I glanced over my lunch at the dreadlocked and infuriatingly cheerful Ethiopian sitting opposite. He was shifting in his seat, trying to attract my attention, looking as though he was preparing to engage me in conversation. Silently I pleaded with him not to speak.
My heart sank further with every interminable minute. I tried and failed to adopt the positive resignation so typical of Ethiopians when faced with adversity, a characteristic now evident amongst my fellow passengers.
We were in the small city of Axum in the Tigray region of northern Ethiopia near the base of the Adwa Mountains. Once home to the Queen of Sheba and now the reputed keeper of the Ark of the Covenant, this was where legends were made. Unfortunately the mythical treasures were beyond our reach. We had spent the morning detained in the claustrophobic departure area of the small airport, trying to travel the thousand kilometres south to Addis Ababa.
Early that morning I’d left the 17th century royal palaces and churches of Gondar town, my home for the past eighteen months, with the happy anticipation of a big city, good friends and a rather more 21st century form of civilisation. It was not to be. I’d sensed something was wrong as our plane had descended into Axum to pick up passengers. I’d travelled this route many times and I knew every judder, swerve and change in tone of the engine of the propeller plane. It had leaned heavily in an unfamiliar manner as we’d come in to land and an hour or so of inspections had confirmed the worst. We weren’t going anywhere that morning.
Lunch had brought a brief reprieve from the boredom of the departure lounge but now the afternoon dragged on, punctuated by announcements that the plane to Addis would leave in the next fifteen minutes. These announcements, motivated by the Ethiopian reluctance to bring bad news, had been echoing across the tannoy since the beginning of our incarceration that morning. Barely anyone listened now and no-one believed them. Some passengers stretched out on the floor and dozed. Others stared at the heavy rainfall falling onto the deserted runway outside the long windows. We couldn’t even watch the minutes tick by- the clock on the wall was broken, mockingly stuck at ten past nine.
In the late afternoon as the rain stopped and a weak sun began to push through, the inevitable announcement came. The plane couldn’t be fixed and we were to be transported to a local hotel for an overnight stay. This would turn out to be a spartan affair, but a rusting iron bed in a bare room off a concrete courtyard was an improvement on the airport floor.
In the surge of passengers, desperate to leave the airport, a man I recognised from Gondar introduced himself as Solomon and helped me onto a minibus waiting outside. He suggested we visit the sights. It turned out that Solomon also knew a number of other passengers and before long, in the company of new friends I was slipping over the still wet stones of the Northern Stelae Park in my city shoes. Only moments from the new part of town we were transported to the ancient Kingdom of Aksum as we slid across the muddy site, exploring the obelisks which marked the underground burial chambers of 4th century kings and nobles.
Across the road we wandered through the leafy grounds of the ancient and modern churches of St Mary of Zion and glimpsed the chapel believed to house the lost Ark, guarded only by a single priest.
As the day faded into night we migrated to a low lit cultural bar where we chatted over the local beer. Then, our hands on our hips in the typical style of the region, we danced in a circle to the low hypnotic thud of the Tigrigna beat.
The mood in the departure lounge the following morning was light. Gone was the bored frustration of the previous afternoon. Newly acquainted passengers laughed together like old friends and shared their breakfasts with each other. As the plane finally took off into the clear sky of a new Ethiopian morning, the passengers applauded, glad to be on their way once again. I was glad too, yet I wondered whether 21st century civilisation might be a little overrated after all.