Roadside Encounters

Greetings from the field!  It’s been a whirlwind couple of days driving through the Oromia and SNNP regions. I have a few posts lined up and will be sharing some photos in the next few updates.

Today I want to talk about bananas. It might sound weird, but the bananas they produce here in Ethiopia are among the best I’ve had. Compared to the South American bananas sold in the US, Ethiopian bananas are more flavorful, meatier and firmer, and have a nectar-like fragrance. Most are grown in the region between Arba Minch and Hawassa, and on our way through yesterday I was able to taste them for the first time. It was love at first bite.

In these agricultural areas, many kids and adults spend their days selling whatever is in production along the highway and local roads. As soon as you slow down to 30km/hr, they literally sprint towards you and swarm up against your car by the dozen. Windows are rolled down and, within seconds, dozens of goods are stuffed into the car for inspection and exchange. From driving through mango tree zones, coffee zones, pineapple zones, and now banana zones, I had learned that my best strategy was to keep my own window shut and let the locals do the bargaining.


A vendor selling locally grown pineapples along the road. In reality it is must more chaotic and crowded than the image depicts.

A vendor selling locally grown pineapples along the road. This photo under-represents the level of chaos.

Sometimes it’s tough not to give in. If there’s anything I’ve learned from my two weeks here, it is that Ethiopians are incredibly hardworking. Life is not easy in this country. Despite increased public expenditures and social services in the past ten years, there is still extreme poverty throughout the entire country. But Ethiopians take this in stride; they count their blessings and go to work each morning, even if the payoff is minimal.

On our way to Arba Minch this week, a young boy of about 15 years-old spent over five minutes knocking on my (closed) window to convince me to buy a strand of bananas for the equivalent of USD $0.20. I kept motioning for him to go to the other side, where all the negotiations were taking place. By the time he understood me and started to move over, the deals had been closed and we pulled off. I felt bad, especially since in retrospect I realized how little money it was.

So, it was a big surprise when, on our way back, we slowed down to a full stop and I noticed a familiar face among the crowd outside.

It was the young boy from the day prior.

Somehow we must have stopped at the exact same place to encounter him again — a crazy coincidence given the 150-km distance we covered. The boy and I both laughed when we realized the serendipity. This time, I happily rolled down the window, pointed straight at him, and purchased his lot of mangos. 

Sometimes you don’t need very much language at all to communicate with another person. The enormous grin on his face as he waved us off is an image that will stay with me for a long time to come.

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