“excuse me” mumbles the British-Turkish man as he shoves his gold iPhone towards the plastic window, settling under the bridge of my nose. As the plane descends above the Mediterranean on the Istanbul air strip, where my 3-hour turned 5-hour layover takes place, the iPhone’s hard drive is splattered with photos of a grey sky, small clustered houses and the water below. I can only wonder if these photos, now numbering in the dozens and growing, will ever been seen again. As I gently return my head to the rest, pulling out clumps of nose hair now engrained in the phone, I notice a ‘rolex’ symbol on the man’s watch. Questionable. When I boarded the plane I saw this high roller taking selfies in first class. Clearly, as he sat next to me and the rest of the peasants in economy, he enjoys appearing on a higher shelf than he may actually be standing on. This man perfectly represents everything about a traveler I try not to be.
Rewind eight hours and I'm sitting in the sunrise at the Cambridge train station. Commuters, glued to their phones, fixate on the day to come, generally unaware of the glorious morning around them. I'm wearing running shoes, black socks, my best Africa safari beige shirt, with my backpack and a small handbag. The majority of my weight comes from my camera gear and laptop. This trip is meant to be part travel, part research, and part business, although travelling usually wins these battles.
The travel: the capital, Addis Ababa; the national park, Bale. The research; a cultural comparison of maths anxiety in relation to maths performance in elementary school kids. My lab has this data from the UK and collaborators in Italy and South America. This would represent the African cohort. Although this largely depends on collaboration from the major University in Addis Ababa, which has been difficult to coordinate up to this point. The business; my new company Cambridge Data Analytics, has its first client and I'll be writing a proposal for our work and starting to talk negotiations. This will largely be taking place in internet cafés and hotels across Addis Ababa. Internet is not ubiquitous here. In fact, several years ago it was non-existent, and remains so for residential purposes.
It was nearly 2:30am by the time I caught Jostein's attention at arrivals, my arms flailing up and down with relief that I wouldn't have to sleep on a bench until the morning. The viking-Norwegian is doing his PhD (economics & development) research here in Ethiopia, studying the move towards a manufacturing economy the second most populous country in Africa is finding itself in. He's been here for nearly two months and is really embracing Ethiopia, albeit missing the everyday luxuries of Wi-Fi, reliable electricity and water. He tells me, however, that Addis Ababa may be one of the most exciting cities in the world at the moment; bursting at the seams in development, doubling in size in the past decade and showing no signs of slowing. Keep in mind, however, that Ethiopia remains one of the poorest countries in the world. Do you think the fair trade signs you read on the walls of Starbucks are leaving piles of money here? The great majority of coffee is exported at extremely low costs, with profit coming afterwards. Although I can't see beyond the headlights of our driver's miniature Toyota, I can feel the economic struggles that persist here. Not in a metaphysical sense mind you, but the bumps and potholes that run across the streets give the message to me in braille.
Despite the time of our arrival at his flat, which he shares with a fellow Cambridge PhD student, Vincent, we stay up and catch up for some time. He found some luxury beer (a porter) at a local bar and bought a crate of it. We snack on Turkish Delights I brought as a small gift from my layover in Istanbul and by the time I check my watch, it's nearly 4am. Time for a sleep which can concisely be described as rock-like.