“The most we can do is to write — intelligently, creatively, critically, evocatively — about what it is like living in the world at this time.” Oliver Sacks. “To take a photograph is to align the head, the eye and the heart,” Henri Cartier-Bresson
My replacement arrived. We had the obligatory sundowners on Kapani Pan (where there had been lions just a few days before). I said my goodbyes to the expats and local staff at the health centre. No tears, just hugs. After my final early Monday morning meeting, I left behind some medical kit for the clinical staff, an electronic thermometer, a thousand candle power head torch to illuminate nooks and crannies, an otoscope which you can’t turn off without dissembling and a few tongue depressors.
It took about an hour to pack. One bag contained 540 origami cranes to be hung at my daughter’s wedding; it weighed less than 2kg. The other bag had my medical kit, some clothes which survived the “Boom” and handwashing of Theresa and a few presents. I travel light apart from technical stuff and electronics.
I had my laptop, mouse, two cameras, lenses, Kindle, music player, binoculars, battery chargers and iPad. This always causes problems at airports because I have to carry them as hand luggage to avoid theft from checked bags. At Nairobi Airport transit, my carry on bags looked so suspicious that I had to unpack completely. The security officer swabbed everything to detect any residue of explosives. I noticed that the screen of my laptop was dusty and asked the officer if he could clean it while he was checking. “Ah, sir, sorry. We don’t offer that service,” he apologised.
At Mfuwe International Airport, the checks were less stringent. I sat in the departure lounge after checking in, chatting to a Naturetrek birding tour party. An airport official interrupted me, “The District Commissioner wants to see you!”
For a brief moment, I thought I was going to be detained. Or perhaps they finally had my plastic Temporary Employment Permit card. But DC Caroline just wanted to bid me farewell and express her gratitude for my work in the Valley. I said goodbye to her and to F who had also come to see me off.
The my flight from Lusaka arrived so I went through security again, telling the staff the same joke about my trousers being about to fall down because I had had to remove my belt. “Those with boarding cards for the Proflight to Lusaka, please come to the gate.” Oops, while I was chatting outside with the DC, they had issued boarding cards and I didn’t have one. (Regular readers may recall that on the flight out to Mfuwe, the airline staff gave my boarding card to someone else.) No problem, they just printed off another card and I joined the queue of Chinese tourists taking selfies on the runway by the aircraft steps.
I feel sad at leaving. It is almost my second home now, my sixth visit to Zambia. But it is time to go, to move on. I have lots to look forward to in 2019. Including my appraisal and revalidation.
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
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
“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.
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.
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.
“How long does it take to get to the airport, driver?”
“Two hours if traffic jam. Light traffic is less, about one hour,” he said.
Leaving the team house at 6:50am, we arrived at 7:15am. And he wasn’t speeding.
The security check involved loading my suitcase and carry-on bag onto the rollers to go through the Xray scanner. As they disappeared behind the rubber flaps, I noticed I was still carrying my wallet. This contained my passport, boarding card, foreign money, credit cards, house key, driving licence and other essentials. I glanced over to the security guard and asked what to do with my wallet. I motioned throwing the wallet onto the conveyor belt and he nodded. So I did.
Then I realised I still had my mp3 player, my mobile phone, a camera on my belt and my watch. I pointed at this, but another guard just waved me through the metal detector. It beeped frantically and the guard gave me a cursory rub down before waving me through. My suitcase and carry-on bag had already slid down the rollers after being scanned, but there was a lady’s handbag there. I picked it up and shouted to a woman who had just left. She shook her head but another lady came running over to take it from me.
I glanced over to the Xray scanner as my wallet appeared through the rubber strips. It looked thin enough to slip down into the gap between the rollers, so I lunged at it. At that precise moment, the security guard decided to have another close look at a piece of luggage in the scanner. He put the conveyor belt into reverse and my wallet went back into the machine before I could grab it.
The security guards saw this and tried hard to stop themselves from laughing. The wallet returned to view and I picked it up. The guards called me over and thanked me for helping the lady with her forgotten handbag. I suppose technically I should have called them. Perhaps they thought it unseemly to speak to an unknown woman. I doubt they would have blown it up in a controlled explosion.
My colleague managed to pass through the emigration formalities without too much difficulty, in spite of having overstayed his visa. He offered to pay a fine, but the officer just waved him through.
Bangladeshis have a sweet tooth, as well as a sweet disposition; most of the shops in the departure lounge were selling pastries and cakes.
There were some shops where you could buy liquor. Judging by the dust, many of the bottles on display had been on the shelves for years. The foil cap and seal on a $80 bottle of cognac was so distressed that it looked like it might have been tampered with. A bottle of sparkling wine was dirty, with the bare cork showing; it had probably lost its fizz. Unsurprisingly, not many people were buying booze at 8am.
An enthusiastic leather goods salesman tried to sell me a belt. Last year, I lost a lot of weight in Delhi so I had an extra hole punched into my belt. The excess tongue of the belt flaps out from my side. The belt he tried to sell me was called CROSS. The sales assistant got excited when I got out my wallet, but instead of showing him dollars, I showed him my name (“Ki Naam”) on the boarding card. He said, “Bangladesh Biman?”
“No, my name is CROSS. Like the brand of the belt. How much is it? I quite fancy having a personalised belt buckle,” I said.
“Only £25, sir.”
I decided I didn’t fancy having a personalised belt that much. I opened my laptop and began writing this blog. Time 8:29am.
Bangladesh Biman Flight BG 088 was scheduled to leave at 10:20am. At 9:45am, the departure notice board directed us to gate 9, but there was no one there when I arrived. The staff turned up at 10am and we all filed through into the holding pen by the gate. A tall American man guided me to the seats at the far end, away from the raucous Bangladeshi soap opera on the TV. At 10:20am, he said that the last time he had taken this flight, it had been cancelled without warning at the last minute. “So for that reason, I took out flight insurance this time,” he said. When I looked worried, he reassured me by saying that the authorities would not have taken our luggage if the flight was likely to be cancelled. “Bangladesh,” he sighed.
At 10:40am I went to the security desk to ask for information about the flight. “It is on time,” said a man in a high visibility vest. “It has arrived. It is on the apron.” He fluttered his hands in the general direction of the planes outside. There were no planes displaying Bangladesh Biman livery. I returned to my seat. The textile machine manufacturer from South Carolina said that being twenty minutes late was actually considered to be on time in Bangladesh.
Ten minutes later, there was a flurry of activity and we were ushered down the stairs to board an ancient bus. The seats were fixed around the periphery, providing more room for travellers to be packed inside, standing. Some men had spread their buttocks over two seats and did not wish to make room for anyone who needed to sit down.
The driver had some trouble getting the bus to start. He kept turning the ignition key until the glow plugs warmed up and the diesel engine wheezed into life. But it didn’t sound healthy. The driver had to keep his foot on the accelerator to prevent the engine from stalling. He eased it into a gear (probably third, I’d guess) and slowly let out the clutch. The bus lurched forward, as the driver slipped the clutch and kept the revs up.
We drove in front of the terminal buildings, past the parked aeroplanes. We drove past a wide array of broken pallets, loaded with cardboard boxes wrapped in sheets of plastic. The wind had torn the sheeting ragged. I was not sure if this was the normal holding area for air freight, or whether it was where stuff had been lost and abandoned. The bus turned onto the tarmac apron and stopped outside our plane, about a kilometre away from Gate Nine.
On boarding, I noticed that the plane looked the worse for wear. I had requested a window seat so I could take pictures. Just as I was getting comfortable, a Bangladeshi man rudely told me to get out of his seat. He said he always has a window seat, “8C is window.” I explained that my seat, 8A, would normally be the window seat. He was furious when more well-mannered Bangladeshis in the surrounding seats told him he was wrong. Then he changed tack and claimed that he had a boarding pass for seat 8A. I showed him my stub, suggesting it might be double booked. He checked his boarding pass and harrumphed, flopping down in the aisle seat in a fit of pique.
After takeoff, the antimacassar piece of tissue paper on the headrest of my seat fell off. When I tried to replace it, the whole head rest came away in my hands. I managed to fit the bolt protruding from the back of the head rest into the hole in the seat, but it remained wobbly for the rest of the flight.
The flight attendants served us a curry with a bottle of Seven Up. The foldaway tray was so tilted that it threatened to spill lunch into my lap. The passenger in seat 8B was engrossed in watching a film he had uploaded to his iPad. He tried eating his meal with the tablet balanced against the seat in front. After Denzil Washington dispatched a villain in a startling manner, the passenger jumped, knocking the tablet off the tray table. I retrieved it for him (only fair, as I was also sneakily watching the film) and luckily the screen was intact. That would teach him to watch movies while eating.
As we crossed over into Thai airspace, the captain turned on the fasten seat belt sign and explained that he was expecting turbulence. He manoeuvred the plane between some impressive cumulo-nimbus cloud formations. We hit a low pressure air pocket and the plane abruptly dropped about a hundred feet. Several Bangladeshi ladies screamed in fear. Several began repeatedly chanting the name of God. We descended, flying out over the Gulf of Siam and turned to make our approach into Suvarnabhumi Airport in Bangkok. We landed smoothly, but no one clapped.