It was all going well until I discovered that Entebbe airport offered fast, free wifi. Having checked my emails and scanned Facebook, I casually googled ‘Ethiopian visa on arrival’. The top of the embassy page was familiar enough – I had checked back home that for 50 USD (presently sitting in my wallet – such foresight!) I could obtain a tourist visa on arrival. Technically, I wasn’t travelling as a tourist, but who was going to check… But then I scrolled down the page and my heart skipped a beat: it said there in black on white that you had to present two passport photos with your application! I frantically searched through my wallet but neither my railcard nor my gym membership card had photos that would be remotely suitable, having been either trimmed and stamped over.
This was not boding well for the next leg of my trip. Already, I was slightly biased due to my transit experience in Addis on the way to Entebbe. First, the transit area had no facilities to buy drinking water or anything edible. It was separated from the general area of the airport by a long glass pane intercepted by security gates – one way only. I pleaded with the guards, but in vain. I was to spend four hours thirsty and hungry, staring at people sipping coffee and devouring scrambled eggs just a glass pane away.
Since there was nothing I could do and it was 4 am, I found an empty bench and curled up to try to get a few hours of sleep. That was not meant to be either. As soon as I dozed off, a group of Sudanese men descended on my bench like a flock of vultures, ignoring all the empty benches around. I couldn’t bear the loud conversation and the shaking of my bench with their every move, so I gathered my belongings and moved away. When the same scenario repeated twice, just with different ethnicities, I gave up and pulled out my book.
I definitely didn’t warm to Addis airport either when, just before boarding, I was picked out from among hordes of passengers and waved to the side. Clearly a small blonde with a baby bump was the airport security’s idea of suspicious, as I got a very thorough body search in full view of other passengers, and subsequently I was asked to take out every item in my luggage for inspection. Then I had to remove and open every electronic device in my possession. The security guard went through the files on my work laptop, the workout apps on my iPad, my reading list on Kindle and the holiday photos on my camera before she was reasonably reassured that I was in fact no security threat and could be trusted to board.
So now I was en route to my favourite airport again, this time with a dubious visa status.
I spent the whole flight sipping black tea and worrying that they won’t let me into Ethiopia. Would they make me sit in no man’s land at that horrible airport until someone claimed me? Would the UK claim me for that matter, given I wasn’t a citizen? What would my boss say? Is there any chance she’d find it funny or consider that I couldn’t have known about the passport photos?
When we touched the ground in Addis my bladder could no longer take the pressure and I nipped to the toilet. When I re-emerged, the passage back to my seat was completely obstructed by passengers so eager to disembark that they were ready to stand for 15 minutes while the stairs were being attached and the cabin de-pressurised.
I had to wait till all those in front of me moved before I could get back to my seat. Since my seat was towards the back, the plane was almost empty when I finally got there. It was unmistakably my seat, since my fleece was there, but my handbag was gone. Suddenly I wasn’t worried about being refused an Ethiopian visa. I found myself gasping for breath as the consequences of having lost my passport, money, credit card, phone and iPad flashed before my eyes. Panicked and almost crying, I grabbed a flight attendant and begged for help. There was not much that could be done though, as the first bus full of passengers had already left.
‘Go look in the second bus’ – the flight attendant said, smiling helplessly.
Close to tears, I walked down the bus aisle looking at every passenger’s possessions, while a bunch of elderly African women were trying to comfort me, lamenting at the same time how you couldn’t trust people anymore.
And then I saw my bag, the beige Longchamps that I always brought with me as hand-luggage because of its infinite ability to expand no matter how much I carried. The bag was sitting on the lap of a middle-aged Chinese man, right next to his briefcase and jacket.
‘This is MY bag, why have you taken my bag?!’ – I yelled, snatching the bag out of his hands. He sat in silence, blinking. At a loss of what more to say, I turned away and sat down a few rows away, leaving the culprit to face the rage of the African grandmothers.
After that incident I no longer cared if I would be denied entry or not on account of missing passport photos. All I wanted was to finally leave this wretched airport.
I joined the ‘visa on arrival’ queue at immigration. The passengers in front of me were each handing over a thick pile of papers, and the guy next to me clearly had two passport photos tucked neatly into a see-through plastic envelope. After a few restless minutes, it was my turn. I handed over my passport and waited. The immigration official leafed through and waved me over to the adjacent counter.
’50 USD’ – said a stern voice behind the glass. I silently handed over the money, now slightly humid from my sweating hands.
The man lifted my passport and examined it with a squint. Seconds passed.
‘How do you say hello in your language?’ – he asked.
He then stamped a blurry blue seal into my passport and passed it back to me, repeating ‘dzien dobry, dzien dobry’ and shaking his head. I was now in Ethiopia!
I picked up my luggage, which had, miraculously, arrived, and looked around the arrivals hall. My name was nowhere to be seen. The pre-paid taxi clearly didn’t show. Relieved and exhausted after the emotions of the past few hours, I didn’t even have it in me to feel angry or surprised. I waved down a local taxi and drove off.
After a few minutes of fumbling about with my luggage at yet another pair of security gates, I entered a pleasantly air-conditioned hall of my hotel.
‘Madam, welcome home’ – said the security guard, flashing a double row of white teeth in a wide smile.
A pair of hands took my luggage, another pair checked me in swiftly and a soft voice announced that the dinner buffet was open and that the pool was heated with geothermal springs. I gratefully accepted a cup of aromatic, tar-black coffee brewed in the hotel lobby before taking the silent lift up to the eighth floor. I threw open the windows of my huge balcony. Below me, Addis Ababa was humming softly and blinking at me with a million lights. I breathed in the cool night air revelling in the fact that at 2500 m altitude I didn’t have to swallow malaria pills or cover myself with stinky DEET. After a bit of a rough start, Addis was finally welcoming me.