced through chewing, often communally and for hours on end. Although it is perfectly legal, popular, and traditionally connected to Islamic culture in Ethiopia, there also seems to be a bit of a stigma attached to chewing khat, at least with regards to the growing number of young people doing it simply to pass the time (youth unemployment is high because there is a lack of jobs).
Some citizens are worried that khat addiction is cultivating an epidemic of lazy, unproductive youth, but at the same time, the sense of community created around chewing khat is considered to promote social bonding and integration.
A bundle of khat (image courtesy of Atirse Atto)
Perhaps the practice is perceived in a similar way as smoking marijuana is viewed in the West (i.e., it is controversial). Interestingly, marijuana is illegal in Ethiopia while khat is legal, but vice versa in Canada (marijuana is legal and khat is not). Apparently, khat also generates more revenue for the government per acre than any other crop grown in Ethiopia (even greater than coffee), which is one of the main reasons for its legality.
But back to the bus ride.
The western highlands are absolutely breathtaking, with the landscape becoming more lush, green, and vibrant as we headed south (taking photos through a smudgy window in a moving bus didn't yield good results, unfortunately). As the sun streamed through the windows and a funky mix of African beats and reggae played over the stereo, my mood was soaring the entire way to Jimma (and no, not from chewing khat, which I had no interest in trying).
The passengers eventually got over the fact that a faranji was on board, so I could just relax and enjoy the atmosphere, occasionally talking with the two guys sitting in front of me. Of course, it was the same old song and dance if someone on the side of the road got a glimpse of me, and when we stopped in Bedele for a breakfast break, I resumed my unicorn status.
A bus break in Bedele en route to Jimma
Lesson of the day: buses are preferable to minibuses (but you might not have an option).
I checked into Coffee Land Hotel (the sign reads "Hoteela Koofiilaandii," its singsongy name in Oromifa) directly across from the bus station. Since I planned to leave for Bonga in the morning, the location was perfectly convenient. For 300 birr, the room was clean, had a mosquito net for the bed, hot water, and reliable wifi. It was noisy even though I had a room facing the back of the building, but overall, the value was very good, and I planned to stay there again when I transited back through Jimma after Bonga.
View of Jimma's bus station (left) from Coffee Land Hotel
After quickly setting up shop, I walked across the busy street to Central Jimma Hotel, a hotspot with the locals for pastries, coffee, beer, and decent food. It was also a good location for people watching, although this worked both ways—sitting close to the street left me more exposed to passersby and thus more susceptible to the predictable "Faranji!" or "You, you, you!" taunt.
I ordered shiro tegamino again (but it wasn't as tasty as the one I had in Nekemte) and a mango juice. As a university town, Jimma is fairly modern (at least compared to the other towns I had been transiting), but, similar to Nekemte, it doesn't have much in the way of tourist attractions. Its main market day is Thursday, which I had just missed. Given this, I hung out in my hotel room and took advantage of the wifi to check in with friends, listen to music, and write. I welcomed this opportunity for mundane activities and relaxation.
The Four Lions roundabout in Jimma
Despite my persistent gastro issues, I was starting to embrace the nomadic lifestyle. In terms of keeping up with my appearance, it was all downhill after Addis, but there is a sense of relief in abandoning the expendable routines that I associate with my life in the West. I didn't comb my hair, wore no makeup (only sunscreen), and rarely shaved my legs.
I was not totally roughing it in terms of my accommodation choices, but clean laundry and hot showers became luxuries. The freedom to roam coupled with the freedom to look like shit feels pretty damn good (okay, technically I can choose the second option anytime, anywhere, but I'm more inclined to let myself go when I'm a stranger in a distant land).
Overnight, the hotel room was stifling (even with the windows cracked open), but I slept pretty decently under the protective canopy of my mosquito net. This was the first place where mosquitoes really revealed themselves, but since it wasn't quite rainy season, which begins in April and lasts until September in the southwest, they weren't yet rampant, luckily.
I had also decided to start taking the antibiotics I packed—it had been over three days of unpleasant symptoms, and if I was about to go trekking in Kafa, this would be a shitty thing to take along with me (no pun intended), especially if I ended up camping.
That morning, I climbed aboard a minibus headed for Bonga, the capital of the Kafa region, which would take 2–3 hours.
The minibus smelled like something foul, and the dude sitting beside me conveniently had a terrible cough that he openly directed into the confined space of the minibus—I cringed every time he hacked away and hoped it was not something I would soon be adding as the cherry on top of my current state of sickness.
Luckily, my Buff scarf (I love these things) came in handy, which I pulled up around my face, leaving only my sunglasses uncovered, for most the ride. For some reason, I had to change minibuses halfway through the journey. This second bus was caked with dirt in the interior, and again, the driver was keen to pack it to the brim with people. I instead insisted on paying for two seats to avoid a recap of the ride to Nekemte. This tactic worked again, so the ride was bearable.
Since it was Sunday morning, we drove past groups of women on their way to church in colorful dresses, and I spotted a few baboons hanging out with colobus monkeys on the side of the road. Unfortunately for me, Sunday also meant that the tourist office in Bonga, which I needed to locate in order to arrange my visit to the biosphere reserve, was closed (ditto for Bonga's coffee museum), so I had to spend yet another day hanging out at my hotel (also called Coffee Land Hotel, coincidentally). I knew I could hold out another day for the wilderness, but my patience was starting to wane a bit.
Bonga, the capital of buna (coffee)
To be honest, I had wondered a few times by now just how much I was actually enjoying the trip and how much I was trying to prove to myself that I'm a self-sufficient motherfucker in Africa. Was being uncomfortable, stressed, sick, and tired from the transit time really worth all this effort?
Not to mention the inescapable attention from locals, which had also started to become draining. When I was in a bad mood (no doubt compounded by the aforementioned symptoms), I viewed the incessant taunting as harassment, but I also knew that this harassment was harmless and fused with the experience of being a foreigner. I just had to accept the good with the bad and make light of it. These slightly negative thoughts never actually had the power to derail me, but it was important to acknowledge and reflect upon them when they arose.
You could argue that I was having a more "authentic" experience by traveling using the local transport, but there is something to be said about arranging a guided tour (with private transport). Of course it's more expensive to travel this way and takes away the challenge and element of adventure to an extent (depending on how luxurious and structured the tour), but it lightens the logistical load when someone else is running the show and your only duty is to enjoy the experience.
The value of having a local guide is certainly not lost on me, and I have always hired guides in the past for trekking (and once for a street tour of Old Delhi). A knowledgeable guide enriches an experience by providing context and meaning to a foreign culture, and you are putting (often) much-needed money directly into someone's pocket.
I knew I needed to seek out a guide for Kafa not only to keep me from getting lost in the rainforest but for these reasons. This was the middle ground between the solo experience and a fully-organized tour catering to comfort and convenience.
A similar argument exists in favor of having a trusty travel companion to lean on. Buddying up diffuses the impact of stressful situations when they arise and potentially enhances safety (perhaps most as a woman traveling with a man as a way to deter harassment or worse).
It's great when your travel companion possesses complementary skills (i.e., one is better at communicating with strangers while the other is a navigation pro), but maybe more importantly, sharing a (good or bad) travel experience with a friend (or even a stranger) adds a valuable dimension to an experience and builds intimacy and trust. Again, none of these benefits are lost on me.
But I knew before the trip began that I wanted a "pure" backpacking adventure that once again tugged at the boundaries of my comfort zone. At the same time, I recognized that I would have to take into consideration my limitations with respect to time and energy and compromise on a few aspects in the name of safety and level of enjoyment. After all, it was supposed to be a vacation.
After ruminating on these thoughts for a while, I eventually shut off my tired brain (but not the light, because there was no power) and gave into sleep.