Jan 21 2022

Ethiopian Airlines plane breaks down before an invasion of little old ladies with bundles of qat

By Fred Varcoe

We were due to set off from Jeddah in the morning but the incoming aircraft failed to arrive. And it kept on failing to arrive. Weather was a problem, apparently. It eventually arrived late in the afternoon and took off in darkness after we had waited for around 10 hours.
The Boeing 720 was hardly new and I was surprised when the pilot said they would be flying at an altitude of 41,000 feet! Weather, apparently.
As we crossed the Red Sea and approached Ethiopia, we could see the weather: massive cumulus nimbus clouds rising even higher than the plane’s 41,000 feet.
And all filled with spectacular lightning. The pilot worked his way around the clouds and managed to get us down in Addis without incident.
Getting out of Addis a week later was even stranger.
For a start, check-in time for the flight was 04:30, not good because the overnight curfew at the time didn’t finish until 05:00. On the plus side, we’d rented a Volkswagen Beetle, which just about managed to get us to the airport in a truly biblical rainstorm.
Exit procedures were normal, except all foreigners were thoroughly searched for contraband or money. Unfortunately, I hadn’t changed one of the $100 notes I had before leaving and the man found it and, naturally, took it.
Then we had to wait to board our plane. It took some time, but after a long delay we were on board. Then we were hurtling down the runway.
Then we stopped suddenly and went back to the gate. Something was wrong with the plane.
We disembarked and waited. Another plane was flying in, we were told, and we could go on that one. It flew in and we waited. It had hit birds on the way in, so we couldn’t use it, we were told. A few hours later, it suddenly filled up with passengers and took off for somewhere else.
No problem, we were told, there was a Boeing 720 in the workshop we could use. We’d probably been at the airport for about seven hours at this point and it wasn’t exactly a well-appointed airport. But we managed to get on the plane, nervously, and were pleasantly surprised when it actually took off.
Our destination was the small newly independent country of Djibouti on the Red Sea, but we were scheduled to stopover in Dire Dawa, a desert town in the middle of nowhere.
The pilot landed well, some passengers got off and we waited. Then, we waited some more. The doors were open and it was quite hot.
Then they took the stairs away. Hooray! We’re going somewh…. no we’re not.
“We can’t start the plane,” the captain told us. “And they can’t fix it here, so they’re flying in a mechanic from Addis.”
They gave us a bag of nuts and a Pepsi. It was hot. Dire Dawa’s a desert town.
We were probably on the plane for three or four hours, but the mechanic flew in with his jump leads and started the plane.
The stairs came back. Passengers.
Suddenly a rampaging troop of little old Dire Dawa ladies surged onto the plane, all holding massive bunches of leafy twigs. It was chaos. One sat next to me and smiled, wondering what the belt thing was on her seat. She had no idea how to do it up, so I did it for her. She held on to one of her massive bunches of twigs; the other two were in the overhead locker. The inside of the plane looked like a tree nursery.
It was qat, the narcotic twig that blokes in that region chew on all day to get stoned. It fetched a high price in Djibouti, a former French colony with Western prices.


We got no more Pepsi as the plane had turned into an arborium. Everywhere you looked there were twigs. My little old lady probably asked me if I wanted to buy any qat, but I found it hard trying to converse with a tree.
The plane started to descend. Tension spread throughout the cabin, not because we didn’t know if the plane would survive the landing, but mainly because the little old ladies were gearing up for qat fever. As soon as the wheels touched the tarmac, they were up out of their seats, grabbing their twigs and demanding the door be opened. The Ethiopian cabin crew never stood a chance. The doors flew open and the little old ladies rushed down the steps toward the terminal. Getting through immigration and customs was almost impossible as the ladies negotiated their way through with qat. When we finally opened the doors to the outside world, we entered into chaos as hundreds of Djiboutians negotiated prices with their little old lady dealers, who offloaded their stuff and jumped back on the plane to Dire Dawa.
We managed to get a taxi into town, only to find that five of the six hotels there were full. The sixth – the Hotel de France, if my memory is correct – was probably empty for a reason: no working air conditioners and no running water.

The next day, it was 50 C…..