Friday, July 5, 2013

The Not-So-Funny "Comedy of Errors"

I am writing this post after the emotion has subsided and the sheer exhaustion dealt with. You can be thankful for the wait. Without it, this post would have been filled in expletives and long rants and my keyboard covered in exasperated tears. None of those would have been productive. Plus, honestly, I would have had to print a retraction anyway because I love my life and I love Botswana and Africa is the bees knees. A month and a half ago I would have said otherwise.

June 27th started out like any other day. Well, any day when you are embarking on a thirty-something hour journey from the west coast of America to Southern Africa. I got up, poured myself an extra big cup of coffee, and gave my mom hugs in between shoving things in the side pockets of my luggage. I was sad to be leaving my family and friends but so grateful for having five amazing weeks filled with love, hugs, Starbucks, and taco truck tacos. So, it was with a full belly and a warm heart, that I was to return to Botswana.

My flights across the continental USA went smoothly and I arrived in Atlanta for my Delta Airlines connection to Johannesburg with three hours to spare. As I wandered through the airport in search of a "last meal", I was pleasantly surprised to run into a fellow Bots 10 volunteer who was also on her way back for her extension year. We told tales of our home leaves over Blue Moons and laughed about all the things that led us to this point. It was a great couple of hours before the long leg of the journey.

The flight over the ocean was equally pleasant. I sat next to two university rugby players from New Zealand who were between tournaments, I believe. What I liked most about them was that they were on the same schedule as me - we slept at the same times, watched movies at the same times, and took similar bathroom breaks. Being on the aisle was never so easy!

As we landed in Johannesburg, my excitement at being so close to home was almost more than I could handle. In a few short hours, I would be back in Botswana and giving my boyfriend a great big bear hug! That reality, on its own, provided me with enough energy to almost skip towards the transit area to get my new boarding pass. Exhaustion be damned!

Now here's where everything started to go south...

There was a fairly significant line at the transit counter for Air Botswana and both my fellow Bots 10 and I needed to go get new boarding passes there. So we found our spot in the queue, somewhere in the middle of what appeared to be a youth sports team all wearing matching Botswana jumpsuits. Person by person, they started cutting in front of us. This is an unfortunate yet common practice in Botswana (pushing the white person to the back of the line) and something we had both forgotten about in our months at home. We periodically tried to convey our frustration but no one seemed to care. Before long, the last of the sports team was at the counter and we were the last to get our boarding passes (with a mere forty minutes left before take off).

My friend received her boarding pass with little issue and at long last it was my turn. I handed the attendant my passport and my flight confirmation sheet and was ready to grab my boarding pass and make a beeline for the security check, which was already filling up much more than our remaining layover time allowed for. I waited... and I waited... and the ticket guy fumbled around... and I waited... he asked if I had any other information but I didn't because that was the ticket confirmation and booking numbers. I waited more... he called someone up... he hung up and informed me that I wasn't in the system but that he could see the confirmation so there shouldn't be a problem. He then assured me there were three seats still on the plane. The clocked ticked ever closer to departure time. He made another phone call. In apparent lulls in his call I asked if everything was ok and he shook his head yes. I was relieved. I saw the departure board switch to say that our flight was boarding the airplane. My friend had to leave or risk missing the flight. The ticket guy hung up the phone. What follows is as accurate of a conversation as I remember from that night:
Ticket Guy: We don't have you in our system for this flight.
Me: But you see my confirmation number?
TG: Yes.
Me: And there are seats on the plane?
TG: Yes. There are three available seats.
Me: Can I buy one of them now and I can deal with the rest later?
TG: No.
Me: Why?
TG: Because the plane has switched to "boarding" and I can't sell tickets after they start boarding.
Me: But I have been standing here waiting on you to get off the phone. And I should have been helped a half hour ago but you kept calling people up before me, which wasn't right either.
TG: I cannot sell you a ticket.
Me: But when you were on the phone you said everything was fine, otherwise I would have asked to buy one earlier.
TG: (shrugs shoulders) You aren't in the system for this flight.
Me: Ok... When is the next flight out?
TG: Tomorrow at noon. (Note: I later found out that the first flight out was at 10:40AM. Extra irritated.)
Me: Are there seats available on that flight?
TG: I don't know.
Me: Can you check and tell me?
TG: No.
Me: Why?
TG: Because I shut down my system.
Me: Since I have been standing here, trying to figure out my ticket, you shut your system down?
TG: Yes.
Me: Ok... Is there a place that I can get a SIM card or access wifi so I can check for myself?
TG: No. We no longer sell SIM cards in the airport and there is no wifi anywhere. You could go to the post office and get a card but the post office is closed until tomorrow.
Me: So you can't tell me if there are seats available because you shut your system down and I can't find out on my own? So what am I supposed to do?
TG: Not my problem. (Then he turned and walked away.)
ARE YOU KIDDING ME?! At this point, emotions took over, compounded by the exhaustion that was temporarily at bay due to elation. I was overwhelmed with frustration. I cried. Then I cried a little more. Then I had an inner monologue (read: RANT) that went something like:
Why am I in this crappy place? Why do I work so hard to make this place better when no one is willing to help me? I hate Africa. All I want is to get home and I can't. ...Home? America! Maybe I should see if there's a flight back there. Everything is easier in America. ...I want to see Tuan. I was so excited to see him... I am going to live in this airport for forever and ever because I can't get out of here... People here suck... America is so beautiful and people are so friendly... I just want to see my boyfriend... I just want to be with my mama. I can't even call my mom. Oh my god, my mom is going to panic if she doesn't hear from me... I don't have a South African SIM card... Let me check my phone and see if I have roaming... OF COURSE MY PHONE IS DEAD... I HATE AFRICA... Today sucks... Well, today was horrible... This ticket guy is a horrible person... I wonder what his name is and if I can get him in trouble for being a giant jerkface... I wonder if anyone has ever really lived in an airport. They did make that one movie called The Terminal so probably... This is my life now - a Peace Corps Volunteer stranded in Johannesburg... Oh my god, I'm trapped in Johannesburg! This place is fully of crime. I'm so getting mugged in this airport tonight. And, of course, now that I have a fancy iPad... I need to call Tuan because he's going to be worried when he goes to pick me up from the airport and I'm not there. How do I call him? Why did I give him my South African SIM card? ...I hate it here... Everything is so much harder in Africa... TIJA LEIGH DANZIG, STOP FEELING SO SORRY FOR YOURSELF AND DO SOMETHING ABOUT IT!
So I got up off the ground, wiped my tears, and started trying to make a plan. I went around asking people where to purchase a SIM card. I even got a little comforting from the ladies at the KLM ticket counter. But, unfortunately, no one could help me.

Finally, feeling defeated and exhausted but determined to find a way out, I went to the man at the baggage security checkpoint. I asked him if there was any way I could go beyond that point, despite not having a boarding pass, to see if there was a place to buy a SIM card or access the internet. He asked me what the problem was and then I burst into tears. Between whimpers, I managed to get the story out - about trying to get back to Botswana but having an issue with my ticket and not getting on the flight and how I needed to tell my boyfriend who was supposed to pick me up that I wasn't on the flight and that I needed to get a new ticket. He looked sympathetic. He then asked me why I was going back to Botswana. I told him that I was a Peace Corps Volunteer and had extended my service for another year and had gone home for a month in between contracts. With that, he completely softened. He told me that he had been taught by PCVs in his township in South Africa and that he cherished the work we are doing. He said that the only way to keep us here is to be kind and helpful. He then handed me his cell phone. He said to use it to call my boyfriend and to hold onto it until everything was figured out. BE STILL MY HEART, SOMEONE WAS BEING HELPFUL! In that moment, this man was my lifesaver. And, not only did he let me use his phone (for free!), but he also brought me some snacks to eat!

Meanwhile, in Botswana... My boyfriend received the phone call from me about Air Botswana's disregard and rudeness and the fact that I was going to live in the airport until further notice. He was mad. Five weeks apart and a ruined reunion was more than that guy could handle. So he got into his car and drove out to the airport in Gaborone and marched straight to the Air Botswana office. He literally told them that no one could leave until they sorted out my ticket for the following day. Having stood in front of the door and acting as a human barricade, they finally succumbed and got me on a flight 18 hours later.

Back in Johannesburg... I spent 18 hours in the OR Tambo International Airport. But I didn't have to spend it all in the transit terminal. The same super kind and helpful security officer let me through to the departures terminal, despite not having a boarding pass, so I could go get a hot meal and be (slightly) more comfortable. Because the ladies at the KLM desk were so friendly earlier, I decided to take a chance and ask if I could sit inside their lounge. They agreed! I was able to access their wifi (take that Ticket Guy, there was wifi in the airport!) and eat a snack without having to pay anything!

Around 1am, just as I was finally falling asleep in the KLM lounge (on two chairs that I had pushed together), a security guard came to tell me that they were closing for the night. Of course! He asked me what I was going to do until my flight at noon the next day. I told him that I would find a spot in the terminal that was lit and sit there. He responded: "No, no. You cannot stay like that. Not safe. No, no." I explained that I had no choice and slowly started to pack my bags and leave. On my way out, he appeared again, this time as an escort to bring me to another lounge that was open all night. Even though that one required me to pay (a lot) to stay, he insisted that I had to because the alternative was not a safe option. I was grateful that he cared enough and, honestly, was too tired at this point to argue. I hadn't slept in nearly 40 hours.

Flash forward to my arrival in Botswana... My luggage didn't make it. None of it. And, when I inquired about it at lost baggage, they said they didn't think it made it to Africa because they had no record but would keep looking for it. Great. I went to walk through customs and reunite with my boyfriend. It had been a long couple of days.

After a kiss and a big hug, he starts leading me over to the waiting area benches. I asked where we were going and he said "I need you to sit down." Uh-uh, no way, I've been sitting for days. He proceeded to tell me that he got a phone call from my Country Director that my house had been broken into the night before and that "everything was gone". Whaaaaat?! Welcome back to Botswana - people are unhelpful, you get stuck in airports, your baggage doesn't make it, aaaaaaand your house was broken into. No big deal. Just another day in Africa, right? Why did I come back here?! So we hopped into the car and made our way to the village to assess the damage...

I am happy to report that, although the house was completely ransacked, my pre-planning paid off and there was very little in my house of value (because I had brought it to my boyfriend's before I left - empty houses are often targets and I didn't want to be a victim...). But, I have to share a funny story right now about what was taken... I store all of my drinking water in empty glass alcohol bottles. So I had about ten empty vodka bottles that were acting as storage receptacles in my refrigerator. All ten of those bottles were stolen. So, ladies and gentlemen, there were likely a bunch of placebo drunk slash super hydrated people wandering around Gabane village! Whoops! The joke is on them! WATER!

Good news: two days later my baggage arrived!

Flash forward one more day... My boyfriend came to pick me up for dinner at a house that I was housesitting (for a friend who was on medical leave in Pretoria). He parked his car outside the compound and came in for about fifteen or twenty minutes. We walk outside, go to get into the car, and see that his car window had been smashed in. Someone, at about 6pm, broke into his car and stole everything! He had his flight bag in the car - with his expensive aviation head set - and a bunch of new clothes I had bought for him while in America. To add insult to injury, the thieves even stole his pilot's uniform! Why in the world would they need that?! So it was back to the police station to file the second report in the same amount of days...

But all is not lost! My boyfriend was able to replace his headset with an upgrade because some kind folks were returning to Botswana from America and, after hearing the news, offered to carry them back for him! (Note to pilots everywhere: they are about one third the price in America so buy them there if you plan to relocate.) I am convinced that I will see one of the new sweatshirts I brought my boyfriend just wandering around Gaborone some day on the backs of one of the thieves. Botswana is small and Gabs is smaller and I WILL FIND THEM! I get a huge chuckle every time I think about the house robbers drinking water instead of vodka because, lets face it, that's hilarious! And I was able to meet some very good souls in the OR Tambo International Airport, proving, once again, that one kind act can change someone's whole day.

So this long and winding tale doesn't end badly. While it was trying and tiring, it ends with a few laughs, some grit and determination, and a smile. Because, after all, TIA. This is Africa. Gotta live and let it go.

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