To go, or not to go.
Sunday, April 13, 2003
By David Bear, Post-Gazette Travel Editor
Four nights before my long-scheduled trip to South Africa, bombs began falling on Baghdad. Three days after my return, the barrage has apparently ceased.
To go or not to go.
Months ago, when offered the chance to check out a part of the world I had always wanted to see, I signed on for a two-week sampler tour of South Africa’s adventure travel opportunities.
But not without hesitation.
I’ll report on those adventures in a future Sunday travel section, but today I’ll focus on some of the issues and experiences of traveling to a distant place during a disturbing time.
Like many people, long trips are difficult for me both to arrange and to take. Two weeks is a huge amount of time to be away from home and office. Shifting all the regular schedules to create the space to be away involves a lot of heavy lifting.
Then there was the concern of such a long journey coupled with what I’ll call “Africa anxieties,” the fear of the “dark” continent, from exotic diseases and predatory animals to street crime and, in these darkening months, terrorist-inspired violence. These anxieties weren’t just evidence of my overactive imagination; official warning flags were waving everywhere.
Still, following the advice I had offered in this space several weeks ago, I tried not to let statistically insignificant fears dissuade me from a trip I wanted to make. I tried to quantify and mitigate the actual risks. For example, a little research revealed the threat of malaria was tiny in the places I’d be visiting, and I decided that possible negative reactions to medicines outweighed the risks of infection.
I knew that although the prospects were alarming, the odds of anything untoward happening to me in Africa were dramatically lower than being injured in an accident on the way to Pittsburgh International Airport.
Still, for the first time in my life, I bought trip insurance.
My ambitious itinerary involved seven flights, two of which were of more than 15 hours’ duration. But the actual routing was fairly direct, an hour flight from Pittsburgh to La Guardia, with a bus transfer to JFK. From there, it was a 15-hour, nonstop leap on South American Airways to Johannesburg, followed by a two-hour connection and 90-minute hop to Cape Town.
With making connections, clearing security and then undergoing seven time-zone differences, the door-to-door journey figured to be roughly 26 actual hours -- 33 hours on the clock. Still that seemed better than making another interim connection somewhere like London or Paris.
For that reason, the actual onset of the long-anticipated conflict in Iraq seemed less likely to interfere with flight schedules. When my wife encouraged me not to pass up a golden opportunity, I saw no reason not to proceed.
The good news is that each step of my outward journey went approximately to plan. Security at Pittsburgh International had been ramped up several notches since my last flight, with more thorough checks of baggage and passengers. But with fewer passengers in the airport, there were no delays.
The 15-hour flight from JFK to Johannesburg seemed endless, but with the nurturing SAA staff and robust in-flight entertainment system, the time passed comfortably. Because of the timing of the flight, I even managed to catch six hours’ sleep en route, which made my arrival that much easier.
I’m also pleased to report that all three South African Airways flights I took left and arrived more or less on time, and, though none of the flights was longer than 90 minutes, each came with a meal.
South Africa has a first-class travel infrastructure, with modern, secure airports and a well-developed highway system, though secondary roads can deteriorate the farther from primary cities they get. And observance of traffic regulations sometimes seemed to be regarded as a voluntary matter. And South Africa seems to be bustling with visitors from around the world.
Nor did I have any problem keeping informed about the war or hometown developments, with CNN, the BBC and the PG Online. The time difference did complicate coordinating communication with home, but with a phone card I bought in a Cape Town supermarket, calls were only about 50 cents a minute and easy to make.
Street crime in South Africa is a concern, especially in urban areas, and the huge shanty warrens known as townships are unsettling to see, but you quickly realize that life for most people proceeds in an ordinary way.
Other worries turned out not to be an issue at all.
Although many people I encountered during the trip, from waiters to those who sat next to me on planes, expressed concerns and displeasure with the war, there was always a healthy discourse and nothing that seemed like belligerence or anti-Americanism. On the contrary, people seemed genuinely glad to see Americans there.
And although AIDS is an enormous problem throughout Africa, it wasn’t something that impinged on my experience.
I hiked, mountain-biked, sea-kayaked, rappelled down a 300-foot cliff, went hot-air ballooning and spent two nights camping in an animal-abundant wilderness area without breaking any bones and with only a few scratches. With a hat, sunscreen and insect repellent, I seem to have escaped with my hide intact.
The only cloud came when my return flight was canceled, because of the slump in travel caused by the war. But the airline was able to accommodate me on a flight one day earlier, which, as it turned out wasn’t so bad. All that adventure was exhausting.
My journey from Johannesburg back to Pittsburgh also went on schedule. The 19 hours it took to fly to JFK, including a 90-minute stop in Dakar, Senegal, at 2:30 a.m., was an epic but surprisingly comfortable journey, complete with four meals, five movies and six hours of sleep.
Observing the latex-gloved security staff check the entire cabin on a seat-by-seat basis for suspicious items during that stop gave me added insight into how tight wartime precautions have become, but somehow it seemed like overkill. Under its Peace of Mind policy, US Airways had no problem switching my return reservation for a day earlier. My four-hour layover at La Guardia was long, but it wasn’taffected by the snowstorm that swept through New York that day. I even caught a 28X bus, which whisked me from the airport to Carnegie Mellon University in 40 minutes despite the new tunnel detours and during rush hour.
In short, I had a great trip and memorable adventure, arriving home glad that I hadn’t let fears interfere with my travel plans. There are too many extraordinary places in the world and never enough time to see more than a handful.
Too often in this Information Age, we are so conscious of all the mishaps that might occur to have confidence that, more often than not, things generally go just fine.
I didn’t even notice that daylight-saving time had begun in my absence.
David Bear can be reached at email@example.com or 412-263-1629.