Life as a road warrior can get very lonely, especially in Africa. The author shares his stories of friendships made and maintained around the world.
I have found that there are three types of people in the world when it comes to travel.
The first group tends to be incredulous about anybody who claims to travel more than once a year on their annual vacation. The concept of the road warrior trudging from city to city, anonymous hotel to anonymous hotel and living out of a suitcase is just as alien to them as martians selling icecream. The second group are the "oh, you're so lucky to travel so much" people. These are the folks who think that a business trip to Europe with a redeye outbound and a day full of meetings is somehow similar to their dream vacation that features gondolas, rose petals and a masseur with fragrant oils. The third group are the grizzled veterans for whom nothing can raise an eyebrow. You flew 100,000 miles in a week? No big deal, I did 200,000 miles once. Had to change camels in Timbuktu on the way to Lesotho? Well, I took a flying cockroach to Nauru.
Where do I fall? Somewhere near the third category of late. The current project that I am working on has the tendency to impose travel schedules that even the most naive member of category two would balk at. I firmly believe that its a matter of attitude though. If travel deals you lemons, you make lemonade. Accordingly, I have penned this half-memoir, half-documentary and half-guide about "How To Travel The World and Stay (Arguably) Sane"
This tale starts in Mumbai, India. Well, sorta. I didn't actually plan it that way you see. I had arrived in London for meetings with a UK Government agency the previous week when suddenly a decree was passed (in a manner that only Governments can do with impunity) that the meetings were to be postponed by 5 days. Well, that means I could either head back to the client's office to cool my heels over the weekend or I could spend that time in the UK alternating between watching pay-per-view porn at the hotel and getting sozzled at the local pub. Neither seemed particularly attractive, so being the resourceful type that I am, I picked option three. Most sane people would not even consider this to be an option, but to me it was the most natural thing in the world. Since I was already in the UK, whats another 5000 miles. I'll hop a plane to India and go visit my mommy.
And so it came to pass that I wound up lying in bed in Mumbai with a 104F fever and the family doctor urging me bed rest while the emails kept pouring in stressing the importance of my return to London for the rescheduled meetings. Armed with a prescription for antibiotics and a 2 week supply of the same, I staggered to the airport to catch my flight west. Now, I am also somewhat of what my friends politely refer to as a "mileage whore". Skyteam is my alliance du jour, so I'm flying to London via Milan on Alitalia. This flight is usually an MD-11 but for whatever reason we have the crappy old 767 instead tonight. Still, I get assigned my preferred seat 3D which is the solo middle in the Magnifica cabin so it won't be all bad.
Alitalia airport services in Mumbai suck wind. They have a seperate line for Magnifica passengers but it leads to the same counter that handles the excess baggage and standby passengers, so service isn't exactly expedited. Even the red carpet is tattered and features a stain of questionable origin in the middle of the logo. The airport is typically bustling at this midnight hour so I make my way to what masquerades as the "Lounge" for premium passengers. Of course, this is equally bustling - so much so that they decline to let me in due to overcrowding. Just peachy. Interestingly, I also observe Ratan Tata (Forbes magazine's 2004 "Asian Business Leader of the Year") turned away for the same reason. At least they are equal opportunity obnoxious.
I take the opportunity to wander through the proletariat areas of Terminal II-A, something that I rarely get to do nowadays. My airport experiences tend to be confined to a counter-to-lounge-to-airplane flow, which is mighty convenient (usually) but doesn't really give you the feel of the place. I am quite impressed by the shiny neon signs and marble floors everywhere. If I didn't know better I might actually consider this a halfway decent air port.
Finally, Alitalia calls boarding and I climb aboard "Giovanni da Varrazzano", a 767-300ER named after one of the lesser known Italian explorers whose claim to fame is that he discovered New York (almost 80 years before Henry Hudson showed up actually!). There is someone sitting in my seat and she gives me some cock-and-bull excuse that she had booked this seat months ago but it got screwed up at checkin. Hint - if you are so desperate as to make up a story to snag a better seat, do some research. I smiled and told her very politely that when she booked the flight, the aircraft was supposed to be an MD-11 so the center single seat didn't even exist. All she had to do was ask me nicely if she wanted to swap seats. Shameless lady actually went ahead and asked anyway.
Let this be a lesson to those Doubting Thomases who believe that no good deed goes unpunished. No sooner had I settled into the aisle seat that our lying friend had been assigned to than one of the most gorgeous apparitions appears before me trying to scoot into the window. She looks very familiar though. I glance at the newspaper in my seat pocket and sure enough on the back page is the same gorgeous face smiling at me under a headline of "Israeli wins Mrs. World pageant". Ok, so its only "Mrs" World which isn't quite as high profile as "Miss" World, but don't let that take anything away from her looks. Yowza.
My usual modus operandi on this flight is to grab the appetizer from the supper service and then grab about 6 hours of sleep before awakening for breakfast and then landing. Today that consists of a shrimp plate which is pretty decent. I make sure to pop my antibiotics and I'm in dreamland before the crew roll out the cart for the main course.
Four hours later I awake shivering and with a fever like you wouldn't believe. I pull the seat upright and try to stand up but my head is spinning too much. Having been raised a non-rev, pressing the call button is something akin to dialling 911 - you are taught how to do it but it better be a life-or-death moment when you actually do so. This qualified. A few seconds later an Italian lady materialises at my side. I stumble over the words. "There is a bottle of medication in my laptop case. Can you please help me get it down." Kudos to her. She realises there is a problem and I am popping my pills within a minute. I zonk off back to sleep within a few minutes.
Another three hours later its time for breakfast. Fever gone, I am now ravenous. Thankfully this is one of those rare overnight flights where the breakfast isn't some miserable excuse of croissants and Danish pastries accompanied by a fruit plate. If an animal didn't die to feed me, it ain't a real meal.
One thing (well many things actually but this one is top of the list) annoys me about Alitalia in Milan. You can land at oh-dark-thirty (which we did) with every single jetway in the airport available but they will direct you to a remote stand. You then climb down a rickety set of stairs into the below freezing temperatures as you wait for a bus to come drive you to the terminal where a dozen empty jetways stand mocking you with their central heating. This of course after a flight from India where exactly zero people on board are decked out in warm clothes.
There are only two flights that arrive at this horrible hour, namely Accra and Mumbai. These are both my regular routes and invariably whichever one I am on arrives second, meaning that the lines at the transfer desk stretch forever. My patented technique is to go out through passport control, up the escalator outside and back through passport control to get to the departures level at least 30 minutes faster than standing in the slow moving line. Sure enough, this worked today as well and I was safely ensconsced in the lounge within minutes.
During my 3-hours in the lounge it began to snow. This being Italy where efficiency is hard to find even during sunny weather, snow meant that the entire airport goes into paralysis. Flights began diverting everywhere and cancellations began showing up on the departures screen. I was lucky. My flight was probably the only one that didn't cancel but simply took an hour delay. As I was riding the bus out to the aircraft, my cellphone beeps with a text message. "Mtg at Embassy @ 12. C U There". Argh. I call right back. "Hey, I just sent you a text message". "I'm in Milan and its snowing. No way I can get there by 12." "Well, make it as soon as you can." "I'll call as soon as we land."
Thankfully our delay did not drag on much longer and we were airborn soon afterwards. There was a panoramic view of the Alps as we crossed overhead while I ate my second Alitalia breakfast of the morning. No animals were harmed in the preparation of this breakfast though, which meant that I didn't enjoy it half as much.
I usually dread the non-EU Terminal 2 immigration lines, but today was surprisingly painless and I rushed to the tube station with luggage in hand while I got directions to the Embassy. In the end, I wound up being barely an hour behind schedule - which meant that the meeting hadn't even started yet! An afternoon of discussion ended with a cab ride to my hotel, the Hilton Olympia, and a takeaway dinner before I crashed into bed with a fever looming yet again.
Next two days were full of meetings, but I managed to get enough time off to do dinner with two friends both named Ben (Ben and British767) at Covent Garden on the first night. On the second evening, meetings ran till almost 9pm which meant that by the time I had hoofed my way down to Heathrow where I was staying my final night at the Holiday Inn M4J4, it was past 11pm. A short night and I was back at Terminal 2 the next morning heading to Accra.
There is no line at the Prima/Elite checkin counter, but to my absolute annoyance the agent cannot find a trace of my reservation despite a paper ticket that very clearly indicated its existence. So I get packed off to the ticket counter to troubleshoot where I spend a good 30 minutes cooling my heels while a Nigerian lady in front of me tries to haggle over the price of transporting her 60kgs of excess baggage. Finally, I get my reservation sorted out but by now it is only 10 minutes to departure. I resign myself to missing this flight, but the Alitalia supervisor won't accept that. "How much luggage do you have?" "Just these two plus the laptop." "Ok, anything sharp in either of them?" "Nope." "Right then, come with me." And off we went to the front of the snaking security line, through the terminal like bats out of hell and to the gate where a ramper was waiting with a gate-check tag as I ran aboard the waiting Airbus. While the safety demo plays, I feel the cargo door open and shut as my bags are thrown inside. And then presto, before I know it we're climbing into the British sky for the 90 minute hop over to Milan.
If you thought Malpensa was bad a few days ago with a light sprinkling of snow, today was definitely not for the faint of heart. The line for the de-icing pad stretched halfway to the Swiss border and there was no way in hell we were going to get out of town anywhere near on schedule. Imagine my surprise however when the sign in the terminal announced the start of boarding a mere 30 minutes late. Once again, we were forced to trudge our way through the good inch of sludge on the tarmac as some wise guy decided to park Giovanni the 767 (yep, same plane as last week's flight) in east bumblefick.
Of course, once we get on board the captain makes a very polite announcement apologising for the delay and advising that we would have to wait approximately 5 hours to de-ice. I beckoned the Flight Attendant over. "There must be something wrong with my hearing, I could swear he just said we had to wait 5 hours." "Si. Five hours." %*!&%#$* Alitalia. Fortunately, all the flight cancellations meant that we had exactly 26 passengers on board this 225 seater aircraft today so I found myself a quiet row and caught up on some much needed sleep. We made up time en route and again during our brief Lagos pitstop, so I landed into Accra at barely 230am in the end.
A couple weeks later it was time to head back to London on short notice for a bunch of meetings. When I say short notice, I'm not kidding. I got my tickets at 7pm for a 9pm departure. I had to rush from the office to the airport to make the checkin deadline and then rush back to finish packing otherwise I would have missed the flight.
The KLM flight up to Amsterdam was quite eventful and I was very much the sleep-deprived zombie by the time I boarded my connecting flight to Heathrow aboard a 767 christened "King Hussein Bridge". Thankfully, we were delayed an hour on ground and I managed to grab a fair amount of shuteye by the time we pulled into our gate at Terminal 4. I had an urgent package to deliver for a friend, but thankfully the person I was delivering it to had seen the delay online and had made her way to the airport to save time. I met up with her quickly and managed to bum a ride to my hotel (again the lovely Holiday Inn M4J4). There, I had a quick shower and shave before it was time to head out the door to my next set of meetings.
Work done, I exchange text messages with the office and find out that since I'm already in Europe, they want me to stick around and go to Dusseldorf on Monday. That leaves me with an entire weekend to play with. Well, my buddy Nuno from Canada is gonna be in Manchester this weekend for work himself. Since my meetings the next morning are in Crawley anyway, I grab a 40 quid one-way on Jet2 from Gatwick up to Manchester for the weekend and ask the office to ticket my Dusseldorf trip out of there instead.
The Jet2 experience was actually quite pleasant. I always pick the last row to sit in on LCCs because the middle seat there is invariably the absolutely last seat on the plane to be filled. That way you almost always wind up with a free seat next to you to spread out into. There is a deadheading captain from Monarch Airlines who obviously thinks the same way and takes the aisle to my window. We have an enjoyable gossip session throughout the short flight up. As I'm disembarking at Manchester, the phone rings. It's a guy who I've been in touch with via email and who wants to make a presentation in London. I set up an appointment for the following Tuesday right after I get back from Dusseldorf. No peace for the wicked.
Hotel shuttle over to the Airport Marriott where I run into Nuno in the lobby. We grab dinner at a restaurant and then briefly discuss plans for the weekend. For some reason we decide to head to the airport to see if there are any cheap last minute package deals available. Nuno is a great driver but a sucky navigator. We get lost trying to find the airport from an airport hotel. After about 10 minutes on the M56, even Nuno admits we're heading the wrong way. I call our buddy Alex to see what he suggests. He jokingly mentions that if we keep going for another 15 minutes we'll wind up at his house. Heck, its Friday night, why the hell not.
The evening passed in a blur with some memorable moments. Suffice it to say that anytime anyone mentions sleeping toddlers to Alex in the future, it is very unlikely that he will claim "oh, they never wake up". Waaaah. We toured Lancashire in a rental Renault till about 2am including a pitstop at a wonderful 24 hour kebab joint in Bolton (or some other chavvy Lancs town, they're all the same).
For the lack of anything better to do the next morning we decided to roadtrip up to Blackpool, Britain's rather low-end response to the French riviera. Once again, Alex joined us along with Daniel (trekster) but not before we made a quick detour via the Manchester Airport Aviation Viewing Park (aka "Anorak Row").
First stop was Blackpool airport where we wandered around the mini-terminal for 28 minutes (30 minute free parking) and then headed over to the Promenade. Nuno was very pleased at his parallel parking job, although a random guy in a superman suit later tried to dislodge the car. After a lunch of greasy fish and chips we spent a very enjoyable afternoon being extremely juvenile. We went on rides, we played bumper cars, we climbed the Blackpool Tower (and stood on the glass floor) and finally visited a store that sold blow up dolls. It was a gift for a friend, honest.
Back in Manchester we took a mosey down to Chinatown for dinner (which was actually quite exceptional). On trying to exit the parking lot however, our ticket jammed in the machine which led to Nuno making a rather desperate plea to the speakerphone "I've been here for three hours, please let me go!". At the hotel, we then proceeded to finish off around 1.5 liters of Captain Morgan between us - which led to a bunch of 3am phonecalls to friends in Canada and Switzerland to regale them with our rendition of "Show Me The Way To Amarillo". After raiding the executive lounge of all its teabags and setting up "WET FLOOR" signs throughout the lobby, we finally called it a night (morning) and retired around 5am.
If there is only one thing you take away from this trip report, please let it be this piece of advice. Do NOT schedule flights on Regional Jets when you have a hangover. After checking out of the hotel, the boys rode the shuttle with me to the airport where I checked in for my Air France flight to Paris (operated by "Regional - Compagnie Aerienne Europienne") and then headed to Garfunkels for a late lunch. It was a very quiet meal. We all kinda stared into space and grunted at each other. On the way back to my terminal, Nuno decided to quit walking and Alex had to wheel him along in a baggage cart for a while.
The ERJ ride was actually pretty enjoyable in the end since I had the exit row single seat and a great view of Heathrow as we passed overhead. Paris transfer from 2F to 2D involved lots of bus rides, standing in lines and walking but I made it to my gate just as the Dusseldorf flight was calling boarding. Another uneventful flight found me in Germany just in time to grab the shuttle to the Lindner Airport Hotel for dinner (accompanied by suitable non-alcoholic beverage). A hectic day of meetings in Dusseldorf followed during which I wound up scheduling yet another meeting in London for the following day, although this one was a casual meetup for dinner with Henry, a very talented young photographer whose work I am a fan of.
Heading back to Paris the following morning, I finally understood why so many customers had been dreading the merger of KLM Flying Dutchman and Air France Frequence Plus into a hybrid mongrel called Flying Blue. KLM had decided in their typically Dutch wisdom to save costs by not mailing me a 2005 Flying Dutchman card, but instead sending a 2005 Flying Blue card that wasn't technically valid until June. Despite a boarding pass that clearly stated "Elite Plus" and both a 2004 Flying Dutchman card and a 2005 Flying Blue card in my possesion that should have granted me access, the obstinate lounge dragon at the Air France "Salon" refused to yield and left me stewing outside in indignation.
The transfer in Paris was somewhat surreal and typically French. We were due to arrive at Terminal 2D with my connection to Heathrow departing from 2F, so I was pleasantly surprised when our aircraft began taxiing towards 2F after arrival. My optimism was to be short lived. We pulled into a gate at 2F, but the Chef De Cabine announced that rather than walk through the jetway into the terminal we should turn down the stairs and instead board the bus waiting below. The bus then proceeded to drive through the bowels of the airport and deposit me at 2D. I walked back up a set of stairs and retraced my way back to 2F where after clearing passport control I realised that my Heathrow flight was to be on the very same aircraft that I had just disembarked from. What a waste of time.
As I walked towards the baggage belt at Heathrow after our flight, I noticed a pair of shoes in a plastic bag doing the rounds on the belt. I laughed at the poor guy whose bag had bust open. Then I saw another shoe and this one looked familiar. On closer observation, I found that my garment bag had snagged on a jagged exposed edge of the delivery belt and the system had busted it wide open right down the side. I watched in horror as every additional bag coming onto the belt dislodged more of my personal possesions onto the belt. A quick search for an airline representative nearby yielded no results, so I reached over and hit the emergency shutoff button. The conveyor screeched to a stop, I climbed up to retrieve what was left of my luggage and headed off to the Air France counter to file my PIR.
This mishap and the corresponding delay forced me to push my meetings back by an hour as I called Air France's central office and got them to authorize me to purchase a replacement bag for my flight back the next morning. After a productive afternoon of discussions, I met up with Henry at Heathrow. We wandered the terminals searching for a decent luggage store and finally found the perfect bag in Terminal 3. A quick foray followed to watch the evening departures in the twilight before we grabbed dinner. I then headed back to the hotel to repack my luggage before falling into bed for yet another all-too-short night.
One of my favorite things to do at Heathrow is to relax on the "Flight Deck" level of KLM's "Holideck" lounge watching the runway action on 09R/27L. The lounge consists of a glass walled enclosure on the roof of Terminal 4 with barstools placed overlooking the runways and live ATC piped through the speakers. For an airline geek like me, this is heaven. I watched "Rialto Bridge", my ride to Amsterdam, arrive and reluctantly tore myself away and headed to board.
No sooner did I land in Amsterdam than my phone beeped with a text message from a friend requesting some last-minute shopping at Schiphol. That took up most of my layover and I was among the last to board "Maria Montessori" for my trip south. I always enjoy these afternoon flights down to Africa as they give rise to some fantastic views of the Sahara as well as breathtaking sunsets.
A few weeks more and another short notice trip cropped up, this time down to Johannesburg. The original plan was for a redeye flight down followed by a day of meetings and flight right back the next morning. A colleague was due to arrive in Accra on the KLM flight at 7pm, connecting to the SAA flight at 11pm. Plenty of time under normal circumstances, but a 3 hour delay to KLM in Amsterdam had everyone scrambling in panic. Fortunately, I was able to tap some contacts and arrange for him to be met planeside and whisked immediately to the next aircraft without having to deal with the formalities. SAA were even kind enough to check him in without either his passport or ticket coupon present.
I had requested that our group of 7 passengers all be assisgned seats in the smaller rear business class cabin on the Airbus 340-200 so that we could have a quick strategy meeting before dinner and then grab as much sleep as we could on the short overnight. Dinner was quite good and I managed to grab a few hours of shuteye before being woken up for the pathetic breakfast offering as we entered South African airspace. A fantastic sunrise kept me entertained as we swooped down into the airport formerly known as Jan Smuts International and parked at a remote bay on the Delta ramp just before 7am.
Our hotel was the splendid Intercontinental Airport Sun located right across the street from international arrivals so we strolled over and checked in before grabbing a quick shower and heading out to our morning meetings. The meetings lasted all day and it was past 4pm when I finally got back to the hotel. I had a dinner meeting set up with my good buddy Matthew (Ibhayi) so I gave him a call to set up the logistics. We dined at a great steak place in Rosebank and he gave me an interesting tour of the city before dropping me off at the hotel. As I walked into my room, I found a note under my door advising me of some new developments that would have to be discussed in the morning. Agh.
After an early morning team meeting it was decided that the others would head back as scheduled while I would journey to Pretoria to visit the Embassy there, personally address some of the new issues with the Ambassador and fly back the next morning. A vehicle was kindly arranged to transport me accompanied by a local representative who did a fine job showing me the relevant tourist sights in the capital. While at the Embassy, I get a panic text message from Matthew advising me that he was short one player for his Action Cricket team that evening and since I was still in town would I mind playing. Never one to turn down a game of cricket, I foolishly consented.
Back in Jo'burg during the afternoon, I tried to meet up with Zak who was supposed to be at the SARS building right by the airport but alas our paths crossed. Matthew picked me up a couple hours later and we headed over to Sandton for the cricket. Now, I'm not proud of the fact that I hardly ever get a chance to play sports anymore. In fact, I tend to joke that "I keep in shape; after all round is a shape". So I was extremely unprepared for the exertion that Action Cricket demanded.
For those familiar with cricket but unfamiliar with Action Cricket, it is essentially a 16 over per side contest played in the nets where every pair bats 2 overs scoring runs off the sides with negative runs for lost wickets. For those unfamiliar with cricket, forget it - I'll never be able to explain. Although I felt like I was about to die by the end of the game, I think I acquitted myself quite well scoring a dozen runs, bowling one very economical over (my other over was total crap but lets not dwell on that), snagging two catches and delivering a run-out with a Jonty Rhodes-esque dive to the non-strikers end. In the end we won by a fairly comfy margin and celebrated with a few pints at the conveniently located pub located in the same building.
Matthew and I were continuing the post game festitivites in the hotel bar when I got a cryptic text message from a friend to check my email. Fearing the worst, I took advantage of the wifi in the lobby and logged on. It was everything I dreaded and more. One of the less ethical newspapers had published a front page story revolving around a quote that I never actually made (either that or I had superpowers with my ability to be simultaneously giving them interviews and having meetings in South Africa). I was livid. Heck, I was more than livid. I cussed and fumed and punched the hard cover menu to calm down.
With this hot potato out in the public domain, there was no way in hell I was going back to Accra the next morning to face the music. I emailed the office asking if I could take the weekend off in South Africa and head back on Monday instead. To my surprise, they responded almost immediately in the affirmative. I went online to Flysaa.com and snagged myself a webfare roundtrip to Cape Town leaving the next morning.
Cape Town is a beautiful and relaxing place. I was very stressed out from a long week that had culminated in the newspaper article, so it was perfect for me to unwind. I spent a few hours hanging around at the Waterfront, watched a beautiful sunset around Table Mountain and once again came to be at peace with the world.
In Johannesburg the next evening, Matthew and I decided to hit up the "Caesar's Gauteng" casino (subsequently renamed "Emperor's Palace") conveniently located right by the airport. We found ourselves a pair of spots at a mid-range blackjack table and spent a couple hours happily breaking even. The elderly woman at the end of the table was not quite so lucky. She was obviously playing to a system, but unfortunately for her the system didn't appear to be working. I decided to mess with her head. I began hitting on every 16 which drew a loud sigh from her every time I did it. Finally she cracked.
"You need to learn how to play this game properly" she fumes from behind her gin and tonic.
"I'm sorry ma'am, but as far as I can see YOU are the one who is down two thousand Rand. Perhaps you should quit".
Sharp intake of breath from the others at the table and a warning look from the dealer.
"I can't go back home losing this much money, I have to win it back".
Sure you do. We weren't finished yet though.
Next hand, Matthew decides to hit on 17 and draws a 3.
He grins and delivers his best Austin Powers impression "I like to live... dangerously".
The man on my left stifles a laugh. Grouchy lady holds on 16 and loses.
Next hand I have a 3 and 4 showing. Groucho hits on 15 and busts. I hold. She almost has an apopletic fit.
"I too like to live... dangerously".
Dealer busts. She gets up and leaves the table in disgust. Matthew and the guy on my left are almost in tears with laughter.
Next morning I caught up with Zak, Matthew and Joge for breakfast at the airport before I had to board my flight back. My aircraft today was a 747 named "The Great North", an aircraft I remember from her frequent visits to Atlanta during my years living there. The Millenium configuration flat-bed seats in Business Class on the 747 were a huge step up from the outdated Lufthansa hand-me downs on the A340 I had flown South with. I polished off an excellent lunch of grilled Impala and relaxed watching "The Aviator" on the AVOD system as we soared over the Congo. Life was good again.
Well, life was good again until a week later when I suddenly got blindsided with another trip. The African Union was having one of its periodic ministerial-level summits and the President's office requested that I attend as a "Technical Expert Advisor". When Presidents "request", one obeys. I hastily shuffled some other pending work and threw together logistics for yet another trip down to South Africa.
The flight down to Johannesburg was aboard the same "The Great North" that I had flown up on the previous week. If I thought the seats were comfortable for a daytime flight, the overnight truly helped me appreciate them. I fell asleep right after dinner and woke up as we were descending into Johannesburg. To my surprise, we landed a solid 1h45m ahead of schedule (the schedule was originally designed for the slower A340) in pitch darkness. Our early arrival had the ground staff also caught a bit off guard and it was a good 30 minutes before airstairs were rolled up and we were able to disembark into the chilly South African morning. By now, dawn was breaking and there was a fantastic view of the huge 747 silhouetted against the technicolor horizon.
Matthew was supposed to pick me up at the terminal at 7am which was still a while away, so I sent him a text message telling him I had arrived early and would be hanging out in the SAA Arrivals lounge. He called me right back saying he was already on his way. I still managed to grab a quick shower and coffee in the lounge before we hit the road heading to breakfast and my hotel in Milpark.
We spent the day playing tourist and visited the Apartheid Museum (which presented an extremely tasteful, objective and comprehensive history of the different races in South Africa), followed by the SAB World Of Beer (which presented an extremely tasteful sample of various SAB products). Dinner was in Chinatown where I was amazed that a tiny community of monolingual chinese immigrants could exist in the middle of Jo'burg.
Next day Matthew had another Action Cricket match (but fortunately did not require a last minute player), so I tagged along and cheered the team to defeat. Did a spot of shopping for biltong in Sandton for some friends and picked up my rental car. I was staying tonight at the Intercontinental Montecasino so that I could get on the road early to Sun City, but we ate dinner down at Rosebank with Zak and his dad while my plans for an early evening evaporated with yet another late night visit to the casino.
Up before dawn, I hit the road for the 120-ish kilometer haul up to Sun City. The drive up was pretty straightforward and I pulled into the parking lot just after 830am. Unfortunately, as is customary at African Union summits, the security was absolutely stifling. It took me a good hour more to get my accreditation processed. The process involved scanning my passport as well as encoding my fingerprints, retinal scan and photograph onto my credentials. Even my mobile phone and camera had their serial numbers logged by security.
I had heard a range of superlatives about Sun City ranging from "Paradise on Earth" to "Las Vegas of the Southern Hemisphere". Let me assure you that it is none of the above. Sure, its a picturesque resort and the golf is supposed to be fantastic but I was seriously unimpressed. Even the much raved about ultra-luxury "Palace Of The Lost City" hotel struck me as being more like unneccessary random opulence than true comfort and luxury. My room at the more modest "Cabanas" hotel was best described by a fellow delegate as "staff quarters with satellite TV". There are a handful of rather pitiful casinos and a wide selection of restaurants that all close by 10pm. All in all, severely underwhelming even if the views are nice.
Getting work done at a summit like this is extremely challenging. For starters everything has to be conducted in multiple languages (English, French, Portuguese and Arabic) so you spend half your time with a pair of headphones on. Fortunately, my French is good enough to understand most of the Francophone delegates when they spoke, but some accents like those from the Congo had even the native French speakers relying on the interpreters.
As the second day dragged into the afternoon and it became clear that there was no way that the "Experts Session" would be able to complete our assigned mandate in the prescribed time, the chairperson suggested two extra plenary sessions lasting from 8pm to 11pm and then again from 7am to 9am, ending just in time to inaugurate the "Ministerial Session" at 10am. This of course, put a severe cramp into my plans to drive down to Johannesburg and spend the night at the airport before flying back in the morning. I called the office to advise them of the change in plans and checked back into the same room at "Cabanas".
The following morning, I was excited to get a chance to meet very briefly with H.E. Thabo Mbeki, President of South Africa as he was inaugurating the Ministerial Session. More exciting than that though was getting the afternoon off while the South Africans subjected the ministers to some sort of cultural program (us "experts" had our cultural event on the first day). Coincidentally, the new Star Wars movie was opening that evening in Johannesburg and Matthew had an extra ticket. I loaded my bags into the car, drove 120 kilometers south, watched the movie, stayed the night at a Holiday Inn and drove back another 120 kilometers to Sun City in the morning.
This was supposed to be my last day in South Africa, but a situation cropped up during the morning that wound up with the office instructing me to stay on for yet another day to attend meetings in Johannesburg. I once again juggled my itinerary to accomodate things and with the summit finally over, headed back to the city in the evening. After a quick stop at Woolworths to buy some clean clothes for the extra days (this constant check-out-check-in game left me with no time to do laundry), I toodled off to Sandton where my adopted Action Cricket team was playing yet another game. Pretty pathetic when you can essentially adopt an amateur league team in another country eh?
After another hectic day of meetings, I was severely burned out. It had been a very stressful few weeks dating back to the first South Africa trip and this week of 18 hour days hadn't really helped. I needed a break desperately and Matthew once again came to the rescue with the suggestion of a "German Cultural Festival" (aka Bierfest) being held over the weekend. I sent an email to the office asking if I could move my flights back yet again to take the weekend off and was given the all-clear. I retired to my hotel room that evening very pleased with life once again.
My happiness was short lived. The cellphone rang at 1am and I answered it groggily in the dark. It was the CEO. "They asked me to call you personally because they knew you would yell at anyone else, but we really need you back tomorrow". My heart sank. I almost whined my protests "Bbbbut its the weekend and they promised me..." "I'm sorry, I know its been stressful but we really need you there". Resistence was futile. When you are woken up at 1am with a request like that you know there is probably a damn good reason for it. I promised him I would be there and hung up the phone. Staring into the darkness of my room at the Holiday Inn Milpark in Johannesburg, I felt miserable. I walked to the bathroom, stared at my reflection in the mirror and cried like a baby just to let it all out.
First thing in the morning, I called Matthew with the bad news. He juggled his own plans so that he could come down and have breakfast with me at the airport before my flight. That is the hallmark of a true friend, one who accomodates you even when you don't deserve it. To make matters worse, the flight was oversold in Business Class so I wound up having to ride in Economy as I had given up my reservation earlier. Fortunately I was able to snag a seat assignment on the upper deck. For reasons best known to them, SAA configures the upperdeck on their 747 with Economy Class seats at a 35" pitch - thus creating somewhat of a pseudo-premium economy cabin for those aware of its existence and smart enough to ask for assignment there.
The flight started off pretty lousy with an awful woman behind me insisting on kicking my seat everytime I tried to recline. Rather than argue with her, I simply walked to the galley and asked the crew if I could switch to something downstairs to get some sleep. I managed to locate an empty 4-section in E-zone and napped for a couple hours. Headed back upstairs a little later to find that a handful of rugby players upstairs had been cut off from further alcohol already and were voicing their disapproval rather loudly. I watched the Flight Attendants defuse the situation very professionally and struck up a conversation with them about my KLM incident from the previous month. Next thing we knew, the hours had literally flown by and it was almost time to start our descent. Interestingly enough, this flight had originally been scheduled to continue onwards to Abidjan but a fire truck at the airport there had broken down. As a result, the emergency services were now considered inadequate to handle a 747 and the final leg was cancelled, much to the disappointment of the awful woman behind me. Serves her right.
Just to vary this story a little, I will disclose that the next scheduled trip had actually been planned for a while. I had to be in Geneva, Berlin and Paris on fixed dates within a 10 day period so I built the rest of my schedule around that. I chose Alitalia as my principal airline for this trip, even though it meant a handful of connections that would give your average geography teacher a coronary. The shortest distance between two points may be a straight line, but the cheapest one usually involves a connection in Rome or Milan or both. I also had a slightly ulterior motive for this. The new AF/KL hybrid Flying Blue program had not yet clarified which of their own fare classes earned full mileage credit, so I stuck with Alitalia metal where I knew that everything counted.
Friday nights at Accra airport tend to be the closest approximation of hell-on-earth that one can find. A mixture of six invariably full longhaul flights leaving virtually simultaneously combined with construction work, a shortage of immigration officers and non-functioning airconditioning does not make for a pleasant experience. To cap it all off, Alitalia has returned to its practise of LCC-style free seating on this flight. This may work fine on a shorthaul 737 route, but on a longhaul redeye 767 with 200+ passengers it is a recipe for disaster. Still, its Alitalia so what can you expect. To my surprise, the boarding procedure actually runs somewhat smoothly and I manage to snag a center aisle seat in the last row with an empty middle next to me.
To my surprise, we were actually directed to a jetway once we landed in Milan. Holy cow, thats a first for this hour of day. I was a bit confused though as we had parked at the Schengen "A" concourse rather than the non-Schengen "B" concourse that we should have been at. Sure enough, we were marched into the jetway and then down a set of stairs, through a door marked "RESTRICTED" (or whatever its equivalent is in Italian) and into a bus that drove us across the tarmac to the B concourse arrivals area. Thanks Alitalia, always a new experience with you guys.
I'm not usually the religious type. In fact, my father calls me an "outstanding Catholic" (as in "when he sees a church, he stands outside"). I do make an exception for the Duomo in Milan though. I find it a wonderful place to spend an hour or so to unwind and reflect and just suck in the peaceful atmosphere. I was able to spend an enjoyable morning in downtown Milan before heading back to Malpensa in time for my 2pm flight to London.
Dinner in London was with Vassilis and Ben at a pub in Kensington. I had corresponded with Vasilis before and he had even cited some of my articles in his university thesis, so it was good to finally meet up with him. Kaz (pilot_kaz) was trying to join us at some point of the evening but alas logistics didn't work out. I was dead tired by the time 1030pm rolled around anyway and headed back to my room at the Holiday Inn M4J4 for a short night.
The next day started off nicely when I was greeted at checkin with the always welcome question "Would you mind traveling in Business Class this morning?". I guess Skyteam is good for something after all. As I cleared passport control in Rome, I was stopped by Italian customs. I was carrying about US$3000 in cash on me and this alerted the currency sniffer dog. Unfortunately the customs officer didn't speak English too well, and I speak no Italian. "How much?" "Three thousand" "Trenta Mila?" "Three thousand?" "TRENTA MILA???" "Umm.. Three Thousand" Evidently, "trenta mila" is significantly more than was allowed by the rules since his eyes were bulging at the thought. Finally, I grabbed a piece of paper and wrote 3-0-0-0 on it. "Ah, trei mila". And with that, I was sent on my way. Note to self, learn Italian numbers.
While chilling in the lounge in Milan, I sent a text message to my friend Jeremiah to see if he wanted to meet up in Geneva that evening. He confirmed he would meet me at the airport and sure enough was waiting as soon as I cleared customs. As we rode the hotel shuttle to the Holiday Inn located just across the border in Thoiry, I got a text message from Matthew referencing my Rome incident : "remind me not to cross borders with you". Jer and I laughed. Two minutes later, our hotel shuttle was the only vehicle flagged down by Swiss customs at the border post and we spent 15 minutes waiting for them to run my data through the system and clear me to leave. I guess Matthew was quite prophetic.
The next couple of days were tied up with work in the Geneva airport area, so I didn't get much of a chance to explore. Had dinner with Jer, his dad and a mutual friend named Sebastien in Divonne-Les-Bains on the Tuesday. We decided that since I had to be in Zurich the next evening for a meeting, Jer would take the time to accompany me on a tour of Switzerland. Armed with rail passes, we set off on a train journey that would take us through Lausanne, Bern and Zurich en route to St.Gallen where we met up with Tom for lunch.
I have always wanted to visit Liechtenstein. Why, I cannot explain. It is one of those strange things you must do once before you die. From St.Gallen, we convinced Tom to accompany us down to Buchs SG where we caught a bus across the border into Liechtenstein. Now this is the epitome of a really small country. Truly a case of "blink and you'll miss it". We spent half an hour in the capital city of Vaduz, looking for stamps - the postal type to mail a postcard and the passport type as a souvenir (note to future travelers, it costs EUR 1.50 and is available at the tourist office).
Liechtenstein reminds me somewhat of India, not because of climate or geography (which couldn't be more different), but because cows are allowed to roam the streets freely. In fact, Liechtenstein allegedly has more cows than people. After cracking as many bovine jokes as we could muster, we declared ourselves officially bored and headed back to Zurich, shedding Tom en route at Ziegelbrucke. Zurich is very picturesque at night and we walked down Bahnhofstrasse and along the river enjoying the wonderful weather. Dinner introduced me to that wonderful swiss delicacy of Roesti and we turned in at the Swissotel in Oerlikon after a very hectic day.
Up early the next morning, our itinerary was even more complex. We started by heading across the border into Bregenz in Austria to meet up with Thomas Jaeger over breakfast. Then back to Zurich for lunch with Gabriel. Then onwards to Basle to meet up with Thomas in the afternoon, including a visit to the new terminal at EuroAirport. Then over the border into Mulhouse in France, back to Basle and then across into Germany briefly. Then to Montreux and back to Geneva via Lausanne, after which I caught the airport shuttle back to my hotel in France. A very international day.
Dawn the next morning saw me aboard Alitalia yet again, this time en route to Berlin via both Rome and Milan. Landed in Rome and got a text message from Alex. "how is switz treating you?" I responded "switz was last night - am now in rome". Three hours later while I was in Milan, Alex texts me again. "rome eh? send my regards 2 the pope". My reply "rome was this morning - now in milan". By the time I got to Berlin that afternoon, he had responded with "try the spaghetti but with no cheese". "milan was 4 lunch - now in berlin - try 2 keep up". Two minutes later he had had enough. "well since im so slow u must B back in the office by now. welcome home".
My purpose in Berlin was a 4-day conference being held at the Estrel Hotel and Conference Center, although I chose to stay elsewhere to maximize my Priority Club point earnings. The conference itself was quite enjoyable as conferences go and the highlight was a fantastic party thrown for delegates by the Berlin Airport Authority on the first evening. They converted an old hangar at Tempelhof into a party venue complete with live entertainment, vintage DC-3 to give sightseeing joyrides over the city and 4 full-size buffets featuring an international menu reflecting the occupying powers of post-war Berlin. With delegates from 108 countries represented, I was surprised to see the largest lines at the American buffet. Evidently the lure of Hamburgers and Hot Dogs outweighed that for Pierogies, Lamb Chops and Tarte Flambee. I personally found the Russian buffet the most interesting, but Borsch needs to be a once-a-year delicacy and nothing more.
On another night, I met up for dinner with Sushant and we checked out one of the city's handful of Indian restaurants. The rest of the time, I kept myself happy with Doner Kebabs from one of the many kiosks dotted throughout the city. I have often heard it said that Berlin is the largest Turkish city after Istanbul and I can believe it. On the final day of the conference, I had the afternoon free and spent it checking out the various tourist attractions. Berlin is a very interesting city with a huge amount of history and everytime I visit, I leave wishing I had more time to check it out.
But leave I must, with the "46me Salon de l'aeronautique du Bourget" calling my name in Paris. An early morning departure from Tegel found me connecting in Milan yet again although my second leg was on an Air France operated codeshare to throw in a little variety. My original plan was to head out to Le Bourget on the first afternoon (although my meetings were all scheduled for the following day), but the torrential rain convinced me that the last thing I wanted was to schlep through the mud there and I wisely stayed in the hotel. To my surprise though, I get a text from Matthew telling me that he had a last minute trip to Paris crop up and would be heading up from Johannesburg overnight. Its a small world after all.
Up early the following morning, I headed off to Terminal 1 to meet up with Sammy, a colleague who was flying in from London to accompany me to our meetings today. We met up in arrivals and exchanged the handshake of grizzled road warriors. Sammy was on a 4 continent itinerary this week, making even my current roadtrip seem like a vacation in comparison. Traffic en route to Le Bourget was horrendous, but we still arrived well in time for our meetings and collected our accreditations.
The Air Show is so much more civilized on the trade visitor days than on the public ones and you are guaranteed to run into people that you know. I ran into a journalist I had been corresponding with at the Bombardier chalet and another acquaintance by the Boeing 777-200LR display. We had some great meetings over an exceptional lunch on the terrace of a chalet as we sipped champagne and watched the Airbus 380 do its flying display. After lunch, we took a tour of the various static displays and got a guided tour of the Airbus 380 cabin mockup, following which Sammy decided to call it a day and headed back to the hotel. I took the chance to wander the exhibition halls where I was spotted by another vendor that I knew and wound up spending a good hour discussing things at his booth.
I had made tentative plans to meet up with Ian, Tony and Matthew at some point this evening so I made a bunch of calls to see who would be able to make it. Ian and Tony were exhausted and asked for a raincheck, so I headed downtown to meet up with Matthew by the Champs Elysees. We grabbed a few drinks, chatted for a while and I then caught the last train of the night back to my hotel.
Back at the airshow with Sammy the next day, it was much the same story networking between the various chalets and booths - although the crowds on this first "public" day meant that it was a lot harder to get work done. Watched the Airbus 380 flying display today from the balcony of the Boeing chalet, probably the only place where people didn't cheer wildly when this monster took to the skies. Caught up with Alex, Ben and David at their hotel in the early evening before heading into town to meet with Ian, Tony, Jer and Tim.
The evening in Paris was one of those nights that you don't quite remember what you did, but you do remember that it was all fun. Some highlights included trying to throw Tim into the river (to make him "In Seine"), getting attacked by the rasta "jazz player" at the Pont Neuf (quote Ian : "shoulda figured that a guy on the left bank with a sax who didn't know Coltrane wasn't there for the jazz"), Tim trying to chat up a pair of acid-tripping lesbians (that didn't get too far), negotiating a 15 Euro ride to Gare du Nord from a private car owner at 3am (taxi line was too long) and finally stumbling back to the hotel on the night bus at 430am. I managed to get a few hours of sleep, but poor Sammy had a 7am flight to London and onward to New York to catch!
The following morning (actually it was later the same morning) I checked out of the hotel and headed to the airport where I met up with Patrick before checking in for my flights and heading back to Le Bourget. The heat was stifling and the lines were horrendously long (Jonathan likened the trek from the RER station to the Batam Death March), but we arrived just in time to watch the Airbus 380 perform yet another fantastic display. Met up with the group at the 777-200LR and hung out for an hour or so, but then had to head back to catch my flight to Rome and onward to London. I was absolutely exhausted by now and I fell asleep as soon as I was in my seat. Evidently our flight was delayed by 45 minutes but I didn't even notice, waking up only with the jolt of touchdown in Rome.
Another short night in London at the Holiday Inn M4J4 and I was back at Heathrow to retrace my steps right back to Rome. Arriving in Milan in the early afternoon, I find that my flight to Lagos and Accra is delayed by two hours. We finally board "Amerigo Vespucci" in the late afternoon and set course for Africa. It is an enjoyable enough flight in my exit row and I'm looking forward to a quiet weekend by the time we land in Lagos. Then the cellphone beeps with a text message. "mawuko will pick u up @ airport. come 2 office direct. c u there." And so it ends just as it starts. No peace for the wicked.
EPILOGUE : I consider myself lucky, not because I get to travel so much for my job, but because I have a fantastic bunch of friends spread around the world. Life as a road warrior can get very lonely in impersonal airports and hotel rooms, but that is a problem I rarely encounter. This report is dedicated to all my friends who truly make my world travels enjoyable and keep me (arguably) sane.