Thursday, January 16, 2014

A Tale of Two Airports

Okay, three really. But I don't have much to say about the Seattle-Tacoma Airport since its my home port.

1. Heathrow Airport, London.

After a nine-hour, mostly sleepless flight, we found ourselves in an empty, modern, sterile arrivals gate that felt like what I imagine a sanatorium or other less-than-fun institution would be like. I'm not sure why British Airways decided that, upon arrival in London, passengers should exit the cramped airplane into an expansive, all-white abyss, but that is what we found awaiting us. Following the herd of other sleep-deprived passengers we slogged our way to the tram.

Like the corridor, the tram too had a outerspace-like emptiness to it -- all white and gray lacquer finishes with lime-green handrails and blank walls. The tram moved surprisingly slowly, eventually bringing us to the main terminal from which we could go back through security to get into the mall-like atmosphere of the International Terminal.

Security. A little different than the USA. We got to keep our shoes on and had to place all our luggage in a large gray bin, but otherwise the rest was the same: all liquids in a plastic ziplock bag, jackets off, boarding passes checked, slow people ahead who didn't know the drill, etc.

We had hoped to find a hotel in the International Terminal where we could sleep away our 9 hour layover, but it turns out that the airport hotel was in another random terminal and we would have to go back through security to get it to, plus we needed special permission to get to that gate since our flight was departing elsewhere. So, while I held down the fort, Josh scouted the termin-mall for the comfiest chairs to nap in. We ate some crap food, napped and bid our time until they posted our gate info.

Check out the unusual lady figure in the London airport restroom signs. Apparently British women have amazingly large hips or wear hoop skirts all the time!

Also different than Seattle, they don't let you go to your gate until 90 minutes before your departure time. Instead you must shop at the high-priced designer stores in the termin-mall: Prada, Guici and a whole host of others including a shop where you could get £400 tins of caviar. No thank you.

I did, however, find a wool scarf I loved. But for the price, I settled on a photo instead. Perhaps I will recreate it when I get back to the States. :)

Eventually, we made it to the gate, but not before realizing that my iPad was seriously low on battery and that the charger dongle to convert UK to US power was tucked in the checked luggage. One cheap crossword puzzle book later, and we were aboard the final leg of our journey to South Africa.

2. O.R.Tambo Airport, Johannesburg.

Even more wearily this time, we exited the airplane and stumbled our way to immigration where we were faced with two queues for non-South African passport holders: visa required or visa not required. Hmmm. At this point were so tired and delirious that we couldn't remember if US citizens need a visa to visit a South Africa, and even though Josh has been here before, he was clueless. So, I asked a guy wearing a badge and he gave me the most unhelpful information. Apparently US passport holders can use either line. What?! Do I need a visa or not, I still wanted to know. But I was exhausted and Josh had joined the line for no visa required, so I just joined him and hoped it all would work out. And surprise! It did! No line switching required. No annoyed immigration officers. Just a smooth and mellow experience.

Oh, and did I mention that the immigration officers don't wear uniforms? Some of them were even wearing jeans. How nice. Then it was time for the loo, and the friendly a-line skirt wearing lady was back on the sign directing me to the restroom. What a relief!

A few other differences:

  • Luggage carts are free and plentiful.
  • Customs is a quick walk with no one scanning bags or asking to know anything about you. Just a half-dozen customs officers (in uniforms) joking around and laughing as we walked by.
  • Multicolored tile stripes on the floor directing us along to the exit. (Sort of a South Africa yellow-brick-road, if you will).
  • A huge beaded elephant advertising some local liquor, which of course I made Josh take a picture of me in front of:

As we exited the secure area, I was expecting to slam into a huge crowd of people, some offering taxi rides, others pulling at my luggage acting as my self-appointed porters, and still more people shouting to find loved ones in the crowd. But no. It was surprising peaceful, quiet and orderly. Not a single person offered us a lift, tried to carry our luggage for us or forcefully plied their wares. How nice!

Eventually we connected with the driver arranged by Josh's local contact and off we went to the hotel where check-in was surprisingly fast and easy, our room is nice and clean, the shower works like at home, and the bed was so cozy we overslept our naps.

Today marks my first day on the African continent, my first visit to South Africa and our the first day of our hopefully-year-long adventure. (I promise future posts will be much shorter. Thanks to those who stuck it out and made it to the end of this ramble.)


  1. South Africa sounds as good as the many positive comments I have heard from other visitors. Enjoy!!


  2. I am so very happy for you and Josh! Happy travels to you! And I would love to continue reading about your adventures, including long blog posts! ;)

  3. I love the hoop-skirt bathroom lady!