I can only assume it was karma of some sort. Perhaps it was a payback for all those times I've sat on the sofa watching people on reality TV suffering at the hands of the airlines and thought, 'Well, what do you expect when you turn up ten minutes before take-off?' Despite all the travelling I've done and all the air miles I've put in, I've never been one of those unlucky people whose holidays have been derailed before they've even begun. I've never had to sleep in an airport, and I've never experienced the shambolic sight of an airline trying to deal with an angry horde of bitter holidaymakers... until now. At last, I've joined the club.
I'd planned it all so carefully, too. Ever since a balmy night in 1997 when I landed in Indonesia in the middle of the night with no local currency, no words of the local language, no accommodation booked and absolutely no idea what I was doing, I've tried to avoid landing in a brand new country without at least some kind of safety net. The Internet is a godsend; before leaving London I'd booked three nights in a hotel with a few mouse clicks and spent precious lunch hours hunting around for a civilised flight to Havana. I carefully tiptoed around the cheaper end of the schedules, where Iberia cheerfully rules the airwaves with a whole bag of flights that guarantee the maximum amount of jet lag, and instead I went for Air France, whose main Saturday flight from Paris lands at Havana's José Martí International Airport at a convenient six thirty in the evening. 'Perfect,' I thought, and turned my attention to more important matters, such as tracking down my well-worn copy of The Old Man and the Sea.
I've written many a story about terrible journeys in dilapidated African trucks, belching Indian buses and Indonesian sardine cans, and how, when the pain barrier is a dim and distant memory and things take yet another turn for the worse, there's always an element of, 'Well, you get what you pay for.' When it costs threepence for the miniscule corner of a wooden bench in a beaten-up old tin can that looks like it runs on luck, homemade spare parts and prayer, it's a bit rich to complain when the wheels fall off and you don't get to your destination until halfway through the next day. Besides, there's always something interesting in transport disasters, not least the reaction of the locals, who mostly just shrug their shoulders and spark up another cigarette. Travel disasters in the developing world are a part of travelling, and they often make for great stories.
If only it was like that when companies like Air France get hit with the stupid stick. Without wanting to dwell on the details – particularly as my brain has already started filing away the memories in the box marked 'utterly pointless waste of time' – Air France managed to keep me and an entire Boeing 747 of passengers profoundly irritated for a whole day, and not once did I think, 'Well, you get what you pay for.'
It started at about 11.30am, when we arrived in Paris to catch the 1.30pm connecting flight to Havana. 'I'm afraid the departure of flight AF474 has been delayed until 1800,' said the robotic girl at the Air France transfer desk, 'but here is a meal voucher for 15 euros, which you can present at any of the restaurants in the departure lounge.'
'Fair enough,' I thought, and Peta and I wandered up into the departure lounge, took a minute to soak up the atmosphere, and sagged into quiet desperation as we realised that Terminal 2A at Charles de Gaulle Airport is the aviation equivalent of velour. It's tasteless, shabby, dated and the French should be thoroughly ashamed of it. I was most impressed by the dirty fabric seats littering the foyer, whose headrests were stained with the dandruff and grease of decades of unwashed heads in transit; I also marvelled at the grumpy restaurant – the only one in the whole departure lounge, I should add – that single-handedly managed to destroy France's claims to be the culinary kings of Europe; I amused myself by admiring the disgusting concrete grot that passes for architecture in Paris's international airport; but most of all I was deeply proud of the way the mostly French passengers kicked off at the Air France staff, shouting at them, stomping their feet, clapping in solidarity at the incompetence of their hosts, and forcing the bewildered customer service girls at the check-in desk to bring the police in to keep the peace. The check-in time slipped from 1715 to 1745 to 1815 to 1845 amid fears that the technical difficulties might ground the plane entirely, but finally we got on board, only to sit there for another two hours while we refuelled, waited for air traffic control to grant us a slot, ran the engines for 15 minutes to de-ice them, waited half an hour for another slot, aborted one take-off halfway along the runway because of 'technical problems', and finally got into the air. People cheered; it was sarcasm at its finest.
Luckily there were no screaming babies in the vicinity and we managed to get a reasonable amount of sleep, and apart from one poor man a few rows back who lost his supper in a particularly noisy reaction to turbulence over the east coast of the USA, we landed in one piece at Havana just seven hours late. It was hard to keep smiling as we waited for over an hour for the immigration authorities to stamp our passports, but after changing some cash into Cuban pesos convertibles and grabbing a taxi at the exit, we arrived at the Hotel Deauville at 3am, some 22 hours since the alarm clock had gone off back in London.
It's one way to get over jet lag, I suppose; we slept like babies all the way through to morning, when we were greeted by warm sunlight, the sound of the sea breaking against the city walls, and the bustling chatter of a city about to celebrate carnival. It's funny how airline incompetence doesn't seem so important after a few hours in the Cuban sunshine...