Tuesday, April 21, 2009

The Ethiopia Chronicles-Journey to Ethiopia

Our trip to Ethiopia started on Saturday morning. We left the house shortly after 5, for a 7:15 flight out of Tulsa.

Just look at these faces. Leaving them to start the trek to Ethiopia wasn't easy. Noah is a sensitive soul at the best of times, and his tears made it really hard to say good-bye and walk through to security. Nathan took it in his stride, just backing up for his favorite backwards hug. In the end, I asked Gareth not to stay and watch us go through security, as Noah was getting more and more upset, and I was having a harder and harder time not sobbing myself.

Our first flight was to Dallas and from there we flew to Dulles in Washington, D.C. We had several hours to hang out in Washington until we could check in at the Ethiopian Air desk.

Checking in was chaos! We were there 5 hours ahead of our flight time, figuring that way we could check in early and not need to stand in line. No such luck! There was a huge crow
d of Ethiopians obviously eager to fly home. The concept of standing in line didn't seem to be something Ethiopians do. There were just people stacked everywhere, and all of these hundreds of people seemed to have at least 5 suitcases. Also, everyone seemed to know each other. Someone knew would show up, see someone across the crowd that they knew, and soon dozens of people would be kissing and shouting at someone else for more kissing and greetings. We managed to check in after the lady in charge finally started making people line up and quit just barging into a place in the queue.

When we arrived at our gate to board the flight, it was much the same. People everywhere, and to the outside observer, it seemed that somehow all of these people knew each other.

The flight was packed to capacity. I've never seen so many people and so much luggage on a plane. The plane itself was small and very closely packed seats. Even sitting sideways, my legs were touching the seat in front of me and too long to stretch them out underneath the seat.

The flight was just over 15 hours. We flew from Dulles to Rome, where we had a change of flight crew and re-fueled. No getting off the plane, and as they brought on a cleaning crew to sweep the aisles, you couldn't even take the chance to stand up.

There was no air-conditioning on Ethiopian air. Having always flown internationally in cabins that were quite cool, I went dressed for an overnight international flight, but quickly found myself wishing I had opted for short sleeves and capris! There weren't even vents so that you could blow air on yourself. All around us though, the Ethiopian nationals were wearing multiple layers, putting shawls over their heads and wrapping up in their airline blankets.

The elderly lady that sat next to us could have been a photograph straight out of National Geographic. With tattoos around her face, traditional clothing, and her head covered in a shawl she was quite a picture. She had a beautiful face, and I would have loved to have taken her picture. Unfortunately, I couldn't even talk to her to get to know her, so didn't feel like I could try to ask to get her photo. Evidently, she wasn't from Addis Ababa, as the flight attendants couldn't understand her either. I don't think she had flown very often before, as she couldn't figure out how to open the packets our meals were served in and she locked herself in the bathroom and couldn't figure out how to get out for ages. We did a lot of looking at each other and smiling. Eventually, she must have felt fairly comfortable with me, as she leaned over and took a nap on my arm.

My immune system got it's first good workout on board. The bathrooms were not very clean, and there was an unmistakable odor around it. At one point in time, I saw someone come out of the restroom and say something to the stewardess, who put on plastic gloves, filled a metal bucket with boiling water and disappeared into the restroom. I wondered if it happened often for them to have a bucket waiting for such use. Then, the next time they passed drinks I recognized the bucket. It was the one they put ice in !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Flying for 15 hours without a break is no fun, but there was plenty of great opportunities for people-watching. There were lots of babies on board, and they got passed all over the plane. The Ethiopian culture is very affectionate, especially toward babies and children. Everyone hugged and kissed them, and quite often you'd look over to see a baby being handed back across rows for everyone to get a cuddle and the opportunity to feed them something.

Mom didn't fare quite as well as I did, having never travelled in such tight quarters or for such a long time. She got quite claustrophobic and had a panic attack. Neither one of us really managed any sleep on the flight, and it was so good to finally touch down in Addis Ababa. The entire flight erupted in cheers and clapping when we landed.

Having got off the plane, we went through immigration and paid for our visas. Then, it was on to baggage claim. We had been warned to look out for men insisting on helping with our bags for money and that they could be very persistent. I had decided that as we had lots of suitcases to handle, I would try to get some birr (Ethiopian currency) right away so that I could just allow them to help us and not worry about trying to refuse.

Unfortunately, I hadn't been able to order birr from my bank or buy them in D.C. So, I decided to just gather my bags and not have help. Mom and I had gotten all of our bags onto a card and were heading for customs when a man in an AirTrans uniform with an ID badge grabbed our cart and insisted on seeing our baggage tickets. When I couldn't immediately produce them, he began throwing our suitcases off of the cart. I protested, and he put them back on and took off with our cart. I started to protest louder, and he didn't stop. By this point, I had the idea that he wasn't actually employed by the airport and so began telling him to stop very pointedly and at high volume. He stopped, and then began to demand 100 birr (about 10 dollars). I told him I had no birr, and so he asked for 20 dollars. I refused to give him that much, but did give him a couple of dollars, but also gave him an earful about being rude, throwing my suitcases off my cart, and not leaving people's things alone even when they said no. Last I saw him, he was busy yanking a purse off another lady's shoulder insisting on seeing her baggage tickets.

After that, customs was a breeze. Then, it was through to the arrivals lounge. It was packed with hundreds of Ethiopians waiting for the arriving passengers. It actually took an armed guard to clear the crowd to make space to let us through.

We had been told that we would be met by a driver holding a sign for America World. Eventually, we found him, and he got us safely to the van. But, as we drove, we realized that we were being taken to a hotel, not to the guest house our itinerary had listed. The driver couldn't tell me anything, so we had to wait to get to the hotel to call our in-country representative. It seems that the guest house had their water shut off, so we were moved at the last minute to the Addis View Hotel.

As it was late night when we arrived, there wasn't a lot to see on the drive that night. But, there was no missing the conditions of the road. Very bumpy. One minute you'd be driving on a paved road, and the next, you'd be driving where the road had been torn out, but not replaced. Traffic was very heavy, even late at night. And, people were everywhere.

From when we left our house on Saturday morning, to our arrival in Addis Ababa on Sunday night, we were travelling for 31 hours non-stop. After disinfecting the bathroom, we had showers and fell into bed. It was after 11, but the crowds on the street were still going strong. Thankfully, my doctor had included a week's worth of prescription-strength sleeping pills for the trip. I fell into bed, grateful to be horizontal and excited to sleep so that I could be ready to meet Rosie the next day.

Tomorrow, I'll tell you all about meeting Rosie.


  1. Ooh, a cliffhanger. Wow, that sounds like a miserable flight. So glad it's over and you guys are home safely!

  2. Wow, that flight....whew! I got a good laugh and gross-out over the ice bucket! Gross! Oh, and I had to laugh at the "disinfecting the bathroom;" I laughed because I would absolutely be doing the same thing. :) It makes me tired just reading about that 31 hour trip....wow. But it was so worth it in the end!:) Just to see her face!