Drama at the airport, Joburg style

Trip Start May 25, 2005
Trip End Ongoing

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Flag of South Africa  ,
Sunday, August 21, 2005

It was kind of Eleine to offer to wait with me, but even a cursory look at the line indicated it could be some time before BA would be asking if I'd packed my luggage myself, or heaven forbid, if I was carrying anything for somebody else.

'Are you sure? I don't mind waiting.'

"No honestly it's fine. I can't believe the length of the line, and we are so early! Anyway, you get going. I'm fine here and I've got plenty of time. Thanks for the lift and I'll be in touch when I get back."

Kisses. Hugs. Alone - with the other three hundred people wondering what on earth was going on at the front!

As the hours rolled by, Johannesburg airport didn't get any better. The international departure area has yet to be renovated, isn't big enough for the number of flights and sheer volume of passengers, and frankly, stinks.

Wow, two wheel rotations forward. Now we are getting somewhere.

So after two hours spent in line I was on standby, my mind downgraded to the minimum level needed for the basic function of breathing.

'Madam, Madam.'

Oh, it's my turn!

So after the obligatory 'Sorry for the delay' and 'No, we only have middle seats remaining' I was through, voucher in hand.

The voucher was the final straw, or rather the final chance for food over the next few thousand miles. British Airways had no food; their catering staff were in the middle of a strike. It was buy here, or buy in England. But there was so little time - it was already 19:30 and we only had 30 minutes until the gate closed, and still there was the huge security lines to get through, and the gate to FIND!

'Boarding card madam?'

I checked the papers in my hand; passport, voucher and sticky label. Where was that boarding card?

"I don't think she gave me one!" I said, realising that the check-in lady had been so slow in her delivery about the voucher I had failed to notice her oversight.

'Come with me please.' The security guard said as he turned and began to speak into his radio, walking away. What was he saying into that thing and who was he telling, 'We have a terrorist suspect, bring the dogs, close the airport. It's a girl'?

Further and further we walked until we got to the British Airways office. I handed over my documents, answered the interrogation as neutrally as possible and watched the hands move around the clock dial. Twenty minutes until departure.

'Here you are madam. Sorry about that.'

Bloody boarding card. I should've spotted that. How many times will I need to travel before I get it right?

So I ran back to the same security man, who checked my boarding card with surprise, and joined the back of the security line.

Carrying a poster in a piece of drain pipe, with coffee lids duct-taped on to the ends to prevent the document's hard fought escape, and bound with rope, deftly tied for easy carriage is NOT the best idea, but unavoidable on this jaunt. I was going to present at a conference after all.

But I noticed a man in front of me had a poster too, albeit his was in a swanky plastic purpose-made container. I watched to see what would happen. He walked straight through. Great!

'What's in the tube madam' the security man asked.

"A poster." I replied, as I watched my bovine testament being unravelled, the plastic laminate snaking its way free of the binds.

'And where are you going?'

"Ireland, I'm presenting at a conference there."

'And where is it that you are living?' (What?)

"I'm based in Pretoria."

'Can I have your number? I would like to call you?'

(Get lost!) "Sorry!" I said, countering his smile with my sympathetic face.

Bloody hell! Some security! And now there was only fifteen minutes.

Rolling up my plastic invitation to Ireland I ran though to the thankfully short emigration line. But why weren't we moving? I glanced around the line. There were three booths open. What was happening now?

So I spoke to the couple in front, 'We've been standing here for ten minutes now. I think you should go up to the front or you will miss your plane.'

Miss my plane! Shit. Those words stabbed my heart. I can't miss my plane. So I did what I would usually never do. I walked up to the booth with no one waiting and explained my problem.

The lady just looked at me and said 'I'm closed.'

The indifference oozed from here soul. It wasn't her job to help move the passengers through to the gates beyond. Oh no. She was closed.

Back to the line I had been in. Still no one had moved. The ladies in the booths ahead were laughing, chatting, and slapping each others palms in appreciation of the light relief.

OK, that's it.

I stormed to the front.

'Hello. Could you please tell me where I should go to get my passport stamped? I have ten minutes to get to the gate and we haven't moved!'

And with that came the slow realisation that at least ten pairs of eyes were fixed on them sitting in the booths at the front. They hadn't even noticed the passengers standing in line!

Finally on the other side I squinted at the monitors, 'Gate closing' flashed before my eyes. Sprint girl, sprint!

And as the furthest gate came into view, the queue snaking it's way from the boarding gate, I slowed, realising I had not even had time to get any food.

Later, on board the plane, my seat on the isle proved a blessing (I thought it was a middle chair - nevermind!) Some lucky folks had managed to order pizza, pooling as many vouchers together as possible. It was pepperoni all round. So I took up my place in the chain of isle-hands, passing the cardboard boxes of delight through the cabin to elated 'thanks' and cheers of appreciation.

It was a surreal experience. The empty pizza boxes were piled high throughout the cabin, the stewards having run out of storage space!. It looked more like a student cinema than an aeroplane as the lights dimmed and we flew far away from the chaos below.

England, Ireland. It was going to be a culture shock in reverse. At least I was on board; the rest should be easy. Nothing else could go wrong!
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