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Safari guide Henrik Hult.
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  May 2010:
  Insects on board
  March 2010:
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  May 2008:
  The long rains
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Safari Patrol:
Insects on board
May 2010
This is the time of the long rains, i.e. the main rainy season in East Africa. The green lushness in and around Arusha in northern Tanzania is evidence of much rainfall during the last months, and the fields are full of maize and beans soon to be harvested. It's going to be a good harvest thanks to the rain.

Not only the vegetation and crops thrive in the wet. So do insects. When visiting the Tanzanian bush last week, I saw hosts of them. Butterflies, grasshoppers, moths, in many varieties and shapes. I was glad to see that my tent was well protected against insects. Still, it's unavoidable that some sneak into the tent anyhow when you pass in and out, so a good insecticide comes in handy at night, to rid the inside of your tent of small creeping things.

KLM, the Dutch airline that traffics Kilimanjaro International Airport in Tanzania, handles insects the same way. It's unavoidable that insects come on board when the doors are open to let passengers into and out of planes. Once the plane is sealed, and has taken off for a part of the world where those insects aren't welcome, it's sprayed; the cabin crew walks down the aisles spraying the cabin.

Throw you off the aircraft
Now, this airline seems prepared to go even further to fight the creeps. It may throw you off the plane if you bring insects on board. (While on the ground in an airport, of course, not while airborne.)

Professional safari guide Henrik Hult in Serengeti, Tanzania.
Safari guide Henrik Hult
on an unpleasant flight
That's what happened to me the other night, travelling with KLM from Kilimanjaro to Amsterdam. Some insects were seen on me in the cabin. Because of this, the cabin crew made fun of me, insulted me, offended me, called me a liar, and close to left me behind after the landing en route in Dar es Salaam.

The story
I'll tell you the story below, but I'll skip the details and the words that I'd really want to use. Should you want to learn more, say, for example, if you're a KLM official, or shareholder, you're may contact me via this web site.

Approx 5.30 pm, local time
After a day in town in Arusha, I return to my hotel to shower, pack my bag and check out.

Approx 7 pm
My driver drops me at Kilimanjaro International Airport. I'm in good time. That's what they ask you to be. I have checked in online. That's what they ask you to do. I carry no weapons, no sharp objects, no explosives, no liquids, no contraband. I keep my passport ready. I use block letters filling out the departure form. I don't beep in the security control.

I wait in the departure hall. The flight is delayed. I don't complain. No one informs about the delay. I don't complain. The departure hall is full of insects, like always in the wet season. I don't complain.

Approx 10.15 pm
I have now walked across the platform to the aircraft and boarded. My seat belt is fastened, my seat in an upright position and my hand luggage is put under the seat in front of me. The aircraft is taking off. Two air hostesses crack up in a fit of laughter. They can't control themselves. I soon understand that I'm the source of the fun, but I don't understand why.

Approx 10.30 pm
I have been to the lavatory to see if something about me looks wrong. Not so. There was a 1.5 cm/0.5 in insect in my hair. I removed it.

A third and senior hostess tells me my hair has been seen full of bugs. She implies that I have a hygiene problem, which may spread throughout the cabin to the other passengers. Now, in fact, I have very clean habits. I point this out. I tell her that they were insects from the airport, and that such insects are likely to be found on other passengers that embarked there, too. She says there are no bugs on the other passengers. She asks me to check my hair again. Sure, I can do that. I comply.

Approx 10.45 pm
Air hostess #3 gives me a gift. She says it is for me cooperating. It's a travel kit (containing a comb and other little things to keep yourself clean and fresh when travelling). Is she suggesting that I need one of these?

Approx 11.15 pm
The aircraft has landed en route in Dar es Salaam. Air hostess #3 asks me to leave the plane, go to the men's room in the airport building and get rid of the bugs in my hair and clothes. I tell her she's now offending me. She points out the order of command on board. So I comply – I leave for the gents, escorted by airport staff.

(Hearsay, later told by the crew:) After I leave, the cabin crew uses two cans of insect spray on my seat. They then spray the cabin. The latter is routine on these flights. The former is not.

Approx 11.35 pm
I have shaken my clothes in the men's room, and combed my hair. No insects. I pass the security check to return to the plane. No beep.

Change of plans. The captain has ordered me to be checked by the airport doctor. My escort brings me there. The doctor checks my hair. He concludes I have no bugs.

Approx 11.50 pm
I'm back outside the aircraft. KLM has changed its crew in Dar es Salaam. I am not allowed to board. The new senior purser and a pilot want to talk to me.

When about to board, you're usually greeted. "Good evening, sir." "Welcome, sir." Or just "Hello." Something like that. Not this time.

The purser quite bluntly implies there is a problem with my hair. She then tells me about lice laying eggs in hair. She suggests that I may be lying about not having resident bugs in my hair. Her tone reminds me of my old schoolteacher.

The man who escorted me in the airport supports my story, though – he knows that there are many insects in Kilimanjaro during the rainy season.

Approx 12.00 pm
They decide to let me back on board.

I request a new seat – I don't intend to sit where the crew publicly decontaminated my seat right after I left. And I don't intend to sit where insects may still be around. Oh dear, that could lead to no end of problems.

The purser says she isn't sure re-seating is possible, and that any bugs should be dead by now after the spraying, anyhow.

The man who escorted me contacts someone on his radio, though. This is a Boeing 777 with 110 passengers on board, leaving at least 200 seats empty. He re-seats me in ten seconds.

Approx 12.15 pm
I'm in my new seat, in a different part of the aircraft. On hearing my story, the lady across the aisle says she wiped one of those insects off her friend's shirt just minutes ago.

Approx 12.30 pm
The lady across the aisle shows me another insect found on her book, then one found on her handbag. Both she and her friend also embarked in Kilimanjaro. Obviously other passengers brought insects on board, too.

Approx 8.30 am, local time
The aircraft has landed in Amsterdam. Following the events on board, I'm half expecting ground staff to meet me for further probing and questioning. But I'm allowed to leave the aircraft without further discomfort, insults or embarrassment. And, sadly, without apologies.

I leave the travel kit on board. Had scissors been allowed on flights, I may have left my KLM bonus card there as well.

Approx three days later
I write this text on my computer. No bugs in my hair.

What to learn from this
Now, why do I tell this story? Because I'm mad with KLM? Sure I am. But there are also a couple of things to learn from all this.

You're subjected to the crew's decisions
The crew is in charge on board. As a passenger, you're subjected to its decisions and conclusions. Even to arbitrary and erroneous ones. The crew may be tired, which this one probably was after a shift of some ten hours so far. It doesn't matter. You're in the hands of the crew.

So I suggest that you don't do anything to attract the attention of the crew. Avoid being seen. Look like everybody else. Ask for nothing. Or the crew may have to make a decision, draw a conclusion, and you may end up in Dar es Salaam or some other place where you weren't planning to go.

In my case, how come they made that conclusion?

Normally, if someone walks in from the outdoors and has an insect in his or her hair, one would assume that this insect landed on him or her out there. If it's not one but ten insects, then one would assume that there must be lots of insects around.

Not the crew of this flight. They drew the conclusion that these insects were residents in my hair. And wouldn't let go of it even after the doctor had proven it wrong.

The crew doesn't know
I have a good mane of hair, reddish blond and more than shoulder length. (An old Maasai watchman gave me the nickname Simba because of it. The Lion. I looked like one, he said. I liked that impressive nickname, of course.) It has a slight natural wave and shines like gold in sunshine. I may not cut it very often, but I keep it untangled and very clean. Suggesting that it's the home of vermin is insulting.

The crew can't know about the state of my hair. But it should know about the conditions in the departure hall of Kilimanjaro International, such as the host of insects present, and in other airports that it flies to.

When seeing insects in my hair after boarding, the crew should have said "excuse me, sir, you've got some insects in your hair, let's get them out of there". But laughing at me like schoolgirls and putting me off ease was obviously what this crew decided to do.

(Yes, there actually was a decision component in it. To be revealed in the KLM official and shareholder details.)

A loyal but not valued client
That, or the actions then taken by the crew, is not how to treat a paying client. Okay, I wasn't really paying, because I was flying on an award ticket. That means I had purchased my ticket using flight miles collected in KLM's bonus system by doing many previous flights with the airline. I was a loyal client. But not a valued one, it seems.

The crew of an aircraft has to look to the comfort, safety and health of all passengers. But in this case there was no problem. There were some insects from outside sitting on my head. The crew turned this into a huge problem that required drastic measures. Throwing someone off a flight is some strong gesture, isn't it? "Go away, we don't care that you're a client, we don't want you here!"

Because of some insects from the departure hall?

As far as I can see, the crew's conclusions were based on prejudice.

My advice
My fellow gentlemen who sport a lot of hair may want to beware when travelling night flights from Kilimanjaro. Do not board with an insect in your hair, or you may face insults, humiliation and insinuations as to your personal hygiene, as well as to your trustworthiness. You may even be refused to fly.

So what should you do to avoid this from happening? I have no clue. On this flight, I had done every single thing the way a good passenger should. You may try using a hair spray such as Doom before boarding. It's an insecticide potent enough to keep you in the clear. Or shave it all off before your flight.

A less drastic solution would be to choose a different airline that, unlike KLM, departs during the day, when fewer insects are active. Then you'd be less likely to bring insects on board. Because insects thrive in Kilimanjaro International in the wet. They will be seen again on night flights departing from there.

Malaria protection
With no direct connection to the above:

Insects, including mosquitoes, were seen alive in the cabin of this flight even long after it had been sprayed. Thus you should continue your malaria protection efforts on board, even after the spraying. Don't expose skin without using a mosquito repellent.

 
 
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Page updated 12 May 2010