Good samaritans at Bole Airport

January 10, 2014
9 p.m. local time
Bethel Guest House
Addis Ababa, Ethiopa

My introduction to Addis was not as smooth as I might have hoped.

The flight ended well, it is true. And we all trundled off the plane into an airport that seemed pretty clean and modern — at least the international terminal. The first thing we all faced was the line to get an entry visa. Those with Ethiopian passports bypassed this line, but everyone with a foreign passport had to wait. And wait. And wait. Bureaucrats take their time, and they shall not be rushed.

What was surprising to me is that my line was filled with Ethiopians! It turns out that there are many, many Ethiopian migrants to the United States who have achieved citizenship, and this is one of their favorite times to return to the home country for a visit. One, who works as a trucker in Nashville, told me that he comes back to Ethiopia once every two years. Another guy, who lives in Seattle, comes back even more often. There were relatively few white Americans in the visa line. But there was one hapless European who tried to pay for his visa in euros. Silly German! Now, go stand in the currency exchange line to get exactly $20 in U.S. currency!

The Nashville trucker was especially friendly and helpful, and I really enjoyed talking to him. But when he found out I was from Philadelphia, his face fell. He had to make a delivery once in Center City Philadelphia, and it was a horrifying experience. The next time his boss asked him to do the same, he said, “No! Send me to hell, but don’t send me to Philly!”

I roared with laughter.

Once I cleared the visa line and them immigration, I faced the chaos of baggage claim. Hundreds of bags were strewn randomly about the floor. Hundreds of people with wheeled luggage cards were searching for their belongings. But I soon found mine, conveniently adjacent to each other as if baggage handlers in Philly, Washington, and Addis had all conspired to keep my twins from getting separated.

I walked out into the morning sunshine and got my first taste of the land. The airport is on a low rise, so I could see the cityscape stretching out ahead. I could see the tops of the hills encircling Addis, which at 7,500 feet is one of the highest national capitals in the world. And I could see the parking lot below me, where the driver from my guest house was supposed to meet me.

By this time, it was about 9 a.m., and the day was promising to be fine. At this elevation, there’s almost no humidity, and the temperature was probably 70 degrees. In fact, the delightful weather reminded me of Prescott, Arizona, where my mom lives. Prescott’s only 5,300 feet, but it’s still got an exhilarating freshness in the air.

I wheeled my overburdened luggage cart down to the parking lot and searched for someone bearing a sign with my name. I looked and looked and looked. And nothing. There were hundreds of people waiting, dozens of taxi drivers looking for fares, and some family members greeting one another. But no one was looking for me.

I had a phone number to call, but no phone. I was embarrassed to ask someone to borrow a cell phone — worried that they would charge me (and I had no Ethiopian money), afraid of being taken for a sucker. A very beautiful young black woman sitting in a wheelchair spoke to me in a perfect American accent. She was looking for a friend arriving from Kenya. Could I help?

I thought to myself, “This is a trap! She’s not really handicapped. She will reel me in with a sob story and then jump out of her chair and run away with my suitcase.” I won’t be taken for a sucker, so I brushed her off.

I went back to the terminal, but found I couldn’t re-enter the door out of which I’d come. I asked the guard for a phone. “No phone!” he said. I asked another guard. “No phone!” he said. Dejected, I walked back to the parking lot.

I guess in times of distress, we do seek out people who are similar to us. I walked up to a stocky middle-aged white man with reddish hair. He spoke to me in German-accented but perfect English. “Are you looking for somebody?” he said. I told him I was supposed to be picked up by my guest house, but I couldn’t find the driver, and I had no phone.

“Here, I have a phone,” he said. “You call.” So I did. The driver answered, and I told him who I was. He had looked for me, had waited and waited and waited, and had finally left the airport at 9 a.m. It was now 9:15. Plaintively, I said, “There were terribly long lines. I came as soon as I could.” He said, “Someone will come and get you. Fifteen minutes. Wait by yellow taxis.”

I hung up and started talking to my German rescuer. He told me he was a businessman in the city, trying to convince developers to put steel and glass onto those new skyscrapers that were springing up all over town. Trying to make the city more beautiful. But it was hard going here.

He told me that the bureaucracy was aggravating. He had been trying to get electricity at a construction site for 12 months! One full year! And he had met with the interior minister of the country to complain, and the minister said, “I didn’t ask you to come invest in Ethiopia. If you don’t like it, you can leave.” Not exactly a business-friendly environment.

The German was waiting to pick up a business associate who was flying in from Malaysia. The person’s name was Lyer, but he did not know the man’s nationality, his appearance, or even how to pronounce his name. We joked about the possible pronunciations. Was it pronounced like “lee-A”? Like “liar”? He said, “I don’t want to call him a liar!” I shouted, “Liar, liar, pants on fire!”

Finally, Mr. Lyer arrived, and my German benefactor left. I waited another half hour. The gorgeous woman in the wheelchair returned, now with her American friend who looked like she might be a Tri-Delt or a Kappa Kappa Gamma.

She said, “So, where’re you from?”

“Philadelphia.”

“Awesome!” she said. “I’m from DC!”

The two of them giggled. I knew they were truly American.

They asked if I needed help, and I felt shame that I had doubted the disabled black girl’s honesty, but once her able-bodied white sorority sister showed up, I felt completely comfortable. I told them no, my ride was on the way. I thanked them for their kindness.

And I waited another half-hour. The sun was climbing and I actually felt like I was getting sunburned. Hardly any cars showed up in the parking area. Taxi drivers kept approaching me and saying “Taxi? Taxi?” and I kept shaking my head. My throat was getting sticky. I hadn’t eaten since before dawn. I had nothing to drink, no money, no friends, no phone to call back. I wondered what to do.

One of the drivers was especially persistent, and I told him that I had a number to call, but no way to phone. He whipped out his cell phone, and I started calculating how many U.S. dollars I could give him to use it. He dialed the number and spoke to the voice on the other end in Amharic, the language of Ethiopia.Then he handed over the phone to me and the driver told me “five more minutes.”

I hung up. The taxi driver asked me if I would be needing any other driving done during my stay. He pointed out the high standards of the Addis taxi fleet. He was, all in all, extremely helpful, and I was grateful.

And then my ride arrived. “Misser Jay? Misser Jay!”

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