I went to Ethiopia and was driven around on an afternoon city tour. “The streets are so bad here,” my guide said. “And the traffic in Addis is terrible!”
I looked out the window. Sure, it wasn’t Scandinavia, but I’d seen far worse. “You should visit Liberia,” I said. “This looks pretty good to me.”
Over two weeks of travel, I flew a series of random airlines: Royal Air Maroc, Ethiopian, and Aeroflot. It was my first time on Aeroflot, and I’d heard plenty of horror stories. “You’re flying Aeroflop?” someone asked. “The safety card in the seat pocket has a warning about not bringing goats on board.”
That sounded fun. But my three hours to Moscow and four hours to Bishkek, all in Economy class, passed peacefully and uneventfully. There was more seat pitch than any U.S. airline I know. The safety card didn’t say anything about goats. I had half a cup of awful white wine, but no vodka.
Had I finally become the jaded traveler I so dreaded? I hoped not … I just decided I was experienced.
My current trip has been a challenging one, with lots of middle-of-the-night arrivals and departures, and the afore-mentioned Egypt Air, which provides three complimentary children with every row of coach seating.
On the final leg, I landed late at night in Abu Dhabi with no plan. Technically, I had a proposed plan—I was supposed to go on to Somaliland the next day, and then to Djibouti a few days later. The tickets had come down to the wire, and when I boarded the flight to Abu Dhabi in Frankfurt, I was assured by email that all would be well. In a perfect storm composed of an unreliable travel agency and a non-existent airline, however, I got stranded.
The travel agency I attempted to work with was called “Timeless Tours and Travel,” an appropriate name since their response time was… wait for it… timeless. The airline was called Jubba Airways, and the best thing that can be said about them is that you should probably find a different carrier on your next trip to Somaliland.
Thanks to the
useless timeless travel agency and the “don’t call us, we’ll never call you” airline, I found myself in Abu Dhabi with no onward ticket for a flight that left in eight hours, and strange as it sounds, absolutely no way to buy another one. The messages in my Inbox were confusing: supposedly a backup ticket via Nairobi might have been issued, or it might not have been. Who knew? It was also nearing midnight, and I had nowhere to go.
I set up shop at Costa Coffee and ordered an emergency macchiato and iced donut (I always eat healthy on the road). I used Google Voice to call Kenya Airways, which confirmed that a ticket had in fact been issued in my name, but was already canceled by the great Timeless Tours and Travel. Wow. Experiences like these are why I prefer to handle my travel arrangements myself, but the good news was I now had the opportunity to do that again. An Alanis Morissette track was playing in the gates near Costa Coffee, and I decided to take her words to heart: you live, you learn.
An hour later I was on the road, riding up to Dubai and making a plan on the go. I first went to DXB Terminal 2, home of every Middle Eastern budget airline known to mankind. When I mentioned Jubba Airways at the information desk, the Pakistani woman burst into laughter as if it were the funniest thing she had heard all night.
“Uh, what’s so funny?” I asked.
“Jubba is kind of a joke around here,” she explained. “We don’t know how to call them, they have no office, and sometimes their staff doesn’t show up for the flights, leaving fifty Somalis waiting around for three days.”
I looked around at the rest of the terminal, which hardly inspired confidence. I remembered coming here a few months back when I flew to Kish Island, Iran with a planeload of Filipino visa runners. Elsewhere, flights were being announced to Yemen and Libya. Africans were returning to their home countries with microwaves and TVs as carry-on luggage. If Jubba Airways was the bottom rung of this ladder, perhaps it was for the better that the flight hadn’t worked out.
It was nearly 3am at this point, and I decided to take the news as a sign: I’m not getting on that Jubba flight, certainly not now and hopefully not ever. I went to a cheap hotel and fell asleep as the sun was coming up.
I finally ended up in Djibouti two days later, where I’m writing this update. Upon check-in at another hotel, I was informed that my entire minibar was complimentary. What, a free minibar? And not only that, but this free minibar was extremely well-stocked. Some places give you a bottle of wine; in Djibouti they give you three full liters of liquor. I’m not sure if this fact reflects on the hospitality of hotels in Djibouti, the extremely cheap price of tax-free alcohol for travelers coming from pricey Dubai, or the lack of things to do in the nearby vicinity. I didn’t actually need or want three liters of liquor, but I appreciated the gesture.
That night I ran for half an hour around the small city and the port, making it as far as I could with the difficult conditions of African heat and too many iced donuts consumed over the previous week. On the run I thought about my usual things: where I’ve been and where I’m going, what I’m trying to craft and build over time. Lately I’ve been unfocused, unable to summon the energy or concentration to work on the projects I’m excited about. What’s my problem?
I’m still not entirely sure, but I think I’ll make it. I also think part of the answer is to find the magic in different ways. To value experience, to appreciate the iced donut, the midnight bus ride, the 3am arrivals and departures. To say a little prayer in appreciation that I’m not actually flying Jubba Airways after all. To face the challenge that comes through travel without letting it get to me. And when actual hardship comes my way, in visa denials and timeless travel agencies, to swallow it down, like a jagged little pill, and to keep pressing onward.
One of the things I frequently remind myself is that I get the chance to do things that almost no one else does. For years before I started actively traveling, I dreamed of it. I read everything I could and envied people I knew who traveled for work or simply in pursuit of adventure. I don’t read much about travel anymore; I live it instead. As I’m on the road to Djibouti and beyond, I call places like these “strange,” implicitly understanding that they are mostly strange to me and not necessarily to people who actually live there.
I also think you can find the magic wherever you are. True, not everyone gets the chance for a midnight adventure through the United Arab Emirates, or a twilight run in the port of Djibouti with a full bottle of gin waiting back at the hotel.
But every day, you might find yourself in strange and random places of your own. When it happens, I hope you’ll pause for a moment and think about how unusual it all is, and how beautiful it can be if you remember to appreciate it.
Question for those who are still reading: What’s the strangest place you’ve ever been?