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Japan, here we come

Keen to visit Tokyo for the first time, our writer and other passengers end up stranded in airports amid flight woes

Up until my recent trip, my knowledge of Japan was limited to documentaries on television, the Kobe earthquake of 1995 and a funny story told by a brother of mine decades ago. I still don’t know the source of the story but I was told that the Japanese were known for the longest life expectancy of over 100 years.

The catch was that the really fittest of them all could spend half the night sleeping while squatting. Compared to my exploits, in which the longest I could squat was a few shaky minutes before collapsing into a heap, this feat was the stuff of legends.

It was, therefore, with some degree of trepidation and excitement that I learnt that I had been selected to represent Kenya on a fact-finding mission in Japan, largely as a follow-up to the Ticad V conference in Nairobi. As if on cue, my flight from Nairobi to Abu Dhabi, from where I was to connect to Tokyo, started off with high noon drama.

After boarding, we were told, via a crackling voice on the speakers, that there was a hitch with the plane doors.

We had boarded the plane at precisely 14.05 hours on a hot, humid Sunday afternoon, at the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport.

14.15hrs: We are taken through the safety and emergency instructions. At 14.20hrs: engines are roaring. 14.30hrs: We realise that the plane has not even started taxiing to the runway and is still stationary.

15.00hrs: The captain’s voice crackles on the intercom, saying there’s a hitch with the door but assures us the technicians are trying to fix it. 15.10hrs: The plane taxies back to bay.

The air of expectation that was etched on most faces has been replaced with visible apprehension. 15.45hrs: It is announced that the flight can take off but only if some 28 among us can volunteer to get off and be put on the next available flight. I have never seen quicker volunteers!

There are consultations and then more consultations among airline staff. I am sure if I miss this flight my tight schedule in Tokyo will be adversely affected and I will miss a day’s activities. I stay put.

16.15hrs: Two hours behind schedule. Rear half of the plane is evacuated and seating arrangements altered. Faces are tired now.

16.50hrs: Most ‘want-to-fly-now’ passengers are seated and belted up. More consultations follow. This creates even more trepidation.

17.10hrs: The Captain comes on again, saying the current delay in taking off is because some passenger who alighted left their bags behind which must be offloaded.

The bags have to be found “for security reasons” and we may as well wait for another 30 to 35 minutes. Sighs all over. Some folks are already on their feet, exhausted even before the flight takes off!

The writer aboard the first flight from Nairobi to Abu Dhabi that aborted and later enjoying an evening out in Tokyo. Photo/PATRICK WACHIRA

17.20hrs: Suddenly, there is a noise like a car starter that is just starting to fail.

Folks crane their necks and exchange nervous glances.

Ears twitch to take in this strange development.

But a few wear deadpan expressions. More noises, plus another new one, like a siren.

17.47hrs: The captain announces that the technical team is unable to sort out the problem and asks that we disembark and wait for further communication. We comply, and surrender our boarding passes too.

This now feels like time is moving backwards, sitting just where I had sat four hours ago, at the waiting bay.

18.10hrs: No word. Mothers are feeding their toddlers, who are now excited once again at being able to run around unfettered. Adults stretch their limbs. Conversation is rather muted.

18.15hrs: Someone brings some soda, buns and crisps, but these run out before everyone gets something. I am among those who stick to their bottles of water and allow the children to eat.

19.00hrs: It is announced that the flight to Abu Dhabi will be boarding shortly. A woman retorts: “Define shortly!” to which a reply comes, “In three minutes or so.

Please remain seated”. An hour-and-a-half passes without another word! 19.10hrs: We finally board but it is not until 19.45 that the plane taxies for take off. Never has movement felt so good. Dinner is quietly served a short while later, after which most folks nod off.

00.40hrs: We touch down at Abu Dhabi International Airport. Everyone is hurrying up, trying to catch up with the six lost hours, or is it part of stretching? Maybe they are shaking off the lethargy of travel.

As expected, I have missed my flight to Tokyo, which was due at 20.55hrs and I will have to wait until tomorrow night, same time to catch the next available flight.

I spend the day at the Holiday Inn, eating, drinking a lot of water, catnapping and reading my latest novel, The Partner by John Grisham. My journey to Japan just started.

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