January 11, 2014
11:30 p.m. local time
Bethel Guest House
Addis Ababa, Ethiopa
Once my gap-toothed friend and I decided on a price for his tour-guide services, I figured that he would leave me. I said, “I need your help for one more thing. I need to find a private taxi to take me back to my guest house.”
A private taxi, I had learned, was the kind you took alone. A public taxi is what Americans might call a “shared” taxi. And I knew I wouldn’t find anyone going back to the Bethel Hospital region of the city, which is where my guest house is located.
My friend, feeling generous with 500 birr in his pocket, took a practical approach. “We take minibus to Meskel Square,” he said. “Then I find taxi for you. Or you take minibus to Bethel Hospital.”
We stood by the side of the busy main street in downtown Addis Ababa. A little van drove by, filthy, crammed with men and women and children, the sliding door open. Too full.
Another one drove by. A teenager hovered just inside, holding onto the sliding door, crying out the destination.
A third and a fourth passed us in rapid sequence. A fifth approached and my companion waved his hand briefly. The van pulled up, a few people got off, and we squeezed in. It reminded me of the VW vans that Christian Life Church used to own in the 1970s. I can still see Robin Stearns, one of the Royal Ranger leaders, trying to get that van into second gear while we Rangers filled the back seats, unbuckled. While Robin muttered and tried to force the gears, the boys in the back sang songs and told stories and made a ruckus, so excited to be headed to the Belmont Pool for for our monthly swimming night. The gearbox was terrible on those old vans.
The ride in the Addis minivan was not quite as bad as you might think. Every kilometer or so, we pulled over, and the kid at the door holding a wad of cash would slide open the door and yell out our destination. If someone hailed us, we stopped. If not, he pulled the door closed and on we went. We were at Meskel Square in 10 minutes.
When I unfolded myself, I was back in the cheerless square where I had started my downtown adventure. But now I had a guide who I had just paid good money to, and he was my advocate. He ordered me, “You stay here.” And then he ran around to the other minibuses, inquiring if any were headed in my direction. Finding none, he approached a driver in one of those little Lada minicars. I told him I had paid 1200 birr for my morning trip, and I didn’t want to pay any more than that. So he spoke to the driver, negotiating, cajoling, convincing. I swear, it felt good to have my own Amharic advocate.
Back at the guest house, I asked if the water was back on. Yes, the cistern had been filled! But no, I still didn’t have any water in my bathroom. The maid had placed a full bucket of water next to my toilet, just for flushing. I was actually grateful rather than put out.
But when I tried the bath tub faucet again in 10 or 15 minutes, I got a steady trickle of brown water. I quickly plugged the drain and let the water flow. Within 10 minutes, the brown water had climbed to about 5 inches in the tub. I unwrapped my bar of Irish Spring, brought from home, and slid into the tepid sludge. Yikes, it was cold. But you get used to it, don’t you. That’s the African way, I think. You get used to it.
Kitty and her team arrived from their retreat center at about 4 p.m., and by 6 we were enjoying takeout from the Alternet Cafe, where I had eaten last night. It was a lively and fun dinner — the quiet Aussie doctor, his organized wife, and their three kids. The young Chinese-Malaysian-Australian doctor. The Swiss teacher who had been an exchange student in Michigan. The Kiwi nurse who always gets ribbed by the Australians. And of course Kitty, my American friend whom I’d come all this way to see. Some of our group ate burgers, but my half of the table had traditional Ethiopian food — injera and several sauces and meats to go with it. Delightful.
And after dinner, I opened up my bags and presented Kitty with the 75 pounds of Christmas gifts from her friends, family, and church back home. She was pretty excited, I must say.