Fun with Flights in Africa

I have no idea what it was between me and planes when I was in Africa (okay… maybe I have an inkling… and you might get that same inkling after some further reading), but I could just not seem to make anything work as planned in this department… classic cases of my impeccable timing working in reverse on multiple fronts (it’s bound to happen now and again).  For general information, you all should know that there are two particular items when booking flights in Africa to be aware of… First Rule:  It is always cheaper to buy tickets in the airline ticket office than to buy them online.  I have no idea why this is, but it was universal true… you’d save anywhere from 20% to 40% by buying tickets in person.  Second Rule:  The price of flights stays relatively the same no matter how close the departure time of the flight… so there’s really no incentive to buy tickets more than a day or two in advance unless you need to make sure you get on the plane (i.e. worried about the flight being sold out).  Okay… all set there.

Zanzibar to Kilimanjaro

So I’m in Zanzibar with my friend Shayne.  I start my Kilimanjaro climb on a Monday.  The only way to get to Kilimanjaro from Zanzibar in one day is to fly from one to the other (the ferry and bus combination would take two day, and I wanted to spend as much time with my friend as possible).  To make sure I have a seat, I buy my ticket (with Precision Air… insert slogan here) a couple of days early… mostly because I can’t really be late to start the climb.  The flight departs from Zanzibar at 8:20 AM on a Sunday, connects in Dar Es Salaam, departing at 10:30 AM, arriving in Kilimanjaro around 1:00 PM (and I start my Kilimanjaro climb at 8 AM the following day, which is a Monday).  The only hitch in this plan is that Shayne and I are spending the night up on the north end of Zanzibar (best place for Saturday night on the island), which is about an hour and a half drive from the airport.  Now we have a rental car, and despite it’s dodginess, at least there’s no problem with arranging transport… so, if we just get up a touch on the early side and make the drive I’ll be there no problem… perfectly sound logic right?  I figure we’ll be up at 5:45 AM, on the road by six, gets me there around 7:30ish, which gets me on the plane easy-peasy (it’s a tiny airport so no real worry about huge lines or crowds).  Done and done with the planning… commence with partying… which ends up with both of us finally turning in around 4 to 4:30 AM (my lovely Scottish Tanzanian friend, whom I had met that night, predicted that there was no way I wasn’t going to miss my flight… to which I responded that I’d never missed a flight in my life and that I wasn’t about to start now… note that the former statement is only partially true by the way).  I generally have no problem sleeping just a little bit and getting back up, so I set my cell phone alarm for 5:45 AM and caught some z’s.  Sometime later I woke up… not to the sound of my cell phone alarm mind you, but to the ray’s of light coming through our un-curtained window.  I immediately thought that was strange (sometimes I wake up before my alarm is supposed to go off), and went over to check my phone, which I had left on the table at the foot of my bed (ensuring I’d have to get up to turn it off and thereby help me wake up).  I pick up my phone and notice that the alarm is, virtually inaudibly, going off… and that it’s approximately 6;45 AM… shyte.  I seriously contemplate just going back to bed, but then contemplate the chain of events that would happen should I not be able to start my climb tomorrow at 8 AM (nothing good as could be imagined).  I wake up Shayne, pack and we’re on the road by 7 AM… trying to cram an hour and a half drive into an hour and ten minutes to give me some hope of getting on a plane that leaves in an hour and twenty minutes (got that?).  Shayne’s driving (as he had the foresight to get an international driver’s license) and we’re going as fast as we possibly can… given what the windy two-lane going through every village road, and this p.o.s. vehicle, will allow in terms of both speed and safety (of both ourselves and others).  Shayne does an admirable job of swerving around every villager, ox-cart, truck, bus and occasional animal herd that wanders in the road while I vigilantly scan the road for the un-marked, potentially suspension ruining, speed bumps that seem to pop up all over the place.  With this heroic driving effort and a couple of lucky guesses on which way to turn (no detailed map of helpful signs here), we manage to make it to the airport in an hour and fifteen minutes… very impressive in hindsight… but unconcerned with our driving skills at the time, I hurtled myself and my bag out of the car and into the terminal and up to the check-in counter only to watch, literally, my plane take off via the window immediately behind the check-in counter… shyte again, flight missed, and the potential of missing the start of my Kilimanjaro climb increases.  Note that the check-in guys behind the counter take particular delight in asking me why I’m so late (when it’s clear by the way I look, and possibly smell, that I’ve been up all night partying).  One guy behind the counter walks me over to the ticket office to see if they can do anything for me.  The ticket office is outside the airport, and I run into Shayne on the way there as he has parked the car and stopped to take a breather to calm down a touch after speed racing, more or less, the entire length of Zanzibar island to get here.  He joins me as I go into the ticket office to see the lady about possible ways to get me to Kilimanjaro today.  I explain my situation and the lady, with the same smirk as the other guys, asks me why I missed my l fight (to make her day more entertaining than it otherwise would have been was my response).  She checks her flights, there’s one from Zanzibar to Dar Es Salaam leaving at 10:00 AM, which of course, makes me miss my 10:30 connection to Kilimanjaro (flight time from Zanzibar to Dar is 30 minutes).  She tells me there are two other flights leaving from Dar to Kilimanjaro later in the afternoon, but they are sold out.  The best that she could do is get me to Dar today, and get me on the first flight out of Dar to Kili tomorrow morning, which would have me to Kili around noon… too late though, as I’m supposed to start the climb at 8 AM tomorrow morning.  Now, at this point, there’s a couple of other folks gathered around the ticket office at this point watching the interaction.  With Precision Air flights being out of the question now, I start asking if there’s any other flights leaving the airport that would be me to Dar before 10:00 AM.  The lady repeats that the only flight is at 10, but I know that’s just the Precision Air flights.  I keep pushing and asking about flights with other companies, and actually I get a bit frustrated because even though these folks speak english, they’re not 100% fluent for subtleties like this… She keeps telling me the next flight is at 10, and I keep telling her that I’m interested in flights with other companies because I have to get there today.  Finally, one of the bystanders (who works for a different company) informs me that there’s a flight leaving at 9:30 AM to Dar with another company (not his company mind you, he’s just being helpful).  It’s just shy of 9 AM at this point… so i figure this might work.  This guy calls somebody who walks me over to the other company’s ticket office and I buy a ticket for the 9:30 flight (I figure the flight is 30 minutes… I’ll get there at 10:00 and just run like a madmen through the terminal to get on my connecting flight).  Cool, I walk back over to Shayne and the lady at the Precision Air office and tell them what I’ve done, and I ask the lady if she can call ahead to the Precision Air folks in Dar to tell them about my situation and my need to board the 10:30 flight to Kili.  The lady politely informs me that what I’m planning to attempt is impossible for a couple of reasons… the first being is that I’m not checked in (and the check-in counter closes 40 minutes before the scheduled flight departure time)… so I ask her to check me in there, which she does.  Secondly, she notes (very helpfully I might add), that since I missed this first flight, I’ll show up in the system as having missed this flight, and I’ll automatically get booted from the next flight (so I couldn’t get on it even if I was there on time).  I ask her what she can do about that, and she notes that she can cancel my ticket for the first leg of the flight and give me a credit… same as if I just changed the date of my flights.  I ask her to do that, and she does… so I give her a big hug.  She laughs, but still notes (thirdly) that what I’m trying to do is still impossible because the domestic terminal (where the flight from Zanzibar will arrive) is not adjacent to the international terminal (which is where the flight to Kili departs from)… I figure it can’t be that bad and that I’ll have plenty of time (okay… not plenty of time, but thirty minutes if all goes well… ignorance is truly bliss).  So, now, seemingly good to go, I head into the terminal to get on my flight, which I naively believe is there waiting for me to get on board (it being 9:15 AM or so at this point).  I clear security and what not really quickly, and ask where this flight is… and I’m informed that it hasn’t even landed yet.  What.. how can that be?  I post up next to the a/c because it’s hot enough that, at this point, I’m sweating profusely just from my hurried walking back and forth between the ticket offices outside.  So I wait… and wait… and wait… for what seems like an eternity (even though it was only like 10 minutes).  My plane (finally) lands, people get off, bags are unpacked, and then we all get to start boarding.  Keep in mind that this is a single engine propeller plane that seats about 15 people… so at least the unloading and loading go rather quickly.  All of the passengers get on the plane, but then we have to wait for an Italian family that didn’t hear the boarding call and then spent 5 minutes trying to get there two-year old corralled enough to board… more time goes by… we finally take off around 10:45… not good, but at least I’m on my way to Dar.  Upon landing nearly exactly 30 minutes later at the Dar Es Salaam domestic terminal, I grab my bag, get off the plane and quick step my way across the 400 yards or so of tarmac that separate me from the terminal.  I blast through the terminal to the taxi stand where I yell at some taxi guys that I need to get to the international terminal ASAP.  I find a guy, agree on a price and tell him to get me there as fast as possible without killing us.  It’s only now that I realize what the lady back in the Precision Air office was talking about… the international terminal is a good ten minute drive from the domestic terminal (it seems that East Africa megalopolis’s aren’t know for their planning).  However, I’m committed at this point… and I start to work out contingency plans in case I miss my connection (which is looking increasingly probable at this point).  I get dropped off at the international terminal and attempt to run into the terminal.  Now, one thing about departure terminals in East Africa airports is that the security screening takes place before you get inside the terminal (with another one before you get to the gate)… so there’s generally a line to get into the terminal (and today was no exception).  I just charge right to the front of the nebulous gathering of people that constitute the “line”, only to get stopped by a security guard who’s directing the inflow of people to the various security lines so those lines don’t get too crowded.  He holds me up and asks what do I think I’m doing… I explain to him that I’m very late and I’m trying to catch a flight that’s about to take off.  He points to every body else in line and tells me that they’re all late too, so I can just wait inline like everybody else… I tell him I doubt that’s even remotely true, show him my ticket (and flight time) and ask him nicely if I can go through.  He, very loudly, for the benefit of the crowd, tells me that I can wait in line just like everybody else (now, I’m being a dick for trying to cut the line and being late, but now he’s being a dick by playing the “gatekeeper”… but c’est l vie).  Now, there’s not much I can do besides try and push by him, which would likely lead to much more hassle… so I go side-step my way into the amorphous blob that is the line… and I slip in about 5 people from the entrance (with some nodding and apologising to the people I’m clearly cutting in front of).  It’s moving slowly, so it takes about five minutes for me to get through and go through the rigmarole of the security dance and into the terminal.  I find a precision Air counter… my flight’s not even up on the (check-in) board anymore because check-in for my flight had closed about 40 (maybe 50) minutes ago.  Now, it’s approximately 10:30 (ten minutes past when my flight is supposed to leave).  I, again, cut to the front of the line at a Precision Air counter and get a guy to tell me if my flight has left yet (it hasn’t… phfew) and to give me a boarding pass, which he does (concurrently with me apologizing to the dude that I just cut in front of… this guy didn’t seem to mind).  I hustle up to the gates, go through the next security check point, get to the terminal only to find that my flight has not even actually started boarding yet because the plane has just arrived… thank you late flight.  So, after 3 and a half hours or so of manic hustling, I ended up making the connecting flight and arriving to Kilimanjaro with plenty of time to get ready to begin my climb the following morning (albeit a little frazzled for only having slept 2 hours or so the night before).

Kilimanjaro to Dar Es Salaam

After climbing Kilimanjaro, I needed to get back to Dar Es Salaam to get an Indian visa so I could get into the country to attend my friend’s wedding.  I arrived back to town after the climb around 2 PM on a Sunday afternoon.  I wanted to buy a plane ticket for the next day, but the offices were closed as it was Sunday (remember my rule above about it always being much cheaper to buy a ticket from the office as opposed to online).  So, I figured I’d look up the flights online to see when they were leaving, then just go early and buy a ticket at the airport.  My plan was to get to Dar relatively early so I could find a place to stay, find out where the India High Commission Office was, find out what I needed to get together for my visa application and get all the necessary paperwork together so I could submit it the following (Tuesday) morning.  The interwebz kindly informed me that Precision Air had four flights scheduled for the following day, one at 7 AM, one at 10:40 AM, one at 4:30 PM and one at 7 PM (I was assuming, because I could buy tickets for them all online, that none of the flights were sold out… also, Precision Air is the only airline with a web presence… there are other airlines that also use the airport, but you can only get tickets from their physical offices… a back-up plan of sorts).  Now, 7 AM is too early, so I arrange for a taxi to get me there at 9:30 AM or so so I could buy a ticket for the 10:40 flight.  Everything goes smoothly… and I get into the ticket office just before 9:30.  The lady in the office informs me that there’s space available on the 10:40 flight and that a ticket will be $X.  I say awesome and whip out my credit card to pay… to which she politely informs me that they only take cash as they don’t, nor does anyone in fact, have a credit card machine (I should have known this, and I should add it to my above general rules of flying in East Africa….  in fact, paying in cash is really a general rule that applies to most things).  Okay… this is an airport… where’s the ATM?  To which she informs me that the nearest one is 20 kilometers away.  Shyte.  I look at my taxi driver, who has followed me into the office to watch the interaction (another common thing here), and ask him how long it’ll take to get there… he says 20 minutes.  I tell the lady to hold on as I’ll be right back (to which she informs me that if I don’t get back by 10, I can’t check in for the light because the computers shut down before then… the whole have to check in 40 minutes before the flight’s scheduled departure time thing).  Okay I say, ignoring the implication as I always figure I can work my way around any computer issues through charming persuasion… plus I really have no choice anyhow… I have to get a flight to Dar today, and I have to pay in cash, so I have to go to the ATM no matter what (my driver informs me that, had he known about what I was trying to do, he could have taken me to the Precision Air office back in town and avoided this whole situation… thanks for letting me know guy).  We manage to make it to the ATM in 15 minutes.  Of course, I get up to the ATM, only to find out the system is down and the ATM is not working (another relatively common occurrence in East Africa).  Shyte again.  The taxi guy, who is really the hotel airport shuttle driver, tells me he has to get back to the airport soon as there’s another flight arriving in an hour or so that has folks he needs to pick up and take back to the hotel.  I run through a couple of options in my head, but ultimately get back in the car with him to head back to the airport hoping to figure something out (i.e. catching a free ride with him back to town, buying a ticket, and/or using the ATM back in town, and/or buying a ticket online, then getting another cab ride to the airport).  The driver makes one more call to the lady in the Precision Air office (I’m still not sure why they had each others’ phone numbers… if they exchanged them before I left, or if they already knew each other) and then, after the call, abruptly u-turns in the middle of the street (we were about halfway back to the airport at this point).  He tells me the lady at the office told him there was another ATM in a hotel back down the road… So we head back there… and the ATM, for which there was no sign, was in the hotel immediately adjacent to the bank with the ATM that wasn’t working.  The lady at the office didn’t bother to tell us about it because, for some reason, she only thought I’d have a debit card that worked with Visa and that I wouldn’t be able to make a withdrawal from the ATM in the hotel (which, of course, I was able to)… I still don’t know why she thought this?  As an aside, I’m finding this is a very common thing in other countries (maybe it is in America as well, but since I’m a native I know the right questions to ask in a language everybody’s fluent in)… people only tell you what they think will work without presenting all the options… like this lady and the ATM locations, or the lady in the story above who didn’t tell me about the 9:30 flight because she though it would be impossible to make the connection anyhow… people, please just give me all the options so I can decide for myself… aside over.  So i get some cash, and head back to the airport… but I can’t check in for the 10:40 flight because it’s now 10:20 or so and the computers have locked everything out.  I plead, I persuade, I contort… but she can’t override the computer (I keep asking myself if this is real or she just doesn’t know how, or what?) and I can’t get on the 10:40 flight.  So I book a ticket on the 4:30 PM flight and just sit in the airport until then (the fight did end up leaving an hour early though… another common thing in East Africa if everyone has checked in).  I ended up making to Dar with enough time to get all my paperwork together to submit my visa application the next day.

Addis Ababa to Mombasa

I’m in Ethiopia.  My friend Shayne is flying into Mombasa Kenya and out of Dar Es Salaam Tanzania two weeks later.  I’m, of course, going down to meet him.  Now, I did contemplate taking the bus… despite the actual road distance between Addis Ababa and Mombasa being only 1,800 kilometers (1,100 miles), going by bus takes an incredible 5 days at the fastest, and sometimes 6 (owning primarily to the poor to nonexistent condition of the roads from the Kenyan border sotuh to Nairobi… oh, and the slight possibility of banditry on the portion of the roads near Somalia).  I thought it would be a bit of an adventure to say I’d done that stretch of road by bus, but, fortunately or unfortunately, I was struck down with a bit of food poisoning and elected to fly instead.  I booked my ticket at the Ethiopian Airlines office in Addis Ababa about four days in advance.  A 10:00 AM flight (on a Wednesday) that stopped briefly at the Kilimanjaro airport before heading to Mombasa (I bought the ticket based on an e-mail Shayne had sent me about what date he planned on arriving in Mombasa).  When I looked at the itinerary of Shayne’s flight, it looked like we’d be on the flight together as his overnight flight outta Frankfurt stopped in Addis, where he’d get on this particular flight to Mombasa via Kilimanjaro.  The day I leave I get up at 6:30 AM (despite having gone to bed at 3:30 AM or so from celebrating my last night with friends) to pack and leave for the airport early so I could spend sometime chillin’ with Shayne at the airport (his flight from Frankfurt arrived at 6 AM or so).  I pack my shit, leave my key, go down and eat some breakfast, get a taxi to the airport just fine and arrive at the international terminal pretty early.  My first problem develops… I don’t see my flight listed on the boards anywhere.  I ask around only to find out that, despite my flight going to both Kenya and Tanzania, it’s taking off from the domestic terminal, which is about a 15 minute walk away… alrighty, it’s early and not hot yet, so I head over.  I make it through security and wait patiently inline at the counter to get my boarding pass.  Once I get to the counter I make a move to hand over my passport only to find I don’t have it.  Scheisser.  I check all possible places it might be, but to no avail… i don’t have it on me.  Now, it can only really be two places… back in the room I just left this morning, or, pretty remotely, in the other room I was staying in about two nights before.  I grab my bag and hustle outside to a taxi… i tell him to head towards the place I was staying the night before and that he’s going to have to wait and bring me back to the airport.  We reach a reasonable rate for this trip rather quickly (which is surprising because the taxi driver’s in Addis Ababa are generally unreasonably greedy when they see for).  On the way back to the one place I call my other friend, ask if she’s still home, and ask her to check the room I was in to see if I left my passport there… luckily the answer there is negative (as she lives, far, far away in Addis terms).  The taxi, virtually unencumbered by traffic the whole way (a stroke of luck) drops me off back at the bottom of my street.  I run back up the street to my house and bang on the gate for the guard to answer… nothing.  I bang again… and again… and again… nothing.  So… what to do?  I jump the fence of course.  I go back to my room and search the desk where I had all my stuff… and sure, enough, there’s my passport, hidden under a shelf in the back in the shadow.  Sigh of relief.  I hustle back down to the taxi now facing the problem of running out of time and missing my flight.  Again, very luckily, the taxi flies back to the airport unencumbered by traffic (this is a rare occurrence here) and I manage to check myself in before the counter closes.  I wait through some more security check points to make it up to the gate in time to be one of the last people on board the bus that goes out to the plane.  I scan the passengers on the bus, then later on the plan… no sign of Shayne though.  Shyte… did he miss his connection?  I really have no way to check at this point… so I strap in and make my way to Mombasa.  once in Mombasa, clear that Shayne’s not on the plane… I start trying to figure out a way to get in touch with him, or a way of finding out what happened to him between Frankfurt and Addis (late flight due to a snowstorm in Germany?).  I cajole my way back into the check-in area of the terminal only to have the Ethiopian Airlines folks inform me that they can’t give me any specific passenger information… I charge my phone, but there’s no way I can call or really connect to the internet.  I check with airport staff to see if they’re any other flights arriving from Addis Ababa today… there is, one in about to hours, and another at about 8 PM.  So I plop my butt down and wait… note, I’m waiting outside, but even under the awnings, with fans, it’s summer in a very tropical country and hot and steamy as it could possibly be.  I wait and the next flight from Addis lands… no Shayne.  Shyte.  I can’t do much now, so I get a cab to take me to a couple of cheap hotels and take a room for the night.  Once I settle in and get online (I choose hotels primarily based on price and wifi availability) i check over some things… one of which is Shayne’s itinerary.  And that’s when I notice it… he arrives in Mombasa on the same flight I took this morning… but tomorrow.  The date he told me he was planning to arrive was one day before the day that he actually arrived once he booked his tickets.  Che stupido… but  at least I knew what was going on and could now go check out Mombasa for a day before his afternoon arrival the following day.  So… had I not been able to get back to the Addis airport in time with my now found passport, I likely would have been bumped to the flight the following day, and then actually been on the same flight as Shayne, which is what I was trying to do in the first place.

So… forgetting my passport, manically rushing from place to place, misinterpreting dates, over-sleeping alarms, buying last-minute flights, making ridiculous side trips just to find a working ATM, overzealous security guards, both late and early flights, computer check-in software locking me out, mechanically unsound cars and cabs, having to dig for all the options, my lack of planning coupled with my (reverse and normal) impeccable timing layered in with have-to-be-there now inflexibility and somehow making the supposedly impossible (according to some) possible… all part of my fun had while flying in East Africa.  In hindsight.. although I’d like to pretend that maybe there’s just something about Africa at play here… given this and this, maybe that’s not really the case (and, of course, it couldn’t be my fault right?).  ..


6 thoughts on “Fun with Flights in Africa

    • I like how you threw in “marginally” there as if that margin is anything but orders of magnitudes above my abilities. But think of all the fun stories you’re missing out on that way…

  1. Haha, I love the part about Shayne swerving around villagers, ox-carts, trucks and animal herds…and avoiding speed bumps…. These stories about nearly missing flights are stressful even to read! It’s amazing you’re always so calm, and nothing seems to bother you.

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