If I were at home at this moment, there is no question that I would be the angriest man in Grahamstown. But I’m not. I’m in Port Elizabeth, which Idols judge Gareth Cliff recently described as the armpit of South Africa.
I don’t care much for Gareth, but in this case he has a point. PE doesn’t have much going for it. If PE is the armpit of South Africa, then the airport, which is where I am, is the country’s backside. It’s dark and smelly. (I did warn you that I was angry, didn’t I?)
I’m on my way to Johannesburg to attend a workshop on investigative journalism.
I’m meant to check in at 5pm, but being slightly neurotic I arrive at 3.30pm. I’d washed my Jo’burg pants (they’re specially camouflaged to blend into the urban jungle) in Grahamstown and I had left before they had had time to dry. They are going mouldy in my bag.
Unfortunately, the British Airways plane that I am booked on has been delayed by three-and-a-half hours. The BA official explains that take-off is scheduled for 9.30pm. There has been a technical fault with the plane and they have to find another aircraft.
“You’ve got all our cellphone numbers, so why didn’t you phone us and tell us to come later?” I ask.
“I’m sorry for the inconvenience,” she shrugs unapologetically.
“I could have spent the afternoon with my family. I would have had time to dry my pants.”
She shrugs again. “Next.”
There’s not a helluva lot to do at Port Elizabeth airport. I decide to explore the terminal; an appropriate word for this particular airport building. After 30 minutes, though, I know the airport’s nooks and crannies intimately. In fact, if I were a contestant on the TV quiz show Mastermind, I could choose “PE airport” as my speciality subject.
4.30pm. Five hours to go. I listen to the droning airport announcements made between cheesy elevator music. “Your attention please, drivers of illegally parked vehicles in drop-off zones are kindly requested to move their cars immediately … Your attention please, as required by the smoking legislation … thank you … Your attention please, unattended bags will be disposed of. Thank you …. Your attention please … thank you.”
The messages blend into each other: “Your attention please, all bags must not smoke their lighters in drop-off zones. Unattended drivers will be disposed of. Thank you.”
The announcements are on a never-ending loop. It’s like Chinese water torture — after about two hours your skin starts to itch and your nose begins to bleed. Slowly, but very surely, you go mad.
5.30pm. Four hours to go. Wrong. The plane has been delayed by another 40 minutes. We’ll only be leaving at 10.10pm. “Sorry for the inconvenience,” says an official who doesn’t look very sorry.
To compensate us for the delay, BA gives each passenger a R35 meal voucher. I decide to hang out at the coffee shop. “Give me a decaf coffee … and keep it coming,” I tell the waiter.
10pm and five cups of “decaf” coffee later, I realise that I’m suffering from the jitters. I ask the waiter for the bill, but I’m slurring my words. “A-a-a-a-re y-y-you s-s-ssure you gave me d-d-de-de-caf?” I ask.
“Er, decaf? Oh shucks, I mean, of course,” the waiter says. I can’t help notice that he looks guilty.
10.10pm. Time to board. Wrong again. The people who are supposed to refuel the plane have gone home. The passengers, suffering from terminal rage, are getting restless. The fact that most of them have been knocking back bottomless “decaf” coffees all evening isn’t helping.
At 11.35pm — more than seven hours after I’d arrived at PE airport — we are finally on the plane. An hour-and-a-half later, Jo’burg’s golden lights come into view. We hit the tarmac with a crashbangscreechbump.
I thank the pilot as I get off the plane and ask him: “Did we land or were we shot down?”