Thursday, June 12, 2008

A "hakuna matata" approach to travel

(I wrote this last night, but couldn't publish it until this morning)

Tonight I spend my first night in Tanzania. This has been the longest journey I’ve ever taken in one go. After more than 24 hours moving across time zones and spending nearly an entire Tuesday (that, depending on how you calculate the time change, may never have existed) 30,000 feet in the air, where it is impossible to see the ground (or water) being covered, I’m almost as far away from Seattle as I can get on this globe while still being on land.

The trip had a few hiccups. One of my checked items was a used electrocardiogram (EKG) wrapped in blankets and stuffed in a duffel bag. It weighed in at 52 pounds, 2 pounds over the limit, which should have set me back $50, but when I explained to the lady at the Northwest/KLM desk that it was for a hospital in Tanzania, she waived that fee and my $25 second bag fee. (Yes, Northwest now charges $25 for you to check an extra bag.) I spent a few hours in the labyrinthine London Heathrow awaiting my Virgin Atlantic flight to Nairobi. Several wi-fi networks are available (I ended up going with boingo), but it cost me 4 pounds for 60 minutes. I ended up waiting in the crowded main passenger lounge much longer than I thought I’d have to because Virgin has this odd practice of waiting to announce the gate you’ll be boarding from until a time of their choosing. I was supposed to have boarded at 1915, but 1915 found me sitting and staring at the flight status sign (which said it would announce my gate at 1920). At 1935, the sign finally updated to tell me that my flight was boarding at a gate 10 minutes’ walk away. Virgin is also quite strict about you getting to your gate on time (gates close 30 minutes prior to departure), so I rushed to my gate only to discover that I needn’t have worried – they were running behind. We left an hour late, which meant I emerged in the hot and crowded Nairobi airport just in time to hear that my final leg, Nairobi to Kilimanjaro, was boarding right then. I made the flight. My bags didn’t.

Our Precision Air Service (an ironic name, if you ask me) turboprop let us out right in front of the rather tiny Kilimanjaro (JRO) airport and we entered through the door labeled “foreign arrivals”. Customs consisted of one man who looked at my passport, took my $USD100 cash, and gave me my tourist visa without asking for my proof of vaccination or any sort of declaration of goods. I had though myself quite the savvy traveler for having procured and brought with me two very nice passport photos for my visa, but the man just looked at me tiredly and told me to put them away and look into the webcam he had set up on the desk. I walked past his desk into the next room, which is where my bags should have been. There were no other customs agents; all one has to do is collect one's luggage (uninspected) and walk out onto the sidewalk.

Then again, I didn't have my luggage. The lost luggage people were as helpful as they could be, but they had no way of directly communicating with the other airlines or airports, so they couldn’t tell us where our bags were. They used some archaic-looking computer program to send a request for our bags to Nairobi, but they couldn't tell me if the request had been received or what good it had done. I had met up with another EWH student in London who’d been on the same Virgin flight, and as his bags hadn’t made it to JRO either, we decided to sit and wait another hour for the next flight from Nairobi to arrive, hoping it would have our bags. A nice breeze was coming into the baggage claim room through a doorway which opened right on to the tarmac. I stepped outside to enjoy the perfect weather and saw that the door, which was labeled “domestic arrivals”, was about 30 feet from the “international arrivals” door that I had originally entered through, with no fences or guards in between. Apparently, customs at Kilimanjaro airport are optional.

Our bags didn’t make it on the next flight. We filled out the necessary paperwork and left the airport (again, no security or further customs) and our driver, who had been there for more than two hours waiting for us, took us to the MS-TCDC, where we passed a long, indolent day wandering around the compound (more about this place later) with the only two other EWH students to have arrived that morning. We rode back to the airport in the evening when the driver went to pick up the remaining 16 students, all of whom came in on the KLM flight direct from Amsterdam. Unlike my disjointed, three-carrier route which practically guaranteed that my luggage would be lost, they had arrived on a large jet packed with all the tourists I had found conspicuously absent on the tiny turboprop that had dropped me off. I was relieved to find that my bags had finally made it in a bit earlier that evening, so now I’m in my pajamas about to go to sleep under a mosquito net in the home of the family whom I’ll be staying with for the next month, and all of you are probably about to have your afternoon coffee break. All's well that ends well. Hakuna matata (yes, they really say that here).

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