I went from my wife saying "it would be nice if you could travel somewhere with (nephew) Nathan before he starts college" to "welcome aboard Ethiopian Airlines flight 533 to Addis Ababa" in less than 3 weeks.
It started with one of the most wonderful questions in the world: “where in the world should we go?” Nathan and I considered getting off the tourist path and heading to Madagascar for the unique wildlife or the Seychelles islands for world-class scuba diving, or knocking off a Wonder of the World in Egypt or watching the sun rise over Machu Picchu in Peru. But the siren song of an African safari kept keening gently in the background, so it had to be somewhere with lions and tigers (and cheetahs, oh my!). But then… where in Africa? There are so many wonderful options, but after reading online tales about trekking through the jungle to witness rare and endangered mountain gorillas — the King Kong of our cousins — in the wild, well, that would satisfy our desire for adventure and check the “once in a lifetime” box on the bucket list.
As Sir Winston Churchill described it, “The Pearl of Africa.” Uganda.
Destination locked in, what followed was a flurry of inoculations (yellow fever and malaria are still very real problems on the continent), hunting for reasonable airfares, and convincing my bank that my wire transfer to an office in Entebbe was not attempted money laundering (apparently I was their first client to ever send funds to Uganda).
And, to capitalize on flying over 20 hours to get to central Africa, we cast a net for nearby white-sand beaches and reeled in Zanzibar (the name reeks exoticness, conjuring scents in the sense of the best spices) for some snorkelling, seafood and perhaps scuba.
Things moved so quickly I couldn’t find a travel agent with Ugandan experience, so all the planning was on my shoulders. This saved some fees, but as you know, you often get what you pay for…
It only started to feel “real” the day before departure, with an outfitting excursion where I discovered anti-mosquito clothing (props to Marks), and then the local pharmacist seemed quite nervous when I visited just before closing to request a PCR test. “I can’t promise you’ll have the results in time for your flight tomorrow, but I’ll request a priority turnaround” he grimaced before shoving a swab up in to my cerebral cortex, making me grimace even harder. With one nostril opened up wider than I’d ever thought possible, I enjoyed a great night’s sleep, and next morning threw my backpack in my brother’s SUV, and the three of us headed to Pearson Airport.
Less than an hour later we rolled up to the departure gate, and it felt adventurous to stop not at the first door marked “Air Canada” as per usual, but all the way to the end where we found the “Air Ethiopia” sign. And, magically, with a wonderful “ding” our PCR test results arrived via text message. Both results stated “Negative”; the possibility of receiving a “Positive” result (even if it was a false positive) had never crossed my mind. Sometimes ignorance is bliss, because with the wrong result our trip-of-a-lifetime could have ended before it began 😬
We walked through the sliding doors into a ghost terminal, nobody else in sight, where during normal times the echo of conversations sometimes made it hard to hear. Our footsteps echoed off that cavernous ceiling, and a lone employee walked up to us and asked “may I see your PCR results please?” We nonchalantly showed her our fresh-off-the-virtual-press Negative results and she allowed us to proceed. We waited in the shortest security lineup I’ve ever experienced at Pearson, then about 5 movies + 2 meals later (almost 12 hours) we landed in Addis Ababa, and strolled into Bolé International Airport, where things finally started to feel a little exotic, and I felt that familiar, welcome tinge of Adventure.
The large terminal was teeming with voices and colourfully garbed women and men in wonderful textiles and patterns, along with some women wearing head-to-toe black burqas.
A reminder we weren’t in Kansas anymore:
Coffee shop in airport during a lull:
After enjoying one of the best coffees I’ve ever tasted, we boarded our final flight. I was sandwiched between two Ugandan women; the lady on my right wore a full burqa, with small eye slits. It seemed peculiar to my Western eyes when she held up her smartphone to take a selfie, when the photo would show only her dark brown eyes swimming in a sea of black fabric… but even then you could see she was smiling. Poor Nate was pretty overwhelmed by the mass of female humanity. It seemed an entire girl’s class was returning home. My seatmate later told me she was going back home for the first time in 6 years. She hadn’t seen her family in 6 years. Hadn’t seen her children for 6 years. The lady to my left kept singing Christian hymns as she looked out the window watching the rolling green hills roll quickly past. I (finally) fell asleep, awoke for a lunch of the worst excuse for beef I’ve ever tasted, fell again, and was awoken by loud cheering and singing. Momentarily discombobulated, I thought I was at a concert, then realized the plane was touching down and the crowd was going wild with thanks. That we hadn’t crashed?
Entebbe airport (same city but different airport from the one made famous by Israeli commandos back in July 1976 as part of Operation Thunderbolt) makes a much nicer first impression than Addis Ababa. Customs was quick, the path lined with helpful posters warning about Yellow Fever and Ebola 😳.
With the jet legs behind us, and just a little jet lagged, it was time for the real adventure to begin.