A creative nonfiction tale about the joys of air-travel
Airports are magical places.
Beehives of busyness, bustling with humanity returning from faraway places, or, setting out on new adventures. A hubbub of possibilities. It is impossible not to be touched, not to be impacted.
The eleven hours trans-Africa flight from Johannesburg to Frankfurt, flying coach, is at best a taxing experience—requiring the frequent stretching of cramping limbs in the confined space the size of a bathroom drawer. At its worst, the need arises to rub swollen feet and maintain compromised circulations.
A collective groan was heard upon the flight attendant’s instruction to push open the window blinds as we prepared for the descent—what with the blinding brightness of the early morning sun bursting into the cabin. Squinting one’s eyes and blinking repetitively was the only way not to go snow blind.
I periodically have trouble sleeping at night. Sleeping in such cramped conditions, rebreathing four hundred fellow travelers’ stale breaths, inhaling their sweaty torsos helped little with a good night’s rest. I had been awake for twenty-four hours when we touched down on German soil. It was my tenth time in fifteen years returning from Africa but still didn’t ease the nagging discomfort.
The clocks moved back one hour.
A seven-hour stand-over, followed by an eight and a half hour trans-Atlantic flight brought us to Toronto, the point of entry into Canada. The clocks moved back a further six hours, making our arrival time 1:00 p.m.; although, in reality, it was two in the morning. By then, I had been awake for forty-two hours without more than the occasional ten minutes shut eyes.
A third leg remained before I would be home, but aviation regulations stipulated that I collect my checked-in luggage and re-check it. The stand-over time was one hour and fifty-five minutes—ample time to do the latter. After touch down at Toronto International, we taxied for what felt like five kilometers by road, when we were put on hold for forty minutes, remaining on the aircraft, before being allowed to dock in at our arrival gate.
By the time I scrambled off the plane, biding my farewells to the flight attendants, fifty-five minutes were remaining before take-off of my connecting flight.
My heart missed several beats when I observed the sheer mass of people ahead of me in the custom’s hall. The line-up progressed at a stuttering snail’s pace. I had to bite my tongue not to jump up and down and cause an incident. I had little doubt that the airport authority had a zero-tolerance policy for airport rage, manifesting in whatever mild shape or form.
From there it was down the escalator to the carousel to retrieve our bags. My fellow passengers (bless their hearts) collected their bags as easy as one-two-three. Soon, it was only me remaining—waiting on my single bag, which refused to make its appearance. I located an airport employee—yes, he confirmed, this was indeed the correct carousel for the Air Canada flight from Frankfurt. I circled the revolving carousel three more times. Still, no bag.
It required five more minutes to locate another airport employee. “I suggest you inquire at the over-sized and lost parcels counter, sir.”
“But . . . My bag is of normal size—”
The official had already disappeared into thin air-conditioned airport air.
I located the oversized and lost parcels counter. It reminded one of an open-air market in Delhi.
Twenty-eight minutes remained before take-off of my scheduled flight.
There were three extended groups of people ahead of me at the counter.
I reached the counter where my boarding pass and passport were checked and double-checked. The attending lady found my bag and heaved it onto the counter. It now had bright new stickers slapped to its side. “Your bag was randomly selected for luggage inspection.”
I closed my eyes. She made it sound as if I had won the Lotto. It sounded revolutionary, Orwellian-like, if not Darwinian. Natural selection. Random selection.
“Impossible. I have to run. There are only twelve minutes remaining to the take-off of my flight!”
The official shrugged. “It’s not optional. You’ll have first to take it for luggage inspection.” Her eyes lost its luster, and she turned away.
“Excuse me, ma’am—where do I find this luggage-inspection section?”
She pointed at an entrance behind her. “Second entrance on my left.”
Four families were ahead of me in the line-up for “randomly selected luggage inspection.” What a cavernous hall. Sighing didn’t help. Crying felt more appropriate. Ten minutes remained to take off of my flight.
Twenty minutes later, one of two officials doing the luggage searches, waved me closer.
He held out his hand. I hesitated, wondering whether he wished to shake my hand. How odd.
“Passport.” His nasal tone was as depleted of emotion as a railway tie.
“Born in Zambia?”
I nodded. I was dead tired. Can’t the man read? I scanned my surroundings for a chair. This guy was in no apparent hurry. My legs were on the brink of deserting me.
“Zambia? You’re white.”
I took a shuddering breath. Too exhausted to roll my eyes. “My parents were missionaries from South Africa. And they’re Caucasian.”
His paused and scrutinized me closer. Did I sound flippant? He returned the passport and busied himself with unzipping my bag. “Did you pack the bag yourself?”
With painstaking precision, the man unclipped the two cross straps and took the towel which was spread across everything and placed it next to the bag.
“You have a connecting flight?”
“I had one.”
Their irony was lost on the man as he stacked my neatly folded shirts on top of the towel. Should I inform him the clean shirts were the ones on the left?
“What time does your flight leave?”
“It has left. It departed twenty minutes ago!”
He paused and rewarded me with a blank stare. “I’m sorry.”
Bastard. You’re not sorry.
“I’m a Canadian citizen. What kind of welcome is this?”
“It’s called random selection.”
He made it sound as if it was an act of God.
“You guys made me miss my connecting flight.”
“I apologize. Aviation regulations, sir.”
“I’ve been flying this route for fifteen, sixteen years. This has never been done before.”
“Nine-eleven changed everything, sir.”
Bullshit. I’ve flown several times since then. It has never happened before.
“How am I getting home tonight?”
My knees wobbled. I needed a place to sit down. I needed sleep.
“This,” and I gestured with wide sweeping arms, “made me miss my flight.”
His eyes drilled into me. “I’m just doing my job.”
I crossed my arms and returned his intense gaze.
“What was the purpose of your visit?”
“Attending a conference and visiting a sick parent.”
“Which one of the two?”
I uncrossed my arms. You’re bullshitting me. Right? “I first attended the conference, then spent time with my dying father.”
“Why didn’t you say so in the first place?”
The man had stacked my short pants and underwear next to the shirts. He made a new pile out of my socks.
“What’s wrong with him?”
“He had a mini-stroke a couple of years ago. A year later he developed a bleeding stomach ulcer. Next, he developed fluid on the lungs. He is tired of life. Disappointed. He’s slowly wasting away.”
“Are these new socks?”
“Some of them.”
“Yes or no?”
I rubbed my eyes. “Sir, I bought two pair—”
“Please answer my question!”
I clenched and unclenched my fists. My head throbbed.
The customs officer made it his business to stack my ties next to the socks. “You like fancy socks and ties?”
“Is it a fetish?”
I snorted, which soon turned into a coughing spell. “What do you mean?”
Was he counting the ties?
“Why did you pack so many clothes?’
“I was away for two and a half weeks.”
“Don’t they have laundromats in Africa?” For the first time, the man’s lips pulled upwards. It seemed, buried deep underneath the hardened shell, was a heart.
“I didn’t want to inconvenience my hosts.”
He had reached my four pairs of shoes, each pair individually packed and wrapped in small white garbage bags. He opened each bag. He found my most coveted pair—a tan set of handmade Italian dress shoes with side zips.
The man whistled. “These look classy.”
“Must have cost a fortune.”
“They’re ten years old. Bought them at a sale.”
He tsk-tsked with his tongue.
I suppressed an expletive. “Sir, what are you looking for?”
“I’m inspecting your luggage.”
“You made me miss my flight. Now we’re discussing each piece of clothing I own. Is this even necessary?”
The man pulled his shoulders back. “You bag appeared suspicious.”
I was too tired to care. “Suspicious?” I hollered. “It’s the same bag I’ve been traveling with the past six years. You’re kidding me?”
The man’s face remained an emotionless mask. “This is not a game, sir. I’m doing my job.”
“You said it was a random selection. Now you claim it looked suspicious.”
“Excuse me, sir?”
“It can’t be both. Pick one.”
The man’s busy hands quieted. “His mouth corners pulled upward. “Random selection.”
“It didn’t seem random to me.”
“What do you mean?”
“It was premeditated.”
The officer shook his head. “You don’t understand how the system works.”
I snickered. “It’s obvious the system doesn’t work.” It was past my bedtime. I wasn’t brave; I was just too tired to care.
“Sir!” The man’s face had accrued a red tinge. I had finally struck an exposed nerve.
About time, you bastard.
“Your great system harasses law-abiding citizens, instead of combing the airport for terror suspects. You knew when you unzipped my bag, there was nothing.”
“It wasn’t a given, sir.”
“We could have been done twenty minutes ago.”
“Do you want to tell me how to do my job?”
“You were the one who brought up nine-eleven. This is no way to prevent repeat terror attacks.”
“Do you wish to speak to my supervisor? Do you wish to advise us on airport security?”
“I wish to go home.”
The man took a step back and scanned me from head to toes, as if for the first time. He waved me on. “You can put your belongings back.”
“Are you done?”
He waved me along with more determination. “We’re done. I’m satisfied.”
I rewarded him with a curt nod. “I’m glad. Thank you.”
It took me several minutes to find room for everything. It always took me a full half hour to pack the bag from scratch. I struggled to sea clear. I seethed.
The arrogant asshole.
I yanked the zipper closed. Sheisse. I still have to go and book a new flight.
A shadow hovered over me. What does the man want now? Did he change his mind?
He leaned forward and said under his breath. “Sorry that you had to miss your flight. I hope your father gets better soon.” He clicked his heels together and spun around.
I wiped my tired eyes and watched him march from the large room before dragging my bag off the inspection counter.
Airports are magical places. It never fails to impact one.
It was time to get home.
Thank you for reading!
This piece was also published on Medium.com.
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Image by Danie Botha.