Tuesday, 19 February 2008

He Ain't Heavy, He's My Bloody Bag

I'm back! I have returned from the land of sunshine, biltong and load-shedding to the land of endless winter and central heating (what on earth would be happening in SA right now if we had winters like in Europe?). I had the most incredible, relaxing, rejuvenating holiday ever and am surprisingly happy to be back in London and getting into the swing of my daily routine.

I have spent many hours (ok, maybe minutes) pondering on how to best tell you about my trip. Since I didn't blog at all, there is a fair amount of information backed up in my head and I want to share my experiences without boring you to death with three week's worth of anecdotes in one post. So I have decided over the next few days I will relate the highlights of my trip as and when I think of them. These will be more like the kind of stories you tell at dinner parties than a blow by blow account of events in chronological order.

But first and foremost, we need a proper conclusion to my previous agonizing posts of passport hell. How exactly did I get into SA without a passport, and back out with a brand new one in less than three weeks? How did I get back into the UK with no visa? Let me explain.....

We arrived in Jozi on Saturday morning, and I had to wait until the Monday to go to Edenvale Home Affairs to apply for a new passport. As you can imagine, the whole procedure was fraught with tension - knowing my exceedingly bad luck when it comes to travelling, I had no real reason to expect that things might go my way for once. We arrived at HA and were immediately set upon by touts, who offered us everything from cheap passport photos to actually processing your application for you - at least, I think that's what they meant. Being in the precarious position that I was, I knew that cutting even one corner in an attempt to make things easier could spell the end of my chances of getting a fast tracked passport. So Shoes and I stood in a queue, which to our pleasant surprise was not actually that long. But oh, how we counted those chickens. We soon realised why the queue was not long... it took an average of 20 minutes to process one person's application. If there were 12 people in front of us... well, you do the maths. One of our brothers, obviously having arrived wanting some form of ID but having not the slightest clue about anything except that he wanted it, spent an hour and 15 minutes at one window, leaving just one other window open to the queue. Many many hours after we had arrived, during which time we amused ourselves by watching security chase out the persistant touts as they followed targets into the office, our turn arrived. I then applied for my passport with relative ease - you see, all it takes is a bit of homework, having your documents ready and voila! - you can be in and out in 10 minutes! If only everybody was as prepared as me.

That, however, was the easy part. What followed was daily communication with the HA Head Office, which is the place you apply to when you need a passport expedited due to an emergency situation. I had to fax through documents supporting my proposal that I should qualify for an expedited passport, and then constantly check up on those dealing with it to make sure it was in fact being processed. To be fair, they actually did an amazing job, once we got over the first hiccup. That hiccup came in the form of a woman named Lucia, who was the first to open my case. She subsequently attached my documents to someone else's application and then, upon opening my now documentless case 2 days later, assumed it had been dealt with and promptly closed it. It was only due to the enormous efforts (and furious bellowing) of my mother that the situation was not only sorted out, but was passed on to the very top sooner than it otherwise would have happened, and thereby dealt with as fast as HA can deal with things (which is actually very fast when you speak to the right people).

Suffice it to say that my passport was delivered to Edenvale Home Affairs in 1 week to the day that it had arrived at The Top.

This is no mean feat, and I am eternally grateful to both the efficient Home Affairs staffers (Lucia, this does not include you - you might want to think about resigning and finding something a little less challenging) and to my mother, who, like a lioness determined to protect her young at all costs, stormed the barriers and cut a no-mercy path to The Top to make sure things got done when we needed them to. She got unlisted phone numbers and names of officials whom the general public usually has no hope of contacting, and she gently but firmly insisted to all she spoke to that my case get dealt with that very minute. I have learnt a great deal from her over the past few weeks, but still selfishly hope that she will be around next time something like this happens (and you know there's going to be a next time) so I don't have to do it all by myself. Thanks Mom, you are a legend.

So despite having to buy a brand new one-way ticket to London (due to the restrictions on my return ticket which made it impossible to change the date of my flight), I was on top of the world. I got to stay in Cape Town a few more days than all my friends (and Shoes too, which was a bit of a bummer) and I could finally rest in peace that I had a passport and could get back into the UK.

But of course, this story would not be complete without the dramz, so here it is. Firstly, when I tried to check in on my Virgin flight at CT International, they didn't want to let me through as I didn't have a valid visa in my passport. I thought about lying and saying that I was just visiting London, but decided that so far the truth had got me home - it was damn well going to get me back too! I explained the situation, and they reluctantly allowed me through - due in part, I think, to the official's delight at my knee length, pom-pom adorned fluffy boots (more on those in a future post). When I landed at Heathrow, I actually got through Immigration without any problems. They barely glanced at the paperwork I presented to prove I do have a visa, and waved me through. Nearly home free. I knew I had to ensure I did not get stopped by customs officials. Although I didn't have 3kg of biltong in my bag as per my last holiday to SA, I did have a wide selection of dried fruit, nuts and other delicacies which I was planning to make into little hampers for both Shoes and my work colleagues to sample. I made the cardinal error, though, of walking through with my earphones stuck in my ears. It was simply because I was bored while waiting for my luggage to appear, but I should have known that officials see that as a method of avoidance, and are obviously going to pounce. I got pulled over and questioned by a pretty nice guy - I assume he was just making sure my earphones weren't supposed to be a deterrent and were simply a by-product of travelling alone and having no-one to talk to. Luckily he didn't search my bag. So I cruised through - ok, maybe cruise is the wrong word... I was slightly shaky at the thought of the £1000+ fine they could have imposed had they searched my bag - and I thought I could finally leave the Curse behind me and make my way home in peace. Oh, when will I ever learn. Half way to the Underground (let me just mention here that it is a good 10 minute walk from the terminal to the trains at an ordinary pace), the wheel on my bag siezed. I turned it over and tried to wiggle it free, but to no avail. It was broken. So I continued on my way to the Underground, dragging nearly 30kg of deadweight bag behind me. I didn't know whether to laugh or cry. After I got to the Underground and was informed that there were no tubes to Central London, and I would have to turn around and retrace my steps (ordinarily another 5 minute walk) to the Heathrow Express, I nearly did cry. I had to stop every few minutes to rest and prevent my arms being pulled out of their shoulder sockets by the weight of the bag. What usually takes 5 minutes took me almost 15. Things continued in this vein for the next 2 and half hours as I very slowly made my across London to our house. Even though I caught a cab from our nearest station, by that time the damage was done and as of yesterday I have been unable to move my arms except in small instances, such as to type or make tea.

I keep telling myself it could have worse. My luggage could have been lost altogether, I could have incurred that fine or I could have been deported and never even had the chance to drag my bag across London. Then I tell myself, yes, fine, but seriously, find me that person who has a worse story than mine - someone you actually know, and not an urban legend, and honestly, I'll eat that entire bastard of a bag.

TGI Over!


sweets said...

You're back!!!!!!! you have the worst luck ever but you made it to SA and back again, which is quite something! glad you had a great time, can't wait to hear the rest!

i checked your blog like a nana every single day just in case you left a little message for us ;)

Lopz said...

Really? Aaah, I am having such a feel-good moment here.

It's fab to be back actually; and I certainly can't wait to tell the tales of my trip. I've missed all you guys!