Early in my civil service career, my extremely kind boss wangled a six-week fellowship for me in Sydney. The excitement of travelling to the Land Down Under was tempered - again and again - by everything I had to do in order to board a flight to the land of kangaroos and superpredators the likes humanity has come to greatly fear. The visa process, thanks to my employer, was a breeze. Ticketing was handled by a sniffy fellow on the first floor dungeon-like warren of offices he shared with a mysteriously smelly cohort of supply chain specialists. Yellow fever jab? Even La Kidero couldn't screw that one up. City Hall took care of it no fuss, no muss. Travel authorisations? Sorted that shit out in an afternoon. I was, in the words of Nina Simone, Feeling Good! Then reality decided to take an almighty shit on me in the five hours between Jomo Kenyatta International Airport and O.R. Tambo International Airport. A minghty, mighty shit!
First, those yellow-sweater-clad meatheads at JKIA decided that I was in need of several "random" bag checks. It may have had something to do with my haggard look as I was battling flu viruses sent by Satan and all his minions at the time. Then the unfriendly immigration guy took his sweet-ass time to check, re-check, re-check and, I shit you not, re-check my passport, Yellow fever card, ticket (yes, he demanded to see it) and finger prints. I could feel the colossus behind me suck in his breath when the dude attempted to run another check. He must have sensed the swelling wave of righteous anger behind before he willed himself to stamp the damn passport and let me through.
JKIA is not designed for non-Turn Left passengers. If you, like me, are a Turn Right passenger, the facilities available to you - even int he vaunted T-1A - are designed to make your travelling experience as horrendous as possible. Flickering fluorescent lighting, smelly loos, invisible or, frequently, broken electric sockets, and the ever snoopy KCAA buzzards - the terminal is a badly designed externally beautiful building built for your humiliation.
Kenya Airways flew an old, decrepit, cockroach-ridden B737 that must have started life as a air-matatu somewhere in the lawless badlands of the Congo Basin. It had this mysterious smell to it that I couldn't quite place. It was ridiculously loud. It didn't even have functioning headphone sockets. Not that the headrest screens worked. Maybe Titus in his zeal for Project Mawingu had forgotten about in-flight entertainment. Who knows? That man was seriously off. But the worst thing - the absolute, unforgivable worst - even in the context of aviation travel, was the food. It was beyond bland. Not even four satchets - which had to beg for from the dead-behind-the-eyes cabin crew - of black pepper could salvage the the thing. It was liking eating rubbery carpet on which your two-year old had puked on last week and the househelp had forgotten to call the carpet cleaners from the car wash near the supermarket to deal with it. It was enough to make me want to curl up in a ball, flu flaring up, and weep into my bedazzled cardigan. I hated every single second of the five hours of that flight. Every. Single. Hour.
Oh boy, Mzansi makes the Italian racists of Watamu and Malindi seem like the paragons of Samaritan virtue. The layover was six - SIX! hours long. And boy did Mzansi make you feel every second of it. So far, I had been on the road, so to speak, for ten hours and I had doubts about the kindness of my boss. Maybe, I thought, this is how you drive an otherwise sane civil servant mad. No matter how bad shit gets in our neck of the woods, there is absolutely no force on this Earth that will make me voluntarily emigrate to South Africa. I would rather settle down in Charleston, South Carolina.
Things started looking up when we boarded our Qantas 747 for the thirteen-hour flight across the southern Indian Ocean. They stuck me right in front of the APU. I was resolved, the way children are when they endure learned helplessness, to losing the last vestiges of my good humour, my sanity and, quite possible, my life. What I did not know is that every now an then, cattle-class is sometimes not fully-occupied. I was the only one in my row. Which meant I could turn the rather generous seats into my own cozy cot. Which I did. I slept blissfully for the first time since the night before the night before. Interrupted every four hours by this kindly old flight attendant who made the most brilliant whisky toddies. I will never forget the many whisky-fueled kindnesses of Pam.
By the time Sydney hove into view in the bright sunniness of a late-winter Sunday morning, Pam had sorted out the hangover cure, a remarkable breakfast, apples (green, of course) and lots of fresh water. I was ready to face whatever came next. Including Australian tarantulas and wallaroos. The next six weeks were some of the most professionally enjoyable I'd ever had - or would have for almost a decade after. One day I will tell you about the two weeks I spent in Perth and why I almost applied for asylum.