You had me at cheesecake and chai
Trip Start Nov 27, 2008
8Trip End Jan 04, 2008
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Like any good flyer, I felt it was important to check the Air Ethiopia reviews prior to boarding my flight. I really wasn't sure what to expect from the national carrier of a nation that, in general, I have nothing but respect for. I mean, where else can you find beautiful people (Iman has nothing on her compatriots), my favorite coffee beans (thank you Barefoot Coffee Roasters for this discovery), and incredible vegetarian food that, even better, I can eat with my fingers. And, who at age 8 didn't learn that Addis Abbababababa was the capital of Ethiopia and instantly think to themselves - oh, now THAT'S a place I have to visit! Anyone? Anyone?
That said, I'd bought my ticket with some trepidation. I admit that images of Madagascar 2 (read: penguins flying airplanes over Africa with no window...and no real plane body either) popped up every time the words "Air Ethiopia" crossed my mind. But I was woo-ed by the cheap fared airline and figured - hey, once you've flown Cathay Pacific NO one can compare, why be picky and how bad can it be?
And then I read the reviews. Post-ticket purchase, pre-flight (by about 1 hour). Yes, I'm aware that my timing has always stunk. I grew increasingly worried as I read about the "terrifyingly bumpy landing" and heard how a flight "almost skidded off the runway." An official government site noting that "Africa is now considered the graveyard of air travel and airlines everywhere are canceling their code-share partnerships there" didn't do much to remove the little penguins dancing in my overactive brain. Then, I finally got past the whiners (really, suck it up people) and came across a good - and obviously more truthful, review. There! I mean, EVERYONE knows that only complainers write comments on these sites anyway. I eagerly read his short, but no doubt highly insightful comment. Under pros the nice gentleman wrote, "free-flowing whiskey, hot stewardesses, I fell asleep after all the whiskey so can't remember anything else." Under cons..."old airplanes."
Great. I hate whiskey. Though I must admit - he was right. The stewardesses were hot and the booze was free. Sweet.
All that said, it was United Airlines to Washington DC (my first leg) that set things off right with a broken in flight entertainment system, no food, and furious scrounging for a blanket and pillow among the desperate passengers. I don't know how they manage it but like the American car makers our airlines just can't seem to figure out what the rest of the world seems to do with relative ease.
As I disembarked at Dulles ready to hunt down the Air Ethiopia ticket counter, I spied the familiar green lettering of an old nemesis. I avoided it (for now), convinced my adventure would take all of the 3 hour layover I had. What a surprise, then, to find Air Ethiopia's gate just down the hall...and their staff as friendly as can be.
My ticket issues taken care of, I gave into my coffee urge and shuffled back...to Starbucks. My love hate relationship with Starbucks is as follows - I always know I'm going to get toxic coffee there. But, I also know that with ½ cup of half and half added, and 3 excruciatingly bitter (with hints of asphalt tar) sips later my tastebuds will go numb (nature has a way of saving us from ourselves) and I'll have a nice, hot, almost tasteless cup of coffee left. Yum. There's just something comforting in the familiar.
So how was my flight on penguin airlines? Utterly delightful. I chatted, slept, read, and movied my way across the Atlantic and over the Sahara dessert into Addis Ababa. Even the most basic international carrier is a leg up on anything American. I was fed and watered like the most pampered pooch. By the time my cheesecake and chai came I was humming in pleasure and had even managed the impossible - I found someone from another country who actually liked George Bush.
David was my Sudanese air-partner. He was the B to my A. He was going on year 5 in lovely, corn-filled Nebraska having escaped civil war in his country. All this was shared in he most matter of face manner possible.
David: Yes, I lived in a little village in northern Kenya.
Me: Really? How FASCINATING (note annoying white liberal tone). What brought you there?
David: My village was burned and my people killed. I escaped to Kenya.
Me: Oh, um, how long were you there (proud to match his matter of fact tone with a relevant question in response to his)
David: 2 years - in a refuge camp. Then we moved back home.
And he credited it all to Bush. Obama was ok, but nothing on the cowboy who had brought Powell and Condie in with guns blazing...setting up a peace treaty that lives on today. I can honestly say he rendered me speechless - all I could muster was, "Well, David, you're right - that IS a good reason to like Bush." By the time he was finished I was ready to crawl back to my liberal (closed-minded) San Francisco existence, righteous in my progressive viewpoints shared over weekly lattes and wine-bar political discussions. Doesn't the real world most of the world lives in have a way of stripping away the easy assumptions of my Bay Area existence....
All that said, I think David and I both enjoyed our 20+ hours together (ugh) on Air Ethiopia. He taught me a few Kiswahili phrases and I teased him about the gifts he was bringing his family - "corn seems like a GREAT gift from Nebraska - they don't have that where you're from, right?" (wink, wink - I even got him to crack a smile at that one).
The rest of the 6 legs of my various flight? Fantastic. It was like a party on a plane. Mostly Africans visiting home or returning home creating a communal feel. Everyone stood up and walked around talking to total strangers. Even the babies got into the action as they were passed around from passenger to stewardess to passenger (I kid you not). In between the "passing of the babies," I even managed to talk to a man from Nairobi who works in the Kenyan government on issues of water sustainability and climate change (Jenn R. - you'd have loved this guy). We talked for 2 hours about international development before he exited the aircraft while I continued to Tanzania. I even got to practice some basic French on him before moving on the ubiquitous English. And, I'm to email him for more tips on my project in the coming month and am invited to Kenya next December. All this on 4 hours of sleep - not bad Compton.
I'll say one thing - everyone I've met has been open, ready for a talk, and with a bit of wicked sense of humor. Day One perspective - I can see why people say once you come to Africa you never stop coming back. It's a different vibe from Asia where I've traveled the most in the last 10 years. And so far, it's bringing out the best in me. Stayed tuned to see if THAT continues (why stop with the assumptions now?)
Inspired by lovely Jennifer Rodriguez and her hubbie Scott...here are my reviews from Day 1 on a scale of 1-5 with 5 being best.
United Airlines: 2
Air Ethiopia: 5 (3.5 for airplane service, but everything else brings it right up to a 5)
Starbucks: 2 (worse than usual but they get points for fueling me up)