Thursday, June 10, 2010

Day 2, Part 2 and Day 3, Part 1: The Flight

Previously during my travels: I spend the night in JFK airport and relax in "The Lounge."

All the passengers gather at the gate to board the plane (an Airbus A340-300e), which seems huge (especially since I’m seated in row 71, seat K), but it is the third-largest aircraft in South African Airways’ (SAA) fleet. According to the in-flight magazine, it can hold a maximum of 253 passengers (their 747 can hold 357) and has a wingspan of 60.3 m (198 feet).

I take my seat, and I’m seated next to Dean, a businessman who is on his way home after a trip around the world in 18 days (eighteen, not eighty, so take that Jackie Chan!). Dean said he was helping a friend launch a company, so his travels took him on twelve flights in eighteen days, from Johannesburg to Hong Kong to Shanghai to Salt Lake City to New York, with one long trip back to Jo’burg before connecting on a flight to Cape Town (which looks something like this).

SAA’s safety video is very strange – it goes out of its way to not be racist (given the country’s despicable track record with race relations, only desegregating in 1994), but something seems off about it.
The safety video (which, like Virgin America’s, is animated) depicts a white businessman being “wrong,” such as inflating his life vest in the cabin before exiting the aircraft, or glancing at women’s legs as he’s stowing his carry-ons underneath the seat. However, the black travelers (one a businessman, very smartly dressed, and a rotund woman with some sort of hat that I’m unfamiliar with) do the right thing. And yes, this time, I do mean Do the Right Thing. Take a look for yourself:

The plane takes off, and as soon as the entertainment systems light up, I quickly peruse the movie selection. Unfortunately, there’s nothing new that I really want to see, and a lot of the older selections are very strange choices. Perhaps South African moviegoers have no taste, or maybe SAA was trying to cut corners. In any case, here are some comments about SAA’s film choices (the categories are SAA’s and not mine):

New Movies:
  • Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief: I was already tired getting on the plane, and I started to fall asleep by the time I finished reading the title.
  • Avatar: I can’t wait to travel to Pandora in 2D on a low-res monitor while a baby cries two rows behind me! Is unobtainium the elusive ten-million frequent flier mile status? Wait, that’s Up in the Air.
  • Other movies I didn’t care about: It’s Complicated, Sherlock Holmes, Crazy Heart, The Princess and the Frog (already saw it)

Classic Movies (SAA really stretches the meaning of the word “classic”):

  • Daredevil: Terrible movies and Ben Affleck are a classic combination.
  • Alvin & The Chipmunks: You’ve seen the squeakquel, now see the classic where it all began.
  • Rush Hour 3: See Chris Tucker’s classic acting style (and by that, I mean his only acting style, since he hasn’t been in anything besides the Rush Hour movies)
  • Shallow Hal: The classic film that defined classic 1990s comedy.
  • Dukes of Hazzard: See the classic TV series ruined by Johnny Knoxville and Seann William Scott.
  • Fantastic Four: Rise of Silver Surfer: See the classic comic book series ruined by everyone involved in this project.
  • Marley and Me: See Jennifer Aniston and Luke Wilson’s less-talented brother have their movie careers ruined by a dog that – spoiler alert – dies, killing their movie careers with it.
  • Other inexplicable choices: Must Love Dogs, 27 Dresses, Dragonball Z: Evolution, Elektra, 12 Rounds, Flicka, X-Men Origins: Wolverine, Eragon, Secondhand Lions, Something’s Gotta Give

I decide to watch Invictus (the film about the South African rugby team), and considering that I was going to South Africa, I figured that I might as well learn a little bit about the country. I promptly fall asleep, only to wake up to a tough decision: lamb or chicken?

I opt for the safer choice of the two, and eat a surprisingly tasty piece of chicken. With a roll, mashed potatoes, and vegetables to boot, this was a great airline meal. I also get my first taste of South African Coca-Cola, which tastes closer to the U.S.’s Pepsi. What I find most interesting about the food is that it is all sourced from South Africa, meaning that they load two trips’ worth of food in South Africa, fly to the States, reload from the plane’s own cargo storage, then fly back to South Africa. Is it really that expensive to get food stateside? (Consequently, they run out of most drinks mid-flight).

I try restarting Invictus, but I fall asleep again (sorry Nelson Mandela and Matt Damon). I am woken up by a extremely loud scream of a young child two rows behind me (who insisted on screaming for about a half an hour at the beginning of the flight). I check the time, and the flight is only halfway finished. I try falling asleep again (South African provided really thick and warm blankets, surprising considering recent airline cutbacks), but now I'm wide awake.

We’re still over water, passing close to Senegal and the westernmost point of Africa. I look out the window and see a spectacular storm, with clouds at least ten thousand feet high and hundreds of lightning strikes lighting up the night sky. It was really a fantastic sight, but a lot of people were asleep and missed it.

Giving up on the American films, I decide to sample some of the South African films. Opening up the in-flight magazine (Sawubona, a massive 272-page tome), I glance at the choices. Unsurprisingly, two of the six films available are about apartheid, but I had already decided I wanted to watch lighter fare (so no Shallow Hal and no apartheid).

(The heaviest film available)

I first watch Swop, a comedy that resembles The Prince and the Pauper, but with a twist. Organizing the swap of the two people are two wealthy businessmen, who disagree on if people are inherently good or evil (one believes that a man will resort to crime if put in poverty, the other believes that it depends on the person). The two businessmen make “the usual bet” and have one of their wealthy executives kidnapped, and they take a beggar outside of the office to take his place.

Needless to say, hilarity ensues.

The swapped businessman is an outsider in the slums where he is dropped off, and gets swindled by the street-savvy very quickly. A woman feels bad for him, and helps to get his life back in order. She even has her own business, much to the city-dweller’s surprise. The former beggar enjoys his new life and uses his street smarts to become successful in his new position.

The characters all converge when the beggar learns of the bet and the stakes involved (spoiler alert: the “usual bet” amount is revealed to be 10 rand, or about $1.29). The swapped people are upset, so they enact a plan of revenge, using each of their strengths (as well as the woman from the slums) to figure out a way to thwart a very expensive deal.

At the end of it all, they somehow manage to discover that the lady from the slums is (spoiler alert) the true owner of the company (and no, this wasn’t explained any better in the film), and in Solid Gold Cadillac fashion, she takes control of the company.

And in true role-reversal fashion, the bettors get their comeuppance as they are seen begging for money, and the three other main characters are running the company.

The movie was all right, but the comedy did not work for me. One other thing – one of the bettors always has a cigar in his mouth, which perplexes me.

The next movie I watched was The List. I expected it to be a South African film version of My Name Is Earl, but it turned into some weird romantic drama. The characters and their relations to each other were lost on me. Basically, a guy has had a list that said all the things he wanted to do in his life (get married, buy a house, etc.), but now doesn’t know what to do.

One thing leads to another, and he has an affair with his best friend’s(?) girlfriend,  which strains his relationship with his best friend, and his wife leaves him. The rest of the short (61 minutes) film is devoted to him trying to win back his wife. He  keeps begging his wife to come back, but the way it is shot, it’s unclear for how long he is actually there, as nothing changes from scene to scene.

I don’t remember if he ever does get back with his wife, but it’s really not important, as this film was terrible.

I look out the window and see something that I haven’t seen in the past 13 hours – land. According to the map on the entertainment system, we pass over Angola briefly, and we're into Namibia.

Flying over South Africa is different than flying over the United States, according to Dean. In America, "there's lights everywhere," but in Africa, there are barely any. A quick glance outside proves this -- only occasionally are any lights seen. Looking down, I see shantytowns and webs of dirt roads. In the distance, I can see Windhoek's lights.

The breakfast cart approaches, and since we're in the back of the plane, I get stuck with waffles. Really it should have been called "waffle," as it's only a quarter of one whole waffle. The waffle tastes terrible, and I wish I had gotten the eggs that the front portion of the plane got (Dean says he doesn't want anything besides eggs, and his stubbornness gets him eggs, bacon, and hash browns). The berry syrup they give me is okay, and the fruit salad that accompanies it is terrible as well.

Luckily, we start descending into Johannesburg, and land safely. We pull up to the brand-new international terminal at the Johannesburg airport, which is massive.

The terminal looks impressive, but what does the rest of the terminal (and South Africa) have in store for me? I'm about to find out as I disembark from the plane...

What do I do next? Check back soon to find out!

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