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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

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.

To suggest that I have a problem hiding amongst the crowd in Africa would be an understatement.

In India, with a little dirt under my nails and hand washed, sun dried clothes, I can at least pass as a hippie tourist. People assume I have been there a while and that in place of a bulging money belt I probably only have a crumpled 500 rupees in my pocket.

Rwanda and Tanzania have provided me no such luxury. The extended conversations that eventually turned into a selling opportunity in Senegal have given way to a more blunt, “Hello. Faranga!” (or “Hello. Money!”); of which I was never sure if the structure was one sentence or two.

As I left for this trip I made myself a promise to remain open and never cynical. Trying to balance being both a curiosity and a commodity has made this promise ever more important.

I have lost count of the number of children to come running after me, yelling “mzungu!” (‘foreigner!”) as I walk by their home. Some just want to wave from afar. Some shake your hand and ask for money. Some have held me in an embrace so tight I didn’t think I would be able to peel them off. And some have simply walked up, grabbed my hand, and proceeded to walk blocks with me, even though we only shared a half dozen words in common.

These interactions seem to happen daily and are completely unavoidable as long as my skin remains the color it is. So long as “western” equals money it also equals opportunity.  Every time a person walks up to me and asks flat out for money, I remember each person that has sat and talked with me, and then walked away, having wanted nothing but a little of my time.

Close your eyes and just think about the word “Serengeti” – what do you come up with? Images of savannah. The sound of lions and wind in the grass. Sun. Never ending sky. Idyllic, primal Africa.

The Maasai named the area of vast grasslands between Tanzania and Kenya “serengit”, or “endless plains” in the Maa language. For generations they hunted, herded, and lived on this land that is now home to a never-ending flow of tan and green Land Cruisers. For generations foreigners have been coming here to find something that is distinctly human – the romance of being at the mercy of nature and a sense of smallness. Of insignificance.

Here no one is the king. Death can lurk in any corner. In any minute.

As I watch the sun set over the plains, I feel the eyes staring back me from the grass. I can hear the life happening in the trees around me and miles away. We sit down to dinner and allow the china and crystal to distract us from what is going on all around us in these endless plains. It is not just dinnertime for us.

All Serengeti camps light fires in the evening. This creates a certain sense of security, but as I zip up my tent in the dark, knowing that nothing lies between me and wilderness but a canvas sheet, I can’t help but feel a little more alive than I did when I left my hotel this morning. I can’t help but feel small.