Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Antrak Off-track

My disastrous travels across West Africa…

As per Part 1 below – I made it to Ouagadougou Burkina Faso, from Accra, the 766kms, on a rickety 10 seater plane… courtesy of Antrak Air.

On my return to Accra, days later and via two other separate airlines I looked them up and shockingly they actually have a website!

The most hilarious thing is that their motto is, “an Airline of Distinction and Excellence”. Well my experience was anything but excellent.

After my two designated days in Ouaga, I decided to give the airline a call, to confirm my booking on the flying coffin, to return to Accra that evening. Only when I called I was told that they don’t fly on Fridays. “But I have a ticket in my hand that says I’m to fly back to Accra tonight!!”, I said in a miniature panic at the thought of spending a lonely weekend in the desert town… The answer came back at me that they might fly on Sunday. “And what if I need to get back to Accra today?”…. (ask a silly question), she answered that I could try some other airlines… At who’s cost?! I had already been robbed blind on the two way fare of USD $450. I could have flown to London!
She calmly took my number, “in case of anything”… (Like what I might ask? In case a miracle happened and the airline became professional?!).

I spent the rest of the day visiting various travel agents and airline offices to try and arrange a route home. Getting around in West Africa is a nightmare at the best of times. Ouaga is not the best of times. My options all involved at least an extra two stops and one or two extra countries on the trip… At one point I even considered flying Air France to Paris, transferring to Amsterdam and flying with KLM all the way back down to Ghana…

Eventually I was able to get a seat on Air Burkina the following day, to Abidjan, with a stop over in Bobodioulasso (where?! You ask…). From Abidjan I transferred to Air Ivoire on a flight to Accra. All said and done, the journey was 8 hours long. In a normal airplane, with normal schedules, and normal circumstances, this would have been a quick business flight, less than two hours long.

But then this was not a normal circumstance…

I received a call from a little French speaking lady a few days after I’d returned home. “Madam, Antrak will fly tonight”.


Monday, April 23, 2007

The SAGA OF OUAGA – Part 1

I spent a few days in Ouagadougou last week. Where, you might ask, the h*ll is Ouagadougou. It is the uneventful, hotter than parts of hell, capital city of Burkina Faso (which is a country directly north of Ghana, bordering on the Sahara desert).

It would be an understatement to say that the trip was ‘quite an experience’. It all started with the pre-flight nightmares. I arrived at the airport, bags in tow, only to discover there was no check in desk for my airline. I should have heeded the signs at this point and gone straight home. But, being me, I didn’t. I was sent to multiple buildings on the airport property in search of anyone who might know when and where I could check in for Antrak Air to Ouagadougou. Eventually I found one other man who was looking for the same elusive plane.. When we met he was on the phone, calling a friend in Ouaga to find out the weather, as he had heard from an Antrak staff member (who was now nowhere to be found), that the flight would only go if there was no rain up in Ouaga. He figured if he didn’t phone to find out the status, no one else would. The two of us stood and shared ‘madness of traveling in Africa’ stories, and waited. And after an hour or so a few ladies from Antrak showed up and explained that the captain should be here soon and we should ‘exercise patience’, but his car had overheated in traffic…

Three hours after the scheduled take off time, myself, my traveling companion and eight others who had been in a nearby hotel after the Antrak flight from the night before had been cancelled, all set off behind a check in clerk, to the boarding gate.

When I saw the plane for the first time I was gripped with panic. It sat on the runway like some boy’s toy with two propellers – one on each side. It only fit 10 people!!!!!! All my instincts said DON’T GET IN!!!! Still, I walked up the little 3 steps to get in and realized the aisle was about 4 ft tall – meaning all of us had to crouch to get into the seats. Can you say claustrophobic?! The seats were tiny too. No space for an air hostess (so there was none), nor a toilet (must be a luxury), and we could see our bags in a pile at the back. The cockpit was fully open. The two captains (finally having arrived after the car troubles… ) never spoke to us or looked back – not on take off, forget safety instructions!, nor as we landed. I guess the key words here are ‘we landed’, alive.

I must throw in a few more details though - It was so loud in there when the engines started that none of us could believe it! It was like forcibly sitting beside a massive diesel generator. And it shook and vibrated the whole TWO AND A HALF HOURS of the flight.

The icing on the cake was when I first noticed something in my peripheral vision, moving beside me on the wall and realized it was a cockroach. During the flight I think I saw a whole family of them crawling around on the walls and ceiling. It was great. I was wondering whether I’d find one in my luggage!

It was one of the scariest flights I’ve been on yet. (And this includes the time I was flying to Sierra Leone on Bellview Airlines and the crew told us they didn’t have enough life jackets for all the passengers, and we should all bear with them!).. By the way, as an aside, that very Airline had two major crashes in Nigeria last year, killing a total of over 200 people…

Luckily we landed without dying, though it felt pretty terrifying when we hit the runway and the back of the plane skidded from side to side…

I managed to find my way to the hotel at 11:30pm - though we were scheduled to arrive at 8:30pm... The hotel rooms were nice (if decorated like many wedding cakes) – great comfy bed, and the pillows were actually made of chipped foam and not the usual chipped wood or rock that you normally find in West African hotels…

I hit the pillow and slept with an appreciation for solid ground, unknown in my life to date.

Saturday, April 14, 2007

HBO Joins the Club of Naïve Westerners…

...Or when is a Documentary not a Documentary?

I have been busy picking on Oprah (see post about Oprah’s Charities), but I was even more shocked to read that the documentary titled Ithuteng – Never Stop Learning , which is being promoted by HBO, has just won numerous awards at 2006 Film festivals. There are interviews all over the Net, with the young American filmmakers, describing their experiences during filming, and the haunting stories that make up the ‘reality’of the lives of it’s characters. The New York Times screened the film and wrote “It’s a Film about Despair in South Africa, and a School that Offers Hope”.

It’s infuriating! The Star Online website flaunts photos of Hollywood’s elite, rubbing shoulders with the poor, victimized youth of Ithuteng, whom they have flown across, all expenses paid, for the numerous awards shows and press conferences!!! And all of this took place long after Carte Blanche exposed their stories as false, and showed footage of these youngsters admitting the whole thing was a scam to get money and recognition for themselves and the biggest criminal of all – Mama Jackey!!

I wrote to HBO, to inquire about their process of validating the supposedly factual documentaries they promote but not surprisingly, they ignored it. It seems Hollywood is craving an image of caring, of supporting those in need, of looking like the good guys – it’s become trendy to give back to Africa. Like the cosmetics campaigns where they promise to give a dollar from every tube of lipstick sold to stop AIDS in Africa. What a joke…

The thing is, that the makers of the Ithuteng Documentary are the sons of the Chairman of NBC, and whose mother is actress Susan St. James, (in other words, they’ve got a few connections), and promotions were not an issue. The topic of the documentary fit right into the current trends, and the subjects of the documentary were more than happy to market a good story and keep milking it, for a free trip to Hollywood, all sort of royalties and global recognition – despite the fact that back home the bubble had burst and they have admitted on camera that all the stories were lies. The sad truth is that Hollywood sells images and stories and the truth is absolutely irrelevant.

Tuesday, April 3, 2007

Shall we do a rain dance??

... More musings on the 50 years since Independence...

In Ghana we are having a serious energy crisis. They say by the 27th of this month the country’s one hydro electric dam will have to be shut down due to low water levels. Meaning a total blackout countrywide, indefinitely!!!! And those of us lucky enough to have generators for power at our houses will have to buy diesel, which is also in critically low supply and which can be expected to rise in price exponentially over the next month. Can you imagine – the successive governments have never bothered to build another power generating source in the country since the first dam was built in the 1960s!!!

We depend on rain and if it doesn’t rain then we are in trouble. That’s the state this country is in… absolutely unfathomable. Currently, the country is on power rationing, with 12 hours of no electricity for every 24hours with electricity! Power is becoming a luxury – a basic lightbulb in a socket that emits light will be a rare thing, especially in the rural areas of the country - very soon. Not to mention the effect these power cuts are having on businesses. Some are being destroyed by cut productivity already.

All the banners from the anniversary celebrations we had on March 7th lie strewn around the capital city. No one has bothered to remove them so they are left as glaring reminders that once the party is over, the follow up is forgotten.
What are we celebrating again?

Maybe we should all set up a little solar panel and wind generator and bunker down for the rough times ahead...
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