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Flying Kenya Zambia

The Pleasures of Airline Travel

I have a love/hate relationship with air travel. Despite being a seasoned traveller, I still feel uneasy and anxious. Despite using a checklist, I wonder what essential item I have failed to pack. I try to give myself enough time to get to the airport, but there’s always the possibility of a crash on the motorway or the vehicle breaking down. Then there’s the wait at check-in. Does my luggage weigh less than the permitted maximum? What heavy items can I take out at the last minute to stuff into my pockets (this makes going through security even more tiresome)?

I managed to leave my home in a reasonable state, refrigerator emptied, central heating set to deal with a cold spell, bed linen washed and dried, personal video recorder primed to record Les Mis for when I get home, all electrical appliances unplugged. The bus was on time, but most seats were occupied. We arrived at Heathrow on time and I breezed through check in. Security checked my hand baggage as I had left my Kindle in the rucksack, but the officers smiled benignly and waved me through. I had a sample of whisky in the duty free – White Walker (Johnnie, of course) – to reward myself, before going to the gate. Why does everyone rise up and queue as soon as the stewardess announces that boarding will start with passengers needing assistance or travelling with children?

The flight was full and there were no aisle or window seats available. A Kenyan lady was sitting in my place, oblivious to her allocated seat. She moved to another seat, and had to move again. I sent my final SMS messages and shut down my cell phone. Why do the touch panels on the back-of-the-seat entertainment system always fail to respond to your first deliberate touch? I selected a film which I hadn’t seen and must have nodded off for a few minutes because I cannot remember anything about it.

I don’t mind airline food. It is not cordon bleu but it fills the gap and gives you something to do (eat) during the flight. We touched down at Nairobi a few minutes early and I settled down in the transit lounge waiting for my connection to Lusaka while the sun rose. I took advantage of the free internet to send more messages before we were called.

On board, I couldn’t resist a secret smile when two traditionally-built African ladies tried to squash past each other in the aisle. Even they found it funny. En route, I could see the summit of Kilimanjaro poking above the clouds. We landed in Lusaka and I took my time as I had seven hours to kill before my flight to Mfuwe. I was last in the queue for immigration and noticed that the officer had a problem with his arm. I remarked on this and we had a mini-consultation while he wrote out the receipt for my 30 day business visa. My luggage was ready for me and I breezed through customs.

There is a new Chinese-built airport a few hundred metres away from Kenneth Kaunda International Airport, ready to open in late 2019. The old airport is rather cramped with few places to sit and wait. I managed to offload my bags at the Proflight office (the boss had pity on me). I wandered around, chatted with some South African businessmen, sympathised with an elderly lady whose visitor did not turn up, watched some planes taking off and landing, had some lunch, read some material I had downloaded onto my phone and sat staring into space, nodding off with fatigue.

Finally, our flight was called and I was relieved to find that my luggage weighed almost exactly 30kg, meaning I didn’t have to pay excess baggage. I accepted the offer of a window seat and someone impatiently pushed in front of me. After I went through security to the gate, I thought it was strange that I wasn’t given a boarding card. I went back to check in and the receptionist told me that she had given my boarding pass to another passenger, but it would be ok as she would fix it for me. And I believed her.

Meanwhile, there was a minor incident at security when a man tried to take a cow shin bone onto the plane in his hand luggage. The lady checking the x-rays of the luggage must have been rather shocked to see it on the screen. The bone was huge, plastic-wrapped and had a prominent label from a pet shop. He had brought it in his hold luggage from Namibia, but had transferred it to his carry-on luggage to avoid excess baggage charges on the local flight. Bad choice.

“What is this? Is it from a wild animal?” she asked.

“No, it’s just a bone for the dog, a gift for him as we have left him at home for two weeks while we were on holiday,” he replied.

This raised several cultural issues for the security officer. “You bought a gift for your dog?” she asked. “What will the dog do with this gift?”

“He’ll probably chew it for a few hours then bury it in the garden,” he said.

Her eyebrows arched even higher in disbelief. “It is not permitted to bring animal parts onto a flight,” she said. The passenger objected to the bone being confiscated and appealed to me to provide a rational explanation.

“It is securely wrapped and unlikely to be a health hazard,” I ventured.

“I will check precisely the wording of the law,” said the security officer. “This might involve a prison sentence.”

Immediately, the man apologised and abandoned the bone. “It only cost 70 rand, I don’t want to go to a cell for that!”

Meanwhile, the manager of a safari lodge managed to bring a box of machine tools on board, saying that there were no sharp bits inside. This made me wonder if the official might have thought the cow bone could have been used as an offensive weapon by a terrorist. But it wasn’t exactly the jaw bone of an ass.

New Chinese-built Lusaka Airport

The flight for Mfuwe was called and I approached the receptionist who had given my boarding pass to an African man. She saw my face and it dawned on her that he had already passed through. She called him back and switched the passes. He clearly hadn’t read the pass, and neither had she.

Luangwa River
Meandering course, very full
The escarpment. This is the southern end of the Rift Valley
Touchdown at Mfuwe International Airport

We touched down in Mfuwe an hour later. The warm, fetid air oozed onto the plane. The sun was setting behind the clouds and it looked like it might rain again soon. The grass beside the runway was dazzling, emerald green. I felt the joy of arriving at a place I loved. This was the pleasure of travel – arriving safely.

By Dr Alfred Prunesquallor

Maverick doctor with 40 years experience, I reduced my NHS commitment in 2013. I am now enjoying being free lance, working where I am needed overseas. Now I am working in the UK helping with the current coronavirus pandemic.

3 replies on “The Pleasures of Airline Travel”

Very good to be reading you again! I’ll be interested to learn how much Chinese influence and investment there is. You mention a new airport. I only knew about the Nairobi-Mombassa railway (built apparently with Chinese not African labour) and the huge new African Union HQ in Addis Ababa. But maybe there are many, many smaller projects too. It is a form of colonisation whether we like it or not, like the British in years past. I read that China is buying up huge areas of land where the intention to introduce massive modern agricultural methods to grow food to feed its home population, ie not food for Africans. I wonder if it will be food even suitable for Africans. I have been to China many times and love the place, but altruism is not usually part of its makeup.

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