Taxidermic Cats and the Lion of Judah — Public Transit in Ethiopia

Eric White /Courtesy

The best stories are the most absurd ones right? Whether it may be that time you dressed up as a Star Wars character in front of hundreds of people, fell asleep on the staircase after a night out or that time when you ran after the bus dressed in a penguin suit. We all have them and wish to accumulate more of these wild anecdotes, as they are obviously the most entertaining. Well, here in Addis, I acquire a new one almost every day; from something typically mundane and uneventful, I accumulate many of my stories from Addis Ababa’s means of transportation.

Let’s begin with pedestrians, since walking is obviously the major way to get around. However, here walking is no simple feat, as pedestrians most certainly do not have the right of way; don’t think that you are just going to saunter across Telebole as if it is Bancroft and College. Every time I cross the street I imagine myself in Frogger trying only to reach the safety of my lily pad without being mauled by oncoming traffic spitting fumes out of its tailpipes. I feel even more pathetic on a rainy day when dodging gutter water tidal waves in addition to the aggressive vehicular stampede.

The courage of a pedestrian crossing the street can only be trumped by the bravery of an Addis cyclist. Weaving in and out of traffic without hesitation, they face the potent exhaust of city busses and the unpredictable threat of rock piles that frequently appear in the streets. I rode a bike in Axum, the former capital and arguably the holiest city of Ethiopia. I must admit, Axum has very few cars, but I think that the challenge was supplemented by the lack of brakes or inflated tires as well as being caught in the rain in the Queen of Sheba’s old (and now roofless) palace.

Addis Ababa’s rainy season occurs during our typical summer months, so when I don’t want to trudge around in my not-so-waterproof Sperry’s or risk the danger of becoming a human pancake, I opt for a taxi or minibus. There is an insanely high vehicle import tax, making even a Toyota Land Cruiser cost $220,000, so hired driving plays a large role in the city. The cabs are blue and white and feel like super sturdy and oversized toy cars. Also, since there’s no cab meters here, you must negotiate a price before getting in the car, which is the most difficult part of the process. My favorite tactic is when the driver won’t budge, so I close the door and walk away for about 5 seconds, only to turn around and see the blue and white cab slowly approaching with the driver leaning over to open the passenger door.

The interior of many taxis is adorned with colored fake lion’s hair, which serves as a symbol of power in Ethiopia, as the national animal is the Lion of Judah. My personal favorite cab interior had cheetah print upholstery with lion’s hair carpeting the dashboard. Mamush the driver and I had a wonderful conversation that began with him asking me if I was from Russia (I’m not) and ended with us weighing the pros and cons of the Ethiopian rainy season. I also particularly enjoyed singing Billionaire by Bruno Mars and Katy Perry’s Firework with Bruk, another cab driver, after a night out. He knew more words than I did.

As with any city, some cab drivers can be a little peculiar. One called me at work “just to say hey” while another asked a friend and I if we wanted to drink tej (Ethiopian honey wine) with him after dinner. Addis also doesn’t have addresses or street names, so everything works off of landmarks. I live behind You-Go-City Church and use that as my landmark, reasonably assuming that it is implied that I don’t actually live at the church, especially at 3 a.m. on my way home. Only a couple of drivers have tried to pull that stunt to avoid driving around the block, but most of the time Addis cab drivers provide good humor and cheerful highlights of my day, if the negotiation process doesn’t top 10 minutes.

If I am feeling particularly frugal I hop onto a mini bus, which are 12 seat vans that will fit 17 passengers. Just like Addis taxis, the mini busses are half white and half royal blue, and were usually made sometime in the 1970’s. There are tons of them all over the city, creating a web of routes that will take you almost anywhere in the city for under 10 birr (about 60 cents) and faster than the 51B could ever manage.  To hop on, you just need to listen for a voice calling out directions from the fast-moving bus and wave it down before it speeds past you like a bat out of hell. During peak hours however, the only way to gain entry is to grapple your way through the crowd and hope that you will acquire a proper seat rather than the hump created by the tire.

The quality of the mini busses varies ride to ride — some may have new upholstery while the veterans boast bare bones wire seating, but hey, our $10 BART ticket doesn’t mean luxury accommodation either. Mini busses also sport the lion’s mane decoration, but the award for Best Vehicle Accessory must go to the taxidermy cat (yes, cat) perched atop a mini bus dashboard, scrutinizing (because cats are judgmental) all of the passengers in it’s line of vision. I was so interested in the cat that I almost forgot to get off of the mini bus.

We must not forget air transit either, as Ethiopian Airlines is one of the crown jewels of the country. The Addis airport is just like any other, but if traveling domestically, arrive at the terminal far in advance because domestic flights have a tendency to take off 45 minutes early. Also, don’t be surprised if the plane makes an unannounced landing to pick up more passengers. Addis transportation certainly has its quirks, but these charming aspects distinguish the system from anywhere else I have been. Personally, I would love to see some American cabs with a lion’s mane dashboard, but I think I could manage my trips without any taxidermy pets staring at me.