Impromptu geography lesson

A chat with an Ethiopian man at the airport inspired her to learn more about the world.

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No, I was not going up the down staircase. I was just going down the escalator at the airport in Atlanta. I glanced back to be sure my wheeled suitcase was secure on its own moving step. Only then did I notice the man traveling behind it.

He wore a square-patterned cotton shirt with ornate trim on the cuffs and front placket. The design was strikingly beautiful, and I complimented him on it.

"Did you purchase your shirt in Africa?" I asked.

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"Yes," he replied. "I am from Ethiopia."

We both got off the escalator and waited to board the tram to the concourse for our respective flights.

I have traveled to Africa but never to Ethiopia. Yet, the name of the country jogged my memory. I thought of two phrases from my general fund of information: Addis Ababa and Haile Selassie.

By this time, we had boarded the train and continued our conversation.

"Isn't Addis Ababa the capital of your country?" I inquired.

"That's right."

"Do you live there?"

"Yes."

"Well, I haven't been there yet."

"If you like to travel, now would be a good time to visit. We are celebrating our bicentennial," he added with pride.

I remembered the bicentennial in the United States in 1976, so I could relate to his feeling.

"We are also celebrating the beginning of the second millennium," he added.

This statement confused me. I remembered the festivities in 2000. Hadn't those been for the millennium? Not for his countrymen. The Ethiopian calendar is behind Western time about seven or eight years.

When I was a sophomore in high school, my world history teacher made the class memorize the location of all the countries in Africa. I scored 100 percent on the map test then.

But more than four decades later, I wasn't sure that I remembered Ethiopia's exact spot. And I wanted to check if I did.

Mentally, I reversed roles with my new acquaintance. Would I expect him to know the location of my state – one of 50? Perhaps he would forgive me if I could not pinpoint his country on the African continent.

"What is the exact location of Ethiopia?" I asked hesitantly. "Isn't it in the northwest?"

As it turned out, I hadn't remembered the location and wasn't even close.

He gently explained that Ethiopia was in the middle of Africa near the east coast.

I would have liked to have talked to him and learn his perspective on his country's history of famine and drought.

But there wasn't time. The tram had arrived at our destination and we disembarked. He was taking a flight west; I was flying east. After a firm handshake, we parted.

It was a spur-of-the moment encounter: a compliment, a few facts, and new information. The conversation was relatively short, but I will remember it for a long time.

It has inspired me to brush up on my geography.

Once I learn where each African country is again – and how its name may have changed from my high school days – I plan to continue with the map of central Asia and get my "stans" straight: Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan.

But on these escalades, I'll be scaling geographic walls.

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