(Originally published April 5th, 2010)
“How much to take me to the airport?”
“I’ll give you 3000 shillings.”
“O.K., 4000 shillings, let’s go.”
“NO! 3000 shillings, do you want it or not?”
“O.K. O.K. 3500 shillings, we go now.”
“O.K. 3000 shillings, lets go.”
I got in the taxi.
It is amazing how much better your negotiating skills become the longer you travel and the more comfortable you become in a foreign environment. With this small cost-of- a-ride victory under my belt, I was finally on my way to the airport in Zanzibar, Tanzania. I was beginning a travel day, which would be more than twenty-four hours long if all went well. I had spent almost four days and $50.00 in phone calls with the Lufthansa office in Dar Salaam. (This brings up a notable point. No matter how good a company is in the Western world, plan on them being just like everybody else in the Third World.)
According to the office in Dar Salaam, everything was taken care of and they would have my new ticket waiting for me in Nairobi with only a four hour layover, completely re-routed to London. All I needed to do was pay my $75.00 re-route fee and everything would be O.K. Being a muzungu, (Swahili for white man), who had seen just how efficient African commerce and communication really wasn’t, combined with an expired, used up, single-entry visa for Kenya, along with the complete assurance of the travel agent who sold me the flight from Zanzibar–the same man you could ask if you could shove a lit stick of dynamite up his ass and he would always reply with the same answer, no problem Bwana, (Swahili for Sir), the world will end tomorrow, your head is on fire, you don’t understand a word I say, the dog is nailed to the wrong side of the door, the response was always the same, ‘No Problem, Bwana’–my landing in and sorting out of my ticket in the most corrupt east African nation of Kenya should make for an interesting afternoon.
After a couple of short hops from Zanzibar I arrived in Nairobi, A.K.A (No Rob Me), and decided to see if I could avoid customs completely. (When I first began traveling I actually pulled this off, mostly because of my refusal to check luggage. God, I love traveling light! Traveling with only a carry-on allowed me to stay a passenger-in-transit). Once inside the airport I wandered off to find the Lufthansa counter, which was unmanned. However, there was a typed note–Wow, typed!–at the counter stating, “If counter is unmanned please use the gray telephone behind this desk and call these numbers for assistance.” Well that’s a little German organization for you. I stepped behind the counter as directed to use the phone and the phone had been locked up in the desk, (welcome to Africa). I can see the phone cord leading into the wood cabinet, taunting me. Oh well.
After all the haggling I had done on the phone in Zanzibar, the final word had been that I would get my ticket reissued while in transit and would be confirmed all the way to London with my confirmation number, so all I needed to do at this point was to find someone to issue my ticket. After having no luck at the Lufthansa counter, I decided I needed to talk to a customs official to see if they would lead me or escort me to the Lufthansa counter in the main terminal. Haunted by my first arrival in Nairobi, I apprehensively walked down the concrete hallway to find five Kenyan officials dressed in suits, smoking, hanging out under a No-Smokingsign. These guys looked at me with only the slightest interest. I considered lighting up a smoke, but looked at the sign and common sense told me not to.
Those gentlemen were of absolutely no help, (maybe I should have risked the smoke and bonded with them?). It was beginning to look as though I would remain in the transit area whether I wanted to or not. After about four hours of waiting, hanging around the unmanned Lufthansa counter with the lying, typed sign, and talking with a variety of people from all over the world, a tall, lanky German guy in a Lufthansa uniform finally showed up at the counter. I gave a deep sigh. My luck hadn’t been too good with tall, lanky Germans so far. Plus I was armed with only an expired ticket, a confirmation number, an expired Kenyan visa and a promise over the phone.
“I’m sorry, Sir. They told you incorrectly and we won’t be able to help you, ” stated the lanky German.
That was not the right answer and I let the gentleman know that.
(I could tell I had been on the road for a while. Had all of this happened at the beginning of my journey I might just have cried in my skirt, but now I felt more like a Massi warrior ready for trouble and almost wanting it. O.K. maybe not quite like a Massi warrior, more like someone from the number one East African television show, WWF. That’s right, World Wrestling Federation. I am serious. I am told it is the most watched show in all of east Africa. I have seen people crowd around one beat up old black and white TV and watch Randy The Macho Man Savage. (He was around when I was a kid.) So maybe I was feeling a little more like The Macho Man, yelling at someone to ‘Come on!’, even though it is in his contract that the Macho man always wins.)
The German gentleman at the counter obviously didn’t realize that I had to get to London to meet my former girlfriend from South America for a final showdown. After a bit more debating a compromise was agreed upon, Lufthansa would get me to Frankfurt and there I could change my ticket to London. I would fly from Nairobi to Frankfurt in First Class. That would work. To go from a grass hut on the beach of a Third World country to a First Class International German flight really was traveling across the spectrum of comfort.
On my First Class flight I felt like a kid in a candy store. There was Lobster Thermador, a goodie bag filled with socks, toothbrush, eye covers and other first class necessities all tied together with my own T.V. monitor, plus free liquor. (These thing might seem trivial, but remember, I had just come from two months in Africa and would have been impressed with a hot dog from 7-11). While giggling, I slowly removed all the booty from my goodie bag and carefully removed each article from its sealed bag. Of course I had to try everything out. It felt like Christmas. Everything seemed great–except for the impending battle with Lufthansa in Germany–I was feeling really tired and really goofy. (I blame the quiet little bottles of scotch). I relinquished myself to the Sandman.
A few hours later I awoke with my left leg and ankle feeling very sore. I removed my new Lufthansa headphones, slid up my new Lufthansa eye covers, wriggled out of my new Lufthansa blanket, and rolled down my new Lufthansa socks to touch where I had cut myself on a coral reef while swimming a week earlier. My ankle was swollen so much that as I touched the throbbing cut the scab came off and a nasty white liquid covered my finger. (Sorry, don’t mean to gross you out, but now you know how I felt). A gland in my crotch had swollen up like a tennis ball, not to be confused with a grapefruit. (All grapefruit-sized growths are reserved for cancer descriptions). My entire leg really felt quite painful, but there was nothing I could do, so I just had to wait and see.
I drifted back to sleep and awoke in Germany. I felt like shit. I hobbled off the plane in my new designer socks. I needed to find where to go to take care of my ticket to London. Alas, I found the counter with a queue of only thirty people and one really grumpy counter person. German efficiency? My sore leg, tired ass and I all waited patiently in line. Upon reaching the counter I was told by the grumpy person, “You are in Z wrong line Zir. I can’t help you.”
Wrong answer. However, this time I waited patiently, smiled, didn’t make any accusations and wasn’t trying to start a fight. It still didn’t work. My leg continued to throb, but I was not going to spend one night in the Gulag of Frankfurt. The counter person pointed to a smaller queue with an older lady working there. Alright, I thought, I’d give it a try. That is when I met an angel, Dickhead’s supervisor, maybe why he had the line of thirty people and she had only six.
I discovered here that once you reached a German with the authority to make a decision it was amazing how easy it was to guilt them into fixing a legitimate wrong of their company. When I told my story, the woman informed me that my ticket could not be changed and once again I hear that I have been misinformed by a Lufthansa representative. I don’t know if she could tell that my head was on the verge of splitting, allowing some evil beast to rise out of me and swallow her whole or if she was just doing her job, but she started working on her computer. My leg continued to throb and the idea of the Gulag began not to be so bad. At least I could sleep. Five minutes later the angel handed me new tickets to London, with a return and connection to Delhi. “No charge sir, sorry for the inconvenience,” she said, smiling.
I look at her, befuddled. A warm glowing light appeared around her; not really, but it should have. I’ll be damned, I thought. This angel had been able to fix all the damage done by five other employees on two continents in just five minutes. I had everything I wanted and it had all worked out. I was on a flight to London in just a couple of hours…great! As I walked away it occurred to me that she was probably just worried about my head splitting open and an evil beast eating her whole. (I really was feeling delirious).
I decided that I need to say thank you to such a lovely woman for helping me out while reestablishing my faith in German customer service. I went and bought her a cappuccino. As I returned to present the cappuccino, I wasn’t expecting much. I knew she was busy, but I really wanted her to know how much I appreciated her help. To see her face when I gave it to her you would have thought it was a new car. This efficient, focused, Lufthansa representative stopped talking to her customer mid-sentence, looked confused, then shocked, and then said several thank yous, and then began to smile from ear to ear. A small gesture really can go a long way sometimes. I hobbled off to the gate and off to London.
The flight to London was only a few hours long, but I began to feel like it was going to last forever. I drifted in and out of sleep. My leg was really getting uncomfortable. I told myself what the hell, I could get a hostel and take a nap for five or six hours after I arrived in London.
Wrong…my delirium began to spiral. Heathrow Airport was like a weird delusional dream, including fire alarms going off across the entire airport. (I think fire alarms are louder in London than in The States). It was fun, though. It gave me an excuse to yell at the customs official, “I am a tourist!‘…NO I DON’T PLAN TO WORK!” I showed her my ticket, which proved I was planning on leaving the UK after my visit, and I was through customs. It was about this time that I began to realize just how tired and bizarre I really was feeling. I began to panic a little bit and decided I really didn’t have it in me to go on the big ‘Figure-out-the-Subways-and-Hostel’ hunt.
One nice thing about large airports is that they always have some cute young lady working behind a counter who will book a reservation at an extremely expensive hotel. I decide I need to find that lady. My delirium began to rise and I started making sonar noises as I scanned the airport terminal, “BBBBBB…BBBBB, …there, target identified and location locked.” I slowly hobbled to my savior.
“Hello. What is the closest, cheapest hotel?”
“It is the Sheridan Heathrow, Sir.”
“Can I be there in 15 minutes?”
“I’ll take it.”
Thirty minutes later I was in bed asleep. Of my first forty-eight hours in London, forty-five of them had been spent in a weird land of larium dreams and delirium. When I woke up I was firmly convinced I’d survived an assassination attempt and had information necessary to save the world. I realized that this probably was not right, and went to the concierge to get a doctor. Fortunately, the Sheridan had a doctor on call and I was able to call and make an appointment. I went back to my room and back to sleep, awoke again and realized I had not eaten since the Lobster Thermador on the flight. I had seen a McDonalds across the street from the hotel, so I though I would go grab a bite. I had been sleeping since I called the doctor and it was now 5:45. It was dark out, but I had heard it got dark really early in London in the winter. But what did I know? I had just come from south of the equator.
My sore leg and I stumbled across the street to McDonald’s. It was closed. What the hell? I walked over to the gas station next door to buy some aspirin. The place is sealed up tight, with only a security window and a guy in a turban behind it. When I walked up to the window, the turbaned guy asked, “What do you want? I told him I needed some aspirin. He replied with the helpful answer, “I am only selling gas now.” I don’t get it.
Confused, I decided I was better off sleeping and headed back toward my room. Then it hit me. It was 5:45 in the morning!? I asked the desk clerk what time and day it was. She told me very slowly, looking at me like I was a junkie. A-ha! I thought, it is morning and I have been sleeping for 20 hours! I walked away from the hotel desk triumphantly proud of my reasoning skills which had allowed me to deduce that it was morning.
I thought how I’d like to go avoid assassination and save the world again. I went back to the desk and asked for a 9:00 a.m. wakeup call. This time the desk clerk looked at me like I really was a junkie. As I limped down the hall, I walked by a mirror and realized why the woman behind the desk had looked at me that way. I had 45-hour bed-head bags under my eyes, a great tan, a giant, unkempt handle bar mustache and go-tee topped off by a huge mop of bright red, big hair. I really did stick out like a sore thumb in London.
The next few days were really quite uneventful. I saw the doctor and did the usual doctor stuff. (One notable thing about seeing a doctor abroad is that it is good to let them know you have cash and are will to pay them directly). I was able to go right in and see the doctor. I skipped through a crowded lobby and actually had several consultations with the doctor over a two-hour period in one morning. I was also able to talk him into resupplying my first aid kit with any lovely prescription drugs I happened to be low on. The doctor said I had done the right thing by starting myself on antibiotics and taking hot baths to scrub out the coral cut.
Those first few days in London I got a lot of dirty looks. I deserved them of course, but it really did seem funny at the time, for people there actually do say words like, “jolly good!”, “Thank you love”, “old chap,” and a hodgepodge of other very British words. Combine these with the amount of delirium I possessed and it became hysterical.
For example, I would ask someone, “Excuse me, Sir. Where is the cute girl who books really expensive hotels?”
The Brit would reply, “Jolly good sir! Just go down this hall and take a left.”
At which I would explode into delirious laughter aimed directly at the speaker.
He would top it off with, “I say, Old Chap, is everything all right?”
More of my laughter would ensue, assuring me a dirty look from a very pale man with large ears.
To this day I still can’t hide a smile whenever I hear some one say, ‘Jolly good’ or ‘Old Chap!’
The moral of this story is don’t mess around with coral cuts. They are evil and can be very dangerous.
But I must add before I am done that I was pleasantly surprised at how friendly Londoners turned out to be. For a large city it was marvelous! Whomever I asked for directions helped me out. People said ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ and ‘excuse me.’ Of all the things that happened, this offered me a culture shock more than anything else.