Mulling It Over or: I Lost My Passport in Kombolcha

Sunday, February 21, 2010 | Addis Abeba, Ethiopia

There is little more than an occasional camel caravan on the road from Kombolcha. I was glad not to have to travel it twice.
Soon after our return to Addis Ababa and our subsequent decision to return to the US, I dug around for my passport so we could head to the airline offices. Not in that pocket, nor in that pouch, nor in that bag. Hmmm...

The passport, it turned out, was in a hotel room back in Kombolcha, a long day's drive northeast of Addis. Reached on the phone, the hotel manager there promised to hand it off to a driver who was heading this way, and told me to sit tight.

So I sat. I sat for a whole day in the lobby of our hostel on Mundy Street.

The wait—in a country with such abysmal internet connections—finally provided me with the pure, unhindered, mind-numbing state of boredom necessary to motivate me to read Ryszard Kapuscinski's The Shadow of the Sun, the reputedly excellent travelogue which I've carried around
the world with me for years without ever managing to read.

During one of many breaks in my reading, I also decided that if I ever write a travel book, the title "I Left My Passport in Kombolcha" will perfectly sum up the frequent frustrations of traveling in third world countries. I'll just have to balance out the drudgery with the romanticized descriptions of beautiful destinations, colorful characters, and unforgettable adventures typical of the genre.

* * *

More often though, I pondered our decision to return home. Should I have agreed to it? Should I have kept going on my own? Was I a fool to have come here in the first place, for such a short time?

I knew I could have kept traveling for months, but the prospect of doing so alone wasn't as appealing. After all, Jacqueline and I had set out on this trip in order to share the experience together. As for the other questions, I didn't yet have answers.

* * *

All day, my mind kept wandering back to a conversation I had had at our hotel in Lalibela. There, we met two middle-aged Israeli gentlemen who were traveling and trekking together for a few weeks in northern Ethiopia.

One of them, Jay, was a sophisticated, outgoing, American-born composer. While he and I were chatting about our respective experiences in and impressions of Ethiopia, I mentioned how it was more "rough" than I had expected. While the discomforts weren't particularly a problem for me, they were making Jacqueline's experience very unpleasant.

In response, Jay explained that he actually had a wife and daughter back home—and that there was a reason they weren't here with him.

"You see," he explained, "Years ago my wife and I came up with a three tiered system: In the first group, you put the Londons, Parises, and New Yorks of the world, which are great but which we've vowed not to visit again until we're both in wheelchairs. There's too many wonderful things to see everywhere else."

"Then there's the less developed places that still have enough comforts that we can both enjoy them." This second group, he said, included Morocco, which he'd just visited last year with his wife and daughter.

"And in the third group are the really rough destinations that I don't even try to bring my wife to. I tell her I want to go somewhere like Ethiopia and she just says, 'Then find a friend.'"

Through our trip, I've learned a number of new lessons the hard way: For instance, Ethiopia is definitely in the third category of Jay's system, not the second. Also, in the future, Jacqueline and I might need to develop and follow a similar system. Finally, I guess I'm in the market for a travel partner who's as eager as I am to explore that not-always-comfortable third category of destinations.

* * *

I was told the passport would be delivered in late morning, by noon at the latest. It arrived just short of 8:00pm. I didn't complain, just gave the guy a handful of birr, the local bills.

The next morning, Jacqueline and I were first in line at the Egypt Air office to buy our tickets home.

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