ETHIOPIA 1: Leaving

September 7, 2004

I saw an Olsen twin deplaning as I sat in the departure lounge. She wore chic, frayed clothes, and big sunglasses, and she was flanked by big, matronly handlers. The airport newstand was blanketed with an issue of In Touch magazine. An Olsen twin on the cover–“Is She Out Of Control?”–something like that. People in the lounge with me were reading it. And yet I think I was the only one who saw her.
I flew to London, and then connected to Frankfurt, and in Frankfurt flew to Addis Ababa. We flew over Athens (and the Olympic Stadium). I looked out the window at the Mediterranean, waiting for Africa to show up.

We land in Addis. Addis is sprawling, dusty, and chaotic; donkeys and goats jostle with taxis on the streets. There are big neighborhoods of tin and mud shanties beneath high rise buildings; sophisticated urbanites in Western dress walking by guys in Gandhi-like shawls, with head wraps and walking staffs. Everywhere there’s the sound of Amharic music, a warped-sounding, cheesily orchestrated, careening, fascinating sound, mostly in 3. Also everywhere: the gorgeous, alien Amharic alphabet.
There’s an Ethiopian Airlines billboard over Meskel Square, a vast intersection of multilane roads, nearly without traffic lights, in which minibuses, taxis, and SUVs battle for lane changes and turns–“STOCKHOLM: Savour the Old World charm.” This, in Ethiopia, the cradle of humanity.
I arrive at the hotel after dark. In the lobby, people are hunched around TVs, watching the Olympics. I go up to my room and watch the American weather forecast on Al-Jazeera.