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March 26, 2005

Lows of Travel ("Welcome to Africa")

Johannesburg (Airport) to Cape Town, South Africa

Saturday, March 26, 2005:

Shortly after sunrise I disembarked from my plane from Brazil and set foot on the African Continent for the first time --- on a runway in Johannesburg International Airport. A bus pulled up and ferried me and the other passengers to the terminal. I listed to several Indians chat back and forth in Hindi, English and then Portugese. Apparently one of them would soon be connecting on another flight to Bombay.

I strode rapidly through the automatic doors, down the immaculate modern corridors, and out into a large clean waiting room where several lines had formed to pass through immigration control. I waited in one of them, glancing around at the various welcome signs and a few modern paintings of African tribesmen and women in traditional garb. In front of me stood a rail-thin English woman in her 70s, her white hair tucked up in a bun, and a young man from England in his 20s who sadly resembled a younger version of Dilbert. The two struck up a conversation several minutes later when the woman mentioned that the line did not seem to be moving quickly.

"Oh its the worst," Young Dilbert said. "We'll be here a long time."

The woman asked if he had been here before. He said he had, many times. She then optimistically suggested that there were a lot of people in the line and that it wasn't the fault of immigration.

"They are very, very slooooooow," he replied, shrugging in a hopelessly Dilbert sort of way.

I waited. And waited. Often the line seemed to stand still for 10 minutes at a time. After an hour, I began to worry about the state of affairs of my luggage. Would it still be waiting for me when I got to the carousel or would somebody have lifted it? Johannesburg has a serious reputation for crime including not just robbery but violent armed robbery. This was one of the reasons I was eager to sort out my papers, pick up my backpack and immediately look into grabbing the next flight out to Cape Town, some 800 miles to the Southwest. Another reason was that I didn't really see much of a reason for visiting Johannesburg.

Finally, one of the officers monitoring the line began to direct us to newly opening immigration desks. I followed the British woman and Young Dilbert to a booth where Young Dilbert went up first. As I stood there, I apparently sniffled. I didn't have a cold but maybe I felt a slight allergy or maybe it was the air from the airplane having an impact on me. In any event, the British woman turned to me and said:

"Excuse me, could I ask you not to stand so close to me? Its just you seem to have a cold, I heard you sniffling --- maybe its just the air, but..."


I have no idea as to whether this is considered acceptable in the UK, but if it is I am not ever going to go there. I was stunned. I wasn't even sure exactly how to go about backing up from this crusty old bird. I wanted to do a sort of furtive creep to the far right of her, up on the tips of my toes, the way cartoon characters try to sneak around (accompanied by tense high-key piano) without attracting attention. But I just sort of gave her a confused "Uh, alright" and backed up. Immediately after doing that, I had a George Constanza "Jerk Store" moment in which I thought up a few variations as to what I should have said. The comebacks include:

1) "Sorry, its just my Avian Bird Flu acting up again";
2) "No cold here, just doing up some pure Brazilian marching powder (sniff!)";
3) "Why don't you step forward away from me, you skanky daft crow?"

Or perhaps I should have just said "yeah? well the Jerk Store called... they're running out of you!"

In any event, she turned and gave me a half-wave sort of "tally-ho" gesture as she headed through the gate. I waved back and yelled out a hearty: "Don't catch anything!"

At the immigration desk I waited for the officer to comment on the fact that I had no Brazilian exit stamp. In fact, she barely looked at the passport and I was through and on the other end in several seconds. I walked to the several baggage carousels but didn't see anything. I asked an airport employee.

"You're in the wrong terminal. You need to pass back through immigration and head to Terminal 2."

Great. There hadn't been any instruction on what terminal to use. I hadn't even seen another terminal --- I had assumed that South African Airways had dropped me at the place I was supposed to check-in through. I explained myself at the immigration desk, rushed back through the corridors and found a sign to Terminal 2. Fortunately, when I reached the immigration desk there weren't any people waiting. The officer saw that I had already obtained a stamp and waived me through. There, waiting for me by a carousel, was my backpack, in a pile being monitored by an airport guard. I gave him my baggage stub, threw the bag on my back and headed off to see where I could purchase a ticket to Cape Town. My trip wasn't over just yet. Nor the fun of Johannesburg's airport, as it turned out.

In a large room filled with taxi and hotel touts, I tried to change my remaining Brazilian Reals at three different agencies but nobody was buying them. I then went to a booth marked "Domestic Transfers." A man and woman both looked at me with bored, glazed-over expressions.

"I just got in from Brazil," I told them, "and want to see if I can get a ticket to connect to Cape Town."

"Right here," said the man, pointing to the woman and walking away. Now the woman stared at me.

"So..." I said, being forced to repeat what should have been painstakingly obvious at this point, "I would like to get on the next flight to Cape Town."

"Let me see your ticket," she muttered.

"I don't have a ticket... I want to get one..." Duh.

"Can't do that here," she said, apparently waking up for a split second. "Have to go to the domestic terminal." She pointed to the exit.

I walked outside, brushing away various men offering to act as my porters. "International Terminal --- Enter at Own Risk" said the sign on the doors behind me. About 15 feet to my left was another sign that read "Shuttle Transfer to Domestic Terminal." I stood there, noticing more "This and That at Your Own Risk" signs posted all around. After five minutes I realized that I was the only person standing there and that there wasn't any sign of a shuttle. I walked for less than three minutes and arrived at the entrance to the Domestic Terminal. It was stunningly close to the International Terminal, not that there was any sign to indicate this. Post a sign for a shuttle transfer and nothing else and I will be dumb enough to assume I need to wait for a shuttle. Meanwhile, the place I need to go is nearly within spitting distance.

The domestic terminal is a fancy modern construction with plenty of glass and split-level floors permitting glimpses up and down at any of the three immense and airy main levels. I wandered up moving ramps that took me from the first floor to the airline offices and check-in desks on the third floor. My first stop was South African Airways because (1) I saw it first, and (2) I wasn't familiar with any other airlines in Africa.

"Do you have anything to Cape Town leaving this morning or early noon?" I asked an agent at the ticket sales desk. It was approaching 8:30 at this point.

"We do," she said, typing a few things into her computer. "There is a flight at 10:00 and another at noon." There were some later flights as well. "However," she said, "these are all full fare --- the cheapest is 1,900 rand." I was tired but I did the math: at about 6 rand to the dollar, this worked out to nearly US $320, which was way too much. I moved on to the ticket office of another nearby domestic carrier but they were booked solid and had nothing available to Cape Town for the next three days ---I had completely forgotten that it was Easter weekend. They recommended that I try my luck at one last possible airline, however.

I moved down to the non-frills budget carrier of South Africa --- Kalula ( The very helpful agent told me I could catch a 10:40 AM flight for about $130. I breathed a sigh of relief and purchased the ticket, then quickly checked my baggage and wandered off to explore the shops and restaurants that were on the second floor of the Airport, below me.

I passed a number of stores --- magazines, cell phones, office supplies, etc... ---as well as cafes serving breakfast. However, a sign for ATM machines caught my eye. I had no South African rands on me and figured now would be as good a time as any to pick some up because I would surely need to have local currency in order to catch a cab or bus from the Cape Town Airport into the city upon my arrival.

I entered a room off to the side of the food court which had four ATM machines for different banks lined up against the wall. One was out of order while two others were for local South African banks and did not appear to accept international cards. Unsurprisingly, nobody was waiting to use any of these three machines. However, there were four people lined up ahead of me to use the ABSA bank machine --- which accepted a very wide range of cards.

The man ahead of me was well-dressed, in his 50s, with long blonde hair pulled back into a pony tail. He seemed to look annoyed by a thin, short-haired black man --- also in his 50s and wearing some sort of brown airport uniform --- who was standing off to his left, as if to cut him in line. As soon as it became free, the man ahead of me briskly walked up to the ATM, did something with his card, and walked away only a few seconds later. I thought nothing of it at the time.

I walked up to the ATM and tried to insert my card. It would not go into the machine. The light near the slot was blinking. I tried to insert my card again, but it would not go in. Then I noticed the man in the brown uniform creeping up over my shoulder. "You need to hit this button when you insert it," he said, pointing at the green Enter key. Perhaps because I was tired and I was in a new place, I unquestioningly assumed that this was the way South African ATM machines operate. So I tried to enter my card while pushing the button. It didn't work. Meanwhile, the light hadn't stopped flashing.

At this point, in a split second and before I really even knew what had happened, the man in brown swiped the card from my hand and stuffed it into the slot while hitting the green button. "There," he said, "now enter your PIN."


South America Flashback Moment.

Nearly 5 months ago, way back in Quito, Ecuador, I stayed at the Secret Garden Hostel for over two weeks while taking Spanish classes and getting my first taste of Latin America. During that time I met a number of people including Julia, from Barcelona (though she was raised in Switzerland), who nearly lost $4,500 in a scam in a Quito through which somebody pressured her into entering her PIN into a seemingly non-functioning ATM. Through a device they had attached or inserted into the ATM, they were then able to read the PIN she entered, access her card and withdraw money for several days before she caught on. In the end she had to produce proof (the video tape in the bank of the ATM incident) to her bank in Switzerland, which took her a week of dealing with unbelievably complex paperwork and beaurocratic unhelpfulness on the part of her bank, the Quito bank and the police. Through it all she had been forced to borrow money from friends and was on the verge of having to end her trip and fly back home broke.

End of South America Flashback Moment

"No way," I told the guy, "its not asking for my PIN."

"You need to put your PIN in for it to read your card," he told me again.

"Well I'm not," I said, hitting the cancel button several times. The light kept blinking and the screen kept reading: Insert Your Card to Begin as if I hadn't.

At this point two men behind me in security uniforms asked what was happening. I told them my card was stuck and the machine wasn't registering it.

"Did you enter your PIN?" one asked. "You need to enter your PIN."

"I'm not," I said.

A woman waiting to use the machine paced and tapped her foot impatiently.

"You won't get the card back unless you enter the PIN," said one of the men in the security uniforms, quite dubiously.

I rapidly typed in a series of 5 fake digits. Then I tried to hit cancel and see if the card would come out. No such luck. I entered the 5 fake digits again but nothing happened.

I now had a small crowd of people behind me waiting to use the ATM, as well as the two security guys staring on and offering useless advice. The man in brown had wandered off shortly after telling me to punch in my PIN (and before it occurred to me to punch him instead).

A man in a gray uniform walked past us and down the hall. "You need to talk to him," said one of the security men. "He can open the ATM up to get your card." I quickly followed after him and flagged him down but he told me he only dealt with one of the 4 machines and couldn't go into that one without the proper authorization from the bank (which takes a while) anyway. Did he have any suggestions for me? He just shook his head with a bored, stupid look and sauntered off.

Turning back to the ATM, Security Man #2 had whipped out a card and was approaching the machine with it. "I am going to see if it works," he told me.

"What? Don't --- my card is still in there." He pointed to the slot: "its not in there... the machine took it." He was right --- there was no sign of my card in the machine. I hadn't been out of sight of the machine when I had flagged down the man in the gray uniform, so I was sure that they hadn't swiped it from the machine themselves in the last few moments.

"You'll need to go to the bank's offices," said Security Man #1. "Upstairs, by Terminal 2."

I walked back to the ATM machine and punched a few more fake PINs into it. I hit cancel and virtually every other button. One time, as I did all of this, I caved in and entered my real PIN number. As I walked away to head upstairs, I regretted this. The two men were playing with the machine as I left. I turned around and walked back loudly to see if I would startle them, but they didn't seem to care that I was still there. Not having any other choice, I headed back to the third floor.

There was no "Terminal 2." There were Terminals A, B, C and D, but there weren't any banking offices in sight by any of them. I waved down an airport employee, a young man of about 20. When I asked about an ABSA bank and explained my situation, he shook his head sadly. Not so much out of sympathy but because he seemed utterly clueless and almost hopelessly discouraged by being faced with such a difficult question. In other words, the kid was an idiot. "I think you need to go to the first floor," he told me. He nodded his head sadly. "I think." He looked like he wanted to cry. Rather than ask him to help me confirm this information like a smart or competent person in his position would offer to do for me, I just let him go do his job. Which seemed to be standing in place and looking vacuous (and he was damned good at it).

I had no idea as to what I should do next or where I should go. Because the woman at Kalula who had sold me my ticket for my Cape Town flight had been so friendly, I decided to go back to her desk to see if she could offer any advice. When I arrived she was busy with a customer and so a different representative, a guy in his mid-20s, offered to help me out.

"I already bought a ticket from her," I said pointing, "but I have a problem and wanted to see if she could give any advice."

"Tell me about it and I'll see what I can do," he said. I gave him a two-minute rundown and told him I was concerned that it was part of a scam and that I needed to call my bank and also see if I could get the card back, since it had by far the bulk of my funds on it (I had another card with a limited number of back-up funds, but of course there was no way I was going to try to use it in the Johannesburg Airport).

He shook his head as I finished my story. "Where are you from?" he asked.

"New York," I said. "but I just flew in from Brazil."

"First time here?" He was still shaking his head back and forth with a sympathetic but knowing smile on his lips.


"Welcome to Africa," he said. "Just great that this happens to you as soon as you get here."

The agent, Eduarth, then made a series of calls to see if he could get in touch with the bank that ran the ATM (ABSA). So as not to tie up Kalula's phones, he used his own cell phone to do this. After a few minutes, he spoke to an ABSA representative and handed me the phone to explain the details. She told me she needed to know the number of the ATM in order to be able send an agent to inspect the machine and empty the jammed cards it had collected. I didn't have this but told her I could go get it. Eduarth then spoke to her for a few minutes and gave her his cell phone number. After he hung up, he insisted on coming down to the ATM with me. When we got there, there were two police officers sitting in chairs facing the wall with the ATMs. "What's the deal?" asked one of them, as we approached.

Eduarth and I explained what had happened. The officers didn't seem all that concerned. "Go downstairs and fill out a police report," said the one in charge.

"We're trying to see if we can get the card back from the bank," Eduarth explained.

"Go fill out a police report," the officer said a second time, "The card isn't gonna be there."

"So its a scam?" I asked.

"Yeah," he said. "That card is gone." He didn't seem particularly interested in any of this, although his apparent assignment was to sit by the ATMs and watch them. He just happened to be absent back when his presence would have helped (by acting as a deterrent to the problem in the first place).

"You know that two of those guys were wearing security uniforms?" I asked.

"Not surprising," said the officer. "You need to go fill a police report."

Since this would be a waste of time under the circumstnaces, Eduarth and I went to the ATM, took down the number, and called the ABSA representative with it. We headed back to the Kalula desk, at which point the ABSA representative called back to tell us that they would be able to open the ATM machine, but no earlier than 11:00 AM. There was now no chance that I would be able to solve my problem and catch my 10:40 to Cape Town, so Eduarth told me he could rebook me on any later flight that worked out for me. However, I had to go fetch my baggage in order to recheck it onto the proper flight. After that I would need to call Citibank to alert them to the problem and possibly cancel the card (though I still naively hoped it would turn out to be stuck in the machine and the story would have a happy and non-horribly-inconveniencing ending). Although I had entered numerous fake PINs into the machine and had carefully blocked the real PIN from view, I was worried that the scammers might be able to somehow figure out the real PIN if they had been able to record all of the numbers I had punched into the machine. It seemed unlikely, but it was possible and could work out very badly if they got hold of my funds (I had visions of being stuck in Johannesburg for over a week, while trying to send a videa tape of the incident to my bank to get them to cover a massive loss).

I walked down to the first floor of the airport, only to be stared down by a thin, beady-eyed, 40ish woman at the lost luggage counter (to which Eduarth had told me they would reroute my backpack).

"Good morning. I'm here to pick up a backpack," I began.

"What flight were you on?" she asked coldly.

"I was supposed to be on a Kalula flight at about 10:40" I told her, "but needed to change the time."

"Which flight?"

I had given my boarding pass and other information back to Eduarth so he could cancel the flight while I ran off to do all of the other things I needed to take care and so I didn't have the number in front of me. "I just know it leaves at 10:40 and boards at 10:10," I told her. "I'm looking for a large red and black backpack they told me would be here."

"There is a 10:30 flight and a 10:45 flight but no 10:40 flight," the woman snapped accusatorily, as though I had just made up the whole story in order to steal a large red and black backpack that might be waiting there for somebody else who was going to take a Kalula flight but rescheduled.

"Fine. If the 10:45 boards at 10:10, then its the 10:45!"

She typed something into her computer, furrowed her brow, and opened a door that led into a room with several bags scattered on the floor, including my bag. She then abruptly turned her back on me and walked back to her desk. I picked up my bag and stopped at the desk on my way out.

"Do you need anything from me or are we done?" I asked her.

"Nothing," she said.

"Good," I said. "Notice that I am not thanking you." And I turned my back to her abruptly and walked away.

I then went back up to Kalula again. Eduarth tried to call the various toll free numbers for Citibank that are listed on the back of my card. Although I did not have my card, of course, I had a photocopy of the front and back tucked away in my carry-on bag. I had been carrying it around with some other papers for months in case I needed them for this sort of problem. Unfortunately, Eduarth could not connect to the numbers. They did not seem to work in South Africa. So I went off to find a pay phone to see if I could make a credit card call to the non-toll free numbers the card listed for calls in the United States.

I found out after 45 minutes that: (1) between one-half and two-thirds of the phones in the domestic terminal airport simply do not function, (2) between one-half and two-thirds of the remaining phones abruptly cut out as your call has gone through and (3) credit card calls are not possible in South Africa. This taught me that my long-standing optimistic belief that you can pretty much go anywhere and do anything in the modern globalized world so long as you have the money to pay for it was in need of a serious overhaul. There are places where the infrastructure and/or service is just so poor that you cannot access your funds to use them. I might want desperately to make a lengthy and extraordinarily over-priced telephone call to the United States, but I didn't seem to have any way of doing that. There were stickers on some of the phones advertising various international operators who could put you through on collect calls to othe countries, but none of their numbers worked. I finally decided that my only option was to go see if I could purchase a prepaid calling card. One of the currency exchange offices sold them, but told me it would take 25 minutes or longer to process the transaction with one of my credit cards because they were having problems with their machine. This forced me to tap into my emergency US $100 cash, so I cashed $50 of it to buy a $25 card. I then went back to the phones some 20 minutes later to find that no matter what I did, the card would not work. The very complicated instructions on placing international cards got me nowhere: I kept receiving the message "Dialing this number is not permitted," whatever that means. The instructions for contacting an operator with the calling card company as well as the trouble-shooting number turned up error messages. The card was a waste.

Defeated, I finally went back to the Kalula desk to meet Eduarth. He was going to head over to the ATM with me to meet the custodian. However, when I got there Eduarth told me that the ABSA rep had called again and that we would have to walk back to the international terminal and go to the ABSA bank office there, where the custodian would leave all of the cards that were found in the ATM. So we walked back to the main floor of the other terminal, found the manager of ABSA bank at their offices, and explained who we were and what we were looking for.

"What?" he asked us dumbfoundedly. He called over several of his employees but nobody had heard anything about a card or seen the ATM maintenance custodian. "What time did they say he would be here?"

"11:00" we both said. It was 11:03.

"Maybe he'll be here soon," the manager said, "I don't know." I decided I would check back in a few minutes and told Eduarth not to bother losing more of his time waiting with me. Before he left, however, Eduarth asked the manager for a way to get in touch with Citibank. The manager gave us an emergency hotline number for Mastercard that he said would work in South Africa. From here they could supposedly contact my bank to cancel the card. At this point Eduarth went back to the domestic terminal and I went off to find a functional phone, which took me some time but which I finally did (sort of). The call went through to a Mastercard operator who listened to my problem and, after 5 minutes on hold, connected me to another representative who dealt with theft/fraud issues.

"Hello?" I said.

"Hello?" said the representative.

Then the phone went dead.

I found a new phone and called back. This time the person on the other end connected me immediately to a Citibank representative in the US. After several suspenseful minutes while he checked, he gave me some very good news: the last transaction on my card was my payment for the Cape Town ticket with Kalula. It had not been used since, meaning the thieves hadn't managed to figure out my real PIN number. The Citibank represenative then told me that once he cancelled the card he could not reactivate it, which meant that I had to decide if I should (1) wait to see if ABSA found the card and risk the thieves using the card in the interim, or (2) cancel the card immediately and have a replacement card sent to my parents, who I could then burden with shipping the card via international express mail to whatever hotel I managed to find in Cape Town.

I really wanted to have my card back because I wasn't sure quite how long I would last on my back-up. But then I thought about it --- and came to the only sensible conclusion:

"Cancel it," I said. "I'm never going to see the thing again --- even if its in the machine, which I am 99% sure it isn't, the people at this bank are never going to get it to me."

We sorted out the last few details and, out of curiosity, I stopped at ABSA again on my way out of the terminal. It was 11:45 and the custodian had never turned up. Furthermore, they hadn't heard anything about the situation and didn't think the custodian would even be in the airport that day.

When I got back to the domestic terminal, Eduarth and the several other employees at the Kalula desk seemed just as relieved as I was. Eduarth then marched me over to the check-in desk and gave the woman there the information she needed to put me on the next flight --- which was at 12:40 and which would begin boarding in the next 3 minutes. I thanked Eduarth and dashed off to the gate. In a nearby bookshop I picked up the Lonely Planet: South Africa, Lesotho & Swaziland guide. Several hours later I would flip through it and come to the following passage:

"If you are a victim of crime in South Africa, it's most likely to occur at an ATM. There are dozens of scams that involve stealing your cash, your card or your PIN - usually all three... The ATM scam you're most likely to encounter involves the thief tampering with the machine so your card becomes jammed. By the time you realize this you've entered your PIN... and when you go off to report that your card has been swallowed, he will take the card and leave you several thousand rand shorter..."

I am not sure how I would have responded to the situation had my friend back in Ecuador not gone through the ordeal she suffered --- believing right up until the end that she would not be able to obtain the video from the ATM and that her bank would not reimburse her the funds that constituted almost all of her savings. However, the memory was burned into my brain and I remember her warning everybody in the hostel over and over again that you should never enter a PIN number in a machine when it is not asking you for it. This seems obvious, but under pressure by a decent con in a matter of split seconds you might forget it. In retrospect, I suspect that there wasn't any mechanism in the ATM to read cards and that the man in brown and the "security" men were all just trying to see what I entered as I entered it. The man in brown had stood the best chance because he was standing right next to me and had abruptly inserted my card and told me to enter the PIN (his rapidity of action suggested an equally rapid, urgent compliance with his instructions). However, they got my card and a fake PIN and nothing more, lucky for me. (I will add, also in retrospect, that all of my wishful thinking about the card still being in the machine was ridiculous --- there can be no question at all that there was a scam and that the thieves removed the card.)

When they announced the boarding of the Kalula flight to Cape Town I walked down a ramp and boarded a bus with the other passengers to take us out to where the plane was sitting on the runway. When we got there, I saw a white airplane covered in paintings of cows. One big cow on each side had splotches of green paint on it. Next to it was the caption "We are Mooooving Money for Choc." I had no idea as to what this meant, but felt a little ridiculous boarding a plane with cows on it. Why were there cows? What was Choc? Why were they mooooving money for Choc? (For answers to this cow parade riddle, take a look at:, which shows that the indignity of flying on a cow plane is, at least, more than made up for by virtue of Kalula helping a decent cause)

I got on the plane and waited. The attendants went throught their safety routine speeches in a campy, cheeky sort of way. Apparently the airline tries to be hip and laid back as a way of differentiating itself from competitors (its not just the cheap airline, its the cool, relaxed airline). Everytime the flight attendant addressed the passengers, she called us "Kalula Fans," rather than the usual "Ladies and Gentlemen." I didn't know if I was a Kalula Fan or not at this point, but I was amused by it all. Take for example the lines:

"And I'd like to remind all you Kalula Fans that after take off we will be coming around to serve you our famous Yummy Snacks. Our sandwiches today are Chicken Mayo and Ham and Cheese and a menu of our other Yummy Snacks can be found in our newsletter in the pocket behind the seat in front of you."

I opened the newsletter and there, on page 5, was a list of Yummy Snacks, which were not free, but which were fairly inexpensive. I realized that I was hungry from all of my running around and I decided that I really wanted nothing more than to get myself a Yummy Snack --- ASAP. If it was a good Yummy Snack, I would then allow myself to be called a Kalula Fan without qualms. Oh yeah --- they also had to get me and my Yummy Snack-filled stomach to Cape Town in one piece (picky of me, I know).

We taxied out onto the main runway. As we did this the captain started speaking over the intercom, telling us about the weather in Cape Town ("beautiful") and so on. He had one of those debonair British accents except that it wasn't British, it was South African. We sat for a while and I began to nod off into a Yummy Snack Dreamland, a happy wonderful place in which my lazy slothful side and my hungry, gluttonous side can co-exist in perfect harmony. Then the captain started to speak again, jarring me from my blissful reverie:

"Ladies and Gentlemen [not Kalula Fans, thank god], unfortunately it seems we have a warning light flashing on one of our panels and cannot take off until we sort the situation out. Technicians are heading for the plane right now, so please bare with us until we have further information."

I went back to snacky-sleep. Some time later, the captain spoke again:

"Ladies and Gentlemen, the mechanics have checked the plane and the problem is apparently a significant one and linked to several other parts of the plane that will all need to be inspected. I can't say right now whether they can fix this in 30 minutes or whether it will take the rest of the day. Because of this, we are going to ask you to disembark and return to the terminal while we work to provide you with more information."

That's what you get for flying on an airplane with moo-cows all over it, I thought. A bus took us all back to the terminal, where a confused airline representative asked us all to stay in the same area indefinitely until he could tell us something new. I ate at a sandwich bar nearby (Yummy Snack be damned), then sat and waited until the same representative came back 20 minutes later with news that there was still no news and that we should keep waiting for more news, which could just be more news that there wasn't more news. All they could say was that there might be a way to fix the plane but, if that didn't happen they might have to put us onto flights to Cape Town on other airlines (I shook my head back and forth in a shell-shocked, zombie-esque manner, doubting they could accomodate more than a handful of people this way, as most flights with other airlines seemed nearly booked).

Finally, after an hour, they told us the plane was alright and put us back on the bus and back aboard "da udder plane." The captain explained the corrected problem to us (broken engine-cooling air duct, very bad, very very bad) and told us we would all be compensated slightly for our inconvenience by receiving 20 rand worth of the Yummy Snacks of our choice. As we prepared to take off, the flight attendant thanked the passengers for their patience and reminded us in typical cheeky style that we were "all very lucky today --- you almost received two take-offs for the price of one."

We took off without exploding, imploding, or the occurrence of some other variation ultimately involving either or both of the two. The attendants came around with a cart and I ordered a Yummy Snack sandwich (I was still hungry and it was free) and promptly fell asleep. I woke up about an hour later as we began to descend. Below us I could see the blue waters of the Atlantic and a series of rocky mountains jutting up directly from the center of a broad sprawl of residential homes and forest.

I was able to find a shared van in the airport to take me to a hostel I had picked out in my new Lonely Planet book. I shared it with two other passengers who were in fact heading to the same exact place on Long Street, in the "City Bowl" area of central Cape Town where many of the budget travel hotels are located. The sun was starting its decline as we drove and we had a view of bleak, vast shanty-towns and poor black neighborhoods that were born during the apartheid era. After 15 minutes, we passed through the high-rise commercial district of the city and turned onto Long Street, which featured a wide range of restaurants, cafes, art and music stores and travel agencies. A number of hostels were in old style Victorian houses painted with bright colors and featuring iron-lace designs on their large second and third-story balconies.

Unfortunately, my hostel of choice had no space available, so I went down the street to another place, which told me they had a single room for the night but nothing the next day: I would have to check out by ten in the morning. The room they had was small and gloomy and the building seemed run down. Nevertheless, I was wiped out and didn't want to bother looking around any more.

Payment was required up-front. I had to change my remaining $50 into rand because credit cards were not accepted. There were some ATM machines nearby, the woman at the reception desk told me, but she strongly advised against using them at night (or during the day, in fact) because I could be robbed. Instead I should go to a supermarket down the street, which was much safer. I left (through a steel gate that required you to enter a code for entry and exit to the building) and tried to find the supermarket, but couldn't. I was concerned about my current lack of cash and the fact that few hostels accepted credit cards. If my other ATM didn't work, I could have some real problems. As much as I wanted to find a machine to see whether I would have a problem or not, I couldn't do it that night and had to resign myself to waiting for the next morning.

I ate a light dinner at a small Chinese restaurant that accepted credit cards, then walked back to the hostel in the dark, passing a number of shady-looking characters hanging out on street corners and watching me as I went. A t-shirt I saw through the window of a store I walked by featured a picture of a large black pistol on it just under the caption: "Welcome to South Africa, Dumb Mother%@#$er!"

So far I didn't feel that welcome. The day was long and exhausting and I hadn't slept properly since leaving Brazil the morning of the day before. Since the store was closed and I couldn't buy myself that inspirational t-shirt, I went to sleep instead. It was the definite high point of the day.

Posted by Joshua on March 26, 2005 08:09 PM
Category: South Africa

paranoia - you only have to be right once to make it all worth it...or so they say.

only one question. larceny by trick, or false pretenses? YOU decide.

have fun avoiding theft and homocide attempts,


Posted by: toby on April 1, 2005 10:09 AM

i had many similar experiences in my last trip to epcot.

Posted by: neil on April 1, 2005 03:29 PM
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