Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Escape from Juba

I'm happily ensconced in the civility of Oxford for a week and a half, and it's taken me a few days to muster up the energy to write. I thought I'd written about the hell that was involved in getting out of Pakistan, but a quick search of my archives leads me to believe I never quite got around to it. So let me tell you about leaving Juba. A side note: before I left Kenya I was skyping with a friend whose Dad was in Juba advising them on the design of the airport. If after reading this, you'd like to provide some advice in the comments, I'll happily pass them along!!

Right. To set the scene it was a stinking hot day, as usual. I arrived at the airport at 1:45pm, having been told that just over 2 hours before the flight departure time was advisable, to avoid the crowds who inevitably become a bit aggressive. There's a helpful sign above a doorway to indicate the departure area, and just inside that door is an x-ray machine, as in most African airports. This x-ray machine, like all x-ray machines in Juba Airport, does not work. People were squished into a line beside the x-ray machine, waiting to have their luggage searched by hand. This was not entirely unexpected, as my luggage had been searched when I arrived, but at least in the arrivals hall they don't bother with the pretense of having an x-ray. A man in a khaki uniform asked me which flight I was on, and then thankfully directed me to a vacant bag searcher. The man was very friendly, and asked me if I was leaving for good. "Yes, for good....for now," I replied. I assured him that I had very much enjoyed Juba and that the South Sudanese were very nice people (at least that part was true).

He unzipped my bag, had a cursory look inside my toiletries bag and zipped me up again. I was then greeted with an L-shaped set of counters. I asked another man in khaki which counter my airline was behind. He waved me over to the left, which was a continuation of the bag search area. I dutifully got in line behind a few people, and started fanning myself with my e-ticket. If it was 40 degrees outside, it must have been 43 in that room. My top was stuck to my back and drenched in sweat. I stank, the men in front of me stank, in fact we all stank and it was really quite disgusting. While I was waiting, I noticed people behind me having their luggage weighed on a huge old fashioned scale. So I stepped out and plonked my bag on the scale, and was happy to see it down to 23kg. I got back in line and continued to wait. After a while, one of the men behind the counter was free, but didn't seem particularly interested in processing anyone else. "Excuse me, is this the Jetlink counter?" He shook his head and pointed to the empty counter on the other side of the L. So I dragged my luggage over to that and asked the two guys who were sitting behind the counter having a cup of tea whether it was the right place. "Yes yes, this is for Jetlink. They're not here yet." I looked at my watch, it was 2:15. "What time do they normally arrive?" "Oh, usually 2pm."

I chatted with those two guys about the weather, and Juba in general, consciously taking up as much space in front of the counter as I could. There was no way I was going to let anyone barge in front of me and force me to stand in that heat for any longer than absolutely necessary. But sure enough, a couple of men (one holding 4 passports) started encroaching. When the staff finally turned up at about 2:30pm, 4 passport man thrust his pile in front of the woman. She looked at him sweetly and reached out for my passport; "ladies first." She crossed my name off a printed list, asked how much my luggage weighed and wrote out my boarding pass by hand. I was then handed a pre-printed out sticker for my luggage, and was directed to give it to another khaki man. I watched him like a hawk as he put it on my bag, and then as he rolled it around the back of the counter and placed it on a concrete slab, behind which was an open hole in the wall for the luggage handlers to reach through and take the bag.

A few metres away was the immigration counter, where I handed over my departure card and my passport. The man enjoyed flicking through my passport and examining all of the stamps, before he reached my visa. "Your visa expires today." There was a brief moment of absolute terror where I thought I might not be able to leave, but I shook it aside to flash him a smile and said, "yes, good timing right?" He smiled back and the sound of the heavy stamp imprinting my passport was the sweetest sound of all.

At this point in time I decided to duck out of the departure area, to see if my colleague had arrived yet on an incoming flight. Talk about good timing, she was just collecting her bag and we had a very quick catch up before she had to head back to the office. I wandered back into the departure area, past the immigration counter (it was at this point that I really noticed the lack of security officers) and once again found myself queuing up behind another non-functioning x-ray machine. This time it was the hand searching of carry on bags, and I had to wait for a female to search my bags. Why this was necessary for hand luggage and not for the check-in bag I couldn't tell you. My eyes scanned the departure lounge and it took me a second to realise that something unusual was afoot. There were the usual airport rows of seats, but along the far wall there were pleather couches. As I was walking in a flight was called and suddenly there was a perfect spot on a couch, right opposite a hunkering old air conditioning unit. It didn't really blow out cold air, but it was definitely lower than 43 degrees!! I had about 30 minutes to wait until my departure time, but I was constantly on edge, making doubly sure that each flight called wasn't mine. Finally, the man shouted "Jetlink to Nairobi," and we were out on the tarmac.

One thing I really like about small airports and small planes is that they line up all the luggage beside the plane and you point to your bag and then it's put in the hold. There's something very comforting about knowing your luggage will be on the plane. Eventually, we were off, soaring over the Nile and on our way to Nairobi. When I stepped out of the arrivals terminal and walked across to the cafe outside departures, where I had planned to spend the next 3 hours, I was greeted with a cool breeze...words can't express how rejuvenating that was.

So there you have it, a concise, parsimonious account of how to leave Juba airport....if you have any suggestions on how the departures terminal could be improved let me know!!

No comments:

Post a Comment