Tuesday, August 10, 2010

5 - A Light at the End of the Colon

Three days to D-day. I phone the Congo consulate for my passport.

‘I'm sorry, the person who's meant to sign it is not here,’ quoths the lady.


‘I’m sure he’ll be in some time.’

The following day, the Congolese consulate delivers up the passport, the visa duly stamped in. I just have time to go off to the Ethiopian consulate for a multi-entry visa. I’m flying to Angola via Ethiopian Airlines and you can get a visa at Addis Ababa airport on arrival, but I’ll be entering the country several times, including overland, so I need the multi-entry. As for the Djibouti visa, there’s no time left to get one at the Washington consulate. But I can also do that at the airport on arrival.

I'm on a roll; I'm on my way Heart of Darkness-wards. Instead of getting a $140 flight from New York to Washington Dulles, from where Ethiopian Airlines leaves for its Addis Ababa hub, I'm taking the De Luxe DC Trails bus ($25) to a Washington metro station, then the metro ($2.65) to West Falls Church, from where the Washington Flyer, a $10 shuttle, goes regularly to Dulles (savings - $102). There's a total melee on 34th street where the bus leaves; everybody's pushing in front of everybody else and getting jammed in the doorway. Talk about Scramble for Africa even if yours truly, valiantly parrying the blows of the pushers (where's my umbrella?), is the only one actually scrambling to the dark continent.

'Ever any madness in your family?' he asked in a matter of fact tone. I felt very annoyed. 'Is that question in the interests of science too?' - Conrad, Heart of Darkness

Everything goes fine till we get to the Washington outskirts, when a car overtakes us and blocks our way; we come to a halt and a decrepit ancient gent (so it can't be a hijacking) agonisingly eases his way out, comes aboard and gives us tickets for our e-mail bookings. The whole time we're stationary. It takes him at least 20 minutes while he creaks around - it's a wonder he doesn't drop dead before completion. What a novel way, in the age of high technology, to complicate a simple ticket operation!

Now, this being Saturday, they're working on the metro line between East Falls Church and West Falls Church, replacing it with a bus shuttle. So now it's 'take the shuttle to the shuttle.' But the Washington metro guys certainly put on a great service, with people everywhere guiding you where to go, all at a quick clip.

At Dulles everything goes smoothly - more or less; likewise once we’re on board the Boeing 767 until… Well, it's not my fault the lady didn't lock the toilet door, is it. What a shriek she lets out, too. Then there are the screeching babies in the row ahead, trying out all sorts of variations of high octane squawks and squeaks – that is when they're not, furiously and repeatedly, pressing the flight attendants' bell.

Other than that the Ethiopian Airlines flight is good if slightly cramped, with pleasant staff. Down beneath us, interminable ridge and furrow after interminable ridge and furrow of the Libyan and Western deserts unfurl, succeeded by the snaking slate-grey ribbon of the Nile, totally devoid of the narrow band of exuberantly emerald fertility that flanks it in lower Egypt. As for the passengers, they're very well house-trained - a lot of them bring their finished food trays up front instead of waiting for the cart to come round.

A little note of melodrama intrudes when a steward spills a tray of pineapple juice and water down a suited gent - but it's the gent's fault; he grabs at it as though it were the Holy Grail. Anyway, he deserves it, too; at Dulles he kept a whole lot of us waiting in the aisle while he spent hours trying to stuff his too large hand luggage into a too small bin.

At last, after about 16 hours, we land - and the pilot gets a round of caterwauling whoops, cheers and applause.

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