Escape From A War Zone

September 23, 2009

in Odds & Ends Stories

This story never really made it to “Flight from Hell” status, but it contained all the stress levels of my worst trips ever and could have easily slid to a hellish trip at any point. I would say it was more of a “Flight from a slightly unsettling place,” but interesting none the less.

My business takes me all over Africa, and although my area of responsibility is fairly mundane being IT infrastructure and services, I occasionally have to travel into some slightly interesting places.

One trip took me to two of our locations in Madagascar which is normally a beautiful, interesting and completely safe place. The early part of 2009 was, however, a time of political turmoil, violence and chaos in some parts of the country as there were months of protests and rioting by opposition supporters followed by a coup and more protests and rioting from the supporters of the ousted President.

My trip had been delayed a few times due to the unrest, but finally we were able to schedule it as our local staff informed us that things had settled down and that there shouldn’t be any major problems. So the adventure began…

Initially I was supposed to travel from South Africa to the Capital, Antananarivo, spend a day there at our office and then visit a facility in the south of the country for a few days before travelling back to South Africa via Antananarivo again.

The first half of the trip went very, very well. No travel problems, the capital was quiet with no protests and I made it to our southern facility without incident. Things got a little more interesting when it was time for me to leave. Things had heated up again in the capital with roadblocks popping up, and while there had been no violence against foreigners, I make it a practice to avoid war zones whenever possible. The uptick in violence had caused a rush of people leaving the country, so my best option of leaving directly from my location in the south was impossible due to the charter flights all being full.

At this point things began to be interesting. I had called our travel agents to see what options I had when I was informed that they had for some reason not confirmed my return flights properly and I didn’t have a ticket on the flight back. Being a fairly experienced traveller in Africa, I got around this by arriving at the airport well before the flight and just talking my way onto the flight. (Things are a little fast and loose in some areas of Africa and there were no automated systems to tell them I didn’t have a ticket and I had a convincing looking printout from the travel agent.)

So I arrived at the airport in Antananarivo with many hours before my onward flight home. Trying to get to the bottom of what has happened with our travel agents, I call back and am told that I don’t have a ticket, they can’t help me, and after several calls, 2 levels of managers and some stunned silence the answer was basically “let us know how it turns out.”

Taking stock of my situation and noticing that there are starting to be a lot of jeeps with soldiers zooming around outside and the BBC news stating that protests in the city have turned violent, I decide that I needed to get out of there.

Problem #1 is that my original flight I thought I had a ticket for is completely full due to people leaving in droves.

Problem #2 is that I did not have any credit cards that would work in Madagascar on me as they are largely useless and I am always worried about them being stolen, so I often leave them at home and take just my ATM card and cash I need for hotels and meals. While this works well for general expenditures, it is less useful for needing large amounts of cash right away to buy a new plane ticket.

The stress level at the airport was starting to get a bit high as things were getting more interesting outside. I can’t say I ever felt unsafe but some of the police officers were starting to get pretty tense.

Checking the various schedules I see that there is one more flight out of the country the same day. A flight to Mauritius. I find a staff member and they inform me that there are plenty of seats as due to the lack of tourism to Madagascar there are only about 20 people on the airbus 340. I manage to find the office of the airline manager, lay out my situation, let him know the travel agency will be taking care of any ticket costs, and when that doesn’t work at first, I make myself annoying and persistent enough that he will want to get rid of me by helping. After an amusing mix of pleading, begging, cajoling, threatening, bullying and charming, to my complete surprise he lets me onto the plane without any kind of paid ticket!

Once the plane left the ground my stress level dropped way down and we were whisked out of the country to the warm, sunny and loving arms of the resort island of Mauritius. I made it home the next day easily but had to endure a horrible overnight layover in Mauritius. Did I mention the closest hotel to the airport is a beach resort? To take my mind off the tough day I had previously, I did a bit of snorkelling in the morning before my flight. I did get one doozy of a sunburn which made the return flight a bit sore… tough life.

A couple of points:

1. We have corporate travel agents we pay a lot of money to and they are supposed to sort out these sorts of problems. So while I am generally fairly self sufficient while travelling, this was a case where I really needed them to solve the problem that they caused by screwing up my ticket.

2. I learned a number of lessons on this trip. I arrange all my own travel now, I always ensure I have the resources to buy an emergency ticket, and if we need to go to areas with unrest again I will send my intern. 🙂 (Just kidding on the last one… I think.)

3. This had a few dicey moments and some stress, but overall nothing overly horrible happened to me. The same day I was trying to leave the country people died in violence between the police/army and protesters. If we ever needed a sobering reminder about where our travel inconveniences fit in to the grand scheme of things this was it.


{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Demotage September 25, 2009 at 10:00 pm

Reminds me a little bit of "The Year of Living Dangerously".

Was Mel Gibson on the plane?


Hawaiian October 29, 2009 at 4:46 pm

Gosh… To think I get pissed off when my flight is 10 minutes late!


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