Travelling by air ought, given the crow’s flight abbreviation it affords not to mention the speed, be swifter than journeying by road. Unless – of course – you live in Africa and especially – of course – if you have the misfortune not to have any domestic commercial aviation choice other than the not at all precise Precision Air.
9am Sunday: depart from host’s house in Arusha bound for the airport, Hat and I anticipate a long day: a total of four hours flying and a few necessary hours in transit, but we expect to be home in time for tea (Hat) and a cold beer (me).
11am Sunday: our flight, due to leave now, is delayed. We only know this because there are no planes on the apron outside the terminal, not because any Precision ground staff has enlightened us thus. I approach one.
Where’s our plane, I ask.
So is Christmas. Literally. And quite possibly sooner, given Precision’s reputation.
When? I press.
The lady to whom I am addressing my not unreasonable question scowls.
I don’t know.
Could you find out do you think?
She slopes off, she doesn’t pick her feet up so her shoes slap the floor crossly.
Shortly afterwards there’s an announcement over the tannoy.
Our flight is delayed.
No! Who’d have thought?
We can expect to depart at 12.10.
At 12.10 there is still no plane on the runway. Just a few birds. And some abandoned luggage.
I approach the grumpily slip-slopping airline rep again:
Our plane? I enquire sweetly.
It’s coming, she says, and focuses her gaze beyond me to distant high heavens, whether because she hopes to see it or in an effort to pretend I’m not there, I can’t tell.
So I do the same. I can’t see a thing. Only a big blue empty sky.
Shortly after half twelve a plane does actually appear. It has arrived from Nairobi and is bound for Mwanza on Lake Victoria. Ordinarily Mwanza passengers would remain on board and continue with their journey once Nairobi passengers had disembarked.
Instead Precision hijacks its own plane and everybody on it, including the poor passengers who thought they were safely on their way to Mwanza, gets off. I want to feel sorry for them. But having sat through an almost two hour delay myself I uncharitably presume its somebody else’s turn to pick up Precision’s considerable slack.
We dash to the vacated plane as soon as the gate is open and precisely (the only precision I encountered in more than 30 hours) two hours after we should have departed, we take off bound for Zanzibar and Dar.
By the time we reach Zanzibar I am getting anxious we might not make our connection for the Outpost and articulate my concerns to the air steward who similarly articulates to somebody else and so on until we have a game of Chinese whispers circulating the plane until for all I know the message that reaches Dar – or doesn’t given the airline’s misnomer – might be, ‘there is a pink elephant on board who wants to go shopping in Doha’. (The elephant would – I discovered later – have had more chance).
We finally get to Dar, two hours late, and Hat and I hurtle through the airport intent on making our flight home. We endure our 12th security check of the day. For the 12th time I am asked to remove the armful of silver bangles which I have worn for so long I don’t think I could get them off even if I tried (and I don’t anymore). And for the 12th time the mace spray in my handbag is ignored.
We congratulate ourselves on making the departure lounge before they call our flight (but in time to hear them making a final boarding announcement for Doha – lucky elephant). The time of our 3.15 flight comes and goes. Ominously I can see no indication of a flight to the Outpost on the Departures board. Finally I am approached by another of less than accurate Precision’s ground staff: ‘Your flight has been cancelled’, she tells me, ‘until tomorrow’, she adds helpfully.
This is the point when you can either cry, scream, stamp your feet, throw a hissy fit of note, play at being a Diva Extraordinaire or – if you’ve lived in Tanzania for as long as I have and had the misfortune to be exposed to Presicion’s erratic timing as often as I have – meekly accept your fate whilst swearing under your breath. As I do.
The few other unfortunates who’d optimistically hoped to get home that day are rounded up and hotel and taxi arrangements made. We are told to report for a flight at 6am the following morning. As we leave, however, plans are changed: not 6am but 7.30 we are told, for a 9am flight.
I don’t like the look of the hotel when we arrive. And I don’t like the sound of the disco blaring next door. I decide Hat and I will manipulate a bad experience into a better one. I decide we will find a nice hotel with a pool so that we can swim off our disappointment and our frustration. I decide to commandeer the services of a cab driver and make him trail around Dar but what I fail to remember – it’s already been a long day and I missed lunch so my brain’s a little addled – is that I have next to no cash and my credit card, courtesy of three weeks playing truant and Christmas shopping, is maxed out.
Two hours of an enforced insider’s guide to the less salubrious hotels of the city and I’m back where I started, in the hotel the airline handpicked for us. Hat and I drag our five pieces of baggage in and I – a little shamefacedly – admit I do need a room at Precision’s expense. I also need a beer. At Precision’s expense. And Hat needs a chicken curry. And then we both need a shower and bed. What we don’t need, but get anyway, is a deafening disco outside our room until the wee hours.
We’re up by 6 the next morning – this morning – ready to make our way back to the airport for our 9am flight.
Until we get downstairs to the hotel lobby and are told that in fact our flight isn’t until half past one.
Now I’m cross. Really cross. I call the airline to demand an explanation of the delay.
It’s not a delay apparently. It’s re-scheduling I am told.
Go back to your room suggests the hotel reception, less out of concern for us than concern for fellow hotel residents who might be put off by dawn tirade.
Hat and I slink off. Hat orders a chicken sandwich for breakfast. From room service.
You pay extra for room service she tells me worriedly as she puts the phone down.
Good, I say, Precision’s paying: let’s order tea too. And juice.
Back in the airport now and it’s almost midday. Our flight home should be leaving in a little under two hours. We’ll see. At this point we have been travelling for 27 hours. It would have taken us just nine to drive home.
So much for the speed of flight. We really have taken the long way round. Next time – all the next times, in fact – its by road. Hat agrees.
PS 4.00 pm. Monday: We are home. It took us 31 hours door to door.