Airport layovers are a weird kind of purgatory. The period spent in limbo between where you came from and where you’re going to is often in a timezone that has no bearing on either your point of origin or your destination. I usually find thay this leaves me disorientated and unsure as to whether I should be sleeping or awake.
The relationship you build with the place you’re transferring through is also an unusual one. The window of opportunity to form impressions is limited to the short time prior to landing and after take-off. Other opinions will naturally form based on your time on the airport, even though it is far from an accurate marker of a place.
Addis airport is an odd one. On the way out I transferred through tiny, scruffy terminal one, which reminded me of the service station canteens we used to stop off at in the middle of the night on long-distance bus journeys in Indonesia.
On the way back though I transferred through terminal two, which is like a once-shiny mall now infused with a vaguely yellow, vaguely grubby hue suggestive of tobacco and fatigue.
These hubs, they serve as meeting points for the most unlikely collections of people.
Addis terminal two is no different. There are jumped-up businessmen having their photos taken next to the models on the billboard at duty free; there are groups of super-trendy European kids, some with their parents, some just chilling in little gangs like they chose Ethiopia over Wakestock; there are more jumped-up businessmen of all nationalities smoking defiantly; there are there are at least two white couples carrying Ethiopian babies, and two of those babies are twins.
By chance, the man I end up sitting next to it just so happens is a journalist too and is catching the same flight as me back to London. We talk for a while about African politics, journalism in Africa and the joys and frustrations of Africa as a whole. We swap business cards and he buys me a bottle of water — I am hugely grateful.
This is not Ethiopia, and yet these few lost hours in terminal two of Addis Ababa airport are representative of the only time I have ever spent in Ethiopia, may ever spend in Ethiopia.
I think of the dusty archive of travel magazines in my bedroom at home and all the articles I’ve read about tracking wolves in the Ethiopian highlands, roving around the castles and rock-hewn churches of Gondar and Lalibela, tracing the Lower Omo towards Lake Turkana and the Blue Nile towards Lake Tana. My mind wanders out of the terminal, across the tarmac and hops the boundary fence.
Beyond lies Addis, which appeared to me on my descent as infinite — an immense blaze in the darkness. Not often the subject of travel literature, Addis is nevertheless close, vast and mysterious, thus making it irresistible.
I didn’t see it in the light; not really. On my way out I awoke almost as we hit the tarmac and we took off again in the wrong direction. And so Addis Ababa joins Dubai on the list of cities I have seen only through panes of glass not much bigger than my face, their outlines glimmering in the darkness. These shapes, I imagine, will continue to play on my mind until the day comes — if it ever does — when I can see them in the light and feel the heat rising off their streets as my feet fall upon them.
For now though I must be content with watching the night go by; watching the silent, big-screen PowerPoint presentations about Ethiopia’s endemic mammal species; watching the other people, who just like me are watching — watching and waiting until they can do what they came here to do and board the flight to their final destination.