Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Back to the City of Gold

Note: this post is dated to the 27th of April. It's when I wrote down the post. I've been backposting in big chunks lately, so if you haven't seen much about my trip to Swaziland yet, check out the list on the right-hand side of the page! I just uploaded "Are You Local?" and "Traveler's Reviews" yesterday.

Jozi's sunlight glares down on the airstrip today. Inside at the boarding gate, though, it's a little chilly. It's hard for Africa to pull that off.

The city grew friendly only when my mood improved. My mood was working against the odds ever since the Baz Bus dropped me at my stop, smack in the middle of a razor-wired ghetto. That was yesterday. But this morning my shuttle window showed me only balding men sweating in tattered suits and young women walking to the shops, plastic floral umbrellas shading their faces from the sun. The sidewalks spilled over with bright dust, like each commuter had emptied the guts of a mango behind them as they walked.

When I crawled into bed last night and pulled my coat over my shoulders, shivering, I thought I was fucked.

A month ago, I booked a ticket to Cape Town flying out of the O.R. Tanbo International Airport, Johannesburg. I thought I had my vacation in the bag. The way everything lined up, I flew out on Sunday morning, the day after my Swazi trip ended. The return flight a week later dropped me back just a couple hours before I left for home. I was guaranteed a week of relaxation, followed by a day of easy traveling. All my tickets together formed a neat symmetry. They fit together like Lego blocks. It looked like the perfect high-powered holiday. Working holiday, anyway.

But I never printed out my Cape Town ticket. I never thought I needed to. I put a lot of trust in my computer when it comes to vital information — maybe it comes from spending my early adolescence as a tech geek.

So it took me until Saturday — yesterday — to realize that my ticket to Cape Town wasn't a ticket. It was an email saying my order was being processed. The ticket had never been sent. I hastily checked my spam filters for month-old, official-looking emails. No dice.

My brain ran on adrenaline for the next six hours. I wrote a politely furious email to Travel Consolidator, the agency I'd used to book. I left them my email address and cell number; in case they wanted to deal with someone in the States, I also left my parents' number.

Afterward, starved for something to do, I used my hostel's free internet (one small advantage to Gemini Backpackers' otherwise shitty off-season vibe) to search for another flight to Cape Town through the consolidator website. It was either that or change my ticket: I'd hitchhike home through Soviet Russia before I'd spend a week in Joburg again. I've hated the city ever since my disastrous orientation week.

All flights were at least $200US. A hard bill to pay on my $700 budget, but it was 2:00 in the morning. At that point I'd have done anything to get out. I tried to book my ticket, but the net connection skipped and the FlyMango site returned an error. I re-entered my info and tried again once, twice — I tried five times to book my ticket and every time Mango gave me an error. I finally gave up in disgust and fell asleep in my room, wrapped in my coat to protect against the 3-degree night.

So why am I now waiting for a plane to take me to the Mother City?

When I woke up, my mom was on the phone with the news that my original ticket had been booked after all. Somehow the big important information, like my ticket number, got lost in transit. But everything's in place now, since the impossible happened and my ticket does exist.

The only ugly side of this ordeal: after all my budget worrying, one of those booking attempts I made last night went through — unbeknownst to me OR the Mango website. So as I travel to Cape Town, it's minus almost 2,000 rand in my bank account — about half my budget for the trip. I won't starve, but I've got a useless plane ticket that, in the end, I didn't really want or ask for. I don't even know how it happened — I never completed the booking steps.

So now I'm calling every number Mango lists looking for a refund. It's not easy. They have an office for this sort of thing, but all the staff were gone today, and they'll be gone Monday too, as it's a national holiday tomorrow ("Freedom Day"). Monday is also the day of my bogus flight. So I might be screwed.

So my traveller's reviews for the day:

Gemini Backpackers' Lodge: accomodations are as crappy as Legends. Unlike Legends, though, they have common rooms, kitchens, and a small bar, all in good repair. Internet use is free and pretty reliable (unless someone else is hogging the single computer), and they have a 300-DVD library. Prices are cheaper than Legends, and it's the kind of place that would be bumpin' in the summertime when tourists are plentiful. If you don't mind a good hole-in-the-wall atmosphere or lots of other people, this is the place for you.

O.R. Tambo International Airport, Johannesburg: Nice, posh, as first-world as you're likely to get. A word of warning: going into this airport, don't carry any cash or valuables that you'll have to declare (you're required to declare any American money over about $50 and anything reasonably expensive, like cameras or laptops). If you need to carry them, don't declare them. There's been a scandal recently, and accusations that an organized crime syndicate is operating with connections in O.R. Tambo, targeting and hijacking tourists who declare inordinate amounts of wealth or valuables. No reason not to fly there; just don't declare valuables, and don't write your exact address on the customs card. Customs rarely check bags anyway.

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