Planes, Trains, and Automobiles

April 16, 2016

Attending a conference in the United States most often means flying from one city to another, never needing a passport.  Generally, one drives to the airport, boards a flight, and then takes a taxi or shuttle bus to the hotel serving the conference.  From South Africa, attending most conferences will require considerably more effort!  Join me in my travel itinerary to take part in this year’s HUPO-PSI meeting in Ghent, Belgium.

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Two flights take me to a beautiful, though now troubled, country.

Cape Town International Airport is centrally located, though accessibility does not mean “high property value,” in this case.  For example, the airport is always contending with homeless people trying to establish an informal settlement on the site where the runway expansion is planned.  Leaving my car there for the duration of the meeting did not seem like a secure option.  The department arranged a taxi for me, instead.

I have mentioned that the mini shuttle buses serve as taxis for the general public, but I hope to steer clear of them.  Instead I rode a private taxi from a particular company.  I was glad that the driver arrived ten minutes early, though I neglected my rain jacket as I pushed the last items into my bag.  During the twenty-five minute trip, the driver asked my impressions of Cape Town, and I said something positive about my experiences so far.  He then gestured toward some people sitting against a wall near the road.  He made a sneering comment about lazy people expecting a handout.  He then claimed “it’s their culture,” singling out one of the two largest language groups in the country.  Then he “praised” another ethnic group, saying that a husband-wife duo would make a great housekeeper-gardener team.  The temperature in the cab dropped several degrees.  As we parted ways at the airport, I suggested that he consider whether giving voice to such dismissive comments about “culture” with a complete stranger were really a good idea. (On my return from the airport, a different driver from the same company was very good company.)

The airports in South Africa are all quite new, dating from the 2010 FIFA World Cup.  I was able to convince British Airways to apply this trip to my American Airlines frequent flyer account, and I gained access to the British Airways departure lounge for the first time in my life (they afforded me Sapphire Status, but it was all over before my return from Europe).    There were no restaurants in the international departures terminal, but free food and drinks (open bottles of wine, actually) were plentiful throughout the British Airways lounge.  I poured myself a glass as I enjoyed the wireless signal.  Is this what my future will look like?

The flight to London on British Airways, by contrast, was quite ordinary, except that the ticket provided by the conference put me in an interior position in the middle section of four seats.  The entertainment system had a good store of movies, though the touch screen wasn’t responding well.  The flight crew reset the system for the whole plane, but it made no difference.  Mostly I felt cramped, with a seat back that slouched without my hitting the button.  Even so, I managed to sleep at least six hours on the 11+ hour flight.  While it is certainly faster to reach Europe by air than to reach the United States, it’s still an incredibly long distance.

I was glad that I didn’t need to retrieve and then re-check my bags at London Heathrow.  Instead I enjoyed some more quality time at the British Airways departure lounge!  My pain-au-chocolat and orange juice hit the spot as the sun rose for Sunday morning.  I walked quite a distance from one gate to the other, plus taking a shuttle bus; terminal 3 and terminal 5 are not neighbors.  Just before boarding the plane, I stopped at a kiosk to change some rand to Euros.  I handed in 200 rand, and I received a shiny 10 Euro note in return.  Google later told me that the current exchange rate should have given me 12.17 Euros.  Remember, just because they’re waiving commission does not mean you will receive a fair rate!

After an uneventful short hop to Brussels, I de-planed for the last leg of the journey.  The first change I noticed was the presence of assault rifles everywhere at the airport.  Because of last month’s terror attack, the airport is a heavily armed zone, with soldiers and police sporting impressive weaponry.  This pattern extended throughout the city.  The airport seemed strangely empty, and when I left the terminal to reach ground transportation, I could see why; the usual mob of executive car service and taxi drivers were sequestered on the far side of the road.

The airport rail station was a casualty of the terror attack.  Now I needed a bus to get me to one of the other train stations.  The MOBIB station accepted Euro coins and, ostensibly, bank cards.  I tried my South African debit card and did not even get a PIN number prompt before rejection.  Then I tried my Visa credit card from the United States.  Frustratingly, the machine asked me for a PIN to use it (even these new chipped credit cards from the States do not work with PINs in that context).  My 10 Euro note was not usable with the machine since it needed coins, but a taxi driver was able to remedy that problem in a flash.  My foul mouth calmed down once I had my MOBIB ticket in hand, and I boarded bus 21 to the Luxembourg train station.  I decided to alter that design, though.  Instead I came off the bus at the European Commission building (“Capital of Europe“) and popped onto the Metro (the same ticket grants one access to bus and metro lines within an hour).  Jumping off at the central station for the metro network, I walked a few blocks southeast.  My oversized gray luggage case bounced nervously on the cobbles.  I turned a corner and KERPOW!  I was in the Grand Place or Grote Markt, a one-of-a-kind square lined by buildings dating as far back as the 14th century.

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The guild halls of the Grand Place are one-of-a-kind

As if on cue, the skies opened up, and a hail/sleet mix skittered on the pavement.  I captured a few images of the buildings despite the weather, and a fellow with an Eastern European accent took a snapshot of me.

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By this time, I certainly wished I’d brought my rain jacket!

With that, I walked in the general direction of the central train station.  I learned from a few conversations along the route that my limited knowledge of French would get a workout if I spent much time in Brussels.  I have grown accustomed to being understood by everyone in Cape Town, so switching to French for others to understand me was something of a novelty.  I was happy to see another statue in tribute to Don Quixote and Sancho Panza as I drew near to the train station.

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Don Quixote and Sancho Panza know how to mix it up.

My financial stress continued at the train station; the automated ticket machine failed on both my cards.  Happily, the manned ticket counter used my Visa with no problems.  My ride to Ghent was very rapid, and the smooth passage on the rails gave me a chance to record my thoughts in a notebook.

By this time, my relationship with the oversized silver luggage had deteriorated to the point that I felt the need to punish it.  I walked to the Ibis Hotel near the Ghent Opera House (perhaps a couple of kilometers).  A person in a more tractable mood would have taken the convenient streetcar instead.  My very long travel day came to an end.

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One thought on “Planes, Trains, and Automobiles

  1. Pingback: The photographs of a life in motion | Picking Up The Tabb

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