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I recently had the privilege to travel to Washington DC to attend a conference. The Ethiopian Airlines flight to Washington departs in the evening so I used the last day in my office to complete some work and hand over remaining tasks to my staff. I find it important to delegate and make sure work continues during my absence rather than having to face a huge backlog upon my return. It is also a way of empowering staff and encouraging them to take on more responsibility and grow. Indeed they may make a mistake or two but nobody learns without making mistakes; just make sure there are controls in place that prevent major permanent damage.
Looking forward to the journey, I went home in the afternoon to pack my bags, not to forget some warm clothes as it is winter in that part of the world, although Washington DC is normally not affected too much. The lines, to enter the terminal through security check-in and immigration, were not too long and I decided not to spend much time in the duty free lounge and go directly to the gate. I learned my lesson a few months ago when, around the same time in the evening, the security checkpoints to the departure gates were so overcrowded that many passengers became worried they were going to miss their flight.
It is interesting to observe that some passengers who arrive late are given priority though and don’t seem to go through the same stress as those who came to the airport on-time. In any case, it is obvious that the capacity to handle the ever increasing number of flights is stretched to the limit, and it is good to know that measures are being taken by Ethiopian Airlines and the Airport Authority to ease the congestion. The flight itself was long, of course, but otherwise pleasant enough with relative comfortable seating as compared to some other carriers or aircraft.
Arriving early in the morning at Dulles International Airport and having passed immigration, I didn’t have to check the monitors to see at which belt the luggage from my flight were arriving as anyone could smell the berbere and mitmita packed in numerous suitcases from a distance. It was chilly outside but not too bad and in less than an hour the metered taxi dropped me off at the hotel. Now it was time to take out the winter clothes as the weather forecast promised below freezing temperatures and snow.
In fact, everybody talked about the snow that was expected to fall later that night and how it was going to disrupt traffic and work the next day. And indeed, when I checked my email the next morning there was a message informing all participants that the conference was not going to begin that day because of the snow. Furthermore, all government offices were going to be closed the rest of the day. Apparently Washington does not often deal with this kind of weather, which didn’t seem that bad to me. The roads were being cleared and business owners and residents alike did their part in cleaning their front steps. The next few days saw temperatures dropping further making it necessary to add gloves, a hat and shawl to my outfit, while I was thinking about 13 months of sunshine.
I always get mixed feelings when visiting the USA. Many things are simply excellent and other things are the opposite. Infrastructure, the service industry and the quality of goods and products are amongst the best in the world and we should be eager to find out what we can learn and how to begin implementing that back home. One of the things that impress me the most is waste management and recycling of materials. On the other hand, the waste that is produced is also enormous. I was overwhelmed sometimes by the way products are packed and can’t help but think this is sometimes overdone. For example, individually packed cupcakes, donuts and fruits in addition to the packaging half a dozen, a dozen, a kilogram etc., are packaged in plastic material and it all adds up to the mountain of waste. Although much of it will be recycled, all plastic material is produced from fossil fuels. I know of a company in the Netherlands that has been rewarded for its environmentally friendly approach by not packaging anything but encouraging their customers to bring their own bags.
As I mentioned above, the services in the USA are usually excellent, especially in hotels and restaurants. The food normally tastes delicious, but you have to watch how much of the food you eat contains high levels of calories, such as sugar that is often added in the food processing and preparation phase. If you are not careful you will easily gain weight and we all know about the overweight problem in the USA, which by the way is spreading fast to other parts of the world. The marketing of products adds to the problem as the price of 1.5 litres of a soda for example is almost the same as 1 litre. People are thus encouraged to buy bigger volumes and consume more.
Traffic is disciplined and the road signs are excellent. Which I noted when seeing drivers here slowing down and stopping once the traffic light turn yellow, while back in Addis Abeba most drivers step on the gas to try and still make it, often jumping the red light in the process. Of course, there are cameras everywhere that take a picture of your license plate when you pass a red light, which you will find attached to a ticket in your mailbox, so drivers think twice. Here many of us get away with violating traffic rules as traffic police don’t have the capacity to control traffic effectively.
The morning of departure I made my way to the airport early enough to allow ample time for traffic, check-in and security, all of which went rather smoothly. I remember standing in long lines a few years ago, but obviously the airport authorities have stepped up to the challenge with upgraded systems, especially regarding security, to allow as many passengers as possible to be screened in a short period of time.
The flight back was direct and took a solid 12 hours. It was a smooth ride and the Boeing 787 touched down early in the morning, before the arrival of other flights, allowing again for a quick passage through immigration and customs, which at other times can be a rather congested affair.
Leaving the airport terminal, I was once again greeted by the 13 months of sunshine. On the way home, I could not help but notice the thick layer of smog hanging over the city, which is a real concern from an environmental, as well as health, point of view. With Bole airport located on the edge of the city the ride home is short and coming home, I was welcomed with the message that there was no water. In fact I was told there had been no water for a number of days. And so I had to adjust myself again and be very economical while using the bathroom and bring more water from outside. Luckily the house is equipped with a water tank which can be filled up. Later that same evening the electricity was gone for a few hours and this has happened during a few evenings since.
Like in the USA I have mixed feelings about living and working in Ethiopia. There are many great things and there also many challenges, which we all learn to cope with. But, in an effort to minimize our need to cope, we need to observe and learn from the way things are done and work elsewhere and be eager to implement them back home.