I had been looking at a discount travel website at my friend’s apartment in South London: this is the part of the story when seasoned travellers smile to themselves knowing that there is usually a reason why something is cheap. And I really began to wonder whether I had done the right thing when I got to the Ethiopian Airlines boarding gate at Heathrow Airport and took in the musty smell and the well-worn carpet.
The plane was packed and noisy. Two male voices behind me were having a loud and apparently hilarious conversation, while another man barked across the aisle at the two women in front of me.
I hoped to find refuge in the entertainment centre — a single screen mounted in the middle of the plane showing an ancient Billy Crystal movie — but it froze so often and with such a jarring buzz that it was unwatchable. I switched the audio to something that sounded like Middle Eastern elevator music and decided to read the Harper’s Bazaar magazine I had bought at the airport.
I began to enjoy the incongruity of reading about the symbolism of the flowers in the Duchess of Cambridge’s bouquet while looking up to see a man yanking hairs out of his nose between his thumb and forefinger. I had by now drunk two glasses of wine and we were being served a very good chicken tagine.
Unfortunately, it was all downhill from there. Having exhausted all entertainment by finishing my magazine, I had no option but to try to sleep. But as the lights were dimmed, the plane seemed to get hotter by the second and everyone in the vicinity found it necessary to manhandle the back of my chair and shake all the goodwill out of me.
Still, I persevered and clenched my irritated eyes shut until, after too short a reprieve, the smiling air hostesses turned up the lights and began serving breakfast and the jabbering around me revived itself. I took some consolation in the fact that we would soon land in Addis Ababa.
Addis Ababa Bole International Airport has a hangar-like ambience, its high roof supported by iron girders. One of the first things visitors will see is a multitude of melamine recliners, which probably accounts for the airport being voted number four in the Africa section on sleepinginairports.net.
Just looking at them made me feel sleep-deprived, but I only had a two-hour layover and I thought it would be wise to stay awake and not miss my connection to Johannesburg.
I detoured past some of the airport shops — a stall displaying wooden bowls containing a kind of potpourri of dried and tied leaves, a souvenir T-shirt shop and a café where in-transit travellers sat smoking over coffees.
This didn’t take long, so I sat down and watched a tiny television play a loop of what may have been a safe-sex promo: attractive youths bounded around, pointing at a small, square box. It may also have been a chewing gum advert.
When I was their age, I thought, I really did do discount travel — 18-hour bus rides that reeked of fried chicken on my way back to university. Maybe, I thought, this discount travel thing has a window that must close … sometime.
I boarded the second plane with the morning sun radiating off the tarmac. Inside, I am happy to report, the seats were half empty and equipped with impressive entertainment centres.
I made my way to my appointed place at the back of the plane, closed my eyes in the beautiful silence and resolved only to open them when I touched down in Johannesburg.