My recent visit to Addis Ababa in Ethiopia revealed it to be a place filled with contrast, extremely warm characters and confusing timelines.
First up, the timelines. It's like travelling back in time. No, literally. In Ethiopia it is 2001. Their calendar is seven to eight years behind ours, depending on whether we've had our New Year. This means the Ethiopians celebrated the turn of their millennium on 11 September 2007.
The Ethiopian year also has an extra month, giving them the perk that their tourism brochures can truthfully boast 13 months of sunshine (even though the thirteenth month lasts only five days).
Add the fact that they have a completely different time system, and you have the proverbial cherry on the cake. Please note I'm not talking about the three-hour time difference from GMT here.
At what we would normally regard as 0600, it's twelve o'clock there. They have 12 daytime hours and 12 night time hours, so 1500 by our clock is nine in the afternoon by theirs, a member of Ethiopian's PR team informs me, somewhat intrigued by my fascination with the subject.
Ethiopian's PR guy said by e-mail: "Your interview is scheduled at 9:00pm tomorrow. It will be done at the board room. I will arrange a car to pick you from Sheraton at 02:15pm."
After a bit of clarification, it emerged that the interview was actually scheduled for 1500, not 2100. I take solace from the fact that even Ethiopians find the system a bit confusing.
The moral of this? Don't expect simplicity from a country which has a 300-letter alphabet.
Then there's the contrast. The Sheraton in Addis (grounds pictured above) could happily slot in unnoticed among Dubai's many palatial hotels. The surroundings, beyond the boundries of the luxurious, landscaped hotel compound, however, could not.
Goats wander the edge of the road. Beggars mingle among the cars, selling tissues and audio cassettes. Women and children work on construction sites, the upcoming buildings clad in bamboo scaffolding.
There are colours everywhere, from vibrant parasols to the more sombre, but beautiful, red jewelled coffins stacked up outside shops neighbouring a church. Every dusty side track has a collection of residences, in the loosest possible use of the term, their walls formed from corrugated iron, fabric sheets or, as you go farther off track, wattle and daub.
The country's warmth, quirkiness and unbreakable spirit can be felt at Ethiopian Airlines' headquarters, where it's easy to forget the poverty down town. But, as always, the devil is in the detail. In the ladies' toilets there's a container filled with free condoms for the airline's staff. Outside there is an Ethiopian Airlines advertising billboard, which shows an aircraft but carries the slogan: "All of us have a responsibility to fight HIV/AIDS."
But the people. The people are amazing. Ethiopian's chief agrees to pose for a photo with Flight's mascot, Stefan the pilot. Children and adults greet us with enthusiasm, smiling warmly and proudly as we take pictures. Their happiness is infectious and, amid the poverty, it made me question exactly what we westerners have to be so glum about.
Ethiopians are very family orientated. I regale our hosts with a story about my return flight from my last visit, when a Somalian co-passenger told me about his 70 brothers and sisters (I'll save you the maths, it was one dad and several mums). Ethiopian's various PR team members express surprise at the tale, but two of them have nine siblings - maybe not quite as extreme as my Somanlian friend but still a very big family by our standards. I'm introduced to one of the PR manager's brothers, a restaurant manager at the Sheraton. He greets me like family, lots of photos are taken on their cameras and I'm invited in for coffee.
And then there's the odd quirky surprise. Beware: Addis Ababa's altitude makes bottles pop open, as I discovered when my roll-on deodorant successfully aimed, and then fired, its ball at my underarm.
During our trip we visited a cultural restaurant, with local singing, dancing and cuisine. Ethiopians don't traditionally use cutlery, so a waiter - armed with liquid soap, an ornate kettle and a large dish - appeared, pouring soap and warm water over our hands at the table.
Our shared platter (pictured below) includes injera, a pancake-like bread, which I'd experienced during my previous visit. At the time I wasn't aware it was a bread and its grey, spongy, flannel-like texture made question whether it was, in fact, animal's intestines. Injera is served rolled, like a napkin. One of my Ethiopian hosts says unknowing tourists often shake out the injera, neatly placing it on their laps in preparation for the meal.
The Ethiopian PR guys say it's normal for visitors to have their feet washed after the meal. Thankfully, this didn't happen and I later gather that this is a standard joke to use on westerners. Unfortunately they weren't joking when they merrily summoned a local dancer, encouraging Tom (our photographer) and I to mimic the professional's impossibly controlled neck movements in front of a full audience. I think I'll stick with journalism.
With the goal of exploring a bit more of this fascinating country, we show our hosts an article in Ethiopian's in-flight magazine about the ruins of Washa Mikael church, which was built from a single piece of rock and is situated on the outskirts of Addis. It's accessed by a 45-minute walk, but the article says you can get there by car. One of the PR team says, grinning: "When they say 'car', they mean 'CAR'." A jeep shows up at the hotel. The engine starts, and I have a terrible feeling that our CAR may have an internal carbon monoxide emissions issue. I don't mention it.
As we steadily trundle on, it emerges that the exact location of our destination is, erm, hazy. At one point we were stopping every 50 feet to ask directions.
We ventured off-tarmac, to an unpaved road, and our route dilemma became a little clearer. We asked two random students (pictured right) for more directions. They, of course, hopped in the back to join our unlikely posse. The road then became bumpy. Very bUmPy.
When we finally arrived at the ruins, Tom and I stood by as a long, passionate discussion ensued between the church's curators, our driver, Ethiopian's PR guy and the students. The debate's key prop was a notice board and the discourse seemed to centre on money, opening hours and more money to use cameras. I don't know the details; I still hadn't mastered the 300-letter Amaric alphabet by that point.
Once we'd fully taken in the worn, old building, our intrepid crew, which had now grown to eight including a priest and a guide (or nine with Stefan!), trekked briefly through a eucalyptus-perfumed forest to a nearby vantage point.
The view over Addis was stunning and we all gathered on a large rock to take it in.
It's hard not to smile and relax when you're in an environment which is this far removed from normal day-to-day life.
When we were finally reunited with our jeep, a young girl, who seemed to be the daughter of the priest, was keen to see the photos I'd taken of her and her brother. I showed her and she gave me a huge, delighted smile before being summoned back to dad. I captured the two of them together in a final photo.
Seriously, if you get the opportunity, do visit Ethiopia. It's a fantastic country, filled with fantastic people, who have an amazingly positive outlook on life. I have never smiled, laughed, or felt so humble, on a press trip.