September 17, 2007

Dr. Livingstone, I presume

I have made it to Zambia, alive and intact. The trip from Bangkok was, to put it mildly, a hellish nightmare of epic proportions. The minibus from my Bangkok guesthouse to the airport got stuck in traffic, of course, but I made it there with over two hours to spare, so I had a leisurely check-in and even had time to buy a barbecue chicken nikuman from the Family Mart (!) there in the departure terminal. My bag, I was told, was going to be checked straight on to Lusaka, so I said goodbye to it, and then went through security. I used some of my last Thai baht on a scoop of gelato and some Thai cooking spices for Laura (my friend here in Zambia). Then I sat around at the departure gate with a huge hoard of Thai university students on a tour and a bunch of Brits for a bit before getting on around 9:30 in the evening.

Etihad Airways, the national carrier of the United Arab Emirates, is pretty fancy flying, with soothing sand-colored carpeting and something like 500 channels of movies and tv programs and video games in the seatbacks. The flight was fairly full but I ended up with a row to myself, although two people later moved to join me when their handsets weren't working. I didn't sleep, but ended up watching the second Pirates of the Caribbean movie (all three were on offer, but I'd only seen the second one once before, and felt I needed a refresher; it made more sense the second time around) and an incredibly strange German movie, "Deepfrozen", which started out as what could've been a quirky romantic comedy about a very socially awkward man living in a nowhere village delivering frozen pizzas, who falls for an exotic young girl who's a rock groupie whose van breaks down outside of town ... but then people start dying, and maybe she killed them, but in the end maybe he did it, except he probably couldn't have? And she rides off in a limo with James Brown. Very bizarre, and not quite what I was expecting going into it. Anyhow, I didn't sleep, so when we touched down in Abu Dhabi it was around 3:00 AM Bangkok time -- I had been up for about 20 hours at this point. I staggered into the waiting lounge, where I bought a cherry danish that tasted exactly like America, and also some water. I sat around for about an hour and a half waiting to board the plane, which I eventually did; it was 2:00 in the morning local time and my flight was scheduled to be leaving at 2:30.

At this point I did get a chance to stretch out on two seats against the side and fall asleep -- I think it was at least a half hour, but couldn't have been more than an hour, because at around 3:00 (six AM in Bangkok, or almost 24 hours since I had woken up there the previous morning) I was awakened by the captain announcing that there was mechanical trouble with one of the engines, and they were de-boarding the plane on account of repairs that would take at least four hours. So me and the other passengers dragged ourselves off and back into the terminal, where four beleaguered Etihad employees were rebooking the entire flight. The lucky ones heading to Johannesburg, they put up in a hotel there in Abu Dhabi and onto a flight the next morning; but since South Africa wasn't my final destination, and since that delay would mean missing my morning flight to Lusaka, they told me they were going to put me a taxi for Dubai, have me take an Emirates Air flight to Johannesburg at 10:00 AM, and then have South African Airways put me on an evening flight for Lusaka that should have gotten me in around 8:00 PM on the evening of the 14th. Ok. They gave me a voucher for the taxi and a white sheet of paper with my FIM ("Flight Interrupt Manifest") details on it that would get me on the necessary flights, and sent me on my way. So I passed through United Arab Emirates customs at 4:00 in the morning and stepped into the cab that arrived shortly after for the drive to Dubai.

The taxi wasn't actually marked as such, and the car was quite nice; a luxury model of some sort, with video headrests a dashboard covered in displays. The effect was marred by the seatbelts, though; as I fastened in, it felt like they had cut roughly through the seat fabric to put in the buckle. We pulled out onto four lanes of smooth, perfectly unblemished, perfectly empty tarmac laid down by legions of sweating South Asian migrant workers, the driver gradually bringing up the speed as we cut through the desert on an orange-lit ribbon of highway. Wide awake from the frigid air conditioning and my brain having reached the point where dead tiredness turns over into vivid wakefulness, we passed palm trees lining the highway, unseen lights out in the desert, two large mosques lit with neon green, and a Dunkin Donuts. The rear window had some sort of glaze on the glass that caused the sodium-burning h ighway floodlights to twist into writhing tendrils as we passed beneath, the car beeping politely as we cross the 120 kilometer speed limit threshold. After a hundred kilometers or more, we entered the shelter of the high glass skyscraper towers of Dubai, many under construction and topped with cranes perched like birds greeting the dawn.

Just before six in the morning we pulled into the loading zone at the airport, where I attempted to explain my situation at the Emirates counter. They were confused, of course, as was I, but the guy took my piece of paper and told me to wait there until nine, when he'd let me know if there was room on the standby waiting list for me to get on this flight to Johannesburg. I didn't dare lie down on the couches, for fear I wouldn't wake up -- so I sat there, freezing in the air conditioning as my body functions started shutting down. After an interminable wait, I went back to get a ticket and my magic piece of paper again and sprinted my way to the flight, where I boarded with a legion of South Africans returning from holidays in the UK. By this point, my brief hour of rest aside, I had been awake for close to 30 hours, and in transit for about 16.

But -- I got stuck in a center seat next to a large woman and a German backpacker and didn't sleep any on the eight hours down to Johannesburg. I watched movies, I played video games, I ate snacks, I listened to the Swiss flight attendant flirting with the South African girl in the seat in front of me, I tried to sleep as hard as I could, but when we touched down in South Africa I was still awake. Unbelievable.

Now, when I got my ticket from the Emirates guy, he gave me back my special piece of white paper from the Etihad people and said, "They're going to try and take this from you at the gate, but don't give it to them, you need it in Johannesburg". He was right -- the people at the gate in Dubai insisted, and even though I was skeptical when they said that Etihad should've put me in the system and I shouldn't need it in Joburg and that they needed to keep this copy, I was exhausted and just wanted to get on the plane, so I wrote down my FIM number and gave up the sheet. This was of course a mistake, since when I got to the international transfer desk in Joburg the rather unfriendly South African Airways people -- who were supposed to be putting me on an evening flight to Lusaka at Etihad's expense, since I had missed the one I was scheduled for that morning -- said that I wasn't in the system and without the paper they couldn't do anything, and that Etihad should've given me two FIM papers for the two flights. Oh, and the Etihad people there had already left for the day, so I needed to come back at 7:00 in the morning. Exhausted, defeated, and at this point about ready to just go to sleep there in the queue, I gave up and checked myself into a very posh airport hotel at $185 a night and crawled into the softest bed ever. It was seven thirty in South Africa, past midnight in Bangkok, and I had been in transit for 26 hours and awake for the better part of 40 -- a new personal record, as my previous best was only 27.

I still woke up at the crack of dawn though -- I'm more jetlagged in Africa than I've been on the rest of the trip, since it's actually seven hours time difference from Japan. I went back to the airport and found the Etihad offices and talked to the guy there, who was pretty helpful, and who got me on the morning flight to Lusaka. I'm still confused as to who exactly I should be blaming for all this -- Etihad for not giving me enough FIMs, Emirates for taking the one I had, South African for being no help at all? -- but whatever, I made it on the flight and to meet Laura, albeit a full 24 hours later than I should've. And I got a UAE and South Africa stamp in the passport out of it too. My bag, of course, did not make it -- I have no clear idea where it is at the moment; either somewhere in Abu Dhabi floating in the aether, or otherwise in Johannesburg with the pallet of other peoples' luggage from my flight who also were missing bags when we disembarked. So right now I've got one pair of clothes, my camera, and my iPod to my name; but I imagine the bag will show up eventually. I gave them Laura's cell phone number here and with luck it will turn up, but Lusaka is not an especially happening town so we decided not to sit around and wait for it after the first day; yesterday we hitchhiked 472 kilometers south to the town of Livingstone on the border with Zimbabwe, home of Victoria Falls and a museum dedicated to the famous explorer.

Zambia is more expensive to travel in than Southeast Asia, because most travellers here are rich Anglos on safari, but this morning I went to the falls and had breakfast on an island looking over the plunge, which was quite cool; this evening we're taking a riverboat and going looking for big game. We've actually already seen zebras and giraffes, wandering through the grounds of the hotel that hosted the breakfast (which is actually within a national park, and which was full of rich old tourists). After two more days of activities here -- horseback riding, bungee jumping, and canoeing are all possibilities I think, although I'm not sure what we'll end up doing -- we're going to hitch back north to Laura's village, where things will be considerably more sedate; there's an agro-forestry workshop and some fish farming she's doing, and otherwise we will probably be taking it easy for the week there.

It was immensely stressful getting here but I am here now and, missing bag aside, things are going well. Africa!

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