I just returned yesterday from a fantastic day weekend in Ethiopia with my fiancé. It was mostly great, but there were some weird and not-so-good parts too of course. Here is a brief account of the highlights of the trip.
I flew out of Dubai on Ethiopian Airlines. My plane left at am which meant I had to leave Abu Dhabi at am. That sucked because I was basically traveling all night. Furthermore, I was still rushing to get the visa paperwork together and didn’t get the last document printed out until literally minutes before I left. It was a very stressful way to begin a trip!
So off I went by taxi to Dubai. It costs around or dihrams ($ or so) which seems like a bargain to me for a hour taxi ride! Once I got to the airport, the “easy” part was over.
Ethiopian has two flights daily from Dubai to Addis Ababa; Emirates has one flight. So options are pretty limited. I kind of had to go with Ethiopian because of the timings of the flights; they were also a little bit cheaper. I had never flown with them before, and I never intend to again. Check-in was a zoo, with no lines and just a bunch of people trying to shove their way to the counters. There seemed to be people there from every country in Africa, and each of them had a luggage cart loaded with packages labeled with different African airport names. My favorite, below, was labeled “KINSHASA EMEKA ASS FIH.” I don’t know what the “ASS” stands for but it made me giggle.
Yeah, so as soon as I entered that terminal I was basically in Africa again, and at 3am with no sleep, I was in no mood to deal with all that chaos. Like it or not, it’s hard to deny that Africa can be a chaotic place. People who have grown up there seem to be pretty comfortable with this, but for me, it’s unnerving and frustrating. I’m used to certain standards of safety and organization; some of them are kind of silly and paranoid (like excessive “warning” signs on everything) but others genuinely make me feel safer (say, requiring drivers to stay in their own lanes and not pass on blind curves!)
Eventually I made it onto the plane. This was an old plane–at least years old–that did not appear to have ever been refurbished. It was very beat up, with crummy vinyl seats, and it smelled terrible. The flight was quite unpleasant, especially the part where the guy next to me kept slopping his elbow/arm into my seat and leaning his head over, snoring. Gross. But the most interesting part of this trip came at the very end, as we were landing.
See those overhead bins in the middle? When the plane landed, the shaking caused two of them to open and stuff started falling out! One of them was right above my head, and I looked up to see a laptop bag slowly vibrating its way out of the compartment. I stuck my arms out just in time to catch the laptop as it fell out of the bin! The girl whose bag it was was very grateful that I rescued her computer for her; I was just amazed that I had the forethought to catch the thing in time.
From the plane, I went to get my visa (US$, payable ONLY in dollars or euros as far as I can tell–oddly, they don’t accept local currency for visas even within Ethiopia!) and then went through passport control. I collected my bags, which were donations for the orphanage I was volunteering at when I met Ben. My colleagues have been very generous in donating supplies and money for AHOPE, and it always feels so good to be able to make myself useful by carrying them over there.
The wait to go out of the baggage claim area seemed interminable, but eventually I got out of there and Ben was waiting for me. I can’t even tell you how fantastic it was to see him again after three months apart! We made our way out to the parking lot where we were waiting for his friend to bring the car around, and he took that moment while we were alone (well, sort of) to give me my “real” engagement ring and officially ask me to marry him. I accepted, of course, and I couldn’t be happier with the ring he chose. It’s absolutely gorgeous and something I would’ve picked out myself.
We loaded the bags into the car and drove off, straight to the embassy for our visa interview appointment. I was kind of nervous because he’d been told to arrive at 7:00am, and it was already 9:30 by the time we left the airport. Then the driver (Ben’s friend) announced it was time to stop for gas. I was not happy about this, because we were already running late, and I didn’t understand why he couldn’t have gotten gas earlier. It turns out, though, that there is a bit of a fuel supply problem in Addis Ababa right now due to political problems in Sudan, which supplies a lot of their oil, and he had tried a few gas stations before, but they were all out. The line at the station we tried was so long that we had to leave anyway….
So his friend dropped us off at the embassy and went back out to find a gas station, hopefully without such a long line!
At the embassy, we were asked for our passports, went through a metal detector, had our bags searched, and our cell phones were taken (to be given back later; they’re not allowed inside the embassy). The building was old, shabby, and dirty–not at all what I was expecting for an American embassy (I’d never been to one before). We were sent to wait in one waiting room, then sent upstairs to another waiting room, then back down to the first one. This happened at least three times. We waited at one window, then another, then the first one again. Eventually his fingerprints were scanned on a machine and then we were sent to sit down again. I think we were there about 2 or 3 hours waiting, but I really didn’t care. I was so happy just to be sitting next to him after all that time missing him.
Finally we were called to the window, where a very unpleasant woman about my age asked why we were applying for the wrong visa. We said, “We’re aware this is not the typical use of the B-2 visa, so we have a letter here from our attorney explaining our circumstances.” Her response, I swear, was “I don’t like to read letters. I could do that at my desk. I want you to explain the situation.” I managed to remain calm, and he and I explained together. She sent me to sit down, asked him a bunch of questions, called me up to the window, and grilled me about how Ben and I met, his family, what his house looks like and who lives there, when and where we are getting married, my job in the UAE…everything. She sent me to sit down, called Ben back to the window, and he came back with a piece of paper, looking very depressed. He was just tricking me though; when he got within a couple feet of me he smiled and said, “I got the visa!!!!”
I don’t think I’ve ever been so relieved. After all that, we finally had his visa! This means he will actually be able to attend our wedding in the US in August. Obviously we wouldn’t be able to have the wedding without him, so it was so great to finally have it settled. By the way, we wouldn’t have been able to do it without the help of our immigration lawyer, Jessica Gleason, so consider this a strong endorsement of her services!
When we left the embassy, we looked for Ben’s friend’s car (which by the way had all my stuff in it!), but it was nowhere to be found. He called, and his friend told him what happened: while looking for a gas station that actually had gas available, he had run out of gas on the street! So we took a cab to where his car was stopped, picked up my stuff (I think/hope there was someone on the way to bring him some gas, assuming they could find any to bring him) and drove off to Ben’s house.
From there, the weekend was fun and easy. We had yummy Ethiopian meals with his family, went out for walks, to play pool, dinner, and dancing at a club. Let me tell you, staying with a local family and really experiencing their lifestyle is a different and very fun way to visit a country! In most situations, this isn’t really plausible or comfortable (most people don’t want to stay with a family they don’t know!) but since I was with my fiance and sort of a part of the family anyway, it was awesome.
Below are a few pictures of the rest of the trip. Now that Ben has his US visa, he is working on the UAE visa. He’s going to be here hopefully in a few weeks, and he’ll be staying with relatives in Dubai while he looks for a job. I can’t wait to have him close by. And while I miss him like crazy–and would live in Ethiopia forever if that’s what it took to be with him–I’m also glad to be back “home” in Abu Dhabi. Strange how familiar and comfortable it seems here now. Once you get used to it, it’s not that different from life in the States really, particularly when you compare it to Ethiopia!