A solitary voyager embarked on an infinite journey would require an infinity of transit lounges
J. G. Ballard, Report on an Unidentified Space Station
We should really update the red line on the world map to show our actual path. The original plan was to spend a couple of weeks in southern Africa, but South Africa itself has one of these annoying policies where they won't let people apply for a visa more than three months in advance or from a country where you're not legally resident, which means that Susan couldn't get in to the country. We toyed with the idea of keeping our flights in and out of JNB, and flying straight to Mozambique instead, but that ended up on the wrong side of the balance between having an easy, fun time versus spending ages looking for reasonably-priced flights and accommodation, so we decided that it would be best just to fly directly to Chile instead. Well, as directly as could be done. Our magnificent travel agents at airtreks.com (who I would wholeheartedly recommend, despite how this might sound) did their best with the limited options available and came up with the strangest routing I've ever seen: keeping our originally-booked flights to Jo'burg, then to São Paolo via Luanda on TAAG (the national airline of Angola: what do you mean you've never heard of it?) and then on to Santiago. We both packed extra clothes in our carry-on in case the rest of the luggage didn't make it.
But I'm getting ahead of myself: before getting in to modern travel, I want to talk about light for a bit. We all take for granted the ability to hit a switch and get illumination, but the last few weeks have made me very thankful for technology.
In 1996, William D. Nordhaus (one of this year's Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences laureates) wrote a paper calculating the efficiency of different lighting technologies over time. It has an interesting appendix: he built a wood fire and bought a Roman oil-lamp then sat beside them with a light meter to come up with the numbers for the oldest sources of light: firewood costs around 58 hours of labour per 1,000 lumen-hours, and Babylonian lamps fuelled with sesame oil around 42. By 1992, a first-generation compact fluorescent bulb produced about 68.3 lumens per watt: less than half a second's labour.
A bit of Wikipedia-ing suggests that modern LED bulbs are about twice as efficient as this, and that solar panels have also become a lot better in recent years. Our tent in the Maasai Mara had a solar panel that charged a small car battery (in a wooden box by the toilet) that powered small LED lights. This was enormously helpful: when you live in a city it's hard to remember just how dark it gets on a moonless night, and what a difference there is between enough of a glimmer to find the insect repellent and nothing at all.
Kenya often made me think how much we take for granted: not just cheap light and clean drinking water in our homes, but street lighting and reliable power. Hot water in the Mara came from wood fires and boilers made out of oil drums, and even in Nairobi there was always the smell of wood smoke in the evenings.
So, back to travel. Whenever I fly to or through Frankfurt, I'm always reminded of J.G. Ballard's short story Report on an Unidentified Space Station, where the crew of a failing spacecraft explore, then give themselves up to worshipping, a space station seemingly containing an infinite undifferentiated terrain of passenger concourses, lounges, and restaurant terraces. This journey, while barely seeming finite at times, had clearly-differentiated lounges and stations, all taking different currencies and serving different things.
Nairobi airport is friendly, but, well, a bit faded. The poor ground staff had clearly never heard of somebody flying such a crazy route, and had at least three goes at checking us in before sending us to sit and wait while they phoned a friend. They came back after quarter of an hour or so, though, with our first six boarding passes, and instructions to check in again in Brazil. Airside, there's a small restaurant where you can get a vegetable samosa and a Tusker before takeoff.
The transit hotel in Johannesburg airport is on to a good thing: we were happy to give them silly amounts of money for a room for the night before flying to Luanda, and they came through with a king-sized bed and an actual bathtub. Checking in was an experience: everybody seemed to have a disaster story to tell, from the Spanish-speaking man who had been booked into the hotel with the same name on the other side of immigration to the Zimbabwean that had been kicked out of Kenya for not having a yellow fever vaccination certificate, and didn't want to chance South African immigration having come from Kenya without a YF certificate. The hotel staff were remarkably upbeat through all of this. Sadly, there's no food in the hotel, so you have to bring your passport and boarding pass and go through security to eat pizza surrounded by tourists going home. The catering is all a bit weird, actually: the Mugg & Bean staff wear badges saying they're "waitrons", and Piece-a-Pizza doesn't have an alcohol license, so they send you to the duty free shop to buy tepid beer that gets sealed into one of those special plastic bags at the till. Of course, you then rip the bag open a minute later back at your table, but it's completely impossible to skip this step.
TAAG treated us remarkably well, and may be a secret hack for getting the cheapest business class flight from Africa to South America. All the horror stories we'd read on the Internet turned out not to be true: there is a new lounge in Luanda, and they don't make you sneak through immigration to check your bag back in. We did have boarding passes for the connecting flight, though, and had our bags checked through, which can't have hurt. Do note, though: all flights seem to depart from gate 4, which means there's an insane ruck of people waiting for several flights at once. We waited until the lounge told us to go, which seemed to be the last sensible moment to join the queue. We got pulled out quickly and (after a small interlude where Susan got questioned about her ability to go to Brazil without a visa, and we had to produce our yellow fever certificates) put on a bus to the plane.
Eight-ish hours later we got to São Paolo, went through immigration, and waited for our bags. After everybody else had picked theirs off the carousel, we went to the Special Desk and showed them our receipts, which confused the man greatly for a moment before he divined that our luggage had been checked through to Santiago. We went off to check in again (greatly confused by the Brazilian system for queueing) and got boarding passes and a verbal confirmation that our bags were going there too. Oh, and the GOL lounge has free pão de queijo.
The flight from São Paolo to Santiago is absurdly scenic: if you ever fly across the Andes, do get a window seat. I think we tracked along the Uruguay river for a while, then across north-central Argentina for an hour or two before the mountains started. The flight attendants made us all put our seatbelts, and I looked out of the window and seemingly up, not down, at the peaks in front of us. I'm fairly sure that we went through a pass rather than straight over the top: the plane made a sharp left turn as soon as it was over the highest peaks, and then came straight down to land. The actual landing isn't as exciting as the old Kai Tak airport in Hong Kong, but there's something of the same feeling of being far closer to the ground than is normal when crossing the mountains.
I'm absurdly thankful for the system that lets you give a couple of bags to a (rather confused) person in Nairobi on a Saturday afternoon and then, around 56 hours later, pick them up again in Chile. The weather here is crisp and dry and remarkably sunny, and there's good Chilean plonk and Argentinian beef in the shops for next to nothing.