“All the adversity I’ve had in my life, all my troubles and obstacles, have strengthened me…You may not realize it when it happens, but a kick in the teeth may be the best thing in the world for you.”-Walt Disney
It’s pitch black and I can’t see my hand in front of my face, but I can feel something. And as I start to regain consciousness, the pain intensifies. It feels like tiny pieces of my skin are slowly being gnawed out of my body.
Oh no. Not ants again.
I jump out of bed and flick the lights on. It’s a disturbing scene. Hundreds of beady-eyed mosquitos are hovering just above my bed sheets.
I was so tired from not sleeping the night before that when I finally found a room in Moyale I instantly threw myself into bed. Now I see there is a hole the size of Alaska in my mosquito net. I frantically try to shoo the pests away, but they’re not going anywhere. They love me. And if anything, I’m only getting them riled up.
Now I see why this motel room was only five dollars.
My left arm is already throbbing, and when I look down at it, I can see that a pimply rash has broken out. This isn’t from mosquitoes. I know from recent, embarrassing experience that it’s due to bed bugs, they’re occupying the filthy sheets I’ve been sleeping on.
But I’m so drained from the rollercoaster of the last 48 hours that it almost doesn’t matter. And since I don’t have any other options as far as sleeping arrangements go – I have to make the most of it. This is the nicest and only available place to sleep in Moyale, and it’s the middle of the night anyway.
I tie a knot in the mosquito net, dust down my sheets as best I can, and tentatively lay back down. There’s no way round this. Hope you enjoy me, guys.
I can’t stop clawing at my skin the next morning as I enter the Ethiopian immigration office.
As I walk in someone yells, “Hey white man!” This immediately hits a nerve. The word sarcasm is derived from the Greek word “sarkazein” which translates: “to tear or strip the flesh off.” And since the literal translation happened to me last night, I’m a deeply unreceptive audience for anything else along those lines this morning.
Yes, relentless sarcasm is my least favorite trait in another human being – but as I remind myself to stop taking things so seriously, I realize the tone’s friendly, playful. It’s ironic banter from another traveler.
It’s a funny thing: the more seasoned a traveler you are, the less you seem to need names. Today is no different. Instead, we exchange info about where we’ve come from and where we’re headed. His strawberry blonde hair and blue eyes were minted in Denmark, and he too is trying to travel across Africa, doing the reverse of my route, Cairo to Cape Town. He has covered all the ground that I am about to embark upon.
And since I refuse to use guidebooks or Google searches this is serendipity at its finest!
He answers all my questions about what I can expect in Ethiopia, the safety situation in Sudan, and tells me about a ferry that will take me across Lake Nasser, right up to the Egyptian border. In return, I answer all his questions about the route he will need to take through Kenya, Tanzania and Malawi and I tell him to make sure not to miss Tofo Beach in Mozambique.
And just like that, with that five-minute chance encounter, I have all the information, and maybe more importantly the confidence, that I need to keep pushing forward.
But there’s still one snag in my plan. Since I had to wait for the Ethiopian immigration office to open this morning, I missed the only bus that was going to Addis Ababa today. There is absolutely no way I’m going back to that filthy roach motel I was in last night, so I decide to head to the empty field in the center of town which serves as Moyale’s bus station. There’s only one bus in the lot, destination unknown. I clamber on anyway.
This bus is half the size of the Moyale Liner I was on yesterday. The driver waits until twenty people are uncomfortably wedged into fifteen seats before he makes any sign of preparing to leave.
At nine-fifteen, the engine starts jerkily – and even though I’m squished into my seat and my knees are in my throat (again), I’m feeling rejuvenated.
It’s exciting not knowing where this bus going. It’s the ultimate freedom in the midst of a life that’s turning into one leap of faith after another. So far all along my route, I have had hotels expecting me in cities that I knew I would arrive in, but this is different. There’s something magical about being on this bus. It’s just me and everything I own, bumbling down an unknown road in Ethiopia. This is it! This is what I’ve always wanted! When I was working for someone else and going through the same routine day after day, this is exactly what I envisioned.
But I’ve had to abandoned everything I know to get here, my job (and the paychecks and health insurance that went with it), my car, most of my clothes and the comforts that come with having a place to call home in the hope that something greater would boomerang back to me. I’ve been doing all this without the assurance that my dreams will actually manifest themselves into reality…
Yep – this boils down to one word, faith.
Faith is defined as a strong belief or trust in someone or something that is not based on proof. Faith is jumping out of an airplane and trusting that your parachute will open. Faith is traveling across Kenya in a bus that looks like a juicy target for Al-Shabaab. Faith is willing to invest your life savings in the pursuit of your deepest dream.
And today, faith is getting on this bus and having no idea where it’s going.
Again today, I’m surrounded by people that only speak Arabic – except for one other passenger. He’s around twenty-five years old, and in broken English he tells me that he works at the bank in Moyale – and that we’re heading to Yabelo, where I can transfer to another bus to Hagere Maryam. Apparently I can spend the night there, and get a bus early the next morning that will take me the rest of the way to Addis Ababa.
For a few months now Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia, has been my Holy Grail. As I waited in Uganda for six weeks while my passport was getting the visas I required back in the United States, I just kept thinking, if only I can make it to Addis Ababa, then Cairo will be within reach. (Or, at a minimum, I could stop there for a while and assess the risk of crossing into Sudan and Egypt, and make some sort of educated decision about weather or not I should keep going.)
After the Al-Shabaab attack in Kenya this week, Addis Ababa became my safe haven, the destination that meant safety and security and that I could stop looking over my shoulder every two seconds.
The bus shakes me out of my reverie as it rattles down yet another stretch of endless potholes. Then, out of nowhere, the two guys in seat in front of me stand up, scream at one another in Arabic and then start swinging their fists at each other’s faces.
After a few wild haymakers, the bus sways and the fight lands on my lap. I try to stand up but the bus swerves again and we all fall forward. I’m now smack-dab in the middle of the fight, and fists are flying underneath my chin (this is one of those moments that I’m really glad I’m tall.) I reach down and push the combatants away from each other, stretching my arms out as wide as they’ll go. The bus erupts into chaos. What is it about East African buses?
As I keep the two combatants apart, another passenger jumps up and grabs the aggressor until everyone cools down.
Sadly, the tension lingers. It doesn’t help that we are being stopped at every police checkpoint along the way. Every twenty minutes we have to file off the bus so an officer can inspect our luggage for weapons and contraband. I’m always singled out and separated from the group and asked to unpack my belongings under the watchful policemen’s eye. The tripod I carry always causes the most problems – at first glance, most of them assume it’s a weapon, so I have to unfold it and show them how my camera fits on top.
Under the midafternoon sun the bus stops in the middle – and I mean the middle – of nowhere. No one or no thing is around. It’s definitely not a police checkpoint, and I’m praying that we don’t have a flat tire because it’s never-ending desert frontier, and all I can see is miles and miles of sand. …
Except suddenly, rising from the horizon like a beautiful mirage, come six women swaddle in bright red and yellow cloths. They run up to the bus with giant smiles – and carrying giant jugs of creamy-white camel milk. Understandably, everyone is enthusiastic about this kind of interruption, and I watch closely as the jugs are carefully passed through the open bus windows in exchange for a few Ethiopian Birr.
The man that’s now sitting next to me looks pretty intimidating, and even though our shoulders and legs are touching, we haven’t said a word to one another the whole morning. He has a piercing stare, and is dressed like a devoted Muslim – a long, flowing white kurta and crochet taqiyah or skullcap atop his head.
I watch him buy the biggest milk-jug of all. It looks like it’s designed to hold anti-freeze – and not for drinking out of. This should be fun.
After everyone completes their purchases and the bus lurches away, I watch him lift the jug to his lips. And just as he takes a giant swig of milk, the bus hits a monstrous pothole. Everyone is launched out of their seats – and my neighbor inadvertently spews a full throatful of milk over me.
I’m drenched with it. My face, my arms, my legs. And it’s warm. Because it used to be inside a person. (Exactly as gross as it sounds, yes.)
When we bounce back into our seats, the joke’s on me and I have a very important life decision to make. I must decide if I am going get really pissed off or if I’m going to find the humor in it.
Everyone’s eyes widen on the bus as they wait for my reaction.
And a weigh lifts from me. The unbearable tension of the last week, the heartbreak, the fear, the stress – they leave me completely, for the first time in…I can’t remember how long.
I start to see the benefit of all the struggles, setbacks and obstacles – and then it hits me that I needed all of them and that they arrived in my life at exactly the right time. I’ve crossed another border, this time within myself – and I start to laugh. I laugh so uncontrollably that the staunch (and probably rather worried) man next to me laughs too – and then, like a row of dominoes, the rest of the bus falls into crazy fits of laughter.
At the next police check everyone files off the bus again – but this time it feels so different.
As I’m waiting outside in the hundred-degree heat, I’m cool and relaxed.
I see a pot-bellied little boy with pencil thin legs digging through the trash along the side of the road. He is barefoot and his tattered clothes are covered in soot. It’s cracks my heart. All I have with me is a cookie so I walk over and I place it in his hand. He smiles and holds it like its gold and as I walk back towards the bus I turn around so I can wave goodbye. But to my surprise the boy isn’t looking back at me – he is in the middle of doing one of the most amazing things I’ve ever seen. He has broken the cookie in half and selflessly shared it with his buddy who was also digging through the trash…
That’s the Africa I’m really crossing – not a place of horrors, but of humanity, of people acting like people, whether it’s sharing a cookie or laughing along with the crazy milk-covered American. And now, finally, I can truly appreciate that.