Malongo is in the Cabinda Enclave of Angola in West Africa. It is the home of one of Chevron’s significant offshore oil exploration and production operations called Cabinda Gulf Oil Company (CABGOC), and for two years my client. Every other 28 days for the two-year period of 1998 through 2000, Malongo was my home. As an independent consultant involved with the implementation of the JD Edwards computer system, I worked alongside about a thousand expatriates from all over the world who rotated in and out every 28 days, just like me.
It was a 48-hour door-to-door trip from San Diego to San Francisco to Paris to Luanda and then on to Cabinda and Malongo. On one particular trip, upon arrival at the airport I went to the ticket counter to check my bags to Paris. I never checked my bags. I always carried them on the plane. But this time I decided to make an exception.
After completing the check-in procedure, I walked to the gate, which was always the very farthest one away from security. Upon boarding, I found my seat in the first row of the First Class section of the United Airlines Boeing 737-500. As I sat down I thought I detected the scent of burning rubber, which is not really the kind of thing you want to smell when you are boarding an airplane. I didn’t say anything, naively assuming that everything was under control. After a while, the Captain came out of the cockpit and walked out into the jetway, followed by the Flight Attendant. In a minute they came in and whispered to each other in a very hush-hush manner. I could see all this because it was happening right in front of me.
As more passengers filed into the cabin, the smell intensified. Soon, all the
passengers had boarded, and we were now beyond our scheduled departure time, but they still had not closed the door. Eventually, the Captain came on the PA and apologized for the delay, explaining that the jetway had bumped into a pitot tube on the side of the airplane, starting an electrical fire that had burned some small holes in the side of the fuselage. He was expecting the delay to last only about a half-hour and then we would be on our way. Unfortunately, even if we had left on time, I would have had only nineteen minutes in San Francisco to catch my connecting flight to Paris. Obviously, that wasn’t going to work.
I leapt out of my seat and ran out of the jetway and down the long hall back to the ticket counter. I explained my dilemma to the ticket agent and asked her to reschedule me to a different flight. There was a 1:00 p.m. flight to Washington Dulles where I could connect to another flight to Paris. However, Dulles had been shut down due to the heavy snowstorms all along the Eastern Seaboard. There was also a 3:49 p.m. flight through San Francisco, but it didn’t arrive in Paris until 3:00 p.m. the next day, which would consume valuable sleeping hours in Paris, so that flight was not acceptable. Finally, she rescheduled me to a 1:05 p.m. Delta flight to Atlanta, arriving at 8:13 p.m. and connecting to a 9:40 p.m. flight to Paris, arriving at 11:50 a.m. the next day. Excellent! Let’s do it!
“What about my bags?” I asked.
“I’m sorry, sir. At this point we can’t remove your bags from the flight.”
“Well, how will I get them?”
“Hmmm… That could be a problem. If you’re not on the airplane for your Paris flight in San Francisco they won’t load your bags.”
“How come my bags can stay on your airplane when I’m not on it myself?”
“Do you mean to say that my bags will stay in San Francisco?”
“I’m going to Africa for a month. I need those bags!”
Eventually, she called over a supervisor who promised to have my bags forwarded on to Paris via the later flight from San Francisco to Paris.
“How will I get my bags when I get to Paris?”
“Go to the Air France baggage claim area in Paris when you check in for your Luanda flight,” the supervisor said.
Somewhat satisfied, but still a bit uncomfortable with this arrangement, I hurried down to the Delta gate where they were holding the flight, awaiting my arrival. I found my seat and they closed the door and we took off for Atlanta. Then I realized I hadn’t asked which flight my bags would be on.
The flight would normally take just over four hours. However, when we reached Atlanta we were put into a holding pattern due to the snowstorm that had now reached Atlanta and backed up traffic. An hour later we landed on a runway that was surrounded by snow.
I now had less than a half-hour to catch my flight to Paris and I still had to catch the train down to the international terminal. As I checked the board looking for my gate I noted that my flight to Paris had been cancelled because of the snowstorm.
Great! Now I’m stuck in a snowstorm on the Saturday before SuperBowl Sunday in Atlanta. Where would I ever find a place to spend the night? After a long list of phone calls to hotels in the area, none of which had any vacancies, thanks to the SuperBowl and all the cancelled flights, the answer was the Fairfield Inn in La Grange, Georgia, a distance of about seventy miles.
The next day I returned to the airport and caught my flight to Washington, and they closed the door and we took off right on time. I made my connection in Washington and flew on to Paris and we arrived 15 minutes ahead of schedule. My bags were scheduled to arrive about four hours later.
Of course, as things go in France, the baggage handlers in Paris were on strike. There must have been 50 million people standing around that airport with their luggage gathered around them. “This is not good,” I muttered to myself.
I went to the counter and arranged for my day room at the Hyatt near the airport. “Go to Entrance 22 and there will be a courtesy bus to take you to the hotel,” the Air France attendant told me. Of course, when I got to Entrance 22 the police had blocked it off, along with the four or five entrances on either side of it, because they were amassing all the people and their baggage in the street outside the building. I must have walked around that terminal three times trying to figure out how to get to my bus, including being told in no uncertain terms by a policeman wielding a machine gun that I could not get to where I needed to go from there.
Finally, after an hour, I found the bus and went to the hotel. I ate lunch, slept for about five hours, took a shower, and ate dinner. Then I returned to the airport, leaving a couple of hours to spare to find my luggage. When I arrived at the Air France baggage counter they had no record whatsoever of my baggage. Exhausting Air France’s resources to find my bags, I goaded them into giving me a phone number for United Airlines. “But, sir. They are closed.”
“Look, missey, United Airlines is a big company. I’m sure that somewhere in the world there is someone working at United Airlines right now. Just give me the main international number.” Finally, she did and then I had to figure out how to use the French telephone system, which is not quite as straight-forward as you might think. Believe me, it is quite disconcerting to realize you don’t even know how to make a telephone call when you are stranded in an airport on the other side of the world and all the instructions are written in French. My calling card got me nothing but a busy signal. Finally, I managed to reach United using my VISA card. Eventually, they were able to tell me the Air France flight that they had shipped my bags on.
Five people and two hours later, Air France finally confessed to having my bags. By that time, as you might have suspected, the baggage claim area was already closed. “Look here, I’m going to Africa for a month. I need my stuff!” Finally, they sent a supervisor down to unlock the storage area where he found one of my two bags. Unfortunately, some overly helpful Air France baggage handler-substitute had decided to send my other bag on to United. Yes, that’s right. United’s baggage area was also already closed. “How am I going to get my bag?” I asked.
“Come back tomorrow morning,” the supervisor said.
“I don’t think so, dude. Tomorrow I’m going to be in the deepest, darkest part of Africa.”
“Oh, well then, we will send it on to you there.”
“I don’t think so. When I get to Luanda, I’m going to take a charter flight to Cabinda and then a helicopter to Malongo. Why don’t you just send it back to my home in America?”
“We can do that.”
Unfortunately, my backpack also had my shaving kit in it with my toothbrush and razor and deodorant, and other such good things as might come in handy when one is going to be gone for a month to a place that doesn’t have stores. This is not to mention about 25 CD’s, my security badge to get my meals at the camp, and the keys to my room and locker at the camp.
But, wait! It gets worse. I went to check in for my flight to Luanda, which was leaving at 11:55 that night. “Sir, your ticket shows that you are leaving tomorrow night. There is no Air France flight to Luanda tonight.”
“Huh? I assure you, ma’am, I am definitely going to Luanda tonight. So are about 100 other Chevroids and contractors who do this every single month.”
Two supervisors later they realized that, although I was ticketed on Air France, they really meant that I was supposed to fly on a TAAG (Angolan) airplane to Luanda, which really was leaving at 11:15 that night. “I knew that.”
When I got into the camp at Malongo the next morning, I had to round up the janitor to let me into my room. Then I had to walk over to Camp Services to get them to send some guys over to break into my locker so I could get to my clothes, which I left there between rotations.
These guys brought a hammer and a collection of screw drivers and then proceeded to beat the living hell out of my locker door until they got it open. Then they hammered it back into shape and put a new lock on it. Just like new! Never mind all the dents in the door. “You got your clothes, right? What more do you want? A key to the new lock?”
Fortunately, in my locker I had a duplicate set of everything I needed, except for some deodorant and hairspray. So, I expected that pretty soon I would fit right in with Angolan locals by not wearing any deodorant for the next month. My hair would take on that wind-blown, natural look. But, no problem. In the words of the immortal Greg Griffitts, “I’ll just t’row on a hat.”
That night, exhausted from my two day trip, I went to bed about 9:00 p.m., only to be awakened by my phone ringing off the hook. “Is Andy there?” “No, Andy went home today.” Then, about 10:30, the phone woke me up again, “Is Jaun Parra there?” “No, Juan is in another room. You have the wrong number.” I didn’t sleep another wink the whole night. I was still awake when the alarm went off at 4:30 the next morning. Needless to say, I was a little grouchy that next day.
Nothing left now but 28 days and a wake-up!