Thursday, March 13, 2008

A tam-tam country

It has become traditional, now, for all my end-of-posting return trips to have some nightmarish element to them.

When I left Honduras in 2003, my flight to London was cancelled, and I had to hitch a ride back into town, sharing the back of a pick-up truck with the mariachi band F had hired to bid me an unforgettable goodbye. I missed my connecting flight to Nice and had to purchase a new ticket. The next day, I arrived in London to the news that this flight to Nice had also been cancelled. Determined to make it in time to surprise my brother on his eighteenth birthday, I bought a third ticket with another company for the following day. That plane was in turn delayed, which meant I had to sprint across Milan Airport with all my luggage, following a frazzled stewardess in a tight green miniskirt and needle thin, five-inch heels, in order to make the connection. I did make it to the party eventually.

On my last evening in Jordan in 2005, some complete loser spiked my drink, which on an empty stomach and after a couple sleepless nights was absolutely lethal. I spent the next two hours collapsed on the marble floor of a Sheraton loo (having had the presence of mind to lock myself in when I realised something was seriously wrong), before being rescued by my friends, carried home (literally), put to bed, my last unpacked bits and pieces hastily stuffed into my suitcases, woken up four hours later and sent off in a taxi to the airport. I somehow managed to board the plane, but then spent the entire flight vomiting at the back, listening to the flight attendants’ incessant gossip while one of them patiently handed me paper bag after paper bag.

By comparison, my departure from Kinshasa should have been a piece of cake.

After checking twice and being assured that the baggage allowance for my Brussels Airlines flight was of two bags of 23 kilos each, I arrived at the city check-in sometime in the afternoon to be told categorically and unapologetically that, since my final destination was London Heathrow, my baggage allowance was, in fact, one 23-kilo bag. My objection that they were the ones to have misled me and that at this late stage there was really very little I could do (since I was leaving the country definitively) went entirely unheeded, with the unhelpful response that since my connecting flight was with British Airways, this was not their problem (even though I bought the ticket through Brussels Airlines).

An hour of heated discussion ensued, the woman’s uncompromising and rude behaviour working us up into an unnecessary – and ultimately unproductive – frenzy. Pride and anger made us leave in a huff, but in the end I had to go to the airport early to check in there, and pay the excess baggage allowance of $120 after all.

The flight itself was fairly unremarkable, apart from the extraordinary number of babies all around me, but when I arrived in Brussels I was told…that my BA flight to London had been cancelled. So I had to battle my way against the flow of Monday-morning travellers, from the gate back to the departure hall, where I was given a new ticket for a different flight with BMI, then had to queue up for immigration and security all over again. Only to discover that the BMI flight was delayed too.

When, in a small, exhausted voice I asked the BA officer whether there would be any compensation for the cancelled flight, she handed me a voucher for 3 euros, redeemable at one of the airport cafés. When I told her about the episode with the baggage allowance, adding that Brussels Airlines had suggested that BA was to blame, she answered that in fact, BA accepted other airlines’ baggage restrictions when tickets were booked through them, so they shouldn’t have made me pay extra after all. “Vous savez, c’est encore un peu tam-tam là-bas,” she added conspiringly, completely oblivious to my astonishment (untranslatable).

And that, my friends, was the absurd remark that drew the line under more than 27 months of continually unpredictable and surprising life in Kinshasa: c’est encore un peu tam-tam là-bas.