Tuesday, November 26, 2013

My 24 Hour Unintentional Visit to Ethiopia

After my visit to Uganda I was supposed to go to Rwanda for a few days to teach at the Rwanda University Tourism College.  Despite all the best laid plans, This Is Africa, and my plans quickly went to hell in a hand basket.  The Kampala to Kigali flight was only 40 minutes, so even though it was a night flight I figured I would arrive in enough time to actually get some sleep in my hotel.  Far from it.

The flight departed promptly at 12:30am Sunday morning.  At about 1am the pilot announced we would be landing very soon, “There is a little mist over the Kigali airport, but it shouldn’t affect our landing.”  Not five minutes later the pilot informed us the mist had become too thick and we would have to circle the airport for a bit.  After an hour of circling the pilot informed us we were running low in fuel and had to return to Kampala.
We arrived back in Kampala right around 3am to find the Kigali airport was “closed” until dawn.  (Important background information: After dropping half the passengers in Kigali the plane was supposed to continue on to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.) After sitting on the tarmac in Kampala for two hours, the pilot made the call that he would take everyone to Addis and then those of us who were supposed to go to Kigali could catch a direct flight later that day.

At 7:45am we arrived in Addis where NO ONE gave us any information or made any effort to help us.  We weren’t supposed to be in Ethiopia, so we couldn’t go through Immigration.  So we were stuck in limbo, like Tom Hanks in The Terminal.  The 40 or so of us Kigali passengers stuck together, but no one would give us any definitive answers.  Apparently the answer to everything is, “You have to speak to a supervisor.”  Funny, we NEVER found a supervisor.
Around 8:30am after being left alone at the departure gate, despite none of us having boarding passes, one lone gate clerk appeared and told us he only had about 25 seats on the flight.  That caused the expected outburst of anger from the crowd.  At this point I realized I probably would not be going to Rwanda.  And at this point I really didn’t want to; I just wanted to go home.  I have to say Ethiopia has the worst hospitality of any country I’ve visited. After more than 40 countries, that is a pretty harsh criticism coming from me, particularly because I tend to be a pretty level headed and understanding traveler; it takes a lot to get me bent out of shape.

After watching the chaos of one gate clerk trying to issue 25 tickets to 40 angry people I decided to leave and figure out another alternative.  At this point I learned Addis does not have iron-clad security which most airports attempt to claim.  I walked out through the security gates, without getting a visa or entry stamp.  Then walked through an “Employees only” door because I thought it might lead me back onto the tarmac, which, thankfully, it did.  I thought at this point I should be getting myself arrested (which I figured would be helpful because then someone would HAVE to help me) since I was a civilian walking across the tarmac underneath the parked airplanes and around all the fuel trucks.  Somehow NO ONE saw this as a red flag!
I went to the Ethiopian Airlines Arrivals and Transfers Desk where I was ignored until the one desk clerk finally told me she’s not helping people; I needed to get in the next line. “This line?  The line where everyone is standing, yet there is no one at this desk to help anyone? Oh, great, thanks for letting me know I should be in THIS line.”

After about twenty minutes I arrived at the front of the line because the deaf Chinese family of 7 in front of me decided they had wasted enough time and gave up.  Shortly after, another desk clerk appeared to assist customers!  YAY!  I explained the fact I couldn’t get on the Kigali flight because they didn’t have enough seats for all of us.  I asked her to just send me home to Gaborone.  Thirty minutes later I finally got a new ticket, leaving this morning to Johannesburg and continuing on to Gaborone in the afternoon.  This meant I had to spend last night in Addis.
I spent the next hour getting through Immigration, followed by harassing the baggage claim attendants.  Apparently, they scan the barcodes on the bags as they put them on the planes.  But, they do NOT scan those barcodes as they are off loaded.  So, they couldn’t tell me whether my luggage had been removed from the plane or where it was, in this or ANY country.  I’m thinking I will never see that bag again, which is particularly disappointing because the hiking boots for my Kilimanjaro climb in less than a month are in there.  If I don’t get the bag soon I need to buy some new boots immediately so I can start breaking them in.

My lack of confidence that my luggage will ever surface emanates from my time spent in the baggage area yesterday. Imagine a baggage claim area with 8 conveyor belts.  All conveyor belts are continuously moving with luggage, but every square inch of flooring between the belts; you know, where people normally stand and watch the belts in hopes of finding their luggage?; every square inch of floor space is filled with unclaimed luggage.  So passengers are literately climbing over mountains of luggage looking for their bags, while also hoping it might fall off a conveyor belt.  I watched this scene for about an hour while Blen, the baggage claim lady, who I told I would tip $100 if she found my luggage, manually searched for my bag.  In the end she couldn’t find it.
I couldn’t take it anymore. After three hours in the Kampala airport, 8 hours on the plane going from Kampala to Kigali to Kampala to Addis, and then another 5 hours in the Addis airport trying to get things sorted out, I left for my hotel.  I was too exhausted from the travel and lack of sleep, and my nerves were completely shot from the stress that I didn’t even play tourist.  Normally when I get “stuck” in a new city I will at least make an effort to see something, anything.  Not this time.  I checked into my hotel, took a nap, watched some tv and then went back to bed until my flight this morning.  And my two flights today were wonderful.  I’m always happy to get back to the Gaborone airport.  I’m happy it’s my home airport because it’s probably the easiest airport I’ve ever been through.  And I’ve never been so happy to be back as I was this afternoon.

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