Upgrade City
Mar. 1st 2005
Twenty five months, two years and one month, 731 days, 17,544 hours. However you want to express it, my service was ending. VSO: I had wanted to do it for years and years, and now I had. Still I wasn't feeling happy, upset, or anything really. Time to move on, but it all feels so natural, this is nothing new, and what were the last two years about?

Ali and I were up early to get to the airport for my flight to the UK. 05:00 can be such a cruel time to check in. Addis had changed in two years, the ring road was fully operational. The services at Bole airport had increased in scope and number. We were now able to sit and sip orange juices (for an extortionate price) in the terminal building. I had the satisfaction of knowing that there was a little present waiting for her once she returned to Mekelle. In her room was a bottle of imported wine, hopefully enough money to cover any debts that I left behind, and my Zicos. In fact, it was more than the Zicos, there was also a small bottle of kerosene and some matches. For the fashion slackers (or the fashionable), Zicos are the name of the flip-flops that I had been wearing for the last two years. They were not in good shape, Jon swore that they wouldn't last. Well, their foul, offensive form did survive to the chagrin of Ali and many visitors. There was some kind of active party amongst the female VSOs to pour hate at the footwear of the men in the house. My Zicos understandably being a focal point of this hatred. Now that I am gone I doubt that she will actually have the courage to burn them like she has always threatened.

Ali and I said our goodbyes. Throughout the time I have built up strong, trusting relationships with the VSOs in Mekelle, but none more so than Ali. It was good to have her see me off.

I had a surprise encounter at the check-in desk. One of Mulu's relatives works for British Airways. I was asked where I wanted to sit and I said that I would like a window seat if it was available. The seat number I had was changed and I went up and went into the departure lounge. Shortly after a new, printed ticket was given to me by Mulu's relative. Upgraded. A nice seat, better films, and better food. Well, an occasional perk is no bad thing for being a VSO. That was a trouble though - was I still a VSO? I had decided that I was a VSO until the VSO luggage tag - the, for me, almost mystical symbol of being a volunteer had been removed from my luggage case. It still identified me as a volunteer, and I was still on 'volunteer time'.

In the flight I took time to explore how I was feeling some more. I noticed that I was now quite nervous, again not happy or sad but nervous. The 'finality' of the flight started to sink in. I do not intend to return for a couple of years - that's as long as my placement itself and I returned to the UK in that time. I found myself wishing more that I had not been back to the UK during my placement. It would be nice to have the full experience of reverse culture shock. I don't regret the three trips I made, one to see Sarah, and the others to see my dad when I thought that they might be the last. However, it was an aspect of VSO that I had missed out on. But then, in many ways I hadn't been quite the full VSO. I never did learn enough of the language, and I could have made more effort to integrate with the local community. But did this make the experience worth any less? Could I really say that I didn't know where was more home? These and other unanswered questions were drifting around my head while I relaxed into my big comfy aeroplane seat.

This flight, like the one that first brought me to Ethiopia, stopped in Alexandria. I could see the same sand coloured bunkers and tried to imagine the snow I had been told about in England. Giarda decided to make a final attack. 'Good luck' I thought, little did it know the packets of Tinidazole already in my luggage to take care of this unwanted guest once I arrived in the UK.

Sand where there would be grass in the UK. I was still staring at it when the aeroplane lifted itself into the air for the final leg of the journey. I have been thinking of the things that I would miss most about leaving Ethiopia and no longer being a VSO. It was like no longer being a student - it was a 'thing' that I liked 'being'. It's like the saying that you're only as good as your last match. You're only a VSO while you're a VSO. That's not quite true: VSO stays in contact with you and you can do things for them. I already have something planned that might be useful for them. I knew that I would also miss the other VSOs. They're something special. Amazing in fact. The good things about meeting another VSO are: first you know that they are going to be similar to you in many of the important ways, and you also know that they are going to be different to you in many of the interesting ways. It's great. I was also going to miss the students, and people like Tsega. People I had built up a real friendship with. One thing about this could be counted as unsual, and regrettable. There wasn't anything 'Ethiopian' about what I was missing. There are Ethiopian things that I will miss, but it's all about people, habesha and ferenj alike. Here are some of the little things that I realised I would miss: Orion, the constellation sleeps on his side, along with the moon with the chunk cut out of the wrong bit; Sparks from welders can be seen as they work into the night, sometimes giving you the impression that storms will be coming in; Cheap chalk is shaped like a joint of marijuana; Pigeons can make noises just like generators; Voltage regulators squeak, sigh, and groan while trying to keep things at 220; I would take tibs over something like a McDonalds, no question - it was fast, tasty, and even had enjera with it; Predictable weather was also nice along with a regular day time appearance by the moon. For all of the things that I can identify, there must be countless things that are now just natural and normal to me.

London was visible from the window, neat looking houses surrounded by a sea of grey but no snow in sight. The plane landed, and I headed to pick up my luggage. As the luggage rounded the carousel, I could see it was missing something. Instead of the white luggage tag with the green and blue VSO logo, only the string remained threaded through a golden eye. I was home, and no longer a VSO.