During my early days in England as an expat American, I met a young colleague, also American, who was perpetually miserable. We were both new employees of XL UK, an airline flying throughout Europe, North Africa, and the Caribbean. Mark constantly complained about missing home and family, missing his son’s first words, his first steps, first everything. He complained about the English weather, the food, the flying culture, and everything else in England that came up short, which for him was everything else. I was convinced that before he ever stepped foot in Britain, he had made up his mind to be unhappy, allowing nothing to break that promise to himself. Being the embodiment of the aphorisms, “Most people are about as happy as they want to be,” and “We don’t see things as they are; we see them as we are,” he was unwilling to make the slightest effort to shift his perspective. On the day he received his first full paycheck, he bought a ticket home, and as his row number was being called to board his flight, he resigned via a two-sentence email.
I’m not suggesting that his homesick depression was unworthy of sympathy, because in his shoes I would probably feel no different. Considering Mark was on furlough from Hawaiian Airlines and his house was a short walk from an Oahu beach, I could understand his feelings toward gray, rainy old England. I empathized with his predicament, but his one-track mindset, often propelling him to anger as he pined for home, was tipping toward irrationality, as it was clear his first impressions of England were formed and solidified before he ever left Hawaii.
Six years later, while Mark was happily reunited with Hawaiian Airlines and his family, XL UK shutdown, rendering me and several hundred others unemployed. As Monica and I took stock of our new situation, we focused our wishful thinking on the exotic, rustic, and unfamiliar. Maybe our focus worked, or maybe it was just a coincidence, but within a fortnight of XL shutting down, I was offered an interview with an African airline, one I knew little about.
Culturally, a move from Hawaii to England is a smaller leap than from England to Ethiopia, but any perceived difference is rooted more in the traveler than the destination. Like Mark, I also had preconceived notions of an unfamiliar place, but they were formed by a willingness to be there. Timing is everything, and Monica and I were ready. Unlike Mark, I was fortunate to have a partner who was willing to relocate, especially to a faraway place that was very different from our home in small-town Arizona or Manchester. In our case, the capricious will of chance colluded with our hopes. Enter Ethiopian Airlines, who invited me to visit them for three days in Addis Ababa for an interview.
On the plane from London to Addis, I couldn’t help but think of my American colleague who was miserable from the day he arrived in England, how he looked for the negatives in every comparison to his home and easily found them. I vowed not to do that, nor would I look at other cultures with rose-colored glasses, assuming that their differences are automatically better or more enlightened than my own culture. With this in mind, I disembarked from the plane at Bole Airport, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.
The interview itinerary included three nights at the Hilton, one of the two best hotels in the city and a thirty-minute cab ride from the airport. Before boarding one of the many blue-and-white Lada taxis, the fare had to be negotiated, as none of these Soviet-era tin-boxes-on-wheels had meters. The driver spoke decent English and charged only what we agreed upon at the airport, a pleasant surprise that remained mostly consistent during our time in Addis.
Entering the hotel lobby, I was a little intimidated and a lot embarrassed as I was subject to a not-so-subtle form of white privilege. Everyone was required to pass through security, which meant walking through a metal detector and having our bags x-rayed. Uniformed guards with handheld detectors provided additional scrutiny, but only for certain people who set off the alarm in the walk-through detector. In this case, certain people meant black people, and yet the security personnel themselves were black. (We were, after all, in Africa.) No doubt it was the phone in my pocket which triggered the alarm, but when standing with splayed arms expecting the secondary check, the guard said no and just waved me on. There were about eight of us passing through, two of us white, and the guards’ attitudes toward us white folk was apologetic, reserving their suspicions for those certain others. A colorfully dressed man in a long, flowing robe, middle-aged and most likely on business, was being patted down while his opened bag got the full treatment from two other guards. I didn’t know for certain where he was from, but his clothing suggested West Africa, perhaps Nigeria or Senegal. I plastered a perplexed look on my face while mustering the courage to look him in the eye, and he just smiled as if to say, “See how it is?”
I was tired after the long flight, but curiosity provides its own kind of restless energy, so out for a walk I went, seeking first impressions. Self-conscious, I practiced a survival skill first learned in India and honed in many other countries. In unfamiliar territory, when departing a hotel or train station, or anywhere travelers might congregate, walk with purpose and determination, as if you’ve trod these streets your whole life. Never amble along while admiring the exotic scenery, then with little conviction stroll in some random direction while the head swivels and the eyes dart, all while broadcasting to the world that you are a tourist who has no idea where he is or where he is going. And so, without the faintest knowledge of the surrounding area, I turned left upon departing the hotel, walked to the first corner, crossed the street and turned right. All with pretend determination.
A white man walking alone in Addis Ababa is not unusual, but a few locals take notice, regardless of his body language or demeanor. Immediately upon leaving the hotel, I was plonked by a man who introduced himself as Tesfaya. “Plonker” is a local term used to describe a man (always a man…there are other words for women) who ingratiates himself to a foreign pedestrian. The word differs in meaning from the colloquial British term, the latter implying stupidity. A plonker in Addis would be friendly, have decent English, and just slide up alongside his quarry and start chatting away. To the uninitiated, natural instincts would suggest their new acquaintance is a con artist or beggar, but the Addis plonker is neither of these. Tesfaya asked me where I am from, then proceeded to tell me about his family. He did most of the talking, and every few minutes he would say, “Are you fine, I am fine, are you fine?” Although I didn’t lie, my answers to his questions were intentionally brief. I am David. From America by way of England. Just here for a day or so. On business. Tesfaya stayed alongside for about a quarter mile, and after politely suggesting that I would rather be alone, he understood and said, “See you later, David.” I would come to understand that these exchanges are a plonker’s version of networking, as befriending a foreigner might lead to better opportunities. I would eventually have many of these encounters, and they almost always began with, “Hello! Are you fine? I am fine, are you fine?” A few asked for money but never was I assaulted, swindled, or pickpocketed.
Returning toward the hotel, I took a longer route, zigzagging away from the main thoroughfare, its variety of buildings up to six or seven stories tall. This gave way to dirt streets, then to muddy, narrow alleyways, the latter crowded with single-story shacks, most topped with corrugated metal. One of these shacks was a small coffee shop whose entire menu had but two choices: a selection of coffee drinks, or Black Label whisky offered by the shot or the bottle. Sitting on a plastic yellow chair by the store’s only window, drinking a macchiato, I tried to get a feel for my first impressions, without trying to guide them. One of those impressions was goats in the center of the city. By the time I said goodbye to Tesfaya, I had seen three separate herds, the largest of which was grazing in the middle of a busy traffic circle, tended by three men who could easily have passed for father, son, and grandson.
To an outsider with minimal experience (and not a great fondness for detail), comparing Addis to Lucknow, India (another city I’ve lived in) might suggest similarities. All had more beggars than Europe or North America, though there were fewer in Addis than in Indian cities, and the ones they had were less aggressive. Street traffic was chaotic in both countries, though less so here, perhaps because Ethiopian driving culture did not require a blaring horn whenever the driver’s seat is occupied. In Addis, an occasional herd of goats could be seen clogging traffic, rather than the solitary bovines of India. But sitting on a plastic yellow chair, waiting for the macchiato to cool, one observation was more intrusive than others.
The similarity of the preferential treatment I received, based solely on the fact I was a white outsider, was uncomfortably familiar. Here, it was hotel security; in India it was a bookstore’s (unlike the local customers, I was not required to surrender my shoulder bag upon entry), and both occurred within twenty-four hours of arrival. It would take a few more years for the phrase “white privilege” to make itself common in my world, but that is what it was, and I have benefitted from some form of it my whole life, even if I was ignorant of its existence. Or more correctly, especially if I was ignorant of its existence. This automatic privilege seemed all the more bizarre to me, considering how the histories of India and Africa have been affected by white people.
But I was lumping Ethiopia with India, comparing them together as if their differences from my culture were more significant than the differences between themselves. Each of these countries is unique in its history, ethnicity, and culture, and it occurred to me that it might be a subtle form of racism that allowed me to lump them together. Or was it merely a forgivable, run-of-the-mill ignorance? Interrupting this stream of thought were two young girls skipping past the store in their blue plaid uniforms and canvas school bags, all cute and innocent. As they passed the open window, they were holding hands and giggling, but upon glancing in my direction, they stopped in their tracks, turned around, and entered the store. They did this without any obvious collusion or even discussion. Standing beside me, they launched into a short song, clapping and swaying with a catchy melody. I had no idea what the words were because they were singing in their native Amharic. But the last line of their song was in English, “…Thank you for the gift you give…,” delivered in cadence as their upturned palms stretched toward me on the final beat. It was just what I needed to snap out of a funk, and I gave each of the girls twenty birr, roughly two dollars at the time. Their eyes widened, and they ran out of the store to resume their giggling. They kept running, as if I might change my mind and ask for the money back. I laughed too and was grateful for the brief encounter.
An interesting observation while strolling around Addis Ababa was men holding hands. Usually, the men were of similar age, but occasionally men generations apart could be seen walking down the street, clutching hands. Such displays in the west would usually imply the men were gay, with no qualms about showing it. Here, it was far more common to witness men holding hands than to see a romantic touch between a woman and a man. Since junior high school (when boys calling each other “fag” was a rite of passage), I have never been homophobic, but here and now, I didn’t know what to make of all these men holding hands. Nothing about it seemed gay, or in the slightest way effeminate, but filtered through my cultural conditioning, it stuck out, glaringly.
Returning to the hotel, there was a young boy loitering outside the main entrance, a first glance suggesting he was about ten years old. Too young to be a plonker, he was just standing around in his skinny frame wearing an extra-large T-shirt, which on him looked more like a knee-length dress. The picture on the otherwise black shirt was of a smiling, joint-smoking Bob Marley wearing a dreadlock-stuffed Rasta hat in green, yellow, and red, Ethiopia’s national colors. On the young boy’s feet were tattered sandals a few sizes too large.
“Hi, mister! Are you fine? I am fine.”
Uh-oh. I’m about to be conned by a street urchin who sees me as an easy mark. He’s even gone to the trouble to learn some English to ply his trade. For a brief and stupid moment, I thought of responding with “Bonjour, je suis bien, et tu?” But that would imply I understood his English, and the last time I tried this trick (in a Spanish-speaking country), the response was in fast and fluent French, way over my head. But I wanted to lose this kid, first by being evasive, not rude. But if the little brat persisted, it could easily be notched up to rude. “Just heading to the hotel, good night…” I said, now thankful that the Hilton had their gatekeeper security.
“Hey, mister. Where are you from?”
“No, thanks,” I said, quickening my pace.
“I’m not a beggar! Honest!” What has come over me…fear? Paranoia? Of a ten-year-old? Or is it greed, in that I might be loath to part with another twenty birr? I’m in this exotic culture for the first and possibly the last time, witnessing nuances of local life. So far, this is an innocent exchange, and one that I have complete control over. My instincts were strongly hinting that this kid was probably alright, but no doubt happy to be on the receiving end of a few birr. Or dollars or euros or pounds, as he likely knew the exchange rate as well as any local banker. In some odd way, he reminded me of myself at his age, despite the fact I never loitered outside hotels introducing myself to middle-aged men. In my culture, this would have more disturbing implications. But this was not my culture, and nothing about him seemed depraved. Impoverished, maybe, but nothing worse.
“Where did you learn English?”
“In the school, but also some talking to people. Are you fine? I am fine.”
“Yes, fine, thank you. You know who that is?” I asked, pointing to the joint-smoking Bob Marley on his shirt.
“Yes. You know him?”
“Bob Marley, Rastafarian extraordinaire.” I regretted using the word “extraordinaire” the moment I said it.
“Ras Tafari was Haile Selassie, Marley’s guru.” This kid is way ahead of me. I had recently self-briefed on Haile Selassie, a revered emperor of Ethiopia, who died in 1975.
“I liked Peter Tosh too,” I said.
“Marley’s first guitar player, in the Wailers.” This kid is teaching me and in his third language, as I was soon to discover. It crossed my mind to just give him a hundred birr and bolt to the lobby. A generation gap (or two) is no excuse to be rude, but surely he’d rather have the money than my company any day.
“Hi, mister,” he said yet again, “I am Peter.” He offered his hand to shake, which I accepted. Peter was twelve years old and lived nearby with his mother and younger sister. I didn’t ask about his dad. His smile, and especially his eyes, seemed genuine and thoughtful, and if he really was a budding con artist, he will likely go far, especially if he enters business or politics. His first language was Amharic, and he claimed to have a working knowledge of Oromo (another Ethiopian language), English, and Italian, in that order. Although his English wasn’t excellent, it was better than my French, and he was more than capable of holding his own against any native English speaker his own age.
Peter was offering his services as a local tour guide for guests of the Hilton, or if the pickings were slim here, the Sheraton was only a few blocks away. He claimed to hustle foreigners (not his phrase) at each hotel and that he had to keep an eye out for their staff who chase him away. He was proud of his knowledge of the local museums, tourist shops, and restaurants, and knew the location of the most important embassies. “And how much the taxis should charge. Some of the taxi drivers don’t like me.” No doubt a white lie, but I didn’t hold that against him. Then he asked, “Would you like me to take you to Lucy?”
Confident that he wasn’t a pimp and becoming more impressed with his salesmanship, I said, “Do you know what a rain check is?” He looked at me quizzically. “It means some other time…”
“When?” He had already managed to get out of me the fact I was here on business for a few days and may return in a few weeks, but I did not commit to a date and time with Lucy. I politely said some version of “see you later” before disappearing into the lobby. He yelled to my back, “See you tomorrow, David.”
Over the next two days, I was poked, prodded, and interviewed, then flight tested in Ethiopian Airline’s simulator. Each of these days I was returned to the hotel at five in the afternoon, where Peter was milling about, pretending to be nonchalant as I was dropped off in the company van, a vehicle emblazoned in the Ethiopian Airlines logo. I did not tell him what company I was “doing business with,” yet he seemed to be alert to the van’s arrival, as if he was waiting for someone.
“Hello, David. Are you fine? I am fine.” He was wearing the same tattered sandals, but a different T-shirt, this one plain white, and like the last one, it came down to his knees. Designated Australopithecus afarensis, Lucy is a hominid skeleton about three million years old, and one of the first apish things to walk on two legs. Peter took hold of my hand as we proceeded to walk along the main boulevard, and I pulled away as if jolted by an electric shock. To a point, I am willing to “go native,” but strolling down the boulevard holding hands with a twelve-year-old boy wasn’t going to happen. It wasn’t that I was solely concerned about how this might look to others; after all, this two-males-holding-hands thing was normal enough that Peter initiated it without a second thought. My own conditioning reflexively overruled, and I disconnected without a moment of internal deliberation. I tried to convey to Peter that holding hands with a child would only be normal for me if the child was my own and also much younger. I’m not sure that he understood, but he just laughed and said, “OK.”
Lucy resides at the National Museum, about a mile and a half north of the Hilton. This was easily walking distance, even for Peter, but he insisted we get a taxi as that would be time better spent. Out went his arm, and the first Lada stopped, and he gave the directions to the driver in Amharic. In the driver’s response I heard the word “Peter,” which upped my confidence in my new friend’s honesty (he claimed to know several of the local drivers and what the fares should be)…until Peter said, “One hundred birr for the driver, Mr. David.” This was the same amount as yesterday’s ride to the Hilton from the airport, a distance about five times greater.
“Wow, that’s a lot of inflation in just twenty-four hours.” Peter didn’t understand (he claimed), and instead of giving him an impromptu English lesson with a little economics thrown in, I just paid the “tax” and filed the memory under “experience.” We then spent an hour at the Ethiopian National museum, where Peter-the-tour-guide was well-known to the staff and let in free. He wanted to go to a specific restaurant afterward, no doubt as a favor to the owners, but I wanted to get back to the hotel, eat alone, and put my feet up. He was very happy with the one hundred birr I gave him, and he followed me back to the hotel. I told him I may or may not get this job, and if I do, I’ll likely see him again, as new expat employees are put up at the Hilton for their first month.
Back in the room, feet up, with tired eyes trying to focus on a map of the city, my mind kept bouncing back to previous airline jobs, and further, to the student pilot days over California. Those memories seemed ancient, as if from another life, formed when all the flying was domestic, with the assumption it would always remain so. Either my attention span was short due to fatigue or there was a subconscious drive to at least try to make sense of the path from those days to this one. I genuinely wanted to focus my mind on the map of Addis, certainly more so than wasting mental energy on some sentimental trip to the past, but I couldn’t.
Back then, all of my first impressions in aviation were always about flying. First flight, first solo, first cross-country. And flight tests, and new airplane types, and even mistakes, both big and small. Flying was always more about the airplane than travel, always more about the flight than the destination. I understood this, yet the best perk now was the long walk in an unfamiliar locale, the more exotic the better. It wasn’t always this way, of course. Cruising low over the slowly passing landscape in a two-seat Cessna, sometimes not even passing the cars on the highway below, no other perk was worth mentioning, even if there was one.
But there I was, on a bed in Ethiopia, harboring a slightly odd mix of nostalgia and gratitude, and feeling not the least bit apprehensive if Ethiopian Airlines should make an offer. The six years at XL UK was a necessary step in this process of acceptance, even if I didn’t recognize it at the time, and that was a buffer Mark didn’t have.