Chapter 1: Getting There Is Half the Fun and 3/4ths the Expense.
My middle school Social Studies teacher, Mr. Larson, taught us the countries of Africa using their names to make up a story. I can’t remember all of them, but I do remember a friend of Chad who was a boxing fan so she had Somali. And this guy who got angry that he ran out of petrol somehow made me remember Madagascar. I wonder if Mr. Larson could do the same thing nowadays with the Etch-A-Sketch of a map that Africa has become.
Right now I am in flight to visit friends in Ethiopia. To the east is Somalia, which hasn’t had a working government since 1991 and just declared a jihad on Ethiopia. To the north is Eritrea which has been warring with Ethiopia over a border dispute since ‘98. To the west is Sudan where an estimated two million people have been displaced and 200,000 massacred in the Darfur region. To the south is Uganda, where Idi Amin would commonly have his political opponents for dinner. As in ‘with fava beans and a nice Chianti’. And to the northeast is Djibouti, which is just fun to say.
Ethiopia has plenty of its own internal troubles. It’s one of the three poorest countries in the world. It ranks second in the number of HIV infections and deaths from AIDS. Life expectancy is a scant 49 years. Only 39% of the population is literate. And cyclical droughts make it prone to the massive starvations that killed hundreds of thousands in the early ‘70s and ‘80s.
That’s the Ethiopia most of us have lodged in our heads.
But did you know Ethiopia is also the native land of the coffee plant and the birthplace of the Rastafarian religion? It has more unique species of flora than any other African country and a capital city of over 5 million. It was only the second country in the west to adopt Christianity and one of the few countries on the continent to escape European colonialism. It has over 20 peaks above 4000m and one of the earth’s lowest points (the Danakil Depression is over 120m below sea level). There are 17th century castles that were larger than their European counterparts. One of the three wise men who visited the newborn Jesus was Ethiopian. Mohammed was nursed by an Ethiopian woman. A place named ‘Land of Burnt Faces’ by the Greeks that even Homer writes about. And despite all its troubles and strife—both natural and manmade—it is called the “Cradle of Humanity” because that is likely where one of our oldest relatives (the Australopithecus afarensis Lucy) changed the fate of an entire planet by standing up and looking at the world from a whole new perspective.
This is also Ethiopia. And it’s where I’m headed for Thanksgiving. No, the irony of spending our national day of glorified gluttony in a country that was so starved for food it actually brought together Bruce Springsteen and Cyndi Lauper in song has not escaped me.
While my flight plan consists of an eight hour jaunt to Amsterdam, followed by a nine hour leg to Addis Ababa, I am convinced that international travel is the only way to go. Free booze and each seat comes with its own video screen that lets you play video games, build a custom-made music playlist and watch a huge selection of movies whenever you damn well feel like it. Although the list includes The Lake House, Dude, Where’s My Car? And the Dolly Parton/Sly Stallone magnum opus Rhinestone. Well, at least you get to choose the type of tripe you want shoveled between your ears. And when it also needs to fill eight hours, you’re looking for plenty. You can watch First Daughter in Dutch and pretend it’s educational I guess.
If I had the dosh, I’d fly first class without a doubt. I could care less about the gourmet meals, the karaoke stage and bathroom attendants. Just let me able to stretch out and sleep at a vaguely reclined angle and I’ll be happy. The wings on this A330 have got several feet of flex in them and I can’t get more than an ant’s pubic hair arc of comfort in my rack.
You try, but rarely ever sleep. You just close your eyes and toss around in your head, swinging in a hammock of thought, hoping you drift into actual dreaming. At best, you try to distract your subconscious enough so it doesn’t notice you crossing all the time zones over the Atlantic.
Amsterdam in the dark. I wander around the deserted airport city of Schipol in the rainy predawn looking at my dazed and glazed expression reflected over dozing jets as I slide by a horizon of windows on a moving walkway.
I find an upstairs lounge area with recliners and flop into one with eyes closed. For a brief moment I chase a worry around my mind about what would happen if I overslept. It was needless, because sleep was just a dream. What with the moving walkway downstairs chirpily reminding you to “Watch your step!” whenever anyone breached its perimeter. And the continuous overhead announcements! There seems to be two women doing them. I picture them in a control room somewhere, reading off scraps of paper that shoot up in pneumatic tubes surrounding them. One sounds like a French woman with a sinus infection and a mouthful of peanut butter. Even her O’s sound like Ng’s. The other I imagine is some kind of Paxil-fueled pixie, flitting about the booth with stardust sifting from her cosmic rainbow wings. She is sugar-coated saccharin who pronounces every letter with the precision of a German engineer.
The passenger names they announce are clichéd stereotypes. I believe I can pick the nationality of each of them without even seeing a passport. “Mr. Lopez, Mr. Hackenschmidt, Mr. Bindi and Mr. Wang, you are delaying your flight. Please report to the gate immediately or your baggage will be off-loaded.”
No, there is no sleep to be had here. So I pace each terminal to its terminus, haunt the duty-free shops, play an extra in the background of so many other people’s epic adventures as they are in mine. Our paths crossing here, but never touching.
At last it’s boarding time. The KLM flight seems to have wider seats, better food, cuter stewardess and goes by much quicker. The only snag was the fact that all flights going into Africa seem required to make at least one stop somewhere. This flight stopped in Khartoum. While I was on my layover in Khartoum nothing really happened. Which sucks because I’d love to be able to start some conversation with the phrase “While I was on a layover in Khartoum…”
From there it was just a short parabola into Addis. In just under a day, this Midwest boy had kissed his girlfriend good-bye in the chill air of the Land of 10,000 Lakes. And now I was getting my passport stamped in the lingering warm dark on the Horn of Africa.
The customs line was blissfully blessedly short and just on the other side was Jim. A familiar face in a very distant place.
“Hey, bud.” I said, giving him a big yeti hug. “I just happened to be in the neighborhood.”
[Our Next Episode: Malice in the Palace by the Badass of Addis]