Buna & Bread: An Ethiopian Adventure

Chapter 8: Tire-Hunting Amongst the Tigray

Remhai Hotel, Aksum, Ethiopia…

Any night you wash down malaria pills with whiskey is a good one. And when your room is above the bar area of an Ethiopian brothel, you look for bright spots. Fortunately, Ethiopians (or ‘wopis’ as Reeve pronounces the word) are early-to-bed-early-to-risers, so the thumping techno music was politely turned down by 9:30 and silent by ten. Plus, the drunken man with the two women in the room next door hadn’t made a peep. Even through the tissue thin walls. Which made us believe he had either passed out, been using a ball gag or just wanted to cuddle.


In the morning, I was sent down to the kitchen to see if I could scrounge up some breakfast while Jim and Melissa kid-wrangled.

“Just ask for something simple.” shrugged Melissa. “Some buna and bread.” Buna being the Amharic word for coffee.

“I don’t know, ‘buna and bread’ might be some kind of deviant-act-for-hire here at the best little whorehouse in Maychew.” I replied.

“Maybe that’s what the guy with the two girls had last night.” piped up Jim on diaper duty with Cian in the bathroom. “Hi, I’m Buna. And this is Bread.” The bathroom, by the way, smelled like it had a dead elephant stuffed with old sweatsocks rotting away somewhere in the pipes.

I found the young man who had been our waiter last night and a woman sweeping the front patio area. Outside, the sun was still pale and misty, not yet awake enough to turn its heat on fully.

I had gone through my phrasebook trying to remember dialogue I’d need for the conversation. I asked if they had breakfast and got a smile and a nod from the boy. When I asked for buna and bread he nodded again. Awesome! I’m speaking the language, I thought.

Then the girl began talking to him and they discussed something for a few moments before looking back at me.

I had no idea what they had just said. “Buna…..and bread?” I asked hopefully, adding eating motions as I spoke.

It became clear neither of them spoke English and I had already blown my Amharic wad. The girl pointed out into the town.

“I have to go get it? At a market?” I guessed.

She shook her head and pointed at herself.

“You’ll go get it?”

She nodded. So I handed her a few birr. Which she handed to the boy. This resulted in another conversation with undecipherable pointing towards the town and up to our room. They both stopped and stared at me again. They leaned forward slightly with the effort of trying to communicate with me.

The girl took the money and handed it back to me. She muttered something and pointed to the St. George Hotel across the square.

They have buna and bread? I should go there?” I added my own point to the building.

She smiled and nodded. So did the boy. St. George, is there no miracle you can’t do?

I used my last Amharic word “thank you” and trotted across the square to the hotel. There were a couple men sweeping around dinged up Formica tables. I started my buna and bread speech again when one of the men pointed to his watch and held up eight fingers then pointed to a set of stairs going up to the second floor.

“I can go upstairs at eight and get buna and bread.” I repeated his gestures and got a nod of understanding.

All in all, I’ve had harder times getting a Denny’s waitress to understand what I wanted to eat.

When we returned just after eight the vehicle was already stuffed with gear and kids. Jim and I wandered upstairs and found ourselves in a rather smart looking bakery complete with wooden and glass display cases. We ordered some tasty fruit-topped croissant-like treats and watched some Premiership football on a TV while our trio of espressos were made. I have to say, it was the best damn espresso I’ve ever had. Hands down. And while African nations aren’t known for their pastries, it was a pretty excellent croissant. We took this as a positive omen for our plunge into the unknown detour. Either that or the good lord was giving us a proper last meal.

When we turned off the main road to begin our detour around the construction it felt like going off a high-dive for the first time: your heart quickens, you hold your breath and just go. Even the sacred texts of the Lonely Planet had nothing put question marks to offer about where we were headed.

In the end, we found our way back on to the main road past the construction. We had to flag down buses and trucks and ask if we were going the right way numerous times, but we always stayed true. Not that there were really that many off-ramps to get confused by.

We came to the rather substantial city of Mekele (population 97,000) around lunchtime and proceeded to the Hill Top Hotel to begin our quest for tire. This began by asking the hotel manager if he knew anyone who could find us a tire for this particular vehicle. I’m not sure of the exact exchange, but after half an hour a busboy’s friend’s uncle showed up to take us into town.

Melissa and I went into Mekele while Jim stayed at the hotel and tried to keep his trio of daughters from pulling up every flower in their decorative garden.

Mekele was a nice place. Rather clean and prosperous. Our prescence was hardly acknowledged with stares and both urchins and beggars were few and far between.

Our search took several hours and while it would make a good Beckett play, it can be summed up thusly: Stop at car part place (ie, a one room store with barely enough for a counter, let alone the guy standing behind it). Get directed to place across street. Talk to one guy. He summons another guy. Look over lots of parts catalogs. Call guy back at embassy garage in Addis. Argue about what is an acceptable substitute if an exact match can’t be found. Be assured this is a perfect substitute. Call guy at garage again. Be told they need to find other model. Stand out at car going over tire specifics. Be joined by people from first car part place. Call guy back at garage again. Have passer-by who can translate for guy from third car part place confirm what we’re looking for. Go to third car part place to see if we can get exact match. Be told ‘no’. Go back to second place and buy tire. Be told we have to go somewhere else to get new tire put on old rim. Walk alongside guy pushing our new spare tire for a half mile. Listen to shrieking African techno music from CD hut next to garage. Argue with guy whether or not these tires are tubeless and if tire we bought will fit on rim. Call guy at embassy garage again. Get tire put on rim and mounted on car. Pay tire mounter. Tip tire roller. Scoop up Jim and the girls and keep heading north. Piece of cake. Or injera if you prefer.

Today’s adventure was supposed to wrap up in the town of Adigrat at the Modern Hotel. But when we pulled up to it’s peeling peach exterior and looked around, it was anything but modern. Melissa went in to check the scene while we rolled up the windows to keep out the diesel fumes and the endless offers from rheumy-eyed teenage “guides” chewing khat.

In the end, we all agreed we should find someplace else to stay. While our guidebook called Adigrat, “rather cosmopolitan”, I firmly believe it was a misprint that should have read “rather than cosmopolitan” or “whatever the opposite of cosmopolitan is”. One thing was for sure though: we were certainly not staying at The Semen Hotel across from the bus station.

With no better options, we decided to race the sun and make for Aksum by nightfall.

We almost immediately began questioning our decision when the road out of Adigrat turned into a vibrating rock washboard that wound up and around a sheer 4,000 foot drop.

This still didn’t distract us from the amazing geography we found ourselves in. It began to resemble the canyonlands of the American west. Rounder hills and scrubbier growth appeared. It was like someone had taken a sander to the terrain and buffed off its skin and sharp edges. Instead of mud huts, piled rocks formed homes. There were plains of huge flat cacti used as crop fences and forests of candelabra cacti, their leaves a shocked hairdo upon seeing us. Canyons opened wide underneath us to reveal canyons in their bottoms so deep you excepted to see lava. Huge hills, humps from an earthbound beast, rose at intervals around us. Jim summed it up perfectly when he said that back home all of this would have been national parkland.


We passed several nasty wrecks. Including a head-on between a bus and truck on a high mountain pass. Coming down into another valley, we saw a dump truck that had tumbled down a switchback and now lay at the base, its embarrassed face buried in the rubble.

There was giddiness to in our push for Aksum. A surge of adventurous adrenaline as we veered from our plan. We belted our way through a spirited version of ‘Tainted Love’ cranked to eleven and followed with ‘Werewolves of London’ with the kids joining in for “Awooooooooo”.

We also began coming up with limericks to describe out stay in Maychew. I thought I had the winner with:

The LemLem Hotel is a dump
Except for a beer and hump
But with your kids screaming
You can’t hear the reaming
No matter how hard he pumps

But then Jim busted out this perfection:

A girl from Maychew I knew well
Worked at the LemLem Hotel
Her special in bed
Was the buna and bread
But it’s secrets I simply can’t tell

The setting sun shot glorious rays from behind a cloudbank like God was showing us the homestretch. Aksum is, after all, the reputed resting place of the Ark of the Covenant. We just kept bouncing toward the fading light. Behind us the sky grew dark under the evening’s spreading cloak.


It was well after nightfall when we rolled into the courtyard of the Remhai Hotel. I tumbled out of the car, sore from bumps and cramped seats and covered with crumbs from the hastily assembled lunch we had made on the fly; with my lap serving as the deli counter.

I was brushing myself off when Jim came around the back side of the van. He shook his head and we both laughed. Which seemed to be becoming a tradition at the end of each day.

“Time for a prayer to St. George.”


[In Our Next Episode: Tales From the Crypts]

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