5 business trips (which didn’t go to plan)

I’ve travelled enough so that I’m pretty adept at avoiding the pitfalls of business trips and the stresses that go with them but even then stuff happens which is outside your control and then you have to adapt. It’s happened to me several times, fortunately never catastrophically, but in today’s world the consequences of the earlier ones wouldn’t have been so easily managed.

1 Singapore without the tapes: when I was working for Mobil Oil in Indonesia in the mid 70s I used to fly over to Singapore every so often to use a computer bureau to update the economics of our LNG partnership with Pertamina. I ran a program which was held on a computer tape which I carried with me. One time I was just about to leave the terminal at Jakarta Halim airport, in those days it was a walk to the plane, there were no fancy airbridge, when I realised that I’d forgotten to bring the tape.

I promptly turned round, retrieved my ticket and walked back through immigration. I don’t know how that was possible and certainly you couldn’t do that today. Fortunately I had no checked baggage.

I then jumped into a taxi and went back to the office which was locked and dark. I must have had a key with me because I got in, found the tape and locked up again. Then it was back into a taxi for a return to the airport where I checked in for the next and last flight to Singapore.

There were no further hitches, immigration must have been smooth, and my trip to Singapore was back on track, albeit 2 hours delayed.

2 Japan without fiscal clearance: what was amazing about trip number 1 above is the ease with which I came back through immigration when I realised that I’d forgotten the tape because Indonesian immigration was heavily based on rules which it implemented with much stamping of passports and signing of documents. I can’t imagine now that there was a rule to allow the easy readmission of someone like me in those circumstances.

I experienced a much more difficult challenge when I arrived at the airport some time later for a Friday flight to take me to Hong Kong for the weekend on the way to business in Japan. I turned up at immigration and presented my papers, that was my passport plus another ‘fiscal’ document which basically said that I was up to date with my taxes, a necessary prerequisite to leaving the country. Trouble was this document had expired so the immigration officer refused to let me leave the country. I remonstrated but once you’ve got a government official following the rules there really is nothing you can do.

So: I get my ticket back and return to the office and a plan is hatched to fast track getting my fiscal clearance the next morning so that I could at least leave the country on Saturday. At the same time a process was put into place to ensure that such an oversight would not recur.

It was a big ask but early the next day myself and one of our local office staff with two cars and two drivers turned up at a government office to start the process. It was multi-stage and we went in and out of several offices at different locations. We made progress but it didn’t seem like it was fast enough. However I was smart enough to keep my mouth shut and remain calm. I’d just been given a copy of Graham Greene’s Quiet American so I read this as I waited patiently for my colleague to get the job done.

As we closed on the flight time, I needed to get a flight to Singapore to connect to Hong Kong, I sent one of the drivers to the airport to ask that the flight be held so that I could catch it.

Finally everything was ready and we drove insanely to the airport. I remember it was one of our older drivers named Kadir. He was barely tall enough to see over the steering wheel but drove foot down all the way taking full advantage of both sides of the road and the verges and footways alongside it. Sadly we were a few minutes late and my flight had left.

I resolved to take the next flight to Singapore anyway, apparently thinking that I could somehow make the connection in negative time, and then found that my connecting flight had been delayed so I made it after all.

3 alone in Kosovo: in the mid to late 80s I was the marketing manager for a range of products including mining chemicals which we sold into the copper belts in Africa and Europe. The latter included what was then Yugoslavia and we needed to visit our customers to set prices for the new year. I worked with a splendid red haired sales lady, Dragona Djordjevic (in the photo above), based in Zagreb and we met up in Belgrade intending to fly on to Skopje. It must have been January because the weather was very bad and we were unable to proceed so I returned home.

We tried again a week or so later and this time I met Dragona in Skopje. Unfortunately her father had been taken ill and she needed to return to Zagreb but she made arrangements whereby I could continue. Well yes; how was that going to work?

I stayed overnight in Skopje and remember a cold hotel room with a carpet seemingly only a few millimetres thick laid directly on a concrete floor. I was accompanied by a colleague of Dragona on a call the next day before being picked up late afternoon to be driven to my next destination which I’m thinking must have been in Kosovo.

My driver was straight out of central casting for Tito partisan fighters: bushy black moustache and not a word of English. He drove some sort of Soviet breed saloon, no seat belts of course, and off we set into the night. I hadn’t a clue where we were going, it was dark and there were few, maybe no road signs.

Eventually we arrived at a hotel where there was a room booked in my name. My driver wrote down a time and said he’d pick me up the next morning. As hotels go this one was fine: there was a restaurant which served a meat rich goulash dish and sold beer and the room was clean and quiet and, most important, warm.

Checkout the next day went smoothly, the hotel must have taken credit cards, and I remember noting that my overnight price was about ten times that charged to Yugoslavs.

Next day I had my meeting and then set off with the same driver to get my return flight. This time of course it was daylight and this seemed to spark some conversation. Somehow we seemed to establish that we both had two children. At the end of the journey I felt that my driver deserved a tip but I had no Yugoslav money. Instead I gave him a credit card sized calculator. He was over the moon, I can imagine him showing it off to his family and to his mates in the local bar.

I made my flight OK but it was unfortunately delayed so I missed my connection in Zagreb but that was easily sorted. I got a seat on the first flight out the next morning and jumped in a taxi to the Intercontinental where I enjoyed rather more Western European standard comforts. There was even a big indoor pool for me to relax in before dinner.

4 Slovakia is not the Czech Republic: in the mid 90s I led a sales & marketing team which included mangers for specific territories. The one for most of Europe left the company and I had to cover the ground until we were able to recruit a replacement and that meant visiting a number of key distributors. It all went OK until I went to see the distributor responsible for what had been Czechoslovakia.

Before he left the manager briefed me and told me that this visit would be best conducted by staying overnight at the airport in Vienna, hiring a car and then simply driving across the border. That sounded straight forward to me so I set off looking for road signs.

After some time without getting any clues I stopped and asked people, remember this was in the days before SatNav. That wasn’t so easy because the people I spoke to understood little English but eventually the truth was revealed: I was in the wrong country.

Czechoslovakia split into two countries, the Czech Republic and Slovakia, the so called velvet divorce, 1 Jan 93 and I’d driven into Slovakia. The distributor was in the Czech Republic. I checked the map, why didn’t I do that before I set out, and saw that it would be best to drive back into Austria and then to cross the border into the Czech Republic a little further west.

That was easy enough to do and my day went smoothly thereafter. However I reflected that such easy driving to and fro across borders would have been impossible in the 80s and before when Czechoslovakia was still a communist country behind the iron curtain .

5 easyJet cancellation: I’ve had a few flights cancelled but they’ve generally been resolved by the airline concerned with little inconvenience for me. Just occasionally of course you get the bonus of an unexpected overnight stay somewhere nice. It tends to be more of a problem with budget airlines though because they don’t pay for your inconvenience and you find that they can make you wait some days for a replacement service. That’s when you’ve got to sort matters out yourself.

In 2005 I was doing a little work with a French company and was visiting them in May. I was due to take the last easyJet flight back from Paris and that was important because I was due to attend my first county council meeting as a newly elected councillor the next day. That should not have been a problem but easyJet cancelled the flight.

I was offered no alternative to enable me to get back to Cambridge before 1030. I didn’t bother checking British Airways or Air France because they would have been too expensive so I jumped in a taxi and went to the Gare du Nord to see if I could get a Eurostar. I was too late for the last train of the day but noted the time of the first one out the next morning. That must have been some time before 0700 which would have got me to London in plenty of time for onward travel to Cambridge.

I stayed overnight at a hotel close to the station, called and left a message with my group leader at the council and enjoyed an enforced dinner in Paris. Then I got myself to the station in good time to buy a ticket and get on the first train the next morning. I might have been still half asleep or in too much of a hurry but I managed to buy myself a business class ticket which meant that I sat in some comfort and enjoyed an excellent French breakfast as we hurtled across a sunlit northern France. It was my first trip on Eurostar and I thoroughly enjoyed the experience.

In those days Eurostar still arrived at Waterloo and I was there soon after 0800. Then it was a simple matter of tube, train and taxi and I walked into our group meeting prior to the council meeting at about 1000.

I’ve had other cancellations but not many and I’ve experienced long delays, I’ve lost bags, I’ve overslept and I’ve missed connections but generally they’ve been in no way catastrophic. However and as noted above most times the solutions were a consequence of the way we’ve travelled at the time. I’m not sure that they are so readily available these days.

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