I blog when I go abroad, and occasionally when I do stuff in the UK too. There's a nicer interface over here.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Hurry boy she's waiting there for you

The Brussels Airlines lounge desk staff were a bit confused. I don't think many people fly Ethiopian Airlines from Brussels, but it's Star Alliance and they let me in OK. There was free wifi... for 1 hour only. Which is a bit odd. And I had over 2 hours to kill, thank heavens for tethering, even in mainland Europe. I knew I'd be able to leave right at the last minute, 'cos I could see my plane from the non-balcony next to my table.

Cheese and Leffe Brune (aka Leffe Bruin, aka Leffe (B)ruin) tasted amazing. I mean, like, amazing. Clearly this is not revelatory, what with cheese and beer both being awesome -- but what I mean is, together they actually tasted more amazing than separately. Again, nothing new to most people, but I have such a terrible palette it was an almost religious experience. So I got a second plate of cheese. My diet is ace.

I sauntered to the gate, my boarding pass made the computer beep, and I held up the queue.

"Ah! Mr Foreman. Do you already have your onward boarding pass?"
"Actually no, I don't"
"Please wait here"
"So, here's your boarding pass from Addis Ababa to Zanzibar. I'm sorry, it looks improvised, but please, all the information is there and accurate, it's fine"

I don't think I've ever had a handwritten boarding pass before. It said "Class: Y" on it. Y is economy. That caused a bit of a panic later, as I wondered if I'd be able to use the lounge at Addis Ababa.

At checkin they'd told me the flight was very busy, in fact full from Milan, but (I guess because I'd been so early) allocating me a window seat had been fine. So I perched in seat 4L, the last row of business class, kinda half straddling with economy (but with a curtain to separate us). There was one other person in business, a pilot.

Two cabin crew poured me a champagne, one supervising the other: "it's her first time on a big plane". I got used to the seat, which didn't take much getting used to tbh. Ethiopian Airlines is not, in seating terms, radically different from BA's premium economy with a bit more leg room. And in several ways it's worse, in particular the complete lack of personal TV. So no movies, no map, no nothing. There were tiny screens hanging down every few rows but I couldn't see one from my seat anyway, and it's broadcast rather than on demand. So, y'know, not great. I've been lucky enough to fly some of the best business classes in the sky, and it's fair to say that Ethiopian is pretty low down the ranking (though I had a much worse experience on Thai once). But I'm clearly being a bit churlish and snobbish: business class is still business class, the seat was comfortable and the service great.

Straight after take off I was given a beer and a cake. A "local", ie Ethiopian beer, called St George. "Fly Ethiopian, Drink Ethiopian". Nice it was too, an opinion which was later canvassed by the staff who were eager to know what I thought, having never tasted it themselves what with being teetotal.

With no entertainment I had 3 ways to entertain myself: keep a notebook, look out the window, or read a book. The notebook is the reason I end up writing so much here, because I wrote so much there, and have no real sense of how to edit myself. I type too much. But anyone who's ever read my blog knows that anyway.

The Alps are gorgeous. I took a bunch of photos of mountains. I'll put them up somewhere soon, I guess.

The book I was reading is Mick Foley's "Foley is Good". I almost gave up on it when he badmouthed the Misfits - only one of the BEST BANDS EVER - on pages 86-87. Bastard. But since he's a double-hard bastard I'll let him off.

We stopped for an hour in Milan, to pick up passengers. Business class did not fill up, in fact only 2 more people came in to this cabin. But occupying the first 2 rows of economy, immediately behind me, were 2 adults and about 8 kids. Young kids. Loud kids. I tried not to let my exasperation show (apart from on twitter) but even the flight attendants were struggling a bit, and they suggested I move about 3 times. On the 3rd time I did, to row 1. For a start this gave me a view of one of the shared screens, but it also put me in front of the two newbies.

Because I could see a screen, I could now keep tabs on the safety announcement. I'm sure they said we had to turn off PDFs rather than PDAs.

Amharic is definitely one of the source languages for the whole "African languages just sound like clicks" stereotype.

The newbies ended up talking very loudly for the first 3 hours, as it was some self-important businessman dictating to his PA. The staff actually suggested I move again, apologising for my bad luck, but I stuck with it. They were always so friendly, and oh boy did they keep the alcohol flowing. Having already had booze in two lounges and two flights I was heading towards drunk, and by the time the meal finished I was another champagne, two beers and a port in. Oh my. The meal itself was a decent chicken curry, albeit with an Ethiopian "hot sauce" that actually seemed to lessen the spiciness of the chicken, not enhance it. Huh. Maybe my awful palette is still awful after all.

I kipped for a bit. It wasn't the best sleep, and was only about 3 hours, but I've had worse on better seats/beds. It was after I woke that I had the realisation that I might need to *ahem* charm the lounge staff into letting me in, having stepped off a business class flight with an economy boarding pass for the next leg(s). But I was in no fit state to charm anyone, what with being shattered and half cut. I also realised I was 216 pages through the biggest book of the 3 I had with me, on day 1 of a 7 day trip; and that this was, actually, my furthest solo holiday ever which hasn't included Australia. Huh.

Landed at Addis Ababa terminal 2 at about 6am, I think. It was not desperately hot, just pleasantly warm. I was first off the plane and into the terminal, shepherded up an escalator, along a corridor, down an escalator and back out onto the tarmac to get a bus to terminal 1 for Zanzibar.

Terminal 2, from the outside and my short experience of its interior, seems pretty modern and nice. Terminal 1 looked, from the outside, like an old hospital.

Terminal 1, on the inside, is like a hospital. No wards, but a big waiting area and 3 League of Friends shops. And a cafe called "London cafe". Heathrow it ain't. Singapore, Hong Kong, hell, Flagstaff it ain't. But there was a lounge, and I was allowed in, without even attempting a winning smile.

The lounge had all the appearance of a British seaside venue, like the dance hall of a hotel that's seen better days - except without the dance floor, just the chrome + leather seats and mirrored walls that surround it. This was pretty charming, actually: I love the bleak British seaside. I also love serving myself a huge plate of omelette and potatoes, washing it down with an Ethiopian Diet Coke. But most of all - in terms relevant to this experience - I love my "it's always 7am somewhere" attitude to long-haul travel, during which I childishly and unhealthily revel in grabbing myself a beer at 7am local time. That's the very long way of saying I grabbed another beer. And, since I was in Ethiopia now, I made it a, er, Heineken. Go me!

I got online and tried to stay awake. I was blinking for ever longer periods of time, sometimes 90-120 seconds. Another diet coke helped me a bit, but not as much as the increasing panic over whether I was actually going to make it to Zanzibar or not. My flight was showing a 75 minute delay, and the lounge completely emptied of people apart from 2 others. The Dar es Salaam-Zanzibar flight is the last of the morning, despite leaving at 1030 - now 1145. The staff had come round announcing each earlier flight so I did assume they would let us know when ours was finally ready for boarding, but panic got the better of me and I left, went through x-rays, and went to the only gate which had people by it.

Lots of people.

Lots of people who didn't speak English. I asked the first guy I saw who looked like staff if it was the Zanzibar flight; his reply was not in English, but he did push me to the desk where, after a phone call, the woman said "Yes!" to me, put a stamp on my boarding pass for no apparent reason, and waved me away. It was about 1150 and boarding hadn't started, but when it did I was glad to leave terminal 1 and ... be put on a bus to the plane, which was sat outside a gate in the superficially much nicer terminal 2. YOU BASTARDS.

Got on, sat down nice and quickly - row 2 - and got back on the champagne. Ah, how sweet it was. It was actually a much nicer and more modern plane, though still without personal TV screens. Again economy was heaving but business mostly empty, and I was tickled when they announced "our first stop is Dar es Salaam", like on a train. A train to Dar es Salaam, I guess.

The safety announcement said laptops were fine once the seatbelt signs were off, but no laptop accessories. There was a picture of a printer with a red line through it. Who the fuck would take a printer on a plane and try to use it?

The woman sat across the aisle from me was SO AGGRAVATING. She complained about the seat - "is this as far as it goes back? the one on my last flight was much better, you know". She ummed and ahhed about whether to have a champagne, orange, or water. She complained about the wine. She complained about the bread. She complained about a lack of garlic. She pretty much stopped a member of cabin crew every other time one of them walked past to make an issue about something. GRARGH.

At Dar es Salaam she spoke to me. To complain, about the cigarette rage we'd just witnessed. Some people had wanted to pop outside for a smoke, just standing on the tarmac... at an airport while we were refuelling. Like one of the most dangerous places you could do that. The cabin crew were so angry with them, almost shouting. "No! This is an airport! Just go and sit back down!". Madness.

By this point I had turned down a beer. The only one of the trip, I think. I had had a post-breakfast Cointreau though. There was no service on the last leg, you couldn't even undo your seatbelts. It was only a 45 mile flight, after all.

At Zanzibar I was first off the plane, and met at the bottom of the steps by a woman who escorted me across the tarmac to the arrivals part of the terminal. Wow. I already had a visa for Tanzania, which seemed to surprise the staff there. So I filled out an arrivals card, turned around from the desk, and was grabbed by the arm. The guy took my card and passport, handed it to one of the immigration officials at a desk - over the shoulders of about 3 or 4 others, none of that "wait at the yellow line" thing going on here, just total chaos. I reached through the crowd to have my fingerprints taken, just generally being let through the border at arm's length. Baggage reclaim was kinda like Launceston in Tasmania: all the bags individually being humped from a dolly onto a desk, with a scramble to grab them. Mine came in on the second batch and I spotted it, signalling to the guy out back who was picking it up, who in turn signalled back.

He understood. I understood. He brought my bag - just my bag - out, and around, into my hands, and while I was fumbling for a tip whispered "tip. tip. tip. tip. tip" into my ear.

In Zanzibar, it pays to be well prepared, and the well prepared pay.

Stumbling into a bevy of cab drivers, looking every bit the disheveled mess I was, I hunted for a guy with my name on a piece of paper. I failed. So I found someone with the same hotel written down and he pointed me towards my guy, who'd been off making a phone call. Luggage in the back, welcomes proffered, water opened and air conditioning turned on, we were off to the hotel. I was somewhat disappointed by how ruly everything was, expecting - for no good reason, really - the roads to be kinda chaotic as per, say, Istanbul, Ho Chi Minh City, Bangalore, Mumbai... y'know, just that general ivory tower "outside Europe and big cities, all traffic is dreadful" stereotype. But it was fine, not a white knuckle ride at all. Rules being kept, safe junctions, etc.

I tweeted this disappointment 30 seconds before we went past a totalled upside down bus being lifted by a crane. And as we left the town outskirts for the 30 miles to the hotel, my driver was ever more frequently picking which side of the road to use based on, I dunno, essentially nothing. There was less and less traffic and more and more cows. And then a police roadblock outside the area of the island where my resort, along with plenty of others, were.

We arrived. I checked in. I tipped various people. I got online. And then I slept. Hello, Africa!

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