That Time I was a Volcano Refugee

On my About Me page, I alluded to the possibility of writing about my experience traveling in Africa – to add an entertaining counterweight to my more analytical rants and musings on the events unfolding on the continent.

Early yesterday morning, the international arrivals terminal at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport (JKIA) in Nairobi, Kenya was gutted in a four-hour blazeFortunately, no one was injured, and measures are being put in place to resume full operations at the airport by this evening. Regardless, as JKIA is a hub for air transportation in the region, with some 16,000 passengers transiting dailyit is difficult to imagine that such transportation in East Africa will not be crippled until JKIA fully recovers – or until a regional alternative is sought out.

Those of you who travel frequently to the continent know that there are relatively few hubs where you can fly from one African country to another, or nonstop to the U.S. So here’s a story about my efforts to get to one of those hubs from JKIA and get home to the U.S. – while avoiding European airspace.

A few years ago, I presented a paper at a conference in Nairobi. My flight to DC via Amsterdam was scheduled to leave on Friday night, so I had planned a whole day of sightseeing and shopping all over the city before heading to the airport. The night before, my mother had warned me via email that my flights into and out of Amsterdam might be canceled due to the volcanic ash from Iceland.

On Friday, in the midst of playing with baby elephants and feeding giraffes, I overheard several American and European tourists lamenting the fact that the airlines were not able to determine when they could fly home. They spoke of delays not in terms of hours or days, but in terms of weeks. Rather than going shopping, which I had been looking forward to for weeks, I raced back to the hotel to see if I could get the conference organizers to book me another flight through Addis Ababa, Ethiopia or Johannesburg, South Africa – two of the few hubs for transcontinental air traffic in Africa.

With the amount of information available to us at the time on the projected spread of the ash, I was clearly more bent out of shape than the conference organizers about my prospects for getting stranded in Nairobi, where my options for returning to the US would be extremely limited. Knowing that I needed to be back at CNA by Tuesday morning for an Africa maritime security seminar for my project, I told the conference organizers that I didn’t care what needed to be done or how circuitous the route, but if I wasn’t back in DC by Monday night, I would lose my job. True or not, my flair for the dramatic paid off. With little time to spare before their flight to Addis departed, they packed me up and took me with them, promising that I would get flights home from there.

I had informed my boss and my project sponsor that it was quite possible that I would get stranded indefinitely somewhere in Africa, as most flights from Africa to the US go through Europe. My boss replied by mentioning some Eyjafjallajokull thing. I didn’t know what that was. I assumed he’d fallen on his keyboard and made a massive typo. My sponsor’s response – “Sorry to hear that. Can you write a quick turn around paper on the situation in Sudan?” So, in the midst of my last minute dash to the airport, I frantically typed out some poorly spelled, poorly worded key points on my Blackberry as the taxi swerved in and out of Nairobi rush hour traffic. And oh yes, my mother was also sending me frantic emails saying “You’re leaving Kenya for ETHIOPIA??? I don’t understand. There’s a State Department warning against traveling there close to the elections!!!”

Normally when I travel to new countries, I like to arrive well informed about my surroundings. I boarded an Ethiopian Airlines plane without a visa, without sufficient knowledge about traveling in the country as a single female, and concerned that I was affiliated with these conference organizers who came from a think tank whose activities had been severely repressed over the past few months as the Ethiopian government prepared to steal hold elections the next month. The last elections had been accompanied by violence, and although the U.S. and Ethiopia were on decent terms, I wasn’t mentally prepared to be around if the excrement hit the oscillating unit.

I arrived in Addis on Friday night and the conference organizers gave me a flight leaving Monday at 1am to Istanbul, and then on to New York, and then on to Dulles, arriving Monday night. Having received an email from my mother saying the cloud was moving south and east, I asked for an earlier flight, but to no avail. They gave me 2 days in a hotel near the airport, a $100 bill which was actually too old to use in Ethiopia, and pointed me in the direction of the visa office. The visa officials asked me how long I would be staying, and I said I didn’t know. At this point, I was really concerned that my flight from Addis would be canceled if the ash moved into Turkish airspace. To lighten the mood, I was about to make a joke about being a refugee in their country until I realized it was incredibly inappropriate. So I got a 6 week visa and prayed that I could get out of the city before the elections in May.

Still in shock, I was delivered to the hotel, which was an oasis of calm in a sea of construction chaos. I was given a lovely room with a flooded balcony adjacent to an abandoned building. Ordinarily, I would have been thrilled to explore a new city, but the hotel staff was not at all helpful in explaining to me what their city had to offer and how they could arrange for me to go sightseeing. Over the course of the next two days, I was glued to the TV and the internet awaiting the latest news on European airspace closures and plotting out scenarios of flying home through Dubai if Istanbul didn’t work out. Occasionally, I would have a panic attack that I would be indefinitely stranded in Addis. I left the hotel once – only to prevent an international incident that was almost brought on by non-functioning internet at the hotel the day before I was scheduled to depart.

During one of my interactions with the hotel staff, I met a random Sudanese businessman who consulted for Saudi companies investing all over Africa. Prior to our meeting, I had no idea the extent of Saudi investment on the continent. Over tea, he advised that I take a flight to Jeddah and head east to get back to the U.S. if Istanbul didn’t work out. That night, I got down on my knees and told God that if he got me home soon, I would do whatever He asked – even if it meant quitting my job and giving up all my worldly belongings. I am not a religious person, but I just wanted to go home.

Thanks to Turkey not closing the airspace over Istanbul even as the ash was closing in, I was able to land there in the morning and catch my flight to JFK in the afternoon. Upon arriving at JFK, I begged the people at the ticket counter to please give me not only an earlier flight to DC, but to also make me not fly in to Dulles. I knew that I was far too stressed and tired to bother to make it home to downtown DC if I didn’t fly into National. Heck, I was so relieved that the ordeal was over that I almost gave up at JFK. I arrived home on Monday night at 8pm, after 81 hours in transit from Nairobi to Addis Ababa to Istanbul to the United States. So if I quit my job and sell all my worldly belongings, you’ll know why.

The following Wednesday (the 21st), KLM notified me that my Nairobi to DC itinerary from the 16th had been cancelled and sent me a ticket to leave Nairobi on the 24th. Way to be on top of things, KLM.

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