Quite the Volunteer About Town
Feb. 3rd 2003
After breakfast, our courses started at 8:15. This isn't particularly early, the times themselves seem to have shifted slightly with people getting up earlier and going to bed earlier.

This was to be our first day using any Amharic, the national language of Ethiopia. There are many regional languages and dialects spoken but Amharic is taken to be the language that you can use throughout Ethiopia. Our morning session got us started on basic Amharic. It was a lot of fun but there is no way we can hope to remember all of the words we have been given. Amharic uses a different script to latin but we are not currently using that. Instead, everything is spelled phonetically. The trouble with this is that the same word can be written in lots of different ways. When using the Fidel script, there are standard spellings for words.

After our basic lessons in Amharic, our instructors sent us out on a 'Scavanger Hunt'. The idea is quite simple: you're given a list of things to get or for which you have to find prices. You are then split into small teams (three people in each for us) and left to get into the town, find the information, and then walk back. We were all a little bit unsure about this but looking forward to it.

Our first task was to get a line taxi into town. Ethiopia has buses but we have been told that these are best left alone because they can be quite complicated to use. Rather than use a bus, most VSOs seem to use line taxis. These are basically blue and white minibuses, mostly of the same make, that follow set routes around the city. To get on one of these taxis, you only have to stand by the side of the road looking like you need a lift and one will either pull over or slow down. Each line taxi driver has an assistant that calls out the route of the taxi, and you can then decide whether it is for you. Of course, it helps if you know the route names. And, of course, we didn't. Fortunately the assistant spoke enough English for us to tell him that we would call 'woraj' when we saw where we wanted to stop. This is the word normally used to stop a taxi when you're in it. The system works very well, the UK transport office should take note. There are so many line taxis that you do not have to wait more than twenty seconds before one would stop. They are small enough to pick their way through the traffic easily, yet large enough to take about eleven passengers. Also, they're cheap. You can get regular taxis, and here they're called contract taxis. You agree a price when you get in.

The drive in the line taxi did not seem to be as hectic as they appear from the outside. And, you start to realise that although driving looks chaotic, the drivers, or at least the one we had, are quite alert to what is going on around and understand exactly the size of their vehicle. We stopped off a few times for set downs and pickups passing petrol stations, silk factories, timber yards, and many other businesses. Once we had stopped the taxi, the driver tried to overcharge us. This is supposed to be very rare with line taxis, so much so that the other passengers started to complain that they were charging us too much and we were then charged the correct price.

After getting out of the taxi we were approached by a few beggars but were soon moving on towards the shops. We had to get prices for the following items: a bedside lamp, a bottle of shampoo, a knife, a plastic bucket with a lid, a cup of tea, and a large bottle of spring water. We also had to buy from a hawker these things: one cigarette, a small packet of tissues, and a single stick of chewing gum.

Our first price obtained was for the bedside lamp. It was a very well presented shop and, (un)fortunately, the lady serving spoke very good English. We tried our Amharic and she was very friendly, helping us with pronounciation.

We then found a pharmacy. Once again the staff were very friendly and could speak good english. That was the bottle of shampoo dealt with. The cup of tea proved a little bit more of a challenge. We ended up asking 'how many teas' rather than 'how much for a tea'. Fortunately, once again, the staff were happy to help us and pointed out our mistake.

While walking we only suffered a little of the 'Ferenji Fever'. And it would be unfair to say that everyone is after money. Most people wanted to say hello or good morning or to ask how we were. A young boy came up to shake hands. After he had done so his sister also wanted to shake hands, although she approached quite cautiously. This seemed to be very entertaining and the two children followed and watched us as we walked down the street, just observing the differences I guess, but with big smiles on their faces.

Walking was quite slow, there was a wide gravel path by the side of the road but this was deeply rutted with truck tyre marks and there were lots of large stones. It was also very pleasant. Everyone we met and spoke to were very friendly. Most of the shops were happy to have us in when we were just asking prices - only one seemed put out that we didn't want to buy anything. As we approached the rough road leading to the red cross centre we, at last, found a hawker able to sell the stuff we needed. We had approached hawkers before but they didn't have what we needed. Notice anything funny about that last sentence? We had to approach the hawkers - the street vendors are not in your face as you might find in other countries. Our haggling didn't work too well so we accepted the prices and bought all of our goods here and then started to walk back along the road towards the centre. This was the road whose open sides were the homes to several people. In England, I would avoid a road such as this. I can't possibly think of one like it, but I would definitely avoid it. That doesn't seem to be the case here. Admittedly, I have only been here two days, so I don't really know but we had very few requests for money. Once again, people mostly seem interested in you and getting some kind of hello or acknowldgement.

Close to the centre is the train line. The tracks are narrower and the trains slower than trains in the UK, ignoring the usual delays. We had the opportunity to watch as a train passed by heading into Addis, presumably on its way to Djibouti, Ethiopia's eastern neighbour. The train was slow, very slow. It takes four days to get to Djibouti. A trip I think I will avoid.

Our afternoon mostly consisted of more Amharic lessons. If I said that a 'red' shinkurt was a red onion what would a 'white' shinkurt be? Yes, garlic.

Two of the volunteers had gone into Addis. One of whom, Wilco, has a birthday today. Some volunteers had gone to a pastry shop and bought him a doughnut. Although not the same as a birthday cake, it was a very large doughnut and a superb purchase. He was also the proud recipient of an enjera cake created by a volunteer. This same volunteer is considering writing a book: 101 uses for enjera. It's certainly not a traditional use.