Flying Ethiopian

Sunday, April 15, 2012.

12:00 pm: Juliet and I call Ethiopian Airlines and ask to change our flight from Lalibela to Addis from Tuesday the 17th to Monday the 16th. We love Lalibela, but we had arrived a day earlier than planned (since we had to skip out of ATM-less Axum a day early) and are about to spend our third night there, and we think that the extra day would be better spent in Addis, where we still have a lot of sight-seeing and souvenir-shopping that we want to do. The airline says the flight is full.

2:30 pm: I call the airline again to see if they’ve had any cancellations. They have! I give them our names. The guy on the phone says, “oh, there are two of you? nevermind. I only have one seat.” He promises to call me if another seat opens up. Juliet and I decide that another day in Lalibela would be fine anyway.

4:30 pm: Ethiopian Airlines calls. Another seat has opened up and we can leave the next day, as long as we get to the airline’s offices within the next half hour to pay the 100-birr-(about $7)-each change fee. We convince Messay, the owner of our hotel, to drive us to the office immediately, where we confirm our new flight for the following day.  Success (we think)!

Monday, April 16, 2012.

8:30 am: We are eating breakfast at our hotel.  Messay comes over to the restaurant to tell us and other guests scheduled to fly out today that our flight is delayed. We were supposed to leave the hotel at 9:30 am for an 11:00 am flight, but the plane has not even left Addis yet, so we are now scheduled to leave the hotel at 11:30 am and fly out at 1:00 pm.

10:00 am – 11:30 am: We drink lots of delicious Ethiopian coffee and chit-chat with some of the other guests waiting to leave on our same flight. We meet Shannon, Daniel, and Philip — two Americans and a Brit who are all living and working in Addis.

11:30 am: The intel from Messay (whose best friend works for Ethiopian Airlines) is that our plane still has not left Addis, but the airline is insisting that we be at the airport around noon to check in. We leave for the airport, betting that we will be waiting there for 2-3 hours before we actually take off.

12:30 pm: We check in. We ask where the plane is and what time we might actually be leaving. The airline representative will only say “We will announce.” We consider asking when they might announce but it seems futile.

1:00 pm: We and the rest of our flightmates settle in to wait at the restaurant in Lalibela airport. We examine the menu. Juliet considers ordering “courage” (mid-way down the Break fast menu). I consider inquiring about “shiro feces” (the first Main Ethiopian Dish) but am not mature enough to keep a straight face.

1:15 pm: The waitress comes to take our order. We have the following conversation:

Me: I’ll have a fried egg, please.
Waitress [looks confused]: No eggs.

I should take a moment to explain here that when I say “looks confused,” I mean she looked utterly bewildered, as if I had requested something that she had never heard of, as if she couldn’t fathom where I might have come up with the idea of eggs, even though they were on the menu. This was a not-uncommon phenomenon in Ethiopia. Juliet and I had just experienced it a few days earlier when we tried to order fruit during lunch in Axum.  We refer to it as a “communication failure,” after the message that appears on the credit card receipts that we are regularly receiving from credit card machines when they aren’t working.

Me: Okay … how about Rice with vegetable?
Waitress [looking confused]: Only pancakes.
Me (internally): Do they even have pancakes in Ethiopia? Does she mean injera? crepes? And how can you have pancakes if you don’t have eggs?
Me (out loud): You’re out of everything but pancakes?
Waitress: Only pancakes.
Me: What about corn flakes?
Waitress: Pancakes?
Me: No, corn flakes. Cereal. With milk?
Waitress [smiling like she has just experienced a divine revelation]: CORN FLAKES! Yes, we have it.

1:30 pm: The corn flakes arrive. I pour in the milk and see steam rise from the bowl. I try to decide which will be worse: eating corn flakes with hot milk, or trying to exchange the hot milk for cold milk. I test out a spoonful and opt to exchange the milk.

2:00 pm: We receive word that the plane is en route to Lalibela! We go through security. They zero in on the two bags of shiro powder that Juliet and I had bought in Lalibela and put in my carry-on bag. They tell me that I cannot bring them onto the plane but that they will take me later to put them in my checked bag.

2:05 pm – 2:15 pm: Shannon, Juliet and I try to figure out why the shiro powder is forbidden. Most popular theory: since it has chilies, I could throw the powder into someone’s eyes and blind them.

2:30 pm: A security officer takes me outside to where the cart with all of the baggage is waiting to be put onto the plane (if / when it arrives). I find my bag and put the shiro powder in an outside packet. I ask the security officer why I can’t take it on the plane, and she says it’s because I could use it as a weapon to knock someone out. I consider mentioning that the same is true of countless other objects that are being carried on, such as any woman’s handbag or the ceramic pots that I’m also carrying, but decide to stay quiet.

3:00 pm: The plane is here! We board. We wait. There are no announcements.

3:15 pm: The stewardesses start serving drinks. We take this as a sign that we will not be taking off that soon. We ask what’s going on. They say — wait for it — “we will announce.”

3:45 pm: The pilot announces that the tailwinds are too strong for the plane to take off safely. Because of the mountains, Lalibela has a one-way runway, so all we can do is wait for the winds to die down.

4:00 pm: The tailwinds have not yet shown any signs of slowing down. We all get off of the plane.

4:30 pm: We have bonded with 75% of the english-speaking passengers on the plane.

4:35 pm: We notice that members of the flight crew are sitting and / or lying down on the runway. It does not make us feel optimistic about the possibility of getting back on the plane in the near future.

4:45 pm: We try to text Juliet’s friend in Addis but have no cell reception. We talk to a few other people, who also have no reception.

5:00 pm: Rumors start circulating in the waiting room that the Ethiopian government has shut down all communication networks because of a “security incident,” and that that’s the real reason why we can’t take off. No one has any idea where the rumor started, but we pass it on anyway. People speculate about the nature of the security incident. Most common theory: Eritrean terrorists. Second most common theory: military coup.

5:20 pm: Everyone’s cell phones start working again.  The military-coup-rumors die down and everyone gets busy calling and texting their friends / drivers / hotels in Addis to tell them we still haven’t left.  We discuss the airport-waiting-room rumor mill and how it would make a good sociology study.

5:30 pm: The Ethiopian Airlines representative approaches a tall man who we know to be the guide for a group of about 20 Swiss tourists who are on the flight (some of whom we had met a few days earlier in Gondar) and speaks to him quietly. Everyone else starts getting worked up: why are they getting information before we are? The Swiss tour guide speaks to his group in french and then exchanges some tense words with the airline rep.

5:40 pm: The details of the airline rep’s conversation with the Swiss guide start to get around. Apparently, the plane can take off despite the tail winds if it is lighter (for reasons that I still don’t understand, but I’m no engineer). The Swiss group has been asked to agree to take their bags off of the plane and get them the following day, so that we can all take off and get to Addis. They have said no.

5:45 pm: The non-Swiss passengers argue with each other over whether the Swiss people are evil and should be kicked off of the plane entirely, or whether they just didn’t understand what was going on.

5:50 pm: Juliet has made friends with Jeff, an American living in Germany who is hours away from missing his connecting flight from Addis to Berlin. Juliet pulls him over to one of the more reasonable-seeming and english-speaking Swiss tourists, and explains that he will miss his connection if they don’t take their bags off of the plane.

6:00 pm: The airline rep makes an announcement that we are going to be able to take off, but that we must all get on the plane immediately, because we can’t take off after dark — Lalibela only has daytime flights and there are no lights on the runway. We all literally run onto the plane.

6:15 pm: We sit inside and watch the airline take the bags off of the plane. The Swiss tour group is starting to identify their bags to be taken off. We are all watching the sun start to set.

6:20 pm: The Swiss tour group boards the plane. It seems that the airline has decided that due to time constraints, all bags will be taken off of the plane and sent to us the following day.

6:25 pm: Everyone is on the plane.  Seat belts are fastened, tray tables and seat backs are in their upright positions, electronic devices are turned off.  Juliet’s phone rings, and it is Messay, asking whether we want him to pick us up because he heard our flight was cancelled.  We say that no, in fact we are just about to take off.

6:30 pm: The pilot announces that (as we can see), the sun has set and we cannot take off.   We are too giddy by this point to do anything but laugh.  Everyone gets off of the plane and is bussed back to hotels in town.  Oh, Africa.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012.

We fly from Lalibela to Addis, as if we had never changed our flight in the first place.  We go out for drinks in Addis with Shannon, Jeff, and Christophe, three of our plane-friends:


5 thoughts on “Flying Ethiopian

  1. I was actually about to say that your experience sounds just like a United Flight, but then I saw the image of the plane and realized that Ethiopian Air is a member of the Star Alliance as is United. The following is there PR blurb from the SA web site. I thought it might at least comfort you…

    “As flag carrier of Ethiopia, Ethiopian Airlines has become one of the continent’s leading carriers, unrivalled in Africa for efficiency and operational success, turning profits for most years of its existence.”

    Maybe your blog title should be their new tag line… “No Hurry in Africa”

    Thanks again for sharing…

  2. Oh Dear! I feel I must apologize for the Swiss group… Even or mabe right because of this TIA story, I miss Africa:-). Lots of Love

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