Friday, 15 June 2018

Eighteen Hours in Ethiopia

It has been a tumultuous few months. I’ve never had reason to use that word, it always seems a little grand to describe most situations, but in this case, I think it fits.

As you will remember, our last few weeks in Asia last winter were less than ideal. We spent most of them sat nursing various ailments in hotel rooms, feeling thoroughly run down and miserable before finally admitting defeat and heading back to our respective homes.

As I also mentioned, I had a long layover in Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia, on the way home. As tired and miserable as I felt at that point, I have to say I was pleasantly surprised by this place that was so different and alien to me. Ethiopian Airlines very generously provide a hotel room, transfers to and from the airport and as much buffet food as you can eat if you have a layover of six hours or more between two of their flights. Figuring that I might as well make the most of my 18 hours there, I joined the immigration queue upon landing and found myself standing next to a young Israeli couple on their way home after a long trip around Asia. We got talking and quickly discovered that we had reservations in the same hotel. After navigating a system made much more complicated than it needed to be and having to run up and down stairs a few times to get the required passes and stickers and little coloured cards, we were finally released into the warm East African morning sun.

The first thing that hit me was how friendly everyone we met was, probably amplified further by the unfriendliness we had experienced through most of the winter. We quickly identified where we would need to wait for our shuttle bus and before we knew it we were on our way through the quiet streets to the other side of town, arriving at our hotel a couple of hours after we had landed. Breakfast was awaiting us, served by the most attentive staff I’ve ever met. For something we weren’t paying for, I fully expected to be picking over what was left from an earlier shift, but no, everything was freshly cooked for us and once served, the waiting staff hovered nervously in case there was anything else we should request. After a quick power nap, we decided to hit the town.

Having done some reading in the few days before my flight I realised it was big business for local ‘tour guides’ to offer day trips to locations around the city. Most ran at around £150 per person for a few hours, much more than I was prepared to pay. I’d read that there wasn’t a great deal to see in the city, certainly nothing that justified £150 for a glorified taxi ride, and that it was easy enough to move around independently, so this is what we did.    

With my new Israeli friends, we decided that the Red Terror Museum sounded interesting and that there must be a bus we could catch to get there. First though, we’d have to acquire some local money. Ethiopia operates a closed currency, the Birr, and it is apparently illegal to take more than 200 Birr out of the country when you leave. With this in mind, and after having to walk some distance to find a working ATM, I withdrew 500 Birr (just under £14), my plan being to have enough to last me the day, but little enough left over to allow me to take a couple of small bills home as a souvenir.

With cash now in our pockets, we found ourselves standing alongside what appeared to be a light rail line. I should probably explain that this was the last thing we’d expected to see. Running through the middle of dirt streets with no pavements, skirting scruffy markets with traders sat on the kerb selling small basketfuls of vegetables, the light rail wouldn’t have looked out of place in any modern city in the first world. Gleaming trains with spotless interiors, comfortable seats and announcements in English were not what we had expected to find. After a brief search for a ticket booth, which turned out to be a small scruffy shack next to the bank, we had tickets to a stop that the seller assured us was nearest the museum for just 2 Birr each. Or five pence. We boarded the train, smiling in reply to the curious glances we were receiving from the locals. It’s clear most foreigners take the organised tour option and we were certainly a novelty.

Upon leaving the train we picked up our first proper hawker of the day. An overly friendly young man tagged along as we walked the few blocks to the museum, trying to fill us with as much information as he could summon despite our polite protestations that we did not need his assistance or guidance. Nonetheless, he followed us right to the door, telling us he would wait for us until we were done and then he would take us to see a monument nearby. Again, we declined, but he sat himself down on the wall and made himself comfortable, deaf to our deflection.

The museum was both interesting and harrowing, much in the same vein as the Killing Fields in Cambodia, and of course Auschwitz in Poland. We were welcomed warmly by the curator of the museum, thanked for coming and left to wander and view the exhibits at our leisure. Amongst the usual faded photographs and artefacts were cases containing skulls and personal belongings of some of the estimated half a million victims of the regime, murdered during the two years that followed the overthrowing of the ruling emperor by communist Mengistu Haile Mariam, and rule passing to the Dergue, a military junta, the result being another horrific genocide in living memory.

We were all in a quiet and reflective mood as we left the museum an hour or so later, so we were not happy to immediately be jumped upon by our new friend, as eager as ever to persuade us to accompany him to whatever it was he wanted us to see. After a final firm ‘thank you, but no thank you’ his demeanour changed completely. He hissed something at us about wasting his time and then, rather unnecessarily, he added ‘watch yourselves, you wouldn’t like to get robbed and your phones and money taken’ before skulking away. Luckily this was the only small bit of negativity we experienced in our short visit and he didn’t turn out to be representative of the local people in general.

Immediately next to the museum there was a long stretch of bunting leading up a hill to what looked like an entrance. Asking around, the only response we got was that it was the ‘Expo’. Curious, we followed the path up the hill along with hundreds of locals. Soon enough we arrived at an entrance point where we were asked for 20 Birr each that we paid willingly, despite having no idea at all what it was we were paying for or what we would find inside.

As it turns out, an ‘Expo’ in Addis Ababa is a grand name for a trade fair. What we found when we entered were a number of stands selling pretty much everything you could imagine, only in the case of clothing, textiles and household gadgets, the cheapest and poorest quality examples I’ve ever seen. As we wandered, the only white folks in the place, we drew attention, but not in a bad way. Stall holders tripped over themselves to demonstrate their wheeled suitcases that appeared to be made of cardboard stuck together with copydex. They tried to convince us that we needed to buy their floor standing industrial-sized water bottle holders, all the while laughing and joking, knowing we wouldn’t, before passing us along to the next stand for the whole circus to start again. We ate tasty fried snacks from trays held high in the air by passing waiters and sampled locally produced coffee. I have no idea what these things cost, but it was fractions of pence. We stopped a while by a central arena where we were brought plastic cups of local beer for about 15 pence a pint. After trying to spend some of our Birr on souvenirs and gifts for friends and family, we realised our time was running short and so sadly we left the festivities behind and headed for the train.

Toilet roll 20p...Beer 15p...

Unlike our relatively luxurious journey to the museum, we hadn’t factored in that our departure from the Expo coincided with the end of a local football match and so we soon found ourselves standing on a packed platform full of football fans returning home from the game, draped in brightly coloured flags and creating the kind of buzz you’d find after the local team has won a game anywhere in the world. We caught the attention of a group of young guys who were in particularly high spirits and soon we were muddling our way through a conversation of sorts that mostly consisted of saying aloud the names of famous footballers from England to which a great cheer would go up when it was someone they recognised.

Shortly after, the first train arrived and it became clear we weren’t getting on it. These trains made rush hour in Mexico City look like a walk in the park. Already packed to the rafters, a few lucky(?) people were unceremoniously shoved through the open doors and held in as the doors shut behind them, before the train moved away leaving almost all the people waiting on the platform behind. The conversation started again and this was repeated as the next three or four trains arrived and departed without collecting any of us. Realising that we couldn’t just keep doing this for hours on end, we vowed to make it on to the next train. As it arrived and we moved forward, our new friends, all twenty or so of them, decided that if we were getting on, they were too. With the help of a friendly police officer who seemed to find the whole affair endlessly amusing, we were all crammed into a compartment and off we set. For the next sixteen stops we provided a source of entertainment for the entire carriage as we held a group English lesson and in return were taught a handful of words in Amharic.

Back at the hotel more food was served and shortly after, my new Israeli friends left to catch their earlier flight. This left me just enough time for a shower, more food and another nap before a phone call from reception advised me that my shuttle awaited downstairs. I’ve never known an airline lay on such a service and I can highly recommend them should you ever have the opportunity to fly with them. I’ll certainly consider a layover in Africa next time I’m heading over to Asia. Despite a delay of a couple of hours on my flight, I was soon airborne and on my way back to the tail end of winter in England, a couple of months ahead of schedule.

Stansted airport's foggy welcome home.

Upon arriving home my first priority became to rid myself of whatever had taken up residence in my stomach for the past couple of months. Tests showed precisely nothing, yet the fact that I could never be too far away from a bathroom and that my stomach was behaving like an old, grumbling cement mixer constantly reminded me that something was still not right. A week or two later Evan received a call to say he’d had a positive test for Giardiasis and was prescribed some antibiotics. I immediately headed down to my GP surgery and got a supply of the same. Ironically the following week I received a call to say that a second set of tests had shown Campylobacter in my system and so I received a second batch of pills to take on top of the first. I’m pleased to say that a couple of weeks later, after more than three months of trouble, I was finally free of my gremlins.

That wasn’t the end of my medical issues though. For some time I had been ignoring a growth on my thyroid, I guess I had been hoping that it would just go away on its own, but after having several people ask me about it while I was away this winter, including a border officer at the checkpoint as we entered Nepal bringing it up in random conversation, I realised that the lump had indeed grown to a size that required looking at. I finally bit the bullet and went to see my doctor. He agreed straight away that it did indeed require investigation and set about referring me to an ENT surgeon as an ‘urgent’ case. A week or so later I met with an extremely laid back and friendly surgeon who recommended I have an ultrasound scan and possibly a biopsy, but reassured me that they’d get to the bottom of whatever it was and deal with it accordingly. He sent me away saying that I would be contacted in due course by the department responsible for scans. It was a little unnerving to receive a phone call from them only an hour later asking me to come in the next day. The ultrasound technician said she didn’t see anything that concerned her, but due to the size of the lump, 5cm in diameter apparently, she took a needle biopsy as a precaution.

I should say at this point that all the way through this process I hadn’t been in the slightest bit concerned about any of it. I’ve never been one to visit the doctor unnecessarily, in fact I’ll avoid it if I possibly can, but on this occasion it seemed like time was up on this particular issue and it clearly wasn’t going away on its own. To illustrate my point, the last time I went to see my doctor before this, I went to the reception to ask for an appointment and when I gave my doctor’s name, the receptionist looked at me strangely before telling me that he had left more than ten years previously!

A couple of weeks later I received a letter in the post one morning. Expecting it to be notifying me of my test results, I was a little startled to find it was an appointment to attend for surgery two weeks later. No explanation of why or what my biopsy had shown. Half an hour later the hospital called to confirm a second pre-admission appointment a week later, but frustratingly, they could not give me any details of my results, advising me that I would have to speak to my consultant at an appointment I had a few days later. I was obviously a little apprehensive when I attended this, but again the surgeon was very reassuring and explained that my biopsy had shown some suspicious cells and that the only way they could be sure what they were dealing with, was to remove the growth and half of my thyroid. When I explained that I already knew this because I had received notification of a surgery date, his mouth dropped open and he apologised profusely that this had happened. Seeing that I wasn’t upset about it, he later smiled and quipped that for a service that was always being criticised for its long waiting lists and delays, the NHS had obviously been very efficient in this instance!

Eventually the surgery date came round and as my surgery time was late in the afternoon I was told I’d have to stay in overnight. Again, every single member of staff involved was lovely and I was made to feel completely at ease. The anaesthetist it turned out was a biker and it was half way through his story about an accident he had had that had caused him to lose his nerve for riding that I must have lost consciousness because I never did hear the end of the story. Two and a half hours later I came round and was moved up to the ward for the night, feeling surprisingly ok, in very little pain, but quite uncomfortable. The following day, after a night of being woken every half an hour for my blood pressure to be checked and my temperature taken (and a random cup of tea at 2am?!) I was discharged the following afternoon.

Reassuring arrow to ensure I didn't come out minus a leg...

It seems the catering hasn't improved since I used to temp there as a kid serving ward meals!

Removal was non-negotiable, tape was a compromise.

My luxury ensuite room!

I can't recommend NHS tea or hot chocolate, but the service was amazing!

That was now almost three weeks ago and I’m pleased to say I have healed remarkably well. A week after surgery my stitches were removed, which was most excruciatingly painful part of the whole procedure, second only to having the drain they had had to insert during surgery removed the following morning. Apparently I heal very quickly and this only made the experience worse. I’m still a bit uncomfortable at times and get tired very quickly, but hopefully that can be corrected if need be with medication over the next few weeks. Having fortunately received an all clear on my post-surgery pathology last week, my biggest concern at this point is a significant weakness in my voice, a common side effect of this kind of surgery, which hopefully will improve in time. Some have said that my inability to make myself heard or talk for more than an hour or so without losing my voice isn’t a bad thing…

Two days...

Two weeks...

So what’s next? Honestly, I really don’t know at this point. Evan is obviously back in Canada trying to figure out his own set of medical challenges and we both need a bit of time now to heal and get well again.

It’s at this point that I’ve been stuck for a few days now and have at various points in time written several different endings to this post. Did you ever read the ‘Choose your own adventure’ books when you were a kid? They were the ones where every so often you’d reach a point in the story where you’d be given a choice to make. If you decided to take the path to the left and follow the cat then you had to turn to page 56 and continue reading. If you chose to turn around and retrace your footsteps, you had to go to page 114. Eventually, the ending to the story would be revealed depending on the choices you made at each junction.

The trouble I’m having with the ‘what happens next’ part at the moment is that I’m not fully in control of making those choices. Medical issues obviously still come into the equation too at this point, but hopefully those will soon disappear. There are lots of factors involved and often from one day to the next I find myself leaning towards different paths. I’m also not the only one whose decisions affect the direction the story will take next.

All I can say for now is that I’m fairly certain that there will be another adventure at some point. It will no doubt involve motorbikes and travelling to far flung places. It will certainly involve a whole lot more care being taken over what is eaten and drunk! The rest of the details are, at this time, still a little fuzzy and undecided, but hopefully it won’t be too long before a plan starts to come together, whatever that may be. This last winter really knocked us both for six, but it hasn’t dampened either of our spirits in regards to getting back out there and exploring some more of this beautiful planet.

Watch this space, I’ll keep you posted.


  1. You are an amazingly beautiful person Caroline......One day we will meet and have a cup of tea.......