Monday, December 06, 2004


Under the still-gray early morning sky, Tamene negotiates a space for me on the 5 a.m. bus back to Addis Ababa. Squeezing into yet another bus packed with bodies and chickens and goods of all kinds, I brace myself for the two-day journey. I share a seat made for two with a beautiful dark-skinned girl from Bahir Dar and a talkative boy from Awi. The latter, eager to practice his English and curious about other lands, fills the narrow space between us with questions that touch upon plane travel and pop culture and schooling. Reaching his home and final destination only an hour or so into our journey, he leaves me alone amidst melodic yet, to my ears, meaningless Amharic.

I soon come to miss the comfort of his presence, for as the bus breaks down for the second time of the day and our driver decides to drop us in a small town without continuing onward, I seek out English explanations and find them lacking. By some favor of fate, I discover Sophie—or rather, she discovers me. Although she knows scarcely any English, she learned Arabic during years spent as a domestic servant in Saudi Arabia, and my own Arabic proves passable enough to render communication possible. I grasp her voice close, willing it to keep me afloat in this sea of words I do not understand and expanses of a world I do not know. A Muslim woman traveling home to Addis after a visit with family in the north, Sophie is poorer and more conservative than most Ethiopians I have connected with thus far. A thin veil covers her hair, framing a dark, round face lit up by a wide, gap-toothed smile. Any hint of hesitant distance suggested by her conservative dress is broached effortlessly by her warm, unrefined manner, and I soon realize that chance has graced me with far more than a common language. A genuinely kind-hearted soul, Sophie exudes an instinct to protect and an eagerness to share what little she has. She pulls me in by hand and heart, making sure that we both squeeze onto the next bus passing through the town where, mere minutes prior, I was certain I would be stranded.

After hours of what has become a familiar (if still painful) experience on a hot, crowded bus, we stop in Fut as-Salam for the night. Sweating and filthy and with no place to wash, I
’m unsure what to do with myself. With Sophies help, I find a dollar-a-night room, and we collapse onto her bed with another lost traveler who Sophie has graciously taken ina stick-thin girl named Zaynab. The harshness of Zaynab’s life is reflected in her gaze and echoed in her tentative steps, but she has a beautiful—if cautious—smile, and I sense unexpected strength hidden within her seemingly fragile frame. Sore from the ride and suffocating in the heat, the two of us would seem a daunting audience, but Sophie’s cheer never falters. She feeds us from a small mound of barley piled upon the bedspread and douses us with cheap, horribly pungent perfume. Making us laugh and smile simply by laughing and smiling herself, she radiates pure, unconditional joy. Sprawled out on Sophie’s bed, I feel that much is right and wonderful in the world.


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