We’ve been off the radar for a few days since we’ve once again been continent hopping–Africa to Europe to Turkey (the one country that occupies two continents: Europe and Asia). During that time we’ve received an overwhelming number of emails and comments from Oprah viewers wishing us well and offering words of support for our continued travels. We’ve even heard from some long lost friends who just happened to be watching when our segment aired. To all of you who have written, THANK YOU! Your words help energize us, especially when things get frustrating out here. We’re working on replies, but please be patient if it takes us a little while to get back to you. There’s only six of us and two don’t know how to type!
Frustrating doesn’t even begin to describe what we experienced over the past few days in our efforts to get to Istanbul. Our previous long haul trips have been uneventful, but apparently this was because we were saving all our airline mishaps for this one massive continental shift. Our ordeal began in Capetown when we went to check in for our redeye flight to Amsterdam. The guard who checks name on the passenger lists could only find Asher’s. He said it was no big deal, but I knew better. You see, when we originally booked our round the world tickets, Asher somehow ended up on a separate record from the rest of us. As we have made many changes to our itinerary, this has proven both dangerous and beneficial, depending on the situation. Each time Tom calls Delta’s round the world reward ticket desk, it takes multiple to hours to book a new itinerary. This isn’t Delta’s fault: they have to communicate with partner airlines to check availability and confirm reservations and often help us spec out multiple options, a time consuming process to say the least. Given the fact that we’re flying for free, we’re definitely not complaining! Many times after making such changes, however, we’ve realized that the amendments have not been made to Asher’s record. This was the case when for one week in December she did not have a ticket with the rest of us from Bangalore to Paris. We sweated that one out, but eventually Delta convinced Air France we couldn’t leave a 4-year-old in India alone and they granted her a ticket. Another time we made a complicated series of changes which ended up only on Asher’s itinerary. Had we not had two records, it is likely we could have lost them altogether. This time KLM’s computers, currently being converted to a new system, simply cancelled our five tickets while mysteriously preserving Asher’s. As in the previous instance, we told KLM we really didn’t want Asher spending two days in Amsterdam without us, so they dropped her from the manifest into airline limbo with the rest of us.
Solicitous and apologetic, the wonderful KLM employees shepherded us to a special counter where they began working on alternate arrangements since our scheduled flight was oversold. They had no flight the following day and spent almost two hours piecing together a new route. During this time the kids took advantage of the late hour and their parents’ involvement in the negotiations to do everything they normally could not in an airport: racing around the deserted building on luggage trolleys, running up the down escalator, and scouring the vending machines for loose change. Picking up another valuable life lesson, they watched as a security guard escorted a Russian merchant marine who was too drunk to fly to the service desk. He would fly KLM to Amsterdam and then Moscow in two days while we would head to Paris through Johannesburg on Air France the next. I wasn’t happy to lose Amsterdam (or the Hamster Dance in Asher speak), but KLM threw in some travel vouchers to ease my pain and gave us a night at the SHERATON (aaaaahhhhhh) complete with room service, transportation, and heated bathroom floor tiles to boot!
As always, the Sheraton was heavenly, so we arrived rested and relaxed for our flight to Johannesburg the next day. The only problem was Nationwide, the South African airline that was supposed to get us to the capital, had mysteriously cancelled everybody’s ticket but mine. This was getting weird. Did the computers have something against us? Tom put on his rage face, turned purple, and demanded an explanation. A Nationwide employee rudely told him to wait to see if we could make it on standby, and when we didn’t, said we should just go buy tickets for another flight.
We marched back to the international terminal and found our sweet KLM friend from the previous night who had come in on her day off to confirm our successful depature. She checked the computer, said it showed our reservations had been in tact, and vowed to get us to Joburg on another airline. British Airways took us later that night and reluctantly put us in business class per KLM’s request. The only problem with this scenario was that by the time we got to Johannesburg, Air France wouldn’t let us on the plane to Paris. “But they do it on Amazing Race,” McKane argued when they said we had missed the cutoff (the plane still had almost an hour before it left). This had little effect. “Sorry, but KLM should never have booked you with that tight of a connection,” the Air France guy replied. Tom turned purple again, but knew that no matter what color his skin assumed, we would have one more night in South Africa. This time they stuck us on a shuttle bus to a motel/conference center with fluorescent lighting and floral bedspreads. We weren’t happy about this new delay, but we were able to Skype Tom’s parents and listen to the Oprah broadcast via the computer, an unexpected bonus.
The next day we got to the airport in plenty of time to make the Paris flight and miraculously were again upgraded to Business Class (another big aaaaahhhhhh). The pretty desk agent reticketed our bags (which had spent the night at the airport) and issued us boarding passes for both upcoming flights–the red eye to Paris and the one the next morning to Istanbul. The plane was posh, so posh that the kids barely slept. Instead they spent hours adjusting their double wide, deluxe leather reclining seats, watching movies, playing video games, and scarfing snacks.
This made it all the more difficult when we arrived in Paris at 6:30 am (still dark) and had to wait four hours for our flight to Istanbul. We talked our way into the Business Class lounge, even though our next leg was in coach, and the little kids crashed on the couches while the big kids jumped on computers.
Groggy but eager to get to our next stop, we headed down to our gate around 9:30 am. We waited for at least 30 minutes in a security line and met a lovely American family from LA who had just spent three months in Morocco on a movie shoot. Once through the check, we handed our boarding passes to the gate attendant who demanded, “Where are your tickets?” “What tickets?” we asked. “Something that looks like this,” she explained impatiently dangling an old fashioned flight coupon in our faces. “We have etickets,” I calmly replied. I could see Tom starting to turn red in the background. “But you need this,” she said. “You must have this,” again pointing at her document.
“KLM put us on this flight. We never got a ticket. We got a little piece of handwritten paper, but they took it from us in Johannesburg.”
“They’re not supposed to take it. You must still have it. Look in your bags,” she demanded. I looked, though I knew the pretty girl in Joburg had taken it.
“We cannot let you on the plane without a ticket,” she scolded. Tom was purple once again.
He stormed off with another Air France employee to a ticket desk and the kids and I stayed and visited with the Americans we had just met who were on their way back to LA. Finally, the Air France woman returned, sans Tom (that’s French, of course), and asked us to follow her. The ticket agent had gotten us on the next flight to Istanbul two hours later, but callously blamed us for the mishap (“You must have lost it”) and didn’t give us so much as a coupon for a free peanut. Shame on you, Air France.
We talked our way back into the Business Class lounge and sipped down a few sodas, which outside the lounge would have cost $4 per can. (I just about panicked when we looked at the American Express exchange rates and saw the dollar had fallen another 10% against the Euro in the month since we had passed this way.) Two hours later we were on a plane to Istanbul, with six seats in six different rows, and fellow passengers none too willing to switch seats. A French girl finally swapped with Kieran after he burst into tears, jumped on my lap, and refused to budge when a strange man sat down in the seat next to him. This infuriated the stewardesses but is probably not a bad survival strategy if you’re a 7 year old.
By the time we got to Istanbul, we realized the probability of our bags having made it with us were slim. Tom put it at 50/50 and he turned out to be exactly right: 2 backpacks were in Istanbul, 2 were in Paris. Joy. We got a claim number and promised to call once we had an address where the bags should be delivered. We found an adequate place in the Sultanahmet district, and after 15 phone calls, they finally arrived at our hostel at 2 am.
So here I sit on my bunk in my room in the dark gazing out at the Hagia Sophia (oh my!), surrounded by all my children, all my baggage, a lavender husband, and a stack of vouchers to fund our trip to Grandma and Grandpa’s house this Christmas. Not such a bad result, but what a way to get there!
Always an adventure…