Gondar- The little Engine that could…sometimes
If ever I am feeling old out here in Ethiopia (as I often do when people question my unmarried status at the ripe old age of 22), all I need to do is remember “Hey, at least all the cars here are older than me.” Our little red Toyota is no exception. When I first arrived in Gondar three short months ago, my supervisor brought the car and driver over for me to examine. I was much more concerned with the English speaking abilities of our driver, Getahun, than I was with car itself. I assumed that, if the car made it here, it probably runs fine. This was my first mistake- assuming. Never assume anything in Ethiopia works as it should. However, had I not selected this little old Toyota, I might have missed out on many cultural learning opportunities.
For one, I have learned that if your driver backs your car into a ditch you need only wait 20 seconds before the car is surrounded by a group of men pushing and pulling the front and back bumpers to move the car back onto the road. The same is true if your car gets stuck on a large hump in the middle of a road under construction. When this happens, the wait time is reduced to only about 10 seconds before our car was rocked back to safety by a mob of Ethiopians.
Now, if mechanical troubles arise, as they do at least once a day, our driver needs only to pull over (slightly), pop the hood and bang various parts of the engine with a screwdriver. When these attempts fail, our driver proceeds to call a few of his closest friends and within moments, a completely empty minibus arrives at our side, ready to pick Alex and I up and transport us directly to our destination.
However, if the mechanical problem is easy to solve, you can expect a group of men to arrive at the hood within moments and offer their opinions on how to fix the engine. After a little while of discussion, fiddling and Getahun turning the key 20 or 30 times we might get lucky and hear the sweet roar of an engine coming back to life, allowing us to reach our destination only a mere 20 minutes after we were expected.
Another interesting challenge with using a car this old is that the gauges on the dash stopped working a few decades ago. Thus at any given time one really doesn’t know if the car has any gas. This is particularly true in poor countries like Ethiopia where drivers can only afford to fill the tank with one gallon of gas at a time (as gas in this country costs about $4 per gallon-or 4 day’s worth of salary for the average Ethiopian). So when the car starts groaning more than usual our driver usually assumes that gas is needed. If he is lucky, one of the nearby gas stations may have gas. However, this can never be assumed as, more often than not, the stations are either out of gas or refusing to sell it in the hope that gas prices will go up in the next few days allowing them to make a greater profit. If we are lucky and gas is available, Getahun will drive up to a pump, hop out (without turning off the engine), and put in a gallon of gas. However, if no gas is available and our car sputters to a halt, we can expect to sit in the back seat for about a half hour as our driver catches a minibus to the nearest gas station, fills up a plastic jug with gas and returns back to our car.
The most common problem that we encounter on a nearly daily basis is our car’s inability to make it up hills, particularly the one right by our house. As we near the top and our little car gives out, we can expect to roll backwards down the hill while shifted into neutral. Now if we are lucky, we will make it to the bottom without incident; dodging donkeys, people and other vehicles as we roll. However, as happened on one occasion, we may roll backwards right into some man’s brand new Toyota truck. As we realize that our bumpers are locked and that there is no easy way to free ourselves the two drivers may start arguing. Men come over and start taking pictures of the accident, trying to show whether or not any real damage was done. This continues for about 30 minutes, as Alex and I watch from the backseat. Finally the men figure out the correct maneuver to separate the bumpers, our car miraculously starts, we thank G-d, and make it home in one piece.
Now, these are only a few of the adventures we have had with our little red Toyota. Others have included flat tires, stalling in the middle of the road and breaking down in dark alleys. However, even though it is annoying to constantly be late, or miss appointments the experience that we get with this little old car is really educational. From this little car I have learned that Ethiopians are truly a kind and caring people, who will immediately stop what they are doing to help a car or driver in need. In fact, most of what I have discovered about the loving nature of this culture has been from my experiences in our not-so-trusty red toyota.