Crazy Africa (first impressions)

I’ve barely stepped on African land and interesting things are already happening.

But let’s take a step back and start from the beginning.

I calmed down considerably after I got the visa and knew I was going to be able to make my 9pm flight on Monday.

I left home at about 6pm thinking that I would make it to Heathrow in an hour, leaving myself two hours before the flight. I was wrong and I arrived about 15-20mins later and I still had to pick up my suitcase from the Luggage Storage in Arrivals before I could check in.

The bag pick up took a while because the attendant forgot I was waiting and didn’t look in the elevator until I asked him to.

At that point it was a rather brisk walk to Departures and straight to check-in.

Half way through the queue I had a chilling thought. I’d given the travel coordinator responsible for booking my flights my Bulgarian passport and I’d gotten the visa in the Russian one. What if the ticket is linked to Bulgarian passport and I must travel with it and I haven’t got a visa? I quickly looked at the booking and couldn’t see a passport number anywhere. Still I was worried. What if after all this visa effort and I still can’t fly?

I gave the lady behind the desk my Russian passport, hoping that it would be OK. She got my luggage, gave me my boarding passes. I took a deep breath. Phew! It worked.

I headed straight to the gates because there wasn’t all that much time left.

Getting stopped at security for additional checks when you haven’t got much time and there are at least 3 others waiting in front of you is a stressful experience when you are trying to catch a plane. It was all because of my phone and Kindle that I left in the bag. Why didn’t I take them out?!

As soon as that was finished and went to Boots to pick up toothpaste and then it was off to the gate. When I got there, there was no one waiting. Apparently they’d all already gotten on the plane even through there was still a bit of time.

I quickly spoke to Bill and then it was time for me to board as well.

The flight took 7h and I thought it would be very uncomfortable because I had been given a middle seat on a middle row between two rather large gentlemen. Turns out it wasn’t all that bad and I got the best sleep for the whole trip. Food was good, movies were good. Good experience.

I arrived in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia some time in the early morning. Straight away I checked the Departure board to see where my Cotonou flight would leave from but it wasn’t there. I asked a nearby attendant (just like many others!) and she said that it would appear later and I had to go upstairs.

Addis Ababa Airport, Ethiopia

Addis Ababa Airport, Ethiopia

I had at least two hours to kill and there were many soft, comfortable looking reclining chairs around and I settled down for a nap as soon as I found a free one (you can imagine they are a precious commodity at an airport). My nap wasn’t very good, I kept worrying about oversleeping, not hearing my alarm, missing the flight. After some time I felt someone touch my legs, I opened my eyes and the girl next to me was covering me with her blanket. I was a bit cold and I must have looked it. I smiled at her through barely open, sleepy eyes and thought what a lovely, kind gesture this was. I often get people doing nice things for me and everytime it happens I feel blessed and moved to tears by the beauty of it.

Alarm went off, I got up to go and stopped at the Departures board again. Guess what? My flight due to depart in about an hour was still not listed. So I went back to my comfy chair to wait a little longer. It was completely useless because after the ‘little longer’ had come and gone the flight was still not on the board.

There was a Customer Service desk right in front of me so I thought I’d better ask. Turns out my flight was leaving from Gate 1A. It was clearly printed on a sheet of paper on the lady’s desk. I just wonder why wasn’t it on the board?!

I head to security and that all goes OK. On the other side however there’s still nothing that confirms that my flight leaves from Gate 1A. I hear people talking about Benin and I follow them.

We go down a couple of lights of stairs to a hall full of people and still no indication what’s what. There are people waiting by Gate 1A and I don’t know whether I should walk up to the desk, or wait for my turn. No idea.

I see people just walking up so I walk up too. I get a yellow sticker on my boarding pass and get asked to go back to the crowd and wait. Eventually a little bus parks in front of the gate, I get my boarding pass checked again, walk out, think ‘Wow! It’s burning hot!’, and climb onto the bus.

It’s a small Ethiopian Airlines plane. I find my seat, it is still not by the window (my favourite because I can lean on the wall and sleep through the whole flight) but it is an isle seat which is an improvement. There are some bags next to the window until a lady comes to pick them up and I am left with three seats all to myself! I didn’t waste any time making myself comfortable and after a small snack I feel asleep. Again it wasn’t a great nap but still.

Boarding the plane to Cotonou, Benin at Addis Ababa Airport, Ethiopia

Boarding the plane to Cotonou, Benin at Addis Ababa Airport, Ethiopia

Just when I thought that there will be no food served on a 5h flight, the food arrived. Another nice meal, curry chicken with rice, bean salad, some fruity, light creamy thing for dessert. And then it was read and nap time again.

This is where my day starts to get really interesting.

I get off the plane and my first thought is ‘Damn! It is hot and muggy!’. But first the stewardesses were asking everyone for their boarding passes as we were leaving the plane (strange), then there was a uniformed guy was wanted to se them as well, just two steps after the stewardesses had already seen them (strange) then there were men standing at the bottom of the stairs with a ‘Transfers’ and pick up boards (not sure why there weren’t any Transfer signs in the airport).

We go into the airport, I fill in an immigration card, and head to the passport control booths (I was the first which ahs never happened before anywhere) and I get stopped by a lady who looks like a cleaner. She is asking me for my yellow passport and I figure she is a medic wanting to check my yellow fever vaccination. Then I get my passport stamped by the uniformed official behind the glass (which only took a minute) and I head out.

Then some random guy in civilian clothes and his two buddies ask for my passport again. I am in shock as to why they need to see it after it has just been stamped by the official but I give it to them anyway. Immediately I think ‘You idiot! Shouldn’t have given it to them!’. I get it back luckily and I walk out. Then there’s customs control but they are chatting to what look like passenger and since there’s no indication as to the procedure I need to follow I decide to walk on. I don’t get stopped.

Then I pick up my luggage and I am happy that it hasn’t been lost. Then a couple of young ladies stop me and ask for the luggage stickers I got at check in in London as well as the labels on the suitcases (strange). It’s never happened before and why would they need them anyway. I decide not to ask questions which may delay my leaving the airport.

Then I am out into a dark hall and I don’t see anyone waiting for me. I keep walking and hoping. I keep walking until I find myself on the street and there he is, my driver. Phew! Just in time.

He puts my luggage in a company car, asks me to get in, puts the radio and the A/C on and leaves. By this point he’s said ‘Welcome!’ at least five times and I am running out of suitable but non-repetitive responses.

Hotel is only a short drive away. We arrive, I want to get my suitcases but he tells me to just walk in. I do. I tell reception who I am, fill out a card, get told that I temporarily get a VIP room until a standard one becomes available, I nod, I don’t care. I make a move to get my suitcases and get ushered into the lift without them. The concierge apparently will meet me at the room. Hopefully with my luggage.

VIP hotel room at the Best Western Plus in Cotonou, Benin

VIP hotel room at the Best Western Plus in Cotonou, Benin

I enter the VIP room and think it is big, it is African and it is not as nice as the one I had in Beirut. Still perfectly adequate. I leave the door open for the concierge, thinking he would just come in. No, he rings the bell. He looks like a nice person, I like him, he places my suitcases in the room, I watch him, thinking I don’t have any local cash to give him a tip, I feel guilty. He looks at me, smiles, I smile and say thank you and he walks out. I must remember to give him a tip when I see him next. Speaking of money I found out that GBP 1 = CFA 821. Just a random fact.

Benin money (CFA)

Benin money (CFA)

My first job was to drink water. I was dehydrated. Then I took a photo of the VIP room knowing that at least my parents would want to see it. Then I changed channels on the TV trying to find English-speaking programs. Eventually after watching National Geographic in French I found three English channels and had some fun with some local music programs.

I unpacked a tiny bit, no point to do it properly if I will be moving who knows when. I spent some time fighting for my Internet connection and mainly kept losing.

Then the door bell ran again and before I managed to walk to the door someone tried to walk in. Good thing I’d locked it! I opened the door and there stood some random guy, in civilian clothes again, hugging a tool box. He apparently wanted to check/fix/clean the AC. I thought ‘Who the f*** are you?!’ but said politely that I would check with reception as I wasn’t aware of any maintenance and as soon as that’s confirmed he can come in. He walked away. I phoned reception and to my surprise they confirmed! Random AC guy didn’t come back.

I looked out the window and there was what looked liked an abandoned building site staring back at me. Some gorgeous palm trees to my left, a lady sat in the red dirt washing her feet with a bucket, and another lady balancing a massive basket on her head while carrying a bucket in one hand. One of the two guys she was with helped her get the basket up and gently placed the bucket in her hand but didn’t seem to be willing to carry them for her. Lady wore a colorful traditional outfit.

View from VIP hotel room

View from VIP hotel room

I was most certainly in Africa.

After a while I got hungry. I was debating whether to order room service or walk down to one of the two restaurants downstairs. I walked down.

The main restaurant (the buffet one) didn’t seem to be serving food so I walked to the snack one but then thought I didn’t want a burger so I walked back to buffet restaurant and asked if they served food. They didn’t and I was sent back to snack restaurant. I asked if I could get something to eat and got a one word response from what I now call the ’bad attitude lady’ behind the counter.

I was immediately surrounded by guys, not nice. Still they gave me a menu and asked me to sit down. There seemed to be an awful lot of people just hanging around while not doing much. Eventually I ordered and was a bit worried whether I should be eating the food. Didn’t seem all that fresh. I was pleasantly surprised when a huge portion of freshly cooked steamy rice with chicken and veggies was placed in front of me.

Chicken with rice at hotel

Chicken with rice at hotel

I talked to friends, wrote, drank Coke and eventually asked for the bill but only after I had managed to almost completely disappear the huge portion of rice. Good for my get-a-little-bit fatter plan.

I asked that it be put on the room which was OK according to the waiter but produced and angry response from the ‘bad attitude lady’. I walked up to the counter and she not-so-kindly explained that if I wanted the bill put on the room, I had to tell her before I ate. Now that I have eaten (and she gave my nearly empty plate a disgusted look) I had to pay.

I walked into the lobby where not one but two cash machine were prominently placed, got out a wad of brand, spanking new money and headed back to settle the bill with the ‘bad attitude lady’.

The random guys who stood at the bar earlier somehow reappeared again. He saw me with the money and wanted a note for himself. To buy fuel for his car. I told him they were all for me and we all laughed. Turns out ‘bad attitude lady’ could smile. He kept insisting and I came back with witty responses for a while, we were still laughing until I ran out of responses and walked out. Then they laughed again. Their private joke had succeeded.

I am now sat in the lobby which smells of chemical air freshners. Everywhere smells of it. And I am enjoying a somewhat stable Wi-Fi. Alleluia!

Plan for the rest of the evening – write, watch films, rest, shower, talk to friends and family. Work pick up at 7.30am tomorrow morning.

Let the fun begin!

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