Sunday, January 13, 2008

Day 1: 23 December 2007; Christmas chaos at Heathrow

The first day of my holiday started with a pea-soup fog blanketing much of London. There was bound to be traffic carnage out on the roads, and people carnage out at Heathrow, as some 18 million Brits embarked in the annual Christmas getaway. Blurgh!

My bus ride out to the airport was uncharacteristically on much so in fact, I arrived at Heathrow four hours ahead of my scheduled departure time. Oh well...i didn’t want to leave anything to chance. Morocco was calling!

And that’s when the real chaos began. Shabby T2 was packed to the rafters with people desperate to escape the UK for Christmas. Tempers and frustrations were obvious as the ground staff herded only those people whose flights had been called, into the check-in area, while everyone else had to wait in the overcrowded top floor of the terminal. People were sprawled over chairs, the floor and every other available space...Heathrow’s much anticipated Terminal 5 is allegedly going to improve this increasingly feral situation this year, but I think it will be a very long time before this airport can live by BAA’s ridiculous tagline of Making Heathrow Great. Making it bearable would be a good start.

Hours rolled by, and finally my Royal Air Maroc flight was declared open. The basement floor of T2 was even more crowded than the top floor, and flights were now being delayed and cancelled left, right and centre. Disappointed passengers were asked to leave the airport, because there were no facilities to rebook their flights onsite. They called in airport police to the check-in counters just prior to announcing the cancellation of a flight to Algeria...I don’t know what they thought the problem was going to be, but it certainly fuelled more angst amongst an increasingly pissed off crowd.

Royal Air Maroc had about 200 people in its check-in queue at this stage, and as we watched the clock tick by, it became less and less certain that we were actually going to get away at all. News eventually came through that our plane hadn’t even left Casablanca yet, and that they would only board us if our flight could get out of Morocco. There seemed to be about 3 million screaming kids, and even more screaming passengers, as BA, Alitalia and Lufthansa continued to cancel more flights...I felt truly sorry for the many Christmas plans and family reunions that were being systematically stuffed up by the fog.

Finally...after more waiting, we got the fantastic news that our plane was on its way, and we could be checked in. It took about another hour to process the huge queues, get through security and find somewhere to perch in what was now the most over-crowded airport I’ve ever seen.

Departure times were being constantly revised and pushed was shaping up to be a very long night. My flight finally took off just after 10pm, five hours after its scheduled time.
Two of my soon-to-be tours buddies were sitting next to me, and we acquainted ourselves, chatted for a bit, then slept.

Casablanca’s airport was fairly quiet, and it took no time to get through customs. Large piles of luggage congregated around the carousels, which didn’t bode well. Some bags from our flight arrived, but it took another 45 minutes for the next batch to come through. The cleaning staff were busily mopping, while we weary tourists wondered if we’d get to our hotel before daybreak.

My bag finally came – thankfully – and I went out to meet the tour guide, and let him know that my travel buddies still had not received their bags. He mentioned that two of the tour buddies that had arrived early had still not received their bags....unluckily for them, bag-tracking would be an ongoing nightmare throughout the trip.

Some 45 minutes later, the remaining bags arrived, and we exited into the chilly Moroccan morning en route to our hotel in Casablanca. My head hit the pillow shortly after 4am, but I was at least there, and couldn’t wait to get out and explore this mysterious land!

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