Feeling: DISHEARTENED – WITH HEART
I’ve travelled a lot. Been through a lot of airports, a lot of long immigration lines, a lot of customs. I’ve learnt the way to do it is to sympathise with the officials, tell them it must be stressful, give a little banter – not too much, just a little – and make them feel a bit better about the long line of impatient people snaking on and on and on and just being added to all the time. (I wrote that as snake-ing, just in case you read “snacking”; I don’t think I’ve ever seen someone having a munch in a customs line, but I could be wrong – I’ll have a look out at the next transfer in Ethiopia).
I’ve never had a bad experience in an airport. Never. Even on my own through India, with a friend in Vietnam and Malaysia, even this first part of Africa; it’s been with ease and smiles, and often too-heavy baggage being passed through with a wink and a “continue on” hand gesture.
You might recall in a previous post I mentioned the ease at which I made my way through Kilimanjaro International Airport in an arrivals situation. Got off the plane, hand sanitiser outstretched and offered to me, a check of my vaccination form, a stamp of my passport, a cursory scan of my bags and on my way.
I was extremely naive in thinking departures would be much the same. This was the first time in my travelling life that I actually felt scared, flustered and a little bit unsafe. (Didn’t help I was extremely overtired after a mere four hours of sleep).
As with most countries as this, immediately when you enter the airport your bags are scanned. There was a long line out the door when I got dropped off by my driver (hah, my “driver”) so I waited my turn and then was motioned to go to a shorter line if I wanted.
Why oh why did I do it.
As soon as I saw the man monitoring the screens I had a bad feeling. He yelled at me to take my shoes off as I was trying to unload my multiple heavy bags onto the conveyor belt, and as I stepped through he pulled my green North Face bag up onto a steel table and said, “This is yours?”
Earlier today I had packed very strategically (what else is new?) so the NF bag contained everything that I no longer needed this trip. All my hiking gear, washing (hey Mummy Dee Dub, I’m coming for you), presents I’ve collected along the way, elephant adoption forms and Kilimanjaro climb certificate. The Purple Monster (the Kathmandu pack) was filled with the required for Egypt and Jordan, meaning I had no need to go into the earlier again until home time. And of course, me being me, I had cable tied and padlocked everything up so it was ready to hit the baggage drop off.
“I need to see inside,” the man said. Obliging, I asked if he had scissors or anything sharp – I motioned to the cable tie and said I needed to cut it to get in (thanks above Papa Henio always give me heaps when I go away).
“Don’t have any,” he said, extremely unhelpful. “There’s a stone in your bag.”
Now, there wasn’t a stone in my bag. There was plenty of soap stone animals – elephants, lions, giraffes, such – and I told him so. He tried to tell me I wasn’t allowed them to which I replied I’d bought them in souvenir shops. (The little stone from the mountain was in my passport fanny pack so if questioned at all, I could hand it over straight away).
“Show me receipt,” he said.
A receipt? From all the very rudimentary souvenir shops I’d collected them from over the past fortnight? I almost laughed.
“I don’t have receipts,” I said. “If you get me scissors, I can show you.”
He steadfastly refused – there were no scissors. I found it pretty hard to believe that in an international airport no one had any tools that would slit open a pretty spindly cable tie, but I played along.
“Well, what do you want me to do then?” I asked. To which he replied, give him $10. “10, I let you through.”
I actually felt pretty disgusted. Up until now, I’d thought he was genuinely doing his job. But this man in a position of power had seen a blonde, white girl with a sunburnt face and a bag full of trinkets for her family and friends and decided he could hustle a note or two off her.
And I couldn’t do anything about it.
He let me go through and made me promise I’d come back with money when there were less people around, when he would “delete the imagery” of my bag.
So I lined up in the chaotic line of people trying to check in. It was very confusing; no signage, no one knowing where to go, and when I reached the front of my line I was told it was the Qatar one and I need to be in the next one along for Ethiopian Air.
I lined up again and suddenly I freaked out. I’d bought one of my friends a quite expensive elephant, and when the man at the counter at the store had given it to me he had inserted a pair of tusks. Now I know they weren’t real; I know they were plastic. A, because I asked, and B, because it was a really nice store with anti-poaching signs everywhere, but my panicked and overtired mind told me that the risks were made of ivory.
In my packing I had wrapped the elephant in a glove and then a beanie, then in a fabric bag inside a backpack inside the North Face, which was cable tied shut. I had this image in my mind of being caught with ivory elephant tusks in my bag and being transported to a Tanzanian prison, where I would be locked away as my family tried to bail me out from NZ. I was terrified. So I decided I needed to get rid of them.
I mentally scanned my mind of what I possibly had in my carry-on that I could use and my thoughts went to my tweezers (sky blue pair purchased for $16USD at Doha Airport and worth every cent). There were five people in front of me; could I do it in time? But the line was so slow I figured I should attempt.
The cable tie opened quickly and I had a frenzied rummage around. All the bits and pieces I had painstakingly packed were uprooted and chucked about as I searched for the elephant. I found it in its huddled home, wrenched out the tusks and shoved everything back in, zipped it all up and locked it again.
Now what to do with the tusks?
I was next in line so I put them in my pocket. The man was like the the intermediary before actually checking in, and asked for my passport and my ticket. Then he asked for my Egyptian visa (thank fuck I pre organised it). Then he asked how long I’d be in Cairo for. Then he asked for my onwards ticket. He had his phone out and seemed to be taking photos of every document I produced. He scanned through everything multiple times, then finally handed it back and told me to proceed.
The American girl behind me just handed over her passport, he nodded, and gestured her forward.
I was pissed. I was tired, a bit scared and all I wanted to do was book a ticket back to New Zealand. I’ve never, ever felt that way once in any of my trips on the account of other people.
The situation was rectified a little bit when the actual check in man was lovely. I walked up and said, “Sir, you have such a stressful job” and he laughed. He asked me about climbing Kilimanjaro and him and the baggage man smiled and laughed and it lit me up inside a bit. Bags went through no issue (please, please, please end up in Egypt with me) and then I turned to go back through all the people and dispose of my trolley.
I was feeling better. A lovely African lady monitoring the lines smiled and rolled her eyes at me when I did the same to her because of all the pushy people. A couple of other passengers muttered to me about how disorganised and confusing it all was, so I realised it wasn’t just me. Then I looked up and saw my mate with his palm outstretched awaiting his money.
Now I know it was only $10, not anything too steep. But it’s the principle of the thing. This man, in his position of authority, saw an opportunity to take advantage of a young, lone girl and make a bit of buck. I was seething at this guy as I slapped the money into his hand and brightly said, “Thank you very much sir.” He thanked me, said have a nice day and said he hoped I’d come back to Tanzania.
I was so angry and upset at the injustice of it that I wanted to cry. I so, so wanted to cry. But instead I smiled, shook his hand – oh so wanting to grasp his knuckles so it hurt – and said, “Oh, I will.”
I could just see the surprise in him. The absolute prick.
And I still had the fucking tusks in my pocket.
I have this thing where once a bit of anxiety is set off, I almost get a bit paranoid. So as I waited in I line to do my fingerprints, every time an offical walked by I thought they were coming for me. I was scared I’d be refused through again. I imagined them watching my every move on the cameras to see what I did with the little white pointy things in my pocket.
But I made banter with the man about being overworked and hoping he’d be going home to a nice hot dinner waiting; he gave me a smile and a bit of banter back. I sympathised with the boys on the last leg of bag scanning and made them laugh, and I smiled, smiled, smiled at every single person I passed.
A wheely bin at the other end was at the ready for me to drop the plastic – not ivory – tusks into. (Sorry Rene, your elephant has holes in its mouth where they should go).
I was through and I could finally breathe.
Now, does this sound all a bit over the top? A bit extreme a reaction for a paltry few dollars? Maybe so. But when you’re all alone, overtired, lots of men are leering at you and you’re sweaty and stressed and don’t feel safe, it’s scary. I go out of my way to try and always make people feel comfortable in all situations as much as I can, and this man did the complete opposite to get money out of me.
I don’t like people being unfair. I don’t like people taking advantage of others. I tried to make myself think like I did when I was a little girl and we got burgled; when we found out, I said to Mummy Deb that I hoped it was a man who couldn’t afford Christmas for his family and so he’d taken our stuff to give to his kids. I tried to hope in my heart that this man did that because he desperately needed money. Or maybe he was sick of seeing what he considered wealthy, white kids coming through in their trekking boots and taking selfies with lions, and it was his way of getting a piece of their life?
Or maybe he was just an arsehole. Any way about it, it doesn’t actually matter.
At first I was really gutted because it kind of coloured the end of my Tanzanian trip. But then I thought about it and I was probably due for something like this to occur. And rather than break down and get really openly upset about it, I kept it together and on the outside was strong. I’m really trying to not let other people and their negativity affect me – I’ve realised over recent months that I let people and their actions cut me quite deep, and I’m really working on not letting that be. There’s a difference from being aware of treating people right and their consequential actions not affecting you and then just not giving a fuck – I’m trying to do the former.
In another few months, the bad experiences disappear and all you remember is the good – I’ll forget about that man, but I won’t forget about lovely Margaret and her late night watermelon, Joshua and his genuine encouragement, my transfer driver and his joy at my face seeing all the sunflowers, all the women trying to shepherd all the unruly customers onto the flight and their beautiful faces that shone when I told them all individually they were doing an incredible job and I was so impressed it was all manned by women. (Womanned?).
I’m now on the plane and I’ve calmed down a lot. Any way around it, there’s always going to be people like that man in life that you encounter along the way – I’m fortunate that I’ve had very few thus far.
Keep your $10. I have memories bright like rainbows.
People will do what they do. And sometimes, you’re pretty powerless in how you can respond. But the most powerful thing you can do is smile – even if it is forced and completely fake – thank them, and walk away. And try not to let it affect you (as I said, I’m working on that bit). And that applies to a whole host of situations a lot more serious than the vented out above.
You be a good person. You do right. And you don’t take opportunities to hurt others to better yourself. Right will come to you, and your experiences will be a lot more sunshiney.
(Just flew through the sky in line with Uhuru Peak, where I stood about 36 hours ago. Now that was powerful).
(Fuck I did it again – took pics and was being all sentimental looking at the mountain, then as we flew beyond I went to go wees; as I was waiting at the “lavatories” a lovely African man pointed out the other side of the plane and said, “Look! That’s Kilimanjaro.” For. Fuck’s. Sake. How I laughed and laughed – once I ran back up and got my phone to take a very half-framed pic of the real Kili. Now that will be my keepsake last memory of Tanzania).
(Didn’t see anyone having a snack in Addis Ababa).
(Fuck! The $16USD Godsend tweezers were blunted in tusk evacuation and I know have a dire situation involving my chin).