Thursday, March 12, 2015

(In and) Out of Africa


I learn geography by going there. It’s a hands-on approach. Africa is a big place. No I mean it is a really big place – just less than 12 million square miles it is four times the size of the whole United States (including Alaska) and it contains 47 countries. After this trio Sara and I have been to 6 – 46 (barring any new ones cropping up) to go.

First up on our latest jaunt into the Dark Continent was Zambia and a visit to American International School Lusaka - AISL.  Of course I had never heard of Lusaka until I knew I was headed there – blame that on my Eurocentricly instilled geographic education where we were told that there was this big land mass called Africa and pretty much left at that.

From what I saw, Zambia is a green lush place full of birds, color and sound. Much the same, AISL is a multicultural place full of color sound and learning. Our hostesses – Terry and Kelly the upper and lower school librarians respectively showed us the upmost of hospitality. 

I started my day with pre-K and finished with seniors – my favorite. I love getting to jump back and forth from elementary to high school. It keeps one on one’s toes to say the least. Along the way we did a couple assemblies, took a bike ride shopped in a local market after reuniting with a teacher friend, Dana, who we met a few years back and introduced us to her compatriot in mayhem Kathleen the math teacher.  We packed whole lot into 4 days – just enough to know we want to come back.

Next up on our tour was Khartoum in North Sudan a brand new country in the upper eastern portion of the continent. Life here seems pretty harsh. Searing heat, the temperatures climbed over 110 degrees Fahrenheit while we were there. It’s a dry oven bread baking temperature dusted with well, dust. One’s sweat just disappears as soon as it leaves ones body and you have to be careful to remain hydrated. Top this off with an authoritarian government and an economy whose back is being broken with US sanctions and you’ve got a recipe for misery. Instead, we found the Sudanese people to be welcoming, quick to share what they had and even quicker with a laugh.

Embodying the definition of oasis is the Khartoum International Community School. Jeanette, the upper school librarian and her lower school compatriot Laura invited us into the refreshing atmosphere of their school.  We worked on refrain poems with the little guys, extended metaphor with the big guys and then did a voluntary professional development session with the teachers after school one day – which ended up being packed. I like to think it was our dynamic presentation that brought out the big numbers – but I have a sneaking suspicion the free cupcakes and coffee played into the mix.

Next up Uganda!

As hot and dry as Khartoum is – Kampala, Uganda is moist and green, leaning its verdant shoulders into Lake Victoria from which the Nile flows. Noisy Ibis cackle and crack wise from the sky, music blares from all modes of vehicles and vegetable stands line the roadways from Entebbe airport to the International School of Uganda.

We squeezed a three day visit into two- first day working with teachers on writing across the curriculum and then the second with students in the upper school. Again – we only wish we had more time.

We were the happy house-guests of a humanity teacher named Matt  - who we had worked with several years ago in Hong Kong (these international teachers get around). ISU was the impetus for this whole journey – Sara had met the senior school principle, Lesley, at a conference a couple years back and the two had been plotting our visit for a while.  So – thanks to the scheming of Lesley and her librarian Cathy we pulled this one off!

After our work at the school we had just enough time to hit a couple markets, buy a few masks, eat a great dinner then up at 3am to begin our journey home. Our heads are still spinning!

This was the definition of a whirlwind spin through a bit of Africa.

Can’t wait to do it again – perhaps at a little calmer pace.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

The unfriendly skies of United Scarelines


Travel to and in Africa is arduous but quite often one finds that good things do not come easily. So while this was one of our most trying treks it was also one of our most rewarding. Three countries in fourteen days – here we go:

First off, anyone who has a passing acquaintance with Sara and me knows of our love-hate (way more chits in the hate category – in fact let’s call it what it is – a hate – hate) relationship with United Airlines. They never cease to amaze in their lack of service, customer care and willingness to take responsibility for absolutely anything. It’s definitely an abusive relationship that we just can’t seem to quit – held hostage by frequent flier miles and the old days when we were Continental fliers. (Yay deregulation!)

So we get to the airport on tickets that had been bought and confirmed seven months ago – all our flights are within United’s partnerships – South African Air – Ethiopian Air etc. It should be smooth sailing.  I called confirmed seats with South African two weeks out - so what happens when we get to Cleveland Hopkins Airport? We are told Sara has no seat aboard our first flight – the only one that is actually on a United plane. Stress level factor of oh, miss your entire trip to Africa.

What happened? Who knows United will never tell you. Could have been equipment swap – might have been a time change of two minutes somewhere. Whatever sent the itinerary into the tailspin it was headed is to remain a double secret mystery and one for, which United, will never accept any responsibility. Whatever it was it sent a ripple like the mythical rainforest butterfly flap whose consequences we would feel for the rest of our journey. Every painstakingly selected seat and confirmation evaporated like an hour’s old jet contrail.  Star Alliance Gold Status perks (hazardous duty pay for flying tens and tens of thousands of miles and spending tens and tens of thousands of dollars) poof – all gone! You get nothing! – And you will LIKE IT!

At the last moment Sara gets cleared for a seat just in time to sit and wait two hours for a late arriving airplane – why was the plane late? Who knows? The weather is fine so it’s not that – but since we are United Airline’s passengers we have no right to information. We’re never told – but we do know catching our connecting flight is going to be tough. Once the plane does show – we are not allowed to store our carry-ons under our seats in order to facilitate a quicker dash to our connecting flight – which is looking iffier and iffier. They do offer to check our bags all the way through to our final destination – having a loads of experience with their baggage handling prowess we decline this proposition.

That’s okay though – since we are Star Alliance gold and platinum members they will have a cart waiting for us at the other end to make sure we don’t have to send one of us racing through Washington Dulles while the second waits and waits and waits like a character in a Becket play for the gate check bags and then having to race the ¾ mile to the international terminal dragging both bags behind them.


Good thing we didn’t allow them to check our carry-ons, because this is when they lose the rest of our bags. But hey, we’re just going to Africa – why would we need luggage?

For the first time in my life I am the very last person on the plane – drenched in sweat after galloping through the airport I come to the gate and Sara is literally straddling the air bridge door so they would not be able to leave me behind. Those extra legroom seats we are supposed to get due to our many miles flown – tada! – They disappear thanks to the unexplained and un-apologized for glitch that United has thrown into our lives.

Eventually we arrive in Zambia. We do – our bags do not. Luckily I have come to expect very little of my airline so I had an extra days change in my carry on bag remember the one that the flight attendant so wanted me to check for free! If I had taken her up on her offer I would have been royally boned – as it stood I was merely inconvenienced – which pretty much sums up being shackled to United Airlines – an inconvenience.

Throughout our journey we have to talk our way onto plane after plane – getting supervisor’s assistance to locate our tickets, which have mysteriously become translucent due to the United portion of the ticket. It poisons our whole trip like a puss filled abscessed tooth. This was of course all “fixed” when we originally checked in – in Cleveland – we were assured everything would be smooth sailing.  So, on an itinerary in which only one flight out of a dozen was actually on a United Airlines plane – they were able to gum up the whole works. Stellar ineptitude knows no boundaries.

It seems to me the standard operating procedure at United Airlines is to first deny responsibility and then do just enough to get he customer in front of you out of your face and let the next guy or gal handle the mess which you know is going to follow the hapless patron throughout their journey.

So what happens now? We will file a formal complaint – United Airlines will throw a 300-dollar voucher our way and that will be it. No skin off their butts – their scrimping of service is paying off for them in spades as noted in this open letter to the company’s CEO from Ralph Nader. Ralph effin’ Nader! You know you’re sucking big time when Ralph finds you worthy of his time.

OY – this was going to be a blog about the schools we visited with just a mention of the travel tribulations we had (travel in Africa is rough – the time tables will beat you down like you’re dragging a snow tire behind you – the airports can be undeveloped and immigration control in some places is Kafkaesque) but when I got to thinking how United was able to make what should have only been an arduous journey into a Sisyphean marathon I just got on an uphill roll.

Oh and their new pre-flight safety video? It’s the dumbest thing ever filmed at no doubt the expense of an inch of legroom. Way to go United Airlines! Thanks for the unfriendly skies.