Originally written in Feb 2011. Leaving Sydney Australia for South Sudan to start work.
Why is it that I don't like airports??
Surely there must be something special involved with the promise of international plane travel. The chance to go hurtling through the atmosphere in a relatively comfortable seat, eat small meals and watch movies on a really small screen. All the while playing secret arm rest wars with the person sitting next to you before getting very little sleep and waking up somewhere exotic. What could be better?? I find it amazing that so many people complain about air travel, as if getting from one continent to another in under a day is something of a pain. I wonder how they would have fared with the 3 month sea voyage that it used to take??
But I digress, because I have to say that I get jittery in airports, I just want to get into the terminal and get it over with. I also get so paranoid about missing flights that it is not uncommon for me to arrive at least 6-8 hours before my flight. So I will wait patiently on hard plastic chairs for hours, but as soon as I have checked in I have an urgent need to enter the terminal. So urgent in fact that I treat anyone who comes to see me off in a rather off kilter way. So I must apologise to anyone who accompanies me to an airport, more to my parents, and most of all to my poor wife, who in her own personal distress was convinced that I would die in the coming months (she has the most endearing bleak outlook on the future sometimes) and was trying to hang onto me for dear life whilst I was attempting to extract myself from her grasp and enter customs. It's not that I don't love her, or that I won't miss her, it's just that I am busy controlling my internal panic about missing my flight. If all my appointments instilled this same reaction I am sure I would never be late for anything, though I would spend an inordinate amount of time sleeping on floors and would probably never actually get anything done as I raced from place to place in a weird compulsion to be there 6 hours early..............just in case. So baby, I love you, I miss you and I'm sorry.
After clearing customs in a relatively speedy manner (I do allocate 2-3 hours for this task, so 10mins is absolutely lightning) I wandered happily through the duty free areas looking for some power adapters and slowly realising that my carry on baggage is extremely heavy. So heavy in fact that I start to imagine the sheer weight of it forcing the overhead compartment open and crushing some poor unsuspecting traveler to death as they sit blissfully beneath it. I hastily checked my ticket and, realising I had a window seat, ceased to worry any further about it. In fact if the worst did happen it may give me the upper hand in the ever entertaining arm rest wars. Surely if my adversary was crushed to death then I would have the centre armrest to myself, and therefore a rather satisfying victory. I find the arm rest war quite fascinating, that silent, but all important struggle for the optimum amount of comfort. It's something those in Business and First class have no notion of I'm sure. They are too busy receiving massages, discussing the finer points of cosmetology with their ever helpful and, I'm sure, extremely attractive airline staff. Whilst in economy, my meals were served by a portly middle aged man who had trouble even fitting in the aisle, let alone actually maneuvering himself low enough to retrieve food from the trolley. My choices had been limited to the fish, which seemed surprising as I was sitting relatively close to the front and was mildly suspicious that the only reason I was being offered one choice was that the chicken was on the bottom, and therefore out of reach. I wondered silently how long it had been since he had seen his feet, or any other appendage below belly button height for that matter.
Still the meal was adequate, as airline meals are, and I had a pleasant chat with the older lady next to me. So pleasant in fact, that I considered moving half my carry on baggage into another compartment, just in case. Luckily the lockers remained closed for the duration of the journey. She had been in Queensland on a trip of a lifetime and had been inconvenienced by both the floods and the cyclone. In fact most of her trip had been changed or spent in a hotel room wondering if a wind could actually push over a high rise building.
"Don't worry" I assured her, "God's just giving them a touch up for being so cocky about the State Of Origin".
"Oh really" she replied, quite seriously, and then eyed me for a moment whilst she took in this revelation, possibly wondering just how I knew about Gods doings.
"Perhaps you should come to NSW, we missed all the bad weather" I offered in an attempt to move the conversation along again.
"Oh no" she replied softly, "I don’t think I will be coming back, you see there are far too many poisonous things for me."
This is a fact that I thought was well known to travelers before they come to Australia. Apparently this poor woman only discovered it after arriving, so not only was she attacked by the weather, but spent a lot of her trip worried that everything she came into contact with was going to kill her. I can just imagine the stories told on her return, perhaps over tea and scones in that rather British way that I imagine most middle aged Brits behave. I think I may have watched too much of Midsummer Murders.
We arrived in Bangkok airport just ahead of schedule thanks to some following winds. Why pilots feel the need to explain every part of the process is beyond me. I would be just as happy flying at 25000 feet as 30000 feet for example. I don't know of any other profession that relays this time of information constantly to you. I am fairly sure that the last time I was on a bus the driver didn't tell me when he was going to make a turn, or what speed he was traveling at (this can sometimes be a blessing as I have been on some fairly interesting bus journeys) or even most of the time what the actual name of the place he has stopped at is called. On buses you are just supposed to know. But I digress, I had exactly just enough time to get off my plane, hurry through the terminal, find my next plane and board it. For someone who needs a substantial time buffer at airports this is quite a harrowing experience.
"What do you mean the plane leaves in 20 minutes; I've only just got here!" I explained rather flustered to the man at the Air Kenya desk. He just looked at me, smiled and said
"Gate 2, you better hurry they are boarding now, have a pleasant flight."
Obviously he had no idea of my need for time, nor my immediate requirement to go to the toilet.
Airport toilets in the arrivals section are some of the grottiest on the planet. I'm sure this is because they close the toilets on the plane half an hour before landing and the change in altitude as you descend increases the pressure on your bladder, so that by the time you land you really need to go. And everyone heads for the first available toilet. This particular one I darted in to on the way to my plane was small; both urinals were out of order being clogged with toilet paper?? and some other foul smelling substance. The only toilet cubicle was occupied by an Asian man who appeared to be practicing yoga or calesthetics of some kind as there was an awful lot of stretching and arm waving going on for someone who should have been concentrating on his aim. After watching this somewhat amused for a couple of minutes I raced out in order to make my flight. I would just have to go on the plane, the equally grotty in air cousin to the arrivals toilet.
On boarding my Kenya air flight I was almost immediately introduced to the Africans lack of perception about personal space. I was seated next to an elder gentleman who had his legs spread so wide I started to wonder if one was perhaps false and had gotten away on him. So wide in fact that his right foot was almost in the aisle, and he had no inclination to change his manner of seating in order to accommodate me. When I politely pointed out that perhaps he should place both his feet under the chair in front of him he looked at me with some form of bewildered shock as if I had asked if I could run off with his daughter. The man in front of me, despite having both chairs in which to arrange himself decided the best position was in fact with his seat fully reclined and his arms hanging over his backrest so far that if I had been eating, they would have been soaking themselves in my tea. The whole trip left me wondering if all Africans were in fact double jointed, or indeed even made of some fantastic rubbery substance and it had so far escaped my knowledge. The temptation to poke at his enormous hands to test their consistency proved a little too much after a while but my results were inconclusive. The flight passed thankfully without further incident as it was a red eye and everyone was busy sleeping. It is the first time that I have seen people sleeping on the floor in the aisle of the plane and having flight attendants and passengers creeping delicately over them as if this was a normal occurrence on air travel.
My arrival in Kenya was without fanfare. Still I had set foot on another continent, now I just need to cross off the Americas and I have done them all. Except for Antarctica, but I have met very few people who actually count that one. Apparently you haven't really established yourself as a continent in the majority of the worlds eyes unless you can get there on a Contiki tour. Still it would be nice to see one day, before the Americans discover it and put in a McDonalds. Anyway, I was greeted by a gentleman holding my name up on a sign. I have always secretly wanted to be one of those people at the airport who have drivers waiting with their name on a sign. I always imagine them being whisked off to some important secret meeting by a man named Geeves. My man unfortunately didn't speak English and therefore didn't appreciate any of my jokes, or attempts to call him Geeves. I was simply handed and envelope and given a form to sign to say that I had received it. At least this part had more of the secret agent appeal about it, though I doubt he would have appreciated that either. After signing for my documents he turned and left leaving me wondering what I did next. I retrieved my flight details and asked a guard where I would catch the plane from. He helpfully pointed that out that I had to go around the corner then walk a little way to terminal 2. Apparently his idea of a little way and mine are extremely different, for as I rounded the corner I was a little doubtful that there was actually a terminal 2 at all. In fact I wasn't exactly sure I wasn't just walking into town and would at any point have someone come and stop me for stealing an airport trolley.
Still after a small hike it appeared before me, terminal 2. It was now 0630 and my plane left at 1230. Normally this would be just the right amount of time for me to be comfortable about my ability to make my flight, however after close to 20 hours flying already I was quite willing to forgo my usual requirements. I wandered over to the check in desk and asked if I could check my bags early. The nice young lady looked at my ticket then spoke rather rapidly to her colleague in Kenyan, and they both had quite a good giggle.
"No I am sorry you will have to wait" she then informed me with a smile, oblivious to the fact it was obvious she had just had a good laugh with her friend at my expense.
"OK, well when can I check in then?" I inquired hopefully, giving her my best cheeky grin. This is a technique my wife encouraged me to use with female staff in order to get things to go my way. Apparently a little flirting can go a long way. Unfortunately charm doesn't seem to work when you have spent 20 hours on a plane and smell rather like a homeless person.
"You will have to wait." was all the reply I got; I guess time is not such an important factor when checking bags in Kenya. So I sat on a rather uncomfortable steel bench for the next 4 hours and after checking another 5 or 6 times, was finally allowed to check in my bags. The intriguing part was that every time I checked I was treated to the same experience, as if it was the first time. She would check my ticket, laugh with her friend, and then tell me to wait. In fact when I finally got to check in my bag she addressed me as if it was the first time we had met. I was starting to wonder if I was stuck in some kind of Groundhog Day loop, or in fact whether she was not just made of rubber, but also had the memory of a goldfish, or early onset Alzheimer’s.
Still I was in the airport and on my way to South Sudan. Now where is the toilet??