Memorable journey – Kingston-Miami-London-Bangkok-Phuket…..

It’s been a while since I had a memorable journey post on my blog so I thought I would write about one trip that I will certainly never forget. For many reasons. Read on…..

I was living in Kingston, Jamaica when the awful Asian Boxing Day tsunami of 2004 struck. I am sure many of us recall watching the news unfold on our television screens, a long, long way away. It was the way the numbers went up so rapidly…..tens dead, hundreds dead, thousands dead…..at around that point I think the brain shuts down a bit. And being so far away, pretty well on the other side of the world, it all felt very distant and very unreal.

A few days later, my now husband and I went away for the new year’s holiday. We stayed, as we often used to in those days, at an All-Inclusive hotel in Negril – one of the nicest beach spots in Jamaica. We relaxed, swam, dived and saw in the new year at a table that included (amongst others) a prospective Liberal Democrat candidate for the upcoming elections. I wonder what happened to her! (for the non-Brits amongst you, the Lib Dems were all but wiped out at our last set of elections, earlier this year).

So refreshed and relaxed we returned to Kingston – and a message in my in-box from London that called for assistance in Thailand. It seemed that our embassy there couldn’t cope with the sheer numbers involved in the tsunami – Thailand (and the other involved Asian and Indian Ocean countries) is a very popular tourist destination and untold numbers of British nationals might or might not be caught up in the tragedy. Hundreds of bodies were lying in morturaries, unidentified, and a huge number of people had been reported missing. So anyone who could be spared was asked if they could come to do temporary duty in Thailand – either at the embassy in Bangkok or at the emergency unit that had been set up in Phuket.

Now look on a map or, more usefully, a globe, and you will see quite how far apart Kingston and Bangkok are. So although I put forward my name – in particular because I had good experience of press office work in exactly this sort of emergency – I didn’t think for a moment that I would be called.

So imagine my surprise when the next day I received an email saying yes please, could I come? Perhaps the woman who was organising the extra help hadn’t actually looked at the map. Maybe she was too busy. But yes I would need to fly to the other side of the world and yes it was going to take quite a long time.

memorable journey kingston to thailand

I packed my bags and within a couple of days my flights were booked and I was ready to go. But because it was a busy time of the year in the Caribbean (if you remember, the tsunami was on boxing day so we were still in January and the holiday period) the only flight to the UK I could get on was via Miami. So off I went on step one of my journey: Kingston – Miami.

I arrived in Miami and due to the timings of the flights I had pretty well an entire day to fill. I have spent a lot of time at Miami airport and it is safe to say it is not my favourite airport in the world. I have been delayed there overnight after missing a flight from Dominican Republic, I have spent the day there waiting for luggage that was checked in and needed to be checked out again as our flight was cancelled. I have lost bags there, I have had a camera stolen from checked-through luggage there. There are other reasons not to like this airport – including the particularly unfriendly and unhelpful TSA staff, the inevitable immigration queues which I think are the worst I have ever encountered and the absolutely totally rubbish shops that only seem to sell stuffed flamingos and salt-water taffy. Oh and chocolate in the shape of crocodiles….

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Welcome to Miami!

So having a day to spend there didn’t exactly fill me with joy but at least, due to the fact that I was flying business class (those were the days!) I was able to use the lounge. Where, as I was sitting reading my book, an elderly man walked in with what seemed like family members and a buzz went around the room. People looked and whispered and then a military man in combat uniform asked to have his photo taken with him. I had no idea who he was. After a while, the man and his family left and most of the people in the room stood up and clapped. I was so curious, I had to ask the staff on the reception who he was. Apparently they weren’t allowed to tell me – but he was an ex president. Well he certainly wasn’t Bill Clinton or Ronald Reagan….eventually I worked it out.

Apparently it was Jimmy Carter! Who I grew up knowing as Carter Carter the peanut farter! Although now I know him as a good guy who has done a lot to promote human rights around the world. So I was glad to have seen him in the flesh. Even if I didn’t know it was him….

Anyway eventually it was time for the next leg of my flight, from Miami to London. As I checked in I chatted to the woman doing the check in who asked why I was going all the way to Bangkok. I explained that I would be helping out with the UK Foreign Office’s efforts to help distressed British nationals post-tsunami. She said British Airways (the airline I was flying with) was also doing some work in this area as some of their staff and many of their passengers had been affected. I went on my way, thinking nothing of it, until I got on the plane. They looked at the name on my boarding card, they looked at their list and then they took me to the front of the plane. Right to the front. I had been upgraded to first class!

This is (and will probably remain) the only time I have flown first class as an adult. There were only about eight of us in there and we had beds and duvets and pyjamas and amazing freebies. As much champagne as you could want. However, as you can imagine given the circumstances and what I was headed to, champagne was the last thing I wanted. I certainly wasn’t in the mood to celebrate. But the flat bed and duvet was nice and I was at least able to get a bit of sleep.

I arrived in London the next morning and had to whizz around between the office and a travel clinic where I answered questions about my general health and made sure I was up to date with all the needed vaccinations. One of the questions was whether I might be pregnant as there were certain medicatons they wouldn’t give me if I was. Well I guess it was a vague possibility but I doubted it….

Finally that evening I boarded the second overnight flight within a 24 hour period and we were on our way to Bangkok. I wasn’t upgraded this time but we were still flying business class so it was another comfortable flight. But two long-distance flights and a time difference of 12 hours was always going to take its toll – so getting to Bangkok and basically being take straight into the office was hard.

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However, it wasn’t as hard as what so many people in that part of the world had been through in the last couple of weeks. As well as having to deal with a lot of very distressed British nationals, staff at our embassy were also going through their own grieving process as one of the staff members had lost their life in that dreadful event. Those of us who had arrived to help put our heads down and tried to get on with it – we wanted to be as supportive as possible.

A few days later, I was moved to Phuket to take over the role of press officer there. This was even more difficult but we did at least feel we could help in a more immediate way. I was able to see first hand some of the terrible, terrible consequences of the tsunami and some of the images from those days will live with me forever.

However, a week or so after I arrived, I found something out. Something that would change my life forever and something that, from a very personal point, shielded me in some ways from the trauma of what we saw and heard about in Phuket. I found out that I was pregnant.

The daughter that was inside me has just turned ten. She is a long-legged. blonde-haired, sports-crazy near-teen. I look at her and can’t believe she was inside me all that time, when I left Jamaica, during my hours in Miami, the flight to Bangkok. Just she and I, we did that together. I bought a little orange elephant in Phuket just after I found out I was pregnant and I have it still, a reminder of those strange, strange days. Although now that I desperately want to add a photo of it to this post I can’t find it – one of the perils of having just moved to a new country and still be in chaos!

I immediately went off anything spicy and had to pretend to not feel very well every time someone invited me to the bar. I think all my colleagues had me down as the most boring or antisocial person in the group. But I decided not to tell more than a couple of people there and started plotting my escape. Another week or two and it was decided my work was done, I could return home. I packed my suitcases again and did the whole journey in reverse. Only, this time, I knew I wasn’t alone.

To read about other memorable journey’s in this series please click on the tag below. And if you have a memorable journey you would like to share please let me know – I am always after interesting tales!

Photo credits: Miami skyline Bryan Sereny Bangkok sunset: Mike Behnken

Memorable Journeys #4: Flying Mongolian Airways to Khovd – via Moron…

The latest in my Memorable Journeys series comes from Phoebe an old school friend who blogs over at Lou Messugo. Coming from a similar background to me (Phoebe’s father was also a British diplomat), she is one of the few people who won’t bat an eyelid if I talk about some of the more remote places I have visited or how many countries I have lived in. Here she proves this point by describing a journey she and a friend made in Mongolia – one country I haven’t actually been to. Yet. I hope you will agree, it’s an excellent read – thank you for sharing it, Phoebe!

Inspired by Clara’s series about memorable journeys I’ve been thinking back on some of the crazy trips I’ve taken and there will always be one that stands out, despite being over 20 years ago. In 1994 I flew from Ulaan-Baatar (UB) to Khovd in Western Mongolia on a domestic flight with MИAT (MIAT – Mongolian Airways) known locally at the time as “Maybe It’ll Arrive Tomorrow”. Looking back I’m amazed I arrived at all!

Mongolia in 1994 was only just beginning to wake up to tourism, there were very few foreign travellers and not many expats but my friend Sally and I quite literally bumped into one of the few other Westerners on our first day in UB while looking for a place to stay. As luck would have it, Matt turned out to be working for the only foreign tour operator in town and was in the process of organising a recce for the summer season. He invited us along for the ride. We had no fixed plans and a visa for a month so we jumped at the chance to go with him to the Altai mountains to check out locations for tours. We would be riding horses and camels and sleeping in gers. It was perfect, and such luck. But first we had to get to Khovd.

mongolia map

A few days later we got ourselves to the airport, passing a big billboard on the way announcing “Welcome to Mongolia”. It was definitely facing the direction of the leaving Mongolia traffic! We were travelling with Matt, Mandelhai (an interpreter) and 40 boxes of food and equipment, 4 kit bags and 2 suitcases. There were 2 flights leaving that morning for Khovd, one passenger flight and one cargo with a few passengers. It was pot luck which one you got on. The check-in process was a scrum. No queue, no formal procedure but somehow we scored seats. A friend of Matt’s ended up on the cargo (I was secretly jealous!) However, by the time we had checked in both flights to Khovd had gone off the departure board. Apparently this wasn’t anything to be concerned about. As well as our small party there were 5 other foreigners, 3 Germans and 2 Americans, on our flight. I remember being impressed by one of the Americans reading philosophical tome The Malaise of Modernity by Charles Taylor amongst the chaos at 8 in the morning! I was also impressed (alarmed?) by what seemed like thousands of other passengers waiting for our flight – many more than there were seats for on the plane.

Intrepid explorers

Intrepid explorers

Everything was a shove. There was no point standing back politely. It really was a scrum. Elbows were put to use as we only had 3 boarding passes for the 4 of us! Again apparently this wasn’t a problem. As long as we shoved and pushed nobody seemed to notice whether we actually had a boarding pass or not. Matt had to pay tax somewhere and disappeared and by the time he came back the bus to the plane had left. There were no airport ground staff around but other passengers were shouting “Khovd” and pointing to the plane furthest away on the tarmac so we all rushed in that direction after the bus. About ¾ of the way to the plane an official appeared from nowhere and put us all on an empty bus heading back to the terminal….which after a while turned around and took us to the plane after all.

Everybody was carrying a ton of luggage which had to be dumped at the back of the plane (on the tarmac). Most packages and boxes didn’t get checked in. We had to wait at the bottom of the steps for 15 minutes while ground staff went in and out of the aircraft and others examined the wheels. Finally our ticket numbers were called out and we scrambled for our seats. There were several people too many who sat with the luggage at the back and up with the pilot in the cockpit. There were also several people turned away who didn’t seem to mind too much.

The inside of the plane – a 1950s propeller plane – was quite unique. It had absolutely no markings – no signs on the emergency exits let alone instructions, no seat numbers, no No Smoking signs, no logos, no seatback tables and very few seat belts. I had half of a belt. (On the return flight the luggage was stored in a section between the cockpit and passengers. The door to this section swung open when the plane pointed downwards, which was a handy indicator that we were landing.)

Northern Mongolia scenery

Northern Mongolia scenery

Once we were on our way an annoucement was made saying we’d be going via somewhere in the South Gobi. However, when we landed it was in a town disconcertingly called “Moron” in the far north, with a wrecked plane by the runway. Taxi-ing from the runway to the terminal building the pilot took the most direct route – across the grass where there were sheep grazing. No one seemed to bat an eyelid about any of this, not that it was not the town announced, nor the crashed plane beside us, nor the unusual cross-country route. We were allowed off to buy the only things available, snickers and fanta (needless to say there was no catering on the flight) and took the opportunity to pose for photos on the steps without the scrum. It turned out this was a necessary refuelling stop. Also slightly disconcerting as it was only just over a 3 hour flight altogether!

Moron airport...with wrecked plane in the background

Moron airport…with wrecked plane in the background

I don’t remember much about Khovd airport other than that it was as chaotic as UB and had no toilets (or food or drink but that’s a minor detail). But I do remember that we had to weigh our luggage on arrival before being allowed out of the airport (having not weighed it at check-in).

A suburb of gers in Khovd

A suburb of gers in Khovd

I don’t think I’ll ever forget this journey, it was alarming, challenging, exhilarating and possibly the most adventurous flight I’ve ever taken, but if my memory one day fails me, Sally and I wrote a communal diary of our travels which I’ve still got. I had a wonderful reread of parts of it to refresh myself of the finer details of this journey and honestly I haven’t made any of this up. I haven’t even exaggerated, in fact if anything, I’ve played it down compared to the descriptions in the diary. Travel on MIAT really was crazy! I’m glad I don’t travel like this any more but I’m so glad I have.

Thanks again Phoebe for such an interesting story! Don’t forget, let me know if you have any memorable journey’s you would like to share – and check out the earlier posts on this – Keeping it Sterile, A Step into the Unknown at Frankfurt Airport and London to Cameroon…via Moscow

Memorable Journeys #1: Cameroon via Moscow

Getting from A to B in this world isn’t always straightforward. With so many people trying to get to so many different places, and so many events – natural or otherwise – to affect those journeys, it’s not surprising that our carefully laid plans so often go awry. Add to that the unpredictability of mankind and you have a few interesting tales to tell. Over the next few months I will be writing about a few of my most interesting “journeys”, some of which went wrong, some which didn’t – but were interesting for different reasons. I’d also love to hear your stories – please let me know if you would like to contribute to this occasional series. I’m sure there’s a few “memorable” tales out there.

I start this series with a journey whichstarted out going in completely the wrong direction, and included a silent brother, a wedding cake and a very long wait at Moscow airport.

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Off to Cameroon

Back in the early to mid-nineties, my father was lucky enough to be appointed to a job as her Majesty’s representative in Cameroon. A country that most people know little about, it was the chance for us to discover somewhere that really was a bit off the beaten track. Many of the places we visited were other-worldly. It often felt like we were back in time, especially when we got away from the main urban areas into the rural parts of the country, where people still lived a very basic, simple life around hunting and their communities.

At the time of my parent’s posting, I was living and working in the UK, but I managed to make trip out to see them two or three times. However, for some reason getting to Doula (the commercial centre – they lived in Yaounde but I don’t think there was an international airport in the capital) wasn’t as straightforward as it should have been. There were of course flights. But there didn’t seem to be direct flights from the UK – I don’t ever remember getting on a plane at one end and off at the other and that being that. We always had to go via somewhere.

If you were lucky, that would be via Geneva with Swiss Air. But one time I wasn’t lucky. One time I had to go via Moscow. With Aeroflot. Accompanied by my very sulky brother.

If you look on a map, you will see that to get to Cameroon from the UK, you really should not be flying via Moscow. But for some reason, this wasn’t just the cheapest flight – it was the cheapest flight by MILES. So with four children to pay for, I guess my parents thought they could afford the cost of seeing us for Christmas by making us go the long way round. So off we set.

london to cameroon map

The flight from London to Moscow was uneventful. The only thing I recall about it was one of the other passengers complaining because she wasn’t served the vegetarian meal she had ordered. Having visited Russia just a few years earlier, I smirked to myself – she really was living in cloud cuckoo land if she thought she was going to get the same experience as she would on BA.

Moscow

We arrived safely at Moscow – and disembarked. All I knew at this point was that we had 12 hours to fill, no food, no roubles – and had been told strictly NOT TO EAT ANY FOOD THEY TRIED TO GIVE YOU. Looking back, I can only assume the airline gave us a complimentary meal to make up for the long transit time. But I was careful not to touch any of it. One of my parents’ friends wasn’t quite so cautious – he arrived at their home after following the same journey and was severely ill for the first half of his holiday.

So no food, nothing to do (although I am sure I must have had a book with me) and a brother who wasn’t talking to me. We couldn’t leave the airport as we didn’t have visas. Plus it was winter and we were dressed for the Cameroonian weather not for the snow and ice or Russia. I am pretty sure there wouldn’t have been much to amuse me for the time we were at the aiport. It’s all a blur now but I can make a guess that one of my favourite pastimes – people watching – probably filled a few hours.

moscow with edge

Eventually we were allowed back on the plane. At this stage we were joined by the Cameroonian contingent. As anyone who has lived in west Africa knows, the people you are going to get on a flight to that part of the world are going to be very different from the ones you would have had on the flight from London. For a start, there’s the carry-on baggage.

I don’t know whether ground staff just give up on trying to control what people take on flights to certain parts of the world. This was, of course, pre 9/11 so everything was a bit more lax back then. Remember, this was also Aeroflot in the nineties. Yup, it felt much more like getting on a very busy, noisy, excitable bus than an international flight.

To add to the effect, one of our fellow passengers was obviously on his way to a wedding and had with him a complete wedding cake in a box. Which he carefully placed in the overhead locker above his head. There had already been some kerfuffle over seats resulting in a bit of tension between this man and another passenger. But things seemed to be calming down and we took off.

Things go downhill…

It wasn’t long though before it all started to go downhill. Wedding-cake man was sitting comfortably in his seat, but the other man was obviously still not happy. Whether it was to do with the amount of space his cake was taking up I don’t know, but the second passenger decided – perhaps with the intention to annoy, perhaps innocently – to place an item (possibly a coat) in the same overhead locker as the cake. In fact, right on top of the cake.

Well, all hell broke loose. As well as the earlier argy-bargy over seats, I suspect insults had continued to be traded as the flight got underway. Whether these men knew each other, or whether they recognised each other as enemies for some reason (tribal?) was beyond my understanding, but one thing was clear. Both men were looking for a fight. And a fight was exactly what they got – right there, standing up, in the middle of the plane’s aisle. A proper, viscous, fist-fight. About two or three seats from where we were seated.

I don’t remember much more about what happened – I am pretty sure they were separated by the crew, who didn’t seem massively overwhelmed by this turn of events. I suspect they’d seen it all before, and worse. Passengers were moved around, new seats were found, the cake was checked and found to still be intact. Everyone calmed down and the flight continued in peace.

cameroon map with crop

But for me, one thing had changed. Despite the fact that for the past 18 hours or so my sulky brother had barely said a word to me, this excitement had made him finally come out of his shell. Again, I can’t remember what he said but just that it was a relief that he finally spoke to me. And that for the rest of the flight I had someone to make conversation with. Even it was just the odd grunt. So thank-you Mr Wedding Cake man, you not only provided us with the best entertainment in an otherwise gruelling 24 hour journey which started by going the wrong way, but you also made my brother talk to me.

I never flew Aeroflot again.

Remember – I’d love to hear your stories. Let me know if you would like to write a guest post for this series, I’m interested in all sorts of journey’s not just flights. Planes, trains, automobiles – all welcome! Leave a message or send me an email – clara@expatpartnersurvival.com.