Sunday, December 9, 2018

It’s Complicated: 49 Hours, 4 Flights, 5 Taxis, 4 Trains, 2 Walks, and 2 Beaches

Now THIS is how to spend
a layover
And, yes, the cockpit door swung open when the plane lifted off..

I recently spent 49 hours on a complex journey that brought me from Mindelo on the island of Sao Vicente in Cape Verde to Brilon, Germany, my wife’s hometown, and involved (count ‘em), four flights, five taxis (only three with working seatbelts), two walks (not counting airports), an airport shuttle bus, an airport train, and two regular trains. Oh and I managed to get two beach visits in along the way. (Not a big beach guy but I’d rather relax in a beach chair and watch the waves than sit in an airport contemplating how someone could design a chair that’s this uncomfortable and get paid for it.)

Why would I do this (a question that ran through my head, with the addition of various epithets, during the less enjoyable parts of the trip)?

It was all in service of cramming different objectives into a single trip. I wanted to go somewhere different with Ulla (we chose Senegal because we wanted to get to Africa, and because I have a good friend living there who I haven’t seen in 11 years), be in Germany to visit Ulla’s family for the first anniversary of her father’s passing, and visit another country. My friend recommended Cape Verde. It sure looked easy: it’s only 400 miles from Dakar out in the Atlantic. But getting there proved highly challenging, and therein lies the lesson I learned (and you, dear reader, get to share): it’s pretty much always possible to get from there to here, but it may require some fancy footwork.


Man with a Plan
Getting to Dakar was straightforward – with one glitch. We traveled through Paris since Senegal is a former French colony and there’s twice daily Air France service. The glitch came courtesy of Norwegian Air who launched a direct Denver-CDG flight for which we grabbed an incredibly good fare – except they cancelled our flight two months later. (Oh, and it took them three weeks to issue a refund, during which time they were impossible to reach, all coming together to land them a spot on my personal Do Not Fly list.) We ended up taking American via Chicago outbound and DFW inbound.

Getting from Dakar to Cape Verde? Not so easy. The Cape Verdean national carrier, TACV, has gone out of business, although they still a web site so I only found out they were gone by Googling after finding nothing worked on their site. Searching for flights from Dakar to Praia (the main city) turned up only flights via Europe! Fortunately my friend in Senegal told me about a local company, Transair, that flies there. Transair has a very limited web presence in French only. I was able to submit a request for a ticket, and got an email back with a quote. Then the fun began: the only way to pay was via wire transfer. Unfortunately, none of the wire transfer services would transfer into a Senegalese bank account. They would only transfer to a local branch. Thus I emailed back and forth with the Transair rep, who eventually (I kid you not) walked across the street, pulled the cash I’d sent from Western Union, returned to her office, and then emailed me the ticket!

Moving among the various Cape Verdean islands provided additional challenges. With the aforementioned national carrier gone, I figured ferries were the only option. However, getting from Santiago (the main island where the capital, Praia, is located) to, say, Sao Vicente, which is renown for its music scene, would take a full day on a ferry. Even getting to Fogo, nearer to Santiago and possessing a spectacular active volcano, would involve four hours. Oh, and all the travel sites warned of rough seas and almost guaranteed sea sickness, something I’ve had twice and never want to experience again.

Then I magically discovered a carrier, Binter, that offered service between the various Cape Verdean islands. (I’m guessing they may have jumped in when TACV went under as they’ve been around for a while servicing the Canaries.) They offered quite a few flight options between the islands, plus online purchasing, so I was off to the races.

Let's Get Old School
Checking in for the Transair flight in Dakar was a new experience – or a very old one. First a guy checked my name off a crookedly printed spreadsheet, then I slowly made my way to the counter and checked in. I have to admit that until the moment I received my boarding pass, I wasn’t entirely certain I hadn’t simply transferred 220,000 West African Francs to some Nigerian prince. The very nice gate agent did warn me to make sure I was at the front of the line as there were no assigned seats. 
We made it, thank God!

Passing through passport control was interesting as the immigration agent kept pausing in her review of my travel documents to watch a video on her phone. Maybe it was a routine as she tried to trip me up about how long I’d been in Senegal. Once inside the terminal, we sat … and sat. There were no announcements, just staff milling around until in response to some unknown signal, everyone surged forward, we showed boarding passes (and were checked off another paper list), and then strode out to a waiting airport bus. The process took forever. People were dashing back and forth, there was a lot of talking in French, Wolof and Portuguese, and I saw people with handfuls of cash so I’m not entirely certain bribery wasn’t the order of the day. 

Keeping the gate agent’s admonition in mind, I kept myself right near the bus door, which allowed me to make a mad dash for the plane, thinking I’d be first onboard. Alas, there were already four or five guys seated. How they got there is a mystery to me. I grabbed a single seat in the 1-2 layout (I haven’t seen that in many years) and settled in, only to realize the aircraft was awfully old. There were cracks in the fuselage lining and seats, missing recline buttons, broken overhead bins – and on the way back I noticed a huge patch on the outside of the plane. (Later, I researched the model, an Embraer 145, and realized it couldn’t have been older than 1993, when it was first introduced. Whoever had that aircraft before Transair used the living shit out of it! On the plus side, the legroom was decent as it had an old-style economy arrangement. Ah, those were the days!) We managed to take off, although the cockpit door swung open with a bang just as we lifted off, revealing a pilot (perhaps an instructor?) seated in the jump seat in the middle. And then once we were at cruising altitude, one of the flight attendants walked up and down the aisle spraying what I later learned was disinfectant, although for a brief moment I thought he was some sort of terrorist trying to incapacitate us.

After four hours of hanging around the tiny Praia airport (almost no seating, one small coffee shop and no AC), I was finally allowed to check in for my Binter flight to Sao Vicente, a short hop via an ATR turboprop. It was the second time this year I’ve flown on a turboprop and this one was considerably nicer and quieter than the last one, an Austrian Airlines flight from Vienna to Sibiu, Romania that was borderline deafening. Landing in the dark, we walked off the tarmac into the atmospherically lit Cesaria Evora Airport (I love an airport named after a singer) in San Pedro, 15 minutes from Mindelo (home to 95% of the population on Sao Vicente), my home for the next four nights. There I encountered the next complication as the taxi to my AirBnB wasn’t waiting as expected. This was a problem as my host had indicated that directions were complicated so hadn’t provided a real address. After trying several ways to communicate with her, I took a chance and hopped in a cab. Eventually we got the host’s mother on the phone and she managed to guide us to the place. Turned out that when I’d changed the reservation, that information hadn’t been conveyed to the mother who actually lives in the place. Fortunately it was a lovely, well furnished apartment and I had a very nice bedroom with its own bathroom. And she provided me with one of the nicest breakfast I’ve ever had at an AirBnB.
I love just walking into an airport off the tarmac.

It was the reverse trip that ran to 49 hours, mostly because I had to build in time for potential flight delays, given I was traveling on four separate tickets, and flight delays to, from, and within Cape Verde are not unusual. 

Life's a Beach
First step, get back to Praia. I had to check out of my AirBnB by 11 am, which left me with a couple of hours to kill. I’d planned on spending it having a nice lunch on the harbor, but as soon as I walked outside, a taxi pulled over and asked if I needed a ride to the airport. After some back and forth in a combination of Portuguese, English and French, the driver convinced me to head to San Pedro “the nicest beach on the island.” We drove right past the airport, turned left at the ocean and drove right past the end of the runway (complete with jet blast warning) and stopped at a beachside restaurant. I trucked out into the sand with my luggage and managed to change into my shorts without offending anyone. Unfortunately, the combination of high winds and fine sand created a sandblast effect, so after only 15 minutes I headed back to the restaurant for a very nice and cheap (800 Escuados, about $8) tuna steak lunch before walking the 2 km to the terminal. The same strong wind kept me cool – until I got to the terminal where my sweat glands went into overdrive. I was dripping! The rest of the passengers must have wondered what I was up to!

Quick easy hop to Praia, a short but crazy cab ride to my AirBnb in the old part of Praia (preceded by a shouting match amongst drivers), a nice few hours wandering the city, followed by dinner and music before being home by 8 pm, and then I was off to the airport again at 6:30 the next morning for a relatively smooth trip back to Dakar (and this time the cockpit door stayed closed when we took off).

I had almost 12 hours in Dakar, and while it’s a nice airport, I really didn’t want to spend that much time there, so I took beach trip number two. My friends had recommended a small, funky beach hotel in the town of Popenguine, about 45 minutes from the airport. I hopped into a cab, for which I overpaid (sometimes you just don’t feel like bargaining), and made it after several stops to ask directions and a final 10 minutes of bouncing at 5 km/h along potholed “streets.” The Pierre de Lisse was paradisiacal: a palm-lined pool and restaurant overlooking the beach. I had a very good lunch and then discovered that anyone who eats there gets free use of the facilities. Four hours of reading in the shade of a palm-covered umbrella, with the occasional visit to the pool or bar, ensued until I caught a ride back to the airport with the bartender’s brother. A couple of hour of browsing the buffet and enjoying the view from the brand new and relatively inexpensive airport lounge, and I was off to Paris. 

The flight to Paris was hellish. I’d paid extra for a “roomier” seat, but the extra legroom extended into the galley and exit area so there was constant traffic. It was one of the seats with restricted width, which I normally like as it means my legs don’t spread under the armrest into my seatmate. But these were outrageously narrow. I could barely squeeze into them. And my seatmate was a big French dude who was a complete ass and made no effort to avoid constantly smacking into me. Thank God for the single Xanax tablet I had (it was supposed to be two but I managed to lose one somewhere on the plane; I hope the cleaning crew enjoyed it!) as at least I managed to zone out for three hours.

Lots of boring logistical details to sort out in Paris but that all went smoothly, as did my flight to Düsseldorf via EuroWings, a new (to me) carrier that we quite enjoyed. Nice planes, reasonable legroom, good prices. Then through a miracle of technology and speed, I managed to get from the plane to the train platform in Düsseldorf in only 20 minutes, leaving me with 12 minutes before the train to Brilon. If I’d missed that one, I’d have been waiting another two hours. Then a simple matter of making my connection in Dortmund and then walking to Ulla’s mom’s apartment in Brilon, a 15 minute stroll made easier by the fact that Ulla and her mom met me and Ulla carried my smaller bag.

Did I sleep like a baby that night after all that? You betcha! Nine hours my friends…

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