Life Abroad

The Random Thoughts of a Tiny Man

Why are airplanes so huge and people so small? As a matter of fact, too many things are bigger than we are in this world. The funny part is that we made many of these things. How ironic! Why do we make this huge highly functional machines that end up swallowing us up?

Are you still with me?

Passenger planes are behemoths. Look out of the window and all you see is a tiny part of one wing. You look out the window at just one wing (we are not talking chicken wing here buddy!) and it stretches on and on…Then you hear the engines roar – and you hear the engines roar – and you hear the engines roar – and you wonder in that diminishing claustrophobic moment why everything is so big and you are so small.

But I suppose we are better off. I mean, what do you expect the ants to say? And all those lesser creatures we either crush beneath our shoes or hunt for sport?

Fear of Flying

Do you wish you could avoid take off and landing when you fly? As I have written elsewhere, air travel is a terrifying enough experience, especially during take off and landing. South Africa Airlines lessened the terror for me personally by reducing the take off and landing times either way via direct flight to Nigeria. Take off from JFK, land in Nigeria – and vice versa. No thanks to the clowns who screwed up the SA-Nigerian Airways deal, we all have this stupid need to pass through the UK or some other out of the way country. That means you go up and down 2 times on the way out, and repeat the process on the way back – doubling your stress. (Yeah, if you’re so scared of flying, why didn’t you stay in your stupid country?). I could take a boat. But aside of the fact that I can’t swim (yap, that’s me), if there’s anything I fear more than flying, it’s being in a rocking ship surrounded by water and land is nowhere in sight.

I wonder what happened to that charm once used by ancient Yoruba medicine men and hunters to teleport from one place to another within the blink of an eye…Egbe it was called. That’s the kind of “technology” that would create the Super Company! Mass produce it and sell it at an affordable price to all who have any reason to go from point A to B, which is just about every one on the planet! Put the Boeings and GMs out of business for good! And the white man wouldn’t be able to pilfer this mystery. He doesn’t believe in Juju!

Rain Rain Go Away

Rainwater dripping…dropping outside my window, snaking across the glass like endless worms of transparency, rainwater dripping, dropping…

Here we are sitting in the plane, waiting for take off, trying so conspicuously not to look conspicuous or suspicious, yet looking more and more so…Air travel post September 11, 2001 – my first – has become an even more traumatic experience. It used to be a trying affair in the days when planes had not been turned into shells by sick minds, but many endured it because they had places to go and a plane was the only way to go. Now, every surge or unusual jerk was exacerbated by the individual mind.

It starts with the heightened airport security where you are drilled like you’re about to join the army. “Did anyone give you anything?” (Nigerian going home without being deluged with stuff for several people at home? Come on! Still, you say no, after all you have carefully screened the items before accepting them, right?). “Did any member of your family pack your luggage?” You say no again. “Do you have a knife or anything that could be considered a weapon?” You say no, wondering what Jet Li would say to that question. I mean, the guy is a walking weapon! Even his now-you-got-me-going stare drills holes into his opponents.

Then every one is looking at every other person a little more closely, while trying to hide the fact. You know how you’re often urged to report suspicious movements, especially from the chap with the accent you can’t place (because you’ve never ventured outside America). I was in knots, trying to blend in without attracting undue attention. (You laugh! You actually think this is funny? When it’s your turn, let me know what you do, okay?).

Wrong Visa

I flew SA to Nigeria last year. Now that it has been scrapped, I needed an alternative service and Richard Branson had always fascinated me as a person and adventurer, the ultimate salesman – and his Virgin Atlantic had good rates to Nigeria via Heathrow, so I took it.

Still in my SA direct flight mental frame, I somehow neglected to secure a transit visa, although I was next door to the British Consular Office when I stopped by at the Nigerian High Commission to renew my passport (smooth experience, folks. Story for another day). It just did not occur to me that I would need a transit visa – just because I flew last year without one. Besides, I had no intention of leaving the airport. Anyhow, my initial itinerary would have had me leaving Newark at 8.25am on Tuesday to stop over for 2 ½ hours at Heathrow, and on to arrive Lagos 5am Wednesday.

That would have been a most peachy way to do it, right? Well, I looked like a first rate ass when the check in attendant couldn’t find my transit visa and it suddenly hit me that I needed one. (Someone should please re-launch a reliable direct flight to Nigeria. You need only 2 airplanes, and Nigeria – US is all you have to fly).

I had to lug my boxes back home, rush to New York (I can’t figure out that city!) from my New Jersey base during rush hour, completed the first application I found that had visa on it, got my visa under 2 hours and was back at the airport by 6pm for the rescheduled 9.25pm flight.

In my rush, I got the wrong visa. Well, may be that is not how to phrase it. I would have had to spend only 2.5 hours at Heathrow if I hadn’t screwed up my original schedule. But I found out now that the new itinerary would have me spend 12hours there, and the stupid Airside Transit Visa I got meant this equally silly man had to sit the 12 gruelling hours inside the airport premises. Sheesh, I could have seen the whole of London within 12 hours!

I wasn’t the only one who had to wait. I saw a lot of people hanging out, doing their damndest to kill that eternal beast, time. That’s no mean task, folks. When you pin your eyes on them, the seconds crawl achingly slowly, like dribble down a child’s chin…


Flying Economy Alone

I mean everyone flies economy. Economy is what most people can afford. That squished in place feeling (main reason why it’s called economy) is no good, especially when you’re traveling alone. I’m good at being alone. I have even been called recluse by some who don’t know any better. I thought I could do something productive with it, after all, I had all the books and magazines and I could write, right? Wrong. I snoozed in a neck creaking position. I read till my eyes watered. To eat, I changed $50 to some miserable 29Pounds (who do the British think they are, with their currency that snobs the rest of the world!). But even I couldn’t keep myself occupied away from a familiar environment for 12 hours. I was ripping my hair out from the roots by the 6th hour. If you can afford a better class, never fly economy…

I always eat eba before I go on a long trip. I believe the starch in it helps to glue together all the junk they serve you on airplanes, until I get to my destination. My 12 hour stop-over screwed that up. By the 5th hour, my system was rioting against all the crappy stop-over meals and the starch was falling apart.

During the long wait at Heathrow, an obviously Middle-Eastern guy kicked off his shoes, spread a thin mat on the floor and started to pray Moslem style. Somewhere in the back of my head, I thought he wouldn’t do that in any American airport. Poor guy. Poor world. We have so totally screwed up the world for ourselves, we can’t even find peace of mind anywhere we go. We can’t even pray without someone thinking some sick thought about us…

Heat Row

At Heathrow, I checked in so early they couldn’t give me a departure gate. I was told to keep my all-day eye on the monitors.

9.20pm. We are asked to go to the Departure Gate 30. More Nigerians are showing up now and things are getting a different coloration. The attendants are becoming more brusque. This is probably the detail no one wants. From that point on to Lagos, things usually go downhill.

Before the virgins of Richard Branson asked us to come over to be checked in, they clustered together and held a brief meeting. It looked like a last minute strategy session. Or was it a quick prayer to the gods of the air to keep them safe from the jaws of the swarm of Nigerians looking so impatient to board as if getting on the plane any faster will make it depart any earlier than its scheduled time. Or could it be Nigerians think their seats will disappear like it does on Nigeria Airways flights? Maybe they thought the plane was going to depart without them.

They started weighing the hand luggage again, insisting on the prescribed size, and things got rowdy. Okay, that’s a tender spot for Nigerians in transit. Our hand luggage tend to weigh as much as the suitcases checked in and it is always an embarrassing time watching the exchange between check in clerks and practically every Nigerian about to board the plane. Heated words were flung around by some of the Nigerians getting on the plane.

My one bag was filled with books and magazines, stuff I had been meaning to read. It was a small bag (I got shooed in by the attendants without any fuss), but paper by its nature is heavy, so if you run into me on the street today, you will see I still tilt to the right as I walk. It wasn’t the weight of the bag that caused that. It was the fact that I had to carry that bag around longer than was necessary and the weight sort of crept up on me.

Fasten your seatbelts. Please sit down and switch off all mobile phones. Would you please sit down, fasten your seatbelt and switch off the phone? Excuse me, the plane will not take off unless you switch off that phone… (Why do Nigerians ring up friends to inform them they are about to take off? I mean these friends probably saw them to the airport in the first place and are well aware of their trip. And why do flight attendants have to practically beg before these folks get off the damn phone! Why do we get so difficult on flights? You think that’s a generalization? These are supposed to be random thoughts, remember? Ha!).

PS: A Nation In Search of Minutes
The GSM phenomenon has got Nigeria and anything that dares to get in the way is bound to be vaporized. Call waiting, rudimentary caller ID, number restrictions, voicemail… It is saving Nigerians money, time and lives. Phone calls saved me so many unnecessary journeys in the crazy Lagos traffic! And there were friends I didn’t even set my eyes on. I just spoke with them several times on their GSM and that was it! Now, no one is unreachable in Nigeria…No one.

“Flashing” is what someone whose handset is running low on credit (minutes) does to pass the bill of a call on to you who has more minutes. He dials your number, waits until the phone rings once, then cuts off quickly. On the other end, a single ring is heard. You glance at the phone to see your friend’s name. Thinking you lost the call, you dial him back immediately, thereby ending up with the tab.

All calls cost money paid for in advance through Recharge Cards sold in blocks for 500 Naira, 1000, 1500, etc. I spoke with the US for some 7mins on an Econet phone and a 1000Naira was gone. That same amount would have given me 33mins on a Cybercafe’s VoIP. Okay, go ahead, call me a penny pincher!

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