Flying to Kenya

by F.

After boarding a Northwest Airbus A330, we sat for almost an hour waiting for take-off. Then a stewardess walked back to row 83, seats Y and Z, where we were stuffed. There was trouble with the intercom unit, we learned, which was why the stewardess was coming back in person (with a megaphone) to tell us about the plane’s troubles. She told us to sit for a few more minutes because a part was coming in from Detroit and it might fix the problem. So we sat. And sat. And sat. And thirty minutes later they loaded us off the plane, gave us a voucher for a free meal at Burger King, and told us to hang around the terminal because we might get back on after the intercom was fixed. Apparently it is easier to fix intercoms with the passengers at Burger King.

We never did get back on the plane. Instead, we switched flights and got on an SAS plane to Copenhagen, with the intention of going from Copenhagen to London (again on SAS) and then taking an Kenya Airways flight to Nairobi. We booked the SAS flight at the Northwest counter and then walked to the gate for the flight. Along the way, we realized we didn’t have our seat assignments, so we went to the SAS counter and started trying to communicate with the agent there. We showed her our tickets and she asked us if we were flying economy class. No, we said, we were flying coach. She looked at us for a moment then said she’d “see what she could do.”

An hour later we boarded and as we got on the plane the stewardess pointed us to the front of the plane. The front? We did as we were told and found our seats—in first class. It seems that SAS calls first class “coach,” and since we had coach seats on Northwest, we got “coach” seats on SAS. That’s the only explanation we could figure out for why we were put up there in the comfortable seats. The champagne arrived soon after we sat down, then a four course meal that was quite good. A couple glasses of wine and a cognac later, I wasn’t too worried about the 12-hour flight. In fact, it went by painlessly. Not a bad start to the trip, even if we were delayed a bit.

Actually, more than a bit. We were about one day behind by now, set to arrive in Nairobi on Sunday morning rather than Saturday night. we wondered if anyone would be at the airport to pick us up. But why worry, we thought. The safari company would figure it out. So we sat back in our Laz-e-Boy chairs and watched some nature show about a guy who raises lions. Seemed like a fitting thing to watch before a trip to Africa. Early the next morning, we arrived in Copenhagen and made our connection to Heathrow. Things seemed to be working out. We had made it through Denmark.

Unfortunately, our bags didn’t. When we arrived in Nairobi at 7:00 AM on Sunday, our bags weren’t there. And they didn’t show up. So we filed a claim with Kenya Airways and wondered what we were going to do, since our anti-malaria medicine was in our luggage, along with all our clothing. We had bought insurance against flight cancellation or delay, so we could buy clothes. But where? We didn’t exactly know how to get around Nairobi, which has a population of around 2 million (some estimates put the population at twice that). And our safari guide wasn’t there at the airport to greet us, either.

Fortunately for us, everyone in Kenya speaks English, which is one of the two official languages (the other is Swahili). Not perfect English, but good enough. We talked to the Kenya Airways folks and they said lost luggage usually shows up. But we were having difficulty understanding why he couldn’t just check on the whereabout of the bags, since each bag has a unique ID number and is tracked in the computer system.

Well, the Kenya Airways office in Nairobi isn’t exactly hooked up to the rest of the airline computers, it seems. Most of the paperwork was just that—paperwork. Lots of scribbled notes on scraps of paper. Manilla folders that looked like they’d been manufactured in 1973. A Post-It would have looked far too modern for this little office. They seemed to have computers. But the machines didn’t appear to be connected to the airline network. Watching the baggage clerk take notes on our loss, I had the feeling I was watching someone pretend to have a job. He moved paper around, wrote notes, asked questions solicitously. But would anything get done? I doubted it.

After we did all we could we caught a cab to our hotel, the Norfolk. It was raining on the way from the airport. Our cab driver was voluble and friendly, telling us about Nairobi as we drove in just before morning rush hour. The city looked like one we’d seen in other poor countries. Lots of cement block buildings, muddy side-streets, ramshackle vendor stalls, and partially completed construction. People walked by the side of the freeway, or rode bikes—the ancient looking Indian or Chinese ones with the single brake lever that follows the curve of the handlebars.

We drove into the city center, then past one of the universities and the police station, and pulled up in front of the Norfolk. We checked in and found our room, which was quite nice. After we had recovered for a few minutes, we decided to go out shopping. We asked the doorman where we could buy some clothes. “Nakumatt LifeStyle,” he said in a wonderful Swahili accent. “Nakumat LifeStyle.” He told us how to get there and then we got into our cab for the five block drive.

Why didn’t we walk? Well, the doorman said not to on a Sunday. “Not enough people around.” I’d read about crime in Kenya—something like 30% of the population per year are victimized by one sort of crime or another. This is comparable to South Africa, according to an article I recently read in The Economist. So we drove.

About three minutes later we arrived in front of a large developing-world shopping center, the anchor tenant of which was Nakumatt. The building was in the city center, which was similar to other cities we’ve seen in poorer countries—San Jose in Costa Rica or Mytilene in Greece or any number of cities in Mexico. We started to pay the cab driver but he said no. “I’ll wait for you,” he said. “How long?” We told him half-an-hour and went into Nakumatt.

Nakumatt is a pretty big chain in Kenya, it turns out, though we didn’t know that at the time. All we knew was that the place was big and filled to bursting with the same sort of goods you find in Wal-Mart or Costco. Where would we be without inexpensive Chinese products? Screwdville. We can collectively thank the globalization gods for cheap labor and the resulting products that anyone can get their hands on these days—even Kenyans with an average annual income of around $400. It is astounding. We went upstairs to the apparel department and got our clothes—shirts, shorts, socks, underwear, and flip-flops. Then we browsed around the store, got some food, and paid.

Outside, our cab driver was waiting for us with the meter off. We hopped into his cab and he drove us back toward the Norfolk. Along the way we told him about our little luggage problem. He said it wouldn’t come in tonight, since there were no flights from London until the next morning. “What time is the first flight?” we asked. “Six AM.” He told us we should drive out to the airport in the morning and six and see if our bags were there. The timing would be close, because we were scheduled to leave on our safari at 8:00 AM from the Norfolk. But we decided to do it anyway. After a swim and a shower and a nice dinner, we sacked out and waited for the travel alarm to wake us so we could go to the airport. Neither of us thought we would see our bags but we figured we would try at least to pick them up before departure to Samburu National Reserve, our first scheduled national park.

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