“Ethiopian Airlines said that? That was never going to happen!” chuckled Gary, as we sat relaxing before heading to the airport for our flight back to Chicago, and onwards to Heathrow. I had just explained how, five weeks ago, Bertokan had been confiscated for being non-functional, and how we had been promised it would be sent to Heathrow a couple of days later. Gary and Peggy have extensive experience of airports, and Addis in particular. Hence we received sympathy, amusement and disbelief in equal measure.
After Bertokan’s forcible removal our unhappy airport experiences continued as we travelled to visit Gary and Peggy in Bloomington, Illinois. We came dangerously close to missing our connection in Chicago because of the wait to pass through US immigration, and then going through security again to take the short flight to Bloomington two jars of Harrods delicious (and expensive) preserves in Chris’s hand luggage caused a problem and were confiscated, despite being bought duty-free in Heathrow. Apparently they were incorrectly packaged for the second flight. Chris, my luggage and I all arrived safely in Bloomington - but not Chris’s luggage. A prolonged discussion with an airport attendant in Bloomington’s tiny, smart and almost deserted airport revealed her bag was still in Chicago, but would come to Bloomington on the last flight of the day.
After a lovely meal on Gary and Peggy’s patio and fighting off the jet lag I accompanied Gary back to the airport late that evening. Without ever meeting any security folks (or anybody at all for that matter) we walked into the airport, retrieved Chris’s bag from the luggage belt and walked out again. Job done. Getting Bertokan back was never going to be that easy.
We’d asked Gary and Peggy for an all-American experience during our nine days with them, and it’s safe to say we were not disappointed. We drove a huge tractor on the family farm; we went wine-tasting (Illinois wine? Yes indeed!); we learned about Abraham Lincoln in his home town of Springfield, and visited his tomb. We travelled on Amtrak trains; saw a production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”; we visited Chicago; we sailed up the Illinois river on a paddle steamer and cruised around with friends on a lake. We went to a ball game; we visited the Indianapolis Motor Speedway (billed somewhat questionably as “The Racing Capital of the World®”) where we enjoyed a fantastic NASCAR race. But the most fun of all was had by Chris with a semi-automatic assault rifle. One of Gary and Peggy’s church friends has a veritable armoury in his basement, where he also makes his own ammunition. Out in the countryside, amidst fields of maize and soy beans stretching to the horizon and beyond, we shot at (and occasionally hit) steel targets with a Colt 45, a 357 Magnum, several shot guns and of course the assault rifle.
We thought we were about to bid Gary and Peggy farewell when we arrived at Bloomington airport for our return journey, only to find our short 18-minute flight to Chicago was so delayed we would miss the connection to Heathrow. In order to ensure Chris made it to her dental appointment in St Albans two hours after the London flight was supposed to land, Gary and Peggy unhesitatingly offered to drive us to Chicago. The drive through the Chicago rush-hour traffic and finding our way through the airport with little time to spare was not without its stresses, but we made it and eventually settled down into our American Airlines seats, reflecting on an amazing holiday with amazing friends.
Eight days later we’ve left the UK and are on our way back to Addis, with our thoughts turning to Bertokan.
We land at 6:30am, and as usual as soon as the aircraft doors open Addis’s familiar smell permeates the air. We’re back. We know the drill now, so we scamper through the airport and go down the stairs to immigration where a large queue has developed. When we finally emerge all four of our bags are going round on the belt, amidst the usual chaotic jumble of bags from previous flights all over the floor and piled up in the distance. We succeed in avoiding the x-ray machines, get past the man with the gun, and now we need to find Bertokan. It’s 7am on a Saturday morning, and all I have to go on are three names and a suggestion I find “transfer or departure desk colleagues”. But I have a cunning plan – I’ll make a friend.
Chris waits with the trolleys, and I head off into the departure area. Soon I spot a young man in Ethiopian Airlines livery walking purposefully across the concourse – he’s my target. I’ve forgotten a lot of Amharic in seven weeks away, but I can still greet like an Ethiopian and this chap is going to receive the full treatment – I need his help. I hit him with a tidal wave of greetings, shake his hand, smile broadly, ask him about his family, and we praise God together. He looks slightly astonished at being confronted by this rather dishevelled, tired-looking foreigner gushing Amharic. His name is Biruk. I switch to English. “I need your help Biruk. Please.” Biruk smiles broadly. “I am your friend!” he announces (win!), “I will help you!” I describe Bertokan’s plight, show him the email with the names of the people I am to seek out, and he says “come!”, setting off at a trot in the direction of the luggage area and the man with the gun. Into arrivals we go, past the man with the gun and the x-ray machines, past the piles of luggage, towards a woman behind a desk in the distance with a big queue of disgruntled passengers looking for lost bags. Biruk barges in and interrupts. A conversation later, “come!” he orders me and we hurry off to a group of closed doors in the wall. Locked. Biruk looks thoughtful for a moment. “Aha!” he announces and makes his way towards a glass-walled office with me scurrying behind. We enter a long narrow space lined all the way down either side with more luggage piled high, to a man sitting behind a desk. More Amharic. He points. Out we go, back to a locked door. Biruk tries it several times. No luck. We go back towards the luggage reclaim area, but before we arrive Biruk points to a row of deserted plastic seats and, after looking at my email with the names again, he tells me to sit and wait here and hurries off into the distance.
I’m on my own here now. Ahead and to the right are the luggage reclaim belts and hundreds of stranded bags. Behind and to the right are the x-ray machines, and passengers trying to get out of the luggage area past the man with the gun. Way over to my left is the queue of people wanting their bags. Then I notice under my seat a large cardboard box covered with Arabic script and all sealed up with tape. As I wait for Biruk, I reflect on the fact that were this Heathrow this suspicious-looking box would probably be taken away by a robot and blown up.
Well the box doesn’t explode, and after a few minutes Biruk comes back accompanied by an older man in a big black overcoat. We greet. My smiling good-natured affable attitude is approaching exhaustion now – after all I’ve been on a plane all night, I’ve hardly slept and I want some breakfast. The three of us head back to the locked doors. With a jangle of keys Overcoat Man unlocks the middle one and smiles at me over his shoulder. “My office” he announces, proudly. We go in.
It’s deserted. There are desks, there are piles of paper, there are shelves, there’s a bookcase, and on top of the bookcase, next to several piles of laptops, sits Bertokan.
Handing me Bertokan with a big smile Overcoat Man wants me to sign the piece of paper that was stuck onto Bertokan’s orange lid with sticky tape, and on which was written details of all the unanswered emails I and Negash had sent over the last several weeks. “This is SOP,” he explains happily, “Standard Operating Procedure.” I sign, and, as SOP apparently demands, I add my address, phone number and email address. “I was told this would be sent to Heathrow for me to collect?” I ask Overcoat Man. He smiles again. “That would take months” he replies, “unaccompanied luggage.” He relieves me of the flimsy receipt I have carefully guarded these last several weeks, and with pleasantries completed I ask Biruk to accompany me past the x-ray machines and the man with the gun, back to where Chris is patiently waiting. After thanking him profusely Biruk heads off to continue whatever it was he was supposed to be doing before I befriended him.
We head out of the terminal building into the car park where Haile is waiting for us. We can’t see him because of the huge scaffolding construction in the middle of the car park – the Chinese are building a new airport terminal and this will be part of the support for a huge curved ramp up to the new entrance. We eventually meet, but Haile’s taxi has been wheel-clamped – less to do with the time he’s been here than the long-running dispute between the official yellow airport taxis and the traditional blue-and-white ones. 70 Birr and much shouting later we head off into the city – Bertokan in hand - to home, breakfast and bed.