Date of Trip: August 2007
On August 1, my mother and I departed from NYC on our way to Yerevan, Armenia to work with Habitat for Humanity. Little did we know that we wouldn’t arrive in the country until four days later. We had three flights planned in our travel itinerary (we ended up with four), and each one was late. Some of the delays had more grievous consequences than the others.
Our flight from JFK to Paris CDG on Air France was slightly delayed before liftoff for mechanical issues. Unfortunately, it was late enough that we missed our connection to Kiev, Ukraine, by just a few minutes, even though we had consulted an Air France agent about how realistic our 45 minute transfer was. About eight of us unlucky travelers raced together to the gate, to be greeted by an employee who said “Kiev, finish!”
After some long lines, we were scheduled for the next flight to Kiev. About 7 hours later. It was already bedtime for us, so we staked out a spot in an airport cafe and took turns napping.
As unpleasant as 7 hours in CDG seemed, the consequences of our next delay would be unimaginably worse. Flying Air France again, we were delayed at boarding because one of the passengers was sick, and evidently, refused to leave the plane to receive medical attention. The crew negotiated with the woman for nearly an hour before latex-gloved paramedics came onboard and physically carried her off, along with her cat.
Once in Kiev, we ran through the airport in vain to try and catch our connection. At least when we were in Paris, most of the staff spoke English, but here we had serious communication issues. We would be handed from one employee to another, each saying “wait,” for what we did not know. Eventually, an English-speaking Air France representative told us that there were no flights out of Kiev after around 8 in the evening, and we would need to spend the night in the transfer hall until 5 in the morning, when someone else would supposedly come to help us.
I’m sure that under any other circumstances, we would have been put up in the airport hotel, but American citizens need visas to enter the Ukraine, so we were stuck on neutral ground in the terminal.
Dragging all of our luggage with us (we had the foresight not to check any baggage, thankfully), we climbed down to the transfer hall, filled with those classic airport chairs in rows. My mom commanded me to get some sleep, but it was cold in the room. She said she stayed up all night, watching as dark shadows (the lights were turned off) passed by at all hours. We soon deduced from the loud snoring and frequent traffic that these men were employees napping between shifts.
Finally the morning came, but help didn’t. We went back out into the terminal, bags with us always, and sat next to the abandoned transfer desk. We were eventually approached by a young man in uniform who offered to help. First, he tried to take us into the main airport, where we could buy new tickets, but a supervisor stopped us from passing through the guarded employee gate. Next he said he would buy the tickets for us. We would just have to give him $300 cash and our Passports. We complied, but seconds after he disappeared down the escalator, we started to regret it. My Mom was brought to tears, but thankfully, he returned. But not with tickets. He gave us back every penny, but shook his head. We were still stuck.
Growing desperate, we were approaching any airport employee we could find, and eventually found the woman who would help us out of this nightmare. With a few brisk words and cold glances at the customs gate, she managed to get us (illegally) onto Ukrainian soil. She then brought us to a travel agent’s desk and got us two tickets on Aeroflot to Moscow, not our original destination in Yerevan, because we couldn’t find any representatives of the Armenian airline Armavia in the airport.
We received no reimbursement, and had to purchase entirely new tickets; our original tickets were worthless. In any case, we were glad at least to be getting closer (although geographically farther away) to our destination. At this point, it was incomprehensible when we learned that the Aeroflot flight was delayed. Then cancelled. We would have to wait until the same time tomorrow. 24 more hours. At least this time they put us in the hotel because we were out of the secured area of the airport.
We slept much better this night in our own hotel room, but we would much rather have been in Armenia with the rest of our group. The next day, we sampled Ukrainian food (Chicken Kiev included) in the airport cafeteria and my mom sent desperate emails to our family from the internet cafe. When it was time to go, we waited. And waited. Delayed again. At the airline desk, furious would-be travelers were yelling. Things did not look good for us.
Suddenly, the travel agent who got us the Aeroflot tickets appeared and dragged us over to her desk (our bags seemed to be getting heavier and heavier). She fiddled around for a few minutes and handed us our new tickets to Moscow, this time on the Ukrainian airline called Aerosvit.
Honestly, I don’t remember much about that flight. Once we got to Moscow, though, we were thrown back into chaos. When we got off the plane, the transfer desk directed us to the customs line. Our lack of proper visas got us into trouble again, as customs officer directed us back to the transfer desk. This time, we were shuttled personally by the transfer desk employee to another location, where they took our Passports and, I assume, ran some checks on us to make sure we weren’t threatening. We were put on another bus and driven around a dark, circuitous road to another terminal. We made our flight this time! Finally, we arrived in Yerevan at 3 in the morning, and after an enormous customs line, we were greeted by our team leader who had been coming to the airport in the middle of the night for the past three days, and returned back to the hotel empty handed.
Despite the trouble of getting there, Armenia was wonderful. The landscape and cultural pride are both beautiful. I’d definitely like to visit again someday, but next time, I’ll plan the air travel a little differently.