The African Experience – Just to Get There!
The greatest reward in traveling is never knowing ahead of time what the end experience will be like. I am often asked how was Africa and my response is naturally, “it was amazing!” and certainly that is said with every aspect of the statement. To just get to Africa was an adventure in itself, the original 19 hour flight from the US to Africa was suppose to be a no frills, two plane change overnight, and long day flight to get half way around the world. I left mid afternoon on a Friday with enough built in down time in Nairobi to get adjusted to the time zone change, sort a few last minute details and orient myself with my new surroundings that I would call home for the next month as I played around East Africa. But as all best laid plans go, this no frills flight plan would turn into an adventure unto itself.
The original flight was scheduled to take me from the US to Switzerland then connecting onward to Nairobi, Kenya. Forty Five minutes into the flight, the plane depressurized and added a new roller coaster affect to the flight and forced a return to the origination airport. Naturally, this in turn caused all connecting flights to be missed. Knowing I had a window of time to get to my destination and knowing that this window of time was my only time I would have to complete this journey I quickly started working with airline staff to get on a new flight to get to my destination of Nairobi then onward to Moshi, Tanzania.
So now, of course, the adventure of air travel begins. I flew to Newark, New Jersey and told I had a better opportunity to work with staff their to get to Europe by morning. I said thanks and hopped the flight. After arriving in Newark and sprinting through the airport I am corralled into a customer service line that had at least 60 people ahead of me for flight changes. I quickly left this line and ran to the airport entrance check in instead of staying behind the lines of security and opted for a new approach to getting to Europe where I am finally booked on a flight to Zurich then to Nairobi, but that leaves in 15 minutes and I still have to go back through security.
The race is on.
I get to the gate after a mad rush of jumping over everything around me only to be told, “we are sorry, but this flight has been delayed due to record snowfall in Switzerland”. My first thoughts are, “I can stop and catch my breath for a moment”. Then I realize, this delay now means I am missing the new connecting flight to Nairobi. After a 3 hour delay, we are allowed to board and I am finally on a flight to Europe. Flying through the night and landing in Zurich early the next morning; the flight in to Switzerland was absolutely beautiful as everything had a beautiful fresh snow fall that had been undisturbed by the world around it. We deplaned in the cold Swiss morning air where I was met by a gate agent who advised me the next flight to my destination would not be for another 22 hours. I told the agent I had to be in Africa no later than this date and time. The agent tells me, ma’am the only thing we can do then is fly you to Germany where you have more flight options.
Back running again across yet another airport to catch the next flight to Frankfurt. Now of course I was originally set to fly east then south to my destination. At this point I have now flown north, then east, and now back northwest.
Upon arriving in Frankfurt at this point I have no additional booked flights as to remain on the original ticket I had would be to fly out of Zurich, Switzerland. In Frankfurt the airline advises me they do not have any seats left on any flights to my destination. Thanks to iPhone Apps and Kayak.com, I quickly informed the staff of the airlines, but your partner airlines do, please book me on the next flight out. The agent asks me, would you like to fly through the Middle East or fly through Ethiopia. Now at this point, the idea of getting on the right continent seemed as the most appropriate response. Naturally I could see calling up family and telling them, “oh by the way, I am now in the Middle East, whereas the answer of I am at least on the correct continent was a safer and more calming response.
I leave Frankfurt flying to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Fly through the night and come in for landing under a remarkable sunrise over the Ethiopian countryside only to land on a shake and bake runway with a very simple two level airport. Now this is my first experience in arriving at a location that is significantly culturally and religiously different than most places I have traveled and the language barrier significant with very little english signage. A normal barrier expected when traveling and apart of the adventure in figuring out where and what. We were motioned off the plan and into the little, yet heavily armed airport. I look around noticing I am one of maybe the only American in the area I am in, so at this point, following behind the Brits and Aussies I figured all is good.
Then, yes there is yet another “then”.
The staff just disappear, no where to be seen, as if the section of the terminal just entered a time warp where your standing there one moment and the next your the only one standing there as the rush of people had just vanished. A daunting moment and at this point after having flown and run through airports throughout the US and Europe over the last 50 hours with no sleep and no food other than airplane peanuts, I was beginning to reach my overwhelmed moment. A deep breath and off to search for a agent or someone who resembled an agent. Finally finding the “customer service window” per se, the idea or concept of a westernized customer service desk yet highly dysfunctional and disorganized que for assistance where I was so gratefully introduced to the nervous, pacing Indian citizen who informed me upon realizing I was American citizen therefore spoke English that he could finally share his frustrations and give me some insight into the vanishing people. As he frantically paced the floor around me he mutters, “I have been here for 4 days, 4 days, I have been here for 4 days, there is no way out, there is no where to go, there is no way to leave, I have been here for 4 days…..
Comforting isn’t it?
After his nervous mantra I finally realized the vanishing people, the absence of airplanes (an important element to have at an airport) and the chaotic disarray were due to a strike. So by now, I have flown North, East, Northwest and finally South over the past 50 hours to now be on the right continent but two countries off the mark of my final destination. I have not had any “real” food or meal in what seems like days, no sleep outside of the upright and uncomfortable cat naps on airline flights and now I have been picked out and introduced to a nervous and frantic foreigner who is not helping get me through this adventure sanely.
Fortunately a flight comes in hours later and the crew agrees to fly onward to Nairobi and then it dawns on me, technically my flight ticket ended in Addis Ababa. But I have to get on this flight. I go for assistance at the customer service concept window to get on the flight, and I am told for $400 US I can get on the flight, quickly knowing my new ticket issue would be on a handwritten piece of paper and it required a cash only option, I knew I had just encountered my first of several attempted bribes that I would be faced with. You know the bribes that say, “for this, I will make sure you are on the plane”. Now, I may have been almost at a dazed state from no sleep and pure exhaustion at this point, I did have enough faculties to know, “I have already seen how fast you all vanish, I now add a few US hundreds to your hand and that vanish would occur at warp speed and I would still be standing in the airport. For days, like my new foreign friend.
After a fair amount of talking, negotiating and challenging I finally made it on the flight that is now overbooked and standing room only and at this point, I did not care if I stood or sat in the lap of some stranger, I just wanted to leave this country and leave now.
The flight originally set for or told to be set for Nairobi took a detour and landed in Bujumbura, Burundi. At this point, I am determined I was not getting off this plane, there was no way am I getting off this plane. Not to mention I do find myself well versed in geography but at this moment all I can think of is, “Where in the hell is Burundi?” “Am I even still in Africa?”
Finally the plane leaves its detour and finally lands in Nairobi. I leave the Nairobi arrivals and walk across the road to departures and buy a new plane ticket to Moshi, Tanzania. Last flight of day and last seat available.
Thanks to a very forward middle aged Kenyan who physically moved people around me to ensure I got to the counter. Obviously my worn out look told the whole story for him and he was going to be my shining moment in a chaotic adventure and yes, my new friend made it possible to for me to get to the front of the que.
I get on a twin engine sputtering prop plane with about 10 seats and off I go from Nairobi, Kenya. I land in Moshi, Tanzania, my final destination. It only took 63 hours, 3 continents, 6 countries and 4 time zones. But I made it to my destination with less than 9 hours to spare before leaving to climb Mt Kilimanjaro.
As with all great adventures, I arrived, but guess what didn’t? Yes, your right. The backpack.
As all epic journeys go, this would only be the first of many adventures East Africa would offer and the end of this journey of just arriving only begins the journey of wearing the same pair of pants for 23 days…