Nathan disagrees with me, but I think that the 29 hours spent on public buses between Addis Ababa and Harar were quite worth the 12 hours we actually got on the ground. To be sure, the trip to Harar definitely got botched—we were only supposed to be bussing for 20 hours, so we could spend a day and a half in Harar. But the quality of the day we did get there, in my eyes, made the ordeal totally worth it.
The run-up to our trip should have given us a clue that the journey to Harar would not go smoothly. Two days prior to leaving, Yanush and I braved Addis’ rain to get bus tickets on Selam Bus—a relatively luxurious private bus service running throughout Ethiopia—to Harar. We were so excited when, after dashing shrieking and arms-waving through flooded Addis streets to the bus station, we finally secured tickets for ourselves and Nathan. Things were looking up!
Then, fate struck. The day after we secured tickets and before we headed out, Yanush, Nathan, and I were wandering about downtown Addis searching for an ATM machine. We had found three but all were broken. Then, when Nathan finally found a working one, it promptly broke as soon as he entered his PIN. The search for a working ATM eventually brought us close to the Selam office, so I ran inside to confirm where we should get our bus in the morning.
But alas, there was to be no bus the next morning. The office manager informed me that that bus had been canceled, and as I had Nathan and my tickets on my person, he refunded us the cost of the tickets. So, we had our money back, but we had no bus. I spent the next hour searching for an alternative private bussing option, to no avail—a public bus to Harar it would be.
As I was searching for an alternative option, Yanush was having his own adventure. Having heard from Nathan and I that the Selam Bus option had fallen through—he had stopped at a café while we went to the bus office—he went to Selam Bus to procure his refund. As he tells it, the office manager from whom we’d bought the tickets the day prior recognized him when he entered the Selam office, and gave his refund money right away. Then things went south: after handing over the money to Yanush, the manager asked for Yanush’s ticket. But Yanush’s ticket was in the hotel—a kilometer away over unpaved streets in the rain. Understandably, Yanush declined both to go get it and to return the refund (which was rightfully his). A yelling match ensued, followed by the manager calling the police to get Yanush.
At around this time, I was sitting in the tourist information center with windows facing the same street that the Selam Bus office was on. As I was sitting there looking out the window, I saw Yanush run down the street. I later learned that he was running from the police. I chased him and found out what was happening. Together we hatched a plan to meet up in a bit with Nathan and get out of the area before something untoward happened. We all eventually made it back to our hostel, and dug in emotionally for the long, uncomfortable public bus ride that was to come.
We awoke the next morning at 0430 since public buses leave from the station at 0600. When we got to the station, we were directed to a parking lot turned mud-pit flanked by ticket booths. We hopped around various mud bogs with all our backpacks and gear searching for the booth selling Harar tickets. (Finding the booth wasn’t easy since all labels were in Amharic.) Eventually, we got help from a random dude who took our money (at this point I got behind him prepared to tackle him if he ran off), got our tickets for us, and then led us to the appropriate bus. Kindness for the win!
The bus ride should have been an uneventful 10 hours long. However, the trip actually took 13 hours. And to compound the issue, some greedy police officers forced us off the road for another two hours; these forced pauses ended only after bribes had been paid. So, while we were originally supposed to arrive in Harar at about 1630 to enjoy an evening in the city, we actually arrived at 2200. The silver lining at this moment was that, since we had arrived later than expected, Yanush would spend an extra day in Harar with us before heading on alone to Somaliland. This was going to be great—we all got another day to chill out together!
Then fate struck again. Upon arriving in Harar, we decided to make for Rewda’s Hostel which had been rated highly by Lonely Planet and promised a comfortable night’s stay. I was so excited for this place since I’d heard such good things about it. When we finally found Rewda’s after an errant taxi ride and some walking down dark, twisting, and entirely suspect alleys, we learned that the hostel was full but that Rewda’s sister, Subaida, had another hostel nearby which had room. We headed there—still optimistic—with Subaida, who looked as though she’d had something foul-smelling adhered to her upper lip. Her face twisted in a permanent snarl, she looked as though she hated us.
Perhaps because we were too exhausted to take the hint, our optimism persisted…until she told us the price tag for the double we were to call home that night. We took it because we had no choice, but since the price was so high, Yanush was forced to make for Somaliland the next day as originally planned, scrapping our extra day together. A curse on Subaida!
The next morning, however, our luck took a turn for the better. Totally by chance, two travelers named Ruaridh and Julia came to our hostel for a visit. Julia, apparently, was scoping out possible rooms for the coming night. Nathan, Ruaridh, Julia, and I (Yanush had already left) got to talking, and I began to see the day looking up. Our conversation centered on global politics and how the US should best use its power in the world. I found both Ruaridh and Julia to be exceptionally well-thought individuals, and I really enjoyed the back-and-forth.
After our talked winded down, we all headed for the door. Nathan and I couldn’t stay at Subaida’s another night both because the price was too high. Ruaridh kindly showed us to a better hostel he had found previously where we booked rooms. Nathan decided to stay in for the day to recover from the previous day’s bus ride from hell, so I headed back out with Ruaridh. We met up with two of his local friends, Joseph (nicknamed Yosi) and Mandela, incredibly sweet guys he had met through a Couchsurfing contact. Together, we wandered about the Old City of Harar for the next few hours.
Brief background: Harar is over 1300 years old, an old trade hub between sub-Saharan Africa and its Arab neighbors to the east. The oldest portion of the city called (appropriately), the Old City, is a classic medieval labyrinth of narrow streets surrounded by a wall. The Old City is distinct from the New City which is a more-or-less modern (by Ethiopian standards). Whereas the Old City is home to numerous colorful markets, many historical sites, and a distinct Arab-Muslim vibe, the New City—though pretty in some parts—has a bit less character.
Our walk took us along the southern wall. Along the way, we spotted a massive tortoise in the woods adjacent to the walk, along with hordes of massive, really evil-looking spiders. Continuing on, we saw three of Harar’s six historic gates. Just outside from one of them was a fenced pasture wherein we saw—what you’d expect—some cars, some goats, and a crashed airplane. I was quite tickled by the sight of a downed plane just sitting there in someone’s backyard. I was even more tickled by the site of a nearby mosque which had either been built into a tree’s root system, or around which the root system had grown. It was really quite beautiful.
Afterwards, we headed into the city, passing an extraordinarily colorful produce market. Women’s clothing came in every shade as did the stalls lining the street, all standing in great contrast to the white-washed city wall. While in the market, Ruaridh and I tasted some guavas proffered to us by Manny and Yosi. (When we got home that evening, we chugged iodine tablets hoping to kill any organisms we’d eaten along with the guavas, which were unwashed and probably straight from some manure-ridden field. I was immensely grateful that my stomach survived this encounter.)
Then, we continued along to the cultural center which is absolutely worth a visit. In the center, we visited a several hundred year old Adare house, the traditional home of Harari elites, and learned about how an aristocratic family would have lived in Harar in the centuries past. I got to hold traditional Ethiopian arms—a spear and small shield—and then we moved along to see traditional dances performed, which was also a pleasure. Finally, before heading back to pick up Nathan, Ruaridh and I found a pick-up basketball game going on with some local kids. Several of the kids were entirely barefoot; one of them was actually quite good, able to score using either hand and with great handle. We played for a bit until the rains came. I had an awesome time.
After getting Nathan and having dinner, we all headed off to what would become a huge highlight of our entire trip—feeding wild hyenas on the outskirts of the city. The back story: hyenas live in the hills throughout Ethiopia, including around major cities. According to Ruaridh—who Couchsurfed in a neighborhood on the outskirts of Addis Ababa where hyenas are common—hyenas living near Addis regularly attack and feed on livestock and humans, alike.
In Harar, a tradition has arisen in the past fifty years where hyenas come to the city at night to receive meat. These hyenas do not tend to attack humans anymore; indeed, as we saw that night, they appeared a bit wary of humans. I am still a bit mystified about the relationship between the hyenas and the “hyena man,” the Harari who feeds them. To me, the tradition seems a bit like a compromise: in exchange for the meat, these hyenas seem to agree not to harm Harar’s inhabitants. By any definition, I would call these animals wild still. Though they were wary of us, they were not tame—they did not want to be touched, and I got the feeling that they could react viciously if harassed.
The feeding begins when visitors, both tourists and locals, arrive. The hyena man brings out meat, and the hyenas, who were relaxing in the vicinity, come over for food. The hyena man had Nathan and I feed hyenas by hand using a stick and from our mouths using a stick. He also had us put our hands on the ground so the hyenas could climb on us for food. Finally, he left me with the basket full of meat to feed the hyenas alone. For those of you wondering, I did this shirtless as a joke birthday present to Ruaridh whose birthday was the next day.
Partaking in this tradition was amazing. I felt as though I was caught in the web of something a bit mystical and which I didn’t really understand. The opportunity to interact so closely with these tremendously interesting creatures was well worth any trepidation I had, and I recommend this micro-adventure to anyone in the vicinity of Harar.
Overall, my one day in Harar was entirely worth the 29 hours we spent busing between Harar and Addis. In my eyes, much of the value of backpacking lays in befriending the extraordinary people you find along the way, and in finding experiences so vastly different from anything you’ve ever known that they fundamentally change what you consider possible to do in this world. In Harar, I found extraordinary people in Ruaridh, Julia, Yosi, and Manny, and I had an incredible time exploring the city, from finding the downed plane to feeding hyenas. Given a second chance to decide whether to bus to Harar—even knowing that the rides would take 29 hours together—I would absolutely do it again.