If you are ever traveling in Africa, and one of the options includes a stopover in Addis Ababa, seriously consider choosing another one. For all the romance and excitement of travel, there are also frustrations, inconveniences, and just plain hard work.
If you’ve not experienced that, consider this brief account of the journey Susan and I made from Tel Aviv to Cape Town. Our last day on the dig with the Fourth Expedition to Lachish began at 4:00 a.m., as usual, and didn’t end for the next two nights and a day in between.
The frustrating part began when our 10:00 a.m. Friday flight with Ethiopian Airlines was cancelled and we were moved to a 1:00 a.m. flight, leaving us with the prospect of two overnight flights punctuated by a 16-hour layover in Addis Ababa. Our “confirmed” good seats (14A&B) were then mysteriously changed to 36C&J – the last row in the plane, not even together, and right in front of the galley, where the light and activity persisted through the six hour flight from Tel Aviv to Addis Ababa. The flight was made longer by a 3:00 a.m. stopover in Cairo: the plane apparently doubles as a cargo plane, because we never approached the terminal, but parked on the tarmac for an hour while things were loaded and unloaded. The unannounced and rather bumpy landing interrupted what little sleep was available.
The good news is that the airline provided us a voucher for a half-day stay at the DebreDomo Hotel in Addis Ababa, including lunch. We went to an information desk to inquire about a shuttle to the hotel, and as we turned from the desk, a young man in an airport uniform offered to guide us. I soon discovered that a walking stick (needed after further abusing my worn out hip on the dig) and a gray beard come with some advantages. He offered to get me a wheelchair, and when I declined, he insisted on carrying my backpack. He took our passports, vouchers, and boarding passes to the shuttle counter for us so we didn’t have to stand in line, then took us right up to the passport control desk, bypassing another lengthy line.
After half and hour of waiting the bus arrived, and it proved to be what Americans would call a seven-passenger van packed with 17 really small and tight seats, and the bus driver insisted on filling every one before leaving.
As we drove along streets floating in trash and dirt, with lean-tos and makeshift stores along the side, the driver suddenly stopped on the side of the road without explanation and ran across the street. He returned with a sandwich. Eventually we reached the hotel, which must have been quite swanky in its day. Our room was like a suite, with a large room containing sofas, chairs, and tables in addition to the bedroom and a bathroom that included a Jacuzzi that didn’t work and a single towel.
As we settled into our fourth floor room, we noticed hundreds, even thousands of people walking by, some of them running, some singing – and we realized it was the last day of Ramadan. Mobs of men in white caps, along with crowds of women in more colorful attire, streamed by. Some were in groups of 50-200, singing and ululating with joy, clapping their hands with great enthusiasm, blocking traffic and creating as much of a spectacle as possible. Within the group, some carried sticks and made as if they were fighting or pushing each other around. Whether it was serious or part of the ritual I don’t know. And, whether the two-hour parade was motivated by the love of Allah and Mohammed or by the end of a 30-day fast with a 3-day feast coming up, I couldn’t say. I presume they were headed toward a large outdoor stadium for a major celebration: I couldn’t imagine a mosque there big enough to hold them all.
The accommodations were nice, but the day was miserable, as Susan had apparently contracted a stomach bug somewhere and was sick all day. At the end of the day, the bus (again completely full) took us back to the airport, which was as packed as the van. We had to go through security not once but twice, though the second time through my cane got us to the head of a very long line. We went to the announced gate, but when the 10:45 p.m. boarding time arrived the “Johannesburg/Cape Town” sign suddenly switched to “Delhi,” and confusion reigned. Hundreds of passengers flying to both destinations rushed from place to place as men in yellow vests tried to figure out where we were supposed to be. Eventually, all of us were led from Gate 6 (which had a jetway) downstairs to Gates 7a&b, which led to buses that take passengers to a plane waiting on the tarmac.
The Delhi folks were boarded on their buses first, then the Cape Town passengers. The more anxious folks rushed to be first on the plane while the rest of us stood in a cold rain and waited for the logjam to clear up.
Enough complaining: five hours later we landed in Johannesburg, where we sat on the ground for two hours without adding any more passengers, and we had a beautiful two-hour flight from there to Cape Town, enjoying South African scenery along the way. It’s the dead of winter in Cape Town and the weather is notoriously changeable, but today is a beautiful day.
Clean again and feeling better, we’re looking forward to three days of relaxing and recovery before heading to Durban for the Baptist World Congress meeting — and hoping that flight is uneventful.
Back in the Addis Ababa airport, TV monitors were broadcasting a farewell to participants in a large international conference. Clearly written by someone whose first language was not English, the text concluded “We Ethiopians laid many notable memories on your minds, definitely.”