Monday, December 2, 2013

First Post: Comin' to Ethiopia

Touchdown, Addis Ababa.
Finally, Addis Ababa. The voice of the flight attendant crackled as she recited the usual landing script in three languages, English, Amharic and Arabic.

There's cheering and applause and "thanks be to Allah" all around. Just like our own OFWs (Overseas Filipino Workers) and balikbayans (returning/ visiting Filipino expatriates) -- funny, I always thought that this cheering on touchdown on the mother soil was uniquely Filipino, or at least that's how it's projected by the media, by everbody back home (stupid ignoramus, and I mean me!). But really, the relief and happiness of the lady in black hijab (a worker from the Middle East, I surmised, kind young lady, a girl, really, who offered me biscuits the moment we took off from Dubai) seated beside me was electric.

After getting through the Ethiopian immigration, and finally stepping out -- what pleasant weather, sunny but cool (only to find out it gets too cold at night, like right now as I'm writing this) -- I was, to my relief, met by a VSO Ethiopia staff (the driver, he said), kind, welcoming, friendly but not pushy, who drove and dropped me at the Awraris Hotel, met with the front desk and bid goodbye (welcome and goodbye really, with a weirdly pleasant bear hug) after handing me a welcome letter from VSO Ethiopia. There I was, just landed in a strange new country, continent, left to my own devices for one whole afternoon and night before the In-Country Briefing the next day -- adventure here we come. Naaah, sleep had me at hello.

Flying Emirates!
Long-haul flight = Movie Marathon! 
Sometimes, the food's good (meaning, tolerable), but not just this time.

The flight was uneventful, meaning smooth, normal. (About 10 from Manila to Dubai. A few hours stopover there. And another 3 hours from Dubai to Addis Ababa.) There's always a story to tell, of course.

Back in Manila.

I arrived quite early at NAIA (Ninoy Aquino International Airport) with one big luggage and a backpack. My luggage was super heavy, lugging it inside the terminal, even with the wheels, was a real workout. And of course, the clumsy me, right after pulling past the security scans and all and especially after hurdling past the humped/jagged floor by the security doors, I noticed deep red spots on the floor, and what do you know - they were my bloody mess. I'd cut my finger somehow, somewhere, I think from the luggage handle. Blood was flowing profusely - ridiculous and embarrasing. Good thing no one has noticed, yet. I rushed to a seat nearby and had to open my bag for the medical kit where I had my Band-Aid's. Alright, first hurdle, cleared.

You see, international travel could be a nightmare. Especially at the airport. With all the security checks and queuing for everything - check-in counter, the x-ray machines, the immigration, etc. Philippine international airports are not the most pleasant. Especially, the immigration people. And to their fellow Filipinos, they could be especially sniffy and cranky. The predeparture briefing at VSO Bahaginan the day before did not help. (Sorry, but really.)

I'm not a jetsetter, but I've travelled internationally more than a few times, mostly to neighboring countries (Thailand, China, Indonesia, Hong Kong), and I did work in Bahrain for nearly two years in 2010 so I've experienced going through the immigration lines both as an OFW and a travelling tourist. So, unprepared as I was on this Ethiopian adventure, the expected airport annoyances didn't really worry me much. Well not until the the pre-departure briefing. (Sorry again, but really.)

Did I know VSO Bahaginan's Executive Director (E.D.)?
Uhm, no.
You need to memorize her name. And the address and these other names.
Are you kidding me?
How about PNVSCA? You need to know how to recite that out. Philippine National Volunteer Service Coordinating Agency. VSO. Voluntary Service Overseas. And memorize these VSO Ethiopia details, the Country Director, address, etc.?
Holy shit.
The immigration official might ask you these and we've had volunteers who were not allowed passage out because they couldn't name our E.D.
What? What? What?

My actual response were all, of course, curt nods and okay's.

But I digress. Off to the next task, checking in. There were super long queues, obviously OFWs off to the Middle East, at the other airlines. I came in earlier than check-in time, but I noticed that there's already one or two people at the Emirates check-in counter. Great. So, I waltz in (they had their own alcove-like corner at NAIA), presented my ticket and passport, and hauled my one luggage on the scale/ conveyor. Super heavy burden, done with. But not quite. "You have 40 kilos baggage allowance but the maximum for one luggage is 32 kilos." Oooohkay. (Shit! Why didn't I know this rule?) "Can I take some items out and transfer it to another bag, then?" "Sure." So, I back out from the counter, considered walking all the way back to the waiting areas, and arrange my shit in semi-privacy but decided what the heck do these people care if I do this right here? (Well, first off they would think that I'm this loser who didn't know anything about baggage allowance - noob! Ugh. But what the heck, I'm going to Ethi-effin-opia.)  By the scales where one weighs handcarries was not a bad place to open my luggage, take out one extra bag (large, mailbag-type) and basically re-pack my stuff. So off came the books, paper stuff (documents, sketch pads), toiletry and med kit bags, and some other knicknacks from the large luggage and stuffed them all into the smaller bag. With the rustied grunt of approval from the weighing scale nearby, I again walk into the check-in counter, and it was all good. "Check-through, okay?" "All the way, of course." "All the way."

Third hurdle, on the way. The immigration queue. The good thing is, there weren't any real lines, really. Less than ten people waiting for their turn. The OFWs have their own counters, so the big crowd outside that may come in anytime will not be a problem. But as I again remember my pre-departure briefing, I clutch my small ticker notebook where I had listed the names of the people and offices I had to memorize (I did, but the kodigo gave me calm reassurance, no, really, that notebook, and the one on my phone and on my head -- of course, my papers, that I was not supposed to show/carry around, but tucked safely in my backpack, were all in order), and began scanning for a kind-looking official (fresh, and pleasant-looking, no scowl in his or her face when a passport is handed to him or her). There, that's my girl. Because she was a girl, really, young and had a kind face, minimalist make-up, and very brief encounters with her clients. My turn came. As instructed in the pre-departure briefing, the occupation I'd written down was "volunteer". "With WHO?" No, with VSO. "May I see your ID, please?" "Of course." I gave her my VSO and PNVSCA ID cards. Wrong move. Because, now she was confused. "Which is your employer, then?" "VSO Bahaginan, but we are endorsed by PNVSCA." "Oh, okay." And there goes the sweet stomp of her stamp. "Thank you!" (Imaginary fist pump!)

So, off to the last hurdle. Final security check. No drama there. By this time, I was getting fed up with pandering to fearful anticipation and paranoia. This is it. No more turning back. I took a deep break: Oh Shit. I'm really coming to Africa.

And here I am, less than twenty hours later, in Ethiopia.

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