Panic gripped the surging crowd, pulling me forward in the rush as if caught in a riptide. Amidst the racket, a newfound friend, apparently accustomed to this kind of wild rumpus, casually remarked, “So, this is your first trip to this part of the world, and after you will probably never want to go there again!”
I was on the island of Cyprus in 1993 for business, a series of seminars for my company’s Middle East/Africa division. The plan was to stage two week-long training sessions, one in Cyprus followed by another in Zimbabwe. I was to speak at each on a specific day.
Invited to Africa
Having never been to Africa before, my excitement at receiving this invitation was off the charts, envisioning sights I had only dreamed about. As the anticipation of spotting big-game animals built, I mostly forgot about the chance to experience Cyprus, a large Mediterranean island rich in ancient history.
Having finished my first talk on Friday, we had the day free Saturday to explore a bit of the island before the scheduled late-night flight to Zimbabwe. An English couple, working in Kenya at the time, hired a car and graciously invited another colleague and me to tag along as we toured Limassol and Paphos on the southwest coast. Though we never saw the goddess Aphrodite (her birthplace was nearby!) or a mouflon sheep, we did enjoy a delightful late summer day.
Then the situation got interesting.
Returning back to the hotel to freshen up before our eight hour flight, we noticed a small disturbance among the hotel staff. A receptionist hurried to our car, telling us to quickly get to the airport.
I was confused. Our flight was scheduled for 10:30pm, and it was barely 6 o’clock in the evening. Larnaca airport was only 40 minutes away, so I figured we had at least an hour of free time, but the desk clerk was insistent. Four of us grabbed our baggage, checked out and took a taxi together.
Airport panic and queueing theory
Upon arriving at the airport check-in area, we noticed a wave of anxious, pushy and vocal would-be travelers of varying nationalities. Businessmen in suits, women with babies tied around their backs, and explorer-looking types in safari clothing scrambled for spots in line. We tried joining the queue but soon realized there actually wasn’t one.
Queueing theory is the mathematical analyis of waiting lines with applications in computer science and operations research. In the real world of an airport ticket counter, though, it makes a far more interesting case study. Different cultures have their own rules about queues. Americans and Brits will generally take their place in line and patiently wait their turn. Russians will ask which person is last and then make sure that they are present when that person’s turn arrives. Some cultures elbow their way up to the bar and shout to be helped, while others refuse to wait at all and simply walk away.
We didn’t have a choice. Now joined by another work colleague, a Cypriot man who was the corporation’s regional Finance Director, our party of five pushed and pressed toward the desk, angling for any advantage we could get. Finally up front, we presented passports and red-inked carbon paper plane tickets. The agent passed back one, two, three, then four boarding passes before shrugging his shoulders and stating, “No more seats.”
I was shocked. The man without a spot was the Regional Director and organizer for the entire training event. What would we do without him? Local knowledge to the rescue! Mr. Kostas, a resident of Cyprus, squeezed ahead and grabbed the agent’s attention. Waving his arms and shouting above the crowd, he stated, “This is a very important man, and he is the leader of this course!” I thought sarcastically to myself, “Sure, that is truly going to make a difference.” Boy, was I in for a cultural lesson. The ticket agent pressed a few computer keys, reached for the printer and handed us a fifth boarding pass! We still weren’t sure what the problem was.
Relieved, we kept moving forward to wait near the Air Zimbabwe boarding gate. Only then did we learn that the original plane, a widebody 767 jet outbound from Africa to Germany, had experienced technical issues and been replaced by a much older Boeing 707 for the second leg from Germany to Cyprus. Keep in mind that this flight was only once per week! And with roughly 100 fewer seats available, the mad scramble for Africa was on.
I should mention that I’d been flying since 1974, but I had never even seen a Boeing 707 (the first US commercial jetliner), much less flown on one! Never before afraid to fly, I started feeling a bit skittish. The agitated crowds, the fewer seats, the once-weekly flight, and the circling cacophony of cultures heightened the stressful tension.
I began looking at my boarding card to pass the time, but couldn’t seem to locate my seat number. I asked Mr. Kostas, our default group leader, where to find it. “Air Zim is free seating,” was his reply. Really? On a long-haul intercontinental flight? It was then he made the remark about this being my first trip to this part of the world.
Nevertheless, I remained cautiously optimistic about the journey ahead. Our expected boarding time came and went. A couple more hours passed. Finally, about 3:00am we boarded the plane, dashing to find an open seat in the randomly occupied rows. I hopped across a dozing German man and plopped into a window seat. My coworker Marcia wasn’t as lucky, as she got stuck in a center seat between two other sleeping passengers, one of whom kept falling over into her lap throughout the night.
Another poor lady was even less fortunate, as I watched her wandering the corridor asking, “Where are my children?” Right before takeoff, the captain got on the plane to apologize for the long unexpected delay. Explaining the aircraft change, he began talking about the 707 saying that “it was a good airplane, and we will have a good flight to Harare.” The confidence in his voice seemed to be faltering. It sounded to me like he was giving himself a pep talk!
I didn’t deplane, but I almost felt like doing so. Then I remembered it would be another week before the next flight! I settled in for some much-needed sleep. About an hour into the flight, approximately 4:00am “stomach time,” a stewardess shook me awake, asking what I wanted for dinner. Good grief, at this point I merely wanted to rest!
Crossing the Equator
It’s very rare for a long-haul flight not to cause jet lag from significant time changes, but this one didn’t. Our flightpath took us due south first across Egypt and then the Sudan. Continuing down the spine of Africa, we crossed the Equator and a continent but no actual time zones. I slept as we crossed more borders through Tanzania and Zambia. And though our time clocks didn’t change, the seasons surely did as we flew from late summer in Cyprus into early springtime in southern Africa.
Upon finally landing in Zimbabwe, I walked off the plane, entering the southern hemisphere for the first time, and into perfect blue skies, low humidity and gorgeous flame trees. I looked around wide-eyed, still on the tarmac breathing fresh, clear air, and exclaimed, “So this is Africa – wow!” Jim, the man who had almost missed the flight, commented, “You can see why the old colonials didn’t want to give it up!”
It was worth the trip.
For more border crossing adventures in this series, please click here!