Just another day at the airport

If you’ve never experienced the joy of trying to depart from an airport in the developing world, it goes a little something like this:

The process:

1)   Leave for airport. Two hours early for a flight? Not a chance. The ‘protocol’ team insists you leave 5+ hours early to get to the airport. While it does make some sense given the nutty traffic (that’s another whole story), it is still excessive. You finally track down the driver, negotiate it to a more reasonable 3 ½ hours, and arrive well over 2 hours before your flight is set to depart.

2)   Pay exit tax. It seems straightforward, but there is an unwritten hierarchy (read: who pays the biggest bribe) that makes your place at the front of the line irrelevant. Since you’re not planning on bribing anyone today, ‘handlers’ push in with stacks of passports from either side, pushing yours to the bottom. When the man (or woman? You can’t see their face behind the mirrored glass they stand behind) finally asks you a question, you can’t see or hear them given they are trying to talk to you through a tiny slot just big enough for your passport to slide through. Pay money, leave.

3)   Baggage screening. You walk past a (broken) x-ray machine to a table where a man opens your bag, dislodges everything you’ve neatly packed, checks out your bras, and closes it again. There is no indication of precisely what they are looking for,  but they make a mark in chalk to show that the bag has been searched (which is, I’m convinced, some kind of code to tell others whether there is anything worthwhile in the bag to steal).

4)   Passport check #1. You wander, slightly lost, to find the right place in the cordoned off area around the check-in counters to enter the maze. When you finally find the right place to enter, the man there checks your passport picture to make sure it is you, and sends you through the maze of aisles to the counter.

5)   Check-in (and passport check #2). The man at the counter greets you, takes your passport, checks your name off a list, hand writes a boarding pass, and sends you…somewhere over there for baggage (very unclear).

6)   Baggage check-in (or so you think, and passport check #3). You walk about 3 feet to a table, hand over your passport and boarding pass, and are waved on to somewhere else (again totally unclear).

7)   Baggage screening #2 (and passport check #4). After walking another 2 feet you see a table, where someone who does not look at all like they are working finally makes eye-contact, but only after you stare at him for several minutes and asking multiple times where you need to go. He checks your passport again and makes you open up your bag again to rummage through it…you’re only  about 15 feet from the first baggage screening, and there is nothing in the whole airport you could possibly buy to shove into your luggage. Satisfied (with what?) he sends you forward another 4 feet to the gatekeeper of the baggage check-in.

8)   Baggage check-in?? (and passport check #5). The VERY unenthusiastic woman at the front of the line checks your passport (of course), takes note of your name and makes the obligatory Jennifer Lopez comment (she is apparently the most well-known Jennifer in the world, according to my research), and you wait. Finally she points to a counter with a grunt. You move forward 3 feet.

9)   Finally the baggage check-in (and passport check #6). You wait (impatiently) for someone to acknowledge that you are waiting in their line. There are literally 12 people behind the counter, some looking very busy and others ‘advising’. No one will make eye contact with you. The man in front of you has about 5 very large bags to check. One of the ‘advisors’ tells you to put your passport on the counter, but the woman working there indicates (through mumbles and gestures) that she’s too busy and you should take it back and wait. You do (remember, you’re still 2+ hours early and only have to cover about 20 more feet before the gate, so there is no rush). Finally a baggage guy stops flirting with the woman at the counter next to you, realizes you’ve been waiting awhile, and beckons you to come over there. You do. The woman behind the counter is annoyed. The counter you just left suddenly frees up and three more people rush up. You wait again. Finally the team of women check your passport, your hand-writen boarding pass, check your name off another list, and print you a proper boarding pass. (Just to paint the picture, this set of counters is DIRECTLY adjacent to the first set of counters where they hand wrote the boarding pass in the first place). Your bag gets its tag and is taken away on the conveyor belt.

10)  Getting out (and passport check #7). Now you have to find out where to exit the 15 foot-wide cordoned-off area. You walk around, can’t seem to figure out how to get out other than crawling under. Finally someone stops you to check your passport again and stamp it. They graciously allow you to leave.

11)  Health check. I am reminded that I  have to show the very tired, cranky looking people in booths next to the security check my yellow-fever vaccination card. They are not excited to have to work. They glare at me as I ask them if anyone wants to see it, look at the front page (which has only my name on it) and jam it back into my hands.

12)  Immigration (and passport check #8). There are four booths with passport officials sitting in there, two with signs that read that they are only for protocol passengers (VIPs). No one is waiting at those, but there is a line at the other two. You wait (having been shooed back to line after trying  to approach the woman – shame on you for interrupting her nap). When you finally get beckoned to the booth, the most important question the officer can ask you is what your address in the country you are leaving was. Does it really matter?? You’re trying to leave!

13)  Passport check #9. You stand in a (sort of) line waiting for the man at the front to look at your passport again. He takes it from you, looks at you, looks at the woman next to him, looks back at you, and says “ok”. Ok what? You think he might usher you through to the security screening, but it is so poorly designed that only one person at a time is allowed to go into the air-conditioned screening area. As you walk past the woman (who has done NOTHING) she asks you “what you are going to give me?”. Um, nothing.

14)  Hand luggage screening (and passport check #10). Your bags are pushed through the x-ray machine. No taking out your laptops here – the man isn’t even looking at the screen.  You walk through and it beeps. You look around but no one cares, so you just keep going. The man at the end takes your passport and examines it up and down, reading every piece of information carefully. He hands you the passport, holding on tightly to the end. Quickly before he too can ask you for a bribe, you thank him profusely and snatch it out of his hands.

15)  Phew, bathroom break. You make a quick dash to the bathroom, half expecting your passport to be checked again when you enter. You pile your bags against the door (no lock) and try not to touch anything. There is a woman in a reflective vest waiting for you when you leave the stall – a sure sign she thinks she is important. She rushes to the sink, turns on the tap, then waves her hands incessantly in front of the ineffective hand dryer showing you how to do it. You know what’s coming – the inevitable ‘what are you going to give me?’. You say nothing, and quickly exit.

16)  Boarding call? There are about 3 flights waiting to board at around the same time. They announce (if you can call it that) the first flight is boarding. You try and guess by the passengers who stand and rush the exit which flight it is. Everyone else seems to know. You deduce it’s not your flight but the one which leaves after yours. You sit down, only to get up again 5 minutes later as the rest of the passengers start towards the door – no one has announced anything, but you join the line. No passport or boarding card checks here, you just get on a bus hoping it’s going the right way.

17)  Baggage check and hand luggage screening #2. Wait, aren’t the bags already checked? All the bags are lined up on the tarmac – you have to identify yours for them to load it onto the baggage cart (and then hopefully onto the plane). You walk a few more feet and present your hand luggage for search again, and then yourself for a pat down.

18)   Finally on the plane…

Seriously. I’m sadly not exaggerating AT ALL – this is what I went through to get home this past week from a work assignment. And in an airport not much bigger than my house. Really, it isn’t much different from anywhere in the developing world- although perhaps this was a BIT more over the top than usual (I did hear a number of other passengers joking about the ridiculous number of times they’d been asked for their passport, so I wasn’t the only one laughing). As much as I hate airports worldwide, experiences like these definitely make me think more fondly of airports in the US and Europe – there is something to be said about the relative order of airports in nations that believe in queuing…

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2 thoughts on “Just another day at the airport

  1. Good one Jen!
    The other thing is that everybody is grumpy and the higher the level of authority, the grumpier the official!

    • Too true!

      It was pointed out to me by another reader that I should make sure to mention that this post is NOT set in South Africa…some of you who haven’t been here might not know just how modern the South African airports are to those in the rest of the continent. They’re a heck of a lot nicer than a lot of airports I’ve been to in the US, in fact. I wouldn’t want to stop anyone from coming to visit us here! (hint hint).

      -jenny

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