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  • Writer's pictureRogue Chemist

Escape from Ambo

My stomach started to grumble in that familiar, ominous way after my hike in Wenchi, and a restless sleep (interrupted by quality toilet time) didn't offer much relief. I was hoping to get away with not getting sick (like I somehow managed to pull off in India), but those hopes were quickly dashed four days into my trip.

So, while I still had some untapped energy left in the tank (basically my fuel was the burning desire to leave Ambo) and an empty stomach (I felt like even a crumb of injera would quickly end up in the toilet), I was eager to continue my journey west and leave on a bus heading to Nekemte (also in the Oromia region of the country) ASAP.

I felt like I could not leave Ambo fast enough, but the town conspired against me.

A thunderstorm had passed through the previous night and left the town without power. I was keen to catch an early morning bus, but two parallel inconveniences delayed my escape: the ATMs at the banks were offline due to the power outage (I needed cash for my bus ticket), and no one seemed to know what happened to the laundry I had dropped off at the reception desk the day before, which I was assured would be ready for that morning.

After getting the runaround from the hotel clerk (the same one who accompanied me to Wenchi without an invitation), I was directed to a very confused cleaning lady, eventually ending up back at the reception desk where I started.

I resorted to Endale to locate my laundry bag, and he found it exactly where the hotel clerk (a different one) had left it the day before—at the reception desk, of course—still full of dirty clothes. I had already paid for the clothes to be washed (which was a no-no on the part of the hotel clerk, apparently—Endale said that I should not have paid in advance), and I was told I could not be refunded.

Not caring much about 100 birr and desperate to get the hell out of Dodge at this point, I stuffed my dirty clothes into my backpack and headed on foot to the bus station (luckily, the ATMs were back online).

As I've said before, if you decide to take the minibus in Ethiopia, don't expect it to be particularly safe or comfortable. That being said, the level of discomfort is pretty reasonable to endure on short rides within a city, but longer distances can seriously test your tolerance limits, as I would quickly find out.

Locating a minibus to Nekemte from Ambo at the station was easy enough, but the driver insisted on packing it beyond capacity, as is customary, so it wasn't exactly the speedy getaway I was hoping for. My stomach groaned in discontent.

Just when I thought we were "full," passengers continued to trickle into the minibus, a few of the latecomers having to sit on the laps of other passengers. One woman vehemently protested when the driver demanded she make room for yet another passenger (when there was clearly no room). They argued back and forth for a good five minutes, and the driver eventually got his way. When we departed about a half hour after I got on board, I was already ready to get the hell off.

If the ten-hour bus ride from Guwahati to Naharlagun last year in northeast India was hell, by my very accurate math, this almost five-hour ride was approximately hell multiplied by three.

I was sandwiched in the middle of the very back row between three other passengers, with the added discomfort of my back pressing against the junction between two seats, forcing me to awkwardly shift my body sideways to make myself fit into this grotesque human puzzle.

I had the feeling I would become an expert contortionist before this trip was over.

As the late morning heat of the sun began to set in, the van quickly became an oven, cooking us canned sardines. And since I wasn't sitting beside a window, I had no control over the airflow. Despite my intermittent requests to open a window, no one near me wanted to keep one open except in short bursts, so I just had to suck it up and stick it out.

Did I mention I'm claustrophobic?

Making matters worse, my aching stomach added another element of danger to the ride. Every bump off the seat and sudden jolt (and there were many) made my bowels churn.

Let the good times roll.

I realize it's not the smartest idea in a hot country, and I don't recommend this strategy, but I usually purposely dehydrate myself on long bus rides to minimize the need to pee (and in this case, I didn't want to tip my stomach over the edge, either). Maybe it was the dehydration causing me to drift off, but I think I slipped into a meditative state at some point, where I just absorbed all the unpleasantness and held my shit together (literally) until the end.

I knew this style of trip wouldn't all be fun and games, and in the grand scheme of things, these types of troubles are all minor annoyances that I can laugh about (sometimes in the moment and sometimes after the fact). Finding humor in uncomfortable situations is luckily one of my strong suits. As long as I'm safe, I'm happy.

Fighting exhaustion and dehydration and looking exactly how I felt (like shit), I immediately checked into Farmland Hotel, one of the better hotels in Nekemte listed in my guidebook with hot water, wifi, and its own restaurant. In my shitty state, I needed a good rest, food I didn't have to search for outside while feeling like a dying unicorn (I had already reached my tolerance limit for drawing attention on my way to the hotel), and a long, hot shower.

View from my balcony at Farmland Hotel in Nekemte

The hotel only had double rooms with two single beds available (for 500 birr per night), but I didn't care about the extra expense. I ate a meal of fasting firfir (a big plate of torn-up injera soaked in spicy berbere sauce, which is typically eaten by Orthodox Christians for breakfast on Wednesday and Friday, the designated fasting days). Not so good for the stomach, but again, I didn't care. My weary soul needed the extra kick.

I was neither physically nor mentally prepared to take on another potentially hellish 7-hour bus ride to Jimma at 6 am (0 o'clock) the following morning, so I decided to lay low in Nekemte for another day/night. On the bright side, this provided a second opportunity for laundry (the hotel actually took care of it quickly, and for only 50 birr!) as well as time to write and recover a little from my rundown state. Again ignoring my protesting stomach, I ate a delicious meal of shiro tegamino (a spicy chickpea purée served boiling hot in a small pot and scooped onto the injera as needed).

Shiro tegamino

Admittedly, I was feeling a bit lackluster at this point in my trip and was looking forward to transiting this string of uninspiring stopover towns and towards wilderness (namely the Kafa Biosphere Reserve). I had not had much peace and quiet due to having hotel rooms facing busy streets. (Ear plugs helped, but I made a mental note to ask for a non-streetside room next time.) I could really have used something to reinvigorate my senses other than noisy traffic and locals exclaiming "Faranji!" at me at every turn.

I had enough energy that day to go for a short walk around the vicinity of my hotel and discovered Wollega Museum, one of two tourist attractions in Nekemte mentioned in my guidebook. It was closed even though I was within the opening times listed at the entrance.

I then asked a Bajaj driver to take me to the second tourist attraction, Kumsa Moroda Palace, and again faced a closed gate despite arriving perfectly within opening hours. The armed security guard just shook his head, unsmiling, from behind the gate without providing any meaningful indication of an opening time, so the Bajaj driver turned around and I went back to my hotel, slightly frustrated.

Apparently, opening times (at least for some establishments) are completely irrelevant. Coming from the West, where businesses run predictably and adhere to a fixed schedule, this kind of less structured system is hard to adapt to.

As far as small towns go, Nekemte seemed pretty nondescript, a conclusion I came to after browsing the main streets. But it didn't really matter much because I was in no shape to go hunting for hidden treasure, anyway.

I did come across a few treasures, though, when I returned to Wollega Museum in the afternoon (and was pleased to find it open). I got the impression that I was the only visitor that day, or even for many days. The guide couldn't speak English, but excitedly showed me the small collection of animal skulls, traditional tools and clothing, and other ethnological representations of Wollega culture.

Remnants of an Italian fighter plane shot down in 1935 in Nekemte by the Black Lion patriots, which sits on display in front of Wollega Museum

While walking around the town, I passed a few young boys sitting on the side of the street. One greeted me in English, so I asked him for directions to the main market. I thanked him and he offered to show me, but I graciously declined (it was just down the street) and started walking away. I heard running behind me, and surprise, there he was, stating he was on his way to school anyway and could walk with me (again, this persistence to accompany tourists seems to be a theme).

He asked me if I was traveling alone, and I said yes. I don't typically lie about this fact because I like for people to know that it's perfectly fine for a woman to travel alone, but on the other hand, I would definitely lie if I felt uncomfortable or threatened (I also certainly wouldn't tell someone where I was staying).

He responded with, "Someone might try to kill you here."

Not exactly a laughing matter, but I laughed (lightly) anyway and asked him what he meant. He then suggested that someone could strangle me. After a few quick moments of consideration, I knew this was the language barrier and not a death threat. I think he meant to say that it was dangerous to travel alone as a woman and was looking out for me by suggesting the gruesome possibilities and shady folks I could encounter, but being told this by friends and strangers alike isn't exactly new to me, so I wasn't too fazed.

Death threat or not, I ditched him (with a goodbye and thank you, of course) at the market, which was unfortunately almost dead because it wasn't one of the main market days (i.e., Thursday and Saturday). Bad timing. Oh well.

Onwards and southwards (to Jimma).


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