Monday, May 16, 2011

Passage to India

Travel is exciting. Travel is broadening. And sometimes travel is a real pain. Take last Wednesday for instance, when Rie and I planned to meet in Buenos Aires for a night flight to South Africa.

At 6:45 that morning, Rie was a good way down Argentina’s coast, where she’d been traveling with her son Zach. She planned to fly from the little town of Trelew to the domestic airport at Buenos Aires, then cross the city and meet me at the international airport.  

But her morning flight was cancelled due to a strike. At first the airline dangled the possibility of an afternoon flight, but then they cancelled that too. The agent told Rie another airline had a flight from another small airport, Puerto Madryn, 55 kilometers away. The agent didn’t have their phone number, but she directed Rie to the airline's office in Trelew.

In the office, Rie learned that flight, her last hope of getting out of Patagonia that day, was full, and she started to worry about both getting to Africa and reaching me. But then a little kindness changed the course of events. When she asked the agent where she could access WiFi, he said, “Just sit here” and gave her the airline’s own password. So she was still in his office when he got a call saying a passenger had cancelled. He called the Puerto Madryn airport, gave them her information and said she was on her way.

Which she very quickly was, in a taxi, in a plane to Buenos Aires, then in a taxi from one airport to the other. But heavy traffic slowed her down, and she watched the long buffer she’d given herself before our Africa flight tick away.

Meanwhile, I was trying to get from downtown Buenos Aires back to my B&B and then out to the international airport. Three separate street demonstrations clogged the avenue—at one, policemen in full riot gear lined the street, though nothing particularly dramatic was happening. Then, at a stop light in about eight lanes of traffic, my taxi broke down. Either that or it ran out of gas--I didn't know or particularly care which. While sitting there,  I realized that because the slow journey had pushed the meter higher than I expected, I needed to get more cash to pay for my airport cab.

Fortunately, we were only about ten blocks from the B&B. So I paid the hapless driver, wished him luck getting his car going again and got out. Miraculously, an ATM appeared on the corner. I got my money and made it to the B&B before my airport ride vanished. But even when Rie and I reunited—much relieved—at the airport, our troubles weren’t over.

We both know that countries can refuse to let you enter unless you can show you have a ticket out—and that airlines, aware of this, can refuse to let you fly. We both know this but somehow we forgot, maybe because when we entered Ecuador, Perú, Chile, Argentina and Uruguay—all border crossings at which we had proof of onward travel in hand—no one ever asked for it. But at the check-in counter for Cape Town, they did.

The agent was patient, having clearly come up against this many times before. No, we couldn’t buy a ticket from him. Go to the internet lounge, he said, and buy ourselves any old ticket out of South Africa. “Maputo in Mozambique is often the cheapest,” he added helpfully. 

He directed us upstairs, where we found nothing but a café and the entrance to the boarding gates. We trudged back down to the information desk.

“Oh no,” said the woman there. “There’s no internet lounge. Go back up to the café. There’s WiFi there. Buy a drink or something and they’ll give you the password.”

Back up the escalators. We ordered and I asked for the password. “Oh no,” the waiter said. “I can’t give you the password.  Go downstairs to the telecommunications center. You can buy an access card there.”

Back downstairs, find the telecommunications center. “Oh no. We don’t sell cards. You have to use the computers here.” I longed for the days when you bought tickets from actual human beings at actual ticket counters.

Upstairs again. Get the food to go, get our bags, trundle back downstairs. By now, we were starting to worry about making our flight. So when we finally got online, we worked fast. We could buy a ticket to Maputo, true, but we had no idea whether we’d ever use that, or when we’d use it if we did. And we always planned to go to New Delhi in the fall. We didn’t have a firm date in mind, so we chose our grandmother’s birthday more or less out of the air—though it is a Tuesday, often a cheaper day to travel. We found a fare that seemed reasonable and with no more planning than that, we booked a flight to India.

There was one last snag—the booking engine came back with a message saying we’d get confirmation by email within 24 hours. 24 hours! We needed it right then! But then Rie figured out how to access the transaction record and soon we had the crucial booking number to take back to the check-in desk.

By then, the line had vanished, and security and passport control were a breeze. The flight was smooth, the food wasn’t bad, and the view of Cape Town’s mountains from the air more than made up for the stress and hassle of getting there. And now we’re in Hermanus, with a hilly nature reserve on one side of us, rocky seacoast on the other. Already we’ve seen whales breaching and blowing just offshore and baboons scrambling through the bushes. And once again, all this travel seems like a good idea, these four months in Africa an exciting prospect, and our unexpectedly definite passage to India something to look forward to down the line.


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