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|Monday, December 10, 2001 10:35:27
Central Africa 2001: 11 - Ethiopia
Wednesday, December 5 - After due consideration we decided the 5 AM departure for the airport was not a good idea, so we opted for the 6 AM which left at 6:15. This proved a good move, as the flight was delayed until 9:50 from it's scheduled 8:30 AM departure, apparently caused by bad weather in Kigali. They have a beautiful first class lounge at Entebbe, so the wait was comfortable.
We noted in the Ugandan newspaper that while we were in Bujumbura, there was a battle with the rebels in one of the suburbs of the city with 30 killed. A bus was also attacked leaving three dead. We heard nothing about this at the time - all this going on and we were totally oblivious!
Once going, the flight was great. We had business class on this segment as economy was full when we booked. At the airport in Addis Ababa there were no problems, and we took advantage of the Sheraton Addis private waiting area in the terminal for their bus to the hotel. While there, Tim reminded me about declaring my computer and video camera, a necessity if you want to leave with them! We saw no one from customs coming in, so I went back through the arrivals area and after several inquiries found someone to make out the forms. It also proved necessary to declare foreign currency, or if caught it can be confiscated. There is nothing to indicate that you have to do this, fortunately it was in the travel advisory put out by the Canadian foreign affairs department. After I returned to the hotel waiting area Tim went off and got his declaring done.
The Sheraton Addis Hotel is spectacular. We'd heard about it before coming here. It was completed in 1998, built and owned by a Saudi Arabian for $130 million dollars and reputed to be in the world's top ten hotels. It bears a resemblance to a theme park. There are enough pubs and restaurants that an all day pub crawl wouldn't be out of the question. Each room comes with lots of toys - a fax/photocopier, VCR, satellite TV, 3 high tech multiple line phones and an electronic control panel by the bed that controls each light individually, the air conditioning, wake up calls, the clock, pages housekeeping, gives you the time anywhere in the world and turns on and off the "do not disturb" sign outside the door. The place is lavishly decorated for Christmas - which brought the time of year home to us dramatically. We'd seen nothing to do with Christmas up to this point, and although true Christmas involves desert and camels it seem a bit odd.
A tour of the city by car showed little of interest even through it is a city of five million people. The president's palace and the prime minister's palace are both on huge estates, but only the fence with guard posts every few meters could be seen of either. There are some older churches here, but photos of them are prohibited - no reason given. The largest market in all Africa is here, called the merkato. It sprawls over many city blocks and is crowded with people and pack animals. It is said that absolutely anything can be bought in this market. The temperature here is quite moderate, due to the 7,700 foot altitude of the city. It was interesting to note that signs here were almost universally in two languages, English and Ethiopian. Ethiopian is that strange script that we saw in Eritrea that appears to be a cross between Chinese characters and Arabic.
There is a lot of visible poverty here, and a huge number of beggars - including the disfigured kind one associates with India. One fellow with mangled legs propelled himself around on his knuckles. Whether this disfigurement is intentional or not was not clear. There were lots of people hustling for handouts and hawking various things on the street and at the car window every time we stopped.
Over drinks in the evening we decided to try to hire a plane to fly over the Blue Nile Gorge. This is supposed to be bigger and grander than the Grand Canyon. The concierge said he'd see what he could find out about small plane rentals.
In the morning, and after a wait of a couple of hours, we got a quote - $2,500 for 90 minutes for the plane. That wasn't hard to say no to - the type of plane wasn't identified, but with the price a 737 came to mind! Unfortunately we don't have time to look on our own, so we reluctantly decided to forget about it and instead hired a taxi to take us up Mr. Entoto not far from Addis. The road was in terrible condition, but near the summit is a small town that was the capital of Ethiopia before Addis was. There is an orthodox church there, the main religion in this area, and the palace where the emperor at the time stayed. Past the village, at the very top of the mountain is a spectacular view of the city, and the countryside in all directions. We were at a little over 10,000 feet at the top.
Going up and coming down we passed lots of donkeys carrying wood and other items to sell at the market - trees are being eliminated in the quest for firewood, as the poor cannot afford electricity. There was also a steady stream of women carrying huge bundles of the bamboo like stalks they make a type of local bread from - according to Lonely Planet it is source of world class flatulence. These heavy bundles were up to 10 feet wide, and they carried them resting crosswise across their upper back, held by straps. To carry them they were doubled right over under the weight.
The poverty here is heartbreaking, the worst we have seen. Some of these people had slippers or sandals, or rags wrapped around their feet, but many had nothing on their feet at all. The quality of clothing would have to be termed as rags, threadbare dresses for the women, patched pants and shirts for the men. It was truly depressing - there wasn't much conversation on the way back!
We hung around the hotel in the later afternoon, getting ready for the homewards trip tomorrow, then had a good farewell dinner and drinks in the hotel's Italian Restaurant, as we split up tomorrow. The evening was broken up by the appearance of Santa Claus in full regalia, sack and all, ho ho hoing his way through the restaurant.
Although Tim's flight didn't leave for 2 ½ hours after mine he opted to ride out to the airport at the same time I did, but he was not able to check in for his flight for a couple of hours so we sat and chatted in the outer waiting area of the airport for an hour after I checked in. There was once again no problem with immigration or customs. It is interesting to note that we had absolutely no problem with shake downs or corrupt customs and immigration officials anywhere in Eastern Africa - all the problems were in Western Africa.
The 6 ½ hour Air Ethiopia flight was on time to Rome. The transit area in the Rome airport is huge, with several dozen shops. It was a long walk to the Air France section, but I arrived in time for the 5:30 flight to Paris - I was booked on the 6:30 flight. Unfortunately it was full, so I wasn't able to get going an hour early. There were only 5 empty seats on the 6:30 flight as well, so no leg room seats were available. It seems the slowdown in air travel has not impacted Europe as it has North America - Air France has even refused to offer special reduced fares. The purser on the flight took pity on me, as she has a husband around the same height and with similar leg room problems, so she bumped me up to business class for the Rome to Paris leg.
In Paris the temperature was three degrees Celsius, and I was wearing only a light short sleeved shirt. It seems strange to be on a plane full of people lugging around overcoats and scarves, but I must have looked really strange to them - like I'd stepped out of a vacation ad - sun tanned and in a light short sleeve shirt. Fortunately, I left the warmth of the airport to wait for the hotel bus outside and it arrived in about 30 seconds, so my worry about freezing to death was not justified!
In the morning I decided to skip breakfast, as the flight was due to take off at 10:20 am and I foolishly counted on being fed. The shuttle to the airport was driven by a particularly miserable short, wide Frenchman who absolutely refused to help anyone with anything, including information as to what terminal one should be at. If you didn't speak French, he would not speak at all - talk about a guy in the wrong line of work! The airline departure points at Charles de Gaulle airport are not written in large letters, and with a packed bus - even all standing room taken, it was impossible to try to identify a terminal. A fellow passenger on the bus who spoke English got me on the right track.
Check and boarding went smoothly, and on time. I didn't have to go through check in, as they had given me a boarding pass for this flight while I was in Rome. Customs and airport security had a Costa Rican class line up for miles. As I'd arrived early, I was in the first load to the plane. They used the standard airline loading ramps, but the loading was into buses with hydraulic lifts that brought the passenger area up to the level of the ramps, lowered for transportation, and raised again to enter the plane. Ours, plus one other busload successfully arrived, but I guess the situation at security deteriorated as the captain came on the address system to announce that over 40 passengers were still tied up in the security procedure, and we would be 40 minutes late waiting for them.
Once they arrive and were seated, we sat some more. At this point the plane was about 2/3 full. The captain came on again to say that a defective part had been discovered on the plane, and that they were looking for a replacement, so there would be a further delay. This continued on and off until we finally departed, after a crew change - they would have worked to long by the time we arrived. We had sat in the plane for four hours and fifteen minutes, during which time were offered one drink.
By the time food was served my stomach thought my throat had been cut! Immediately after being fed, while the trays were being taken away, a disaster of unimaginably magnitude was revealed. I was informed they had no more beer on board - they don't carry hard liquor, wine was the only option - and there were still another nine hours to go! Unimaginable! Once the meal was cleaned up, the cabin crew disappeared and were not seen for another seven or eight hours when they served a snack before arrival. Either this was just bad luck, or Air France has really taken a nosedive on customer service!
The only redeeming characteristic was the plane. It was a new Airbus 340, and was equipped with individual TV monitors with a selection of 6 movies, 10 games, plus various TV channels. I had managed to get three seats together, so was able to use the adjoining seat areas to store my legs as they wouldn't fit in front of me.
Upon arrival in Houston, an Air France employee grudgingly and grumbling, supplied accommodation and meal vouchers as my Costa Rica flight had departed on time half and hour before we arrived. I was directed to the area where, I was assured, the Quality Inn shuttle would be by frequently to pick up guests. Although the ten degree temperature was balmy in comparison to Paris, after about 15 minutes of waiting I was freezing so opted for a cab and paid $10 for transport to the hotel. It turned out to be just as well - when I was checking in I asked about the shuttle and was informed it was sent only when requested, and the miserable woman at the Air France desk had not asked for it. I told the hotel to keep the dinner voucher as a bonus and headed directly to bed.
The shuttle worked well in the morning, so after a good breakfast I arrived at the airport and checked in. The line for security was long, but nothing like Paris. My case was examined after the X-ray machine, and the person going through it objected to a 2 ½ inch by 1/8 inch piece of my manicure set that is designed to push back the cuticles on finger and toe nails at one end, and to clean under nails with the other end. As this particular implement had been examined at dozens of inspection points, including Costa Rica and USA on the way to Africa, I appealed to the supervisor, who of course supported his inspector, so I appealed to his supervisor, who supported him. I threw the thing onto their counter in disgust, repacked my case and headed for the plane.
After walking a short distance I thought, "To hell with this absurdity. I've got a couple of hours to kill before the flight; I'm going to draw some attention to this." I went back to security, where the offensive item still lay, and told them I was going to check it. I took it back, and a security agent escorted me to the other side of the security checks.
In Houston, Continental Airlines have a good service. There are lots of people around in the customer area wearing red sports coats. They are there for customers to ask questions of, or to help with anything they can. I went to one of these people, explained the situation and that I didn't want to go through a check in line again. He said, "No problem", and found a first class check in with no one in line and handed me off to the agent.
She couldn't believe it. I asked for a box, so she got me the smallest one she had, which was about eight inches square. I dropped in the deadly weapon, whereupon it immediately slid under one of the cardboard flaps and disappeared. She went and got some tape so we could tape it to the bottom of the box to hold it stationary. It was then necessary to stand in line for the security section that goes through all luggage checked for passengers who already have boarding passes. The agent tipped them off I was coming. She said, "They won't believe this. They'll think it's some sort of a test!"
When it was my turn to have my shipment inspected, the person in charge said, "You can carry this on with you, you don't need to check it." My reply was that this was all well and good, and perhaps he'd like to come and explain that to the people at the check point. Shaking his head, he sent it to be packaged up and gave me the claim tag.
I was remembered at the security gate, so was moved through very quickly this time. However, their revenge came when I presented my boarding card at the plane. My name flagged, and I was sent to another security guy who went through my suitcase with a fine tooth comb, inspected everything. This ensured I was last to get on the flight - they actually had to wait for me. The stupid part - I had my safari vest with me, that has dozens of pockets in it, loaded with calculators, video camera, GPS, books and all sorts of other items. I folded it and put it beside the suitcase on the table where my case was being examined. He didn't even look at it.
The flight back was good - exit row for my legs, and they didn't run out of beer. My "checked baggage" arrived fine.
Each of you who have been receiving my ramblings were picked on a sort of arbitrary manner, and weren't given much choice in the matter - I simply chose friends who have helped me in my travels or who I thought might be interested. It was an opportunity to test out the web site my son built for me, and it has worked perfectly.
The next trip will be in mid-April to May, into the mountains of Peru, including Machu Pichu, then to Iquitos near the headwaters of the Amazon for a trip down the river to the sea at Belem. I'm going to redo the automatic mailing list for the web site, giving you the option of receiving these commentaries or not. Everyone will be removed from the list, so if you wish to receive reports on future trips please let me know. If you don't let me know, your inbox will no longer be subjected to my submissions.