From India to Ethiopia via Saudi Arabia...
So, my last week in India was pretty uneventful... but I think after a bit over three months I was ready for a change. My last night was a bit of a hassle since I discovered that the bus that the Lonely Planet claims goes directly to the Chennai airport from Mamallapuram doesn't actually exist... so I decided to head to the town closest to the airport the night before so that I wouldn't risk missing my plane in the morning. Unfortunately, the strip of seedy hotels and random stores that lined the major road heading to the airport happened to be quite a popular destination so after checking six places, I was starting to think I wasn't going to find a free room. I had decided to just go to the airport and spend the night there thinking "how bad could it be? I did it three months ago in the Delhi airport" but when I got back on the bus heading that way, I passed a few more hotels and decided to make a last ditch effort. Luckily, I found a gross room for 400 rupees (which is actually the most I had paid for a room in my entire time in India) so didn't have to sleep in the terminal... and I was very glad I did that once I saw the state of the airport the next morning. It was nothing like the modern and clean Delhi airport... it would have been a very long night and considering the long day of travel that lay ahead (stay tuned), the 400 rupees were worth parting with.
The cheapest ticket I could find to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, was on Saudi Arabian Airlines so my flight took me first to Riyadh (a city in the middle of the country) and then to Jeddah, on the coast of Saudi Arabia, before flying to Addis. A few interesting/funny/gross things of note happened along the way... On the first flight, the plane was almost full of Indians and this was made even more apparent by the state of the toilets by the time we landed in Riyadh. The garbage bin wasn't that clearly labeled (it just had a "no cigarette disposal" sign on it and nothing else) so it seems that the Indian passengers (or at least the vast majority of them) didn't know where to put their used toilet paper (Indian plumbing can't handle TP so why should the plane's toilet be able to??) so it slowly accumulated on the floor, sink, seat, you name it... I was somewhat surprised because Indians don't use toilet paper but I guess if its provided, then they do!! There were also black scuff marks on the toilet seat from the shoes of the people who had squatted on the toilet. Needless to say, the bathroom was pretty disgusting by the time we landed. Luckily, most of the passengers got off in Riyadh (I can't imagine why seeing as there was NOTHING but sand for as far as the eye could see in every direction around the city) so there were only like 20 of us on the short leg (90 minutes) to Jeddah and the flight attendants spent the one hour we had on the ground cleaning. :-)
The landscape below me was pretty amazing but I have to admit I was very happy that I was flying over it and not living in it. Barren, flat, sand... that's about it except for a few dark geometric shapes here and there that seemed to be animal enclosures but I'm not sure how anything could survive out there. In between the waves of wind-blown sand were a few faint straight lines that I eventually realized were sand covered roads when I saw them turn into grey asphalt when we arrived in the city. But I just can't imagine the lives of the people that lived in the few scattered "towns" (a cluster of 3 or 4 buildings) I spotted. The nothingness didn't even peter out as we approached Riyadh... it just stopped all of a sudden... and there was life - a huge city! I have no idea why there is such a big city in the middle of the Saudi desert and a man I met who lived there couldn't tell me either. ;-) The cities (both Jeddah and Riyadh but Jeddah is at least on a coast so at least it has that going for it) also had no green anywhere in them. From above, the buildings and every structure I saw were the dull beige sand color of the desert. The only specks of color were the neon aqua blue swimming pools that dotted the city. Otherwise, no trees, no grass, nothing.
A few other interesting things from my flight... The airline magazine was in Arabic and read from back to front except for a handful of articles at the "back" of the magazine (this would have been the front for us) that were written in English. They read from front to back but the page numbers went down if that makes sense. So if an article started on page 90, its second page would be on 89 and so on. In the table of contents, the articles were listed in page order number as opposed to the order we would normally flip through them. Interesting... to me anyway. :-) Also, when we were about to take off for each leg of the flight, a prayer in Arabic was broadcast over the PA system. It was apparently what "the prophet Mohammed used to pray before traveling". On the first two flights I was the only Caucasian on board and one of about five women. On the last flight, from Jeddah to Addis, there were three of us Western tourists... one Italian guy and one Lithuanian woman who was going to visit her Ethiopian boyfriend. The meals I was served (constantly, this was definitely NOT an American airline!) were somewhat interesting as well. Although I had requested a vegetarian meal, there wasn't one available on one leg so I asked the flight attendant to bring me the box of stuff minus the meaty part since there seemed to be at least two snack type items that I could eat. She looked at me funny and when she brought the tray I realized why... she brought me a box that contained a tiny bottle of water, a plastic wrapped fork/knife and some salt. I guess my request got lost in translation. ;-)
Landing in Addis at just before midnight was weird. I've never in my life seen a city that seemed so asleep. I could only see a handful of cars on any of the roads and there just didn't seem to be any life anywhere. This feeling only grew stronger as I was driven in a taxi through the deserted streets to my hotel. I was bit concerned because my driver needed someone to push the car out of its parking spot in order to get it started and I was not interested in breaking down on one of those dark, quiet streets my first nigt in Africa! Eventually though, we made it to the Taitu Hotel which is apparently the oldest hotel in the country. It has a nice lobby and restaurant in the main historical building as well as some nicer rooms in the better kept buildings but my room was in the budget building... I think the common toilet that I share with my floor is an original. ;-)
Anyway, I've spent my first two days in Ethiopia trying to figure out why my ATM card wasn't working in any of the banks. I have sorted out an OK temporary solution but hope that my card will start to work in other places or else I'm going to end up spending a lot of money on wire transfer fees. :-( Otherwise, I have been exploring the city which isn't the most interesting place I've been but it has been made much more enjoyable by the company of a friend of a friend I met here named Hintsa. He has been showing me around the huge local market, taking me to local places to eat and just chatting with me about life in Ethiopia. I keep asking him why he doesn't have to go to work but he keeps saying he has the time. He seems to work for an NGO as a journsalist/writer but does it freelance so seems to make his own schedule... lucky for me as I arrived on a Monday night! I spent most of my second day wandering on my own, checking out the Museum of Ethnographical Studies (or something like that), and making use of the free wifi at my hotel to update this blog. Something tells me I won't see wifi again for a while... ;-) Tomorrow I leave for my first stop... Bahir Dar. I'm taking the local bus... wish me luck. I'm sure I'll get used to public transport here soon but for the first bus journey, I'm a little nervous!
Sorry but I don't have any interesting photots yet.