she said (Tanzania): "WELL 227 OTHER PEOPLE BOARDED...SOOOOO...."
May 2, 2016
Because we were flying with Ethiopian Air, our flight route went from Kigali in Rwanda to Addis Ababa in Ethiopia where we had a four hour layover and a flight out direct to Zanzibar, Tanzania in the morning. Being a member of the Star Alliance, we were feeling pretty positive about flying with Ethiopian and slightly interested at the thought of being in Ethiopia.
All of that was crushed immediately upon arrival at the wasteland that was the Addis airport. It was the mother of all airport dives, heavily rivaling the other worst airport I've ever experienced to date which is Mexico City. It wasn't even a proper airport, it was pretty well just an airplane hangar that was swarmed with people and full of (albeit shitty looking) private airport lounges and with that, barely any places for "common people" like ourselves, such that people were stalking other people to even get a chair in the main area of the terminal. It was so dirty. You couldn't even find a place to get a water bottle because there was no concessions or food stores...just one lousy, depresso looking "bar" and a handful of souvenir shops that were equally dumpy, all the merchandise just piled on top of other merchandise. Everything here was low tech- no electronic boards informing you of gates/flights/delays etc, only signs from like 1992 in front of the gate and even these had no identifying details on it beyond "Gate ____". All "information sharing" was done via the most heavily distorted loudspeaker blasting through the airport which was useless anyways because between the accent and the shitty quality, you couldn't make anything out. We found a bathroom at one end of the airport and, not even joking, the bathroom had one stall for male and one for female and a lineup out the door, naturally. And the line didn't freaking move! Weirdly, for once in life, the male bathroom line-up was double as long as the female bathroom so evidently the men were having more poos than the women that day. I finally got in the bathroom which was essentially a stall in what looked to be like a closet. I'm desperate to pee and also change tampons (why do I have my period at THE worst times!) and sure enough, get in there and there's no toilet paper or even garbages. Ok then then I'll flush everything down the toilet you assholes. Sure enough, closet-toilet also didn't have a sink so you had to go out and around the corner to wash your hands. Later on we were pretty pumped because at the other end of the airport we did find the only other bathroom but this one actually had a handful of stalls. Our enthusiasm was promptly killed, however, when we discovered not only no garbage cans but no toilet paper, soap or paper towel either. And most of the stalls had either a door that wouldn't lock or no toilet seat so take your pick and see what you get in the no lock-no toilet seat battle. Seems the Addis airport is hurting. You have to understand, even though it is Ethiopia and you can potentially understand this level of dilapidation, the fact remains that in a region with limited national air carriers, Ethiopian Air/Addis Ababa essentially is THE hub for international and long distance air travel in this region They are the "big guys" if you will, so the condition of the airport was shocking. There was also that nagging feeling in the back of my head that if this is the standards of the airport, by the love, what is the standard of the airline?! By the end of our experience with Ethiopian, everything Ethiopian would be a clear win for worst airport/airline... in the world.
Of course this was all only made worse by the fact that we were exhausted having caught a 2 am flight out of Kigali so now it was early morning and we had basically pulled an all-nighter. So desperate for sleep, there was was nothing else to do but hunker down. Thank God we finally stalked long enough to find some seats where we immediately lay down, valuables bags wrapped tightly around us, valuables bags as pillows, set our alarm for 9 am and were out, hoping that our bags wouldn't be split open and pilfered right underneath our heads (because after all this is an Africa airport) but too exhausted to care as much as we should have.
Right on schedule we awoke by cell phone alarm and made our way over to gate 6, as per our boarding pass, where we sat waiting for boarding.
Every now and then there was a super distorted announcement where we listed for "Zanzibar boarding" but could barely make out anything. But nobody around us moved so we were pretty settled. By this point we were a little delayed but having just been delayed for like 2 hours in Kigali and the condition of this shitty airport, it all seemed very normal. And we were still soooooo tired! The perfect storm really. At one point another announcement came on and though I couldn't make out a single word, Bridger, with all the confidence in the world, assured me that it said, "Zanzibar, gate 6". Here's where I tell you people, just how powerful suggestion is to what you hear because obviously this statement was, unequivocally, not said...
So we continue to sit and wait for "Zanzibar boarding" or some movement around us because there is literally no signs, no boards where you could check gates, not a staff member around, absolutely nothing. Until the moment where something finally happened. There was another ridiculous announcement at which point there was this like, mass exodus of people from around us who got up and immediately herded in one single unified direction. Ah, flight to Zanzibar is finally boarding, almost an hour late! We join the herd and weirdly, as we do there is an Ethiopian Air staff coming towards us so we confirmed that in fact we were moving to the Zanzibar boarding area. I wish I had the look on that human's face on camera because her jaw just dropped and her eyes bugged out of her head as she said, and we'll never forget these words, "Oh no, the flight to Zanzibar left from gate 7 and it's probably gone now!". What the fuuuuuuck?!? We book it to gate 7 where we confirm that yes, in fact the plane to Zanzibar has left and yes, in fact we did miss our flight while sitting at the gate for said flight for 4 hours. How in the mother of fuck could this happen?!? We were torn between an unprecedented level of infuriation at everything Ethiopia and feeling like complete and utter i-di-ots. We truly weren't sure whether we would eat the face off the next person who looked at us, burst out laughing or burst out crying.
Well, flights gone, no use crying over spilled milk so we were directed down to the ticket counter to "pay our reschedule fee and book the same flight for the next day". Wait, what? We can't stay here tonight! For one, we don't have a visa for Ethiopia so can't legally be in this country outside of the airport and two, Bridger only has 2 more weeks and for the love, we need to get to Zanzibar now! We go down to the ticket counter to see what's next and, equally concerning, where the hell our checked bags have gotten to. We were met with the most horrendously horrible, defensive, condescending staff we've ever experienced who informed us we have no options and we'd be paying the flight transfer fee, booking the flight out tomorrow and buying a transit visa and night in a hotel in Addis Ababa for 70 USD each. At this point, there was no doubt about it, I was going to cry. We continued to argue our case that we should not have to pay because their airport is awful and there was no information in place. And we continued to probe for any other flights that would get us to Zanzibar today. Nada. Literally 3 different staff people looked at us with utter contempt as they implied that we are stupid, which sure, maybe we are a little bit, but they are working in customer service and it's their job to at least be nice to us!! These invalids just kept telling us that the flight left from gate 7 and that, I quote, "gate 6 is just a holding area, all flight that say gate 6 actually leave out of gate 7"...and then they would, like pause and look at us waiting for us to admit responsibility or something because, you know, this is all so routine, how dare we not know gate 6 is actually gate 7!!! And "they made an announcement" to which we almost blew our top that nobody can fucking understand that speaker! If we weren't so angry and stressed, it almost would have been comical. After going round in circles and all staff growing increasingly exasperated with us, one lady cut out all implication and just said "weeeeeeell 227 other people boarded the plane so...". Discussion ended. Bitch! And adding insult to injury, we found out our bags were still on the plane on their way to Zanzibar as we speak. That's right, two people check their bags in for a flight and then mysteriously dissappear and don't board, yet nobody thinks that maybe, from a security standpoint, those bags should proooobably get taken off the plane. Not to mention the fact that it's also great, because having your bags sit unattended in an airport in Tanzania doesn't sound like the best way not to have all your stuff stolen. Even though we were assured they would collect our bags and store them in bag storage at Zanzibar, we were not feeling optimistic that that process wouldn't entail a thorough "look-through" for anything of interest to pocket before the hapless tourists finally arrive tomorrow.
Now is where things took a turn. As we're in the middle of tearing a strip off of each other, up walks another girl who, not even joking, also missed her flight to Zanzibar while waiting at the gate. This girl is equally rotten and even did way more due diligence than us, tracking down and asking staff where she was supposed to be to which she was assured that gate 6 where she was, was exactly where she was supposed to be. And you know why this girl was so much later getting to this place than us? Because she actually followed that crowd, got to the gate and passed over her passport/boarding pass to board the plane and was told "Oh this flight isn't going to Zanzibar, this flight is going to Entebbe, Uganda". And then they said this to her wide eyed, jaw dropped face: "soooooo do you want to board this flight or not?". That's right people, you don't even need to show proof of the right flight to board an Ethiopian Airlines flight...anybody can apparently, get on anything. Reassuring isn't it? Now as blinding rage is reducing ever so slightly, up walks, I kid you not, another woman who missed her flight to Zanzibar...you guessed it, while waiting at the gate. She also had asked Ethiopian staff multiple times and was assured the flight twas leaving from gate 6 and she needed to just "sit right here and wait". So here we were, 4 white people arguing in vain with the Ethiopian "customer service" staff until finally a manager came who told us the same thing that we were spending the night in Ethiopia for a cost BUT with one ray of hope--we could go up to some desk or something and ask if they could transfer us to a Kenyan Airways flight that would get us to Zanzibar today. Great, we have hope again! The 4 of us run up there and plead our case...to which we were told that the only way we were getting on the Kenyan Airways flight today was to officially cancel our Ethiopian Airline ticket, get a refund minus the cancellation fee and then re-book a seat on the Kenyan Airways flight hours before it left. And then we were told that in order to get to even get the refund, we would have to go the Ethiopian Airlines office in Dar es Salaam, the capital of Tanzania and fill out the paperwork. Given that we weren't even going to Dar, Bridger only had two weeks left before flying home and I was almost certain somehow they would find a way not to pay us the refund anyways, this was a solid lose-lose situation. So there is now officially no way we are getting on that Kenyan Airways flight. We're back to a one night stop in Addis, gaaaaah! Every one of us is right raving pissed.
And then this happens...turns out one of the girls is a Diplomat stationed in Addis for 2 years but going to Zanzibar for a weekend vacation. So she gets on the phone making calls to people only Diplomats can make calls to. She's stuck at the airport because she missed her flight to Zanzibar, she wants to leave today and she wants on the Kenyan Airway flight and she wants to help out her friends who are also in the same situation, can this person do anything for her? She hangs up and we wait about half an hour for a callback all while the Ethiopian Air staff are watching us contemptuously. Call comes back...we went from an overnight stay in Addis entirely on our bill to now getting on the Kenyan Air flight in a few hours with no reschedule fee or flight change increase and in the meantime while we're stuck at the airport, we'll be dining for free with meal vouchers for one of the lounges. Boom, that's how Diplomats get things done! It was one of the most utterly bizarre moments of our lives, truly.
So now it's noon and we have about 4 hours to kill before the Kenyan Airways flight which would go from Addis to Nairobi, the capital of Kenya where we would have to transfer, have an hour layover and then board another flight to Zanzibar. But who freaking cares, we're going to Zanzibar today! Bridger and I (the other girl had to get a flight to Kilimanjaro so, though she was equally comped, she had to leave bc she was on a different agenda than us) hung around the airport eating our free food and chatting with this brilliantly interesting diplomat who wasn't much older than us while she regaled us with stories of diplomatic life, from figuring out if Ethiopian girl-foreign man marriages are legit, to giving emotional support to citizen prisoners. I guess she had 1 year and 9 months left in Addis and was literally counting down the days because she hated the placement, among other reasons because she found Ethiopians so rotten. As she explained it to us, I guess Ethiopia was one of the only African countries that had never been colonized so they are a very proud and arrogant people and are very unwelcoming to foreigners. She just seemed totally flattened by how "difficult" everything was working in Addis and this girl has worked in some other very volatile, dangerous places. Actually this wasn't an altogether unfamiliar story as we had heard a handful of other people across our African travels complain about the same kind of attitude in Ethiopia. For example, someone told a story about arriving really late at night somewhere at a hotel and was informed the hotel was full. Where normally people would just let you crash on their couch or something until the morning, these people literally said "not my problem" and just cast him out into the dark streets. Stories like that. That being said, I've also heard people tell brilliant stories about LOVING traveling in Ethiopia so the true tale is something we'll never know until we go.
Already rattled between the shocking state of misery of this airport and two massive security breaches on the part of Ethiopian, it was entirely unwelcome when a storm of epic proportions blew threw directly atop the airport, lightning violently flashing in the sky, thunder literally rattling the roof and torrential downpour. It was all I could do to cross my fingers hoping that it would pass and be long gone before we had to board this, what I could only consider a death rocket at this point in the game. I'm so miserable.
The three of us make our way over to the gate way early, determined to remain on hyper-hyper-hyper vigilance so we wouldn't miss this flight too, because after all, it was still the exact same circumstances with the non-signage and shitty unintelligible announcements! We asked every staff member we could find every 10 minutes where we were supposed to be and had awful flash-backs to the "miss while sitting at the gate" incident of earlier today when literally every single staff member told us different gate numbers! What is wrong with this airline?!?!?! Making matters worse, the minutes kept ticking and now our flight was past the boarding time, officially delayed, which didn't fare well at all for our one hour Kenya layover, especially because the "ticket" we had printed here was just a confirmation because Ethiopian was unable to print a Kenyan Airway boarding pass so we would have to go to the Kenyan Airways desk on arrival in Kenya and get them to print us an official boarding pass before we could board. Big sigh. By this point we pretty well accosted the next Ethiopian Airlines staff we found and said "man, we've already missed a flight today while sitting at the gate so for the love, PLEASE don't let this plane leave without us!!!" to which he absolutely assured us that it wouldn't and it was only a little delayed so it would still be on time to land and we would have no problem with our Kenyan layover. Though he was a lovely, jovial human (the first we had experience with here!) and his boastful confidence was slightly reassuring, flashbacks to the Murchison-Falls-flight-incident told me to be leery when an African assures you that you have enough time!
Oh my gosh, the flight to Kenya was half an hour delayed so we're finally on board but right on edge thinking there is no way that we can possibly make our connection and now all we've bought ourselves is a one night stop-over in Nairobi instead of Addis! However, I was almost distracted by the spectacular scene of sun and cloud unfolding outside my window. Lovely.
By the time the plane landed in Nairobi, it was 7:10 pm. By the time we were off the transport bus at the terminal it was 7:22. Our flight leaves at 7:40. We still have to hit up the Kenyan Airways desk and get boarding passes printed. We're stressing. How can we possibly make this flight?! We just want to be in Zanzibar for the love of god!!!! We're all prepared that the second we get in that terminal we're breaking out into a full gallop to that desk/gate. I guess that's the one advantage to having our big packs being inappropriately shipped to Tanzania without us.
We step foot in the door of the terminal, ready to break out into some marathon-level sprinting...when BOOM, what do we find directly in front of us...a health check/quarantine station screening every passenger before passing them into the airport. Whyyyyyyyy does the universe hate us so much today!??! We immediately asked the rather official looking guy in the white lab coat if we could, you know, just skip this (what seems logical in a state of panic huh?!) because we have a connecting flight leaving in 15 minutes. No, everyone has to fill out a form and wait in line to be screened both by the lab coat man and the infrared camera thing before you can pass through to the gates. You've GOT to be kidding me?!?! We furiously fill out forms and just short of throw them at Mr. lab coat and positioned ourselves one at a time in front of the camera, jiggling with nerves the whole time. Thank goodness for this rather gracious man as we definitely would have missed our flight had he not let us cut line and speed through.
The three of us bust into the airport pretty well at a full run, little backpacks swinging back and forth violently as we go, desperately looking for that Kenyan Airways desk that would print our boarding pass. Luckily somewhere here we found out that our flight had been delayed to 8:10, a blessing because we already missed it if it still left at 7:40! We get to the desk and the diplomat pretty well ignores the massive line there, walking directly up to the front and demanding our boarding pass be printed for our flight. Unreassuringly, the Kenyan Airways staff say "there's no time" and direct us to get to the gate right this second. So still with little printed pieces of paper in hand and no boarding pass, we run from gate 1 all the freaking way to gate 22 which is a long-ass way. We are utterly drenched in sweat but we made it to gate 22 without missing our flight. Yet, the diplomat still needs to use an ATM because she has no money, I still have some Rwandan currency that I need to exchange and we haven't seen our big bags since 3 am this morning. Also unreassuringly, the other girl we missed our flight with had told us about her prior 3 experiences flying with Ethiopian Airlines which included one time where her bag didn't show up and had to be tracked down and another where her bag just disappeared altogether, never to be found again. 2/3 failures Ethiopian Airlines, good job, feeling really optimistic. But at this point, I would posture to say that we didn't give a flying fuck about anything anymore because by the looks of it, we were actually gonna make it to Zanzibar tonight! It is a funny feeling to literally be so far out of control of anything that you completely mentally resign yourself to "come what may". What I can control, however, is my vow to never ever fly Ethiopian Airlines again.