Gruelling hops across continents

  • Letters
  • Sunday, 05 Dec 2004


After waking up from a 15-hour comatose-like sleep, WONG SAI WAN writes about his almost 50,000km journey to cover Prime Minister Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi's recent visit to Chile and Cuba. 

MANY people have the misconception that covering the Prime Minister's overseas trips is glamorous and exciting.  

The truth is it's a very exhausting task. 

My journey started at 10pm on Nov 13 and ended at 6.21am on Nov 30. It involved landing and taking off at nine airports, and boarding and disembarking from six aircraft in four continents – Asia, Africa, the Americas and Europe.  

Of the 17 days abroad, 62 hours were spent on board an aircraft and a further 17 hours waiting at airports. This meant I spent more than three days in limbo.  

Four days after the trip, I was still feeling the jet lag. On Nov 30, I went to sleep at 1.30pm, supposedly for a short snooze. I did not wake up till 4am the next day. 


Nov 13, 10pm (Malaysian time) 

Left my house in Subang Jaya for the KLIA. Flight MH201 for Buenos Aires in Argentina was supposed to take off at 1.05am, was packed: in airline industry term, it was “super full”. Among those on board were a group of 60 Argentinean tourists who had spent two weeks travelling the region, and 20-odd Indonesian tourists heading for Buenos Aires. 


Nov 14, 1.30am (Malaysian time) 

The flight took off after a 20-minute delay. Cramped into an economy seat, I was armed with a thick book - D-Day by Stephen E. Ambrose - that I swore I would finish reading during the long journey.  

Fell asleep rather easily after about a few minutes of tossing and turning but an hour later, the wailing of a crying baby startled me. Across the aisle from me was an Australian family with a small baby.  

I had been carrying a slight cold a few days before and had been on medication. My coughing was keeping the baby awake!  


Nov 14, 5.20am (African time) 

Landed in Johannesburg, South Africa. After 11 hours, it was a joy to be able to get out of the aircraft and walk about.  

The tour leader for the Indonesian tourists was running around shepherding his group. He was overheard later grumbling to a MAS stewardess that some of his clients had walked straight to the Johannesburg immigration checkpoint.  

Apparently, the Indonesians did not realise that they were only halfway through their journey. 

When I re-boarded the plane, I realised that my thick book had disappeared - the cleaners had come on board and cleared everything including Ambrose's D-Day, which I had left behind.  


Nov 14, 9.20am (South African time) 

Landed in Cape Town, the picturesque city at the tip of the African continent. Again, we left the aircraft, and I went to the bookshop to find an equally thick book to replace D-Day. I finally settled for Dan Brown's top seller Da Vinci Code.  

The MAS B747 took off 90 minutes later with some new passengers including a well-travelled American who was seated behind me. Throughout the next 11hour-journey to Buenos Aires, we were given a running commentary of what to do in Argentina and South Africa. 


Nov 14, 2.50pm (Argentinean time) 

Touched down at Ezeiza International Airport in Buenos Aires to catch the Lan Chile Flight LA 600 to Santiago. Disembarking at Gate 19 of the airport, we quickly found out that LA 600 was to take off from Gate 18. However, we could not find any Lan Chile personnel anywhere for us to get our boarding pass. Not many airport staff habbla (meaning speak in Spanish) English. After much asking around, we found out that passes are only given out to transit passengers minutes before boarding time. 


Nov 14, 6.20pm (Argentinean time) 

LA 600 takes off. It was a rather uneventful flight.  


Nov 14, 8.30pm (Chilean time) 

There were 20 Malaysians on board the flight including New Straits Times Group Editor Hardev Kaur, diplomats and the advance security team for the Prime Minister. We were met by officials of the Malaysian embassy at the Arturo Merino Benitez International Airport in Santiago and were whisked off to our various hotels. Hardev Kaur and I were housed in a nice boutique hotel in the centre of Santiago called Park Plaza while the official delegation stayed at the Sheraton Santiago. 

Did not even bother with dinner but fell promptly asleep. Being able to lie down flat after 35 hours was heavenly. 

(For the next eight days, we were busy with the Asia Pacific Economic Co-operation meetings but were able to visit various attractive spots in Santiago. The snow-capped top of the Andes Mountain Range, which dominated the Chilean capital skyline, was a sight to behold. 


Nov 22, 1am (Chilean time) 

Left the hotel with Hardev Kaur, Bernama Economic Desk editor Mikhal Raj, his photographer K. Ganeson, and Utusan Malaysia economic editor Zaharuddin Mohd Ali for the airport to catch Copa Air Flight CM438 to Havana that would take 11hours and 43 minutes. 

We spent the next three hours trying very hard to fall asleep on uncomfortable chairs at the lounge. 

When we finally boarded the Boeing 737 aircraft, I was seated next to Zaharuddin at the exit area, which meant more legroom even though we were in the economy section, and the third seat in our row was empty when the flight took off. We both had big smiles, thinking we were in for a very comfortable flight.  

But alas our joy was cut short when the stewardess moved a very tall giant of a man to occupy the vacant seat. He was cramped up in another seat and the exit row offered this seven footer more legroom. 

For the first time my cough proved to be a blessing: he later moved back to the cramped seat next to his wife. 

Six hours into the flight, we were suddenly told we would be stopping in Panama City, where we all had to disembark. We were also told that we would be arriving at Gate 14 and the same flight for the onward journey to Havana would depart from the same gate. 

However, when we exited at the airport, we found out that flight CM418 for Havana would take off at Gate 21 - right at the other end of the building!  


Nov 22, 9am (Panama City) 

We were surprised to find that we were on board another aircraft although the flight number was still the same. The rest of the journey was uneventful. 


Nov 22, 2.36pm (Cuban time) 

Arrived in Jose Marti International Airport in Havana. A Malaysian official was on hand to greet and take us to a VIP area for the necessary immigration procedures. Within minutes, things were sorted out and we were off to our designated hotels.  

(We explored the aging city in the first couple of days as Abdullah was in Galapagos on a private visit. Our first destination was the cigar factory right in the centre of town, which I wrote about. Besides seeing President Fidel Castro in person, the other highlight was exploring Old Havana, or Habana as it is known locally. According to the locals, Havana is the name of a drink.) 

(One thing, though – never try the food at the Havana China town. There are about 20 Chinese restaurants there but the fried rice I had was sour from too much vinegar.) 


Nov 27, 4pm (Cuban time) 

Left the hotel for the airport on my own. The others were going home through various other European cities. I was flying via Amsterdam. We were told to be at the airport four hours before the flight.  

At 7.30pm, Martinair Flight MP617 took off on an 11-hour flight to Schipol International Airport in Amsterdam. But it took a detour to Santa Domingo, the capital of Dominican Republic. We took off again at 10pm local time. 


Nov 28, 12.30pm (Netherlands time) 

Arrived at Schipol. I had to stay overnight to catch the MAS flight the next day for home. The Dutch immigration officer at the checkpoint took one look at my tired face, smiled and stamped my well-thumbed passport. This was the fastest ever immigration clearance I have ever had. 

Easily caught a shuttle to the nearby Ibis Hotel. I was really tired and determined to stay in but when I saw the size of the room, I decided to head out to Amsterdam for a walk. 

The first thing I did was to find a Chinese restaurant near Dam Square and have char siew (roast pork) and duck rice.  


Nov 29, 9.30am (Netherlands time) 

Arrived an hour early at the airport and was grateful to be upgraded from economy to business class. God bless the people at MAS. 

At noon, I boarded Flight MH17. As I belted down, I noticed that the next seat to me was empty and an African gentleman was seated in the third one. We were in the front row facing the galley wall. 

Four hours into the fight, the man's wife, who was seated at the back, reached forward and handed their six-month-old baby to him while the stewardess fixed a bassinet to the wall.  

Here we go again, I thought, as I was still nursing a cough. But it was not the case. My cough was softer now and the baby was an angel. 

We touched down just after 6.31am. 

The trip was tiring and back-breaking but it had been a great experience and adventure. 

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