Monday, July 30, 2007

Chauney to Beauvais to Madrid to Sao Paulo (to a hotel in Sao Paulo and then back to the airport) to Recife... in 44 hours. I know I should write about the great holiday I've just had, and I know there are probably more interesting things to write on a blog but I feel I need to get a few things off my chest after an exhausting long haul journey that took the best part of two days. This may take a while.


It all began innocently enough at 4am in France when Mum and Dad drove me across the sleeping French countryside to Beauvais airport. After goodbyes, I checked in to my Ryanair flight, bought a copy of Bill Bryson's autobiography of his childhood ("The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid") and mentally prepared myself for what I expected to be a long trip home... You see, after taking Ryanair to Madrid I was going to be in the hands of the brain-bogglingly incompetent organisation known as BRA, an airline so startlingly lacking in any sense of customer service or fair play there is a ground swell of disgruntled customers on the Brazilian internet forming organisations to boycott this chennabing company. We had already had our share of trouble trying to confirm my flights, they had cancelled my flight for the day I was supposed to be flying, and now my direct flight home was set to go via Sao Paulo... For reasons I won't go into and probably don't fully understand, by the grace of God, Rachel managed to get herself and Nelson on a direct TAM flight from Paris to Recife.

Once in Madrid, after some lunch, I made my way over to the BRA desk to check in my bags. Despite the screens displaying a 15:10 flight nobody appeared at the check in desk for hours. Complete silence and no BRA staff in sight. Thanks to my sister-in-law having made some calls the previous day I expected this delay, but the scores of other Brazilians who were there certainly did not. After some time those in the check-in line began to make themselves at home. Brazilians occupy space much the same way gas fills a box - randomly until all the corners are filled. What amused me was the way they made the most of the space BEHIND the check-in desks reserved for airport employees only. Kids jumped up and down on the luggage scales, one lanky chap took a nap on the desk itself while Gramps nodded off in the swivel chair. One enterprising lady covertly attempted to switch on the airport computers to try and see where our flights were... (pics of all this to follow).

After a few hours, the chattering amongst the Brazilians began in earnest and was generally good-humoured and banterous all things considered. But, the main question: what was to be done about our invisible flight? As in Brazil those that really took the initiative in getting things going were the middle-aged women, robust housewives with a point to prove. Whilst their husbands sat around supping cans of San Miguel they organised a factory line of complaint forms. I did my part, and one Brazilian lady sent her English speaking daughter over to check I had filled in the form correctly and complained about everything I was supposed to. Several took numerous pictures of every detail, presumably so photographic evidence could be used in court in the future case of the Brazilian people vs BRA. A coke-bottle-bespectacled Spanish airport employee was summoned at one point. When we mentioned BRA he blew a raspberry and waved his hand dismissavely. I didn't need to know Spanish to understand that he had probably been asked about BRA many times over the last few months and there was little he or we could do. Being uninformed was doubly frustrating - if the flight was known to be late and there were BRA employees to check our bags, we could have gone into Madrid for a few hours and done some site-seeing, but no such luck.

Eventually, at 21:00 somebody got wind that our check-in desks had changed to some new ones down the hall 50 yards. There began a mad scrum of children, hand luggage, trolleys and tickets to get to the new desks. There was an unspoken fear that some of us might be bumped, hence the rush. Those enterprising women who had organised the compaint forms continued their military operations by enlisting their husbands into securing the perimeter to ensure nobody jumped the line. We checked-in, moved into the departure lounge. Madrid airport, it has to be said, did not help much - it is a grubby little hole of an airport with large swathes cordoned off for development. No internet cafes either, to my dismay. So, most of us made use of the available seats and waited and waited and waited. The TV screens informed us our flight would be here 22:30, then 23:30. At 23:45 I turned the last page of the Bill Bryson book I had bought earlier but still no sign of our plane. Over the course of the day BRA had failed to provide us with any food (or any person to even talk to!) and so at midnight airport employees dished out sandwiches and coke bottles to us ravenous passengers. At 12:30am the plane arrived, and the exiting BRA victims filed out in dribs and drabs to raptuous applause from all of us.

At 1.00am things got interesting (or not) as Brazilian lady next to me in the line felt there was nothing better to do than to practice her English by regailing me with mundane banalities concerning the seven years she had passed in London in the 1980s. What I found surprising was how unfussed she was about the delay. I would nervously play with my watch and mutter "why are we not flying yet?" and she would reply dreamily "yes, this is very disrespectful to us. But my son, who is eighteen, will probably study in England later this year..." It helped past the time, I guess, although I was struggling to concentrate as my leaden eye-lids were lowering involuntarily. Shortly after, I was awoken from my stupor as the pilot and staff passed us to get on the plane which resulted in more claps and whoops from those of us awake. By 1.45am, it all felt like a strange surreal nightmare not helped by the boring woman next to me telling me such details as "I have a friend who teaches Flamenco in Glasgow", and then almost immediately and unrelatedly, "one thing I like about the English is they are not afraid of nakedness - you know, people taking off their clothes and lying down in cemetries". WHAT ARE YOU TALKING ABOUT?!!!! AND WHY ARE WE NOT ON THIS PLANE YET??!!!!

But, by the grace of God, by 2.30am we were on the plane and in the air, some twelve hours later than most of us expected. Nobody was assigned the seat next to me, so I stretched out and slept fairly well. Two rubbery meals were delivered to us over the course of the flight. As we approached Sao Paulo I had a scare. The pilot was saying something in Portuguese on the intercom but I wasn't concentrating. Something he said caused huge consternation in the cabin as Brazilians, up in arms, shouted "Opa!" and "Eta!", tutted and grunted, eyebrows raised in disgust. Baring in mind an airplane had crashed in Sao Paulo less than two weeks earlier, I feared that - following this reaction to the pilot's announcement - at best we would be landing in a football field or at worst one of our wings was on fire. Perhaps, typical to BRA form, we were about to be rerouted to Caracas. When I asked the couple behind me what the problem was they said: "Sete, a temperatura em Sao Paulo esta sete graus!" ... That is to say, the pilot had given the temperature on the ground in Sao Paulo. For Brazilians, it was to be a positively arctic-like 7C. I wiped my brow relieved. Cold weather was something I could cope with. Judging by the reaction of my co-passengers, freezing weather was probably on a par with imminent death.

And so, we plopped out of the clouds harmlessly, over sprawling favelas and landed with no difficulty in Sao Paulo. I picked up my suitcase which I was then to take round to check-in once more. The BRA desk was a mess and the dozen of us who were expecting to connect to Recife did what we had a lot of practice doing: we waited. We had missed our connection (obviously) so BRA, in their benevolence, ushered us onto a bus to take us to an hotel until our afternoon flight. The bus driver got lost on the way (begging the question, does any BRA employee know how to correctly transport anyone from a specified point A to a desired point B?). The hotel was pleasant enough and I was assigned a room, and then another one which, unlike the first, had it's own bed. In a bid to communicate my whereabouts I tried using the phone but failed dismally (probably not BRA's fault this one). I twice spoke to a man who, sadly, wasn't my brother-in-law Nelson. When I asked to use the hotel internet the polite lady gave me a sign-up sheet and password, neither of which worked. Internet was tantalising close but there was nothing anybody could do to get me online, so I went for a walk to find an internet cafe outside. It was Sunday morning (I had forgotten which day of the week I was in) so everything was shut except for a charismatic church and a Habib's restaurant. I probably should have gone to church, but instead indulged in a Carne Pastel and Kibe from Brazilian's finest fast-food emporium. My brief glimpse of the city left me with an enduring image of a gulag concentration camp. Everything was gray and grimy. Paulistas (Sao Paulo-ians) huddled together on street corners, huge overcoats, rubbing their gloved hands together and mumbling to each other through their scarves. I, in just an extra shirt, felt that 7C was a perfectly good temperature for a sprightly walk.

After lunch at the hotel it was back to the airport. The dozen of us on this ordeal together were forming a tight-knit crisis community. The journey ride was filled with more endless chattering of check-in desks, delays and the prospect of legal action directed against Brazil's most vilified air transporter. At the airport, more chaos. The line for the BRA desk zig-zagged endlessly through Sao Paulo's concrete airport for several hundred yards. When we found the end of the queue we were practically outside. Wisely, I stuck close to my friends, especially the ones who seemed to be the most skillful complainers. Shortly, we were given our own desk as we were on connection. It seemed like we were getting somewhere. But another hour passed and nobody was checking our bags. In theory we had already missed our connecting flight. Finally, a very stressed BRA employee who had one ear permanently glued to a walkie talkie processed our bags and wrote out our boarding cards by hand. Another mix-up ensued for me, in which time I lost a vital piece of paper from my passport, entered the Domestic departure area (I was going to Recife, after all!) instead of the International departure (the BRA flight's final destination was Milan) and got stuck behind the red tracksuited delegates from the Pan American Games' Peruvian team at the hand-luggage x-ray machine.

I scampered to my gate as they were boarding. Once through the gate I was pulled aside where I met up (again!) with the same dozen travel-weary passengers who had been on the original Madrid flight. I greeted them with a cheery "Tudo bem, gente?" and I was met with some wry smiles in return. There was a problem. BRA weren't happy (why would they be?) with our non-electronic boarding cards (which, incidentally, they had issued!). For a while it looked like we were going to get bumped from the flight, but finally, and after some calls, they scribbled our seat numbers on our tickets and let us board. I found my seat (26G) and sat down relieved. Five minutes later a sweaty man came pacing down the aisle, stopped next to me and mumbled something about wanting to sit in seat 26G. The air stewardess came over. Sure enough, he had an ELECTRONIC boarding pass which said 26G. My homemade "fake" boarding pass which had been cobbled together looked decidedly unauthentic in comparison. I gripped my seat handles in preparation for a fight: I WOULD NOT BE BUMPED FROM THIS FLIGHT! Fortunately, there was space (just!) for all of us and the man took a seat a little behind me. We took off, some two hours late.

For the first time on my journey BRA provided onflight entertainment. Up until then it had been a case of no magazines, no TV and no headphones for armrest FM. But, here, on my final leg of the journey, some very throughtful air steward decided that all of us in the cabin could do with a bit of "Simply Red". So we watched a DVD of Mick Hucknall and co live in concert for two hours. My problem was that I had a loud speaker above my seat which made it impossible to ignore the spectacle, but I was some 40 feet from the TV set, and so through squinted eyes I could only make out the bobbing red barnet of the leadsinger. So, it was entertainment, but not of the classic variety. And then at long last we descended into Recife and the plane touched down. As soon as the steward uttered the immortal words "Finalmente, chegamos em Recife" ("Finally, we've arrived in Recife") the cabin burst into spontaneous cheering...

Once in the airport, my bag was first off the conveyor belt and I pegged it past the customs man and out. I was mobbed by Rachel's family and Ruth, all of whom had been at the airport for the best part of the day scanning the passengers of all flights in from Sao Paulo and trying to find out my whereabouts. Steve suggested we should design a T-shirt with the slogan: "I'm not a feminist, but I do say no to BRA". Back at the flat, our good friend Julian Kenny made the fair point that BRA probably stands for "Bl£#dy Ridiculous Airline".

With retrospect there was some good things about these flights... OK, maybe not "good" things but at least silver linings on the edge of a very big cloud. I can think of three things. Firstly, baby Nelson didn't have to travel this way home. Rachel had a direct flight from Paris. I left early on Saturday morning and she left on Sunday afternoon and she nearly beat me home! Some of the Brazilians on the Madrid flight had young families - what a nightmare it would have been to entertain, feed and water everybody for 44 hours in airports and airplanes. Secondly, my luggage wasn't lost. Thirdly... I can't think of a third thing... I suppose we didn't crash. Oh, and it did give me the opportunity to read lots of books. I had a Gideons New Testament and read all the book of Acts which can't be bad.

All of this leads me to conclude two things.

Things I miss about England #22: BRA does not exist. English people should be grateful that no British airline operates at quite the same level of incompetence as BRA.

Things I love about Brazil #77: The generally good-natured and efficient way Brazilians deal with a crisis. Latin Americans just seem to get on with life and generally remain up-beat and cheerful even if the world is falling to pieces around them. Their main tactic is to keep talking to each other, speaking in loopy conversations about everything. Brazilians, particularly, seem to have an in-built chip for remaining optimistic in the face of insurmoutable odds. I have to say for most of the time on this adventure I was fairly amused and content. And that was definitely because I wasn't doing it all alone. I can't think of a better group of people to spend 44 hours in close proximity to than a posse of all-age, mixed-background, pepped-up Brazilians.

NB. This was the second longest travel nightmare of my life, still some 16 hours short of the 3 day round-Africa trip to Chad in 2000.

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