Tuesday, April 7, 2015

EAWE: Tanzania Day 1

I had been planning to write about the next leg of the trip, which I consider my worst air travel day, a couple of weeks ago. But then a pilot steered a commercial airplane into a mountain, killing all aboard, which made me reconsider what I considered a bad air travel day. That said, as far as non-tragic and simply inconvenient and frustrating travel days go, this was a pretty bad one.

After getting in late the night before, we woke up super early (1am) to head to the airport for our 5am flight. Everything was on track, we checked in and boarded and were ready to taxi and take off. Except we didn't. I was trying to fall asleep, but after several rounds of announcements about unexpected delays (I think due to the plane's electrical system malfunctioning, but I can't remember 100%), they finally had us deplane. No problem, we had a three hour layover in Nairobi, and we were still on track.

The first sign of things to come was not the decision to give us vouchers for breakfast at the terminal cafe but the extraordinarily unorganized way they distributed them and the cafe's woefully unprepared staff and inventory. Almost as soon as we sat down to eat, it was time to reboard. Still doing fine on time. We made sure the ground crew and flight crew knew we had a connecting flight. You'll make it, they said, we've called ahead. And then we sat on the tarmac. Again.

You can probably guess by now that we missed the flight. By the most ridiculous of margins. We taxied forever in Nairobi and then were directed not to the gate but to the customer service center. By the time we got to the gate the flight had pushed back. Without us. And the Kenya Airways crew at the gate were, shall we say, not the cream of the crop.

I won't go into the sordid details, but it was a comedy of errors for the next two hours as we waited in line to rebook, talked to our Uganda-based travel agent, and then finally obtained new boarding passes for the only other flight to Kilimanjaro that day. Nine hours later. Which would get us into Lake Manyara long after dark. There went our relaxing afternoon by the pool.

Don't worry, said Kenya Airways, we'll put you up in a hotel for the day. Those of you who have spent time in Jomo Kenyatta Intl Airport know it is not the ideal place for a one hour layover, let alone the remaining seven hours.

So we headed for the hotel. Sort of. We headed for a gate where we waited for a ride to the arrivals hall. When finally directed to said ride, as D stepped onto the bus she was screamed at by the same woman who had told her to get on. "Stop! I forgot! That's the Ebola screening vehicle." Whoops. This was August 2014, keep in mind.

We arrive at the arrivals hall to find others from our flight who had left the terminal hours before us still waiting for someone to help them get free transit visas. Finally we were assisted with this, sped through Immigration, and then were ushered out to a bus. Where - you guessed it - we waited. When we finally left, we were treated to a thirty minute drive through Nairobi in a bus with no air conditioning, which meant the windows were down to allow all the pollution and smog in.

Finally we get to the hotel and are given room keys and a meal voucher. And then we're told that the bus back to the airport will leave in 90 minutes. We wondered why on earth we were leaving so soon when our flight wasn't for another five hours. So much for a relaxing afternoon. The room keys didn't work, so we just used the lobby bathrooms and then headed to the restaurant for an abysmal lunch. We finally got new room keys and enjoyed 15 minutes in our hotel room.

Then we boarded the bus. And waited. And waited. And waited. We had been told in no uncertain terms to be there at the appointed time or the bus would leave without us. Yet the bus waited 45 minutes for two lingering passengers, to the vocal protestations of the 20 or so others on board. Back out into Nairobi traffic we went. The ride back - now in early rush hour - took more than an hour. Nine hour layover, and we got a dismal meal and 15 minutes to relax.

We got through security and Immigration and still arrived at our gate an hour early. Luckily this flight - on Precision Air - boarded on time and took off without delay. There was room to stretch out, and we were treated to gorgeous views of Mt. Kilimanjaro as we descended - our only glimpses of the trip.

By some miracle all of our bags arrived, and we didn't have difficulty with the Ebola screening or Tanzanian Immigration. Our driver was there to meet us, and off we went. The drive to the Lake Manyara Serena was relatively smooth on decent roads. We were stopped at several police checkpoints but didn't have any difficulties.

I had high hopes of some nighttime wildlife viewing on our journey; we saw a few jackals but nothing else. By the time we arrived at the Serena dinner was pretty much over, but they had very kindly kept the salad/dessert bars open and happily cooked us up delicious entrees even as we protested that the salads were plenty. I love the Serena brand of hotels. So reliably classy and service-oriented.

The rooms were well-appointed and comfortable, and we all headed off to sleep at 11:00pm, relieved to finally be back on track after a stressful, uncomfortable day. The best was yet to come.