February 27th marks an all-time low. THE worst, most racist, base, inhumane thing I have ever seen or experienced. The low, disgusting transgression of human decency was the most unbelievable thing I’ve ever witnessed.
Chris and I were waiting in Debark, Ethiopia, for a bus to Shire (Shee-ray, not like where the Hobbits live), and then on to Aksum. Consultation with guidebooks and ticket operators placed the value of the ticket between 95 Birr (about $6) and 125 Birr (about $7.50).
A scam was circulating in Debark in which locals would tell you that since Debark was such a small place (basically a supply town acting as the gateway to the Simien Mountains), you couldn’t get a ticket to Shire or Aksum from there; you had to go back three and a half hours south to Gonder (where we just were) to buy an onward ticket from there. It was really a shame that no one in Gonder was nice enough to tell you this. You’re going to have to go back. Unless, of course, I go for you. You see, while you’re in the mountains, I’ll go down to Gonder, buy your ticket for you, and when you get back, you can pay me a 150 Birr ($9) fee for my service.
Anyone with any experience at all knows that there is no such thing as a full bus in Africa. People could be sitting on the floor, on top of other people, even on the roof of the bus – but it was never full. If you stood on the side of the road, waved your arms at the bus, and had money, there would be room.
Chris and I declined this stupid offer multiple times, and after our Simien Mountain trek, waited in the morning for a ride. A minibus pulled up, and we went to get on after confirming it was going to Aksum.
“One thousand Birr,” the money man said.
We laughed. “That’s not even close to true,” I said.
“Fine. Five hundred Birr.”
“Still wrong. It’s 125,” I said, stepping onto the bus.
“No!” he said, shoving me back.
I had had this type of argument countless times in Africa, but had never been physically restrained from entering a bus.
“Yes!” I said, with a touch of sarcasm. “These people are not paying five hundred.” I motioned to the robed conglomeration of peasant-like people, to whom five hundred Birr would be a gift not worth spending on one measly bus ticket. I stepped back onto the bus.
“No! Five hundred!” he shouted, shoving me backward again.
“Just say ok, and we’ll pay him what everyone else pays,” Chris said, in what has to be the best strategy of bus-getting-on in the entire African continent.
“Okay, five hundred,” I said, and was begrudgingly allowed access to the bus.
We took our seats, the bus filled with an assortment of old men, women with children, and barefoot shepherds, and we took off. Within moments, the money man began collecting fares. As experienced travelers, we watched, hawk-like, to see how much money was being handed over. As usual, the money man put his body between us and his hands, and handled the money as a blackjack dealer does cards, trying to erase any opportunity we might have to gather information about the true fare. I saw, though, on multiple occasions, people handing over the fare I expected: 125 Birr.
When he turned to us, he gave us the usual treatment.
“Five hundred!” he shouted, slapping the wad of bills against his palm.
“No, everyone else JUST paid 125. It’s obviously 125.” I handed him 125, but he wouldn’t take it.
He repeated his demand, and when we laughed at his ridiculousness, he shouted something in Amharic, the language of Ethiopia, to the driver. The bus immediately pulled to the side of the road. The driver got up and marched back through the bus with a look of disgust on his face, waving his hands as if dismissing us.
We didn’t understand what he was saying, but everyone began, one by one, to get up and file off the bus, until only Chris and I remained.
“Let’s go!” yelled the incorrigible money man.
“What’s going on?” I asked.
“He is not going to Aksum anymore.”
“That’s ridiculous,” I said. “Are you going to refund everyone’s money?”
“This is really stupid. All because we won’t pay five hundred, which is clearly not the price?”
“No, he is rich man. He’s not going. Get off.”
Chris and I then made our one fatal mistake that led to the most degrading, humiliating treatment of other people I’ve ever seen: we got off the bus.
We knew we shouldn’t have – knew he was lying, but standoffs like this with incorrigible bus money men and their God Complexes can last an almost interminable amount of time. It’s not uncommon for a money man to argue with you for fifteen to twenty minutes, while the bus idles and upwards of fifty passengers grow impatient, in order to resolve some trivial, invented point, like why you’re not paying the extra two dollars for the “traffic fee” that, mysteriously, no one else has to pay, or that you are sitting in someone’s assigned seat,w hen there are no seat numbers and someone just got on the bus carrying an actual live goat and is sitting on top of the gear shift lever anyway.
So, weary of this trite game, we got off the bus. Then, evil reared its ugly head.
The bus promptly sped away, coming to rest around a bend about one hundred yards off. The money man and his cronies then began to yell at the other passengers, angry like the Gestapo. Suddenly, with eyes wide with fright, old men with canes, robed shepherds with bare feet, women carrying children, and frail old women hardly able to walk took off at a dead spring, hustling up the dry, dirt road in the direction of the bus, while the money man ran behind them, hollering and swiping at them like a jockey to a horse.
Believing it beneath our dignity to chase after a bus we had just been on, Chris and I walked on, behind the hustling crowd, even though only a minimal amount of effort would have carried us past the horde to arrive first at the bus.
The scrambling mass whooped and hollered as the people variously staggered and hobbled toward the bus. They eventually arrived, and climbed on like their life depended on it. The last passenger boarded, and then the money man, when I was about twenty yards away.
The side door slammed shut as the engine revved and the tires squealed. The bus sped away around the bend, leaving the two white people literally in the dust.
There went our ride north.
I was furious – beyond furious that, not only would they refuse to take us for the actual price, or anything less than extortionary rates, but that they invented a ruse to kick us off the bus that involved inconveniencing and torturing their own people. Who makes a woman with an infant or an old man with a cane dash a hundred yards up a dirt road at high speed? Who is heartless enough to make the frail, needy, and elderly suffer just so that two foreigners can be eliminated?
I seethed with rage. I wanted nothing more than to put a rock through the back windshield of the bus as it drove away, just for the injustice of it all, but I knew that would only hurt the passengers more, and get me either beat up, arrested, or both.
The fact that the money man turned down 250 Birr from us that he would inevitably collect from people they picked up along the way anyway just goes to show that they would rather make white people’s lives difficult unless they paid a clearly exorbitant fee. If they don’t fall for the trick, screw ’em, make ’em and everyone else suffer rather than treat them fairly.
This was low even for a money man. I can handle racism and
discrimination, although it’s difficult and stings all too often, but seeing all those people struggle to run up the road just because the money man knew we were right and he had no right to physically remove us from the bus was too much to bear.
In the end, we stomped back to town and got a public bus to Shire. Long story short, we argued for an hour with THOSE money men, one of whom tried to throw our bags off the bus and almost punched Chris, while a passenger, a middle-aged man, fed up with the stalled bus wasting everyone’s time, had to be physically restrained by other passengers from trying to punch me, all because we wouldn’t pay the extra thirty Birr ($1.75) for a leg of the trip that we weren’t taking and nobody else was paying either, but that nevertheless the hubris-filled money man with the God-Complex stopped the bus to insist we pay anyway because we were white and he said we had to.
When we finally arrived in Aksum nine hours later, we checked into a hotel and collapsed on the bed, utterly emotionally spent from yet another day in Africa.