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August 11, 2006

Glad I'm Not Trying To Fly Home From London This Week

It seemed like the only news on NPR all day yesterday was the foiled terrorist plot to blow up flights from London to the US, which just made me so grateful not to be at Heathrow yesterday. This is the first summer since 2003 that I haven't gone to London, and last summer I had my own harrowing experience trying to get home.

After spending two weeks doing research in London, I went to Ghana for a month to take a class at the University of Ghana and to do research in the National Archives. I was scheduled to fly home on August 12. By that time I had been in Ghana for four weeks, and away from home for six weeks. I was tired, lonely, dirty, and ready to come home. But when I woke up that morning, the woman I was staying with was watching the BBC News, which was covering the British Airways strike. All BA flights had been cancelled. I didn’t know what to do. She didn’t have a phone, so I couldn’t call the airline, but she had one of her employees drive me to the BA office. When I got there, they said there was nothing they could do. My flight was cancelled and they didn’t know when BA would start flying again. They advised me to go to the airport and see if another airline could get me on. I was in a panic. I was far from home, in another country where I didn’t know what my rights were as an airline consumer, and where nobody seemed very concerned about helping me get home. I couldn’t even call home to tell people what was going on.

I went to the internet café and sent an email to David and my parents, telling them that my flight was cancelled and that I didn’t know when I would be able to get home. There was a travel agent across the street from the internet café, so I asked him if there was anything he could do for me. He said he could get me on an Alitalia flight for $800, but I was hesitant to go ahead with that because I didn’t know if BA would reimburse me. Nonetheless, I was determined to get home, so I packed up my suitcase and went to the airport. I went from airline to airline, but all the flights were totally booked. People who had heard about the BA strike before I had had gotten all of the available seats. I took a taxi back to the BA office. The best they could do was rebook me on a flight on August 17, five days later. They offered to put me up in a hotel, but I preferred to keep staying where I had been staying. Still, I couldn’t imagine spending another five days in Ghana. I wanted to be home. The next day I went back to the BA office. That day it was even crazier than the day before. There was an American family making a huge scene, demanding to be put on a flight that night, which made me embarrassed to be an American. A Ghanaian woman actually told the American woman that she needed to learn "African patience"! The Ghanaians who were there were, for the most part, waiting patiently, willing to accept whatever the situation was. Perhaps it was because they were already home, so they could just stay at their houses until they were able to fly, or perhaps it is because of their religious faith, their knowledge that God (Jesus or Allah -- everyone is either Christian or Muslim) would get them where they needed to go eventually. BA was resuming flights that night, but was not willing to bump anyone who had a ticket for that night, so people who had been scheduled to fly for the two days prior were just being given seats that were available. Some people would have to wait two weeks to get back to the US. When I heard that, I felt very lucky to have been given a new ticket for the seventeenth, and I gave up trying to get home sooner.

My parents, meanwhile, were freaking out. They emailed to tell me to buy a ticket on any available airline and that they would reimburse me – they just wanted me safely back in the Western Hemisphere. But once I accepted the fact that I would be there another five days, I became very grateful to have that extra time there, which allowed me to do some things I hadn’t done yet. I had my first street meal, I spent a day reading on the balcony of the house where I was staying, I spent a few extra days doing research at the archives, and I met some nice people. I wrote to my family, telling them that I was resigned to stay until the seventeenth, and not to worry about me: that every day I was there, something happened that made me glad to be there – even the days I spent freaking out at the BA office!

I’m also super-grateful to the woman I was staying with, who let me stay on for the extra five days. I would have felt much more stranded if I had been on my own in a hotel. But it was still scary, and I began to worry that I would never get home – that I would just have to apply for Ghanaian citizenship and finish my Ph.D. at the University of Ghana. On the morning of the seventeenth, I was so scared that something was going to happen to prevent me from getting home – that my flight would be cancelled, or that it would turn out that I didn’t actually have a reservation for that flight. People told me to get to the airport several hours early, and I did – there was no way I was going to miss that flight! It wasn’t until we were actually in the air that I truly believed I would soon be home. When I got to Heathrow, I called David to tell him that I was safely back in the First World, and burst into tears on the answering machine because I was so relieved.

Posted by eklanche at August 11, 2006 09:01 AM

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