Sunday, February 10, 2008

Ethiopia, and a Crazy Night in Addis

Boarding the plane is absolute chaos as they choose to use the same gate for two different flights, then decide to board the flights at the same time too! It’s quite busy, so I guess I was lucky to get a seat, which is next to a Kenyan girl, Milania. When the drinks trolley comes along, I ask for a St George’s Beer, as advertised in the flight magazine I have in front of me as being “available on flights”, only to be told it’s just for First class! The cheek of the matter. However, the rather naughty-looking stewardess brings me a bottle anyway, and it’s not bad!

I spend the first several minutes of the flight tearing out lots of useful information from the magazine, such a domestic route map for Ethiopian Air, and some tourist guides to places I want to visit. LP is quite light on info for everywhere outside of Addis Ababa. Whilst I do this, Milania makes an incredible mess with her dinner and drinks, and I start to guard my beer in case she tries to tip that over too. She offers me a lift to the hotel she’s staying at, and we’ve got on well during the flight, so I accept gladly.

I also manage some matchmaking – there’s a Japanese chap sitting next to me on the plane who is transiting in Addis and going on to Sanaa, somewhere in UAE or Yemen. A Japanese girl I’d seen a few times in Moshi is at the other end of the plane, and has also told me she’s going to Sanaa. I introduce them, and it turns out they even bought the same Kilimanjaro hat! Made in heaven, hehe!

At Addis Ababa airport I head to the visa on arrival place, which is a separate office before immigration. Inside there is a small queue and plenty of people looking busy sitting at desks. I am called to the next available one, where a girl takes my passport and arrival card, and fills out a visa sticker, which she places in my passport on the page where I had ripped out the second Mozambique visa, thank you!! Anyway, I get the sticker, and wait to be asked for the 20US$ that I believe it’s supposed to cost. She doesn’t ask me for money, and waves me on. Coming out, I compare visas with a Canadian pair. They paid, and received a small authorisation signature squiggle. I’m missing that. Should I go back and ask to pay? Nah, I’ll chance it. At the window, the immigration girl stamps my visa and doesn’t say anything! I’ve got away with it, 20 US$! Hurrah!

After bag collection, we go through a pointless inbound security scan, then we’re met by Johnny, a colleague of Milania’s. Outside it’s a very pleasant temperature, cool but not cold. The airport is quite modern and looks pretty, lit up in the Ethiopian colours of red, green and yellow. There’s are large crowd waiting in arrivals though, I wonder whether there are several flights due in. Johnny has trouble finding his car outside in the large car park. I later learn the airport is colourfully decked out for the African Union (AU) conference which is starting in a day or two. They even have a podium with red carpets waiting on the airport tarmac!

Johnny drives us into town, and tells us that apparently all the hotels are full because of the AU. We go to a bar, his local, which is not too busy, but seems to have lots of his family there, cousin, brother, sister etc, and start on the St. George’s again. It would seem Kenyans can drink like fish as Milania sets the pace. Bottle after bottle of St. George’s appears, and Johnny’s brother, Hawi, pays for everything, including the sambucca shots we move on to.

Money is proving to be a real issue here which I didn’t expect, and certainly find difficult to believe after my brief glimpses on the way in from the airport of the modern metropolis that Addis (as Addis Ababa, or “New Flower” in Amharic, is usually referred to) seems to be – and speicifcally, there are no ATMs! How do I get money? If I can’t resolve this, I may have to cut short my stay in Ethiopia – I have a few hundred dollars but that will not last me over two weeks (presumably).

The music playing in the bar is a mix of modern Ethiopian and some rock. There are some good local tunes playing, and Milania struts her stuff shamelessly! We move on to another bar, then to a dodgy pickup joint, just Johnny and me (the bachelor boys) first. There’s a very pretty girl in a dress that I like, but nothing but more beers comes of it. We end up give a lift to a prostitute on the way out! She invites us to pop into her bar, or a “Dirty Corner” as Johnny explains they’re called. As I step out of the car I tread in some horrible-looking mud, and of course the damn Crocs soak it up! After yet more beers, it’s home time. Apparently I found my secret Éclair stash when I was dropped by Johnny at the guesthouse at about 4am. I know this from the pile of wrappers on the table I found the next morning!

The Morning After in Addis
So waking up about four hours later, I am not feeling fantastic. I’ve missed the early flight that I still somehow had designs on back at 4am. I’m still worrying about money – last night was entirely on Johnny and his family’s generosity, but this is not going to get me round Ethiopia. He takes me to Wegagen bank, where I try to change some of my dollars into Ethiopian Birr. First I query their rate, which they don’t seem to know. Eventually they tell me it’s just below 10 to the US$. They look through the pile of notes I’d handed over, reject one of my twenties because of a tiny tear in the corner, then pass the remaining 50s, 20s and 10s through their anti-forgery machine, but it doesn’t seem to work, as it rejects every single note! They can’t all be fake, they almost all came from Barclays in Zanzibar and Moshi! Is this a proper bank, asks Milania?

We go for breakfast in a pizzeria on top of an office building.

Addis Ababa

We have pizza for breakfast. I get to try Ethiopian coffee for the first time, receiving a small cup of dark earthy delicious stuff, taken black of course. It’s good.

Ethiopian gold

It’s beautiful up here at this time of morning, with a wide clear blue sky, sunshine, and a gentle breeze.

Apparently it gets hot in the afternoon. We finish off the pizza, then Milania heads to the office, whilst Johnny takes me to Dashan bank, the best hope I have of money now – there are rumours they are introducing ATMS, albeit with huge commission fees. And it’s true - they actually have an ATM! My book says it does visa cash advances, which is an expensive way of getting money (i.e. from your credit card, as opposed to bank), but in fact it takes my debit card. It rejects my request for 4,000, and 3,000, but when I ask for 2,000 birr, I hear the magic shuffling of notes inside!

A pile of really old looking notes that would definitely all be rejected if you tried to exchange them the other way is then spat out, and I pop my card in again and to my pleasure manage another 2,000. Great, that’s 4,000, or something like 200 pounds. I’m guessing. Plenty for my stay here, I hope, and if I’m left with any near the end, the domestic flights will soon burn it up. We go to a travel agent where I pay with Amex card (it’s been a long time since it’s worked anywhere!) 110US$ for a single to Bahir Dar for this afternoon. It seems to have gone up a fair bit from my book’s quoted rates. Next, a book shop, where there’s nothing much that tickles my fancy, so I pick up Henry James’ An American Scene. What a bad choice, I was to realise later.

Interesting factoid: when the rebel forces marched into Addis Ababa in 1991, they apparently navigated with a photocopy of the map in the Lonely Planet Africa on a Shoestring book! Amazing they achieved anything, relying on LP maps!!

Johnny then insists on dropping me at airport – he’s been so good to me – this is someone who I only met yesterday evening, and so far he’s paid for my whole evening of drinking, found me a place to stay, and run me all over town to help me. Ethiopia is an incredibly hospitable country, more of which I was to experience soon. At the airport, it would seem the domestic terminal is closed, all flights go from the international terminal. I check in, pass through security (again worrying they’ll notice my dodgy visa sticker!). It’s a bit minimalist inside, with a couple of shops, one gate being used for all flights, domestic and international (!), a single café, etc. In the gate, I bump into the Japanese pair heading to Sanaa, they’re waiting for their flight too. Next to them, I meet Atsedeweyn, an elderly lady who is also going to Bahir Dar. We chat before boarding.

Of course it’s a bus out to the plane, and we’re made to wait a while on the bus. Apparently some people (English girls it later turned out) didn’t get a little yellow sticker put on their boarding pass, tut tut! We are on an unmarked Fokker 50 plane, no branding or anything on the outside, plain (arf arf) white, making it look like either a bit dodgy or one of the UN planes you see all over the place in Africa, shuttling NGO lackeys between their brand-new white Landrovers and five-star hotels. On board, it would seem I have a seat that doesn’t exist, 16K! Turns out it’s free seating, not that anyone bothered to tell us this as we board. I have a rather smelly chap next to me, but it’s too late to move by the time I realise.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Hey Sam,
I've just discovered your site! Fantastic, I'll be looking all the time from now on.
What you are doing is my dream!
I did a bit when I was younger - 20-21 in Israel and Greece. Then I travelled quite extensively on business in my early 30's, Japan, Korea, Aus, NZ, all Scandanavian, most of Europe, bit of US.... But it was all business and so you dont get to have a good look about or meet people etc.
Just family holidays now though... I have started trekking (fund raiseers for charity) though. I did Mt Olympus (Greece) in 2005. The follwoing year I did a 5 day trek on the Mt Blanc tour. This year I'm supposed to be doing Mount Kenya (10 day trip)but I might plan something independently as these organised things are so dear (albeit for good cause).
Anyway, enjoy. I'll start reading the rest of the blogs now!
Paul Hawkins