Thursday, August 20, 2009

The Last Leg is the Longest

By virtue of modern air travel, I was able to fly from Beirut, through Dubai, to Colombo in one day. Crossed over no less than 10 countries and more than 2 time zones in one day. I had not thought that the longest part of my journey would be related to the 1 hour flight from Colombo to Jaffna…

The mere mention of the experience is so exhausting that I hesitate to think of it again, but it is too surreal and too miraculous not to share.

I will spare you the relatively boring first day of ‘travel’, where we arrived at the airport at 6am (admittedly far too early for an 8.30am flight) and were informed the airline’s final decision to cancel the flight at 2pm. After hours of “we will let you know in 30 minutes”, it was almost a relief to have a clear cut response.

But that’s only one part of the trip, to be followed by a surreal day where the airline overlooked to inform us that there was seat for me on the flight. Didn’t matter that we were calling them every hour or so… guess their left hand didn’t know what their right hand was doing!
In any case, I can’t say I minded another night in my sweetly modern hotel, where I even indulged in a bubble bath to wash away the stress of the previous two days. I hadn’t realised it would be what I needed to survive the day that followed.

The next day, I was told with great reassurance and optimism that I had a seat on the plane and should leave for the airport immediately. Just to provide a timeline, it was 9.30am. “At least I didn’t have to wake up at an ungodly hour”, I thought, and got ready to make the trip to my final destination where I could finally unpack.

I should have clarified that since Jaffna has been cut off from the rest of Sri Lanka by the band of previously LTTE controlled sites, it has been under heavy military protection for years. This means that it can only be reached by air (the road having been cut off) and only through a military airport.

I had never been to a military airport before, so could not blame them for the shack they had set up 100m from the airport entrance where they ‘checked you in’, both the security and the airline kind. To be frank, they were quite friendly for military, and weren’t as intrusive in their questions or search as I was warned. That is, not counting when they weighed my luggage, and then proceeded to weigh me as well! The nerve!!

In any case, my turn finally came up in the long dusty line, all was weighed, and then I was told that my bag (carrying all my ‘settling in’ items lugged all the way from Beirut) was too heavy and would need to go on a later flight. Finding the idea of parting with my luggage traumatising at this stage, I insisted that I was told I would be able to pay an excess baggage fine, but would fly with all said baggage. In the midst of this discussion, the fellow looking at the passenger list had even better news: my name was not on it. I would like to say that I was at my wit’s end, but to be frank, I was so numb by this point that I said nothing and followed their signal to sit on the side and wait. In the 2 hours that I waited there, I was told very little about what was being done, but I was repeatedly reassured – in oddly hushed tones – that I would fly out that day and that my baggage was ‘approved’. Deciding I had no choice but to believe them, I sat and waited.

My baggage still went on a different flight, on the earlier one that I was supposed to fly on, and I ended up on an additional flight that was chartered from – wait for it – the air force.

I’m not quite sure why the air force would want to charter out flights, especially when they so clearly don’t like passengers, and hardly thought of us as clients. We were corralled onto the airplane by pilots in uniform, sunglasses, and stern looks. The 17-seater had three seats per row (two together, one alone), and as I sat on the lonely side seat, I noted that only the paired seats had received ear muffs. Which, in my state of compromised lucidity at that point, led me to believe that the noise must only be coming from the engines on that side of the plane. Besides, I could barely hold that thought long enough when absolutely every fibre of my being was focused on keeping my body from melting. I can only say this to describe how hot and stuffy the airplane was: imagine putting your finger inside a can that had been lying out on the tarmac for a while. Two words: not fun. They only good that came from that is that it knocked us all out – in my case, for the duration of the trip.

But wait, there’s more…
Though the flight and landing were of the smoothest I’d experienced (as far as I can recall), we landed out on an isolated runway at the military airport in Jaffna, and were brought out of the plane. As the maintenance crew rushed to fuel the plane, and do their climbing-all-over-airplane tasks, we were left standing under one of the wings for shade. We lingered there for a while before I was told that we were waiting for a bus to take us to the terminal. How charming.

The bus finally arrived, and carried us and our luggage to yet another hut where they ticked off our names and where we waited for another bus to take us to the final checkpoint. The airline had apparently not scheduled their flights (or ‘additional flights’) properly and there were no buses available. My selfish thoughts at this point were focused on my life packed in a bag that was nowhere in sight, and probably lost in some marsh forever.
It was now 3pm.

But this is where the miracles start.

As I sat there waiting for an absent bus, I heard someone calling out my organisation's name. I had never been more grateful to diplomatic privileges that allowed our drivers to come in and collect us from inside a security zone. Within moments, I was in an air conditioned car, being careened in the right direction: out of the military base!

At the final checkpoint, we found a large truck – the type I am accustomed to seeing on Lebanese highways carrying livestock or produce – with an entire load of luggage. In order to find my bag, I would need to climb up into the truck and identify it. Slightly sceptical that it would be there, but desperate to be wrong, I tried to scale the side of the high vehicle (with great difficulty), and I almost could not believe my eyes when I spotted my lovely big bag. This was a true miracle!

Last on the list were our phones and cameras, which were confiscated as we checked in way way back at the very beginning at that shack on the outskirts of the airport in Colombo. And with those being handed to me, my cup had runneth over with miracles.

I would need a few days to recover from this trip (which is roughly how long it took me to be able to sit and write about it), but with everything arriving safely in the face of so many unpromising possibilities, I felt that all would be well.

And I tried very hard not to think of what the return trip out of Jaffna would be like…

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