|Jul/Aug 2007 Travel|
I arrive at the airport, my shirt sweatily stuck to my back in spite of the near freezing temperatures- the hassles of a journey back home to Nigeria have ensured that. I am torn between stripping off the layers that only make it worse and hoping that as I step out of the taxi into the chill winter air a comfortable equilibrium will be reached. I leave the taxi driver to keep an eye on my luggage while I go off in search of a trolley. There is none nearby and I find myself wandering past several check-in counters before I finally find one. I speedily wheel it back fervently praying that the cab driver has not made off with my luggage. Having run the gauntlet of fulfilling the various requests for purchases from family, friends and friends of friends and having packed, weighed and repacked my two hefty bags several times in order not to breach Virgin Atlantic's newly imposed 23 kilogramme limit for each piece of luggage, the prospect of losing them does not sit easily with me. I finally squeeze through a gap in the ring of cars that solidly surround the airport terminal building to the place where the driver is patiently waiting. I am so relieved that I give him a larger tip than I had originally planned for. Well, it IS Christmas after all and the season of good will.
I wheel my bags into the departures hall and begin to search for the Fast Bag Drop sign. Having taken the precaution of checking in online, thereby saving myself an extra hour--an hour which I used to fulfil my niece's request for seedless grapes, I'm confident that I'm in for a relatively painless check in experience. As soon as I approach the check in desk, it's obvious that there's a Lagos flight booked. There are the long untidy queues, the noise, the bustle, the unbelievable piles of luggage; and of course the exuberant staff poised to do battle. It isn't clear which of the various lines that seem to snake across the entire hall that leads to Fast Bag Drop and so I join one, praying that it's the right one. I'm soon joined by a number of others who like me have checked in online. And so we stand and wait and wait and wait some more. Still the queue refuses to budge. I heave a sigh of exasperation and proclaim to my neighbour, a young woman with a South African accent "I don't mind standing in a queue as long as it's moving" She nods her agreement as do a number of others in the same queue. The waiting continues and I am beginning to worry that the last minute duty free shopping blitz to pick up presents for those yet uncovered by the previous few weeks of shopping may not now be feasible. Meanwhile it appears that the self check-in kiosks are not working and the frustration of passengers with electronic tickets trying to use them to check in adds to the general chaos. Finally two men in vaguely official looking uniforms turn up and try to put some semblance of order into the queue. In the process of doing this, it emerges that we are standing in the wrong queue- this one is only for passengers who have checked in using the kiosks. I head for the correct queue having wasted a good forty minutes and proceed to stand in line for another twenty minutes. I am beginning to move forward and am feeling slightly more positive. Just then a bespectacled Amazon whose not-insubstantial bosom bears a tag screaming "SECURITY", brusquely approaches me asking for my ticket. I tell her that as I had an e ticket and had checked in online, I did not require one. "No", she bellows, directing my attention to a sign demanding passports and tickets from all passengers in the queue that I am standing in. I am too cowed for words and meekly head for the ticket desk where she tells me that I can get my ticket printed off. Here there is another long queue including a young Nigerian man in his late thirties or early forties wearing coral beads on his wrists. His companions standing behind the barriers address him as Chief. He taunts them with the prospects of the fun that he is going to have in Nigeria while they suffer in wintry London- he talks of the food, the music, the women and they respond reminding him of the damage all the fun will do to his credit card by the time he returns in January.
There are a few lazy attempts to jump the queue and a couple succeed. I am too exhausted to even argue. Behind me is my South African friend. She's in tears because she's missed her flight. Apparently she was asked to repack her luggage because of weight restrictions and while she was in the process of doing that, she was suddenly told that check-in had closed. She rings her parents in South Africa to explain but it appears that because she will miss her connecting flight, she will not be home in time for New Year's as planned. We stand in that awkward Western situation where you want to offer some help and support to someone in distress but are constrained from doing so because you do not know them well enough. Help appears in the form of an efficient supervisor who sails in, clocks her tears and whisks her off to rebook her on the next flight out. Soon after, it's finally my turn and I get my ticket and head back to the Fast Bag Drop praying all the while that I will not be too late. In the end, I am not and even my problematic luggage sails through. There is a slight hiccup when the check in clerk asks to weigh my hand luggage and declares that it's over the 6kg that's allowed. Considering that the trolley case empty weighs 3kg, a 6kg allowance is almost worthless. He tries to get me to put stuff from my trolley case into my checked in luggage. I refuse--most of it is books and magazines and I cannot imagine travelling without any reading material. But, Sir, he says, it's a night flight. Yes, I retort but I don't sleep on planes. "Neither do I," he admits, waving me through with an injunction to carry the books in my hand. I do that till I leave the vicinity of the check in desks and then promptly pop them back in. Armed with my boarding pass I brace myself for the next gauntlet: the security check. I get through security fairly easily and as I manoeuvre my mobile phone and coins and keys back into my pockets I meet another queue. Immigration is checking passports leaving the country, perhaps a reaction to the recent press reports about a Somalian suspect in the killing of an English policewoman who is alleged to have fled the UK wearing niqab.
I finally get through and manage to do my last bits of shopping and then head for the boarding gate. There I bump into an old colleague from my housemanship days in LUTH and we begin to catch up on the last few years. He's working as a psychiatrist in the UK and we are soon exchanging notes on a wide range of issues- medicine and health care and training in Nigeria and the UK as well as catching up on various mutual acquaintances. It turns out that we are returning to the UK on the same day and we exchange numbers in Nigeria and promise to keep in touch.
We finally board the plane on time and as I settle in I am distracted by the vociferous complaints from a Nigerian businessman sitting to my right. Apparently he has very specifically requested a window seat in order to be able to lean against it and get a good night's sleep, and has just discovered that he is consigned to an aisle seat instead. He isn't happy and he is making his unhappiness clear. The pleasant chubby steward standing guard over the emergency exit directs him to the purser who tries in vain to calm him down. Soon we are airborne and I settle into reading my book which the steward had insisted I stow away during takeoff--his argument is that since it is a hardback book, it could cause serious damage to someone if we were to hit turbulence. It's the actor Rupert Everett's autobiography which has received good reviews but I find myself struggling to stay interested. It's well written--good lyrical prose--but somehow I don't get into it.
I decide to watch the television instead. Virgin has got some Nigerian films in among the in-flight selection and I opt to watch one of these. It's not supposed to be a comedy and yet I find myself guffawing all the way through- the weak plot which ends unresolved, the ham fisted acting, the props and sets. I am puzzled thinking of all the great Nigerian writers, directors and actresses that I have known- why is it so difficult to make films with coherent plots and proper actors?
By this time I am starving--the mad dashing about to get to the airport, check in and board having taken its toll. I'm eager for some food and I'm glad to see that the food trolley has begun to make its way down the aisles. Soon I overhear raised voices--some kind of altercation between the mother and daughter in the seats next to mine with the stewardess. I face my television screen stolidly refusing to be drawn and pray for my food, trying to make up my mind whether to have the chicken or the lamb. Suddenly, a hand is thrust before my face clutching a foil container.
"Will you have the vegetarian meal, Sir!" barks the stewardess.
"No, there must be a mistake," I stammer back. "I didn't order a vegetarian meal. I'm not a vegetarian."
"But you do eat vegetables don't you," she persists. "It's very nice, it's from Business class"
"No thank you is my response. I've had a long day, I'm Nigerian, I'm hungry and I love my meat. Can I speak to your supervisor?"
Supervisor turns up and bends solicitously over my seat. "Is there a problem, sir?"
"Yes I retort, I'm being offered the vegetarian meal or nothing. I'd like a meat dish".
"I'm terribly sorry sir" he says "but we've run out of meat dishes."
By this time, the two year old in me is straining at the leash and I finally let it go. I've had a whole day of playing reasonable mature adult and it is enough.
"Well in that case," I say, "you can take your tray away."
"I'll see what I can do" he murmurs and disappears only to return with three meat dishes which he hands over to me and the mother and daughter pair nearby. Rather than pacify me I am even angrier although I choose to say nothing. If there were three extra meat meals why weren't we offered them immediately? Were the crew reserving them for their supper? I ignore the questions and attack the food marvelling at the lather I have let myself get into over bland airline food. But it's the injustice of it that rankles. I've travelled with Virgin and other airlines to other destinations and never had this kind of experience. Perhaps it's the Naija special.
The rest of the flight passes in a blur and I manage to finish off the Everett biography and even start on Fatou Diome's The Belly of the Atlantic- a French African immigrant tale. I'm engrossed in it when the captain announces that we are about to begin our descent into Lagos. I look across my snoring seatmate's softly undulating belly to the window where the first pink glow of dawn is beginning to paint the skies. As we touch down gently on to Nigerian soil, I whisper a prayer of thanks.
We make our way through the corridors, down the stairs to the immigration desk. Dotted along the halls are people, officials, and middlemen here to meet important personalities and whiz them through the formalities. I marvel at my people's predilection for shortcuts but then quickly remind myself that even at Heathrow there is a Fast Track Immigration gate for Business Class passengers. As we queue up we are handed Customs forms- a new development for me. The form asks you among other questions to declare how much foreign currency you are bringing in to the country. I am apprehensive at filling it in and am torn between under declaring and declaring the true amount. But I worry that if I under-declare the balance may be seized and if I declare the true amount, the staffers may want a cut. I err on the side of honesty. In any case my worries are misplaced as I discover when I eventually leave the airport dropping the form off with the courteous Customs officers at the exit. But that happens later.
Having come through immigrations in a fairly perfunctory manner- there was no "Welcome home" like I got last year- I head for the luggage hall where it appears bedlam reigns. There are two conveyor belts and one is broken. I make my way to the counter to pay for the use of a trolley- contrary to an article I'd read just before leaving London, they're still not free. But I don't mind paying if that's the price of having trolleys. The young man next to me is not so lucky. He proffers a fifty pound note to the cashier, saying that he has no Nigerian currency. "I wi' Ďave to give you your shange in naira" she gleefully says. As he struggles to make the calculation, someone else comes to his rescue and offers to pay for his trolley. Near him an obnoxious short pot-bellied Nigerian chief loudly demands to know who is going to push his trolley for him. He is ready to pay he announces. I feel like asking him if there is anything wrong with his hands but refrain.
We make our way to the conveyor belt and begin to wait for our luggage. Fifteen minutes and there is no sign. Thirty minutes and still no sign. About forty five minutes into our wait a rumour begins to wend its way through the huddled mass of bodies-the conveyor belt is broken and alternative arrangements are being made. Sure enough we soon see a man dressed in a technicians overalls valiantly tinkering with the belt. It is nearly a full hour of waiting before a young woman, looking very harassed and dressed in the bright red of Virgin emerges to announce that the belt is indeed broken and alternative arrangements are being made. The crowd erupts in fury- they yell abuse at her- they press their personal individual cases--a flight to catch, a wedding to attend, now, this minute, this very morning. She deals with them with a grace rare in such Nigerian settings. She is polite and she is firm and she manages to get our luggage coming through manually. One by one we peel away, our luggage intact. A few aren't so lucky--their bags have split strewing the contents through the innards of the aircraft hold and they are produced in bits and pieces. With a backward sympathising glance I push my trolley through the horde of Customs officials who merely proffer a single "Happy new year" and then I am in the Arrivals Hall. Waiting for me is Ugo, my brother's colleague who has offered to meet me at the airport and get me on to the Virgin Nigeria flight to Owerri which departs from the same terminal building. We make our way to the Virgin Nigeria check in counter and soon I am checked in, my boarding pass and luggage tags handed over to me. I have specifically asked Ugo to book the first flight to Owerri which leaves at 9 30 as having flown all night I am keen to get home as soon as possible.
Armed with my boarding pass, I bid farewell to Ugo and make for the departure lounge. As my hand luggage is passed through the scanner, the bottle of champagne that I have bought in Duty Free as a present shows up. The woman behind the counter jovially says "Oga, Happy new Year o! Enjoy the champagne o!" As she says this, she surreptitiously pushes the plastic bowl normally meant for keys and other metal items forward. She is so pleasant and good humoured that I dip my hand in my pocket and drop a note in the bowl "Thank you sah, happy new Year sah" she laughs as I head into the lounge.
Sitting I find myself next to an old boss from a vacation job I did while still in university. He doesn't remember me of course and so I introduce myself to him. We begin to chat and he reveals that Virgin Nigeria cancelled the previous day's flight to Owerri because of bad weather. We worry whether the same thing will happen when it gets to ten o'clock with no sight of the plane. Eventually a plane appears and a boarding announcement is made. We head for the boarding gate and my erstwhile colleague asks what my seat number is. As I bring out my boarding pass to check he notices that it's for the 1 30 flight. I am perplexed as I was sure my ticket was for the 09 30 flight. I make my way to the head of the queue where I'm told in no uncertain terms that I am attempting to board the wrong flight.
"But I bought a ticket for the 09 30 flight, and no one said anything to me," I splutter.
"Sorry, sir, you'll have to clear that at the check in counter" I'm told and so I gloomily head back to the check in desk to complain. At the counter, there is a mini-war brewing- frustrated passengers from the cancelled previous day's flight who have failed to get on to the first flight of the day are staging a mutiny. At the receiving end is another Virgin Nigeria manager who again impresses me with her professionalism. As I watch the passengers hurl words at the manager I can't help but think that this is a microcosm of our national problem. Yes, the airline has made errors in their handling of the situation but the attitude of the passengers simply makes things worse for all concerned. In spite of my calm rationality I am incensed that no one saw fit to tell me that I had been moved to a later flight and I try to communicate this in a calm and measured manner to the manager. She apologises profusely but is cut off by the latest stream of abuse from the incensed passengers of the previous day's flight. Apparently, they believe that she hand picked certain people from their group to travel on the first flight hence their anger. Amidst the one-sided barrage the conversation takes a turn I could not have expected. One of the more vociferous young men challenges the Virgin Nigeria manager shouting "Which kind of weather stopped you from flying? After all Chanchangi landed at Owerri twice the same day that you cancelled your flights." At this I cannot help but butt in- given Nigeria's recent plane crash history I am surprised that anyone dares to challenge an airline that has chosen not to fly for safety reasons. "My brother" I say to him, "I would rather have ten flights cancelled than fly with an airline that takes a chance in uncertain weather conditions" I am surprised that few people in the crowd back me up and again ponder on our ability as a people to forget and move on so quickly.
I resign myself to a long wait and head for the manned telephone booths that line the airport hall to ring my parents and let them know that I am delayed. I try various combinations within networks: Glo to Glo, MTN to MTN, and Celtel to Celtel- all to no avail. Then I switch to trying across networks and still draw a blank. I try to ring my brother. No luck. I marvel at the poor quality of service, a theme that will become recurrent during my stay. In the absence of the regulatory frameworks that exist in the West to rein in over-exuberant multinationals, they are riding roughshod over the Nigerian consumer- providing second-rate service and yet shovelling home the profits. At least that's what it looked like to me. I finally get through to my mother and am able to let her know that I have at least arrived in Lagos and am waiting for the 1 o'clock flight- if the weather permits. Before we finish our conversation we are abruptly cut off. I pay and walk away.
As I wander off to the newsstand to pick up some reading material, I bump into an old childhood friend. A doctor, he now lives in Israel and is on his way back after spending Christmas with his family. He's flying back on Ethiopian Airlines and like me has had hiccups with his flight- his luggage has been checked in but he hasn't been issued with a boarding pass yet. He's been asked to come back in an hour. We decide to have a drink to pass the time and we are soon exchanging stories, reminiscences and updates and together bemoan the challenges that continue to face Nigeria even as we acknowledge the progress that has been made. We are soon joined by a couple of friends from Abuja and the hours fly past helped along by bottles of Star beer. It's only 11 30 or so, but who's looking?
Soon I head for the lounge for the final time and spy some of my fellow denizens of the battle with the airline manager. It appears that their shared misery has made them more than acquaintances and they are perched on bar stools at the snack bar sharing meat pies and drinks. I join them and am easily welcome--just as I am settling in; we are invited to board and head for the boarding gate. Boarding is swift and efficient and I am even offered a letter giving me a 25 per cent discount on my next Virgin Nigeria flight.
The flight is swift and smooth--no turbulence--and as we begin to descend into Owerri airport I spy the zinc roofs and palm trees of Igboland and offer another silent prayer of thanks.
My brother is waiting with a driver and we soon retrieve my luggage. There is no conveyor belt here and all the lifting is manual, causing some passengers to complain. But I am home and no minor hiccups can dilute my joy. We head for the car and begin the journey to Abiriba my ancestral home. The roads are awash with posters of candidates for the forthcoming elections and I occasionally spy a familiar face. My brother gives me a running commentary- the backdrop to each candidate's story- that one bought a Rolls Royce for a party top shot but still lost the nomination. That one won even though he was unpopular because he's close to the President. The other one has taken to politics because his business failed recently and so on. His commentary is interspersed by the bumps in the road as our car swoops in and out of the potholes. Little wonder that the 4X4s that in the West are regarded as so unfriendly to the environment are so popular, even aspirational here.
Yet elsewhere I am pleasantly surprised by the quality of the road. As we approach the railway crossing at Uzuakoli, I remind my brother of the old family story of how our car once stalled on those tracks even as a train appeared. I have no recollection of the actual events but the story is firmly embedded in our family lore. We sweep past the bar called Rosy Cool Spot and I remember teasing my Uzuakoli friends about the long hours they spent there each Christmas savouring the palm wine and nkwobi and flirting with the bargirls. On and on we press till finally we approach the clump of palm trees and farmland that tells me that Abiriba is near. My heart begins to beat a little faster as I spy the sights familiar from all those childhood Christmases- all seemingly unchanged. Somewhere a forlorn billboard marks the site for a proposed university of technology. I muse on the fates of our existing universities as we approach Aba Nkpughuru the roundabout on a hill that leads into Abiriba. The road is notorious for accidents and I am pleased to see huge billboards donated by a local businessman enjoining drivers to drive safely. The roundabout as usual is awash with banners proclaiming various celebrations, which to my visiting eyes look incredibly tacky but also familiar and warm.
Soon we are pulling into the driveway where my parents, hearing the gates open have come to welcome me. As I lose myself in their warm embrace, the scent of wood smoke and harmattan dust in my nostrils, I feel the tension ease from my bones.