Tuesday, March 20, 2012

From Khartoum to China - The Accidental Business Traveler: Part II

I was told that we were to fly on Egypt Air, Business Class. A rudimentary Google search revealed the fact that Business Class on Egypt Air was the equivalent of Economy Class on any one of the luxury airlines, but no one was asking my opinion and the flight was just part of this adventure that I had decided to embrace.

In order to maintain the boys’ schedule, I rented a car (Thank you, Rashid) to convey my trusted maid to and from her house. She didn’t begrudge us the extra hours in exchange for relieving her of the 3 bus rides she averaged, one way, on a daily basis. With her transportation allowance intact coupled with her sympathy for my non-stop tears, she made no objections to this arrangement.

My parents were duly drafted for backup and entertainment. They enjoy their role as doting grandparents, in addition to taking the opportunity to tackle those issues we didn’t see eye to eye on – such as leaving the children alone for 5 minutes to explore their surroundings, and piling them into the car for the haircut they so desperately needed.

The day before the trip, I camped out in front of an “Exchange” or “Money Changer” as they are often called in certain parts of the world. When Sudan lost its oil revenue to the country baptized as “South Sudan”, the government introduced currency restrictions which gave birth to a thriving black market. The official rate on that particular day was 2.89SDG to a dollar, while the black market rate was hovering over 5SDG to the dollar.

Under current financial laws, Sudanese pounds can rarely be transferred abroad legally and travelers are entitled to specific amounts, based on destination. $500 for Egypt and $1,000 for China. My fellow traveler collected his Bank of Sudan approved thousand, and sold it on the spot for 5.5SDG and proceeded to congratulate himself on his business acumen, as he regaled the story to us losers.

With quality products lacking in Sudan, I tend to hoard hard currency to arrange international purchases for my household, through my long suffering friends abroad (Thank you, Siema).

So, I wasted a few hours of my life to purchase one thousand US dollars and left. Mission accomplished. Went home and updated my Facebook status, “Of all the idiotic policies in this country, Banking/Foreign Currency Policy is way up there. (Stuck in the Exchange all day)” and of course, that made everything all better.

For the record, said dollars are received at the airport, as slackers are entitled to squat. People that choose to sell their government approved dollars can only deliver upon their return.

My father, a seasoned traveler, advised me to resist the lure of the VIP lounge and to check in with the commoners, as they had more direct access to the hard currency counters. Being the angel that I am, I heeded his advice only to be stuck in passport control with a mandatory renewal procedure, as the one week delay in our schedule had placed my passport in the red zone, six months less one week till its expiration date.

Let’s rewind a little to recount that while me and my family were rushing to the airport, as a traffic jam had us behind schedule, we came across a train stuck in the middle of McNimer Road. Only in Sudan, I thought would congested traffic be augmented by a train. Maybe China just isn’t meant to be, I thought. Too good to be true. I was not going to make it to the land of Confucius after all.

Eventually, we reached the airport, and I bade my children a teary farewell, as I gave my parents meaningful looks that they correctly interpreted that I was counting on them to look after the babies. Sure, my husband was there but let’s just say that I felt better knowing that they were my contingency plan.

My mother kept repeating her instructions to leave, consider it a break, relax and have fun, as soon as work was through. My dad spoke less but squeezed my hand and patted my shoulder, as he provided me with a constant supply of tissue paper; his eyes telling me, “We got this”. I could see them holding back their tears because they knew that I didn’t need any encouragement in the water works department.

I walked in and everyone left, and I was left to the mercy of government officials who stated that even if they let the six month condition slide, the Chinese might send me back, thus giving a selfless luster to their bureaucratic obstacles.

Having duly renewed my passport with the chance 98 or so Sudanese pounds that I was lucky enough to be carrying, I proceeded to the Business Lounge. Starting my online journal with my buddies (infused with a lot of "Woot's!") , I took pictures of the place like the tourist I was, and went to get me some tea. The kind man at the counter told me I could eat and drink anything (ANYTHING!) and it was all free. So, I picked up a cup, which I had to change because it was a little iffy, and made myself tea, while asking the man at every turn, enjoying my role as bumpkin, even going so far as to say, “You have to show me, I’m not used to all this,” in my best Dorothy in Oz expression.

I got some bottled water and sat back to await the flight that I was told I would be summoned for. Business travelers don’t need to pay attention to PA speakers, they call them!

Over the years, as the youngest child of adventurous parents, we have traveled around the world. Said parents being college teachers means that our trips were on a budget, which covered food and accommodation, sometimes completely foregoing shopping, to just enjoy the experience. So, yes, I have been here and there, but Business Class was a first. Hence the title.

After a while, I asked the lady seated next to me directions to the Ladies’ Room. It was a war zone. Tissue paper strewn haphazardly, smeared with lipstick, unflushed toilets and a busted soap dispenser that had dripped onto the counter and was forming a puddle on the floor. I may not do fancy but hell, I know a glorified outhouse when I see one.

Taking my OCD back to my seat, I couldn’t resist remarking to my helpful neighbor, “Don’t go in there” with a dramatic whisper to convey the seriousness of my warning. She opened her eyes wide to acknowledge that the message had been well received and we nodded our heads simultaneously in a travelers’ bond that is so easily broken.

While the bond was still intact, she leaned into me and said, “Can I say something, please? I’m so sorry,” which is the universal way to state that I’m going to say something that you won’t like but since I said, “Sorry” you have to listen and you’re not allowed to be offended.

“Sure,” I replied warily, thinking “God, I hate travelers’ bonds. Why didn’t I just ask the service staff where the bathroom was?” and I braced myself.

“I’m really sorry, but I think you have your clothes on wrong.”

Looking down, I realized there was no “thinking” about it. The stitching was showing all around the tunic that I had elected to fulfill my “travelling wardrobe” role. I’d packed 2 extra ones, while wearing this one (inside out) to ease the layering process from 37 degrees Celsius to 3 degrees below zero that was promised in Beijing.

“Thank you,” I gushed, back in bonding traveler mode, “I just left my babies and I’m really worried and I don’t know what we’re going to do” and so on and so forth, ruining my plan to have a conversation with somebody that does not lead to my sons, or the allergies that plague my youngest or showing pictures of all the above.

I went back to the Business Outhouse and walking around suspicious pools of something, found a corner to quickly don my tunic, right side out and inside in.

I went back to my seat, and sure enough, I was called to start the boarding process. In the lines leading up to the boarding gates, we had to have our bags x-rayed once again and be subjected to a rather personal body search that took place in a booth.

As the woman patted and probed, I asked her what she was looking for and if she actually ever caught someone. “Of course!” she exclaimed, “All the time! Women try to smuggle out gold, dollars and drugs. And you know where they hide them?” she asked me, “Here, this area” reaching for my waist and unmentionables. I burst out laughing, as she opened the curtain to let me out.

Another satisfied customer, just happy to be touched. The eternal yearning for human contact. Or a perv.

These would have been my thoughts if I had been in line seeing someone so obviously happy to be searched. But, what had amused me was her jolly attitude in a thankless job, coupled with her na├»ve wonder at the criminal mind. “I wish they wouldn’t” she added, as I walked out. Her words conjuring up graphic images that I pushed out of my mind, but fast.

As I stood in line, I saw a former classmate of mine, looking uncomfortable and frustrated and another old acquaintance that was chatting excitedly to the woman beside her, as happy as if she was traveling Business Class. Both didn’t see me.

Eventually, I found myself on a plane to Cairo, Egypt. A city I love cautiously, as our relationship is both tempestuous and guarded. We have trust issues but enjoy each other’s company.

When I boarded the plane, I found my fellow travelers duly seated, as their choice of checking in via VIP Lounge had apparently given them dibs on boarding. I shook hands all around, sat myself down, adjusted the seat belt to allow for my girth, fastened it like the people tell you to and sat back with a smile on my face.

Here goes nothing.
Bismillah...

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