This morning I met one of my coworkers, Monica Gellar (um, yeah, not her real name), at the chapel. Every morning at 0930 one of the chaplains takes a group of military personnel, whoever volunteers, out to a local orphanage, where they spend a half hour or hour playing with the kids (at the boys orphanage) or just holding and reading to them (at the infants orphanage). They usually need a driver, because you can't drive in town until you pass a driving course, and not many people have a chance to take it. My coworker is one of them; she was going to offer to drive to the orphanage if we could make a stop off at the airport for me to pick up my baggage.
It would have been nice to go to the orphanage--I must do that sometime--but it was probably better that when we met, Monica told me she'd finagled a mission card and vehicle and we could go out there ourselves.
Vehicles come from a vehicle lot, and they sit in the sun all day and bake so that vehicles with two or three thousand kilometers on them have prematurely aged and look like they're one oil change away from the scrapyard. These are mostly Mercedes SUVs, by the way, proof that you can destroy any car, no matter how well made, by leaving it in the desert.
Off we went. The road away from the base is littered with trash and enormous chunks of concrete. It's this part of the drive, actually, that reminds me of Del Rio; the road from town out to the base was littered with giant chunks of concrete, on light brown sand, and frequently there was quite a lot of litter. Throw in the acacias out here that look like mesquite and the resemblence is a little disturbing. I'll try to remember to bring my camera next time I go out.
After a bit of pothole dodging you turn north and parallel the old railroad line (I actually heard a train on it this morning, I think; I'll have to look it up, but around four this morning I distinctly heard the chuffing of a steam locomotive. There is almost no other sound on Earth, apart from a steamship or steam-driven gristmill, which don't exist out here, that could have produced a sound so clearly like a locomotive. But I don't know what sort of rolling stock they have on this railroad to know whether that's even a possibility). This rail line is basically the entire reason for this area's existence. There is a fine natural harbor here, but the country itself produces virtually nothing of any value, apart from qat, so the harbor was sitting around empty until the French came in and built a railroad.
The French rail line was built ostensibly to allow Ethiopia, then an independent monarchy, a ready access to a seaport. But the reality was, if the French hadn't built the line, the British would have built one, either into Egypt or south to Mombasa, at Kenya; the French wanted Ethiopia in their sphere of influence, not the British sphere. And with the railroad in place, France's colony took on a new importance that it would not otherwise have had--and the French earned extra income on port fees.
Nowadays there's truck traffic, but the roads are complete shit all over Africa and I suspect the rail line handles as much freight as trucks do--although in reality Ethiopia today probably produces significantly less saleable goods for world trade than it did in the late 1890s. Apart from coffee, actually, I'm not sure what else they sell, although I understand salt and some cereals transit out through the port. Still, the predominant cereal in this part of the world is millet, which you probably haven't heard of unless you shop at organic food stores. Millet is fairly tasty (one of the Ethiopian officers at work brought in a huge back of toasted millet yesterday and I thought it was terrific), but for whatever reason it's never been successfully marketed in the West.
Anyway. At so-called Qat Corner we turned and headed for the airport--which, I'll point out, actually shares a fenceline with the base here. It's like a three mile drive around the outside, though. Qat Corner is where trucks unload barrels full of qat every afternoon for the local population to chew themselves into a stupor.
It was only nine-fifteen, though, so nobody was high. Yet. We didn't get tagged for an "entry fee" at the airport (it's about a 50/50 shot every time), which was good. I was hoping to just dash in and dash back out, so Monica stayed with the car and I went inside.
To my surprise the Air Kenya agent's office was actually open and staffed. Several people were milling about and it took me a few minutes to figure out who the actual agent was. I showed him my claim ticket and told him I'd been called and told I could pick up my luggage.
I was already feeling pretty hopeless, though, since the agent's anteroom was chock full of unclaimed baggage, at least a dozen pieces of varying sizes, two or three of them military duffel bags. Mine was not among them. But the agent looked at my ticket and assured me my bag would be found. I told him it wasn't in his office, but we still had to examine every piece of baggage individually--him picking it up and holding it like a chicken for me to inspect--before we could move on.
We wandered outside. The assortment of baggage handlers all looked at me with vacant expressions--if I didn't have a bag for them to carry, how could they get money from me?--then turned right around and went back inside through the departure door.
At the departure door the agent walked right through the gate and went around to the other side, where he engaged the security guard in a lengthy shouted conversation that included several vehement gestures in my direction and a good bit of laughter. Eventually the security guard asked me for my ID, which he examined for several moments before ordering me to put my hat and sunglasses through the baggage screener. I walked through the metal detector, picked up my potentially dangerous headgear, and followed the agent--who now had my claim ticket and who I thus could not afford to let out of my sight--into another room, where two very pretty Somali women (Somali as in tribal affiliation, not necessarily nationality; readers unaware of my precise location should be aware that there are Somalis all over Africa, because even poor African countries have more jobs than Somalia) got into a fight with the agent about having to get up out of their air conditioned office (one of two in the airport) to run an errand for him. Eventually they drew straws or something, and one of them instructed me to follow her. The Air Kenya agent took his leave.
I've heard from people who were in Somalia in the 1990s that the Somali women are beautiful, and it's generally true. But they also have a killer accent, so working with them is a very pleasant experience (though in all seriousness, no woman compares with Smittygirl in any way, and I want to be quite sure she knows that). I followed her outside onto the airport tarmac, and then back inside, through the customs area, into the baggage claim area. A few bags were scattered about--she indicated them to ask if any appeared to be mine, but they weren't. Then she took out a huge set of keys that she'd been hiding somewhere in her clothing, opened a grimy metal door, and we went back into the bowels of the luggage area. This corridor had not seen paint since the airport was built.
Finally we came to another grimy metal door, and she produced another key. Inside a dingy room was enough unclaimed luggage to outfit the entire Henry Morton Stanley expedition for two years, my bag thankfully among the mess. Some of the luggage inside had probably been there for a year or two.
This surprised me, I'm sorry to say. This is a very poor country, as I've mentioned, and although we can assume the people working at the airport are among the best paid in the country, the temptation to simply take luggage that has gone unclaimed for weeks or months, as some of this clearly had, must be great. It must be that much greater for the unemployed baggage handlers who seem to live off of tips--and perhaps that's why the baggage is stored behind two locked doors. I don't like to think ill of people, but frankly, after a certain span of time I have to admit I would probably take some of that stuff home and see what I could use or sell. Especially in a place like this. Maybe I'm just a bad person.
There was a little confusion because the ticket on my bag didn't match the ticket on my claim form, but that was apparently because the bag had been left behind at Heathrow (Heathrow--where I had the 8-hour layover; I'd have understood if it had been left behind at Nairobi, with all the plane changes and delays, or at Dulles, but not Heathrow. Remind me not to fly through that airport any more) and had been retagged. Fortunately the old ticket was inside the bag, and everything was squared away.
Then I had to sit around and wait for a policeman to open the glass door back into the arrivals section of the airport--because apparently I couldn't just walk right back out the way I'd come in. Very strange.
All in all though, a successful voyage. It took about twenty minutes to actually get the bag and get back to Monica and the truck, and this afternoon I went through it to make sure everything was inside. Now I have towels, and extra sheets, and a second pillow (which is good because I'm getting tired of the down one I was issued), and tea and other stuff. The only thing missing turns out to be book two of the Sir Apropos of Nothing series, which bothers me, but as I haven't been through the two mobility bags I deployed with it's possible it's in there. Of all the things I can imagine one of the airport workers stealing, English fantasy literature ranks right at the bottom of the list.