A chronicle of Alison and Ron's trip around the world in 2009-2010.

"Not all those who wander are lost"
- Tolkien

Monday, October 12, 2009

The Long Interminable Flight to Delhi

Everything about our Ethiopian Airlines flight to Delhi was illustrative of the inner workings (or not workings, as it were) of Africa. Like a snow globe, fully encapsulating the scene in a perfect spherical microcosm, so we could clearly understand at a quick glance why everything goes so wrong.

Arriving way earlier than necessary for what was sure to be a delayed flight, Ron and I were flabbergasted to learn the flight was due to take off early. Early? But how can a flight take off early? And in a place where nothing, I mean nothing, occurs on schedule. I’ve never heard of any such nonsense before, but sure enough almost thirty minutes ahead of schedule we were airborne.

Prior to that, we had stopped at a café for some coffee, that was listed at the wrong price on the menu, next to mouth watering pictures of food surely not available to order. You’re telling me the airport café serves lobster thurmadore? Of course not, “it’s just a picture” probably filched from the internet to make the menu look good. Yes, there is often an appearance of order, of sanity, of organization but looks my friend, are flimsy and misleading, coming off as easily as the grey residue on a lucky 7’s scratcher ticket.

Once in flight, the air was suffocating with all 200 nipple-shaped overhead blowers blowing hot air in 200 random directions. None of which cooled the overheated passengers fiddling in vain, trying to tune in tokyo, with sweat dripping in their eyes.

I know I said I would never complain about a coach flight again. I think I even went so far as to say “never ever”. But if you can believe it, it wasn’t a coach flight at all but a giant flying “tro-tro” in the sky. Only worse because we couldn’t open the window to yack out the side.

We landed in Lome for a short stop-over to pick up more passengers and were told to stay on board. Soon after, the cabin started becoming hazy with smoke. Meeting the nervous eyes of fellow passengers with our own concern we grabbed our bags and headed for the door. Only to be stopped by the flight attendant. One minute, two minutes, five minutes later and they wouldn’t let us out of the plane as smoke continued to rise, blurring our view. Let us out! The captain finally comes on the intercom and asks us to go back to our seats, that everything is fine. What?! You’ve got to be kidding me. Where there is smoke, there is fire. The freakin plane is on fire and you want us to sit down and buckle up?!

Finally intelligence prevails and we are allowed to de-plane. Shuffling in to the two terminal airport we pass the sad ill-lit duty free shop and aftrican bric-a-brac stand to be led back through the security checkpoint. Because surely I found a 9 millimeter and dime bag of heroin on the runway, I need to be frisked again. The uncomfortable metal chairs in the waiting area would be our fate for the next 6 and half hours. What country are we even in? I asked, certainly unable to locate Lome on a map. I was told we were in Togo, and was no better informed. Is that a country?

At this point I was hungry, without breakfast, and parched - dumping our water before the x-ray in a potted plant. I staggered over to the bar for a cold drink only I had no local currency, and was told I could get a large bottle of water for the smallest Ghanaian bill on me which was 10 cedi or $7. As if.

The hours stretched on and, as typical, we were fed little to no information, left to gossip and stew in anger. We wondered what happened to the plane, if we would get another flight today or if we were to be forced to stay the night in Togo. Without an intercom, all information was relayed to a passenger or two at a time until a mob formed and people started yelling at each other, for questions and for, god sakes!, some leadership. It was going to be an hour, and then another hour, and then another... frustratingly the story kept changing.

Around 2pm a woman asked about lunch. There had been no food all day, our stomachs growling in unison. Another hour was the reply. She detonated and quite literally lost her mind, screaming “I need food! I’m gonna faint! I can’t wait another "blank blankety blank blank" hour! Gimme some food!” Swiftly, she was escorted into the first-class lounge for, I’m sure, some prime rib and a half bottle of chianti. So that’s how it’s done? (Taking down some notes.) At least we were finally given a cold drink to quench our thirst and we munched on some stale crackers from our food bag.

A few hours later we were told another plane brought a spare part for us. A hose from the engine that caused the smoke was currently being fixed and we would take off in (can you guess?) an hour. I don’t exactly get the impression that anyone around here can competently perform their job function, so imagine how reassured we felt at this news.

We boarded again and waited some more. In a miraculous turn of events we were served food. The flight attendant came by and asked, “Fish?” No, no fish, we chimed. “Chicken, then?” Sure. Later overhearing a passenger get beef. Why can’t we get the choices up front so we can make, I don’t know, an informed decision? It’s like pulling teeth to get the full story. In any case, I ate the squares of food arranged geometrically on the airplane tray with joy and abandon, like it was the best meal of my life.

After our all-in-one breakfast, lunch, and dinner meal at nearly 5pm, all the passengers are feeling the edginess slip away. Sated, docile even. Perhaps even a snooze is in order. Only then in this gap of peacefulness does the AC die again. A near riot ensues in the aisle as businessmen grab their briefcases from the overhead compartment demanding to be let off the plane and women furiously fanning themselves with the laminated passenger safety card located conveniently in their seat back pockets.

The flight attendants doing their best to calm down the taunting passengers escalating into a frenzy as the captain comes on the intercom to tell everyone to take their seats. No one listens as more people yell excitedly, demanding to be let off. No one listens, that is, until he inexplicably guns the plane down the runway with at least twenty passengers with bags and attendants still in the aisle. You get no warning shots around here. The message was clear, sit down and shut up, we are taking off.

The flight continued without incident, all five and half hours, We exited the plane and were told to go left for “Delhi” coming down an escalator to another line. They took our passports and we waited but we had no idea for what. Again, we had no clue what was going on. The man brought back our passports and told us to go to customs. “And then what?” I asked. He looked confused, you mean they didn’t tell you on the flight? Yea, right they tell us nothing about nothing. Apparently we were to spend the night in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia and take the flight the next night at 11pm.

It was 3am local time when we arrived at the hotel, MN International, checked in and then proceeded directly to the bar. Of course, there was no food to be had, that one airplane meal would be all the food we would see for a 36 hour period. At least we could sip an iced whiskey and relax for the first time all day. The internet was down so I couldn’t look up the contact information of our hotel in Delhi to inform them of our delay. I tried to explain this to the front desk, asking to place a call to India, but it was like I was speaking Hindi. It was time to just give up. An hour later, climbing into the coldest hardest bed, doing its best to imitate the bare floor, to sweet sleep.

The hotel apparently charged $80 a night but that clearly didn’t translate into the amenities or service. Luckily Ethiopian Airlines was paying. They also covered meals at the hotel, but we weren’t allowed to place our own order, and we suffered with horrible buffet fare of cold eggs for breakfast and even colder spaghetti for dinner. Most incomprehensible was that we were given two drinks per day, either coffee, juice, soda or water. Not able to pass up coffee in the morning and subsist on only 12 ounces of water, we forked over outrageous prices for agua (okay, okay and the whiskey, but that‘s essential when you have been through a day like ours).

One bright spot on the dark continent was in us meeting several lively Indians, also in our predicament, headed for Delhi. We made fast friends and spent a good portion of the day chatting about India and getting more and more excited about our eventual arrival. No one was more excited than Amit, who was going for a visit with his family after several years of living in Ghana. He switched seats with another passenger to sit next to us on the flight (finally!). Quite the charmer with the flight crew, we soon had our tray tables filled with complimentary mini bottles of wine. We dozed off to sleep at about 4am in the morning, but not before being invited to his families home in Jaipur for Diwali. Rule #1 for adventure - never pass up a social invitation.

Of course the good times on Ethiopian Airlines were not to be over when our plane landed, I needed one last departing memory. When we got to baggage claim, our luggage was lined up beside the carousel, with the foreboding indication that its been sitting there forever, possibly all night. Each and every pocket and zipper on my bag were open with all my treasured possessions spilling out onto the yellowing linoleum floor of the Indira Gandhi International Airport.

I did a quick search and couldn’t figure out what was missing, struggling with 3 hours sleep and a brain pickled in cheap wine. Later I would piece together the tally of the theft: a camera charger, camera battery, camera card, headlamp, nail brush, and bottle of pink nail polish. Whoever did it had the time to peruse at length, lifting items from several places, clearly going for the hawkable electronics, but not passing up a small token for the wife.

To add insult to injury, when we got to the hotel we had to hand over the rupees for the night we didn’t show up and the ride from the airport we didn’t take. Unable to talk our way out of this one since we should have called, if only it was possible. Strike #97 for not having a phone, Ron is now moments away from caving and heading to the nearest Vodaphone.

Of course, I contacted the airline about all this, since I was severely inconvenienced and then ripped off, but its been two weeks and no word. They say they are “investigating” which in Ethiopian translates into “you're just shit outta luck, girl.“ Oh well, if only this was American Airlines, my video footage of the smoking plane and furious, unbuckled passengers scrambling as the plane took off down the runway would have made CNN.


lyonsv October 28, 2009 at 7:01 PM  

So are you saying you wouldn't recommend Ethiopian Airlines for our future travel plans?

Anonymous October 29, 2009 at 1:03 PM  

So funny and yet so scary. I am glad you are safe! This tale reminds me of when Peggy and George were taking a small plane through the islands in the Carribean and the plane stopped for engine trouble, everyone had to get off and go to the terminal (hut) where they watched a guy open the engine compartment, spray randomly with WD40 and then call everyone back on the plane! A sense of humor and prayer are called for in these situations OR a supply of valium! Love, Mom

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