It was a relatively smooth trip. Flights were on time and everything was straightforward. The food was great and the wine was free. I will admit that I was surprised at how put together everything seemed. This was my first time on an African airline, and boy had I heard some stories! Then we arrived in Addis.

We had a layover before the second leg of our flight, and even though we had not been given our boarding passes for this leg initially, we were quite assured that it was non-issue and everything would go smoothly and be straightforward once we arrived in Addis Ababa.

I should have known as soon as we got off the plane that we were in for an experience.

Hurdle number one: how to get up the escalator and into the terminal.
I didn’t anticipate this being a problem, but I blame that on my own ignorance. As we disembarked from the bus taking us to the terminal this challenge became quickly apparent. Everyone was huddled around the bottom of the escalator, mostly just looking at it. There seemed to be confusion as to how to approach it. Some took a breath, held their bags tight, and jumped on, teetering precariously back and forth as they tried to catch their balance. Others ran onto it apparently trying to match their starting velocity with the speed of the escalator. But most just stood at the bottom gently putting one foot on and then off until they seemed confident that the thing would not throw them across the room or, even worse, swallow them alive.

Once upstairs onto…

Hurdle number two: How to find your gate when there are no signs or gate numbers.
We had done this before, and amazingly it always worked out, so we ventured past security full of confidence that we would have no problems finding our plane. Our confidence was a little misplaced as no one had a clue where we should go. We were directed here and then there, and finally to the one gate with people at it. We scurried in, got our boarding passes from the agent at the gate, and stood to the side waiting for the boarding call. Boy did we luck out because boarding started right after we got in.

Hurdle number three: How to drive a bus.
We headed down the stairs (avoiding the escalator to our left) and out onto the tarmac to wait for our bus, which came, but then decided to leave. It pulled in and then, after a few minutes wait but with no passengers, it reversed smack into a second bus parked right behind it. Mirrors went through windows and glass was everywhere. Thankfully this did not present a problem to the drivers who both proceeded to pull up and fill up with passengers.

The wind rushing through the broken window was a saving grace as the driver seemed to be a 14-year-old kid who somehow mistook the airport tarmac for a Formula One track. Swerving and jogging, we miraculously arrived with no incidents, until the driver realized he had the wrong plane. This time he pulled forward instead of reversing and swung around to another plane. Also not the right place. Cell phones came out. Lights were flashed. Plane number three, nope, not there yet. Hand signals, mid tarmac conversations, and another 15 minutes down and we were there, back at the first plane, which had by now opened it doors as a sign it was ready for the busload of tousled, bus sick passengers.

Hurdle number four: You’re going where?
Off the bus and onto the plane. I pushed my way towards the front, certain that if I failed and boarded towards the end, we’d have an inevitable hassle trying to remove the person that would be sure to sit in our seats, seeing as two open seats provides much more elbow room than a middle seat someplace else. My boarding pass was checked for the third time in my adventure by the flight stewardess, and I scurried on. I had already thrown my bag under the chair and sat down when I realized I had lost my husband somewhere in the fray. He had been caught in the front, held hostage by the crew when they realized that his boarding pass had a different destination than their intended landing spot.

But this is the right boarding time and we were at the right gate? “Yes, yes.” But we had our boarding passes checked twice before getting off the bus and onto the plane. “Yes, yes.” But we were still on the wrong plane, without a way back to the terminal (our broken bus already long gone back across the race track), and with only 15 minutes to spare before our own flight left us in Addis overnight.

Hurdle number five: How to make our departing flight while stuck on another plane?
Alas in Africa, no hurdle is insurmountable, especially if that hurdle is punctuality. Our plane was delayed and within a half hour we were back in the terminal, back at the same gate, back with the gate agent checking our boarding pass for the second time. “Are you sure this is the right flight this time?” “Yes, yes.” Down the stairs (still avoiding the escalator to our left) and again out onto the tarmac to wait for our bus. “Are you sure this bus is going to the right flight this time?” “Yes, yes.” Onto the bus, this one with all windows intact. Out again and up the stairs (still pushing my way to the front of the line).

I show my boarding pass again to the flight stewardess, “Are you sure this is the right plane?” “Yes, yes.” This time I turn around and double check that my husband is still behind me. I wait patiently until he hands his boarding pass to the flight stewardess and she nods again, “Yes, yes.”

Addis Airport

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What does it mean to truly know a place or to really experience a culture?

This is a question that I have been thinking about for a long time, with a draft version of this post on my desktop for over a month. But I can’t quite seem to finalize things – to find that conclusive sentence to wrap it all together.

This is a question that will come up continually if you’re on the road for any amount of time. I’ve had people tell me that I could never possibly know a place just by traveling. I’ve had people tell me that they have lived someplace for years and yet don’t know it. I’ve seen people completely absorbed by a culture within weeks. And I have walked off of a plane and felt more at home than I do in places I have spent the better part of my life.

I have come to believe that those who think you can’t deeply know a place by just “traveling” haven’t ever truly traveled. And yet, as I sit a breakfast, listening to “travelers” swap stories of extra passport pages and 7 continents, who then are genuinely perplexed when I mention my desire to live abroad, I can’t help but think, maybe just traveling isn’t enough either.

Then where is that elusive line between not knowing and knowing? Between eating and tasting. Between seeing and appreciating. Between talking and conversing. Whether you just dip your toes into the water or are immersed up to your chin, if you are always standing on your flat feet, then can you ever really claim to have been swimming?

Perhaps, this problem is the exact reason I haven’t been able to finish my draft. Does the line even exist?  If memories and our own selves are in constant flux, changing and evolving with our own new experiences, then is it even possible to truly know a place or a person?

I “knew” Nepal as it was twelve years ago and then again eight months ago, but does that mean I “know” it now?

These questions sit in my head as I look around at the “travelers” surrounding me, and I believe I have finally found at least the beginning of my conclusion: Being able to know a place has nothing to do with the amount of time spent or number of monuments visited. It has everything to do with the openness of your mind and your ability to see and experience the place for what it is, for what it has to offer you, and what you have to offer it at that moment.

Living, traveling, working, or studying in a place for years will do nothing to allow you to get to know the place if you never actually want to experience it. If you are always looking for the comforts of someplace else, then you will never be open to experiencing the uniqueness of where you are. Perhaps knowing where you stand is as simple as dropping away your own ideas of what a place should be, opening your eyes and mind, and welcoming it to change you anew each and every time.

Senegal

One year on and I have to confess to a new addiction I have picked up – toilet paper. It isn’t that I have a great affection for the production or even a favorite kind, but long bus rides and Indian trains have got me hankering to have some on me at all times. There is a roll in my backpack and at least one folded wad of squares in each of my pant pockets. Every time I do a laundry a foaming mass of white paper comes to the top as a long hidden stockpile is suddenly rediscovered.

Amazingly, even as the crisp white paper was permeating its way deeper into my pockets and bags, I didn’t realize I had a problem until this morning. As I packed up to leave I looked fondly at the mostly used roll in my hostel bathroom. I reached out to grab it and thought, “wait a second, I am heading home to a land of prolific toilet paper use. I don’t need you any more.” And then I walked over to my bag and took stock of what I had acquired. The plentiful rolls in my backpack were removed and set aside for the next traveler to come through my room (another closet toilet paper hoarder, no doubt!). My pockets were emptied and the folded mass left on the cabinet.

I turned to leave, and as if a greater power had control over my arm, I quickly snatched up one wad of several squares and hid it in my back pocket. “Just in case,” I thought. “I’m not home yet.”

Rwanda has a prolific supply of religious lodging options for tourists and pilgrims alike. They have pretty consistently been our place of choice considering they tend to be clean, well run, and inexpensive. In Kibuye, we lucked out when we found Home Saint Jean tucked away at the end of a peninsula behind the Genocide Memorial Church (many churches in Rwanda became massacre sights as people flocked there for security and instead became sitting ducks for the genocidaires – in the region around Kibuye this was definitely the case).

The hotel offers 270 degrees of views over the lake, a restaurant and huge balcony for sitting under the stars and debating the meaning of life. Ask for room 14 and you get a corner room surrounded by water. In the evening the moon rises right over the balcony. And from the doorway you can watch the storms roll over the hills and down into the lake.