East end of the line

An airline ticket is no guarantee of reaching your preferred destination, so embrace the unexpected, says Ben Trovato.

My holiday to Spain got off to a fabulous start.

It began when our pilot woke up late, or couldn’t start his car, and consequently delayed our flight from Cape Town to Johannesburg by half an hour.

Not a tremendous amount of time in terms of evolution and the universe and stuff like that, but just long enough for us to reach the Iberia check-in counter eight minutes after it closed.

‘No,’ said a yellow-vested man with the face of a diseased kidney. ‘You can’t get on the plane.’

Even though it’s only leaving in an hour? Even though. But we have already checked our luggage through from Cape Town to Madrid, we protested. Mr Kidney assured us that because we had not checked in, our luggage would not have been put on the plane.

‘Take it up with SAA,’ he said.

So we joined a long line of other unhappy people at the SAA counter and were told that they could put us on the next flight to Madrid – in two days. My wife was outraged and began threatening people who didn’t even work for the airline.

All they could do, said the woman with the do-I-look-like-I-care-about-your-problem expression, was to put us up in a hotel. However, all the hotels in Johannesburg were full so we’d have to stay in Pretoria.

The hotels in Joburg were not full. This was simply corporate code for ‘our R50-a-night, rat-infested hovel in Hillbrow is full’.

We were handed a voucher for a taxi to the ‘hotel’ in Pretoria and went off to recover our luggage from the bowels of the airport. A man with all the charm of a second-hand duffel bag checked his computer and said that our luggage was, in fact, on the Iberia flight.

The next day we woke up in Pretoria while our backpacks woke up in Madrid.

During 12 hellish hours back at OR Tambo, the airline grudgingly agreed to put us on a flight to London. Anything was better than another night in Pretoria, even if it meant arriving in a completely different country to the one we had originally planned on visiting.

I began to understand why Qantas had the longest queues of all.

After decompressing in the airport smokers’ lounge, a cheerful place where you could fall down dead and nobody would care, we were herded into our pens at the back of the aeroplane.

We landed at Heathrow at dawn, dressed for sunny Spain. The temperature outside was 3˚C.

My wife shivered and cursed, and every time she turned on me I gently deflected her wrath back towards SAA, where it belonged.

We spent our first night in Paddington and wondered how our bags were enjoying Spain. Reeking like homeless people, we went to a Lebanese restaurant and had a terrible fight after she accused me of being transfixed by the belly dancer.

‘What belly dancer?’ I said, taking another mouthful of empty fork and knocking my beer into my lap.

The next day, reunited with our backpacks, which were looking relaxed and tanned, I told her that I was taking her to the East End. To a place called Rotherhithe, where I once lived in a squat because back then I couldn’t afford to pay even the smallest amount of rent.

Our cab driver, born in England (oddly enough), warned me that the area had changed since I was last there.

‘Most of us cockneys moved out when the Pakistanis moved in,’ he said. ‘We’re out in the shires now.’

The shires? Isn’t that where the hobbits live? I dared not ask for fear that he had something against hobbits too.

Rotherhithe had certainly changed.

The council estate where I lived had long since been demolished to make way for gastropubs and yuppie apartments. The edgy atmosphere, along with the punks and skinheads, the addicts and the drug dealers, had disappeared.

There was, however, a hotel on the bank of the Thames where we once hung out skateboarding and drinking cans of lager.

And so it was that in the space of 20 years I went from staying in a seedy squat with no electricity to overnighting in the Rotherhithe Hilton.

Funny thing, life.

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