Africa huh? Almost made it…

1/10/2013

I’m currently flying at about 35,000 feet over Egypt on my way from Istanbul to Nairobi. My bicycle and luggage are (presumably) also on board and should arrive safely in Kenya along with me, and I have to say, although I still have a few things to figure out and I am five hundred bucks down, I haven’t been this relieved, ever. The only thing that comes close was when Unrestrained did our first European tour and we were denied entry to England upon landing because we lied about being a band. As horrible as that experience was, I think it helped me get through this one.

So our flight from Erbil, Iraqi Kurdistan was scheduled for 4:30 on January 8th. The plan was to fly from Erbil to Ankara, and grab an overnight bus to Istanbul, grab my luggage from Dogan’s apartment and head to the airport in plenty of time to catch our flights. Caroline’s was at 5:30 and mine at 7:50. Our last day in Erbil we met up with Rawand at 9am and had a quick bite before walking across town to check out a street where all of the local bicycle shops were set up. We arrived to find a busy little street, filled with traffic and people, and a dozen or so bicycle and scooter shops lining both sides of the street. I spent the next hour or so filming, talking to the shop owners and mechanics, and getting a tour of their warehouse, learning where they got their parts from and how they generally operated. A group of young boys were hanging around, doing wheelies, and getting their bikes fixed, it really wasn’t too different from some shops at home. I got a lot of interesting footage and am planning to edit something together.

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Caroline in the park at the foot of the Citadel in Erbil, Iraq

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Rawand, our guide and friend in Erbil

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A car from Iran

After getting some tea and saying goodbye to Rawand, we packed our stuff up and grabbed a cab to the airport. We got through security and looked around for the check in, but we couldn’t find the counter, so I looked at the flight board, and oddly, there was no info on our flight. I pulled out the ticket info that I had printed out before I left and we looked at it. It was about 2pm and our flight was at 4:30. We looked again, 4:30… am. We realized in an instant that we had missed our flight.

Okay, okay, that’s like the most obvious mistake to make right? Not sure how two of us missed it, but we did, so we decided to just not stress it and figure it out. We went to the counter to find out we had to go back into town to the ticket office and figure out what to do. So we leave the airport and get another cab, attempting to communicate that we want to go to the Pegasus office, to which we had the address written down. After some driving in circles and a pricey cab ride, we found it. We talked to the guy at the counter and there was nothing they could do, we had to buy new tickets. But it was okay, I budgeted for this sort of thing, so it shouldn’t be a big deal as long as we can get a flight that will bring us to Istanbul on time, we will be fine.

The tickets were going to be $350 each, but I found them online for cheaper so I attempted to use their internet to make the purchase. The first time I tried the power went out as my payment was processing. The second time my card was denied because it was “beyond my limit.” After a Skype call to my bank I was assured everything would be fine with my card and I’d be able to buy, but after an hour and a half and three or four more attempts and denials, I bought mine online and lent Caroline some cash to buy the other. While buying the ticket we were talking to the guy at the counter and we told him we had passed through Diyarbakir, and suddenly he shot up, proclaiming that it was his home town. Suddenly he was very excited and wanted to talk all about it. We pulled out our guide book and went through it showing him the things we saw, and him telling us about the stuff we missed. He then decided he wasn’t going to take commissions on our sale and gave us a discount.

We sat around the lounge for a few more hours using the internet, trying to figure everything out. The main thing I was concerned about was Caroline making her flight since there was only an hour in between us landing and her flight taking off. The other concern was that I had only 3 hours between flights and not enough time to run to Dogan’s apartment to get the rest of my luggage, which was my bicycle and the majority of my gear. I got in touch with Dogan and Ugur and Sinan and they assured me that they would make it to the airport with my luggage and it would be fine. Everything seemed good so we just hung out, and at the end of the day when they closed up the office, Muhammet, the guy who helped us at the counter invited us to his house to spend the night.

Muhammet had moved to Erbil with his cousin a few months ago to work at Pegasus. In fact, everyone that works in the office are friends and all live in the same apartment complex on the outskirts of town. With the economic boom in Kurdistan, they’ve come seeking opportunity and to make a better life. Another guy we met (I won’t say his name), snuck into Kurdistan through the mountains of Iran, escaping mandatory military service, and attending university in Kurdistan. Even without a passport, he’s able to work and study (university is free as long as you pass a written test).

They drove us to the Christian section of town called Ankawa (the only place in Erbil that you can buy alcohol), and then to their apartment. They cooked pasta for us and pulled out a table and we had a big family style dinner, talking about our countries differences and similarities, politics, religion, music and a lot of other stuff. It was a really nice night and we were thinking that it wasn’t actually so bad to miss our flight. Traveling seems to work like that often, you miss something, you gain something. The next morning we slept in, and got a ride back to the Pegasus office, where we checked the internet for some last minute details, printed tickets and then Muhammet drove us to the airport. They really went way out of their way to help us, and as soon as I can I’m going to write Pegasus and tell them to make that guy president or something.

So we get our flight, and it’s a little stressful, because we’re worried about our connections, but we landed early and I said a hurried goodbye to Caroline, who was an excellent traveling partner, and we both ran towards our gates. After failing to access the internet for about half an hour, I paid to call Dogan to find out what the status was with my luggage. It was about 5:00 and my flight was boarding at 6:50. It takes about an hour to get from Dogan’s to the airport, so there was plenty of time. He said he was waiting for Sinan to show up and that they’d be here shortly. I waited. After about half an hour I called again, and again, he said he was waiting for Sinan. I began to worry a bit. I was already checked in and they told me I could just dump my bags at the counter and get to the gate, but I had to do it by 7:20 when the counters closed for this flight. I called Dogan again at 7:00 knowing that if they hadn’t already left I was going to be in some trouble. He said Sinan still wasn’t there. I told him I don’t care how much money it costs, just take a cab and get my bags to the airport, it’s the most important thing in the world. He told me a cab would be really expensive, and I told him that was fine I just really needed my stuff.

I had to consider the scenario of my luggage just not arriving and what I should do. I had two options. I could either just get on the flight and leave all of my stuff in Istanbul, meaning that I had no clothes, and no bicycle, meaning I’d have to re-plan half of my trip and miss out on something I spent the better part of two years planning, or just wait and skip my flight and hope I could figure out a way to get on a new one. Worst case scenario was that I’d have to buy a new plane ticket to Nairobi, which I knew I couldn’t afford. I started thinking about riding my bike around southern Turkey for two months, or maybe across southern Europe, but I mean, it’s January and it just didn’t seem like an appealing idea. So I decided I would just get on the plane and make the best of it, maybe I could get a bike down there and so something, or I’d just stay on Mfangano longer.

I gave myself the cut off of 7:20, at that point if the bags weren’t there, they weren’t getting on the plane and I had only 15 minutes to get through security and run to my gate. I thought I could do it though, so I waited at our meeting spot. And I waited. At 7:15 I had lost hope, and I slowly started making my way toward security. I turned and began running, up the escalator and around the corner. Just as I dashed through the crowd I heard “DUDE!”

I turned around to find Dogan running towards me, “Dude, Sinan has your bags he’s downstairs.” We run down the escalator and find Sinan, I give him a high five as my bags go through the scanners. I pull out my ticket and show the security officer pleading with her to go as quickly as possible. She wants to look inside my bag. I open it, it’s filed with more bags. She wants to see inside one, so I open it. She loses interest and walks away. I scramble putting everything back together, on a cart, into the elevator, and ask everyone if I can cut them inline and finally get to the counter, it’s just passed 7:20. The woman at the counter says no, and to go see the supervisor. He’s busy so I just ask if I can leave the bags and get on the flight and they tell me no, it’s too late, I’ve already missed it and I have to go to the ticket counter to figure it out.

The woman at the ticket counter had no sympathy and told me a new ticket was my only option, and at $750 that just wasn’t going to happen. She told me I could go see a supervisor, so I pushed my bags across the terminal one more time and waited in line. The supervisor came out and I explained my situation. His only response was “why weren’t you here for your flight?” I told him that I was, but my luggage wasn’t and I was told a few different things by different people, but they wouldn’t let me through with or without my bags. He told me there was nothing he could do and I had to go to the ticket counter and buy another ticket. I argued/pleaded with him, but he didn’t waiver.

This is when I had flashbacks to standing in the Heathrow customs office being told there was no way they were going to let us into the UK. I remember how defeated everyone felt, but being polite, persistent and stressing how important it was eventually worked. So I looked at the supervisor and I asked him if he was going to leave me stranded in Istanbul, if Turkish airlines was really going to do nothing to help me, and must have given him that perfect look of “I’m about to freak out if you don’t help me,” because he just said “wait,” put up his hand and walked over to the counter. He helped a few other people and then came back to me and just told me to go over to his friend.

I walked over and the man took my passport and ticket, spent a few minutes typing and then asked me to put my bags on the scale. I did so silently, and watched them roll off onto the belt and disappear. He handed me a new ticket for the same flight the following day, and I thanked him and asked for the supervisors name. I guess I have a few companies to write. I thanked the supervisor and went to Dogan’s for the night, feeling so relieved to actually have a ticket to Nairobi. When I got back to Dogan’s I checked my bank account to find that $570, which I had tried to spend on plane tickets when my card kept getting denied, was on hold from my bank account. After another hour on the phone with my bank I may have to dispute the charge if it goes through, but they seem confident that it won’t. Just made the whole thing a little more stressful.

Now that I’m on the flight, I think these whole last 48 hours are going to disappear into a small detail of the memory of this trip. I still have one more flight to figure out, since I also missed my flight from Nairobi to Kisumu, but I’ll figure it out when I land. I already feel incredibly lucky, but I think when my feet hit the shores of Mfangano I’ll finally feel like the weight has lifted.

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