Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Disaster preparedness

You might be surprised, but you can play tennis all year round in Warsaw. About mid-October, all the tennis places around the city erect huge pressurised bubbles over their courts. Once all the lights are up and the heaters are going, it's tennis as usual. Although you can't lob as high, you also don't have to cope with sun and wind, so it's a nice trade-off. 

And lobbing is for old ladies, anyway. Which I ain't. Yet.

I played tennis yesterday morning at Sadybianka. About 20 minutes into the game, I noticed a strange burning-plastic smell. Something of the petrochemical persuasion was melting. When we changed sides, we all commented on it, and Noriko said, "Yes, me, I'm looking around for the emergency exits."

"Me too," I agreed. In fact, I'd really been thinking that in the future I needed to bring a big knife with me in my tennis bag, in case I needed to cut us all out of the flaming, burning bubble as it collapsed in a massive fiery funeral pyre of melting plastic.

Kornelia just looked at me and laughed. "You are always thinking big disaster! Only in America you have these big disasters. Here, no."

"Of course. You know those things where circus tents go up in flames, and hundreds of people are screaming and running for the exits and children are trampled and scores of people are killed? You know! And the horses are running, mad with fear, and the high-wire guy is falling into the flaming inferno, and the clowns are crying and...."

I stopped. Kornelia was looking at me like I was nuts. Which I am, I suppose. 

No, let's just say I have a vivid imagination.

And I've experienced a few near disasters, which reinforce the idea that you can never be too prepared. Even when you think you've forseen every possibility, there are always two more things that can go badly wrong.

Take our trip to Zimbabwe, for example.

In February of 2007, Miss T and I flew from London to Jo'burg for a couple of weeks with Mr D. Both of us had previously left South Africa for the safety of England, leaving Mr D behind to work.

We agreed that it would be lovely to go to see Victoria Falls, at the border of Zambia and Zimbabwe. South Africans routinely go up there for a long weekend, as it's just a short flight away.

Fine. The travel agency booked our tickets, and we were soon winging our way to Z-land.

The plane landed in Livingstone, Zambia. We walked across the tarmac and stood in line to go through immigration. As usual, our line was the slowest, so we were processed last.

"One hundred twenty American dollah," said the official at the counter.

"What?" said Mr D.

"One hundred twenty American dollah."

"What?" said Mr D again.

"One hundred twenty American dollah."

"For what?"  Mr D was getting irritated.

"Three visas." The guard pointed to each of us. "One. Two. Three."

"Nobody told me I needed visas! The travel agent was supposed to arrange this! What are you talking about?"

"Three visas. $120."

"I don't have any American dollars on me. I haven't been to the States for two years! No. I'm not paying it." 

Mr D likes to go all irrational when he gets angry. 

"We'll just fly home."

Miss T and I looked at each other. Damn. This wasn't going well.

"You can't."

"What do you mean I can't fly home? We're just going to get right back on that plane we flew in on, and we'll leave."

"No. You can't."

"And why not?"

The guard shrugged and pointed toward the windows, just as the jet screamed past and took off up into the sky.

"Fine." Mr D was steamed now. "We'll take the next flight then."

"Only one flight today. That one." The guard smiled. He was having fun.

"Okay, fine. We'll stay here in the airport and take the first flight out tomorrow morning."

"No. The airport closes at night. We must take you to jail then."

Miss T paled. Jail, eh? In Zambia. I bet they don't let you keep your suitcase with you, and they probably don't have hairdryers and stuff either.

"Mmm hmmm." Mr D started to calm down again.

"Fine. Where is a cash machine? Here in the airport?"

"O, no, man. No cash machine here."

"Well, dammit, what the hell am I supposed to do then? Can you take me to an ATM?"

"Ok. We can see. But those two, they stay here." The guard pointed at Miss T and me.

With that, three uniformed guys escorted Mr D away. Through immigration, I might add, but there you go. Sometimes borders need to be only loosely monitored. 

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