Life in the Fast Lane
A relatively basic vehicle is a bonus when driving in Addis - fewer things to go wrong and be unrepairable. My basic brown (sorry, “Sahara Gold”) Ford Ranger is ideal, but is still a bit advanced by Ethiopian standards – it has central locking and air conditioning. Other than that, it’s entirely manual. Which is why when I arrive at the Sixt car hire depot in Heathrow airport and they give me an “upgrade”, this time to a 2017 Jaguar XE saloon, working out how to drive the thing is such a struggle. Just moving the driver’s seat forward needed an instruction book.
Although the purpose of a few of the buttons and switches in that car still remain a mystery, it was a delight to drive during the first week of our Christmas break in the UK - and we had a lot of driving to do. Week one was Cambridge, Cheltenham, Southampton and then Stanstead airport to fly to Edinburgh. At the Sixt drop-off I suggested he keep the Jag so I could have it again on our return from two days with Beth, Paul and Jasmine - but when we arrived back at Stanstead on Christmas Eve it had gone. So instead he replaced it with a BMW 420d “Grancoupe”. Another steep learning curve before I could drive to Norfolk for Christmas Day and Boxing Day. Wishing car manufacturers could arrive at a common control layout (given they all do pretty much the same things) is a vain hope I suppose.
After a couple of days with Hannah, Dom and their three, we landed back in Addis on New Year’s Eve ready to go to the biennial SIM “Spiritual Life Conference” (SLC) the following day. Unfortunately my Ford Ranger had sat under the tree outside our apartment block for two weeks, and the tree, birds and all the dust that just falls out of the air here had made it undrivably filthy. I couldn’t use it to go to SLC anyway, as I would need to chauffeur a minivan full of people – I am one of very few people at Bingham with a “class 3” driver’s licence, allowing me to drive up to 30 people in one vehicle.
Because of ongoing security concerns the location of SLC had been changed at the last minute from Haile’s Resort in Ziway (3 hours south by a great rift valley lake) to Haile’s Resort (known as “Yaya”) 30 minutes’ drive up and over the Entoto mountains north of Addis. Hence we commuted from Bingham in a 13-seater minivan for each of the four days of the conference, rather than be residential.
At SLC two interesting things happened. Firstly Chris went to the gym, and secondly I broke the law. Chris first.
Flood-washing floors is a common method of cleaning here. The gymnasium I went to at the Yaya Haile resort during one of the free sessions at SLC was one such example. I couldn’t go far into the changing area as the floor had been liberally covered with soapy water. I spoke to the smiley girl with a mop across this barrier. “Can I use the gym?” I asked hopefully. “Yes” she replied. “Sorry” she added looking at the water separating us. She called to a colleague and together we squelched towards the lockers. Surprisingly most were locked, as I appeared to be the only person wishing to use the gym. “Kolf alleh?” (“Is there a key?”) I enquired. She returned to the reception while I stood watching the smiley girl mopping the floor with vigour. A young man appeared clutching a key. “Semint!” (“eight!”) he announced peering at the key fob. We both looked across the bank of lockers. He tried the key in the door labelled “8” but it didn’t work, despite several attempts. He disappeared and returned rapidly, smiling. “Asra semint!” (“Eighteen!”) he proclaimed. Helpfully he tried to push key number 8 into the lock of locker number 18 upside down. I was wondering by this time if it would jam in the lock. Finally he turned the key over and tried again. The door opened, and he gestured and smiled. One hurdle down, I tried again. “Libs?” (“clothes?”) I said, gesturing to indicate my need to change. He led me further across the now just damp floor and opened a door with the title “Massage” above it and began to walk away. The unlit room was a black void. “Mebrat alleh?” (“Is there power?”) I asked, whilst scanning the wall for a switch. He returned and began pressing and twisting a knob near the door. Nothing happened. The reception girl joined him as did the smiley cleaner. Finally, a dimly lit power saving coil became visible. I looked at him helplessly. He moved along and opened a door beside the barely lit room. It was clearly a store cupboard but the bulb inside worked. At least the door locks from the inside I thought. I changed in there beside a bag of balls, what appeared to be a very old stretcher, and various bits of cleaning paraphernalia.
Once I had locked my bags into locker number 18 with key number 8, I was ready to begin. Some of the machines had power and there was a good selection of weights machines. I also tried a bike I’d never seen before. It resembled a road bike but without a saddle and with small skis replacing the pedals. These moved a surprising distance apart and I was out of breath by the time I had used it for a short while.
A shower would be nice before lunch I thought, and went to ask if this was possible. Seemingly it was, because the helpful reception girl reached under the counter and gave me a towel, a wrapped new bar of soap, and a pair of plastic shoes. Balancing these on top of each other I followed her to the shower area. I was more than a little perturbed when I noticed there wasn’t a single shower curtain in sight. Many of those using the swimming pool or other facilities would be wearing both a swimming costume and shorts. But I was hot and sweaty and was holding all I needed for a shower, and it was a risk that someone could walk in at any time. I selected the cubicle furthest from the door, undressed and turned on the taps, forgetting that hot water may take a while to travel the length of the room. I had the fastest shower of my life in cold water then returned to my store cupboard to change. Gym session accomplished.
The road between Bingham and Haile’s Yaya Resort is part dual carriageway ring road, part single carriageway pot-holed windy mountain road. It’s not exactly safe – on Wednesday one van-load of youngsters heading up to the resort was exposed to the dead body of a teenager laying in the road. I had had to negotiate our Toyota minivan past a couple of accidents on the windy part. In addition to this a piece of the elevated ring road has collapsed and is closed, so leaving the main carriageway is necessary for a while. Which is where the radar gun caught me.
Recently speed limit signs have been popping up all over the city, heralding the introduction of police playing with newly-acquired radar guns. Even the 80kph sign on the ring road near Bingham that had been struck by a lorry and was pointing the wrong way has recently been rotated back so it is actually visible, albeit at the bottom of its pole. This is the speed limit along the ring road – one I would find difficult to break in the ancient diesel-powered white Toyota minivan I was driving, laden with ten or so people. However breaking the 50kph (30mph) limit on the exit ramp up to the roundabout junction I was forced to take because of the road closure is very easy, as the limit starts at the instant you leave the main carriageway. Also, the tiny 50kph sign is extremely easy to miss. So for a policeman keen to raise money for the Addis city coffers standing near the top of the ramp with your radar gun is like shooting fish in a barrel. Slowing down up the ramp I saw the group of policemen too late, as did another member of our Church in the car in front of me. We were both pulled over, but Several SIM people coming up behind us were luckily trapped by a huge and overloaded double trailer truck crawling up the ramp at a fraction of the speed limit. The car in front was recorded at 57kph; me at 64kph – I win. A discussion with one of the police officers who spoke rudimentary English and who gave me an impromptu lecture on how dangerously I was driving revealed the fine was 180 Birr - £4.82. The main punishment though was the inconvenience of being relieved of my driver’s licence. This would be secreted away in a random police station somewhere in the backstreets of north Addis, and it was my task to hunt for it the next day. Haile, I need you!
The day after SLC finished a slightly amused Haile came and picked me up from Bingham early in the morning. Our first stop was at an Ethio Telecom office to pay the £4.82, then through the backstreets to a police station Haile was confident would be the right one. Passing a bevy of several young police officers sporting ancient-looking semi-automatic rifles we rapidly extracted my licence through a hole in an office wall. Arriving back at Bingham I discovered another resident steaming at the fact that she had also just lost her licence to a radar-gun-sporting police officer. He recorded her at 83kph in an 80kph limit. No flexibility here.
Finally, we’ve recently heard of a traffic law that says if you are following a learner driver you must leave a gap between you and them of 100 metres. A law you would have to break to discover you need to keep, as this instruction is written in small Fidel writing on the back of the learner’s vehicle.