February 27, 2011

African Tango: One Step Forward, Two Steps Back

Only one more week and we'll celebrate our one year anniversary of living in South Africa. Time passes way too fast! But that doesn't mean we'll ever quite overcome the "one step forward, two steps back" tango that seems to be so typical of our life here. Initially I thought it was just part of the growing pains of an international move and all the new things one has to still learn, but now I know it falls under the entire "Welcome to Africa" umbrella. In fact, I'm quite proud of the fact that I've been able to educate South Africans on, say, the best method of dealing with Eskom, but of course new "can you believe this?" moments crop up from time to time.


One such moment was when we had proudly put the finishing touches on our latest vacation plans for the kids' term break in April. Vacation planning is not my strong suit, and it is all the more frustrating when everything is so expensive and you have to  pay any accomodation on a per person basis for a family of six (we were told that "duh," you have to charge that way here in Africa, if you had per-room rates a family of 27 and a few chickens would move into your hotel suite). But despite all of that, a few weeks back we had booked a diving trip to Mozambique with subsequent Easter weekend in Cape Town. It was a done deal, paid and everything. Then arrived a jumbled voice mail message from SA Airways about something having to do with our flight back from Pemba Beach to Joburg, which turned out to be about the not so small matter of that flight having been canceled. It just so happens that SA Airways only offers that flight twice a week, so when one of them disappears, it is more than a little inconvenient. Especially if you've already booked your accomodation and connecting flights.

What to do? Nothing but starting from scratch and getting busy again. SA Airways won't lift a finger for you, that's for sure. In fact, you have to be happy if you even get a refund for the cancelled flight. If you ask to speak to a supervisor, they just put you on hold for an hour and then disconnect you. Our salvation came in the form of Mozambique Airlines (LAM), who happen to offer a similar flight as the canceled one. In fact, that is the only other flight available. At first it seemed like it was going to cost a pretty penny at R65K when selecting it via online reservations, but an email I sent to the Joburg booking office of LAM (not expecting much) yielded surprising success. The flight turned out to cost a more manageable R16K for all of us, and the reservation could be held for a week, giving us time to strong-arm the people at South African to at least give us a later connecting flight to Cape Town without charging us a rebooking fee. The whole thing cost us countless minutes on the phone, plus two extra trips: One to the airport to rebook the SA flight which over the phone was strictly impossible, and another one to the offices of LAM to pay for the new flights (you cannot use foreign credit cards over the phone in South Africa).

Back home, I would have been fuming over such inconvenience, but here you just shrug your shoulders and get on with it, while having pity with your neighbor who hasn't had internet access in two weeks. "Welcome to Africa" indeed.