Copyright © Judith Shaw
One of my life’s ambitions has been to go to Africa on safari, and I fully expected my husband to come along. After all, I went to rugby matches, didn’t I? I learned to appreciate cricket matches, and even waxed enthusiastic about the Ashes. So was it such a stretch to think Ron would want to help fulfill my heart’s desire?
Apparently it was.
He had no interest at all in Africa. Sitting for hours in a Land Rover or jeep or whatever vehicles they use in the bush, spotting wildlife for which he felt no affinity, was definitely not on his bucket list.
It’s funny, really. Ron is the one in our family who can smell deer in the woods. Coyote mothers dance to distract him from their pups. One day he even followed a bear down the mown paths in our hay field. The bear knew he was there but didn’t seem to mind. Wild creatures appear for him out of thin air.
They don’t appear for me.
After too many years and too many stories of African wildlife decimated by poachers, I made a non-negotiable demand. We were going to Africa, and he, by God, was going to enjoy it.
As it turned out, I went to Africa, and Ron went to Australia to catch up with friends and family. He sent me to Botswana with my friend Diana to keep me company (and probably to keep me from losing my passport). The plan was to meet our husbands in London on the way home, see the sights and decompress.
It was meant to be the trip of a lifetime.
Ron left all the booking details to me. That was cool. How hard could it be?
As it turned out, very hard. Getting to Botswana was more like a comedy of errors than a picnic.
First we went to the wrong terminal at JFK. We were ticketed on British Airways, so we went to BA’s terminal. So far so good, I thought.
BA has a code-sharing agreement with American Airlines, and the flight left from the AA terminal. Our travel agent hadn’t told us. She hadn’t mentioned either that the departure time on our tickets was off by an hour. We’d sprung forward into daylight savings, but our itinerary had not. We’d left a reasonable amount of time to make our flight, but losing an hour and changing terminals ate up enough time for me to worry. Worry? It was more like a major meltdown.
Just so you know: Ron and I have been traveling together for nearly 40 years. He’s a take-charge kind of guy, and I have a bad case of ADD, so travel arrangements, tickets, check-in and immigration are in his bailiwick. I never even have to touch a passport.
This trip was different. I was in charge of everything and not enjoying it one bit. By the time we got to the AA counter and checked in, I was already a basket case. And, although with BA we could have grabbed something to eat in one of the lounges, with American we were stuck with a charge-for-everything communal lounge. By the time we got there, all the food, except cold pepperoni pizza, was gone.
We finally got everything sorted, and I salvaged what was left of my temper. An overnight on AA was no great delight, but we belted ourselves in and tried to sleep.
We arrived in London and made our way to the South African Airways counter to check in for the flight to Johannesburg. We’d arrive in South Africa mid-morning and pick up an Air Botswana flight to Gabarone. One night at a Gabarone hotel booked by AMEX, then a short flight to Maun where we would meet our tour company. Sounds easy, doesn’t it?
Wrong again. The London-Johannesburg leg was fine, but the Air Botswana check-in station had no paperwork on us, and thus no boarding passes.
I was scared, but not overcome. I had backup.
Because of their reputation for good customer service, I’d booked all air tickets and hotels through American Express. I even bought super-sized travel insurance with an SOS clause, promising a “round-the-clock helpline” manned by real human beings to get us out of any trouble we might get into.
Maybe there was such a helpline, but no matter how many times we called the emergency number, no matter how long we let the phone ring, no one ever answered the phone.
We went back to Air Botswana to look for help. That’s when they started playing Pass the (human) Parcel. The game went something like this:
We’d talk to whoever was on the desk, explain the situation, and expect someone—anyone—to help find our boarding passes or print us new ones. The person we’d dropped our problem on would look interested, tell us to wait—he’d be right back—and disappear off the face of the earth.
We’d wait, and wait, and . . . wait. Finally someone new would come to manage the desk, someone who had never heard our story. So we’d tell the sorry tale all over again. Finally the supply of warm bodies dried up, and the Air Botswana desk remained empty.
Seven hours and two missed flights later, Diana was done. She marched back to the main SAA desk and (as she tells it) threatened the manager’s life. I have no idea what she actually said, but the boarding passes were miraculously produced. Unfortunately, they were for a flight that had taken off hours before.
We were told, with many sideways looks at Diana, that we’d be given boarding passes for the next flight to Gabarone, but since we’d missed our flight we’d have to buy new tickets. We just stood there, looking threatening and saying nothing.
Finally two new boarding passes were printed, and we went to the gate.
We arrived in Gabarone to a scene of mildly controlled chaos. Apparently that was the airport’s normal.
A pair of teenaged girls watched us for awhile—we seemed to be the only entertainment in the baggage area—then came over to offer assistance. It was behavior we would experience all through our time in Botswana. In Zaire and Zimbabwe hands were outstretched to sell us stuff or ask for money. In Botswana, they were outstretched to offer help.
The girls called a friend with a car, grabbed our luggage, and checked the address of our hotel on Google Maps. When we told them how much we were paying for one night, they looked shocked.
They were right about the hotel. It was old and shabby, but our room had two beds, one lamp with a working light bulb, and a shower that dribbled lukewarm water. It also had a restaurant.
We were shown to a table and handed thick yellowing menus, laminated against food spills and humidity. After two days of airline food, we got excited just reading the selections.
Not for long. Our waitress, after knocking back our first few choices, confided that the kitchen was cooking only one dish that evening. I think it was fried rice with vegetables and fried egg. We put away our gourmet dreams and ordered fried rice.
Two men at a nearby table weren’t so lucky. Their waitress said nothing about kitchen shortages. She let them order dish after dish, only to hand back the menus and ask them to try again. We’d finished our dinner and were headed for bed while they were still leafing through their menus searching for something to eat.
In the morning we took a taxi to the airport. With no further drama, we flew to Maun, gateway to the Okavanga Delta, an animal lovers’ paradise. Luck, or the angel that helps poor travelers, was finally on our side.
(Stay tuned for the conclusion of this story, “Lions in the Camp!”)