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Friday, August 09, 2013

A saga of departure

The great cousin visit came to an end today.  Sadly.  And of all their African adventures--  snorkeling coral teaming with neon rainbows of fish, being knocked by high tide waves on a deserted beach, gazing at lions and wildebeast, camping under the stars, hiking a volcanic peak, tutoring school kids and teaching art projects, playing with hospitalized children, sipping chai in our dusty little town, working on a tile project, making pizza, touching baby elephants, surviving Nairobi traffic or jolting cross country, bargaining in the market or crossing the Rift Valley --of all of this, the four hours between pulling into the gates of Jomo Kenyatta International Airport and getting onto an airplane this morning will probably be the most memorable.

48 hours before their departure, the Arrivals Terminal, which is the hub of the airport, burst into flame.  Well, burst may be an exaggeration.  Some reports indicate a small fire grew and grew out of control, because the firetrucks had been auctioned for lack of repair funds, the hydrants were dry, the response system was slow, until the fire was an uncontrollable inferno pictured above.  The fire occurred on the 15th anniversary of the US Embassy bombing in Nairobi, so terrorism was of course suspected, but so far the cause is not clear.  Whatever the cause, this fire gutted the main international airport in the country, which is the portal for tourism all over East Africa.

We were at the coast and made phone calls to Kenya Airways by that afternoon.  Should we try to take our nephews to the Mombasa airport instead?  Would planes be diverted?  No, my agent informed me.  By Friday morning, he said, I promise you that flight will be leaving from Nairobi.  Drive back. My nephews had a great visit, they were fun to be with, and game for most everything.  But they were ready, after 3 weeks, longer and further than they'd ever been from home, to go back.  They missed their family and friends and the familiarity of their normal food and normal beds.

At the 24 hour mark, Thursday morning, we tried to check in on line, but clearly that system had been disabled, so the computer would say "checked in" but then not print the boarding pass.  We checked the news, and it looked good.  Kenya Airways had resumed over a third of their flights on Thursday and planned full service on Friday.  They updated their facebook page with crisp, confidence-inspiring reports on their efforts.  All flights were now being processed through the peripheral domestic terminal, with the addition of some tents.  Domestic flights had been moved to the cargo terminal.  No problem.  African can-do, we won't let a fire stop us, we can improvise.  So we all breathed a sigh of relief, and piled in the car and drove ten hours back to the Nairobi outskirts for a few hours of sleep at the Massos (thanks!) to be poised for an early airport trip.

Friday morning, up and out by 5:30, into the airport complex a bit after 6, as the sky was lightening into grey.  Our first clue that the systems may not have been exactly worked out was the gridlock of cars on the entry highway.  It seems the traffic circle and parking lots which surround the still-smoldering charred terminal were closed, so the cars were just piling up on the road.  No big deal, we just got out in the middle of the gridlock and got the suitcases off the roof and walked.  As we approached the small domestic terminal, I could see lines of taxi drivers waiting for arriving passengers with their placards, groups of people struggling with suitcases, tents set up outside, people with clipboards and reflective vests.  I found a Kenya Airways uniformed lady and asked her where to go for the Amsterdam flight.  Amsterdam?, she said, move to the door, we're taking Amsterdam now.  Great.

Until we came around the corner and saw that the door was one small portal surrounded by about 500 people with suitcases and carts and backpacks, all in a mob shoving towards the entrance.

This is how one pays school fees at a bank, or buys stamps at a post office, or drives in a traffic jam, or gets anything on this continent.  Push.  Get to the front.  Try to get someone's attention.  After two decades in Africa I wasn't afraid to join the fray, pulling the carry-on's and my nephews behind as I tried to obey the instruction to move forward.  Only the employees at the door didn't seem to be letting anyone in.  It was utter chaos.  No organization, no lines, no prioritization, panicked passengers, an entire airport's worth of flights and people fanning out from the pinpoint door.  In classic style, they had declared that all flights would go from this terminal, and left the details of that to play out as they would.  A couple of time frustration rippled through so violently it was a bit frightening.  We were pressed so tightly you couldn't have fallen over even if you tried.  I tried to talk to the employees, plead our case, that our flight was due, that we needed to get in.  It took about an hour, and people around me said they'd been there much longer.  When I finally fought my way in I had to beg to get my nephews; at one point I reached OUT the door and grasped Noah's hand and literally pulled him in.

We hustled through security, which was minimal, and then found an even more depressing sight.  There were as many people inside as there had been outside, another mass, 30 deep from the check-in counters, fluid lines, not as tightly packed or aggressive, but not exactly organized either.  Twice I found employees and checked, should we be waiting in this area for the Amsterdam flight?  Yes, stand here, wait your turn, we will call Amsterdam passengers forward if it gets too late.  We inched.  Another hour.  Longer.  The time for the flight departure came, and went.  People chatted, sighed.  I could hear a baby wailing in the noisy seething mass of humanity.  Kenya Airways people in reflective vests mosied here and there.  Finally we were only about 3 people from the front.

The guys ahead of us were South Africans headed home, in good spirits.  Just as they got to the front, they turned and told me, hey, we just heard that lady get turned away, the Amsterdam flight is full.  About the same time I heard yet another man with a clipboard talking to people at the end of the counter.  I left the boys to hold our place and pushed my way down to hear.  He was telling people the flight was now full.  I couldn't believe that we were about three hours into the process now of creeping our way from the car to the counter, through a thousand people or more, and it was all for naught.  I told him that the Kenya Airways rep had told us to come because all was fine, that I had checked them in on line but couldn't get a boarding pass.  A lady checked the computer and said no, they aren't on, but go back to your line and get a number for stand-by.  Evidently they simply announced that as of Friday they would fly, and everyone who missed flights on Wednesday and Thursday as well as all the Friday passengers were there vying for seats.

Back to my line, which had now collapsed with no semblance of order, I got the agent to type my nephews' information in her computer.  She said it was full, but checked their bags just in case something opens up.  I told her my reasons that they should have seats.  She said wait a few minutes over there and I'll try to get you boarding passes.  I said I'm sorry, but I can't leave this counter without boarding passes, because I've been standing where I was told for hours and now it looked like that was not going to be good enough.  Can you move them up to a different seat?  She printed one boarding pass in first class, but said only one.  No, we said, they have to both go.  She went back to print a second and now the first one was "gone".  Finally she gave us two boarding passes (no longer first class), but said they were standby.  How many people are standby?  Oh, about a hundred so far, she said, but they will prioritize those who actually had a Friday reservation.  Meanwhile all around me other Amsterdam passengers were being turned away.  I was thankful for our standby passes.

Another herculean struggle to get away from the counter, which was mobbed by angry people.  Again I had to go back and make a way for my nephews.  We handed their passports for stamping at the temporary immigration table, and then pushed up to security.  I asked and learned the flight was already boarding.  We barely said goodbye, I rushed them through.

Now I felt like I couldn't really leave, without knowing in this chaos whether they would get on the plane or be vomited back out of the tiny gate area into the sea of chaos.  I sat and waited.  I should mention that throughout this ordeal, my nephews never complained.  Not once.  I'm sure they were overwhelmed by the intense atmosphere, the crude physicality of the shoving crowd, the lack of information, the depressing prospect of not getting home.  But they were troopers.  I kept watching through the second gate security area, worrying whenever I saw someone a bit tall and white that they were being sent back.  I should also mention that about two hours into the ordeal, Luke and Jack managed to get through the outdoor crowd, climb up to the metal grating and wave to us while we stood in the pre-counter mass.  My phone is broken so Luke wanted to give me his to communicate with Scott and my kids in the car now pulled off to the side of the road.  I explained this to an airport employee who braved the crush of the door to get it from him and bring it in to me.  With no airtime, but at least Scott could call me every half hour or so for progress reports.

After half an hour, I got a lovely young Kenya Airways employee to go check and see if my nephews were chosen.  She came back and said they were not yet on the plane, but there were still 47 seats to board.  I waited. I tried to help a mom with kids.  I decided to pray for the airport employees, as I watched disgruntled people upbraid them for the disastrous situation.  I prayed for the boys to be chosen from the standby list.  I saw the group I'd been smooshed with most of the morning arranging a hotel, having given up on Amsterdam.  An hour, and I found another Kenya Airways uniformed woman and asked her to look up my nephews again.  This time she checked on her computer:  they were through the doors of the plane she said.


I have to say that the prospect of repeating this four hours of struggle the next day or the next was pretty grim, so I was VERY GLAD for their sakes and ours that they were chosen.

I wiggled and excused my way back out through the crowds, back to the blackened smoking empty main building, back to the road.  My nephews finally took off, hours late, missing their connection, and are now having the adventure of a hotel in Amsterdam courtesy of KLM.  I suspect they were even more relieved than I was.

I love Kenya.  In spite of the maddening aspect of simply declaring that the flights will depart without really preparing for it, I admire the courage and sheer determination to simply carry on.  I admire the uniformly pleasant nature of every harried employee I interacted with.  On most continents I think the airline and airport personnel would have dissolved into a heap of tears if confronted with the terminal I saw today.  In Kenya, they took it in stride, they smiled, they listened, they tried.

But don't believe the press when you read that operations are back to normal.

And do hope with me that the country buckles down and finds the  money to rebuild, that the airport which arises from these ashes will be a fittingly beautiful welcome to this spectacular place, that whether the evil was corruption and incompetence or hateful purposeful sabotage, it will be overcome.


Kate Dahlman said...

Oh Jennifer!! What an ordeal! Bruce is flying IN to Nairobi next Friday (Aug. 16th); he's thinking of not taking anything but a carry-on, because who knows what will happen to his luggage? But I have bought so many "treats" for Ryan that he may have to take at least one checked bag. Wowee; I could picture just everything you said in my mind so clearly. How sad for Kenya. Thanks for sharing.

Christi said...

This is a GREAT story! Especially with the somewhat happy ending, and the so-true commentary on Kenyan stamina and pride. Very well said.

salube wynn said...

My prayer is that such a tragedy doesnt happen to Uganda becouse we wont have an airport of internationa flights

Joshua Trott said...

This post took me back to Africa though I don't think I ever faced anything this harrowing.

Pilgrim Family said...

Jennifer, You are such a gifted writer. I could just picture the whole scene. I also love how you honored the Kenyanians in your commentary.