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Thursday, April 11, 2019

Homeward Bound: The nightmare trip home

Saturday February 23
Today is our departure day.  It is also the last day of a rotation for Shaka and our crew.  Once they get us to the airstrip they have several well earned days off.  They’re very enthusiastic about getting us off to an early start.  Last night when we returned to camp, we found we’d be eating under the stars – the dining tent had been struck while we were out chasing the dogs.

We’re up early for breakfast.  We’ve no sooner sat down then we can see our tents being collapsed one after the other.  By the time we finish breakfast there’s no sign that a camp ever existed. It is going to be a very long day. Unlike my outward-bound trip where I had four nights in various places before my safari began, I decided to head home in one big push and get it over with.

We bid goodbye to crew and pile into the land cruiser for the last time.  I’d been nervous about the charter flight home – not because I’m afraid of small aircraft - but because I’m concerned I might be over my luggage weight allowance.   I was under my 20Kg allowance for my international flights, but I’d noticed the weight allowance for the charter flights was only 15kg.   Throughout our trip Shaka kept complaining I had a hippo hidden in my luggage when he hefted it into the trailer.  I moved as much of the heavy stuff into my carry-on to lighten my checked luggage a bit.  We arrive at the grass airstrip just in time to watch our ten-seater Cessna 202 glide in over the tree tops and taxi to a stop.   

I needn’t have worried about the weight of my luggage.  The pilot just tosses it into the plane without a second thought.  As opposed to a six-hour trip over rough roads our flight to Maun takes only half an hour – and that includes another stop to pick up two more passengers.

Maun, the fifth largest town in Botswana is not really a town.  It’s still officially classed as a village, and the village airport leaves a lot to be desired.  Supposedly it’s scheduled for a major overhaul – which can’t come too soon. 

The small departure area is packed to overflowing.  Luckily, for me, most of the crowd is trying to check-in to the South African Airways flight to Johannesburg.  There seems to be no order at all - with people shoving and pushing to get to the front of the queue. 

I’m flying Air Botswana.  When I manage to push myself to the far end of the small terminal where the Air Botswana check-in is, I find I’m the only person in the line-up.  After receiving my seat assignment I shuffle the three feet over to “security,” which consists of one antiquated screening device, that opens onto the departure area. I put my stuff on the rollers and proceed to the other side to retrieve my screened baggage.  Unfortunately, when I reach for it, I knock over a four-foot-high stack of trays.  I attempt to catch the falling tower but only succeed in knocking over an over stuffed garbage can that disperses a stinking and sticky mess of garbage as it rolls to the far end of the hall.   The fact there is no air conditioning doesn’t help matters.

A silence falls over the whole terminal as everyone observes the disaster I have created.   As the security people begin to sweep and mop up the mess one of them looks at me and says, “It’s a good thing you’re leaving our country, sir, before you destroy it all.”
I nod, smile, and find a corner to cringe in and wait for my flight to be called.  

There must be only four flights a day that depart out of Maun International airport.  All of them depart at 2:00pm.  I guess this makes for a short work day for the workers, but creates an overpacked departure lounge.  The only amenities in the lounge are two washrooms – one of which is out of order.

Slowly the departure lounge empties as the various 2:00pm flights are called.  Finally there’s only my flight left.  Our 2:00pm flight leaves almost on time – 3:30pm.  I’m not terribly concerned because I have an eight-hour layover in Johannesburg.

There are two airports I detest.  The first is Charles De Gaulle Airport in Paris.  It’s huge and seems to have been laid out in a manner to deliberately confuse the traveler.  In addition, it has some of the rudest people I’ve ever encountered.  The second is O.R. Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg: when they built this airport they must have used Charles De Gaulle as a model.

 Now I understand why Charles De Gaulle is so large- it serves Paris – with a population of 2.1 million people.  Johannesburg, on the other hand, has only 1 million.  The folks at Johannesburg are very helpful – but it comes with a price. If you look even slightly confused, someone will  immediately be at your side - asking if they can help.  When you explain you’re only looking for the KLM check-in they grab your pack and offer to show you the way.  It’s only when you’re half way there you realize this is an undercover porter and he’ll be looking for a tip.  All I wanted was “It’s over there.”  I’ve been through the airport several times, and they get me every time.

One thing I’ve learned is if you’re going to be trapped in an airport for more than 3 hours it’s worth paying for a corporate lounge (unless you happen to be one of those lucky people who travel so much you have lounge privilege’s as a perk).   For about thirty dollars you can buy four hours of comfort –probably about what you’d pay for a meal at a decent restaurant in the airport.

I chose Aspire which has a chain of lounges around the globe.  I made my choice based on the number of positive reviews it had compared to other lounges. My flight leaves at midnight;  but the lounge (and all the other lounges) close down at 10 pm which means I should check in around 6:00pm to get my full four hours.  I arrive at the lounge around 5:30 and sweet talked my way in a half hour early. 

I’m impressed with the lounge.  It has a full complimentary bar complete with a bartender, a large buffet with four choices for the main course, complimentary WIFI, and best of allshowers.
The lounge is packed; but by 9:30pm I’m the only guy left.  I see now why they close at ten.

My overnight flight to Amsterdam is fairly uneventful. I arrive in Amsterdam around ten in the morning, and only have about an hour and a half wait until my final flight to Vancouver.  By now, even with having a shower in the lounge and a nap, I’m beginning to have serious doubts about my choice of trying to make it home in one jump.  I’ve already been up about 28 hours and still have 12 hours to go.
But hey, only one more flight and I’ll be there.  How bad could it be?

Pretty bad!

I knew I was in trouble the second I notice the big guy waddling down the aisle with enough luggage to spend a month in Vancouver.  My understanding is we’re allowed two pieces of hand luggage:  one that slips under the seat in front of you and the other that can go in the overhead bin. My one small piece of hand luggage has been examined and tagged “approved for cabin.”  This guy’s luggage has no tags.  One of his pieces is the size of a steamer trunk.  By the time he has finished, he has completely filled one entire bin and half another and is busy stuffing his duty free and small pieces under the seat in front of him.  That’s when the flight attendant informs him he is in the wrong seat and points to an empty seat – next to me.   It turns out he’s from Turkey and visiting relatives in Vancouver.  He tells me he doesn’t believe in checking his luggage – no kidding - and not a word from the cabin crew about all the luggage he’s dragged onboard.

But the large Turkish gentleman is only half of my problem. The worst part is heading down the aisle – a small Indian guy, maybe 5’5 and 115lbs.  He plops down right between the Turkish guy and me.  We aren’t in the air five minutes and the two of them get into a heated argument.  It’s like watching Laurel and Hardy having a fight. 

The Indian guy starts shouting at the Turkish guy and gets up and stomps up the aisle – only to be chased down the aisle to his seat by a flight attendant – since the seat-belt light is still on.  Things quiet down for a while until the seatbelt light goes out and he takes off again.  I ask the Turkish guy what the problem is.  He tells me he doesn’t know – he thinks the guy is crazy. 

A few minutes later the guy shows up standing next to my aisle seat.  He is quite excited and festering a lot – I don’t understand a word he’s saying so I do what I normally do in situations like this – smile and nod.  Eventually he disappears again up the aisle.   A few minutes later I hear a commotion happening up in business class.  It’s followed by an announcement: “Is there any medical personal on board?  Would they please identify themselves?”

I figure somebody in business class has choked on their caviar.  This assumption is quickly dismissed when I see the purser chasing the little Indian guy down the aisle.  They eventually get him in his seat.  They move the Turkish guy into business class (why not me??) and put an older Indian gentleman who seems to speak his language beside him.  I think I hear the purser muttering about duct taping the guy into his seat.

The little Indian guy is vibrating like a taught violin string – but the older gentleman seems to keep him calm – until they serve the ice cream.   As soon as the flight attendant puts the ice cream in front of him he begins screaming.  The flight attendant is standing there not knowing what to do, the purser is chugging down the aisle – when I spring into action.  I reach over and take his ice cream.
“Here,” I tell the flight attendant. “I’ll take his.”

With the ice cream removed he settles down again.  I pull the purser aside and whisper to him.
“You guys have to radio ahead and tell them to have somebody  with a butterfly net at the gate in Vancouver to get this guy.”
“We have this under control, sir,” he tells me.
I look over to the guy who’s vibrating again and back to the purser. “Right, I see that.  But you don’t understand.  If you let this whack job loose in immigrations, they’ll kill him.”
“Surely, you’re exaggerating, sir,” he tells me with a condescending smile.

“Have you not heard of Robert Dziekanski?  He was acting like this guy and they tazered him to death.  Granted he had a stapler - with a full magazine, but I think you better warn the folks in Vancouver.”

When we arrive in Vancouver I notice there are several Mounties waiting by the door, so I guess they took care of him without further incident.  I’m so exhausted at this point I’m not sure I’m  hallucinating the whole thing.

Finally, after 42 hours I’ m home.

All in all, it’s been an interesting trip.  Would I do it recommend it?  Well….  If I could do things again, I’d probably opt for the lodges (if I could afford it – they’re expensive in Botswana).  If you haven’t gone on safari before and want the best bang for your buck then I’d suggest looking into going to Kenya or Tanzania where you can have a nice lodge experience for about the same cost as my Botswana tenting safari.  The trade off is that it will be much more crowded.

That’s it for a couple of weeks until I’m off on my next trip to Shanghai, Tokyo and a repositioning cruise back to Vancouver.

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