I have travelled all my life. My job has always involved national and international travel. I have lived and travelled all over the world. I am a South African living in Sweden. I love travelling. So it was with no sense of doom that I began my worst journey ever in June 2006.
I was due to travel from Stockholm, Sweden to Grahamstown, South Africa. This involved travel by bus (1), underground (1), high-speed train (1), plane (3) and car (1). My route was Stockholm – London – Johannesburg – Port Elizabeth – Grahamstown. A 30-hour journey that I had done once or twice a year for 8 years. It was long but routine. I never accept the close connections that the computer usually spits out for my route. Even if it means a five-hour wait at the airport for a connecting flight, I will do it rather than miss a connection. So I knew I had plenty of time even if the plane was late departing.
All went well until I arrived at Arlanda airport in Stockholm. My passport and tickets were in my maiden name but about six months previously my credit card had been issued in my married name. Due to high security that day, because the name on my credit card (which had been used to pay for the flight) and the name on my passport did not match I was not allowed to board. Luckily the plane was delayed and my husband had time to fax through to the officials the proof of change of name and a marriage certificate.
I boarded the plane with a sigh of relief, taking off my brand new shoes so that I could relax in my socks as I usually do on flights. In front of me was a hyperactive kid aged about 10 virtually inhaling the contents of a giant packet of luminous orange cheese puffs. I uncharitably thanked my lucky stars that he was not sitting behind me and kicking my seat. Turns out I was in the worse position because…..
As the plane took off and that stomach-dropping moment happened, he vomited copiously and spectacularly – everywhere. The plane continued its ascent and the vomit flowed backwards – all over my feet, socks, book and newspaper. I had to give my socks to the cabin attendant. The poor child continued to throw up all the way to London. I hate the sound and smell of vomit so I huddled in my seat thinking ‘it cannot get any worse than this’. Oh wait….
We were late landing at Heathrow because our flight had departed late and paramedics had to take care of the sick child before other passengers could disembark. Today all British Airways flights use Terminal 5 which is very convenient, as you do not have to change terminal if you are using BA for all your connections. But at that stage Heathrow longhaul flights arrived and left from Terminal 4, while short haul flights arrived and departed from the other terminals (2 and 3 I think). If you were connecting you had to change terminals between flights. And getting from terminal to terminal involved quite a long trek by bus and train and then a long walk.
I ran desperately for my plane, feeling blisters forming as I ran because I had new shoes on and no socks. But I really really HAD to make my flight. As I got there the plane was still at the gate but my ticket had been sold to a standby passenger. The next flight was in 24 hours and all the BA hotels were full so they gave me a pack with everything I would need for the next 24 hours, and I stayed at the airport. It was a very nice airport survival pack (vouchers for meals, t-shirt, panties, a wonderful toiletry kit, vouchers for books, discounts at most of the airport shops) so apart from the fact that I did not sleep at all I was comfortable and safe.
The next day I managed to get my London to Johannesburg flight (well I was there 24 hours early!) and as the sun came up 11 hour later and I saw my beloved Africa all barren and brown in her winter coat I felt that things were okay.
Needless to say my suitcase did not arrive – ever. No one has ever figured out if it was lost between Stockholm and London, in London, or between London and Johannesburg. It should have been taken off the plane in London during my enforced 24 hour layover but who knows. Feeling rather shattered about that I walked through the exit from International Arrivals at Johannesburg airport…and was attacked and robbed.
Before it was totally overhauled for the 2010 Football World Cup, Johannesburg International Airport (OR Tambo Airport, as it is called today) was not a safe place. The police turned a blind eye to gangs operating in the airport, and anyone could wander into the airport buildings from the street. Pickpocketing, bag snatching, begging, hijacking and robberies in that area were rife. One person pushed me really hard so that I went sprawling, snatched my handbag and threw it to a second person who disappeared into the crowd gathered just outside International Arrivals. I was just lucky I was not shot or stabbed. The CCTV cameras did not work, the police were gambling in a back room and the officer who dealt with me could barely write so I could not get a case number or make a statement.
I had no money to make calls and no one would let me use their phone. I felt like Tom Hanks in that movie The Terminal. In the end I went to the British Airways customer service desk. Because of all the problems en route I could recite my entire trip – flight numbers, flight times, contact details, my date of birth and home address. So they emailed my husband and he phoned me on their number. He bought me a ticket to Port Elizabeth via his credit card over the phone. They even upgraded me to business class though I didn’t enjoy it. I had a little cry on the way to Port Elizabeth.
My family was waiting in Port Elizabeth and I got hugs and tea. My aunt drove me to Grahamstown and gave me some money and some clothes. It was Saturday and I had to wait until Monday to start all the admin. By Sunday night the worst blister on my foot was badly infected.
Monday I started out by visiting the doctor (blood poisoning was setting in to my largest blister) and then cancelling my tickets/passports/driver’s licences/residence permit cards/identity documents and so on. I am a citizen of Ireland and South Africa, and a resident of Sweden. Ireland could help me with an emergency document but only a day or two before I travelled. Sweden could not do anything because I was not a citizen. With South African Home Affairs I queued for two days to apply for a passport.
Four days later The Department of Home Affairs rang me to say the official who had handled my passport application had stolen my (and lots more) money and that they would not issue my passport until I had testified against said official at his court case. In South Africa this takes years.
Slowly and surely things seemed to sort themselves out. I had new bank cards couriered to me. I got a temporary South African identity document. British Airways promised to reissue my airtickets if I could get someone to drive me to the nearest airport to get them – my town has no airport and my driver’s licence had been stolen. All I needed was a certified police report.
I found a local police officer willing to take my statement and vouch for me. He would then drive all the way to Johannesburg (1000km) to get a case number for me.
Things were looking up.
Unfortunately Coenie (the police officer) had a freak accident on his way to Johannesburg to get my case number. His police van rolled on top of him, caught alight and almost killed him. He was in intensive care for months. At this point I began to think that my bad luck had caused his accident. I blamed myself for what had happened to him. I developed mouth ulcers and boils as a result of the stress and had to go to the doctor for daily vitamin B injections.
British Airways took pity on me and let me come without the case number. Naturally there were floods in Port Elizabeth that day so it was touch and go whether we would be able to get there but we did.
Once I had my tickets and flight numbers, the Irish Embassy in Pretoria was able to issue an emergency travel document for me, enabling me to make the trip home. I had landed in South Africa in June and it was now August but I was getting there. In South Africa there was a lot of postal fraud at the time so the Embassies only sent documents via courier. All okay by me. I went to collect my emergency travel document at the courier office the day before I was due to leave and was faced with the following explanation:
‘The courier who had your document can’t read very well and delivered it to East London (about 200kms away) by mistake’. I thought I was having a heart attack in the PostNet offices. I had chest pains and couldn’t breathe. They got me over to the doctor (who was really well-acquainted with me by that stage) and declared it a panic attack.
At this point a member of my family phoned and blasted PostNet. The manager of the local branch drove through to collect it and bring it to me. It arrived about 5 hours before I was due to leave Grahamstown to be driven to PE for my plane.
when I got to PE the Heathrow liquid bomb threat had happened and Heathrow was virtually closed. BA refused to fly me because I had no proper passport, no other identification and no luggage. I had to wait a week before things calmed down and could get on a plane. I was fully booked at work that week with the Week 35 Parliament Intensives and my employer had to find replacements for me all week and at very short notice.
When I arrived in Stockholm on 22 August 2006 I had no luggage, no wallet, no keys, no travel document, no ID. So the airport police put me in second line for questioning and then confined me. At this point I thought ‘well I don’t care anymore’ and just sat there. Eventually my boss confirmed that I was who I said I was and I was released.
Then I had to start applying for ID in Sweden (which does EVERYTHING with ID) and I couldn’t get ID until I had ID. So I had to wait until my new Irish passport was issued and then it was found out that my Swedish residence permit (which had been stolen) had expired two weeks previously and I was now illegally in Sweden. They almost deported me. I had to apply for a residence permit from the very beginning again…and wait five more years to apply for Swedish citizenship – when I do finally receive citizenship, it will have taken me 14 years as against the usual five.
Needless to say I was too afraid to get on a plane for the next two years…and even now I find travel extremely stressful. I wonder sometimes if I will always bear mental scars from that trip. Wish me luck when I travel next week – Friday the 13th!