5 FEBRUARY 2011 1 of 2


TIMOR-LESTE to SINGAPORE (AND BEYOND)

 


TIMOR-LESTE REPTILE & AMPHIBIAN SURVEY
PHASE IV: SNAKES OF A PLANE

We packed to leave Dili for Singapore, released the turtles Hinrich had obtained from the Chinese woman into an inundated vegetable patch, and dealt with other end of expedition admin such as storing field kit for Phase V in one of Kemal's containers at TLH, little knowing that today was going to be one of the strangest of the entire trip.

Once at the airport we met Benny, Laca, Zito and Fatimazorah, as well as several of the Turkish UNPOL police I knew from Phase III. We checked in, dropped off baggage, got our departure tax receipts and filtered through Immigration and Security into the departure lounge to discover the flight (Air Timor, operated by SilkAir) was already boarding and we were nearly the last people to board. Then it began.

Everyone was through except Hinrich, and I suggested we should not board until the whole group was present. Then the guy off the x-ray scanner came over and said something about a passport problem so I went back through to Immigration to find Hinrich, several Timor-Leste immigration officials, the tall Turkish UNPOL officer and Fatimazorah trying to figure out a solution to an odd problem. When we arrived, we had all been issued entry visas, except for Hinrich for whom such formalities were waived by the Director of Immigation. The result was that his passport contained no visa but an entry stamp, so when it comes to leaving the country it is an incongruity. The Turkish officer told me it was being resolved and not to worry, so I went back to the rest of the group and the Air Timor/Silk Air representative to explain the holdup and we were asked to board, which we did.

We knew Claudia was on the same flight but she was not on the plane yet. Sitting in the VIP lounge, she was blissfully unaware of the scenario playing out, with Hinrich unable to leave the country. When she boarded, I brought her up to speed and she immediately called the Minister for Infrastructure, who was not only in the airport but is also in charge of Immigration. He said the matter would get sorted out. At this point the pilot was keen to begin departure procedures but he still had Claudia and myself up at the open aircraft door. The flight attendants and the airline representive were all very sympathetic and it seems great powers were at work to get Hinrich on board. It almost worked.

The mystery Kaiser cake

Hinrich arrived at the bottom of the steps to the plane, and then someone spotted he was carrying specimens. The biological specimens are always hand-carried back to the US to prevent damage or loss of potentially hugely important material. They are all preserved and packed correctly for transit and Hinrich also carried all the necessary paperwork for them to exit Timor-Leste and enter the United States. But the coil of a preserved snake, one of the snakes collected by our Timorese students as part of their degree thesis', was visible through the clear plastic. Result: the usual fears exacerbated by that dreadful movie Snakes on a Plane, except in the film all the snakes were either alive or CGI, I don't recall anyone ever being attacked by a pickled snake!

Whether the specimens came on board was now down to the pilot and he said No! So they went as limited release items into the belly of the plane and the airline representative said she would contact Faridah in Singapore to have them collected safely, hand-carried upright and delivered to us at the carousel. Hinrich came on board and all was well, the flight took off and we settled down. But it was not over yet.

About two-thirds of the way through the flight Hinrich appeared with a cardboard box containing a birthday cake! Claudia, co-conspirator with Fatimazorah over the birthday cake on the 30th, was bemused as to who had sent this cake if none of us? This appears to be the first convergence of snakes and cake on a plane!

 

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