RIDICULOUSLY long hours at airports to catch connecting flights, being stalked by a dodgy stranger in an unfriendly faraway foreign country, subjected to blatant corruption by immigration officials: this could make a great script in the story of a trip made in hell.
It, however, becomes an adventure of sorts when you are in the very good company of a reassuring figure, and they do not come any better than Robson Sharuko, the top Zimbabwean sports journalist who recently turned 50.
The destination on this fully-funded trip 10 years ago was the mystical Caribbean islands, where the West Indies were playing host to the third edition of the World Cup of Twenty20 cricket, then a new phenomenon taking the gentlemen’s game by storm.
The West Indies, with all its famous sights and sounds, is just the perfect place on the planet to play the sport’s shortest and most exciting version.
So I was thankful for the opportunity of my maiden trip to the Caribbean, not only for the professional side of covering my first World Cup assignment in any sport, but also the experience away from the cricket in the magical West Indies.
The stopover at OR Tambo in Johannesburg was reasonably short, but Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris was the beginning of a journey to the unknown.
The 15-hour or so layover in the French capital was made less tedious, though, because Charles de Gaulle is quite a delightful place. The transit terminal is nice and huge, full of marvels, and they have friendly airport staff, a lot of them being of Francophone African origin. The wi-fi charges are generously low. Needless to say, the food and beer are also great.
It takes nearly 10 hours to across the North Atlantic Ocean from Paris to Caracas, the capital city of Venezuela.The travel agency had settled for the South American country as entry point for the short trip to Trinidad & Tobago, our final destination, so we thought.
Simon Bolivar International Airport is a far cry from Charles de Gaulle. Let us just say it is not the nicest airport in the world. And after what was a pleasant stopover in France, Venezuela was the complete opposite, a harrowing experience for any traveller exposed to half of what we had to endure during that 15-hour transit through day and night.
First, on arrival, a local immigration official who spoke only Spanish approached us, but noticing the language barrier, he quickly went back to fetch somebody, a much younger colleague of his, who was fairly eloquent in English.
So the story, as it was, was that our Caribbean Airlines plane was so tiny that travellers like us with more than one luggage (we had two each) had to pay a fee for the other bags!
And the fees varied, too. “If you want a receipt for the payment, it’s US$100.” What if we didn’t need a receipt? US$50, came the sharp retort!
After much haggling, us refusing to pay a backhander and demanding to see a superior, the guy only got agitated and dug in: it was clear he knew his game well, that things like that are common practice in that part of the world, and we were not going to win this debate.So we had to pay and, after a long argument, we were finally allowed to proceed.
But if that encounter was alarming, then a separate incident was even more disturbing. Somebody, a light-skinned black guy who also only spoke Spanish, kept following us around the airport terminal, frantically requesting with gestures to speak to us.
It was not the only time we had received curiously deep stares from the locals at the airport, and what sounded like offers of God knows what. But this particular chap fancied his chances more, and went a step further.
Telling him that both of us did not understand the language, and asking him to get lost, the stalker did not get the message for he continued to come after us.
When he spoke, the only thing we picked was when he mentioned the Dominican Republic, presumably his home country.
And then he kept pursuing us, a sinister motive clear in his eyes and gazes, looking around sharply and trying to make sure that the other people around the airport did not notice his advances to us.
You ignore him and he appears to go away. Then you change direction, and he emerges in front of you from that end, wanting to talk! Really creepy stuff.
At that point, I was convinced that the travel agency back home in Harare had erred big time in securing such a route for us. The Zimbabwe team, which we were mainly going to cover, had travelled a week and half earlier, via London. We did not have enough time to apply for the British transit visa and wait for it to come out.
Our pursuer kept coming our way. He was not particularly hostile, his appearance was not that of an aggressor, but there was no doubt the fellow was a dubious character we should not have anything to do with. A drug dealer or human trafficker, we imaged. But we never got to know what he really wanted from us.
Confirmation of his suspect persona came after the pestering got intolerable, and one of us must have mentioned “security”, or “police”, upon which he quickly disappeared from our view for good, leaving us laughing behind him, but a little shaken.
Fifteen hours of this kind of treatment leaves you quite punch-drunk, so finally boarding the flight to Port-of-Spain, a trip of just under two hours, felt so relieving.
The small plane, a 50-seater, is one of the roughest rides you will ever experience. It flies with a rickety movement, not so far up the skies from the sea, a rudimentary jet that compared with the gigantic and comfortable Air France airbus we took from Jo’burg to Paris, makes you appreciate how life can be so different on the other side of the world.
And then after taking off, the captain made a rather bizarre passenger safety announcement, something along the lines of “if the aircraft lands in water …”
Wait a minute! What do you mean if the aircraft lands in water! I cannot swim. I could drown if I land in a swimming pool. This is an entire ocean, hello!
But laughter had kept us going, especially after our unpleasant Caracas experience, so we once again chuckled at the rather horrifying announcement.
A couple sitting in front of us also saw the funny side of it, and they too laughed.
Port-of-Spain is a beautiful city, we landed just before midnight, greeted by a bright lights from side to side.The twin island nation of Trinidad & Tobago is the most prosperous country in the Caribbean as well as the third richest by gross domestic product per capita in the Americas after the United States and Canada. Its Piarco International Airport is a refreshingly neat and modern facility – a hive of activity with direct flights to most major destinations in Europe, Asia and the Americas.
Following at least 45 hours of travelling and long stopovers, we were so tired and needed somewhere to sleep.The taxi driver we hired would help us locate an appropriate place. He was a courteous, tall and brawny 60-something-old man — our first real experience of the deep Caribbean accent. I forgot his first name, but his surname was Hammond.
He bore facial resemblance to somebody who I could not immediately remember until Rob — who incidentally was quietly thinking along the same lines — brought up the subject.
“You look like Sir Clive Lloyd,” he said.Hammond, who said he had long been used to the comparison with the West Indies legend who as captain oversaw the team’s rise as a dominant Test side between 1974 and 1985, reacted heartily: “Everybody says that on this island!”
Now in the wee hours, we drove around different hotels, a lot of them pricey establishments a bit out of reach for us.We then let our driver knew what we were looking for, modest bust safe accommodation — and neat.
He must have misapprehended our requirement because he then took us to dank and dingy downtown hotel, the kind you can be mugged in at night.We finally found what we were looking for, a quiet place in a middle-income residential area, which we really enjoyed.
But before our new friend dropped us off, we noticed something we had somehow overlooked up until that stage.After Hammond requested to know the purpose of our visit and we told him we were in the Caribbean for the World Cup, he quickly reacted: “So where are you heading? Because there isn’t any cricket games taking place in Trinidad & Tobago!”
A quick look indeed showed that Trinidad & Tobago was not one of the host nations. What a terrible oversight!l This article is excerpts from a book on the history of black cricket in Zimbabwe. The second and final part of this piece will be run next week.