Thursday, October 25: This journey, on this 57th birthday of mine, begins with a call from Chantal at midnight. “Are you awake?” she asks.
I have been awake since 11:30 p.m. I’ve showered and am dressing in an outfit appropriate to Africa, in coral and brown and olive-green: “safari clothes” with a pop of color. No safari is planned, but, oh well. The corduroy of the olive-green jacket should keep me warm in the cool land of Ethiopia, a land where temperatures hover around 70 degrees Fahrenheit (21 Celsius) every day of the year.
The drive to Muscat from Nizwa is usually tedious, but with my colleague Talib, his lively wife Chantal, and their 2-year-old daughter riding along, we cruise quickly. Words fly around in the car and time speeds by on the dark highway. We arrive early at the airport and check in and wait. And wait. And wait.
Other colleagues are on this trip. Gail is looking for Armenian connections in Addis Ababa. Spencer is on the same flight but will go on to Mombasa, Kenya. Mathys is going onward to South Africa. Benjamin, a friend of an ex-colleague is also heading to Ethiopia.
Talib and Chantal have planned an ambitious trip: to Harar and Dire Dawa, to Bahir Dar and Lake Tana, and to other far-fetched places. Their itinerary includes ten-hour bus rides with their daughter in tow! Chantal’s Jamaican origins have led her on a quest to discover the Jamaica-Ethiopia connection based on Emperor Halie Selassie (previously Prince Ras Tafari) and the Rastafarians of Jamaica. Being Muslims, they are both especially interested in Harar, an important center of Islamic scholarship in the 17th and 18th centuries. Here Islam penetrated the Horn of Africa.
None of us have had much sleep. We are a little like zombies: tired but excited about our journeys. It’s Eid al-Adha and we have an 9-day holiday from work. What could be better?
We board the plane and take off at 4:50 a.m. We fly for 3 1/2 hours, arriving over Ethiopia in the morning light. The landscape from the air is like a rumpled patchwork quilt of golds and greens. Mountains, valleys, plateaus and grids of farmland. I wasn’t expecting this of Ethiopia. Stunning.
At the airport, my friend Ed, who is on his second year of duty at the U.S. Embassy in Addis Ababa, is waiting for me at the airport. We depart and I leave my colleagues to follow their own itineraries. It’s around 8 a.m. I have a whole day ahead of me in Addis Ababa, the capital city of Ethiopia that means “New Flower.”
Ed thought I would be tired, so he didn’t plan to do much on this first day. I had earlier told him I’d be too excited to sleep. But when we arrive at his cavernous house, he says I should sleep and he must go to work. I’m surprised at this as he told me, when I made my plans in August to visit, that he would have vacation time. He promptly departs for work, telling me he’ll get back as soon as possible. I figure I might as well sleep; he lives in a residential neighborhood, so where is there to go? I sleep until about 1:00. Then I putter around, read my guidebook, drink tea at the patio table, and kill time taking pictures of what is probably a typical embassy house.
I have no idea when Ed will return, so I take a walk in the neighborhood past an Ethiopian school as it is letting out. Dark skinned children in sky blue sweaters swarm out of the school. I walk through them to a German bakery, where I order a cappuccino and a chocolate croissant and sit on the patio. I meet a boy named Teadros, who poses for a picture.
As I walk back by the school, I meet another boy named Teadros, who also poses for a picture in front of his school.
I return to Ed’s house, where I wait. And wait. I sit at the kitchen table and chat with his Ethiopian cook and housekeeper, Kitay. She is separated from her “bad” husband and has two small boys. The gold cross around her neck, a symbol of her Orthodox Christian beliefs, matches her smile and a radiating inner peace.
Still. I wait. Ed finally returns home at 6:30 p.m. It’s been a long afternoon. Very long. Had I known he was going to work all day, I would have planned something with my colleagues and fellow travelers, Gail or Benjamin, who have been somewhere in Addis Ababa all day.