It’s funny how the human brain works when faced with trauma.
As I boarded the bus to Deneba (my site), an elderly man with silver hair and a grey beanie made a few comments about the ‘faranji’ (me). These remarks resulted in everyone on the bus giggling. I’m fairly used to this, having lived in Ethiopia for over half a year. In my head, I said some not-so-nice things to this man as I headed toward the back of the bus. Finding an empty spot, I selected the window seat on the right side of the bus, one seat from the back. I have no idea why, but I tend to sit on the right side and usually in the window seat if available. I’m a creature of habit, I suppose.
Busses in Ethiopia simply sit, waiting to fill up, before departure. So once I board, I may wait 20 minutes or two hours. As I sat, waiting, I ‘people watched,’ while listening to music. An elderly woman, walking with a cane, had a young boy assisting her with her belongings in exchange for two birr (about 10 cents). She sat in the seat on the opposite side of the aisle from me.
One seat up from her, sat a young woman with an infant strapped to her back. As she settled into her seat, unwrapping the little one, the baby began to cry a bit.
A family of four boarded. The father asked if the seat next to me was taken. His young daughter of about 4, dressed in a pink jumper, plopped down into the seat. She seemed excited to sit next to me, as kids here usually are. However, her mother decided to take the seat next to me, while her young daughter sat in her lap. Their older daughter, maybe 12, wore a sophisticated grey suit with a pink blouse underneath. I realized I had seen this outfit, and therefore this young girl, at the bus station before.
As we waited, a woman selling kolo (a snack made of roasted barley and chickpeas) boarded. She walked down the aisle, while advertising, “kolo, kolo, kolo.” The elderly woman with the cain purchased a bag. A young woman with a green scarf sitting in the back seat, just behind me, also bought some.
After about a 40 minute wait for the bus to fill, we began our journey. Our driver was fairly young, and seemed in a bit of hurry as he drove the bus, avoiding a lot of the usual stops to collect more passengers along the way. I have ridden on this bus, 701, many times.
As we began our trip, the two young girls and their mother cheerfully enjoyed snacks of kolo and cookies. I noticed their mother’s head scarf was a beautiful mustard color with silver details. The eldest daughter eventually took a seat in the aisle on top of a plastic jug, contents unknown, often gasoline. Her aisle seat was preferable to the back bench where her father sat. The back seat comfortably fits five, but often contains six or seven individuals. As our drive progressed, the youngest girl nestled in her mother’s arms and fell asleep.
As I stared out the window, still listening to music, I saw Deneba in the distance. Glancing at my watch, I became aware that I would be home about 30 minutes earlier than expected. The trip usually takes about two hours, but our driver had cut it down to an hour and a half.
As soon as this thought entered my mind, our driver began to pass to the left of another bus. As he did, our left wheels slipped off the gravel road, eliciting yelps and cries from everyone on board. The driver lost control of our bus and we swerved back the right of the road. At this moment, I knew that there was no way for him to regain control of this large bus, sliding sideways on the gravel. I braced myself, ready for the inevitable. The bus flipped onto it’s right side, resulting in me coming face-to-face with Ethiopian soil and shattered glass.
My first thoughts after we landed were, “It’s over, and I’m still alive.” I laid on what was left of the bus window with both arms supporting my torso, my head inches from the ground. Everyone on board was panicking, crying, yelling, and frantically attempting to exit the bus. I laid patiently, staring at the ground, trying to grasp the reality of what had just happened. I couldn’t move, partially due to shock, but mostly because there were several people laying on top of me. We had become a pile at the bottom, of what used to be the right side of the bus. As everyone made attempts to get out, someone put their foot on my head, and then their full body weight. I yelled out but had no idea what to say in Amharic. As body weight slowly lessened, I was released me from my prison and finally struggled to stand.
Breathing heavily and still trying to grasp reality, I patted myself down, checking for injuries. Looking down at my shaking hands, covered with blood, I searched for the source. I realized that my right arm had several small cuts from the window. “But I think I’m ok, I’m OK.”
I noticed that the window above me was being used as an exit. A woman was climbing out with weakened muscles. I helped give her feet support. The mother who had sat next to me was frantically trying to get her daughters out. I helped lift the youngest girl in the pink jumper through the open window as she cried and shook uncontrollably. I remembered that she had been napping when the chaos began.The mother and I then lifted her eldest daughter up out of the bright hole. The mother gestured for me to go next but I refused, helping her climb out instead. The elderly woman who had walked with a cain, was laying just above where I had landed. She must have been thrown across the bus, up over my head. She seemed injured and was having trouble trying to stand. I helped her get to her feet but she was not able to exit through the top, like others. I saw an opening at the front of the bus, and motioned for her to exit through it.
My attention then turned to the young woman with the green scarf who had sat in the back of the bus. She was clearly in a lot of pain and wasn’t moving her legs. I tried to help her up but she wasn’t ready or able to make the attempt. I realized that it would take more than one person to help her out of the wreckage. Noticing a young man toward the front of the bus, lifting personal belongings out, I began to do the same. I raised bags of market purchases, backpacks, and purses out of the window into the hands of someone helping on top of the bus. I scanned my area for other items, looking down at my feet, I saw the mustard scarf with silver detail that the mother next to me had worn. As my numb body deeply inhaled dust, smoke, and gasoline fumes, I became aware of the fact that I too needed to escape. I struggled to leave the young woman with the green scarf, laying crippled inside the bus. However, I knew that several others would have to give her aid.
I climbed through the window at the top of the bus as others had, finally breathing fresh air. Sitting on the side of the bus which was now the top, I looked down upon the passengers of bus 701. A man below gestured, showing me how to climb down. What used to be the rack on the top of the bus, used to strap large items to the roof, was now a ladder down to the ground. I climbed down, gathered my things, and stepped away from the wreckage. Relief rushed over me. Other passengers were gathering their belongings, examining loved ones, and tending to those who were injured.
My shocked self stepped away with my phone to call my friend, Brita. She was able to calm me and talk sense into me. I then stepped back to the huddle of passengers. One woman came up to me and shook my hand. I don’t know if I had helped her or someone she loved out of the bus, or if she was simply showing support after our experience. I was suddenly ‘one of them.’ At that moment, I was no longer the ‘faranji.’ I was simply a person who shared the same traumatic moment.
Several busses came to our aid, offering rides to the hospital and on to Deneba, only a mile or so away. I was motioned onto a bus, taking the same seat on the right side as I had before. The man with silver hair and the grey beanie sat next to me; offering kind words, a pat on the back, and an “izosh” (be strong). The woman with her infant boarded while tears streamed down her cheeks. She and her baby appeared to be ok. The bus delivered the injured to the Deneba hospital. The elderly woman who had walked with the cain, had her arm wrapped in a makeshift sling and exited the bus to receive treatment. A few men carried the girl with the green scarf out of the bus. I would say she was the most serious injury.
We then traveled into the heart of Deneba, to the bus station. I slowly walked toward the bus door, a crowd had gathered at the door to help, greet, and praise God that we were ok. A man helped lower my backpack, asking me if I was fine. I assured him that I was.
Walking home, I fought back tears. I was thankful to be in the clean open air, and not on a bus. Life in Deneba was no different than when I left. I stepped into my compound about two hours after I had left Debre Berhan.
The next day…
Tensing several times through the night to the visual flash of the impact of my bus window hitting the ground, I woke exhausted and sore from head to toe. I could still smell the inside of the bus, a mixture of dust and gas. Although my neck, shoulders, and right elbow felt a decent amount of pain, I couldn’t believe how lucky I was. I had a few small cuts on my right arm from the window, a tiny bump on my forehead, but was fairly unharmed. I fought my pain in order to do what I had to do, take pictures of the wreckage. In the overwhelming moment, I hadn’t done what I always do, record the moment.
So I packed my backpack with my camera, which had also survived the crash unharmed, and began the 1 1/2-2 mile walk from my house to the crash site. On my way through town, I was greeted by a smiling group of people. I quickly became aware that it was the man with the silver hair and grey beanie with his family. He wasn’t calling me ‘faranji.’ He walked straight up to me and hugged me tightly. I was thrown off a bit, Ethiopians don’t tend to greet acquaintances in this manner. As he pulled away, he asked how I was, and patted down his torso, showing me that he too was unharmed. The woman with him hugged me as well, giving me the customary kisses on each cheek. As I walked away, I couldn’t help but shed a few tears.
I kept walking through the busy streets of Deneba, and ran into my Peace Corps counterpart, Mulualem. He greeted me and asked how I was feeling. He then accompanied me on my walk to see the bus. As we approached the spot, we could see that they had already flipped the bus back to its rightful position and had attached it to a truck to take it away. We snapped a few pictures and began our walk back to Deneba. A small group of kids who had walked to see the wreckage, followed us the whole way back to town.