Ethiopia in transit
Long, long day. Lufthansa to Frankfurt in Business and then a flight to Addis with a stop in Khartoum en route, also Lufthansa Business. In the 24 hours leading up to departure I had my usual fit of nostalgia and early homesickness. Weird but I guess it's good to get it out of the way early so that it doesn't actually get in the way while on the road. Nevertheless it is inevitable, no matter how many times I travel, that I always get homesick before I leave. Once underway all is good, but the preliminary pre-departure mood always includes a significant component of early homesickness, nostalgia for my cats and a deep sense of wonder about quite why I'm doing this. I find that as I'm getting older this mood comes earlier and is more intense; I suppose that the logical extension is that one day I may just say, enough, I'd rather stay home with the cats and rip up the tickets. Mood always passes but.....
Plane was due to leave at 18:00 but was late arriving and then because it was snowing, we needed to be de-iced. Finally got under way at 20:00. My connection in Frankfurt leaves 2 1/2 hours after my arrival and we were already 2 hours late. However with tail winds and ruthless Lufthansa timetable efficiency our pilot got us in only about 15 minutes late, so crisis averted.
Turns out that the Frankfurt-Addis leg has recently changed routing, now stopping in Jeddah and then onwards to Addis. Packed flight and as I subsequently learned filled with families going to Jeddah for the hajj in the holy city of Makkah in Saudi Arabia. Over the course of the 5 hour flight I watched a fascinating transformation as dozens of men of all ages, for the most part ordinary and nondescript in running shoes and jeans or street clothes, went to the bathrooms and emerged in what I imagine is hajj dress. All of them variations on a theme of white cotton fabric with white cotton terry or velour geometric designs woven into the fabric, white on white. The clothes consisted of a white wraparound kilt which extended to ankle length, bare feet in sandals and bare above the waist but swathed in a sort of shawl over the shoulders which left midriffs bare. It was like watching butterflies emerge from cocoons; drab, mass-produced western clothing suddenly replaced by a more uniform but powerful form of dress. Flight was very interesting; flew directly south over the Adriatic and could see that we were following the coast for its whole length until we crossed Greece and over the Mediterranean to Egypt. We crossed into Egypt just west of Alexandria and followed a long diagonal across Egypt towards the Red Sea which, because the diagonal was closely parallel to the Nile, allowed me see the vast expanse of the red-brown desert, broken by hills and the long, long extent of the Nile which our diagonal finally crossed as we moved towards the Red Sea.
Arrived in Jeddah as the sun was setting and as we were on our final approach the pilot suddenly kicked the plane into high gear, aborted the landing and accelerated back up to altitude. PA announced that the tower had instructed the pilot to abort for safety reasons but that was all the explanation we got. Circled for a while and then landed without incident.
Plane was an Airbus 300 so a big plane and after the pilgrims exited there were very few of us left. We were not allowed to deplane but stayed on board while we refuelled and waited to depart, about an hour or so. The purser came around to each seated passenger and explained that there were two brand new and just-qualified stewardesses in the crew who were on their first official flight. She had 2 T-shirts and asked us each to write a little note and sign it in Magic Marker on each shirt and said that she'd be presenting them to the 2 crew before departure and that they would wear them for the flight. Great fun and after everyone signed them there was still room to write so that gives some idea of how few of us there were left. The 2 new stews were thrilled, proudly wore their shirts and were pleased to show them off so a very easy, relaxed and pleasant 2 hour flight into Addis.
I asked the purser while I was doing my shirt-writing if we were going to be picking up passengers in Jeddah but she said that Lufthansa only had deplaning rights but not pick-rights in Jeddah so I imagine that they had changed the routing from Khartoum to Jeddah in order to take advantage of the opportunity to transport pilgrims to Jeddah. Even though they flew with a virtually empty plane to Addis, I don't expect that they would have picked up many new passengers had they flown their usual route into Khartoum.
Once arrived, tired, scruffy and badly in need of a beer and a shower I expected that it would be an easy run through the formalities and on to my hotel. Picked up my bag from the luggage carousel and got onto the tail end of a very long queue waiting to get through customs where all the bags were being x-rayed. However the obvious tourists were plucked out of the line and shown a fast-track gate which seemed to open directly into the arrivals hall and as I was pushing my luggage cart towards the arrivals hall I was stopped by a young couple dressed in street clothes who asked me for my passport. Thinking that they were hotel or taxi touts I simply kept going but just before I entered the arrivals hall they stood in front of the cart and started to push it over to one side while continuing to demand my passport. I noticed the same thing happening to the other 4 or 5 passengers who were also fast-tracked, so following them, I was directed to tables where our accosters collected passports and began to open bags. I can safely say, having been through dozens of customs inspections in dozens of countries in every state of economic and political advancement and failure that I have never been more thoroughly worked over than in the Addis airport.
Let me also preface this by saying that after Ethiopia we are going on to Kenya and the Masai Mara for a photo safari so I had brought 2 big Canon cameras, a 5DIII and a 7D along with 4 lenses, 2 of them very big indeed and 1 of them a 300mm lens, weighs 2 kilos and takes up one whole section of my travelling camera bag, all intended for Kenya and wildlife photography. One of my chief worries in Ethiopia has been what to do about this kit since I did not want to haul it around and had planned to ask the Sheraton, our hotel for our first and last nights, if I could leave it with them. In addition I had a Fuji X-E1 and an X-E2 with a couple of lenses for them since for the sort of traveling that we will be doing in Ethiopia, I wanted small and unobtrusive equipment for street shooting and people shots. When the various plugs, filter, batteries, chargers other bits and pieces were added in quite frankly it was a massive haul, filled a 30L camera bag and weighed about 16 kilos!
When my little customs people, as they turned out to be, found all this their joy was unalloyed and I could see bonuses flashing in their eyes as they believed they had single-handedly caught the biggest camera smuggler on their watch. My Amharic being non-existent and their English hardly better I could see that there were problems ahead. We then spent 2 1/2 hours going every way but forwards as we tried to sort this out. I was able to gather that I needed to have a letter from my travel agency stating that I was a tourist and without this letter I could not enter Ethiopia with all this equipment since real tourists did not travel in the way that I was attempting to do. I told them that someone from the tourist agency was waiting for me in the arrivals hall and they would be able to explain who I was and straighten things out. They let me go to the arrivals hall to find my driver but for the first time in all my travels, no driver was in evidence.
At this point my credibility was non-existent and dropping into negative territory and I still did not know quite what my crime was and they wouldn't return my passport. Potential smuggler, under-cover journalist? Fortunately I had a printed copy of my itinerary and this I showed them with the name of the travel agency and a list of hotels where we were staying and places we were traveling to. They then indicated that I should call the agency but without a local sim card I was not going to attempt a local call in Ethiopia given Bell's roaming rates so they called the agency for me but at that time of night, now 22:30, of course there was no one there. We seemed to be at an impasse and during all this time I had gone through all the various methods of dealing with things like this, angry, resigned, cheerful and problem-solving, angry again, friendly and cooperative again but all to no avail. While all this was going on various people came and went, periodically pawing through my bags and cheering when they found a pair of binoculars or an iPad or my laptop, presumably as adding to the evidence that I was not a real tourist. (I know I deserved it, over-privileged western white male!) Lots of chat amongst the various players while I continued to show my itinerary and tell anyone who would listen or could understand that I was simple tourist who was thrilled to be there and couldn't wait to visit all the fascinating places on my itinerary. After about an hour a couple of the guys started to warm up and talk to me about the Northern part of Ethiopia and the rock churches and the angel Gabriel and Moses and the birth of christianity and the ark of the covenant at great length in marginally understandable english. I agreed wholeheartedly with the sermons, nodded in what I hoped were the right places and looked friendly and pious. They then seemed to accept that I was a misguided tourist and was properly contrite and I could see them trying to sell this to the little firecracker of a woman who kept pointing to the cameras and lenses and clearly was not buying the story.
The second hour was then spent with my new friends, the two customs guys, trying to convince the customs woman that all was good and I should leave and come back tomorrow with a letter from the Ministry of Communications to support the fact that I was a tourist and all was ok but she was having no part of it. And before I get comments about the situation and my attitude, I do get the irony of it, I really do, and am appropriately contrite!! The two customs guys tried to explain to me that there was a black market in expensive cameras and the law said that without an official letter the cameras and lenses could not enter since I might otherwise sell them for a huge markup. Makes no sense since this problem is not unique to Ethiopia and in other jurisdictions you must declare everything you bring in and then must be able to produce it if requested when exiting the country. There had to have been more to the story since the fear seemed to be centred around my being a professional photographer and if that was the case I presumably needed official sanction if I was going to do a story on the country. However, I digress.
After 2 1/2 hours we filled in a long official form listing all the equipment that they took exception to, we all signed it, I locked the case, they gave me a receipt and they have kept it until I return with the relevant documentation, or and this is my great hope, or I pick it up when we leave for Kenya. I will confirm this tomorrow and if they will keep it until I pick it up in a couple of weeks, a problem solved since I don't need the Sheraton to look after it for me. Proving once again that there is always win in there somewhere if you only know where to look. We all had a pretty intense couple of hours, got to know each other a little, had a little fun along the way and all left with our honour intact. Exciting, and I've had worse intros to countries.
Found the last taxi left in the deserted terminal, paid an exorbitant amount in $US for a ride to the hotel and am sitting on the outside of a very cold beer while I write my notes. Tomorrow will phone the agency and try and find why my driver was not in the airport or why I was not told that I needed a letter. Problem for another day.