One of the blogs I follow like a labrador chasing a gross, partly chewed stick waiting for it to be thrown is Bearshapedsphere, written by an expat/traveler living in Santiago (go look and count how frequently you catch yourself giggling while reading many of the posts). One of her recent pieces, about misadventures at airport security reminded me of my own drama some while ago in the Durban airport, South Africa, when catching a flight back to Johannesburg – which seems a tale worth adding to the collection which has sprung up around Eileen’s original story. For those who have not yet heard it, let me preface it by blaming my brother for at least half of what happened. It is important, if for no other reason than sibling score-tallying, that his role in my misadventure be properly represented.
It started in the check-in queue, where he and I were obediently waiting our turn to say hi to the very cheerful airline lady and see my baggage tagged and sent through to the magical-somehow-gets-onto-the-aeroplane conveyor belt. I was reading the various warnings about gels, liquids and radioactive isotopes (of course) not being allowed on luggage since airport security had recently become more, well… secure. My brother (whose area of academic study is, I should now disclose, strategic studies. War-ology for the unenlightened) and I somehow began to ramble about all sorts of things which had changed post-9/11 at airports and in the world more generally. It was a stimulating academic discussion, ranging from the type of ammunition that air marshals typically carry when watching flights as undercover passengers, to something or other about rebels in the Niger Delta and much more besides. This went on for however long the queue took to reach the front, where I received my boarding pass, fed my pack to the conveyor belt and we proceeded to the security scan area.
Somewhere en route I heard calling behind me. Turning around, the very cheerful airline lady came running up to us. Well, me. And not really running, given the height of the shoes she was wearing. But I digress. There had, it seems, been some mix up with the tickets and she needed to check what seat I had been given. So I showed her my pass and the very cheerful airline lady thanked me very cheerfully and ran/pranced back to the counter. Outside the security check in, I said farewell to my brother, went through the scan and turned on my iPod as I sat and waited for the flight to board, lost to musical peace.
I really, in retrospect, should have paid more attention. When in airports now, I try to keep my ears open.
At this point, the smell of rat should really have been pervasive, but I was oblivious
The boarding gate opened and, on reaching the front of the queue, I handed my boarding pass to the equally-cheerful boarding gate lady who, upon looking at my ticket, asked me to please wait on one side, as there was a problem with it. At this point, the smell of rat should really have been pervasive, but I was oblivious, and watched the others board while waiting for my ‘ticket problem’ to be dealt with.
It did not take very long. A tap on the shoulder brought me face to face with airport security, who were not cheerful, or wearing anything which could inhibit any movement except, quite clearly, mine if I should choose to move unsanctioned. I declined to do so – being now aware that something was in deed afoot.
“Can you please come with me sir”
Which really seemed an odd way to phrase it in retrospect. I suspect that, “Um, no?” would not really have been proper etiquette. And so I came with them down increasingly isolated airport corridors until, around the next corner, I was put in a room with two members of the South African police – who seemed as cheerful as I am sure I must have appeared by that point. Except without my levels of barely contained panic. My mind was little more at this point than a montage of possible reasons for why on earth I might be here. Had someone put something in my bag? Liquids? Gels? Radioactive isotopes? I was pretty sure that the latter at least was not in anything I owned, and was trying to think up plausible reasons why anything else might have found its way onto my luggage.
“Are you Richard Stupart?”
I realised that I was probably now displaying a level of terrorist-appropriate general knowledge beyond what your typical evening flight passenger might
“We have had a report from one of your fellow passengers that you were engaged in a suspicious conversation while in the check in queue.”
A wave of relief. Thank god – there is nothing in my luggage. Then panic. Oh god – I am a terrorist instead?! The inspector asked me what, exactly I had been discussing in the queue and I told him everything I could remember. More out of panic, since once finished, I realised that I was probably now displaying a level of terrorist-appropriate general knowledge beyond what your typical evening flight passenger might.
“And your brother? Where is he? Is he on the flight?”
“No sir he is not,” Hell no. He is probably at home. And will find this terribly funny the moment I tell him. Swine.
“Why are you boarding this flight?”
“Because I would very much like to get home.” Said in a manner that tried to make clear the deep feeling of relief that home would provide at the moment. Hell, anywhere would be a great place to be right now. It was also the truth.
I could see the inspector giving me a look as if to try to decide whether letting me go would be a grave security risk, or save him looking stupid for detaining a random Joe for no particular reason.
“OK, you can go,” he said.
Boarding the plane, I was looking hard for a terrified glance from whoever had fingered me in the queue, as he became aware that his would-be terrorist had boarded the plane. But alas, I could not find one.
And yes, my brother found it all hysterical.