Saturday, August 3, 2019

Not so happy Easter in Dusseldorf

Not so happy Easter in Dusseldorf
May 13
13:08 2019

“Udochukwuka”! That could only be my father. He was the only one who called my name in full. We were taking a walk in a garden that went on forever enjoying a much needed catch up. He called my name as I almost tripped from laughing hard at a joke he had made. My dream was interrupted by the announcement from the flight deck that we were commencing descent into Dusseldorf. I was upset. I get to dream about my father not too often but whenever I do there are always cherished. The interruption was untimely and brought me back to the reality of my unpleasant travel. “What the hell was I doing in Dusseldorf on Easter day?” The question was still ringing in my head when the plane tire shit the tarmac.

I was fortunate enough to have been invited to a design meeting on Strength and Solidarity for Human Rights Organization sat the University of Columbia in New York. My go to airline for such transatlantic travels has always been British Airways. This time around, the flight cost was ridiculously high (another issue to be taken up some day) that I could not bring my organization to pay. We opted for Lufthansa.  It was supposed to be a routine flight plan: Abuja to Frankfurt, 4 hours layover and then Frankfurt to New York. If only life was that simple!

As a ‘smart’ traveler, I had checked in online and arrived at the airport around 8.30pm for my 10.20pm flight to Frankfurt. I am always particular about getting a comfy seat. When you are traveling on what I prefer to call a ‘chicken or beef’ cabin, you need to plan very early. We boarded our flight right on time and taxied away from the gate. After about 10 minutes, the captain informed us that there was a computer error message and we had to taxi back to the gate to troubleshoot the problem. What was supposed to be a system reset lasted for about 3 hours. Surprisingly there wasn’t much complaint. There is something about travelers’ patience after a painful plane accident. All around me, people were saying “we don’t mind the delay as long as we are safe”. Gradually the cabin was heating up. When the engines were completely turned off, the heat became almost unbearable. Somehow we all kept calm;this was for our safety, after all. Deep down, I just wanted to go home and continue the trip the next day. It was Easter eve and I didn’t relish travelling away from my family. My prayer failed. Around 1am, we finally took off. The last thing I remembered was someone asking me the very question that guts me in economy class- ‘Chicken or Beef?’ I woke up to our descent into Frankfurt. The captain had done a good job gaining time. I still had an almost 2 hours layover before my flight to New York.

Frankfurt airport interests me because of the opportunity for long walks. It seems designed to make people exercise. I am never one to complain about long walks but on this particular occasion I did not feel like it. I was still sleepy. I managed the long walk, cleared security and headed towards a section of the airport specifically designed for US bound flights. In my mind I just muttered, “These Americans! Your gragra is too much.” This section comes with enhanced security check. In my own case expectedly, a full body pat down.  There are some ‘privileges’ that come with our green passport. Body search is almost always one of them. You can then imagine my anger that after the unwelcomed touching and space invasion when the nice lady at our gate announced that our flight from Frankfurt to New York had been cancelled. In my mind this must  be the handwork of ‘my’ village people. The interesting option was then to go back to customer service and get rebooked. Another long walk by a now grumpier me.

The customer service center looked like a marketplace. Most travelers were in the same situation as myself. Another long wait. My head was heavy and I was really tired. When I got to the counter, the nice lady punched her computer severally and then looked up and said to me, “You are booked for Newark tomorrow”. The expression on my face said it all. One look at my face and she goes, “let me see what else is possible today”. My expression did not change. After what seemed like eternity to me, the nice lady looks up with a big smile. “We have found a way to get you to New York “, she said. “You will fly from Frankfurt to Dusseldorf and from there to New York.” At this point, my brain wasn’t really processing the information clearly. I took one look at her and said “Where the hell is Dusseldorf? In what country?” There was a mix of surprise and humor in her face. “Germany” she responded. And then my brain clicked and I muttered under my breath “where else will Dusseldorf be”. This was one of the few occasions I was glad I had a Schengen visa. It would have been a different story if I couldn’t get into Germany. As much as I like the idea of getting into New York same day. I didn’t relish the fact that I was now going to fly on ‘Euro Wings’. I have never heard of them.

Our landing in Dusseldorf was uneventful but I had a task at hand. In spite of the assurances given to me by the nice lady in Frankfurt, I needed to make sure that my bag was travelling with me. Dusseldorf is the capital of the German state of North Rhine –Westphalia. It is the third busiest airport in Germany. In my view, the airport is everything but user friendly. I had gone to the customer service center to inquire about my luggage. I was then informed that I needed to go to luggage claim, collect my luggage from the Lufthansa flight that brought me to Dusseldorf and then check it in on Euro Wings. This wasn’t the kind of news I was hoping for but I had no choice. I followed the airport signs meticulously and headed to the Baggage Claim area. But here is the twist.  In this nice airport, you meet the exit door before you get to baggage claim area. You actually have to make a turn just in front of the exit door to access the baggage claim area. In my enthusiasm to get to baggage claim fast, I did not realize this unique feature of the airport and I exited the airport. That was where the second phase of my headache started.

To make my way back to the airport, I had to go and explain myself to the security folks. Finding the right place to go was not an easy task. When I eventually did, I had to go over my story from the cancelled flight to the point where I existed the airport. The lady I met was very kind. She granted me access through a restricted area and directed me to the luggage folks. After minutes of punching the computer, I was informed that my luggage did not arrive and there was nothing that could be done until I got to New York. My carry-on luggage had only my laptop. My meeting was starting the next day. At this point the combination of hunger, frustration and sleepy eye kicked in big time. I had to find a place to eat something. More bad news. I spilled my hot chocolate on my only shirt. I felt like sitting down on floor like my 2 year old daughter, screaming.There was no remedy to my shirt situation. I had to carry on bravely.

Our flight was called and we started the annoying process of boarding for the US, enhanced security check and all. The Euro Wings which was to take me to New York was clean and nice. However, I was a bit surprised when they announced their cabin services. Not everybody was going to get food! The rest could purchase cold meal or hot meal. Now ‘chicken or beef’ sounded like paradise. For those   lucky to qualify for a meal, you soon realized that you patronized the in-flight cuisine at your cost because the meal only amplified hunger. Even the hunger could not dull my paranoia that everyone was dissecting the hot chocolate stains on my shirt.

We arrived JFK right on time. And started the long trek to customs. I was still so conscious of my stained shirt. When I got to the immigration desk and quickly went through the clearance formality, the officer said from out of the blues “Are you travelling with more than $10,000?” I gave him this incredulous look and he burst out laughing. “But you look very rich he said.” My eyes immediately went to the stain on my shirt. I managed a laugh and said,“I look forward to being very rich.” This friendly officer and my long nap in the plane brightened my mood. I did not bother going to the carousel. I went straight to the airline representatives to inform that my bag did not arrive. The information that they were not sure when my bag will arrive was a downer. However, when they encouraged me to shop and bring my receipts for refunds, the Nigerian spirit in me leaped with joy. I took a long look at my Bank of America card and said “Hello pal, we’ve got a date”. Easter was not so shabby after all.  Weeks after, Lufthansa has not paid a dime!


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