Djibouti-Addis Ababa-London-Newark. Also known as: JIB-ADD-LHR-EWR. Either way, it’s a mouthful.
And, OK, so it’s probably never going to be a short trip. But wow, did it ever get to be an epic journey this last time around!
I just recently got back to the States from Africa. I left Djibouti on a friday evening, and was scheduled to arrived at noon the following day. Doesn’t sound so bad, right? But then you add in the time difference and realize that it is supposed to be a 28 hour haul. Following my itinerary, I expected to arrive around noon on saturday….. I arrived closer to 2 pm, after closer to 30 hours in transit. It was NOT a good trip. My first flight (Djibouti to Addis Ababa) left late, but I figured, whatever – I was expecting to have an over 4 hour layover anyway, so no big deal. There isn’t that much to do in the airport in Addis, so I thought that of the 3 flights I was about to embark on to, that would be the best one for a delay….. little did I know it was just the beginning of a trend.
The shorter layover in Addis Ababa’s Bole airport was actually an improvement. The souvenir shopping isn’t bad there, and you can get some good gifts for loved ones back home at OK prices. Alright, totally unreasonable by Ethiopian standards, but by US standards, not too bad. But there aren’t too many options for food, and there isn’t nearly enough seating to relax. But that’s not the worst thing about the airport. The worst thing to me about Addis’ airport is that they NEVER seem to get the gates right.
When I landed, I diligently checked the departures screen, like the seasoned traveler that I am. The screen told me my flight would be leaving from gate 7. Comfortable in the knowledge of where to be and when, I went into a few stores to kill some time, picked up a few Christmas presents, and slowly wandered towards gate 7. Not enough seating near the gate, so I sat on the floor (cold tile) for about 30 minutes until a seat opened up. Then, after another half hour in my seat, around the time I expected the flight to board, I checked the screen again, and it told me to proceed to the gate. I got in line and proceeded to gate 7. I got to gate 7, after security, and I noticed a disproportionate number of women wearing beautiful and ornate Abayas for a flight to London…..
Something didn’t seem right about this. While London is a melting pot of cultures, it seemed like a disproportionate number of practicing Muslims awaiting that particular flight. Not only were the women covered, but the abayas looked (in my estimation, anyway) quite elegant and adorned – not your basic black abaya, but the more expensive and fashionable ones. In my conservative, but western, travel outfit (a standard uniform for me of yoga pants, a t-shirt, and some kind of layering top – in this case a white linen button down shirt) I didn’t feel was at all controversially dressed until I found myself in this crowd! That’s when I realized they were waiting for a flight to Saudi Arabia…..I wouldn’t want to get on that flight by mistake! I rechecked the screen, and realized that it now said “gate 2”. So off to gate 2 I went! Of course when I arrived at gate 2, clear on the other side of the terminal, I saw a sign indicating that the flight departing from that gate was destined to arrive in Rome….. now I’d rather accidentally arrive in Rome than Saudi Arabia, as my clothing and mannerisms would allow me to blend in better in Rome, but nonetheless, I wasn’t supposed to be going to Rome either! So I waited in line to ask the Ethiopian Airlines employee at the front where I was supposed to be. He responded “Gate 8”, back at the other end of the terminal. So I headed back again, becoming more and more anxious with every step. I found another Ethiopian Airlines employee and asked for reassurance. He did not give it. He told me to go back to gate 2. I did. I found other people looking lost as well, and they were also bound for London. So I just sat near them, and figured that at least if I missed my flight, I wouldn’t be alone!! And at least I know a great hotel in Addis Ababa (the Sheraton – it’s like an escape from Africa – you’d think you were in Europe as soon as you walked in!) and a great restaurant (Castelli’s – I described my last experience there in this post on Luxury and Fine Dining in Ethiopia, which also describes the Sheraton). So I sat and I waited…. and slowly a crowd gathered of people who looked more like they might be UK-bound, and finally it became clear that this was, in fact, the right gate.
The moral of this story? When at Addis Ababa’s Bole airport NEVER trust the gate information. Do not leave things to the last-minute. Be proactive. Ask. Ask again. Don’t assume any information you have been given is correct until you’ve checked it a few more times. And look for other similarly situated passengers, so that if a whole bunch of you are missing from a flight after it boards, they are less likely to leave without you and if they do, you can fight the airlines together. I saw a couple that had missed the Rome flight yelling at the Ethiopian airlines staff after their flight left without them (from what I could gather, they had been waiting just outside security for the flight to be called and hadn’t heard it – the announcements are not very audible, if they make them at all), and I couldn’t help thinking that maybe if there had been more of them it might have had a bigger effect on the completely unfazed staff that stared blankly back at them.
So finally, we boarded our flight. Next step in my epic journey? A fight over my seat. I got to my seat, and was thrilled to find it in an exit row, with tons of leg room (not a huge issue for me since I’m “vertically challenged” – that’s the politically correct term for just plain short; but it meant that I wouldn’t have to scramble over my tall seat-mate to get past him to the aisle!). I was not quite as thrilled to find a tall Ethiopian man sitting in my seat. I politely asked to see his boarding pass, after the flight attendant confirmed that my boarding pass clearly listed that seat, and the mistake was not mine. He went through his wallet. He went through his pocket. He went through his other pockets. We looked on the floor. All the while, the woman behind him is trying to tell him that he was supposed to be in row 15, and he was ignoring her. Finally, after a good 5 minutes (during which I completely stood my ground, not wanting to give up my extra leg room!) he found it, and admitted that he was supposed to be in 15H not 21F, and skulked away. I triumphantly took my seat and settled in for the long ride, complete with another delayed departure – this time about 2 hours. Though we made up some time in the air, we still arrived in London late.
Throughout my journey, I had so been looking forward to my couple of hour layover in London! Heathrow airport has some of my favorite airport shopping, as they seem to often have special promotions on my favorite champagne: Piper-Heidsieck, Rose Sauvage. Yum. But my delayed departure meant I had very little time….. 40 minutes, to be exact. And I was in the wrong terminal. I’d have to book it from Terminal 5 to Terminal 4 as soon as I could get into the terminal. Yeah…… that turned out to be a bigger challenge than you might have thought. They open the door of the plane, and we got off onto a ramp. We followed the ramp and then came to a dead stop. It seems that the airline staff had forgotten one thing. To open the door that connects the ramp to the actual airport hallway. Minor detail. People tried to start a game of telephone: hey, get someone from the airline up to the front – pass it down! But that only got about half-way through the crowd, and then the back of the line stared blankly at the front of the line, like “how dare you ask me to pass along a message that might get us all out of here??” But to be fair, by the time the message got to them it could have sounded like something like “hey, get someone to ask the airline for front row seats” or something, since the game of telephone always distorts the message. So someone pulled the alarm by trying to open the door. And you know, in a world where presumably heightened security is supposed to keep everyone at airports and other public transportation hubs on high alert, it took a surprisingly long time for this to draw a response!
So now I’m down to 25 minutes to get to my gate. That doesn’t sound so bad, but it involves finding the transfer area to get from one terminal to the next, waiting for the bus, taking the 8 minute bus ride, figuring out which gate your flight is leaving from, and getting to the gate – a tall order in that time frame! Luckily, I’m a seasoned traveler and I have been to this airport before. So I manage to stay a step ahead of the confused masses behind me (many of whom I’m sure did miss their connections) and made it there just in time to find an empty boarding area with me one of the last people to get on board. Sadly, no Starbucks stop. No champagne. No time for any duty-free shopping of any kind – certainly no stops in Burberry or Gucci (where I could only look longingly at things that are totally out of my price range anyway!) Not even time to really stretch my legs, as I pretty much went straight from one 7 hour flight onto the next.
Or so I thought. Here comes the next bit of bad news: the anticipated 7 hour flight from London to New York was leaving on time…. but due to weather conditions (I think!), they anticipated that the flight would actually take 8 hours and 47 minutes. YIKES!! And my mother was picking me up, so all I could do was hope that she went online to check on the flight before heading to the airport. I let out an audible groan at the news, and my seat-mate, a sympathetic Brit living in the US who had been home visiting mom, gave me a pitying meek smile. This was his first flight of his journey, not his 3rd, so I take some solace in knowing that my misery gave him some measure of appreciation for the fact that he didn’t really have it so bad after all!
Finally, another movie, a few naps, 2 mediocre (actually decent for airplane food – kudos to Continental Airlines on that one!) meals, and many short TV programs later, they announce our descent into the New York area. Hallelujah!!! Home sweet home! I call my mother, who is patiently waiting at passenger pickup, from the plane as soon as I’m allowed to use my cell phone and tell her I’ll be out as soon as I can get through customs and grab my luggage. Easy enough, right? Right……
So customs…. not a problem when you’re a US citizen, right? Unless the guy in line in front of you is super slow…. but OK, I got through it, and even had a nice chat with my border guard. Slow and steady will eventually win this race, right? Wrong. I get to baggage claim. My sympathetic seat-mate grabs his bag off the carousel, and with that he’s off and out of my life, probably forever. I wait. My luggage hasn’t come down yet, but there are a lot of people standing around. We wait. And wait. And wait. And then a United Airlines rep comes over and gives us the news: no more bags are coming out. Fantastic. 28+ hours into my trip and now I have to go to Airline services. I book it out of the baggage claim area, in order to beat the rush. I call my mom and explain the unhappy developments. I make it to airline services ahead of 9/10 of the people I was standing with, and get on line. Of course there is only one woman there who can help with baggage issues. I’m 2nd in line and it takes me 40 minutes to get to her. I hope things speed up after me for those in line behind me. I put in my bag claim request. She tells me that my bag is on its way, it just failed to make the London connection, and so it should arrive on a 10pm flight, and will be delivered to my house between midnight and 7am. It’s almost 3pm by the time I get into the car with my mom, beaten and ragged from my epic journey. Finally, 20 minutes later (it would have been 15 if I had been driving! But only if I hadn’t been so tired that I would’ve crashed the car, so 20 minutes suited me just fine!) we arrived at my house.
Ah, home sweet home. Eventually my luggage would join me (not first thing in the morning as promised, but by 2pm the next day). In the meantime I’m happy to have a break for at least a few weeks before my next journey. Now, time for some rest.