My life revolves around this ubiquitous three-wheeled taxi almost as much as it revolves around food. It’s my main method of transportation since I haven’t yet purchased a bike. It’s a two bajaj trip to get to the university. Peace Corps office, too. One trip will take me into town.
Here are some bajaj basics:
- Bajajes act as line taxis for most of the day, which means they drive certain routes around BDar at a set price. Where one route stops another (maybe several) usually begins. The Gebeya (market) is a central point for bajaj routes, at least for my needs.
- I recently found out that bajajes are labeled with their routes, but this only helps if you can read the script and then actually know what the words mean. So, yeah, doesn’t help me much. Yet.
- A bajaj ride can be a tight squeeze. They fit three people (four if a brave soul sits up front with the driver). Three is a tight fit in that back seat, though. Ethiopians tend to be small, but still, you get to know your neighbors.
- For a farenji, the main goal of a bajaj ride is to avoid getting ripped off. (Getting to your destination is pretty important, too, I guess.) This means keeping alert, making sure the driver will pick up others (otherwise they might try to charge you the price to contract the bajaj, but more on this later), and staying abreast of how much trips should cost. Oh, and always count your change if you get any. Sometimes they like to stiff you a birr or two and hope you don’t notice.
- While these small go-kart-esque vehicles aren’t as fragile as they might appear, breakdowns are fairly common. And it usually happens when it’s raining. But most drivers are adept at tinkering and are able to fix the problem quickly. Unless it’s raining.
- First come is not first serve for bajajes, or really anything in Ethiopia. One must be assertive – you can’t be afraid to throw elbows – to get a bajaj when there are more passengers than seats. This type of assertiveness is ingrained in Ethiopians. Alas, I find my Midwest-bred politeness an obstacle. Sometimes I just choose to walk.
As I mentioned in a previous post, my first week was a constant battle, and I got ripped off quite a bit. I didn’t know where to pick up a bajaj to my ‘hood, and clever drivers sensed this. Not-so-clever drivers did, too. I was paying 10, 15 birr for a trip that should only cost two. I probably would still be overpaying but for one kind-hearted driver who pointed me in the direction of the bajajes headed my way. Bless him. Now, many of the regular drivers know my face and call out to me when I approach the area. I’m on a first name basis with a few. Iyob, Mastewan, Eyaya — if you’re reading this, selam nachu, wendemoche.
Some still try to take advantage of me by telling me that they can’t fill the bajaj and that I’ll have to pay them the cost of three people for the trip. I always threaten to get out. They relent and we wait to find two more folks going my way.
After a certain point in the evening, usually sometime after dark, the bajajes stop acting as line taxis and work for contract, meaning you tell them where you want to go and they’ll give you a price to take you there. Bargaining ensues.
You can also contract during the day if you have large objects, such as tables, to take to your home and need door-to-door service. Or you can contract if you just don’t want to share a bajaj, but I’m too poor for that.
Contracting a bajaj can be a different sort of adventure, especially, again, for a farenji, who are supposed to flowing in birr. Again, I’m poor.
Here’s an example: Last month I finally got my propane tank. (Yay!) The tank is too heavy to lug around, so the dude at the propane place helped me flag down a bajaj to hire on contract. The guy wanted 50 birr. I had just helped another PCV get propane the day before and the same trip had cost 20 birr. I said no. There was some haggling involved (as well as threats to get a different bajaj), and I got him down to 25.
But I had a bad feeling about this kid. He was talking on his phone while driving and I heard him drop the word “farenji” and “birr,” multiple times (wow, my Amharic is awesome), so I figured he was hatching some sort of scheme. As we were getting closer to my house he turned around and said, “meto.” “One hundred.” Naturally, I was confused. I assumed he was talking about the price, but I pretended I couldn’t hear him and sort of ignored it.
When we reached my house, he demanded 100 birr from me. I said no (in two languages) and he started to get upset. We continued arguing, the driver speaking mostly Amharic and I mostly English. A crowd was gathering. “Thirty five birr,” he said, shaking his head at me. “F— you” was the reply. I put the 25 birr on his dash, grabbed my propane from the back and went inside. He sat outside the gate for a bit commiserating with a fellow driver. I sat inside and stewed.
Luckily, I had my propane. I hooked it up to my stove and consoled myself with some Kraft Deluxe Mac & Cheese. (Thanks, dad.)
Aside from this incident and the first week, I’ve coexisted peacefully with the bajaj drivers here. Most of them are quite friendly. Most ask me questions about Ethiopia or the US. Many have given me their phone numbers so I can call them if I need to contract. Some try to teach me a bit of Amharic. A few have asked for my phone number. I respectfully decline.
Lately, I’ve tried walking a bit more, mostly for the exercise, but the ever-present bajaj (and the men who drive them) will be a part of my life until I leave Ethiopia. Or at least until I get a bike.