On August 30 I returned to Ethiopia after a 2-year absence. During the trip I hope to post impressions and comments as time and internet access permit.


An early Sunday morning flight from Dulles for the direct connection to Addis with just a refueling stop in Rome, no one allowed off, so it’s about 14 hours on the plane. I was early, so the shuttle that Dulles still uses to take you to the boarding gate was nearly empty. As the doors were about to close, seven dazzling Queens of Sheba sauntered in, followed by four slender, handsome men . . . my flight crew on ET 503. It felt like I was already there. That feeling was confirmed when it turned out that the air conditioning at EAL’s gate was out. By the time we boarded we were all soaked.

The plane broke through the heavy clouds above rainy season Addis barely 30 seconds from landing. The captain got a big round of applause.

The old terminal at Bole Airport is right next to the new one and looks like a Lego toy. The new terminal is big, but it looks like Ethiopian Airlines will soon outgrow it. There were 8 Boeings parked, one was waiting to take off and soon after we landed, another EAL flight arrived. No other airlines had flights that morning, but the place was buzzing. Waiting at immigration, the flashing lights at the luggage pickups showed that flights had just arrived from Bombay, Nairobi, Saudi Arabia and Duba , plus 5–6 domestic arrivals.

An announcement on the plane had told us to declare our foreign currency, and that we would have to prove that we had legally changed what we were not taking out. Ethiopia has a severe shortage of foreign exchange. But there were no forms for the declaration and the official who stamped my passport didn’t ask about it. I expect trouble when I leave . . .

Coming through security, I was asked if my bags had been x-rayed. I had to find the scanner myself, which was unattended, load the bags and then leave. No problem. Customs clearance was even easier. There wasn’t any.

The waiting area outside was crowded, but I was one of the lucky people whose name was on a card. The driver and I walked out into the brilliant sunshine and cool air after an early morning rain. There were heavy clouds over Entoto just north of the city, and the promised rain came a few hours later . . . not too heavy though because the rainy season is winding down. Every inch of open ground was green or covered with blossoms. Every inch of road was covered with traffic. The streets from the airport are now fully lined with cafes, shops, kiosks along the 4 kilometers of Bole Road (from Bole Airport, in the upscale part of town called Bole). But there was no order or sense to it, no planning, no zoning. And no restrictions on size or placement of billboards and signs, so they are jammed in almost too close to read. One big change — no sheep or cattle on the main road in Bole. Even 5 years ago that was still a common sight.

The air grew steadily fouler with diesel fumes as we left the airport, which is on the southern edge of Addis. The sparkling highland air is history, with only the smell of eucalyptus leaves and a hint of the smoke from dung from cooking fires. Addis (population estimate: around 5 million) is now one of the global cities where breathing feels lethal.

My host lives in Bole and works for an NGO, so the trip was a short one. At the home there was no power — a big problem in Addis. More about that another time. My host’s house has a generator for use at night.

A small cup of strong coffee and I was ready for the day.