Monday, 21 March 2011

It's only 170 miles from Mbale in the east of Uganda to Entebbe
airport but you have to allow six hours to make the journey. The road
you take runs from Kenya right through to Congo and so it is slow with
overladen lorries being driven by sleepy blokes and impatient taxi
buses or Matatas that drive as though exempt from the law and death.
Sadly they do have fatal accidents at an alarming rate, we passed four
on our journey to the airport. I shouldn't but I do get annoyed by
their reckless and selfish driving. (Certainly not wreckless)
When all the other traffic stops they simply keep going either side of any queues
scattering pedestrians hitting animals without a care . It is as if their
attitude is indicative of the selfishness inherent in so many African
politicians they just do for themselves and think no further than their noses.
Fortunately Ishmael who is driving us in his new(ish) car is a slow
and careful driver, we feel safe and enjoy the drive through cane
fields ,forests and tea plantations, a green and bountiful land so unlike much of the brown dusty Afriaca I see . We even stop for an Indian meal
at the source of the Nile. It wasn't a beautiful spot, no trickle of
clear water rising out of the parched earth that then flows away
providing life along its length, just a dammed off outlet from
Lake Victoria with a busy road running over it via a bridge that
finally manages to filter the anarchic drivers Into two lanes. We sit
looking out over the water and listen to a young Ugandan girl called
Alan tell of her woes working for her Indian employers. She is only
ever paid a fraction of her wages and never has enough to invest in
another business or improve her life. She is virtually held captive
by her employers who she seemingly loathes. They are very mean with
their money she says and stick together with other Asians and treat
Africans as second class citizens.Sitting in the last of the sunshine I
will see for sometime it is strange to hear this young and pretty girl
talk so vehemently against Indians. Amin's expulsion of Asians was
not so long ago but it seems to have been forgotten or ignored by everyone.

The last 80 miles towards Kampala and Entebbe are slow it is Sunday
afternoon and there is a lot of traffic heading towards the capital.
Only the packed taxi buses are unaffected they just keep moving
forward, however they can, like water flowing down hill. They are beginning to really
annoy me. Jon receives an email saying there is a 4 hour delay on our
flight which means we arrive 4 hours early at the airport.

Over the course of a flight your fellow travellers become like the a cast
of a film. They are introduced into your story at different stages: as
you bump into one unloading bags from a taxi or you observe another in
the long queue going through airport security or hear some saying
their goodbyes to their friends at the gate. I join the dots and draw
my conclusions about the lives and characters of this assembly of
players that are thrown together for this one off performance.
Jon and I are so early we can't even get in the airport to check in. We
mingle, unwilling to commit to joining the queue. The sense of
finality would become claustrophobic, better to stay feral keeping our
options open.

For once in my life I have a business class ticket in my hand it holds
promises of exclusivity , free drinks and a reason not to wait in
line. It feels a little embarrassing I can't walk without feeling
like I am strutting and it seems as if I can hear people in the queue
thinking "if he thinks he's jumping in front ...
The other business class passengers are easier with their status in
fact they can be identified by their nonchalent assuredness of
ultimately being taken care of. They strike up conversations with each
other and stand together in groups united by their exclusivity, well
fitted clothes and stylish baggage .Supporting each other in their
mutual discomfort and temporary immersion into cattle class.
We are due to fly at 3.30 and 8.30 finds everyone let through
security and queuing to check in. Any sense of order has lost its
grip and though we are chanelled into different lines it is a free for
all when you get to the other end and make the dash across noman’s land
to one of the check in desks.Business class status is meaning less and
Once through immigration and recovered from the shock of how expensive
duty free can be, Jon and I settle into the the Shangrila that is
the business class lounge. A land of silk and money where the snacks
and drinks are free, there is a massage seat,, you can have a shower and
there is free wifi. All for only £1000 extra.
More characters make an entrance; the American evangalist who had
been staying in the same hotel as us in Mbale, the mother carrying a
baby who had declined my offer of help. The oil prospector.the
professor , and more intruiguinley the elderly lady who worked for the
Guinean government and her attractive daughter. Slowiy characters were getting introduced to the show each playing their bit part but all oblivious to their roles.
The five hour wait was certainly made bearable by the comforts of the lounge and I did my best to drink an honest money's worth and I did have the 20 minute squirm in the somewhat soiled but functional massage chair, but time did drag though and I kept reminding myself of my luck by making forays out of the lounge's air conditioning into the main airport concourse.Hot sticky and boredom exuding from everything and everyone.I had a plan : to consume just the right amount of alcohol and take some pills so the the combined effect would coincide with our departure and hopefully I would manage to sleep all the way to Holland.It all went smoothly our flight was called and leaving it until just the last moment Jon and I made our way to departures and were called onto board the flight.All the characters were assembled and the stage was set for a long ten hour play about going home trying to maintain your identity in the air and how to eat and drink as much as you can without appearing sad and desperate
The Cabin crew fastened doors for take off seatbelt were secured and I busied myself choosing between Granola or grapefruit for breakfast. It was about time to take my Piriton with a Co-Codamol chaser but I thought I would wait for us to actually take off just to be sure.I was wondering why I was so particular about these things when an annoncement came through from the captain saying that they had a red light flashing for one of the brakes apparently it was too hot so were going wait for it to cool or they would have toabandon the flight.Annoyance on a grand scale the last thing anyone wanted was to have get off this flight after having spent so long getting on it.
I sat back closed my eyes and waited, just hoping for that forward motion.Finaaly and wordlessly it came, we stared forward and then came that thrilling thrust as we raced down the runway hurtling forwards until the moment of lift and like diving into a pool we achieve an airborn state. However as we left the constraints of gravity the port engine started making a grinding noise and the whole plane lurched to the left. It was not the sound I associated with safe civil aviation.In all the flights I havetaken it was not a sound I had heard before.If I was driving a car I would have stopped.
Jon and I looked at each other and agreed this was not a good flying sound.
The onscreen information which tells you how high and how fast you are going is normally an enjoyable distraction as I flit through mathematical calculations of how long it will take to travel the distance displayed at the speed we are travelling but it offered only concern as both our speed and height was decreasing and if it continued our journey time would be
minutes Next an anounouncement was made on theintercom that indeed we were not having much luck tonight and that the number 1 engine had a fault.The number one engine I remembered was one of only two, so we were in trouble . A ripple of real fear swept around the cabin something tangible, it grew as each of us internalised and re-projected what it meant.Silence followed and the cast of players focused on infinity and withdrew into their own heads.
It was as though we were being carried by an injured giant, a weary Pegasus or had just hitched a lift with Icarus and collectively we willed the aircraft to keep going,I remarked to Jon that if I screamed now the whole plane would start - he just mouthed “No” silently at me.
Ten long minutes past and the pilot completed a circuit and attempted to land.

From the start it didn’t seem like it would be a viable landing, I’m no pilot but our descent seemed too steep, and fast.The lights osf fishing vessels on the lake passed through my field of vision and then the lights of the airport and runway.It was less of a touch down more of a slam dunk, we bounced on the tarmac several times without slowing and then as though at the bidding of a greater force we accelerated up and away from the landing strip again
I felt a surge of excitement with a straight fear chaser, as I understood that we were really in trouble and beyond any safety procedures or autopilot messiah mode being switched on..Still grinding like a mincer we pulled upinto the sky again. Astoundingly there was no intercom contact from the crew , complete radiio silence, ridiculously we were left to simmer in our own fears forged from countless disaster films and headlines.
Where there had once been silence there was now the sound of crying from further back in the cabin, a few devout types started praying out loud, funny I am not sure if they were praying for themselves or all of us,I figured that we would be saved on their ticket because it was hardly likely that if we crashed only those who prayed would be saved - I‘m sure they were praying for a scientific result rather than a full on miracle, So now my play had a real story to it, characters were playing their parts without direction and method acting became second sense. Jeopardy the buzz word of unimaginative TV commissioners all over the world I would really would like them to feel a bit of that jeopardy sometime.
One of the first things I do on a long flight is to take my shoes of I now found myself in a dilemma as I was not sure if I should keep my shoes of in case we crashed into water or put them on for trudging for days through the desert, one on one off was not an option, I slipped my shoes back on but didn’t do the laces up. For another ten minutes the plane flew on, I said to Jon that this is how life long bonds were made and if we survived we should do lunch - quite frequently, I think we shook hands.
Sitting back I did a flash examination of my life totalled my heinous crimes and sins against my lifestyle and figured that I had not been a bad person and that I should not fear death.It was amazing sitting there in a perfect cabin surrounded by dozens of people all scared and knowing that imminent death was a reality. That possibly nothing would remain in its present state.
My main emotion was that of sadness for not seeing my family again and beyond that understanding that I can never go back to the memories that were pushing their way round my head even if I lived and they were so , so lovely.
The second landing attempt was thrilling in the way that free jumpers get their kicks and extreme sportsmen do things that mere mortals shouldn‘t.We however had seatbelts on and no free will between us and our destiny.We came down fast but less steeply, and the wheels hit the runway and bounced and skidded and the aircraft skewed and and we lurched forward and the actors from the play acted on impulse as lips were licked ,knuckles whitened, breaths were held ,wishes uttered,pupils dilated.We were slowing down but the previously overheated brakes were hardly coping, finally the aircraft did what appeared to be a handbrake turn and we broadsided down the runway coming to a halt with the lights marking the end winking knowingly just outside my window.
The release of the pressure was imminent death was followed by a strong desire to escape from the scene of danger,The whole plane was up on its feet desperate to get off ,for the first time in twenty minutes we heard a faint voice through the intercom informing us we could disembark and that Business class passengers would get priority. It felt like a walk of shame as we made our privileged way out of the plane in front of the rest of the passengers, it felt as if they loathed us.For the thirty minutes it took to almost die Business Class had completely lost its appeal.

Next morning I find myself walking along the disappointingly dirty shores of Lake Victoria, It is filthy with rubbish and shit and the water does not look appealing,The Players from the previous night’s dramas are wandering around the grounds of a Hotel,we have been housed in - The transit from airport to hotel was quick and efficient and I had slept a few hours before waking up feeling as if I had been reborn.
I was not alone Strangers greeted each other like friends enquiring after each others feelings, people sat down to talk and eat together and exchange experiences - I moved through them like a vampire feeding on the lifeblood of their stories- Some of the older passengers had slept right through the whole event. I met one old lady who woke up thinking we were in Holland and that she had slept though dinner. Shockingly one woman who had been last off the plane had rounded the galley to find a stewardess in tears in the arms of a steward, obviously well aware of the seriousness of the situation we had just been through.I approached two smartly dressed African youths in shiny suits and pointed toed shoes,, incongruous on the beach.I asked how it had been for them, one replied that he thought he must be very unlucky when it came to travelling, I asked why and he explained that he had taked two days to make the journey from his village to the airport it should have taken only one. I asked what happened and when he explained what had happened it made my own near death experience semm like mere folly.
The Matata he had been in had stopped at one point in a village and the driver refused to go on, the boy had got out to walk and had be forcibly restrained. The driver shouted at him “I will not let you go off and be killed like a chicken” - He had heard that the previous vehicle had passed through an area where a land dispute was occurring, everybody in it had been macheted to death.

An hour later finds Jon and I in the hotel manager’s office looking for our passports.As they arrived in the early hours of the morning everyone from the flight had handed their passports in at reception.It’s chaos, 350 passports all thrown into one box,and we are looking for our two amongst them . Jon being the naturally orderly type decided to sort the passports into countries. It was as if we were reading the credits of the film we had all starred in. There on the table spread out like a pack of cards were the names and nationalities of all who had been involved in our near death drama workshop performance, The credits rolled…
The Guinean Minister’s Diplomatic passport, French diplomats and even amazingly two American passports with Homeland Security written on them ,Stupid that we were left alone in that room with the opportunity to take any one of them or maybe become any one of them,We both opted to remain ourselves and retrieved our two shabby red passports from the now ordered pile.Both of us content to be who we are for the rest of our lives.

Sent on the move