The school year always begins with a couple of weeks of orientation. About a third of the staff are new and we all need to learn to work together. Thus begins a fun-packed mixture of cultural training, learning about the practicalities of Bingham, and professional development. As part of the cultural training we were divided into small groups and given some fare money to travel on blue-and-white taxis to go to Kaldi’s coffee shop and back.
Our trip began with a walk along a road opposite the school gates. I placed my steps with care - sometimes using what was left of the broken pavement, or the road itself (but the number of vehicles squeezing past made this hazardous). On occasion I tried walking along the edge of the road but this had such a significant camber that it felt as if I was slipping down a hill most of the way. I passed people emerging from the “souk” that sells bread clutching thin plastic bags, people discussing sim cards at the phone souk, others walking two or three abreast or just sitting somewhere flat passing the time of day.
We reached the ring road and crossed the bridge. I tried without success not to stare at the beggars with their deformed limbs holding up cupped hands hopefully to passers-by. As I descended, a taxi drew up beside the road so I ran up and peered inside. It appeared full and there were three of us but the conductor shoe-horned us all in. I had about six inches of seat to perch on and we lurched forward. The interior of the taxi was grubby and the sun visors and surrounding area were covered with faded red fur. The taxi was designed for eight or nine people plus the driver but a piece of wood had been attached to the wheel arch forming a bench that was accommodating four people on this occasion. Another teacher who uses taxis regularly told me the most she had seen in one taxi was twenty-two.
The conductor stood on the footplate bent almost double and pulled on a piece of string to close the door to at every stop. The stops were frequent and unmarked and apparently at the whim of the individual. “Weraje alleh!” (literally “stop it is!”) was the cry of each passenger wishing to disembark. Of course, if they were sitting at the back half the bus had to get off to let the individual out. This was done without complaint and the journey could resume. The conductor, steadying himself with an elbow on the back of a seat, collected money according to the destination stated.
To reach our destination we had to change taxis at Tor Hiloch - a turning point for many vehicles. I strained my ears to hear what the conductors were calling but each destination sounded indecipherable. Noticing our looks of confusion several young men offered to help, ushering us towards a very similar blue-and-white vehicle which they assured us would get us to our destination. A driver will always wait for his taxi to fill up before beginning a journey so we paused with the door open. I watched a man approach holding a pink plastic device and a potato. He proceeded to demonstrate how it could peel and shred using opposite ends. His peelings fell onto the muddy ground as he worked. (So who needs a spiraliser!)
With the door closed the driver proceeded towards the service road by traversing part of the roundabout against the flow of traffic. I tried not to look and think about coffee instead. The macchiato was worth the journey though, and on our return I turned my attention to my surroundings. An elderly Muslim man exited the taxi by a mosque and joined his fellow worshippers. On the other side of the taxi the pavement was covered with washing, mostly trousers and jeans, with other assorted items hung over the metal fence which forms an inadequate barrier to people wishing to climb over and cross the ring road.
Gratefully we returned to Bingham and once inside I reflected on how many of our Ethiopian staff take two or three blue-and-white taxis to work every day. I just knew that I would be so much more appreciative of our pick-up from now on. Oh, I forgot to mention the fare. 6 Birr each way. That’s 20p.