Amongst my abundance of catastrophes at airports, one incident in Nigeria so shook me that I may have slipped into a temporary mania. Standing at an ATM machine that wouldn’t dispense any cash, I wept and cackled, then wept and cackled in repeat. I can’t say for sure how long this went on, but I remember pulling myself together when a stranger yanked at my elbow and said something I couldn’t comprehend.
The day had begun without a single ominous sign. As a participant in a two week workshop, I attended all the scheduled sessions that Friday before tearing out of the facility and into an awaiting taxi bound for the ill-famed MMIA (Murtala Muhammed International Airport). See I had to leave Lagos mid-stay to attend to an urgent matter, and had bought a round trip ticket to fly home for the weekend and get back to Lagos on Sunday in less than 48 hours (oh the follies of hope).
Off to the airport I went, feeling happy with myself as I had only hand luggage and just barely missed the traffic snarl up for which Lagos has earned a ghastly reputation. Cruising the Third Mainland Bridge that joins Lagos Island to the mainland, our jalopy jerked violently a few times before coming to a silent and rather final halt at about the same time my heart sunk to the bottom of my gut. After a half hour of waving down speeding motorists with the flashlight on my phone to avoid my imminent death while the driver fiddled with bolts and cables under the bonnet, the damned tin box sputtered back to life and we went on with our journey. We hadn’t gone far at all before arriving at the scene of a horrific accident and had to wait nearly an hour while the raging fire that had engulfed a luckless danfo bus was put out.
When I arrived at MMIA, my flight hadn’t left. Rather, our aircraft hadn’t even arrived. Thanking whatever gods might have been working in my favour, I marched confidently to the check-in counter from whence the second part in the terrible drama that was my night unfolded. The airline official scrutinised my passport with a scowl, tapped her knobby fingers on her keyboard, looked at me sadly and said in that dulcet Nigerian lilt, “I’m sorry SAH your ticket isn’t in the system.” Snorting, I read her my booking reference number, told her she was speaking nonsense and requested that she check again. Five minutes and no ticket later, a queue of grumbling passengers was forming quickly behind me and I was grinding my teeth in exasperation.
As it turns out, my travel agent had made a reservation which because of a technical glitch, never made it on the other side of the ticketing queue, which meant no ticket number had been issued, which also meant – as I discovered sitting in the airline Station Manager’s musty office- that I couldn’t get on the flight. The matronly manager made dozens of futile calls to Nairobi. Realising the window of opportunity was closing fast on me, she advised that I bring forward my original departure ticket and pay the negligible change fee. “Should be easy,” she said, guiding me to the Flying Blue office as that original ticket was an award ticket bought with my accrued flying miles and could only be modified there.
I didn’t have enough cash so I happily handed my bankcard over. “Declined”. Second try. “Declined”. Substitute card. “Declined”. Mad dash to the ATM machine. “Please contact your bank”. Meltdown.
I later discovered that I should have given official notice to my bank that I would be travelling to a country marked for ‘fraudulent activity’.
Back in that dreary office, the darling lady offered her regrets and informed me it was way past closing time and there was nothing more she could do. Then she left and with her, all my fortitude. The gods were not asleep however, and my partner had made a call from Nairobi to the Flying Blue office in Amsterdam, pleaded my case and asked to make the payment over the phone, which they allowed.
Zooming through the night skies towards Nairobi with the trace of dried tears on my face, I replayed the events of that evening in my head, took down some notes and made a promise to myself that one day I would write about my ordeal.