Saturday, November 20, 2010

Transit Hell!

This past week I had the opportunity to visit Nairobi Kenya for the second time in five years. When travelling to any African country, especially on their national carriers, most travelers would warn you not to expect too much. Very few flights are ever on time, traffic is a nightmare and those who lack patience and mental endurance would not fare well on the continent that is Africa. My journey started on Tuesday and all went as expected and I had no reason to be concerned. Then on my return journey on Thursday things went horribly wrong giving the phrase “Transit Hell” unique significance in my plethora of bad travelling experiences.
Waking up from my peaceful slumber Tuesday morning I was all set to face the challenges to journey into Africa. I was mentally prepared for traffic, delays, unfriendly and void of personality customs officials, grumpy travelers and issues with my now notorious hand luggage. To my surprise, for the first time in months, the highway to the airport wasn’t gridlocked and I arrived at the airport 30 minutes early, easily found a parking bay at long term parking and made it through customs in record time and my flight left on schedule. To my surprise all seemed to be going better than expected!

Arriving in Nairobi I was met at the airport by my driver James. James is an unassuming man, quiet, humble and relaxed. That is until he gets behind a steering wheel. You see, I arrived in Nairobi just in time for peak hour traffic and the trip to the hotel took us 2 1/2 hours. James was slamming his fists on the steering wheel, flashing lights, honking his horn in cursing people in Swahili! All the while I was sitting in the backseat being bombarded by street hawkers trying to sell me anything from fruit to pirated copies of straight pornography. At some point cows and goats were moving faster than my car, and this seemed to particularly annoy James and even they were the recipients of Swahili profanities.
Tired and smelling a tad sweaty I arrived at the hotel in one piece – total journey time 5 hour 45 minutes. Once at the hotel I settled in, had a shower, dinner and having had my eyes scratchy from the air-conditioning system on the airplane I threw in some eye drops and I had a good night’s rest. The next morning I woke up with an eye infection. The same infection I had for a record 6 weeks and had been battling with up to a week ago. The eye drops was the same I used during the 6 week period and I managed to cross infect myself again. Not a good start to make a good first impression!

That morning I met with the man that was to interview me for the two days I was going to be in Kenya. The interview went well and even with my eye infection I trust I made a good impression. On Thursday (day 2) my interview was completed and by 2:30pm I was back at the airport for my return journey home. My flight was only scheduled to depart at 8:40pm and I had quite a wait ahead of me. Still being a smoker, I hung out at one of the smoking restaurants, met a few interesting people and by 5pm decided to check in. Only once I passed customs was I informed there no longer was a smoking section inside the airport. At roughly 7:30pm I managed to find a way to leave the airport terminal with the assistance of one of the airport staff to have a smoke – the catch being I managed to legally enter and exit Kenya twice in three days.
My flight from Nairobi left 30 minutes behind schedule but for the most part the flight was uneventful. That was until 32 minutes prior to landing in Johannesburg and having already started our descent. “This is your captain speaking from the flight deck. Unfortunately I have some bad news. We are being diverted to Maputo Mozambique” was the announcement that was to ruin 97 people’s day. “Severe fog in Johannesburg will make it impossible for us to land, we are diverting to Mozambique until the weather clears”. An hour later at midnight we landed at Maputo International Airport and we were the only aircraft with passengers there and the airport was pretty much deserted. None of us thought much of the delay and most of the passengers continued to try and get some sleep. I however, couldn’t as I can’t sleep on a plane if it’s not flying – I am weird that way.

As the hours past no good news was forthcoming and the passengers started to get annoyed. At 4am bad went to worse when we were told the delay would be another 2 hours. At that point I was tired and nicotine deprived so I walked up to the senior cabin crew person and told him I was going to disembark the aircraft to smoke a cigarette and if he were to try and stop me there would be a scene. As he tried to talk me out of it I was already half way down the stairs next to the aircraft and he quickly managed to find a ground crew member to escort me out of the small airport where I had two cigarettes. On my return I found the majority of my fellow business class passengers were awake and irate on their Blackberries and Iphones.
What do you expect me to do walk to Johannesburg!” one lady screamed into her BlackBerry, “I landed in blizzards, this is absurd!” another sneered at the flight crew. As business class passengers frantically cancelled and moved meetings, phoned airlines to move flights, arranged alternative drivers and phoned loved ones, the mood on the aircraft turned from annoyance to anger. Anger that soon found its way directed at the pilot and crew.

Imagine 19 business class passengers armed with Blackberries and Iphones having access to concise weather and news reports, open lines to people at the Johannesburg International Airport telling the pilot and crew they are wrong. The situation teetered on the verge of a hostile takeover of the aircraft and eventually the pilot, who at one point frequently came out of the cockpit, locked himself in there and never came out again and instructed the cabin crew to go sit at their stations and ignore the passengers. At 6am the situation was volatile with passengers and crew having a stare down. Another 2 hours and 50 minutes would pass before we finally left Mozambique – an total of 8 hours and 50 minutes behind the original schedule. There was the little communication from the flight deck during the flight back to Johannesburg, no breakfast or drinks were served to business class and no flight crew was insight. There was also no traditional clapping of hands on landing or friendly farewells on departure.
Arriving at Johannesburg I was exhausted, smelled like a bush animal and had no personality, no patience and was just glad to get off the flight from hell. Total journey time 12 hours 34 minutes. Being sleep deprived, stinking and having an eye infection that got worse, the woman at passport controlled told me to take off my sunglasses and that was the final straw. I leaned forward making sure that my African fragrance permeated into her personal space took off my glassed and with bloodshot eyes said “I’m having a really bad day are you planning on making it worse?” She leaned back stamped my passport and signaled for me to pass. And this is how my transit hell came to an end. Total traveling time 18 hours and 20 minutes and I am doing this all again in a few weeks time, let’s keep our fingers crossed not to have a repeat performance.

Till next time.


Jason Shaw said...

Oh my dear boy, what a horrid horrid tale, truly a trip from hell and beyond.

I don't know how you managed to remain so calm, I'd have thrown my toys out of the pram for sure.

Pierre said...

Jason Shaw, I was just glad when it was over. Let's keep our fingers crossed for no repeat performances.

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