Posts Tagged ‘flight cancellations’

Is it my Karma?

Tuesday, November 17th, 2009

So the stomach bug is not so unusual. But the series of canceled flights on this journey are starting to stack up in suspect ways…

I was supposed to be in Juphal, the Dolpo region, to watch the three sisters’ mobile tourism training for three days – until Nov. 3. Our plane was scheduled for 8 am but Bina only came to find me to head to the airfield (this was is also just a bare gravel strip in the midst of looming mountains) at about 9:30 am. Once there, we waited for about an hour. Initially the plane was to come in the (increasingly typical) 10-20 minutes. But 20 minutes later, the flight was canceled. We’d have to try tomorrow, Bina told me. We’d be on the first flight, 6 am.

Then my bug attacked. So, we aimed instead for the 8 am flight again. And actually got on, though this time at about 9:45am. But we made it, without incident to Surkhot. There we waited an additional two-and-a-half hours for our flight to Jumla. I didn’t mind much as I slept for a lot of that. The only troublesome bit was the waiting room after we went through security. The entirely too distinct smell of urine seeped from the nearby toilets. Soon enough, the police let most of us in the room sit outside until we boarded …

Once in Jumla my only mode of transport was my feet, until the end of my hike. After five days of walking, Bina, Fhulmaya and I reached Talcha, where another airstrip provided transit from the region. Having left Rara lake early in the morning – 6:45 am among an intense morning frost – we got to Talcha by about 9:15. Our flight was supposed to be at noon to Surkhot from where we would board a local bus to Pokhara. So we found a sunny place to sit, Bina and Fhulmaya tracked down some elusive biscuits and we ate a little snack. Fhulmaya started her walk back to Jumla at about 11:30 am.

The Nepal airways flight scheduled before us came and went at about noon. Ours was next in, yes, 10-20 minutes. Thirty minutes later, yes, it would come, in about 10 minutes. Then the police whistle sounded and a woman in uniform cried, “Strike!”

Within several short minutes of her call, a band or about 30 or so rowdy adolescent boys began marching up the airfield.

The strikers in action on the airfield

The strikers in action on the airfield

Bina translated that they were demanding that rice prices be lowered and that they be better allowed to travel from the area. I never quite understood what this latter complaint involved, whether or not they were legally barred from getting airplane tickets for some reason or the tickets were too expensive or what. The rice price issue, I gleaned, was legitimate, with prices having recently skyrocketed, Bina said. Yet the details remain murky here too because before and after the boys’ protest, I had watched at least three helicopters land and unload dozens of rice bags with big block letters saying “donated by the World Food Program.” These were added to the two-to-three already heaping piles of such bags sitting on the edge of the runway. So, I’m still hazy on the exact circumstances of the rice problem…

Anyway, what it meant for me was, after four-five hours of waiting, there was no flight. We were stuck in Talcha, not an especially appealing place to be. And we didn’t know for how long. Maybe we’d get out the next day? Maybe a flight would still come that day? Maybe we’d be stuck for five days? There was no road for vehicle travel to walk to and Fhulmaya had long ago left us, meaning the option of walking back to Jumla was out, it being doubtful that Bina and I could have easily found our way. Plus, I didn’t really want to do the reverse walk…

And, apparently, the Nepali police – who have a base in town and whose presence was ample enough – could not find a way to simultaneously allow a plane to safely land and let the boys peacefully protest away from the airfield. This confused me greatly.

I also realized that, despite all the international travel I have done, I hate not being in control (for those who know me well, feel free to sigh, smile and shake your head knowingly, laughing at what is soooooo obvious…). I hated not being able to get the police to just sort everything out. I hated that I could not call a customer service representative to get me on another flight. I hated that there was no other airport to try. I hated being stuck, immobile, impotent, having to wait. I can be very impatient.

So I hemmed and hawed and moaned and groaned and Bina let me vent, nodding gently and agreeing that it was all pretty awful. We found a room in the one hotel in town and Bina went to try and find more information. This entailed her listening in alongside several villagers as the police, airline representatives and boys had “discussions” and reporting back to me at various intervals that they were “discussing” and that the boys were making “demands.” Nothing changed. So I read, we ate our dal bhat for dinner, and we slept hoping some resolution would come the next day.

In the morning, Bina and I trotted over to the airport tower – a tiny, two-story wooden thing that looked more like a tree house than a control station. Inside we tried to find out if a plane would come. The man in charge really couldn’t say. Maybe? Then yes, Nepal Airlines would come. Then, no, they wouldn’t. Then maybe Yeti Airlines (our carrier) would come, then, no for sure and for an indefinite period, they would not come. Then maybe a helicopter would come and maybe we could get on it. But he didn’t know and wouldn’t know for several hours. A UN flight would come, but we could definitely not get on that.


I went outside to work on a story.

After about an hour Bina came running over – a helicopter was coming in! We have to go!

So I huffed my way breathlessly up the hill to our hotel, grabbed my pack, hastily paid my bill, and marched as swiftly as possibly across the village to the airfield. There a man was collecting money for the flight, but for some reason there was intense confusion about what I was to pay and whether in US Dollars or Nepali Rupees. Fearing I would miss the flight, I did kind of lose it then. No one could tell me what was going on and the conversations flying around me, at least three at once, all in rapid Nepali, with no one explaining anything to me, just overwhelmed me. And that’s when my hemming and hawing became a little too loud… But as usual, Bina dealt with me and got me onto the helicopter safely and graciously accepted my apologies for losing my cool. Big sigh.

So we made it out. But that’s not the end of the story. The helicopter ride turned into a real treat and a much-needed boon during what would continue to be a long, long, long journey home…

More on that in the next post.

This really happened…

Wednesday, October 21st, 2009
Passing the time on the long, long journey to Bukavu...

Passing the time on the long, long journey to Bukavu...

Here’s one good way to get to know someone well: travel internationally together for nearly 62 hours with little sleep, two airplane cancellations, one three-and-a-half hour mad dash across European borders in a rental car and a couple of Belgian beers along the way. So far, it’s working for me.

That’s how Dr. Scott Eggener, Dr. Gregory Bales and I spent the first three days of our journey from Brussels to Frankfurt to Brussels again, then to Bujumbura (Burundi) through Rwanda and onto our final destination, Bukavu in the eastern Congo. And I’m thinking that among the admittedly many silver linings I can find in this tale of travel woe, is that I’ve met two men, about whom I’ll be writing, who are exceedingly easy to get along with in stressful situations and incredibly determined to do some good in the world. And that’s just about as good a set-up for any piece as I could hope.

So it all started easily enough for me at JFK on Thursday, Oct. 15. My plane to Brussels left on time and I got to sit next to an amiable Italian lady, which for anyone who knows me, knows was an extra bonus. I breezed through customs in Brussels and then slowly started making my way to my next gate for the three-hour wait until I would fly to Burundi. On this second leg of my journey I’d be joining Scott and Greg, physicians from the Univ of Chicago whose medical work in Bukavu is the subject of one of my pieces there.

But when I finally found a departure monitor that listed my flight, I saw to my dismay the words “annullé” flash upon the screen. Not wanting to believe what I knew to be true – that annullé means cancelled – I stood staring until my translation was confirmed with the dreaded English version that soon followed the French. So I marched over to the Brussels Airlines information counter and was re-routed, with Scott and Greg, to Addis Ababa (Ethiopia) via Frankfurt. From there, we would catch another plane to Bujumbura and hopefully only be set back by about eight hours.

With the power of the Internet and the Brussels airport wireless, I found the docs in the departure lounge and we proceeded to spend a very tired day in Brussels. We first ambled through the Magritte Museum, which was lovely, if a bit overcrowded. We then ate a fine Belgian lunch and wandered over to an old church that was, as we discovered, built in the 11th century (I won the bet for guessing it’s age most closely, though I was off by about four centuries – so, yes, maybe we’re not history buffs…).

Feeling too exhausted to do much else, we decided to try and see a movie and maybe catch a nap in the process. We chose something called “Hump Day,” mainly because the theater was there (i.e. we walked past it) and the film was in English. It turned out to be quite easily the worst film we had ever seen. Agonizingly boring and slow-moving, the film followed two straight male buddies who wanted to try and make a gay porn film, sort of as a dare, for a radical film festival (please don’t make me try to explain more). I think the only reason we didn’t walk out is that the seats were relatively comfortable, the theater was dark, and we all slept some.

After browsing in a small book shop nearby and picking up a copy of Tin Tin in the Congo, appropriately enough, we found a local pub and shared a couple of beers. Turns out, Greg is a master fly-swatter (faster maybe even than Obama!!) and Scott a wizard at picking out unfortunate baby names (no, not for his own children).

Soon enough we were headed back to the airport where we were those people at the check-in counter who take FOREVER and you simply can’t understand why. Now on Ethiopian Air, they didn’t want to allow Scott’s third checked bag (medical equipment) because he had paid American Airlines for it but not them. After much haggling on the phone, an email confirming that payment would arrive eventually seemed to suffice. Thus, our bags successfully checked, we headed to our next flight with only a few minutes to spare.

The plane was not too crowded and we took off promptly for Frankfurt. When we landed, we sat on the tarmac for an hour. No word about why from the cockpit. Then it was two hours and, only when pressed, did the flight attendants tell us we had a flat tire. “But don’t worry,” they assured me, “you’ll get your next flight.” Then three hours and, “I don’t think we’re leaving Frankfurt tonight.” Then they served us dinner – they insisted. Then by hour four, after much fretting and wondering how we’d ever make it to the Congo, we were finally allowed off the plane.

We departed with a plan: get our bags (hurdle # 1), rent a car at 2:30 in the morning (hurdle #2), drive back to Brussels and don’t get lost (hurdle #3), catch our original cancelled flight to Bujumbura at 10:40 am, which, of course, would have seats for us (hurdle #4) and don’t get charged again for the flight (hurdle #5).

Well kids? Our bags came off at carousel B17 as we were told. The car rental company in terminal A was open. We did find our way out of the garage and on to Brussels in good time and with no major gaffes. Brussels Airlines got us on the 10:40 flight with no extra charge and, the bonus, the flight was practically empty. Thus we spent the next eight hours to Burundi each with our own row of five empty seats – snoring loudly I am sure.

Once in Burundi Alice, my fixer, met us at the airport as planned (despite all the changes in said plans) and though our hotel had no record of our reservation, rooms were available. We slept well and woke to a relatively easy drive across two borders (Rwanda and Congo) and around verdant, rolling hills framed by the misty, imposing mountains beyond.

In Bukavu we settled into our guest house and after some lunch, story planning, phone-calling and interview arranging with my translator extraordinaire, Roger, I went back to sleep. For three hours. I napped like a baby — out cold and in blissful content that we had actually managed to get here. There were several moments when I hadn’t been so sure…