I know I have said this before, but this time it’s true: you’re going to want to get a cup of coffee and settle in for this one. We will be hanging out for awhile because I have a story to tell you about a very long day.
I guess you could say it started way back in January at the Madrid Airport. Loyal readers may remember that day as a tough one too. But long story short, on that day, as we were checking in for our flight to Johannesburg we were told we had to show proof that we are LEAVING South Africa within the 90 day tourist visa timeframe. Whoops. Missed that little detail. So there, sitting on the floor of the airport check-in counter in Madrid, we booked flights to see Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe, which was something we wanted to do anyway. Since we’d be in the neighborhood, lets do it! That’s how we roll, Sherman Family! Um, no not really. But let’s pretend we are all so flexible and chill like that. It sounds super good on paper.
So after 3 weeks in Joburg, on Tuesday we headed to Zimbabwe on a nice easy direct flight that landed a mere 75 minutes after takeoff. You can read our blog about Zimbabwe and Victoria Falls here but suffice to say it was a relatively great (albeit expensive) experience.
However, the trip back to South Africa was anything but lovely. A few days before we were scheduled to depart Zimbabwe, Dan got a fairly cryptic email from the airlines saying that our 11:00 am direct flight has been rescheduled and it is now departing at 12:00 pm and it would now take 4 hours to get to Johannesburg, although it still listed the flight as direct.
Say what now?
I’ve done enough homeschool math to know that a direct flight that takes 4 hours instead of 75 minutes is some kind of black magic. Just not adding up, folks.
We tried to email Air Zimbabwe and figure it out. We asked the front desk of our hotel to call them for us and then, when we were in the center of Victoria Falls, we saw the Air Zimbabwe office and we stopped in. We got the same mildly-disinterested-but-pretending-to-be-perplexed look from everyone we talked to. “We’ll look into it and call you” they said. Normally we would not be so uptight about a small change like that. After all, we’ve got nowhere to be, right?
This particular day had been planned logistically in sync. It was supposed to go like this:
- Depart Vic Falls at 11:00 am, land in Joburg at 12:45 pm.
- Meet up with the driver of some good friends, who would return our stored luggage to us
- Said driver then takes us to the regional airport an hour’s drive on the other side of Joburg
- Catch our flight at 4:00 pm to Cape Town
This was all so nicely planned out, I thought we were really getting the hang of this travel thang. But then Air Zimbabwe decided to go and mess up our plans. We tried a few more times to figure out what was happening with our flight, complicated by the fact that the website showed absolutely no change to our original flight date and time. The uninterested lady at the office said just to show up for the noon departure and meanwhile, she’ll try to change our follow-on flight to Cape Town to a later one. So Friday morning, Dan emails Air Zimbabwe to see if they were successful in changing our connecting flight for later in the day so we didn’t miss it. But we are planning to arrive for a noon flight and not an 11am flight, like we were told by their office the day before. Okay. So far, so good.
We pack up and we’re waiting for our shuttle guy to pick us up at 9:30 am and Dan goes to check out. And incidentally, tells the front desk: “This is the most expensive hotel I have ever stayed at wherein we had no hot water.” True story. Anyway, as we were lollygagging to get ready and wait for our van to arrive, we get another email from Air Zimbabwe that informed us that our flight was back to it’s original time.
Say what now?
We now had 90 minutes to drive the 30 minutes to the airport and check in for an international flight. We are LATE! So we call the driver in a panic, he shows up with a wet van directly from the car wash and he whisks us off to the airport. We arrive, we spill out of the van and run into the check-in counter and…
The staff were just getting started setting up for the day and looked none too interested in us at all. And there was not ONE customer anywhere in the entire airport. We were alone. We get to the counter and the guy, who speaks very very softly and slowly, tells us that our flight is delayed. Delayed? Or cancelled? Or re-routed? Well, he’s not sure. Then we show him the email we got and he says “Yes, that’s it.” That’s WHAT? What is it? What’s happening? Then he mentions something about a weather delay due to a tropical storm in the area. We explain to him the uncertainty that we were having about the emails. We ask if he can explain it. Nope. He can’t. He just knows there is a delay and he doesn’t know when the flight will take off. We ask if it’s a direct flight as his company’s website STILL says it is, which contradicts the email we got, and he says, “I don’t know”. We ask when he WILL know. He says, “I don’t know”. We ask where it is going and he says “I don’t know”.
Now, we are not a cursing family, but WTF!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
There was no getting a straight answer out of him but he checked in our 1 suitcase, told us to wait for our flight to be called, and told us that we should go pay the exit tax.
Say what now?
The exit tax. Mind you, we had to pay $30 USD per person to enter their lovely country. Now they tell us we have to pay to get out, too!!! Well this should be interesting. So we go over to the glass cage that has a small sliver for your money but no ability to talk to anyone unless you lean down and put your mouth right up to to the rectangular slit. So Dan asks how much it is and the almost-asleep worker dude unceremoniously informs us that it will cost $50 USD per person.
Again, how did we miss this? We researched Livingstone’s discovery of Vic Falls, we looked into the visa to get there, we even knew of the entry fee and the fact that they use US currency. We also checked for the now-familiar yellow fever vaccination. But how did we miss the exit tax?? Why do we suck so bad at this travel thing??
Dan tried to pay for it with two different credit cards but we were doing The Sherman Bank Dance wherein we call the banks and tell them of our travel plans, they listen and assure us they will not shut down the cards, we try to use said cards in said countries and they deny all transactions. Zimbabwe was particularly challenging for our banks. They didn’t believe we were there. So both cards we tried to use were denied. Good times. Super duper good times.
Dan goes and gets money from the ATM, which thankfully worked, but it inconveniently dispenses it in $50 increments (we think it’s got some connection to the $50 exit tax, huh?). He goes back and throws money at the guy saying “Here’s your extortion money.” Dan proceeded to argue with the guy through the narrow slit about how indeed, it was extortion. The whole airport was listening because you had to yell through the money slot to talk. Haley was convinced the picture of the President of Zimbabwe, which was hanging on ALL the walls, was listening to us and we were going to be arrested for sedition at any time. Zoe learned the definition of extortion in homeschool from this experience. Life lessons, ya’ll.
So we pay the Extortion Man and then we decide to go see someone at the South African Air office while we wait to be called to the gate. We tell her our situation about how we’re most likely going to be late for our connecting flight in Joburg because of this delayed (or whatever) Air Zimbabwe flight. So we tell her our confirmation number. She types away… types some more… gets perplexed… then after a while, she tells us that they have no record of us on any of their flights out of Lanseria (the other airport in Joburg that we were supposed to be flying out of).
Say what now?
Turns out, Safair (which is what we were booked on) is NOT a short word for South African Air. It’s a completely OTHER airline. Of course. How could we be so stupid. Here’s what I think: someone in marketing in South Africa needs to be fired.
We ask if she can call the other airline for us. “No, I don’t have their number”. OK, um, can you GOOGLE it? No, she says, but she’ll call a colleague. She phones a friend (too bad she can’t ask the audience or use the 50/50 lifeline) and that person also has no phone number. Somewhere in this process she realizes that her computer cord has come unplugged and that might be the source of her problems. Unfortunately plugging it in does not help the situation so we exit her office no better off than when we came in. We sheepishly thank the woman for her patience, kind of. Honestly we aren’t sure what she did for us other than clarify that South African Air is not Safair. So, thanks for that, lady.
By this time, Daniel’s data on his Zimbabwe SIM card is running low. So we frantically get on Safair’s website and it allows us to check in to our flight, which we know we’re going to miss, but at least if we’re checked in and they see that our arriving flight is delayed, hopefully, they’ll allow us to miss it without any penalty. Dan also emails Safair in what we feel is most likely a pointless attempt to get them to re-book us on a later flight so we don’t have to deal with it when we get there.
So now we sit and wait at a little cafe since it does not appear we are going anywhere (somewhere?) soon. I decide to order my beloved cappuccino since the $345/night Hotel With No Hot Water is also the Hotel With Super Sucky Coffee. The barista was happy to make me a cappuccino until I told her I had no bills smaller than a $50 and could she break a $50?
OMG… at this point I’m ready to punch someone in the throat. So I go off in search of change for my $50. I ask at the next cafe:
Do you have change for a $50?
Can you make me a cappuccino and give me change for a $50?
No, we are not making cappuccino right now.
Of course not. Why would a cafe in an airport want make coffee at 10:30 in the morning???? I go try and buy a cute colorful wire giraffe at the gift shop but that gal also has no change for a $50. I finally go back to Mr Extortion in the Office of Tourist Extortion and ask for change and he says I only have $20s, but if you give me a $50 and a $10 I will give you three $20’s.
Do you even hear yourself talk, man? I mean, come ON! If I had a $10, why would I need change???
So I go back to the cafe and plop down, despondent that I will not be getting my coffee that day. A few minutes later the waiter brings over two cappuccinos. What? Well it seems like there was some misunderstanding. We said we would like them, but only if he had change for a $50. He didn’t hear that, I guess. So he said he’d go find change. So I started drinking. It was awesome. I am pretty sure Karma knew what our upcoming day would be like and decided that It better give me coffee that morning otherwise there’d be some major problems later on. Karma’s prescient like that.
Waiter guy disappeared for about 10 minutes and finally returned and informed us that the coffee was on the house, because he ALSO could not find change. He could get funny money (Zimbabwe dollars) but not US dollars. So I tried to give him all my Rand coins and Haley dug around for a Euro or two but we were not successful and I had two free cups of delicious coffee. (Oh, forgot to mention, not only did he not hear that we only wanted the coffee if he had change for a $50, but he also thought we ordered two cups…. three cheers for Karma!).
So if you’re keeping track we are now at about 11:00 a.m. and we still have 13 hours to go before this blog post is done. Now is a good time to refill your coffee. Ask Karma for a free cup. I’ll wait.
So after awhile we notice movement in the gate area and we go over and go through security (Zoe got an impromptu lesson on how to work the scanner from a very nice security lady) and eventually, we board a plane!!! Yay!!! They said it was going to Johannesburg but first it had to go to another city in Zimbabwe and then it’ll go on to Joburg. It’s kind of strange boarding a plane when you don’t know where it’s going and when you’ll get to your final destination, but we looked on the map and it was in the general direction of Joburg so we felt like we were on the right track. Unfortunately, it was also in the general direction of a tropical storm, which made the 35 minute flight rather turbulent. I’ll be honest, I was losing my chit at this point. Full-on panic. Turbulence and me, well, we just don’t get along. I created a few waterfalls of my own from my eyes. Ugh!! Can you imagine if I had not had my morning coffee? I shudder at the thought.
But we eventually landed in some place in Zimbabwe (Bulawayo, in case you’re writing a book) and we get off with the other passengers who were also looking dazed and confused in their attempts to go to Joburg. We got a lot of inconsistent messages about whether to get our bags and recheck them or if they’d be transferred for us but finally we get in line for passport som’n or other. I’m clutching our exit tax receipt like it’s gold, prepared to throw down the gauntlet if we run into Mr Extortion’s Cousin In The Other City That We Can’t Pronounce and Didn’t Ask to Go To. Lucky for the cuz, it was not needed.
Then we are herded like sheep through security. The lady working the security machine made TSA look like Mother Teresa. This gal did NOT appreciate our confused family of 4. I’ll be honest, we were a little crazy. Zoe goes through first, followed by Dan, but I am the Parent Who Holds Kids’ Passports so I’m handing documents to the lady, but she thinks they are mine, then Haley goes through, then the worker is yelling at Haley asking who she is and where are her documents, I’m barking at the lady saying “Shoes? On or off? Computers? In or out? Boarding pass? Passport? What do you need?” and this gal is NOT happy with us. In the chaos I misplace Zoe’s boarding pass (Dan had it, messing up our fully established travel system entirely). And the rest of the Joburg hopefuls are all witnessing Pissed Off Americans trying to make it through security.
Happy thoughts, happy thoughts, happy thoughts.
We make it through without an international incident and we plant ourselves in chairs and try to stay entertained. Dan is the only one with data in Zimbabwe (it had stopped working in Vic Falls, but miraculously started working again in this new place… go figure) so phone entertainment is minimal. Haley took this time to school Zoe on the medical physiology of a heart attack (or a myocardial infarction, as she was telling her) and how it feels and why it happens. Oh good, definition of extortion and how heart attacks happen, in the same day. I sense a theme. Homeschool for the day is done. I go back to playing solitaire on my phone.
Ding. Dan gets an email from Safair. They’ve already re-booked us on a later flight which we’ll have no problem making. It’ll put us into Cape Town at 10:30pm, which is after dark and not how we usually like to arrive somewhere new, but at least we’ll be in Cape Town. Yay! Things are looking up.
Once again there was finally some commotion, a bigger plane arrived and boarding commenced.
But not so fast. The displaced group was told to get on, but only after the other passengers got on. I guess the Joburg Hopefuls only get the leftover seats. So we finally get on and as we are boarding we pass row after row of empty business class seats. Like, 10 rows, of 8 seats… NO ONE sitting in them. Another Joburg Hopeful asks to sit in one of them and the flight attendant informs him that he did not pay for those seats and cannot sit there. He informs her that he did not pay to come to this city that no one can pronounce, and arrive at our final destination 4 hours too late, either. So what’s the difference? Touche, fellow passenger. I could see Dan just waiting to jump into the fray. I’m just glad that I’m not the only one losing my chit on this journey.
But no can do. No nice seats for you. So we slide back to the cattle seats with a great view of the totally empty business class section and alas we fly, I panic, I cry, we land, and we are back in South Africa. Honestly, at this point, it feels like HOME. My phone works again, we meet up with our driver who has the rest of our luggage and we start driving to the other airport about an hour away.
On our way to the other airport the kids beg for a real meal instead of just Maria crackers so we stop at a McDonalds (this is the best we are going to get for a real meal on travel days sometimes!) but the employee said they are off line and cannot sell food. What? Can’t you write down my order on a piece of paper? And I’ll pay cash? Oh, and do you have change for a $50? That would be a no, no and no.
Luckily for Dan, his best buddy KFC is in the same parking lot so we go over there and grab something that passes for a food group. Note to self, KFC is hard to eat in a van. Haley is VERY unhappy at this point. The thought of a Big Mac is the only thing that had kept her going and now that dream has been snatched from her. Poor girl, now it’s her time to lose her chit. She had some chicken but was not happy about it.
So we arrive at the other airport, thank our driver, we feel like we are all put together with all our luggage and ready to explore new lands. Cape Town here we come!
Um… no. We go to the check in desk and… no one.
Say what now?
Helpful Line Guy looked at the electronic confirmation that was sent to Dan’s email and points out that this flight leaves from Tambo. Tambo being the airport we just came from! Areyoufreakingkiddingme? Evidently in their automatic re-booking they decided to change our departure AIRPORT!!! Whoops. We didn’t even think to check to see if our flight was leaving from a completely different airport than our original flight. Kinda missed that detail. Dammit with the details!!
That flight boards in 45 minutes. So now it’s time for more homeschool math. We have to fetch the driver back, speed back to Tambo, check in 4 large pieces of luggage that represent our entire life at this moment, and board the plane, all within 1 hour. The same hour is how long it takes to be back to that airport.
Let’s do this!
We somehow managed to get a hold of our friends who normally do not answer texts at dinner but felt compelled to see what the dinging was about, saw our plight, got in touch with their driver who sped back to get us and sped like a bat out of hell back across the city to get us to the airport. That airport we just came from. Yeah, that one.
So we pull up to the airport, the second time in one day, we’re spilling out of a van and running into an airport, and inside the terminal we are doing a full-on SPRINT with 4 large bags (all over-weight, by the way), 2 carry ons, 4 backpacks, a Mom Purse and a ukulele. We look like the world’s worst planners or contestents on a show called “Amazing Race – Family Edition”. Luckily, some guy looking for a good tip sees us, grabs the biggest bag, joins us in a full on sprint and takes us to the ticket counter. At this point I’m reminded that I should get to the gym more often. But no time for fat shaming… we’ve got a plane to catch. Haley is about to lose her chit again as she hates being rushed and running in general and she’s still hungry. Zoe seems to be keeping up with Dan, which is about how the 5k Turkey Trots have worked out for our family when we did them in Arizona.
We get to the ticket counter and because they don’t know our history today, or that they just might be throttled by an American family if they say the wrong words, they say “Sorry, it’s too late.” After seeing that they’re about to be part of an international incident, they follow that with, “But if you can get all your bags through security, you can probably make it to the gate in time to board. They’ll just stow your luggage from the gate.” So we make a MAD DASH to the security line running right by people patiently standing in line (apologizing profusely as we cut in line) and get to the security conveyor belt. We don’t wait for people to say “Sure, go ahead”, we just DO IT. “Travelling Americans coming through! We are late! Wrong airport! We are a mess! Take pity on us!” Everyone looked at us with bemused stares and just stepped aside. You do not mess with a tall guy, rolling a very heavy orange suitcase and a cute blond girl with a ukulele. Or perhaps they saw Haley crying and took pity. Either way, we started stripping down and throwing stuff onto the conveyor belt. The worker looked at Big Orange Suitcase and said “if it doesn’t fit, it doesn’t go”. Well, it was like giving birth only in reverse and that sucker FIT.
“Sir, I’m going to have to ask you to open this suitcase.”
Of course, all these suitcases have stuff that you’re SUPPOSED to check. Dan had a screw driver and a wrench that they confiscated. But somehow they missed my big ass scissors. Ha! So we grabbed our belts and what not and shot out of security as quickly as we had entered. We resumed our sprint, yelling “C11?! Where’s C11?!” I was missing our Tip Seeking Helper who could not help us past security. Dan threw him a good tip as we ran into security. I’m hoping it wasn’t one of those 50’s from Zimbabwe.
So we are helped by several people who seemed to be charged up by our energy and they start yelling and pointing us in the right direction. We race up to the gate just in time to get in line and literally we were the last 4 people on the plane. At this point I’m ecstatic. I had gone over the range of possibilities in my head in the van on the way (back) to the airport and it ranged from not making the flight at all, to making it but without our luggage. The fact that we were getting on it AND had our luggage (minus a screwdriver and wrench) was really more than I had hoped for.
We get on, we give the big bags (which were over weight but no one weighed them since we were in such a panic) to the gate checker guy who looked none too pleased at the ginormous bags he had to carry down the steps. We board, find a place for our wheeled suitcases in the overstuffed overhead bins and we take our seats.
The 2 hour flight was a great opportunity to debrief and relax, Haley watched a lightning storm and the stars, Dan made a new friend with the guy sitting next to him, Zoe played some game involving goats on her iPad and I wrote this blog post in my head and kicked some solitaire butt.
We arrived in Cape Town, got an Uber, got to our apartment-hotel and congratulated ourselves on a job well done. We survived a day that sets a new standard for horrible travel days. At least for us.