Friday, March 30, 2012

A Quick Visit Home

Three of us left the University for Baha airport around midday; I was bound for SA, one colleague for USA and the other for Qatar. My flight was at 1700 so it was quite a long wait before I got going on the first leg of my trip which was to Riyadh. We got to Riyadh about 1830 and took a leisurely stroll from domestic arrivals to international departures. Leisurely because my connecting flight was only leaving at 0430. 

When I went to check in I was told that I couldn't check in before 0100, so that meant I had 6 hours to kill. I also couldn't enter the transit lounge and there was no waiting area for passengers who were waiting to check in. We (Alan and I) ended up in a small coffee shop and had to pay SR10/hour to sit in the "TV lounge". The TV lounge was a two-seater couch and two armchairs in a semi-circle around the TV and about 2 meters from it.

While we were there a football match was being broadcast - KSA vs Iraq. I wasn't particularly interested, but most of airport security were enthusiastic fans and were gathered around the TV. Some had brought their own chairs and there was lots of excited chatter and cheering. An unexpected window of opportunity for smugglers and other baddies!

Eventually one 'o clock came around and I drifted back to the check-in counters. I was disheartened to see that the queue waiting to pass through security had grown from zero to about 100 passengers while I was languishing in the TV lounge sipping Pepsi. While I was gazing despondently at the crawling queue a Pakistani gentleman offered (for a small consideration) to help me. He grabbed my bags, forced them onto the conveyer and then pushed me through the metal detector. Total time taken: about 1 minute. Of course if I had been in the queue and seen someone else pushing through like that I would have been seriously pissed off, but since I was the one benefitting...

In due course I boarded my Ethiopian Air flight. As I was making my way down the aisle a hostess asked me if I would mind sitting by the emergency exit since I spoke English. In case of emergency I would be asked (in English) to open the exit and see the other passengers safely off  the potentially blazing and toxic-smoke filled aircraft. I was OK with that but I was a bit alarmed at how easily the door could be opened in flight. For all she knew I might have been flying to get my regular ECT treatment to alleviate my suicidal depression and irrational behavior! I considered telling her that I would only open the emergency exit if the voices told me to do so just to see how she'd respond, but I resisted the temptation.

My thoughts were interrupted by a commotion on the opposite side of the cabin. The same hostess was stridently explaining to three Arab gentlemen that they would have to move from the emergency exit because they could not speak or understand English. Since she was doing the explaining in English, she was not enjoying much success in getting her point across. Her frustration made her all the shriller and she declaimed loudly that the safety of the entire aircraft and the hundreds of passengers depended on these three gentlemen vacating their booked seats. Eventually someone translated and they sulkily found other seats while replacement, English speaking passengers took their place.

Once we were airborne and the set-belt light was turned off, a large Arab gentleman required these three passengers to vacate their seats. It turned out he wanted to pray and needed space to bow and prostrate himself. I watched this with some alarm; I know we tend to stereotype, but when you are on an international flight and you see an Arab praying and prostrating himself, potentially making peace with his maker, one does feel a certain amount of unease.

A bit later breakfast was served. This was a warm, grayish-brown sticky paste and a few thinly sliced pieces of potato. All the potato slices were stuck to each together and the bottom one was stuck to the container. Trying to prise them loose with my springy, plastic knife resulted in me almost flicking the entire potato cluster-bomb across the cabin to where the three original passengers had reclaimed their seats.

We landed at OR Tambo on time and I quickly passed through immigrations and customs. I always feel a bit uneasy when the drug-sniffing Bassets are around my luggage or the customs officials give me the evil eye as I pass them in the "nothing to declare" line. I know I'm innocent but what if the dogs pay me too much attention? I always say things like "what a clever boy" (to the dog, not the handler) to try to establish cordial relations with the sniffer.

I passed into the arrivals hall and was a bit deflated to see nobody was there to meet and greet. I drifted around grumpily for a while and finally sat in a quiet corner. There I tried different sims from different service providers in different phones to try and find a winning combination so that I could ascertain whether I was, in fact, expected by my loved ones. It turned out that I was expected and an hour later I was on my way and all was well.

I only had five days in Johannesburg and I didn't see all the people I wanted to see, meet all the people I wanted to meet or go to all the places I wanted to go. Nonetheless I had a magic visit where I got to see green plants, trees and grass, had a cat sleep with me, spoke to women AND saw their faces. I went to pubs and ate in restaurants. I had a Wimpy breakfast with pork sausages and bacon. I could drive my car and go wherever I wanted. It was refreshing to be back in a "normal" society. And it was wonderful to spend time with my loved ones.

All too soon I was back at OR Tambo again. Saying goodbye at the airport is always a heart-wrenching business, but this time we managed it without tears (or very nearly). I was once again appointed the guardian of the emergency exit, along with a lady who was going to Riyadh to teach English in a ladies university. Soon after we were airborne (Ethiopian Air again), the captain came on the intercom and made a lengthy announcement in Arabic. Then he switched to almost inaudible and incomprehensible English. All I could make out was "Lusaka" and "technical issues". Apparently a flight from Lusaka to Riyadh had been scrapped and we were on our way to pick up the stranded passengers.

We parked a good distance from the terminal building at Lusaka Airport. The aircraft doors were not opened. No new passengers came on board. No baggage carts appeared and no additional baggage was loaded. Then the captain asked us to switch off all electrical equipment as we were refueling! Based on the evidence, I surmised that they had forgotten to fill up before we left (or maybe fuel is cheaper in Lusaka) and we had been in danger of ruuning out. One of the hostesses told an American lady I spoke with that we had landed to change a tyre??  WTF? There's an Afrikaans saying that summed up my feelings: "Ek ken modder en ek ken kak, en hierdie is nie modder nie". After they finished doing whatever it was that they were doing we took off again with no explanation. The lost time meant we had to sprint for our connection in Addis Ababa. We got to Riyadh at 0230 where I waited till 0730 to fly back to Baha.

Eight days later I'm back "home" with a stock of South African groceries: chutney, Simba peanuts, Cadbury Chocolates, Knorr stock cubes and various other bits and pieces. And most of all, lovely memories fresh in my mind.