Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Ode to Internal Flights

Oh, internal flights of Ethiopia, how I miss you.  You were so cheap, largely punctual, relatively fast, surprisingly efficient, and quite comfortable.  It has been but a week without you, but to my arse and back and peace of mind, it feels like an eternity.  Oh, internal flights of Ethiopia, I wish you were just as cheap in Uganda, but alas, you are not.

As a profession of my love for you, let me enlighten you with some of my woes since we have been parted.  On our last day together we flew from Addis Ababa to Nairobi, an easy two hour flight but it was a late one and by the time we arrived in our hotel room it was 2:30 AM and we were exhausted.

The next day Anne had an interview at 10:00 AM Alaska time but as you know this was 10:00 PM Kenya time so we got to bed past 11.  The next morning we awoke at 5:45 AM to be at the bus stand at 6:30, half an hour before our expected departure.  Alas, Akamba Bus Lines completely lacks your punctuality, speed, and efficiency.  The latest you ever were was one hour, but Akamba had the audacity to depart our station three hours late.  Anne and several other customers tried in vain to get our money back or at the very least some information from the employees as to when the bus would actually show up, but their customer service more than pales in comparison to your customer service.  You were always friendly and helpful whether it was purchasing flights or giving us free passes to your Sheba Miles Lounge.  They just taunted us by saying our bus would be here shortly only for us to all move outside into the rain for an hour and a half.  One employee said the bus was still at the shop, another it was on the way, and yet another that it was picking up passengers in a different part of town.  They didn’t have a computer to track information, nor did anyone seem willing to give accurate information over the phone.  Oh, internal flights, how we missed you this day.  We missed you in those three hours we waited for the bus to actually arrive.  We missed you when we stopped for some inexplicable road block for an hour and a half.  We missed you when each 10 minute break turned into a 45 minute stop.  And we really missed you when we arrived in Kampala, Uganda at 2:45 AM, almost eight hours past our original ETA.  That was the last time we dared take an Akamba bus, unlike you, who we recommend to everyone.

The next day without you was even worse.  We slept as long as we could but checkout was at 10 AM so we groggily made our way to the Uganda Wildlife Authority to purchase gorilla tracking permits while they were on sale.  That part went smoothly, but as the park we were headed  to was pretty far south, we thought it best to leave this day to ensure we got there in time.  We boarded a bus to Kabale around 1:30 PM and it actually left the bus stand only an hour later.  However, it seemed to take 20 minutes to inch our way to the end of the bus stand before finally crawling through the crowded city streets.  Within minutes we heard what sounded like a gunshot, but of course it was only our bus blowing a tire, so we headed to a petrol station and 45 minutes later we were on our way.  We didn’t get very far.  Alas, internal flights of Ethiopia, we had some major engine problems.  We sat on the side of the road for an hour and a half while some of the bus employees tinkered for a while, then while they called a mechanic from Kampala, then while we waited for the mechanic to arrive, then while the mechanic tried to fix the bus.  We finally piled back in and headed on our way.  We only made it about seven more minutes before the bus broke down again.  At this point it was 7 PM and we were probably less than 50 kilometers from Kampala.  Anne and I lost all faith in the bus actually making it any further this evening so we decided to just eat the cost of this bus ticket and flag down a minibus taxi to take us to the next town where we could try a different bus in the morning.  We asked to get our backpacks out of the boot and were promptly ignored.  Then some nice Ugandans helped us ask the bus employees and they were also ignored.  Then we were told they lost the key to the boot.  Seriously.  Or that the driver left with it.  Then the police arrived and everyone was demanding their money back.  At the very least, we just wanted our luggage.  We helped search for the key but it was the lowest priority for the bus workers who were intent on banging heavy tools around under the engine.  Finally, over an hour later the key to the boot was located.  We grabbed our bags and ran.  Within minutes we flagged down a minibus, tied our bags to the roof, and were off.  We made it two major cities away, to Mbarara around midnight and got dropped off at a guest house near the bus stand.  There must have been a Christian revival going on next door because gospel music was blaring into our room and they said they didn’t have any other rooms further away from the noise. Luckily it stopped around 12:30 AM just as we were ready to sleep. Ethiopia Airlines, you never played such music late at night. And you fed us.

The following morning we forced ourselves to wake relatively early since we had only made it halfway to our destination.  We bought some chapati for breakfast and made our way to the taxi stand.  As per usual, we were swarmed upon entry and directed (forcibly pushed) to a minibus.  We were lucky enough to snag the front seats but really it wasn’t a very good minibus.  While it never broke down, it just kind of puttered its way to Kabale for what seemed like hours beyond what it should have taken.  At one point they stuck another person up front with us so there were four people in the front seat.  This did not go over well, but luckily the other guy was only up there for 15 or so minutes and they didn’t try it again.  Now we had just one more leg of the journey to complete, the ride from here to Kisoro.  As we pulled into the station we were accosted with “mzungu, mzungu” and quickly found a ride to Kisoro.  It was a station wagon shared taxi.  We had to wait a while for it to fill up, then we drove around town slowly for no good reason, then we stopped so the driver could buy an energy drink, and then finally, this seven-seat station wagon left town with 11 adults and 2 children.  The engine was not designed for the extra weight so we putt, putt, puttered our way up and down the mountains to Kisoro, eventually arriving at 5:12 PM, a mere 12 minutes past when the Uganda Wildlife Authority office closed.  This was disappointing as we needed information on getting to the park the next day. If we didn’t show up on time our permits would be worthless and no money would be refunded.  File this away, it will be important later.  We asked someone at our hotel if he knew a taxi driver that would take us there and to our (seemingly) good fortune he did.  He called a friend who came over to discuss the price.  We knew he was grossly overcharging us, but at this point we were exhausted, hungry, and just wanted to not have to think anymore.  We showed him the permits and said “do you know where we need to go?” and he responded “Yes”.  We said, “how long will it take?” and he said “the roads are bad.  It may take 3-4 hours.”  “Wow”, we gasped, “the guidebook says it’s only an hour and a half.”  “Yes”, he said, “but it’s the rainy season and the roads are bad.”  “Okay” we said, “we’ll be ready at 4:30 AM.”  And he said, “better make it 4:25.”  And we said “okay, see you tomorrow at 4:25 AM”.

Oh, internal flights of Ethiopia, the next morning was by far our worst.  We really missed you then.  I think more than anything we missed your honesty.  If you said you were flying from Gonder to Axum, we trusted that you knew how to get there, even if you went via Lalibela.  Sadly, this was not the case with Eric, our taxi driver.  When he still hadn’t arrived by 4:35 AM we called him and he said we would be there shortly.  When we called back at 4:45 he didn’t pick up the phone and we walked to the main street to see if we could hastily find another taxi, but he showed up just then.  There were no cars on the road anyway.  We chastised him for being 20 minutes late because our permits were nonrefundable.  Then he asked us where exactly we were going.  Then he said he needed to get petrol.  Needless to say we were furious.  While he woke up the guy at the petrol station we lambasted him for not knowing where we were going because we specifically showed him the permit last night and he said he knew.  He told us to give the petrol guy 50,000 shillings and we refused to pay until we got to the park.  We insisted Eric call people he knew to ask where to go despite the early hour.  He starting dialing numbers and driving on the tarred road back to Kabale.  He said it was the right way but we didn’t believe him.  We were so angry with him and frantic that we would not get there in time and lose our permits.  Finally he called two guys, Ernest and Emma, who work for a safari company and they spoke with Anne.  They said it was only an hour and a half away, they knew exactly where to go, and if we went back to Kisoro they would draw us a map.  And that’s what we did.  Ernest and Emma were waiting out front of their guest house for us, reassured us we would get there in time and that the roads weren’t too bad, and they drew us a map.  Finally, at 5:40 AM over an hour after we were originally supposed to leave Kisoro we were finally on our way.  We spent most of the ride in the back fuming but it actually didn’t take too long, the roads were fine, and we got there early.  The gorilla tracking was incredible but we will post a separate blog on that.

When we got back to our hotel that evening we handed the driver 50,000 shillings less than we agreed on the evening before and told him he didn’t deserve the full amount because he broke our verbal agreement.  We did, however, pay him the standard amount. He didn’t say anything, and we walked to our room saying, “wow, he didn’t fight that at all.  He must know how much he screwed up.”  Of course we were wrong.  He just didn’t listen to a word we said as we paid him, and it took him a moment to count the money and then he was in the hotel complaining.  His friend who originally recommended him fell into the role of mediator and listened to both arguments.  We were firm and unbending in our decision and explained repeatedly that he broke his contract with us by 1) being 20 minutes late when we had an important deadline, 2) lying about knowing how to get there, and 3) lying about the amount of time it would take.  Anne and I both felt we were extremely reasonable with how much we paid him as what he got was the amount recommended to us by the UWA office when we bought the permits.  He certainly didn’t deserve the overinflated price we agreed on the night before.   He finally left in a flurry and that was the end of him.

And that, dear internal flights of Ethiopia, is why we miss you so much.  Your customer service was excellent.  You were reliable.  The one time you had a mechanical problem with me on board it was quickly remedied and you even apologized for it.  You never lost the key to the plane.  You were fast.  You were comfortable.  You are sorely missed.


  1. Ah Jeanette you made me giggle this morning, late night there.

  2. You have to be really fast to keep up with you women! I am still waiting for you to get back from Ethiopia, and BAM! you have been to 3 other countries...or at least, a lot of cities.

  3. Cannot BELIEVE you are where you are. You amaze me. Love reading about your adventures. Come back to Unalaska someday. - M. Lynn Crane

  4. Their bus system sounds like a nightmare. But the gorilla trek sounds quite exciting. See you very soon. We do have a more reliable bus system.
    Love you,