This is Africa…

Whatever I had heard about Sub-Saharan Africa couldn’t have prepared me…for the airport. Something as simple as boarding the plane in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia set a rather inauspicious tone for our African adventure.

Our first clue? We entered into the departure waiting area a solid hour after the monitor showed our flight “departed” in red letters.

During that hour, we craned our necks and searched for a uniformed agent. Though the photo below suggests that the tall man, a bit left of center in the background, was likely handling the situation, we couldn’t surmise much from our vantage point. A few other travelers pushing toward the entry gate with us were also ticketed to Madagascar.  Jorge found a surprisingly calm traveler, also crammed into the glass corral with us. She was a Malagasy woman, unfazed by the hustling, the pushy elbows, the jostled packs, and of course, our “departed” plane.

“This is Africa,” I whispered in Abigail’s ear.

Waiting in the crowd with travelers in Addis Ababa.

According to the monitor, the flight to Antananarivo had already boarded, closed and departed. Though this image doesn’t fully capture the sea of bodies, travelers to Karthoum, Mahe Island, Lubumbashi (DRC) and Dar es Salam also crowded into the narrow cattle shoot with us.

Until today, we found that even the smallest, poorest countries maintain some modicum of Western decorum, not to mention standards, when it comes to air travel. But not here.

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Leave it to fatigue, sun, jet fuel fumes and a hollering guard to produce those forced smiles.

Arriving in Antananarivo, we marched across the tarmac. Once inside, we waited at immigration, aghast as people walked to the head of the line to stand in front of other travelers cueing behind the yellow line. How can anyone so brashly cross into the “DMZ of immigration”–between the yellow line and the stamping guard, encased behind glass?

Dylan looked at me aghast at the scenario. I mouthed quietly in his direction, “This is Africa.”

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Seeing a small figure perched on the runway, Abigail commented that the Addis Ababa airport tarmac may be disturbingly short on traffic cones.

After a cursory nod from immigration, we found the airport’s only luggage carrousel. It was already chocked two layers thick with travelers pushing their carts up to the perimeter, completely blocking access for anyone else.

We waited. No sooner did the occasional traveler retrieve their bag than the newly created sliver of space was filled by another cart.

This time quietly to myself, and to whichever beleaguered child rested their head on the luggage cart: “This is Africa.”

Having rushed to stand and wait, we blankly stared as the plodding carousel heaved bag after bag around in a Sisyphean snake.

The irony of it all was how pushy everyone had been to disembark, rush across the tarmac and cue in line for immigration. At times, I was literally pushed from behind if I allowed too much personal space.

Eventually, our lost-luggage fears assuaged, we heaved our cart through customs to find our patiently waiting driver with a placard announcing “Jorge Herrada Family.” I’m sure he thought nothing of the airport mayhem, though he convincingly and sympathetically conceded to our Western frustration.

With just a few days on the road, culture shock unsettles our predictable lives. We’ll adjust our pace, calibrate our expectations and search for the Africa beyond the lines and disorganization.

This is Africa. 

If you go…

  • Master the Layover. As of 2016, Ethiopian Air runs from Addis Ababa to Madagascar to South Africa, code sharing with United. Even with our 25 day lay-over, this is considered one flight. Great deal for getting to Madagascar, and then continuing to South Africa.
  • Stateside Visa? Securing a Malagasy visa in advance was easy for us since we live just a few miles from their Embassy in Washington, D.C. That being said, we ended up waiting as long as everyone else–just not standing in line. Most people shuffled through the visa cue before we retrieved our luggage.
  • Visa upon Arrival. If you select to secure a visa upon arrival, bring a passport-sized photo and the correct currency for payment, generally Euros.
  • Leave it Home. Complaining falls on deaf ears. On the plane, I asked about a stain on my seat which looked wet. Later, I asked for a few crackers for Abigail, also to no satisfaction. Appropriately shamed, the “entitled white girl” in me quickly learned to check such petty concerns.
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