13th January 2013

The Return to Ethiopia

48 hours ago, I was at my parents house, lying in my little bed and trying to drift off to the land of nod. It was to be my last night in the UK and as the rain tapped persistently at my window, I reflected that it would most probably also be the last time in quite a while that I would feel so truly safe and relaxed. My mind was set on a wash-cycle of worries, doubts and fears as I lay there, staring across at the bookshelves housing the comfortingly familiar reads of my childhood. For the millionth time, my mind paced its way swiftly through the usual routine: why am I going back to Africa? Can I just stay here? Why am I doing this? Will I be strong enough to handle everything alone…again? And so it continued. “Enough” I thought - I had to get up and stop this exhausting carousel. I stepped out of bed, walked over to the window, pulled back the curtain and leaned against the cold sill, staring out at the tiny darts of rain bouncing off the street. I used to love hearing the rain at nighttime knowing that I was tucked up all safe and could come to no harm. But as I stared out into the darkness, I knew that soon, there would be no-where to hide. Because that was the truth - however much I pointlessly lapped through the debate in my mind, I knew I would be getting on that plane the next day to finish what I’d started and to learn some lessons of a lifetime. There could be no dodging it.

Fast forward 24 hours and it was time to board my Ethiopian Airlines plane to Addis Ababa. Mercifully this provided me with sufficient distraction to lift my heavy heart out of its whirling confusion and onto less demanding but perhaps equally disturbing material. It’s been well documented that economy class plane travel is one of man’s less life-affirming pursuits, but truly what can be worse than brushing buttocks with a stranger who insists on pushing past you back to back as you reach to load your luggage into the overhead compartment? A thoroughly bleak experience and one that can only truly be eclipsed by catching sight of the standard issue male of late middle age who unashamedly picks his nose with a probing digit while simultaneously peering through his bifocals at the pages of his complementary Daily Mail. Horrendous.

In any case, after these initial traumas, the flight passed by without further incident and I soon settled in to read my book, which deals with Zimbabwe under Mugabe. After a while the lady on the seat opposite me reached across and asked if I was going to Zimbabwe. We got talking and it turned out that this lady, Penny, was from Zimbabwe and now lived in Harare. I asked her what it was like there for travellers, especially one on two wheels. “Ach”, she said, “there are many potholes on the roads in Harare and you must be careful about the traffic lights - often they are working on one side of the street and not the other, or often not at all due to the power shortages”. I asked her how bad the shortages were. “oh quite frequent”, she replied, “in fact my niece recently took a flight with her little daughter, and you know how they dim the lights for landing? When they came back on again, she cried “the Zesa has come back on!”. That’s the power grid in Zim you see, she thought it was another outage!”. We spoke some more and it was clear that Penny felt things were improving. “so many white people are coming back now you know, things are better, especially now we use the US Dollar as our official currency, that’s really stabilised things.” I asked her if she had ever left or been tempted to leave. “Ach no, you know, my son said to me many times that I should come to the UK where he was living at that time, but Zim is my home, it’s a beautiful country and I couldn’t leave it. And now my son has moved back with his children, yes it’s good to have them back in Harare!”.

A few hours later and it was time to land at Addis Ababa. My internal flight on to Gonder, where I had left Suzi, wasn’t til the next day, so I made my way with my luggage through to the taxi desk inside the airport and asked for a quote to my hotel. The price came back as 300Birr (pronounced with a rolled “r”, like an old fashioned telephone ringer). I knew it was only a 10 minute journey to the hotel so this was a huge price (equivalent of £10). The agent on the desk tried to justify it by pointing out the overheads of running a desk in the terminal and the parking costs at the airport, but still to my mind this didn’t justify this exorbitant price. However with only 1 hours sleep under my belt I felt too fuzzy to argue and agreed. The agent took my trolley and pushed it through the automatic exit and out into the morning air of Addis. Following on behind him, I breathed my first lungfuls of African air and noted the sweet scent of a summer’s early morning, spoilt by the choking fug of exhaust fumes and rounded off with unbrushed teeth. He clattered on with the trolley down a
concrete ramp towards a rank of waiting yellow cabs and instructed for me to wait until he found one which knew the way.

After 5 minutes of negotiations, I was ushered towards a friendly looking young man in a blue sweater, who beckoned me to his taxi and began to load my luggage into the boot. As I reached for the rear passenger door, I noticed that there was a yellow-handled screwdriver wedged down between the window pane and the door frame. It might have been a co-incidence but I reflected that only a certain class
of bodger would ever be bothered to pick out a screwdriver for this purpose to match the colour of his cab.

Once in the car, the driver stepped in and started manoeuvring the vehicle
out of the space and towards the exit. With power-steering well off the menu, the driver coaxed and coerced his ancient car to a slow shudder out of the car park as it squeaked its way noisily through each gear change. “Sorry!” the driver called with a smile into the rear view mirror, “car very old! Lada!”. Somehow I suddenly felt embarrassed for mentally noting his car’s dubious performance and therefore slightly overcompensated with a rousing cry of “but you drive it very well!” pumping my arm in the air with an indefatigable wartime enthusiasm. The driver chuckled. “where are you from?” he asked. “England, London” I replied. “is there snow there?” he asked. “In some parts of England, yes”, I said. He nodded. “Here it is very hot, like 9 months of year. Only 3 months we get rain. Very much rain. The roads, they can be like….be like…”. “Rivers?” I suggested. His face broke into an even bigger smile, “Yes, this is true, the road is like river”.

We took a right turn up a slip road and had to decelerate as fast as the Lada could go (I’ll leave you to imagine that one) as right in front of us, a small crowd of slightly harassed looking donkeys were crossing the road, each with thick rope collars around their necks but apparently no-one with them. “Where are the donkeys going?” I asked. “Shopping?”. “ah ha ha no, the donkeys they do not go to the shopping, they will go to work” he replied as we pulled into the hotel. Once he had helped me unload my luggage, with another smile and a cheery wave, he was gone.

So now here I am in my hotel room, it’s time to head to bed as its a very early start tomorrow for my flight to Gonder. Unlike two nights ago however, I’ve got a feeling that this time i’ll have no trouble getting to sleep - its great to be back in Ethiopia and to be reminded of some
of the reasons why I love doing this trip…and best of all, I can’t wait to see Suzi again tomorrow! Sweet dreams all.