When I told people I was traveling to Africa, the universal advice I got was, “Be prepared for Africa time.” As in, nothing will be on time, there will be delays, things won’t go according to plan. I was prepared for Africa time. But in truth, everything in Africa ran like clockwork. It was the US and Europe that kept screwing me over.
We had three destinations on our safari itinerary: Mahale, Ngorongoro, and Tarangire. Of the three, the only one I cared about desperately was the first stop- Mahale, the chimp camp. As long as I made it there, everything else was a bonus. Because the little prop plane out to Mahale only flies twice a week, on Mondays and Thursdays, it was imperative that we make that Monday flight. No Mahale flight, no chimps. Done. Over.
Because of this, we scheduled a lot of extra layover time (or so I thought) on the trip over to accommodate delays. We were to fly from San Diego to Chicago, Chicago to Amsterdam, stay a day in Amsterdam, Amsterdam to Kilimanjaro, spend the night in Arusha, then catch that vital bush flight to Mahale.
The first clue I had that we might need that extra time was the arrival of my father in law, our ride to the airport, 20 minutes early, casually mentioning in his calm manner something about a “bomb scare at the airport.”
And that was the good part.
We arrive at San Diego’s Lindbergh Field to that hot mess: traffic at a crawl, news vans, the whole shebang. My father in law, an extremely seasoned traveler, also mentioned his surprise that we only had a one hour layover in Chicago for our connection to Amsterdam. Brian and I looked at each other nervously. “Pleasedon’tevacuatetheterminalpleasepleaseplease” I chanted as we pulled up to the curb.
Alas, they had, indeed, evacuated the terminal. Some moron over at the Southwest curb left a suitcase on the sidewalk and walked away, causing this whole debacle. The good news was that the terminal had just been re-opened after a one and a half hour shutdown, so despite the drama we were going to be delayed no more than 10 minutes.
So our Chicago layover shrunk from 60 minutes to 50 minutes. We were still OK.
The pilot crackled in over the intercom. “Welcome to United Flight 666 with service to Chicago,” he said. “We have an unusually long 3 hour, 55 minute flight to the Windy City today, ha ha.”
Brian and I looked at each other again.
“There’s some atypical headwinds slowing us down,” said the pilot, “and we normally have tailwinds going in this direction, so that’s going to add 30 minutes to our flight time.”
Now the layover has dwindled from 60 minutes to 20. This was looking decidedly more grim.
I kept hoping during the entire flight that the winds might suddenly shift, or the pilot could somehow floor the pedal and shave a bit off that flight time, but we arrived in Chicago exactly 3 hours and 55 minutes after departure. As we taxied, Brian tried to make me feel better by telling me he estimated we had a 25% chance of still making the flight. Our bags, he reasoned, never would. “Worse comes to worst we can still get to Amsterdam through Heathrow,” he reminded me.
We had scheduled a 23 hour layover in Amsterdam specifically to deal with this sort of situation, so I wasn’t too panicked. As long as we made the KLM flight from Amsterdam to Kilimanjaro, we would make it to chimp camp, and that’s all that mattered.
When the jetway connected to the plane at 5:50 in advance of our 6:08 departure, Brian and I were at the front of the line to get off. We had already determined that we needed to make it to the C concourse from the B concourse, which if you are familiar with O’Hare involves a long walkway underneath the runway, so by this time Brian had estimated our chances of making the flight at 10%. But in the spirit of optimism, we decided to give it a shot.
I shoved some businessman in front of me who was moving at a slow trot for a less urgent connection out of my way and sprinted to the departure information board to confirm what gate we needed to get to.
“C-9!” I shouted at Brian, tucking my laptop under my arm like a football. “RUN!”
So we ran. And it was glorious. I didn’t even look back to see if Brian was keeping up. I was LaDainian Tomlinson in flip flops and a lululemon hoodie, hurdling over rollerbags and bobbing and weaving through the crowds like a gazelle running through wildebeests with an angry lion on my tail, cutting through corner shops and whistling by strollers with millimeters to spare. Forgive me for invoking OJ here on the blog, but really, there is no other analogy that works:
Under the jetway, we sprinted down the moving walkway in fast-forward motion, and my brain stopped panicking just long enough to wish there was a guy with a movie camera rolling alongside me for this bizarre scene. Brian was behind me, shouting, “On your left! On your LEFT!” to the startled people on the walkway, one of whom shouted after us, “Is this the Amazing Race or something?” Which it kind of was.
We breathlessly limped up to the empty gate, where the attendant stood in front of a still-open door and asked us, “Are you from San Diego? We were looking for you!” She took our tickets, and miracle of miracles, on we casually strolled like a boss. And by ‘casually strolled’ I mean ‘lumbered on, winded and wheezing, like an emphysema-suffering cape buffalo.’ Time: 6:02.
I collapsed into my seat like a lathered racehorse, adrenaline wearing off. “We’re so having to buy clothes in Amsterdam,” whispered Brian. “I taste blood,” I whispered back, wondering how pulmonary edema would be treated during a trans-Atlantic flight. We casually leaned back, coughing slightly, and tried to avoid the stares of the other passengers for the 20 minutes it took to resume breathing normally.
Nine hours later, we landed in Schipol, Amsterdam. Brian went to use the restroom while I went to the luggage carousel in the tiniest of hopes that perhaps our luggage had sprouted wings and flown to the plane.
And miracle of miracles (2), there it was:
Such an amazing sight that I actually had to document it. In my shock, I shouted “Shut UP! It’s my LUGGAGE!” to no one in particular. What did I care, they all thought I was crazy already anyway, the sweaty, punctuality-impaired weirdo now astounded that a luggage carousel would contain such mystical items as, say, one’s luggage. I silently took back every bad thing I ever said about United.
“All’s well that ends well!” said Brian when I proudly displayed the luggage. We had it made. 23 hours to kill in Amsterdam, plus we were staying at a hotel at the airport so there would be no risk of traffic delays, and luggage in hand. All we needed to do was walk across the terminal in the morning and get on the KLM flight to Africa and we were set.
It was such a lovely day in Amsterdam. I’m glad I enjoyed the reverie while it lasted.
Because sadly, our travel woes hadn’t ended yet. Stay tuned for Part 2, which involves gnashing of teeth, waving of fists, and me curled up in a corner in a Schipol terminal unabashedly weeping all over my Jane Goodall Foundation T-shirt, plotting death and revenge.