Northbound – Tamale

We’re down to three now: Paul had to fly home last night, and Greg woke up this morning feeling like yesterday’s breakfast warmed over. So Pete, Jenny and I are the remaining Google.org contingent heading north to meet with developers and end-users in Tamale (remember, that’s “TAH-mah-lay”, not “tah-MAH-lee”). Of course, Pete and Jenny are flying back tomorrow, leaving me solo for the last round. I’m trying not to think of Agatha Christie here.

Feeling good, though – Mr. Neighbor in 222 gave the Japanese slasher films a rest last night, and I woke up clear-headed and refreshed. We spent half the morning chasing through dusty roads of East Accra trying to figure out in which of the many Kofi Annan training centers our 9:30 meeting was. Arrived just in time to conclude that we really needed to go *now* if we were going to make it to the airport with something that felt like a comfortable margin in a country where everything takes longer than you expect.

It didn’t and we’re waiting now, with time to spare, in the departure lounge of Fly540. Normally, one wouldn’t immediately be drawn to a company advertising themselves as “Africa’s Value-Priced Airline!”, but they were the only ones who could get us to Tamale when we needed to go. I’ll admit, though, that I *did* check the accident stats before putting money down – don’t worry, mom, turns out they’ve actually got a very good safety record. Close your eyes, think “Southwest Airlines”, and breathe normally – it’s fine, really. I think I’ve convinced Jenny, but Pete insists on harshing my mellow by asking whether last wills conveyed by SMS are considered legally binding.

The tickets themselves were a bit of an adventure to come by. Website took my credit card for the four tickets, clicked through a few times, then dropped me at a null page. I received email confirmation a few seconds later, so Ididn’t think much of it until a couple of days ago, when I looked at the online receipt to check our flight information. There wasn’t any. The receipt only verified that I had made an electronic payment of $358 to some dubious sounding payment intermediary. No mention of our flights, or of Fly540 for that matter. I paused to gather my thoughts and took the most rational course of action: panic.

No, not really. I started calling around, trying to get through the unanswered numbers and phone trees until I reached a real live person. He asked for my ticket reference number, and I observed that I didn’t have one, only the payment confirmation. He asked what flight I was on. Or thought I should be on. He asked for the spelling of my name. Three times. I was beginning to reconsider my earlier decision not to panic.

I got escalated a couple of times, always to concerned and helpful sounding people, but the apparent lack of my name in their systems was making it hard to not sound alarmed. I finally ended up with Isabel, who assured me that there was no reason for concern. She’d look into it and call me back. She looked into it and called me back, asking again for the spelling of my name and proposed itinerary. There were a few too many “Hmmmmm”s on her side of the conversation for me to be entirely comfortable with the outcome, but after a few more exchanges, she was (attempting to) sound confident that the problem had been isolated.

As you might predict, my attempts to relay this sense of confidence to the rest of the team were less than entirely successful.

“She gave you a confirmation number, right?”

“Uh, no. She just said she’d ‘fixed it.'”

“You mean, she said we were confirmed on the flight.”

“No, those weren’t the words she used.”

“What were the exact words she used?”

“That she’d ‘fixed it.'”

I looked around at less than enthusiastic grins. Fortunately, the probability models of the Pabloverse intervened. Remember Laura? She works with Afua. Oh, I hadn’t mentioned Afua. She and Laura work for Esoko, an amazing Ghanaian tech company that builds mobile communication platforms for rural users. You know the whole “farmers send SMS messages to find buyers and best market prices for their plantains” thing? Esoko has deployed systems like that in 16 countries.

Anyhow – back in Nigeria, I was absentmindedly eating breakfast in the hotel, and an African woman with a London accent peered over and, apologizing for the interruption asking if she was correct in thinking she’d overheard me mentioning that I worked for Google. Yes, yes, and pleased to meet her. Afua was Ghanaian, in town for a friend’s birthday. Back home, she worked for a company called Esoko – had I heard of it?

I’d done more than hear of it – five minutes earlier I’d just written to their CEO asking if there was any chance they’d have time to meet with us while we were in Accra. Small, small world.

So, anyhow, last night over dinner with Laura and Afua, we were exchanging stories of the amusing and not-so-amusing ways in which things can go wrong. Before coming to Ghana four years ago, Laura spent the last decade working in Mali, Madagascar and DRC, so she had plenty of anecdotes in both categories (apparently getting extracted from a gun battle by an armored platoon of Marines in Kinshasa falls squarely in the not-so-amusing category). My stories, of course, were hopelessly tame by their standards, and I shamelessly fell back to a sure-fire Antarctica tale or two.

But I did mention the ticket tale, and when I did, Afua asked “You’re sure it’s sorted?” No, I was not at all sure.

“You don’t mind if I call my friend? He’s managing director of Fly540, and he’ll want to know.”

She read my expression and assured me: “No, really, it’s alright – we’re buddies.”

A few minutes later, she hung up and gave me the thumbs up. Her friend was in Ouagadougou at the moment, but said that Isabel had the skill and authority to make anything happen, and if she said she’d fixed it, she’d fixed it. We’d be on that flight.

Oh – and, here we are.

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