Monday, December 21, 2009

Pesky Little Pirates

The last time I wrote Lisa and I had survived our journey all the way to Johannesburg, and we were sitting comfortably in a Business Class lounge with free Wi-Fi. We had arrived at 6pm and had until midnight to rest and board our final flight that would take us to the island of Mahe’ in the Seychelles. Life was good – ah, but as the worm turns, it was not to last, and as the Bard would say, “Therein lies yet another tale.”

Lisa started nagging me around 8pm to let’s go check in with Air Seychelles. One little problem, Air Seychelles only has two flights a week from Johannesburg, so they did not really have a check-in counter per se’. Personnel from another airline would fill that role for them temporarily, and we had been told that it would be no earlier than 9 am before someone could find where they were tonight. So, I wanted to sit fat dumb and happy in our nice lounge until later. Lisa simply would not have it – and being married, I dutifully packed up our stuff and we went looking for Air Seychelles. Boy did that turn out to be a good move.

It took almost 45 minutes before we found ourselves in a little crowded transit lounge where we were to check-in. However, not a single sign indicated where Air Seychelles was. We waited for awhile, and started to get nervous, so I approached the only person at the counter who was not busy, and asked where we could find our check-in counter. She looked up and said “ah, Mr. Stevens, I have been waiting for you.” As it happened, we were the only transfer passengers for the Seychelles flight, but what followed was no fun. She admonished us for not having assigned seats, and wanted us to know that the flight was oversold and overbooked. She promised to do her best to get us on the flight, but we should consider ourselves lucky if we got into economy class! If we missed this flight, we would be guaranteed space on their next flight – which was three days later, and which would cause us to miss our ship’s sailing.

No longer fat, dumb and happy, we were stunned. The agent made several phone calls, and then waited for a return call. All of this was done in French, so we had no idea where all of this was going. Somewhere along the line she asked if we had any bags – well, I answered, not with us, they were checked through from Kansas City. More phone calls, and then a request to produce our baggage claim checks. Finally, she puts down the phone and announces that she has been able to get us on the flight, in business class no less, just not seated together. Whoopee- but wait, there is more: they have no idea where our bags are. The bags had not been delivered to the airline yet, even though we had been at Johannesburg for almost 3 hours at that point. However, we were not to worry because if they missed this flight the airlines would send them on in 3 days. Of course, our ship would have sailed by then, and we would very likely never see those bags again.

More than a little saddened by this sudden change in events, we at least consoled ourselves that we would make the ship, and guessed we could wear the same clothes for the entire trip if necessary; we would find a way by darn it! Rather than head off to our nice lounge, we decided it would be smart to be at the gate early, boarding pass or not. The gate was at the end of a long hallway, and we were the first to arrive around 10 pm. As we were walking to the gate, the terminal was shutting down for the evening. Shops and restaurants were closing, and when we arrived at the gate we could hear the air conditioning fans cut off. Before long the gate area became sweltering, but we dutifully sat and guarded our seats. First one person arrived, then more and suddenly the hallway was filling up with people and a line to board the aircraft started to form. We sensed that it might be smart to get in line even though we had boarding passes. There was no order to boarding, no carefully controlled process – and as time passed, tempers started to flare. People started breaking into the line. We started about 10 back from the front and before long there must have been 50 people in front of us. No one was at the counter, and our flight was only 30 minutes from its departure time. The hallway was hot and filled with more people than could possibly get on the aircraft, and people sensed it. Finally two people appeared to start boarding, and it quickly became a cattle rush. Pushing and shoving were commonplace.

We got to our seats and found that both were broken. My seat was not even secured on its front legs, and if you rocked back, the entire frame pulled out of the floor. The aircraft quickly filled, and I could hear turmoil in the back. What amazes me is that the airline knew the flight was overbooked, but still it let people try to board and then tried to sort it out at the end. It was musical chairs and if you got to your seat and it was occupied, gee, too bad.

Finally a large number of people had to leave the aircraft, and we settled down for our flight – it was already well past our scheduled departure at midnight. But wait – the airline had waited to load the luggage until it knew exactly who would be on the flight. So we sat at the terminal for over an hour while the bags were loaded and finally departed around 1:30 am.

We arrived at Mahe’ Island around 7:30 am, cleared immigration and went to collect our bags – hopefully. We waited, and we waited. The hall filled with people and we waited. Finally some bags appeared and we waited. As time went by and the hall began to empty our names were called to customer service. An agent informed us that our bags had not been located, but just to be sure we should wait until everything was off loaded and then come back and complete the paper work. We were chest fallen. This meant there was no way our bags would make the ship by the time it sailed the next day and heaven only knew when or if they would ever catch up with us. Almost all the people had left the hall, and we were gathering our papers to file our claim, when lo and behold one of our bags appeared. Oh joy, oh joy! One is better than none. The carousel stopped and our hopes were dashed. Then suddenly it started again and as if by magic our remaining two bags wonderfully and magically appeared. Life is good!

Clearing customs we were to look for a driver from our hotel that would be carrying a sign with our names. We saw several drivers from our hotel, but no one was there to meet us as planned. Fortunately, people were pleasant and spoke good English, so before long we were loaded and finally headed to a bed. Because we were arriving so early, we had paid for a room the night prior in order that when we arrived, we would have a room for us to crash. Arriving at the hotel, we were directed to sit in the adjacent lobby area and we would be seen by the next agent. We waited, and we waited, and when I went to see what was happening I saw people coming in and being waited on immediately. I think they had just forgotten we were there. Finally getting someone’s attention, we were told that even though we had paid for a room to be ready, it did need to be “freshened” which would take an hour, so perhaps we should eat breakfast. We did not care about food – all we wanted was to crash! At that point we had been travelling 33 hours and just wanted to sleep. Finally we did get to bed, but we had such bad jet lag that we were both sick until finally today we are feeling better.

But enough of our trip, you really want to know about the Pirates--not to worry. Our education started right after our landing at the airport. On our drive to the hotel, we could clearly see a military vessel just outside the harbor. Our driver told us that “the Americans had come to help the Seychelles people.” That was good news, but wait there is more, much more. When we got to the hotel, the lobby had around 15 to 20 young men and one woman all of whom looked like athletes. There was no way to cover the fact that they were military, and as we learned, they were US Army. We asked our driver about that as we drove to our ship, and he said that military units were at virtually all the island’s hotels. They were here to deal with the pirates, he told us. In fact he said that the US had opened a small base at the end of the island and stationed three of it drone aircraft there to protect the Seychelles. As we pulled up to our ship, we found it docked next to a US Destroyer – we could not have felt safer. But there is more. Our ship was to sail at 8pm. It did not. Our next stop was the Island of Praslin, which was actually very close by. The ship was scheduled to depart at 8pm, and very slowly cruise to arrive the next morning at 7am. In all our travels, I have never seen a ship miss it sailing time by much, yet we spent the night safely docked in Victoria and around 6 am departed the harbor at high speed – I am guessing we were at full speed. I have never seen a ship maneuver the way we did. Rather than slowing down for the entrance to Praline, the ship executed some abrupt maneuvers that shook the entire vessel, and only when another war ship closed behind us did the ship slow down. We are now anchored in the harbor of Praslin, and the entrance is guarded by the warship. I will be interested to see what is to come. We are due to sail again tonight at 6pm and to arrive at the nearby Island of La Digue at 8am. Time will tell if we actually sail at night or wait until the dawn. On the marine chart that is posted showing our route, we are clearly operating in an area that is marked “Area should be avoided by all vessels.” But at this moment we feel rather safe.

I have skipped telling about the actual sights but so far there is not much to tell on that front. Our brief stay on Mahe’ was uneventful, and we spent most of it in bed recovering. That was not all bad since it poured rain the entire time we were there, and we could not have gone out anyway. The temperature was around 90 degrees and the humidity was 100%. As I said, the ship moved today to the nearby island of Praslin, where the temperatures are a more moderate 85 degrees, and we have had only passing showers. We had a private car drive us around the island. It was beautiful and I hope the pictures do it justice. It has some of the most unspoiled beaches I have ever seen. Tomorrow we move to another island, and by then, perhaps I will be caught up and can get some pictures uploaded.

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