Monday, June 14, 2010

A Little Elbow Greece

It is a constant truism in my life - and for those with insomnia and/or nothing better to do an insatiable curiosity regarding my past exploits, you need only meander through the back pages of this blog - that leaving a place is always far more difficult for me than reaching it. I have waxed rather poetically about it ad nauseam, so with such a preamble, it should come as no surprise that I'm at it again. Or rather, my particularly nasty strain of travel-karma is at it again.

Case in point: Erbil. To come to Erbil, all which was required was a few moments tippy-tapping on a keyboard and
voilà! - an e-ticket. Of course, leaving Turkey was another matter but one that still bears out my point. It's easier to arrive than leave.

With August (and our self-appointed summer holiday) seven weeks away, Mr. This Cat's (Not) Abroad and I decided to be a tidge proactive and, after perusing the Viking Hellas airlines (whose name evokes images of Nana Mouskouri wearing a bronze winged Viking helmet and bearing a spear aloft) website for two months, book our flights now. As in this morning. Our decision to return to Greece (after all, we were only there last November) was a bit of a no-brainer: a return ticket to Athens turns out to be the cheapest direct flight to anywhere in the world leaving Dodge. Yes, it's cheaper to fly to Greece from Erbil than, say, neighbouring Turkey or neighbouring Jordan - and by cheaper, I of course mean less exorbitantly expensive.

But there'd be no few
moments tippy-tapping on a keyboard and voilà! - an e-ticket. No, it seems that one cannot book a ticket online (and take advantage of those nifty little web prices) in Erbil, but must go to a travel agent. And talk to someone. Balls.

So, still in my tidge proactive-mode - for I have no clue what level of English our soon-to-be Favourite Travel Agent will possess (and I know what level of Kurdish I possess) - I go to the Viking Hellas website, and write down our departure times, the dates, and the flight numbers. We are advised by Those Who Know, that the travel agency at the Sheraton Hotel is the best in town, and if this praise isn't high enough, they will also serve you a cappuccino while you wait.

A word on the Sheraton. It isn't one. In fact, it's the Erbil International Hotel, but the story goes that the owners' intention was to build a luxury hotel which the Sheraton chain would immediately want to buy and smack their big "S" on. They didn't. But every cab driver knows it as the Sheraton. And at $260 US a night, it might as well be.

But I digress. Because there are a handful of travel agents in our neighbourhood, Mr. This Cat and I decide to pocket the cab fare and walk around the corner to the first agent. Alas! - the one and only agent is busy with a clutch of clients, so rather than waiting 15 minutes, we decide to enjoy Erbil's 51 °C springtime sunshine and walk to an authorized Viking Hellas agency several blocks away with me grumbling about the stultifying heat the entire way. It is closed.

Off to the Sham-Sheraton.

We see a taxi approaching and hail it. Alas! - our driver has not heard of any place called the Sheraton or the Erbil International Hotel, nor does he recognize the hotel's street name (the third biggest in the city).
And at $260 US a night, it might as well be. It turns out that he does not speak English. No matter: he calls an English-speaking friend and hands his mobile over to Mr. This Cat. Moments later we are on our way.

Time passes. We pull up to the side of the road. We see a checkpoint (not exactly unknown in Iraq) and a security wall of pre-stressed vertical cantilever concrete panels, and are told we are here. Or rather, our taxi driver nods his head and says "okay". I am unsure, but Mr. This Cat says that he sees a hand-painted sign indicating that the Sham-Sheraton is around the corner, so off we go. In order to access the Sham-Sheraton's grounds, we must pass through security (not exactly unknown in Iraq), and my purse is decorated with an approved Sham-Sheraton sticker. We head up the gently sloping drive and enter the hotel where another security clearance awaits us. The security officer discourteously takes my purse and removes my sticker, instantly depriving me of my blog photo for today's post.

Crossing the lobby, we head towards the travel agency. I can almost taste my cappuccino now - when was the last time I had one? which country was I in? We enter the agency where we find three travel agents and no clients. Huzzah! - this should take no time, I think. No one makes eye contact with us. We look at each other. Finally, the lone woman working - our Possibly Soon-to-Be Favourite Travel Agent - looks up and finds herself in the unenviable position of not being able to ignore us any longer.

We'd like to book flights to Athens, we tell her.

Direct Flights? she asks.
Well yes. Are we being too demanding, I wonder.
She shakes her head.
Don't you sell tickets for Viking Hellas?

So, in a country whose airport serves a sum total of eleven freaking carriers, the travel agent at Erbil's most expensive hotel has chosen to follow a more exclusive route. And rather than offering us a cappuccino telling us where we can find the closest Viking Hellas ticket issuer (and thereby losing any chance of becoming our Favourite Travel Agent), we just stare at each other until Mr. This Cat and I metaphorically blink first, and we take our leave. Had we stayed we think that she might have gone the extra mile and offered us a cappuccino non-direct route via Frankfurt for $3000. But we're not really sure.

We retrace our steps back to the street and flag a taxi. As we return to our neighbourhood, Mr. This Cat suggests that we try the first travel agent we had passed by this morning. Although we have no clue whether it sells tickets for Viking Hellas, at least it's open and, in all likelihood, air-conditioned.

The agency is open and air-conditioned, and huzzah! sells tickets for Viking Hellas. We take our seats and I hand
our Possibly Soon-to-Be Favourite Travel Agent - who speaks a fair smattering of English - the itinerary I had scribbled earlier that morning. She picks up the phone and calls someone - possibly the agent at the closed authorized Viking Hellas agency a few blocks away. Of the four words of Kurdish I have thus far learned, I catch only Erbil and Athens. I consider this encouraging. She points at my notes:

July? she asks, pointing to the word August.
August, I reply.
She nods.

I find this less encouraging.

Time passes. The next 55 minutes pass as follows:

* we sit
* she makes and receives about 3 dozen phone calls
* she offers us cappuccinos two cans of
Mirinda - the Middle East's answer to Orange Crush.
* she offers us fruit-filled toffees
* she advises us that she's almost finished
* she makes and receives about 2 dozen more phone calls
* she advises us that she's almost finished
* she receives one more phone call and announces, the e-mail comes soon!
* an e-mail comes (not soon), which she prints
* she advises us that she's almost finished
* she takes out a host of coloured highlighters and highlights all the pertinent information (mirroring the information on my original note) on the e-mail - which is, in fact, our ticket

And there you have it: two tickets in two and a half hours. True, we didn't exactly get the travel dates we wanted: it turns out that our departure date was fully booked even though the airline's website assured us that there were seats still available. But we have tickets nonetheless. It just took a little elbow grease, our natural sunny dispositions, and a cold Mirinda. And as we leave, multi-coloured e-mail in hand, our now Favourite Travel Agent calls out:

Go airport 10:00.

Ten o'clock? Our flight leaves just before 2 a.m.! Balls.


Miss Footloose said...

I sure hope you'll enjoy Greece! Much of what you tell sounds like it could have been Ghana, where I lived for a number of years. The simplest things become day-long sagas.

Actually, I was expecting your e-tickets to come rolling out of the printer with the wrong dates or location on it, so I was much relieved for your sake that this was not the case!

This Cat's Abroad said...

I *think* our tickets (not so much e-tickets as just an e-mail) are accurate but time will tell. I think I'll bring a big bag of trail mix to the airport on the off-chance we have a long wait.