Return to Cayman – Party on the Plane

The party started at Heathrow.  Now normally I am used to heading over to the airport, sipping a coffee and a Danish while reading the paper and waiting to board, then settling down for hours of movie watching and eating from plastic trays.  Rarely do I have more than a fleeting conversation with any of my flying neighbours, infrequently I might travel with a colleague.  But this time there was a contingent of about twenty people from UK institutions that were all travelling on the plane, as well as the Crown Dependencies of Isle of Man and the Bailiwicks of Guernsey and Jersey (the makeup of UK territories is quite complex)  as well as several from Gibraltar and the South Atlantic who were connecting through London .  British Airways only fly every couple of days to Cayman Islands and this was the one which most closely coincided with the conference.  So it really was no big surprise to start seeing familiar faces as I headed to the gate.

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Conservationists from all over the world

Once on board there was a party atmosphere; I wondered what the effect we had on the other 100 or so passengers either heading with us to Cayman or going on to Turks and Caicos where the flight was scheduled to head off to once we had been dumped off.  I suppose it was a bit like a polite version of a rugby team or stag weekend group.

It meant that before we even reached the hotel we had gelled as a group. Once there we met the Caribbean delegates and a couple of others from other parts of the world , and we were ready to start the party. Oh, and conduct some serious conversation about conservation to boot.

Blown Away – Acting Suspiciously At Atlanta

And then it was more than a bit bumpy as the plane shuddered into the cross winds but as soon as we were aloft the pilot almost immediately turned the aircraft into the wind, we bounced against the clouds for a couple of minutes but then … it was an ordinary flight.  About to and a half hours flying over Cuba and the Gulf of Mexico before coming down to land at the hubbub of Atlanta’s enormous airport.  I always like coming into the big American airports where you can glance around and see another plane landing and maybe a couple taking off all at different angles.  But Atlanta is a nightmare to get around ; it does not matter which terminal block you come into you are all funnelled down to one huge immigration centre.  I had a couple of hours before the overnight to London, but still wanted to get through all the airport hassle, and wanted to ensure when I got to the BA check in desk that I was actually booked on this flight back home that night.  That was OK but this strange trip (four days in Cayman islands in total) had one final fling at me.  Because I was a late booking  I was seen as a problem for the Department of Homeland Security.  Apparently I was profiled along with terrorists who make late arrangements to try and hide their paper (or these days e-paper) trail.  A sticker was put on my boarding pass which in theory meant I was to be taken aside at the airport security gates for a fuller search.  But the queues of travellers at the security check were long and the officials wanted to process us quickly, so despite me flashing the boarding pass with the special sticker at them they waived me through.  I went and sat down at the gate way down the end of the terminal; already a crowd had formed and boarding was due to start in a few moments.  But I was then called to the desk; apparently Homeland Security had picked up that I had not been properly checked.  I asked if I needed to go all the way back to the gate (a long way in Atlanta), but they said no; a couple of staff were coming down and I would be taken to a “quiet area” to be discreetly searched.

Imagine the reaction of the other passengers when they saw me being escorted to one side of the gate by two enormous guys in full dark blue body armour; their guns slung round their waists.  The quiet area turned out to be at the top of the ramp to the plane.  Yes it was quiet when we arrived but as they brusquely (but not unkindly) dealt with me, boarding started and a steady trail of passengers filed by me and saw my hands against the wall being frisked, my shoes off, then hands on head, pockets emptied, one leg up, then the other.

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Out of danger?  We land at Atlanta

Of course nothing was found and after all the curt statements by the staff while they frisked one of the guys said “Have a nice flight, sir” and I was allowed to join the queue and board.  I did get a few nervous looks from the people seated around me that night as we headed north over the eastern seaboard and back over the Atlantic to London.

Blown Away – One sensible route

There were one or two others, already booked out on the handful of flights left to leave that morning.  As I was heading back I wanted to speak to reception.  They were still being quite forceful about getting rid of me – they did not want the responsibility of looking after me. The desk to assist with flight changes was still functioning and I talked to this guy for a while.  I would have been happy to go as long as I could carry on immediately.  Trouble was the BA option from Cayman would not leave at the earliest for four more days anyway.  If I took any of the other planes leaving, I could still end up being stranded in the wrong place for days on end waiting for a seat back to the UK.  To add to the complication,  I was due back on another job in Mauritius in less than a week’s time.

In the end there was a chance – Delta were flying out in the next couple of hours with a route that  would get me to Atlanta with a couple of hours to make the connection to the BA flight.  But he could only help me to book the Delta flight.  I had to go online and look at changing the BA flight.  If there was a problem on either leg, I would end up with an expensive mistake.  As it was I had to shell out over 400 pounds to get on the Delta flight, on top of what had already been quite an expensive flight to Cayman.  But it would get me home.  The deal was done; but I had to get to the airport immediately as they were already checking people in.  I asked the hotel to prepare my bill then ran to my room, piled my belongings in the case and rushed back.  While I was paying off the bill, someone was grabbing me a taxi, and then I was away.

The Ankle Deep Sea – Trouble at Immigration

I drove back to Kent the next morning and took the next evening’s flight to Mauritius.  In theory I had about four hours before my Rodrigues flight, plenty of time to get through the queues at immigration.  As ever the jumbo jet from London was very full, mainly with holidaymakers, and the immigration room was packed.  I was near the back of one queue and as I got to the desk smiled as usual, and let the officer read my official letters of introduction as a government contractor and stamp my passport.  He did the first, but not the second.

He asked me to stand aside a moment and got his supervisor.  While the first officer continued to process the remaining queue behind me, I was asked to wait on some chairs at the back of the room.  I sat there for over half an hour watching the room empty.  I had no real idea of the delay until the supervisor returned and very pleasantly and very firmly told me that I was not allowed to stay in Mauritius.  I showed him the letter once more, and that I had been given right to be a consultant for the government here for longer than the usual tourist visa.

Unfortunately, this was no good.  The supervisor explained that I was allowed on this visa only to stay in Mauritius for 90 days maximum in one year, and with the two months I had been here in the spring, and the two months in the autumn, I had now more than exceeded that limit.   I explained that I was working for government and was due on a flight to Rodrigues  in under two hours time.  They tried to ring the Ministry of Environment but of course it was a Saturday.  It turned out that my clients should have filled in some paperwork when I arrived to allow me to visit the Immigration Department in Port Louis so I could get a proper visa, that would have allowed me to have an unlimited visa period.  With a lot of careful negotiation and patience, I eventually was given dispensation to travel to Rodrigues, with the promise that when I returned in five days time I went to the Immigration Department.  In the meantime, they would inform the Ministry of Environment to get them to start processing the paperwork.

With barely an hour to go I finally headed down to the baggage hall; fortunately my bag had been set to one side and I was able to retrieve it easily and dash round to the Internal departures check in.  It was barely ten minutes before I was aboard the ATR prop plane and heading east.

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Plaisance Airport behind Mahebourg

Life on Mars – Welcome to Georgetown

30 minutes later we repeated out taxi to the runway.  Every single person had their fingers crossed and were daring to hope we might leave.  It was now about 70 hours since Edsel and I had first left Kent and we had only achieved about 100 miles of our 4000 mile trip.  The engines revved up, then roared then we powered almost interminably along the 10,000ft runway.  We lifted, slowly, and rose into the air and the relief amongst everyone on board was palpable as we got to our cruising altitude, leaving the sunshine and harvesting of southern England below us and heading out towards Iberia and the West African coast.

The age of the plane meant that the only entertainment was from large screens at the front of each cabin and it turned out that only children’s films were shown.  I read a lot of my book that day.  We were served “dinner” about 11 am-  a ham sandwich which Edsel would not touch, and breakfast about 6pm – pork sausage and scrambled egg and  again Edsel had to pick out the pork.  No flexibility to the time of day – the catering reflected the original night time flight plan.

Over several trips to Ascension Island I have never been so delayed, and very little changed over the service.  Different charter airlines have undertaken the contract for the RAF, including an American firm who shipped over their own cabin staff who called you honey and chassed up and down the aisle in their tight uniforms.  The planes changed to , including a DC10 and an Airbus.  And the last time the entertainment did change and iPads were handed round from which you could select your movie or music.  But those two meals of ham sandwich and sausage and egg have never been altered.

The sun was set by the time we came into land at Ascension and all we saw was the red lights of obstacles around the airfield and the huge floodlights on the airport apron.  I’d met our host, Tara once before in London, and once the introductions to Edsel were made, we were taken the few miles to the capital city – Georgetown.  I’d not bothered to call Tara to tell her about the delays – she knew far more through the network on island and what was the point when the only option was to wait for the plane to depart and pick us up when we arrived.

I joke when I say we headed to the capital city.  True it is the administrative centre of the island, but in fact it was a town of barely 250 souls, in a country of about 1000 people.  The make up of the island was a mixture of military staff and workers supporting the functioning of the island, and one or two private businesses.  There are actually very few military ranks there.  Around the airport is the American Air Force base but apart from the commander and a couple of others they tend to be contract workers keeping the place oiled and greased in case it is needed.  The RAF base is up the hill about a mile away from the airfield.  It holds a few military staff but again has more contractors keeping the place going and a host of visitors including military people on rest and recuperation or R&R from the Falkland Islands.  What a shock it must be to them to feel the tropical heat of Ascension Island after the windswept cold of the Falklands.

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Georgetown

Life on Mars – Will we ever get there?

About 150 people gathered under the portico of the hotel, but no buses arrived for nearly half an hour.  We contemplated walking to the terminal and in fact we saw some head off alone, but in the end we complied with authority (was I already being brainwashed into acceptance of taking orders?)  and when the buses arrived dutifully boarded.

The trip took less than four minutes but was uncomfortable as this old bus rattled as it bounced over speed bumps.  Once at the airport we had no queuing to do as we already had our boarding passes from the check in the day before.  It was an RAF boarding pass in red and blue.  Despite the flight being conducted on a charter jumbo jet and crewed by a commercial airline, it was still treated as a military flight.

We were held in the check in area for about an hour and given there were no windows onto airside, we had no idea whether our plane had turned up or not.  Rumours went round but we had no firm evidence.  I saw now that although many people were in civilian clothes, some of these were military.  On this occasion and later trips I could usually distinguish between the majority who were travelling to the Falklands and those who were alighting half way at Ascension Island.  The Falklands bunch had fleeces, bubble jackets, heavy sweaters and scarves about their person.  Ascension Island travellers were in t shirts and light trousers.  As well as the British there were a number of darker skinned people with a variety of different features but all with something in their pleasant countenances that made me link them together.  This was my first real encounter with the Saints.

Saints are the common term for people who come from St Helena.  There has always been a smattering of them on any flight up and down to the island.  They may come from St Helena but many work on Ascension Island and the Falklands where the wages have traditionally been much better.  And several have taken up residency in the UK.  The UK is also where many go to University and there are little honey pot concentrations of them in West London and Swindon.  The latter is not really much of a surprise as it is the nearest large town to Brize Norton.

After another long sit we were called through to the departure lounge.  To get there we went through the ticket check and airport security machines like you do at any airport, but the staffing was small at Brize and I found the same people who check you in were often at the boarding pass stand and both checked the x-rays and frisked you on the way in.

We were now in an airy but boring room.  But at least there were large windows at one end and I could now see the white jumbo jet that had been causing all the problems.  We were never told exactly what had happened to it to cause it not to travel on time, but still be able to be piloted to Luxembourg to be fixed.  It’s not a huge worry but it always makes me a little more nervous of a flyer when I know something has recently been wrong with my aircraft.  I know deep down it is more likely that it is in a better state now than it had been but it does not stop me thinking about my fatality probabilities.

It seemed another age before we were called forward to the gate and shuttled off on buses.  Curiously, the military do queues by rank, so all officers went first, then the enlisted men, the contractors and consultants and finally the civvies like ourselves.  When we got on board we were all scattered around this huge aircraft – and there was at least two seats for every passenger.  We waited for ages again and I had time to look in a bit more detail.  The aircraft had obviously been owned by British Airways at some stage – some 1980’s style branding was still evident on the panels, but its history had obviously been more complicated as it had instructions stuck on the seat backs about life vests and seatbelts that appeared to be in Indonesian.  I later saw a plaque which stated that this had been the first ever 747 that had been delivered to British Airways.  And it showed.  Some of the seats were broken, tray tables were missing bits and every armrest had an ashtray.

This was going to be an interesting flight…. if we ever got off the ground.  Eventually with a huge apology from the captain for the delay, we taxied down to the runway and turned and waited for the all clear to take off.  And we waited.  And we waited.  And then slowly but definitely the huge jumbo full of weary, angry passengers lumbered back to the terminal.  The shrieks of “oh what” and “no way” around all the cabins  were almost in unison.  The captain once more apologised and explained that all jumbo jets have 7 compasses, and one of them had failed.  And without it they could not leave.  This did nothing to enhance the incredulity of the passengers, but we were told we would stay on the plane and an engineer was being called in from the airfield to take a look.