Monday, February 22, 2010
After the taxi breakdown on the way to the Dakar airport, I hoped the rest of our trip would go smoothly. Unfortunately, the incident proved to be a mere taste of the bad luck we would encounter over the next three days.
Our flight to Nairobi on Kenya Airways had a stop en route in Bamako. We landed in the Malian capital after two hours in the air, and waited for an hour while the ground staff cleaned the plane and put blankets on each seat.
After another hour there was still no sign of the passengers that were joining the flight in Bamako, and we started to worry. Shortly thereafter came the dreaded announcement that, due to a mechanical problem, the flight was going to be delayed until the morning. A replacement part needed to be flown in from Nairobi, and we would all be put up in a hotel for the night.
We unhappily filed off the plane into the dusty nighttime air. The temperature was 100 degrees F (38 C) and the airport was less than air conditioned. After the usual amount of confusion that accompanies large groups, we boarded a bus (also not air conditioned) to Hotel Olympe, Kenya Airways’ idea of a decent place to put us up for the night.
Our hotel room had a very lived-in feel, which is a blatant euphemism for the fact that it wasn’t clean. The pillows on the bed looked like someone had just used them, there was an empty water bottle on the dresser, and the bar of soap in the bathroom was, well, brownish. In addition to that, there was only one towel and no hot water to speak of.
It got worse. Dinner wasn’t ready until 11pm, and when it was ready, the hotel insisted on charging us for bottled water but not for Orange Fanta.
We slept decently thanks to the air conditioning, which was the hotel’s first saving grace (the second being free WiFi), and woke up early the next morning to try to get more information on when our flight would leave.
That’s when we got the second piece of bad news: the part that would be used to fix the plane was being flown in on the next Kenya Airways flight from Nairobi to Bamako, which wouldn’t arrive for another day. We were informed that we were scheduled to be stuck in Bamako until the following evening at 6pm. Not good.
We had already re-booked our connecting flight to Lamu the night before when we thought we would be leaving Bamako that morning, and the fare rules prohibited a second change. That meant that we were facing not only a 48 hour delay but also the loss of our entire trip to the island.
We started to work on getting another flight to Nairobi. My boyfriend and I have paid subscriptions to all of the back-end flight booking programs that travel agents use, so we figured we would find something. Unfortunately, we underestimated Bamako’s status as the world’s most underserved airport. There were only a few flights a day, and a lot of them had already left.
Undeterred, we went to the airport, blew past the check in area, and banged down the door of the Kenya Airways office. After negotiating with the chief for an hour, the best he offered us was to try to get our connecting flight in Nairobi re-booked.
It wasn’t what we were hoping for. The only other option was to buy a ticket to Abidjan on Air Ivoire and then take a Kenya Airways flight to Nairobi from there. There was an unnervingly short connection time, though, and the next flight wasn’t for days. As much as we didn’t want to stay in Bamako for 48 hours, we wanted less to be stuck in Abidjan for 72.
All throughout this fiasco, we were urged to go back to the hotel and relax. Right. With the outdoor pool area taken over by what seemed like a school group of almost 200 children and a lobby area that was stuffy and will-to-live sucking, the last thing I could imagine doing at the hotel was relaxing and enjoying myself.
At 2pm we tried our final option, which was to go into the city to the Kenya Airways office in Bamako. Another person on our flight said that she had done it that morning and had gotten re-booked for free on the flight through Abidjan. What we didn’t know until later was that she was a high-ranking official at the UN and a former minister in the South African government. Without those credentials, we got the cold shoulder.
Tired of dealing with airline bureaucracy and sickened by the idea of returning to the hotel, we decided to let fate take its course while we enjoyed ourselves in Bamako. We had already seen most of the sights on our previous visit, so we walked from the Kenya Airways office up to the zoo, figuring that there’s nothing like seeing cute furry animals to brighten one’s mood.
Not so. Perhaps we should have guessed from the entry fee of 12 US cents that the zoo wouldn’t be of the particularly kind-to-animals variety. We walked from the entrance along a pond filled with beautiful lily pads and lots of garbage, and found ourselves face-to-face with what appeared to be an un-caged monkey.
I was a bit confused at first as to why they would let the animals roam freely in the zoo (maybe that’s why the entry fee was so cheap; we were food!), but then I saw that a rope was tied around the monkey’s stomach and that it was tethered to a pole on a three-foot leash. We sighed as it gnawed its tether and then again as some children threw small fruits and peanut shells at it. We kept walking.
It didn’t get worse, but it didn’t get much better. The enclosures were tiny and bare, and the animals looked as unhappy to be there as we were to be missing out on our first day in Lamu. The only redeeming factor was that the animals looked well-fed, some of them very much so. The male lion was in fact the largest I have ever seen.
As we moved along, we discovered that the feline feeding area was littered with donkey ribs, femurs, and even a few heads, and the hyenas and jackals were in pens so small they could barely walk around. The manatee was non-existent, presumably dead, and the chimpanzee was holding an empty plastic soda bottle when we walked up to its cage.
When we had finished walking through the zoo, we bought a bottle of water, which disconcertingly cost 10 times the amount of the zoo admission price.
On the way back to the hotel we received our first piece of good news in two days: Fly 540, the airline with which we were flying to Lamu, was willing to re-book our flights for a second time despite the fare rules explicitly prohibiting it. Relieved, we once again started looking forward to Lamu, even if we only had half as much time as originally planned.
The rest of the evening and the entire next day were spent at the hotel. We killed time talking to the other passengers, using the Internet, and reading. Our meals all started to blend together, not least because lunch and dinner were the exact same meal every time: chicken, beef, or fish in a tomato sauce with a side of rice. It was incredibly bland and unappetizing. We called it the Bamako Diet. Stay tuned for the infomercial.
Our bus to the airport was supposed to arrive at 3pm on Sunday. At 4pm it was still nowhere to be found. We eventually took a taxi, checked in for our flight, and started hoping for the best.
Miraculously, the flight took off only 45 minutes after the scheduled departure time, and after six and a half hours we landed in Nairobi at 4:30am. After arguing for what seemed like an eternity with the Kenya Airways staff, we were finally given access to the lounge (but not the best one) and vouchers for breakfast (but not the full menu).
Then came the next stroke of bad luck. We walked over to the domestic terminal to confirm our booking for our Lamu flight on Fly 540. When we arrived, we were promptly told that we had not actually been re-booked on that day’s flight. Despite our having received an email confirmation, they had no record of the change.
To make matters worse, the flight that day was full. We were devastated, not to mention furious at Kenya Airways for not making sure we were re-booked like they promised a million times in Bamako.
After more arguing and a bit of guilt tripping, we were finally guaranteed one seat on the flight to Lamu. The staff assured us that another one would most likely open up before the flight took off.
Things started looking up at that point. We ate breakfast, which substantially improved our moods, and eventually we both got seats on the flight to Lamu. As if that wasn’t good enough, Kenya Airways actually paid the re-booking fee. It was a small miracle.
At 10:40am we boarded our flight and, two days after our original departure date, we left Nairobi for the island. I’ve never been happier to be on a small prop plane in my entire life.
I very much hope that our bad luck is now behind us, and I learned several important lessons from the situation. First, I will never again take a flight that only runs a few days a week. Second, I will never again fly on Kenya Airways. Third, while it’s often impossible to avoid connecting flights on separate airlines, I will make sure to leave more time between them so as to avoid a re-booking situation like the one we had with Fly 540.
In the meantime, I’ll enjoy the island paradise and the beautiful beaches for the two days I’m lucky enough to spend in Lamu.