Archive | June, 2013

Strangers on a plane (4). From Lagos with love.

21 Jun

Beers are 1 Euro in the Station Bar at Lagos. Joachim, the genial host, looks like a tanned walnut as he busies himself serving cheap booze to the burgeoning crowd of ex-Pats who start to gather after noon. I am with my friend of more than 40 years, Richard, who escapes the damp chill of Blighty for his flat in Lagos. Warmth for body and soul he tells me. I am introduced to a range of permatanned middle-aged friendlies. Each has a different life story to explain their presence. One or two admit to keeping heads down to avoid the law. Most are overweight, one or two boasting a heart by-pass or similar.

We drain a couple of Sagres and move off. A number have already settled in for the afternoon but we need food and exercise. We head to the marina – a real delight. All manner of vessels, gleaming white and chrome,  bob neatly in their plush moorings. Richard nods to acquaintances, hails one or two as we wander towards the bridge into the old town. We stop to chat to Paola, a fit, slim, weather-beaten woman of indeterminate age…40? 50? She is selling day-cruise trips on ‘heritage’ ships that look straight out of the Armada. She bubbles with life despite business mid-May being tortoise-slow. She tells tales of her journeys to South and North America in the off-season. Travel breathes life into her, clearly, and she returns refreshed for the grind of enrolling punters for these authentic pleasure boats. There is a row of stands with other hardy souls selling anything from shark fishing to Atlantic cruises. Or not selling. We wave goodbye and head for Bar Bora and a light lunch.

If you hadn’t been aware of EU cash pouring into Portugal, stepping out of the arrivals lounge at Faro presents you with immediate examples. A plush new airport whose futuristic roof was ironically ripped off by a storm last year, presents you with the first indication. Then the new motorway running the length of the Algarve – and parallel to a similarly straight A road. On either side, as you flash over the new tarmac, signs of a different Portugal are clear. Shanty dwellings and a simple rustic life juxtapose with the golf courses and cocktails of Villamoura. The railway, built for tourists, rattles from one end of the Algarve to  the other, trundling into – and then out of – tourist havens of beach and pool and happy hours. Between stops the landscape and annual incomes metamorphose to a reality that sits uneasily close-by.

And now in Lagos as we stroll to the Bora, the ceramic pedestrianisation makes shiny ( and slippery) the once-battered ginnels and sidestreets of the old town. It’s a moot point if the Brussels cash has really improved things but we ex-pats like the chic veneer of the new while we congratulate ourselves on the authenticity of the old. Richard stops to buy a mobile phone charger from a Chinese store which looks unlikely to sell anything electrical since it has flowers and rugs arrayed outside. “They sell everything,” he murmurs, curtly. Indeed. A demoralised, wizened old china remains seated while R enquires. She then reaches down into a cabinet and brings out a multi-attachment affair which would service almost every instrument boasting access to cyberspace. 5Euros. It can’t be. Tell that to Carphone Warehouse when we get back.

I buy cards, stamps and a bottle of brandy before we leave – as if to prove to myself that this tardis of a place really does stock anything. Lunch is good in Bora with the smell of tobacco and some other substance wafting about. And beers, of course. I make the mistake of switching to gin. Gordons bottle upended into my glass until brim reached. Tonic served separately. I should have known.

I need to walk off the alcoholic lunch so while Richard retreats to the apartment terrace for a siesta, I set off along the beach for a long sandy walk in the sun and the wind and the warmth.

Naturally we rendezvous back at the Station Bar in time for Happy Hour. Same faces, same genial host, same slightly slurry conversations. All good fun. A pattern repeated each day until my time is up and I head for Faro and the joy of Easyjet.

Now, I have had little cause to complain about Easyjet and things were going pretty well. OK I had my small bottle of sun cream confiscated. There wasn’t much in it and, being a teacher, I rather enjoyed the feeling of being told off and tut-tutted at, albeit in Portuguese. I wasn’t remotely hungry but the departure lounge was crammed with people eating and drinking. Huge baguettes and beers abounded. So you’re returning from the cheapest place in Europe (well, nearly) and you wait for that delicious moment when you can be ripped off rather than buy a meal for nothing at the café just outside the airport? Counter-intuitive but brilliantly human. I almost joined the happy, foolish ranks but my flight was called so I scurried to Gate 55 via passport control – a grim swarthy whose face was set in permanent tight-lipped passport photo mode. No matter.

The departure lounge filled quickly. Speedy boarders queue to the left; seats 15 to 30 queue to the right. Lots of people standing in lines. No plane in sight so the smug sensibles among us took seats and turned to our Telegraphs. Well, I had the Telegraph and  spotted a Times or two but the Daily Mail outnumbered us quite heavily. I didn’t see any Suns but the embarrassment factor might have meant that this organ was secreted in hand-luggage until seats on board allowed the delicious privacy of indulgent reading. Time ticked by: ten, twenty minutes. Some of those vertical must have backache by now. The announcement came: A reminder that only those with speedy boarding and boarding cards for seats 15 to 30. That’s 15 to 30. Half the right hand queue have to dissolve elsewhere. A few family spats break out amongst those who couldn’t either hear or read. Three rather gorgeous girls arriving late at the entry desk are arguing about what constitutes too much hand luggage. One look tells me that what they are loaded  down with would shift the balance of power in the hold never mind the overhead lockers. One of them is being asked to put her suitcase into that little measuring cradle that Easyjet have. She has no chance. I want to hang on to see how this little fracas progresses but my 15-30 queue is moving. I feel ridiculously smug that I’m in 16D and have to stifle a smirk as I cruise past the grumbly group who had lined-up in error.

We trundle along the gantry to be met by the standard couple of flight attendants: smart, chic, a little camp, overly made up, charming. I find 16D, pleased that I have an aisle seat near the mid-plane emergency exit. As a nervous flier I have already checked what I could see of the plane’s bodywork for dents or anything out of the ordinary. I settle next to a smiling couple. He is already playing with an mp3 player; she has Jilly Cooper. I see the hand-luggage girls grumbling on to the plane. They’ve had to pay for their excesses.  The pre-flight stuff continues. I check the in-flight magazine for snacks. I have a few Euros to dispose of. I select beer and sandwich. As if waiting for me, Henrietta (i/c cabin crew) announces, ” We apologise that there is no food apart from bagged snacks on this flight.” Whaaaat? Can it be true that there’s been such a run on sandwiches, wraps, toastie, soups, muffins etc that stocks have run down to zero? Or do they want to encourage booze sales – fill up on gin and you won’t care about your empty stomach. Well if that’s their theory, I’m going to test it. Two gins and two packets of your best pretzels please, Henrietta!

And so I float towards Gatwick. I am jolted from reverie by the announcement that owing to unforeseen circs, we will be landing at the South Terminal, not the scheduled north. Consternation abounds. Henrietta warns us not to switch on mobile phones until we’re in the terminal building. The temptation is too much for many. As the wheels hit the tarmac the orchestra of waking ring-tones plays symphonies through the cabin. Taxis, buses, relatives, trains all need checking, updating, changing. OK – get over it, I think, confident that my taxi will divine my arrival point. We are herded into a bus to take us to the terminal building. We barge through the automatic doors to be met by the surprising and revelatory sign: Welcome to North Terminal. So, as we were. More consternation, Phones clamped to ears again. And no messengers to shoot; Henrietta has sensibly stayed on the plane.

My journey is rounded off with a thoroughly thought-provoking ride with an Iraqi driver who had fled Iraq for Denmark a decade ago and has moved on here. He has decided that Brits are better because we’re not racist. And his daughters are happy in school. Iraq was better before Saddam ‘s demise because a. Better the devil you know and b. Those scrabbling for power now are corrupt anyway.

He could speak fluent Danish and, given that I can stumble through a few phrases myself, we found ourselves exchanging words in this most tricky of tongues. Strange.

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