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Lost – and then found – on the way to Lalibela

It is five in the morning. I have slept badly between plastic sheets in a small town in the Ethiopian Highlands. Rain is coursing through the rutted streets as I head for the bus station. I have a fourteen-hour rickety trip to Lalibela before me. Some wonderful churches, cut out of rock in the 13th century ‘with help from the angels’ Ethiopians say, are waiting there.

An unwashed, bearded, holy man with a wild look in his eyes and steam coming off his patched overcoat moves down the bus and with an extravagant gesture shoves a large wooden cross under each passenger’s nose. He wants that we plant a kiss on the feet of Jesus and give him-not Jesus-some money.

We climb into the mountains and the air becomes cooler. The bus has a puncture and the passengers climb down. Some children, looking cold and famished, arrive to watch. I look around but cannot see a house for miles.

The mid-morning stop in a small town is welcome. I wander away to take a few photos. I stop to have a mixed fruit juice which seems a fusion of a drink and a softening ice-cream. Afterwards I sip one of those wonderfully sweet, savoury Ethiopian coffees and I stroll and watch goats and camels strolling too. Sauntering leisurely back to where I lest the bus I am surprised to find no bus! OK, so I’ve made a mistake. I haven’t understood what the driver has said. I walk the small town twice. No sign either of the bus or of any of my co-passengers whose faces I am valiantly trying to recall. With only a few words of Amharic I am like a powerless child.

I analyse the situation. The bus-station, I think. It must have gone to the station. It seems logical! A15-minute walk but no bus there. What to do?I scour the town once more and then conclude that they’ve left without me and I must hitch a ride. I walk to the outskirts of town with little optimism: eight hours to go and on mountain roads. I have only the clothes I stand up in but I do have my passport and some money. Solitary travel throws up moments like these: control the panic.

The passing traffic is mainly donkeys, oxen cows, camels and curious locals on bikes. Some of the cows brush against me as if I didn’t exist. In my frustration,I have the impulse to swing a kick at their rears but I am not sure of the locals’ relationship to their bovine friends. Are they as sacred as in India? I don’t know.

People stare at the white man making weird signs with his thumb to passing traffic. There are no cars but a few four-wheel-drive vehicles pass. They signal they are turning left or right down the road. An hour passes. Part of travel, I tell myself: the unexpected. I’m wondering if I will see my bag again. Will someone walk away with it? Will some kind Ethiopian-Orthodox soul hand it in to the police or the bus station in Lalibela?

Suddenly, a young boy cries, “Bus Lalibela”. Totally surprised, I swing around and see it coming around a corner from town. I blink and look again before I dare believe. Immediately I begin to feel guilty and think, “They have been searching for me”. I practice saying the word ‘sorry’ in Amharic. I step into the bus with the word on the tip of my tongue. But, as I open my mouth, I see, down the full length of the bus, that people are smiling and then a big round of clapping breaks out. I close my mouth. Everyone is relieved. I take my seat; I feel great. The prodigal who was lost has been found.

Extracted from Donal Conlon’s very excellent ibook My Africa, available from Amazon.

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