The return Journey

September 19, 2006

Phew! It took me so long to recover from the return journey. Actually, though the return journey had its difficulties, I’ve just not been able to get back to blogging. There’s so much to write. I’m amazed by how much there is to discover in America, even in a week where I hardly left home.

Today though, after publicly apologizing to those whom I should have contacted, I’ll concentrate on that return journey. Only because this is the first time in several years of travel, when everything that could safely go wrong actually did go wrong. Thankfully, my safety or security was not affected.

It all started on the 11th of September, as I made my return journey. Several have asked why I chose to travel on that day. Actually, it wasn’t entirely my choice. I was due to accompany my niece as far as Frankfurt, then head for London, while she headed for Nigeria. Her ticket had been booked months in advance, … and not by me. I just fitted into the plans.

Airline customer relations people (and I’ve had a week’s dealings with them now) insist that all the delays were caused by the weather, not extra security measures. But I didn’t particularly notice any bad weather, and I do believe someone needed to cover up the series of mistakes that were made. Two similarities with the trip I made exactly five years earlier; one was that I travelled with my niece, now 10 years old, and the second was that my journey was interrupted, though, thankfully, this was not as terrorising.

Back to my story. It all started at the airport, when we were told that our plane to DC would be delayed by an hour. That still gave us ample time to catch the Lufthansa to Frankfurt. But if that was so, why were we being booked on a United Airline flight that left DC for Frankfurt 28 minutes later. That wasn’t our main concern however. More important was the excess luggage that my niece was carrying home. The lady at the checking desk took her time over explaining how much she was helping us and what a bargain we were receiving, though we didn’t quite see this wonderful act of generosity. And we were less inclined to agree when she said that as we were now travelling via United Airlines to Frankfurt, the 60 dollars we’d paid for my niece to travel unaccompanied was now invalid and we had to pay another 60 to her.

Of course, I couldn’t agree to that, and my protest marked the beginning of intense negotiations with all manner of airline staff, which lasted three days. This first one appeared deadlocked when she suggested that if we weren’t going to cough up the 60 dollars, she could only check my niece’s luggage as far as Frankfurt. I told her that was impossible but she wasn’t budging. Just as I began to wonder about giving up the argument, a supervisor appeared. I explained to him that we’d been booked to fly Lufthansa from DC, we’d paid for my niece to travel unaccompanied, it wasn’t our fault that we were unable to catch the flight we’d booked, and it would be impossible for me, who was asking for assistance as a blind person to also be responsible for picking up my niece’s checked luggage at Frankfurt. He agreed, and with profound apologies, overruled our generous checking in lady.

There were three of us making the journey. My niece was going to Nigeria, I was following her as far as Frankfurt and my sister, (her mother) was accompanying us to DC and returning the next day. But if our plane was delayed by an hour, we should have left at half past three. It was about five PM when we eventually lifted off and headed for DC. We landed just as the Lufthansa plane would have been taking off, with 28 minutes to catch our new flight. We raced, got there just in time and learned that although my niece was booked on the flight, I was only waitlisted. Our generous checking in lady had not told us this.

This wasn’t on, so we started another round of negotiations, right at the boarding gate. One lady simply walked away, telling us she’d be back. Another took my niece’s ticket, punched a few keys on the computer and locked the gate, declaring that her luggage hadn’t made it to the flight anyway. Somehow, I didn’t believe her, but it didn’t matter.

We were told that I could board a United Airline to London and my niece could board a later flight that evening to Frankfurt. Again, I explained that I intended to se her to Frankfurt. But the idea that she should travel on this later flight was just laughable. She’d have arrived an hour after the connecting flight to Lagos. Would she have been unaccompanied for 24 hours in Frankfurt? I just stood there wondering. They saw a 10 year old, they were holding her ticket as they made the booking, so they knew her final destination.

But the gate was closing, so we were sent to Customer Services. Here, we stood for two and a half hours, a line attended to by a maximum of four members of staff, some of whom were constantly disappearing.

By the time we got to the front of the queue, my niece was being publicly asked to catch her flight to Frankfurt, and I was being informed that I was expected to go on a flight that would soon be leaving for London. I explained again that I wasn’t allowing my niece to stay 24 hours unaccompanied in Frankfurt, that in any case, as I’d booked to go to Frankfurt, that was exactly where I was flying to. I was surprised at how calm the lady was. She’d been dealing with a whole load of passengers who’d missed their connecting flights. While waiting, some were calling their relatives in Newzealand and Peru. Several had travelled from all over the country. But she calmly booked us on the Lufthansa flight of the next day, promised that our luggage would accompany us and gave us vouchers for a good hotel. She even booked my sister on a later flight the next day, so she could wave us off. All the time, she maintained the air of efficiency and assurance.

Or so I thought, until, at about 11 PM, we arrived, tired at the Dulles Hilton, on their own courtesy coach. When we showed up, the hotel receptionist was furious. She said our efficient customer service representative should have known that there were no more rooms there. They were only supposed to have issued 10 vouchers, and here we were, a coachload of ‘distressed’ guests, coming into her full hotel. Apparently, the vouchers we were given were no good for any other hotel, since they now had the name Hilton written on them, so we had to return to the airport.

As the others piled into the courtesy coach for another queueing session, I marshalled the troops and simply said the should ring someone. They must have known I was serious, as I was soon speaking to a kindly lady in Chicago. I said I had a 10 year old niece. She said she understood, as she has a six year old in bed. I said I was visually impaired and my sister was having to shepherd two people round DC. She said there was nothing she could do; she couldn’t even connect us to someone in Dulles. I asked if she knew what it was like at the airport, and she admitted she didn’t. I explained to her sympathetic ears how I’d been standing since I arrived in DC, at about half past six, how the only time I sat was on the five minute coach journey, and how it was past 11 PM. She understood but couldn’t do anything.

I think the hotel knew that I and my family were prepared to sleep in the lobby that night. Suddenly, a manager emerged and said that the vouchers were now good for the Hyatt. We even got a courtesy coach ride, and there were people waiting for us as we arrived. Better than that, we arrived on time to eat something before the restaurant closed at midnight. Actually, that was where we discovered that the generous gift of the airline could only buy soup and salad. But we were tired and jumped into our comfortable beds in our air conditioned room, just thanking God that we had another day together. And we didn’t even have to leave before 1 PM.

We breakfasted on cereal, which was all our vouchers could get us. At the right time, we took another coach trip to the airport, and this time went straight to Lufthansa. We even had another minor argument about the 60 dollar fee for unaccompanied minors, but that was soon resolved when they checked their paperwork and found that we were right again. Here, we were assured that if things worked as they should, our luggage would be accompanying us on the flight. There were the usual tearful goodbyes and we boarded. My niece was brilliant. She promised to be a big girl, and she was. She didn’t really cry, just a tear or two as her mum shouted goodbye for the fifth time. Maybe another tear or two as I shouted my own fifth goodbye at Frankfurt airport. Well done girl!

When I got to London, I wasn’t too surprised to find that my luggage hadn’t accompanied me. It had travelled on another flight and after another hour of ringing United Airlines (and getting no answer, negotiating security checks in a different terminal and then getting to their baggage claim, I found that the suitcases were waiting by one side, as though they expected me to just know they were there.

I raised the alarm with my sister, and sure enough, in Lagos, only two of the three suitcases arrived with my niece. I rang Frankfurt and Washington, but it took Washington 24 hours to find the suitcase. It was during one of those calls that a lady told me that while they were sorry I’d been inconvenienced in my travel, they weren’t responsible for the weather. I would have told her that the weather wasn’t responsible for my queueing, or for my being sent to a hotel with no room, etc. I held my tongue.

I’ve been promised that the suitcases would be sent to Lufthansa, and to Lagos. I haven’t checked yet. Actually, I enjoyed the States. It was warm, I made lots of new friends, … all in one week. When I get round to it, I’ll write about it. I’d love to, once I’ve got this one out of my chest.

How I travel

September 10, 2006

After about 27 hours of traveling by road and air, I finally stepped into my sister’s house in Orangeburg South Carolina on Monday evening (4 September). It wasn’t as bad as it sounds, (though it wasn’t your typical journey) and warm South Carolina made the trip worthwhile immediately.

I left home the day before at about 10.30 PM in a friend’s car. He’d promised to drive me to the Preston coach station at 10, but of course, I wasn’t ready. Never mind, I was still on time for the 11.40 to Heathrow airport. We arrived on time at Heathrow, 5.25 AM, but I kept the coach driver and all other passengers waiting, as there was nobody to assist me at the terminal. The lady whom we thought was designated to meet us said there were only two members of staff, that the airlines wouldn’t send someone to meet me, despite the fact that I’d informed them I was visually impaired, and basically nothing could be done.

Eventually, I got the royal treatment. The coach was diverted from its direct route to London Victoria. The driver stopped at terminal 3, got me out and took me and my suitcase to the United Airline desk. Wow! I hadn’t even left the country and things weren’t going as expected.

I’ve grown used to the system of being met at my destination, and taken to my next means of transport by helpful members of staff. We’d chat on the way about anything that took our fancy and leave each other as best friends, expressing our desires to seek out each other when I next passed that way. Not this time, and I was left wondering why. I’d informed National Express that I’m visually impaired. They even gave me a discounted fair when I told them. The driver at Preston expected me. He didn’t even check my ticket and he knew where I was headed for. It was as though he was expecting one visually impaired person, and there was only one visually impaired person at the station. Maybe I’m wrong, but I think the lady at the Heathrow terminal also expected me, but she just didn’t want to do anything about it.

No problems. In the end, all systems depend on the individuals who run them, and I’m full of gratitude to the National Express drivers, who were ever friendly and ready to help. They ensured that I had no problems catching my 7.50 flight to DC.

So now, I had 8 hours of sleep … 8 hours to think … 8 hours to do whatever people do when they have 8 hours free. I started to think of how I’ve always preferred to travel on European airlines. I believe it’s more expensive, but you also get more. I’ve traveled via Delta, US air and now United. Take the radio channels. I think we had only about five radio channels on our flight. I spend most flights flicking through channels. Not this time. After a few minutes, I switched off the radio, thanking God that I’d brought a Braille novel. Later, I checked the television channels. There was a comedy channel and a few films. For a country that prides itself on entertainment, the choice was still limited. And the documentary channel only had business and technology features.

I was not offered information in Braille on this flight, so it was a good thing that I’d read enough on other flights and in any event, I always hope never to need any of the safety information. But I could have done with the duty free catalogue in Braille, as would have happened on a European airline.

Again, individual members of staff rose up to the occasion, and I had a great flight. It began with the discovery that I was in economy plus. Did I book that? Thank God for bigger leg space. I sat next to an English gentleman who was headed for Washington on business. In fact, he was due to return to England the next evening. Cool! It was our captain’s retirement flight, and as we arrived at Dulles International, we were followed by firetrucks which sprayed the plane with water to the cheers of the passengers. I wish him very well, it was a great flight. The flight crew was great too, and more than made up for the fact that I was not met at the airport. But more on that later. Before then, they all ensured that I was fine.

When I asked for the duty free catalogue, the gentleman who had come to assist me confessed his inadequacies and introduced me to a grandmotherly character who proceeded to tell the entire deck what her recommendations were, and what I’d decided on. I said I wanted something for my 10 year old niece. She told me what she usually bought her own granddaughter … scary! I could either get some jewellery or perfume for 80 or 90 dollars, or perhaps some lip gloss for about 50 dollars. I quietly wondered what her mum would think if I presented her 10 year old daughter with designer perfume costing that much, but the entire cabin was assured that 10 year old girls are now very fashion conscious.

In the end, I settled for a perfume for my sister and decided to buy something for my niece from duty free at Dulles, before boarding my connecting flight. I’m sure she was horrified by how little I spent on the perfume. How much? Oh no! I’m not going to tell the whole world am I?

In any case, I didn’t even get to give it to her. As I filled the immigration forms, I came across the question “have you ever been refused a visa by a US embassy?” Well I had, on my Nigerian passport, so I said so. My helper informed me that in that case, the form stipulated that I should go to my nearest embassy before visiting the States. I couldn’t believe this, it had never been a problem before. At this point, my fellow passenger suggested that I got a new form and this time, I should state that I’d never been refused. After all, I wasn’t traveling on my Nigerian passport. I even thought about it. My helper quietly pointed out that if I filled out another form, he’d write down whatever I told him to, but that I’d be responsible for lying to the US authorities.

In the end, my natural dislike for bureaucracy, immigration and security made me decide against it. I showed my fellow passenger my Nigerian passport, pointing out that I was refused in 1992, that it was in Lagos, that I was given a visa in 1990 when I’d applied from London, and also in 2001. That since then, I’d been to the States on numerous occasions and had had no trouble. I decided that I’d face whatever the truth would hold, but I wouldn’t deceive anyone. It occurred to me later that at least two people would be aware that I’d lied, and any of the two would be perfectly capable of telling the authorities. And what would happen then?

So, we got to Washington, with the warning of my fellow passenger ringing in my ears. He’d reminded me of this new security regime, how everyone is jumpy these days. I also knew I only had an hour’s wait to catch my connecting flight to Columbia South Carolina. When we got to Dulles, there was nobody waiting for me, (a first), but my form filling friend kindly walked me to the crew’s immigration point. It would have been another royal treatment, but for that section in my form. It meant that the immigration official couldn’t deal with me and had to redirect me. Unfortunately, there was now nobody to take me to the new point. After a few frantic calls, I got assistance from a member of United Airline’s staff. It wasn’t his job, but time was running out. He took me to my new location, but by this time, I was getting angry. I told the immigration official that I didn’t know what all the fuss was about, that I’ve been visiting the US, and I’d like to know what was happening before my connecting flight. You can imagine how foolish I felt when he merely asked why I thought he wouldn’t let me in.

We raced! We picked my suitcase! We checked it in for the connecting flight! We ran to the domestic checkpoint, where I was frisked and my hand luggage was examined. It was then that the Transport Safety Authority official asked whether I could put my perfume in with my checked luggage. That was impossible I was told by the guy who was rushing me to the aircraft. I asked if I could give my sister’s address and have it sent on. There was insufficient time. I remarked that I’d bought this item on an aircraft, but the very friendly man who was checking me said he couldn’t allow liquids on that plane, no matter what I said. I even said I could have managed it if I hadn’t been held up at immigration. All to no avail.

Dulles airport is strange. It doesn’t have tunnels from the aircraft to the terminal. There are these sophisticated ‘people movers’ which do the job. When you get off the plane, it’s at the level of the door. When you get to the terminal, some hydraulic lifts adjust the level. Whenever I get into one of those things, I feel I’m in a spacious moving living room, not a bus. As we sat waiting for the people mover to take us to our new
terminal, the guy who was helping me kept frantically making calls to try to hold the plane. More royal treatment!

It worked. I was the last passenger on the flight to Columbia. I arrived at 2 PM, local time, about 7 PM British time. The sole member of the service crew had made some entertaining announcements on our way. Now, she handed me to an official who got my suitcase and dumped me outside the airport to wait for my sister. Is that how it works here? But it was warm, so I took off my jumper and enjoyed the five minute wait till I heard her shout my name from her car.

But that wasn’t the end of the journey. My niece was spending labor day with some friends in North Carolina. As we drove over to pick her, she told me she didn’t mind about the perfume. We stopped, had a meal, and eventually got to our destination after 5 PM. We spent about half an hour talking, then headed for home. With the rains we slowed, but by 8 PM, we were home at last. That was 1 AM British time. Time for bed I reasoned.

My mum

September 2, 2006

My mum passed away on 2 September 1998. I don’t remember much of what happened on that day, because it was the last thing I expected. My sister had come to visit in July and had told me my mum was ill. But she’d also said that she wouldn’t have left Nigeria if my mum wasn’t feeling better.

I do remember the last letter I wrote through my sister. I asked why she couldn’t trust me with the news that she hadn’t been feeling well. Actually, I hadn’t even realised, (or maybe I didn’t admit) how ill my mum was. So I spent the day doing ordinary things.

I do remember the next day, very clearly, because it was about 7 PM that I got a call from my aunt in London. I remember that all day, I’d gone out with a friend who was visiting from Nigeria, on his way to do a course in Hereford. I remember what I did after I spoke to my aunt, when I finally called home, what my dad said about our celebrating her life, how hard it was, even for him to practice what he was preaching, … I remember that my brother arrived home about that time. He’d been sitting in an airport, alone, for six hours, waiting for his flight to Lagos.

Maybe it was a good thing that I wasn’t there when my mum was ill. I only have memories of her strength, her sense of purpose, and most of all, of her love and intuition. One day, in 1991, I was broke, tired and lonely. So I rang home to speak to my parents. I thought I sounded cheerful enough; but as the call ended, and as they were putting the receiver down, I distinctly remember hearing my mum say that I wasn’t as happy as I sounded on the phone.

When I got back from the funeral, I could hardly concentrate. I knew that all the other members of my family just needed each other, but we were going our separate ways. I’d even applied for my brother to spend some time with me, but they wouldn’t give him a visa. I missed my mum, but I also had the distinct feeling that we, as a family were falling apart I just could not forget the feeling I got the second I entered our house. It was as though she was there … and she wasn’t. I knew things would never be the same again. It’s hard to understand, but my mum was such a strong character, and she always had a strong presence.

We gave thanks the next year, for our mum had lived a great life. And we thanked God, because it was His strength that kept us all from cracking. Eventually, like the rest of the family, I started to live again. I even completed my doctorate. Here’s what I wrote in the thesis as her dedication:
“To Mrs. Florence Oluremi Akintunde, 23 August 1935 to 2 September, 1998. This is for you Mom, because I know how much you longed to see its completion.”

When I wrote it, I had no idea that I’d be standing up for my viva on Monday, 3rd September, 2001. By then, God had shown me that by depending on Him, I’d be strengthened to continue living. Just the day before, (2nd September, 2001) our church was in celebratory mood, as we welcomed our new pastor. We last had a pastor in December 1998. It was a personal message to me too. One of the first things Ian did was to drive me to the Uni the next morning. On our way, we said a short prayer, and after four hours of friendly grilling, I was told that my thesis was good enough; after some minor corrections, I could call myself DR Ife Akintunde.

I’ve spoken to most of the family now, (I’ll be calling my dad later). We all thank God for our mum’s life, what she meant to us and to our friends, relatives and her colleagues. The packed funeral services were a testimony to the gift of God. God’s also shown us that our lives have been touched by our mother, but He has strengthened us to pass through a place we never thought we’d survive.

So today, I remember my mother still, I know where she is, and I know she’ll be there for eternity. I know I’ll see her soon, but in the meantime, I’m in God’s hands. I trust Him, and thank Him for everything, especially for such a special mum.

New Projects

September 1, 2006

On Wednesday, I returned from a meeting at MarketHarborough, a small market town, just outside Leicester. There’s a charit that’s just moved to a new building on the edge of town. The Torch Trust for the Blind is a Christian charity, dedicated to making Christian literature accessible to blind and visually impaired people.

Torch has just entered into agreement with Premier Radio, A Christian radio station that produces programming, locally forhthe people of London, nationally on digital and satellite radio, and internationally on the web. The agreement is to produce a weekly fifteen minute programme on Christianity and disability.

The team that sat to discuss the programme comprised several members of staff at Torch, and some others. Some of us have had radio experience, either because we were interviewed, or worked in radio, or (in the case of one or two) have a degree in media studies. It’s looking good for broadcast from about the end of November.

Meanwhile, my gospel show is coming back to Diversity FM, A community radio station which has just got its five year license. During the one month license last year, I presented a 1 hour show every Sunday, from 6 till 7 PM. It all started when I was told about the station. I spoke to the managers, and they said they weren’t interested in radio playlists, but wanted programming that would develope from thedisc jockeys. I said I could probably do an programme, but if they wanted something different, I could do a gospel music programme. They liked the idea, and now that they’ve got an extended license, they think I should come back.

So, more news later. I suppose we should start broadcasting from about December. I describe the music as stuff that would make the charts if the words were different. I aim it at people who like R and B and perhaps jazz, and that sort of music. You don’t have to be Christian to like the programme, though I’m hoping non-Christians would listen to some of the words of the songs. My catchphrase is “Ife’s Gospel Hour, bringing good news to Lancaster, Morecambe and the worldwide web. As I know more … I’ll let you know.

It’s been a good week for things like that. Just a day earlier, I’d found out that a chapter I wrote on the WSIS and disability in Africa had been published in a small booklet, available on the net. I wasn’t very happy though, I’d written ‘disabled’, but each time, they’d changed it to ‘differently able’.

What does that mean? I’m blind, that’s what I am, and I’m sure that gives me some right to call myself whatever I want. I’ve never understood what ‘differently abled’ means anyway. Think of it, in what way am I differently able to anyone? In some ways, I’m just as able as anyone else, and in others, I’m not even able at all. Some people say that I have better hearing or smell. First, I don’t believe it, but second, even if I did, it’s only because I use those senses more often and rely on them more. It’s like calling a 100 metre runner differently able, because of better developed physical fitness. If that’s so, everyone is differently abled.

Anyway, enough ranting, it’s probably because of the time. It’s good to have the article out, whatever they call us. It deals with sme great issues.