The early morning darkness was buzzing with chatter of conductors announcing the destinations of their respective buses.
“Nazret, Nazret, Nazret,” a man yells.
“Gambella?” I ask in a questioning tone, he points in a direction. People dash here and there with their loads of goods wrapped and bound with blue plastic and rope. Some I suspect were heading home, others seeking new opportunities.
Thoughts floated through my head of warnings given to me about the bus station.
“Beware, there are many thieves at the station,” I was told by several people. I walk with a purpose in my step to create a sense that I know what I’m doing.
I approach the bus to hear “Mr. Dean” from the conductor. I had purchased my ticket the night before and made an acquaintance with him.
“We saved you a seat up front,” he explains.
This is a real bonus, because in the back of the bus you tend to spend more time in mid air then in your seat, as the bus bounces over potholes.
I watched my backpack being hoisted to the roof of the red bus and made a mental note of its location.
It’s 6 a.m. and now we wait for an hour, as people jockey for seats on a bus that has more passengers then space. Eventually the driver honks the horn to announce it is time to leave. How, I’m not sure, people and other buses surround our bus.
I squeezed into my tiny space, with my knees banging against the metal backing of the seat in front of me and peeked out the curtain to see the faces of those left behind.
The journey to Gambella had begun.
My purpose in taking the bus to Gambella was to learn about a small part the journey many Sudanese refugees in Ethiopia endured as they moved from the camps in Gambella to Nebraska. This is one segment of a long journey for them, but it is one that I am personally able to do in my quest to understand.
I glance to look at the back of the bus and smile. I am going to share this tin box with this group for the next two full days. Gambella is not a major tourist destination and generally “faranji” or foreigners fly or take a private car, so the curious looks I receive from people is not a big surprise. A young child shyly smiles back before her eyes turn toward the floor.
“Where you from?” The person sitting next to me asks.
I’m from America, I respond.
“Which state” he asks again.
“Alaska?” he replies in a questioning tone.
“No,” I said, “Neeeebraska.”
“I don’t know where that is,” he says.
“That’s OK,” I say with a smile, “Most people don’t, it’s in the middle.”
This is the same conversation I have everywhere I go, with almost everyone I meet.
For several hours we weave down the road winding through small herds of cows and goats, slower cars or potholes.
At the breakfast stop a man who calls himself “Freedom” latches on to me and insists on buying my food. “It is our way,” said Freedom, “to watch over you.”
“Thank you,” I replied, “You’re very kind.”
Problems begin to occur with the bus; several times through the day we stopped to fix something until eventually it would go no further.
After an hour a new bus appeared. But now the real circus begins. Apparently there is a dispute between the two drivers for money.
The next four hours are filled with shouting, hand waiving, gestures and facial expressions. In the middle of it all a woman passenger is taken to the hospital with labor pains. A man passes a hat to collect money for her.
A policeman shows up and everyone departs the bus and insists on telling their version of the situation. This is conducted with more arm waving and expressions. This whole scene is repeated two more times as more police show up.
On the bus, off the bus, on, off, on, off.
Finally one of the police waves his hands, and it’s over, everyone boards the bus one last time. Away we go, four hours late, with dim headlights down the dark dirt road.
Eventually we end up in a small remote town that is quiet and locked up.
Where are we I ask?
“Agaro,” replies Freedom.
I look at the map, and say to myself, yes, it’s on the way to Gambella.
We find a room for 12 Birr or $1.50.
“Time for sleep,” says Freedom, the bus will leave in four hours. “I’ll knock on your door.”