I haven't seen that much of it, but I am amazed by what I find, and at times, amused by my amazement.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Stuck in Paris

I have gotten to know the Charles de Gaulle Airport well in the last five days.  I owe it all to the volcanic ash cloud, Iceland's latest contribution to world travel.

It all started two weeks ago, when I agreed to take a side trip from my job in Bahrain to look at a job in Bangui, Central African Republic.  It's a job the company I am currently working for is interested in bidding on.  Scott, a fellow worker and I were scheduled to be there for a week, taking measurements and pictures for the folks in the home office.  That was on April 9th. 

Just getting to the country was an adventure.  Armed with malaria pills, a yellow fever shot and the antibiotic Ciprol, I flew from Bahrain to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, then on to Nairobi, Kenya and Douala, Cameroon before finally landing in Bangui 20 hours later. 
Hotel du Centre, Bangui's finest

Bangui shows all the signs of decades of factional fighting and bad government.  Basic infrastucture is in poor shape even in the capital city.  Bad roads, undrinkable water and electricity that goes out two or three times a day.  The electricity had the greatest effect on our stay there, since the hotel's back up generator is too small to run air conditioning, making sleeping difficult in the sweltering rooms.  The local population is friendly and outgoing, but we were warned not to leave the city due to the gangs that roam the countryside.

I try to be an open-minded traveller, finding the good in each place I go, but still it was a relief to get on the plane out of the country.  From Bangui I was to fly to Paris, then to London and finally Bahrain.  A round about way to get there, for sure.  The wheels fell off when I got to Paris.   London's Heathrow Airport was closed due to the eruption. 
One of the iconic images of the Airport shutdown.  I saw many people snapping similar photos. The red lines are all cancelled flights.

Air France bussed everyone to a hotel in downtown Paris for the night.  The next day, we were back on the bus, but the Paris airport had also closed during the night.  Instead we were  driven to another hotel.  This one turned out to be the Newport Bay Club, a Cape Cod themed hotel in Disneyland Paris.  That's when I knew things had gotten downright Goofy! 
Looks just like Cape Cod!  Except for the Pacific Northwest themed lodge in the background- complete with its own beaver-dammed creek.

That's also when my week in Africa finally caught up with me. At four in the morning symptoms of gastric distress reached a point that I took the first of the Ciprol tablets I brought with me.  Within minutes I began to itch all over, starting with my feet, hands and eyes and spreading from there.  My tongue began to feel thick, it got harder to swallow and I worried that my throat might swell shut.  Trying not to panic I called the emergency number from my room.  A paramedic came to the room within minutes and in half an hour a doctor arrived.  By then the reaction had subsided quite a bit.  It was short-lived but intense. 

I have to say this about the French system of medical care.  To get a doctor to make a house call at four in the morning, give me a check-up, a pill for the allergic reaction and another to take care of my bowels, and for all that charge me 80 euros is a truly amazing experience for a guy used to the "American Health Care System."  I had images of an ambulance ride, admission to an emergency room and a bill for thousands of dollars that the insurance company would find a reason not to pay.

The following day we were carted back to the airport, told that no flights were going anywhere, and sent off to another hotel.  I have now been in four hotels in five days and spent too much time wandering the lonely halls of a mostly deserted airport, only to have to stand in long lines to find out what is happening.   I really can't complain.  I have a place to stay.  There are travellers here that are on their own, their resources dwindling or depleted.
Mona Lisas everywhere - this must be Paris

I managed to take the local train to the Eiffel Tower for an afternoon of sightseeing, but it is hard to get too far from the airport.  I have heard of all sorts of plans to get out of here, but the situation changes every day.  Today, the fifth day, I had a plan to take a bus to Toulouse in the south of France, where a flight to Dubai had left yesterday.  Now we are being told that airports in the south of France might close as the as ash cloud drifts south and the Paris airport might reopen if that cloud does move south.  "Come back at 3pm and we will have more information." 

So much for the Louvre...

As soon as I get back to my computer (I was clever enough not to bring it with me) I will add some pictures.

Update:  Well, I came back at 3pm and was told there would be no news until 7pm.  At 7pm guess what happened?  They closed the airport for the day.  "Come back tomorrow." was the only news.  I will be back tomorrow.  What else have I got to do?  Maybe I will take a train to Athens or Rome and fly from there.  Or maybe I'll just go back to the bar.  I can't do that very often though, a beer at this hotel is 12 euros. Mon Dieu!!

The latest (and last) update:  I am back in Bahrain!  The first Gulf Air flight out of Paris was a direct flight to Bahrain and I was on it.  I did just hear however, that for the last 2000 years every time the volcano erupting now (the little Iceland volcano) goes off, the BIG Iceland volcano erupts within six months...