Tuesday, February 02, 2010

Entertaining, At Least

When Ian and I were researching travel options for getting to Cabo Verde, there was never really any question that we were going to go the partial Great Circle route, starting in Seattle at 47˚ N, going over the pole through London (51˚30') and Lisbon (38˚44', 8 hours time difference) and slightly back to Praia (15˚, 7 hours time difference). First of all, we had enough airline miles on British Airways to get to Lisbon, and TAP (Air Portugal), a known quantity that we've flown before, has two daily flights to Cabo Verde (the one we took and the other to Sal, an island in the northern, Windward Islands, where Santo Antão is. I know, I know—why fly to Praia, in the Leeward Islands, instead of Sal, theoretically closer? Well, because Praia is the capital and it seemed like it would be a better place to visit, and for internal flights it didn't matter in the least. Resuming . . .).

There is another potential option—TACV, Cabo Verde Airlines, flies once a week direct from Boston to Praia. The TACV website offers the initial appearance of excellent functionality . . . but the moment you ask it a question other than "please translate this into English", it fails to offer any more useful information. We were more surprised that there was a website at all, actually, and we initially thought that TACV must be quite up to date, not at all like my experience in domestic flight in Kenya (which, of course, was 14 years ago so who knows . . .). But then, the website's dodginess just beneath the surface, and our complete inability to gather any more information about the flight, encouraged us to just make our reservations on BA and TAP and call it good. I did eventually decide to buy tickets on TACV from Praia to Mindelo and back, before leaving the US, so that we knew we could catch the ferry to Santo Antão. After some searching, I found a direct telephone line to the Boston office (thank you, google) and left a message for an agent, and after a couple of jarring, 6:00am return calls from them (time zone difference), I had to pay for the tickets by depositing a money order from my bank account into the TACV Boston bank account at a different bank, then fax them a copy of my deposit slip. This, too, seemed a bit dodgy, but as I have traveled in Africa before and I know that things are somewhat less, shall we say, regularized there, I wasn't too worried, and indeed our TACV flights were just fine.

A couple months before we left, Ian happened to read an article written by someone who had recently taken the TACV flight from Logan Airport, and he described a perfect mayhem of travelers and belongings. First of all, there are about 2.5 million Cabo Verdeans living outside Cabo Verde (to about 500,000 living in the country), and many of them live in Boston and thereabouts. There are lots of consumer goods that are easy to get in the US, too, and difficult or expensive to import into CV, and so all the Cabo Verdeans going home for a visit had masses of baggage to take with them. Even today, with new security measures and baggage limitations, people were bringing way more to the airport than they were allowed to check. On a completely full flight, everyone who tried to check in was told that their baggage was too heavy. There were people opening up all their suitcases at the ticket counter, rearranging, moving heavy items into their carry-ons, even asking other travelers to check bags for them (not, obviously, allowed). Not surprisingly, the author said that the process took hours, and the plane left very delayed.

Our flights out on BA and TAP were quite good. BA is flying a 777 from Seattle to London now, and even though it was a mostly full flight, Ian and I had cleverly checked in for an aisle seat and a window seat in coach, and no solo travelers wanted to join us in the middle. Also, the seat pitch was about 3 inches greater than our American Airlines flight to Santiago in November, for virtually the same amount of time, so I was able to really stretch out. Also, we all got socks, and a toothbrush, and an eyemask. My Jack and Sprite was free, as was my wine with my beef dinner. I didn't sleep really at all, because I'd gotten in the mode of a 1:00am bedtime at home, and that hit only an hour before we landed at Heathrow, when they were serving us breakfast.

We had about 4 hours in the airport and didn't have to collect our baggage or deal with customs, so we had plenty of time for a sandwich (Crayfish, Lemon and Rocket for Ian; Coronation Chicken for me), and plenty of time to get online and transfer money to our checking account, which I had somehow forgotten to do before leaving home. We then had a lovely, 2 ½ hour flight to Lisbon where the plane was small enough that we were the only two on our side. In Lisbon we had to go through customs (more stamps in the passport!) and collect our bags since we were changing airlines; I also dropped off a suitcase of winter clothes for this current part of my trip, and my computer, at Left Luggage. At this point—well after 1:00am Seattle time—I was mostly able to sleep the moment I stopped moving; also, our 4-hour flight to Praia was practically empty, and everything worked remarkably smoothly.

And so, when we were making plans to return to the airport in Praia for our return to Lisbon, we were surprised that the taxi driver suggested we arrive at 11:15pm for our 1:50am flight. It was a small airport, a European airline, no one had been interested in coming to Cabo Verde; was it really necessary to allow almost three hours?

Yes. It was. It turns out that Cabo Verdeans flying always want to take more luggage than they are allowed, whether or not they are flying to or from their country. And there were a lot of them flying; our plane was completely full, every last seat taken. Each person was allowed 35 kilos of checked luggage—total, not per bag, but still, that's a lot of allowance. When we arrived to check in, whole families were already unpacking and repacking their belongings up near the ticket agent—clearly sent away to reorganize. The lines crawled forward, one party per ten minutes or more. What on earth were they taking? we wondered. And wondered more, for over an hour. Each suitcase or bag had been tied up with twine, too, and so every time something had to be adjusted, twine had to be untied and tied again. We inched forward, and wondered. Finally, after an eternity of waiting in line (and there had only been about 6 groups in front of us when we arrived), we were next. The man in front of us had two bags to check. The first one was under the limit and went through. The second, smaller bag, pushed him over the checked luggage limit, however, and he was told to remove something and put it in his hand luggage. We leaned in, eager to see what he had that was so heavy.

Beans. He had a plastic gallon-sized baggie of large, shelled, fresh beans, sort of like fava beans. Taking them out did the trick.

On the plane, completely opposite from what one usually is urged to do, people were told to put everything in the overhead bins, and nothing under the seat in front of them. I managed to not hear this and shoved my bag under the seat where I usually put it, and no one made me move it. The overhead bins were cram packed, though, so I really don't think it would've fit anyway. Ian and I decided they probably made this rule because of the crazy number of little, heavy bags being dragged aboard—there was way too much chance that one would be forgotten on board, or stumbled over in an emergency, if they weren't obviously all out of the way. Because the bags were numerous and tiny, though, they all fit in the compartments like an intricate 3-D jigsaw puzzle. The boarding process was quite the show. Alas, we were seated with one other man in the row in front of the exit row, so even though it was 3:30am when we took off and we were dizzy with exhaustion, we couldn't recline our seats at all. I would nod off until my neck started to ache—maybe 5 or 10 minutes—then jerk awake, then nod off and then jerk awake.

All's well that ends well, however, and in Lisbon my left luggage was complete and intact, there is a new service for prepaying for taxis so you don't have to worry about being stiffed, and our hotel's 8:00am early check-in allowed us to collapse into a profound and heavenly sleep by 9:00am.

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