There was this joke going around in eighties: What is the difference between a Boeing and an ex-Rhodesian? A Boeing stops whining once it gets to Jo’burg airport. This sad and sour little story came to mind recently after arriving at OR Tambo late at night from a day flight via Amsterdam.
The one thing I’ve realised after travelling to a few places in the past year is that things do go wrong at airports. We were stuck at the airport in El Calafate in Patagonia for 13 hours due to an airline strike. We sat in a plane on the tarmac for two hours in Buenos Aires because an electric storm stopped the plane from leaving. This led to us missing our connecting flight and having to stay over for a night in Brazil, eventually flying home via Luanda the next day. Yet another example: We were standing in line to drop our bags at Dublin airport just after Christmas when the conveyor belt moving the luggage along jolted to a stop. The queue got longer and longer, people looked at their watches with worried expressions, ground staff scurried about. Eventually the belt started moving again just shy of 30 minutes later, leading to mass hysteria and mini-stampedes among those who thought they might miss their flight. So, yes, things go wrong at airports and that’s part of the game. I suppose if you want to avoid that kind of aggravation, you should try to avoid airports all together.
But back to the whining at OR Tambo. So we wait in the queue to go through customs and a customs official tries to get things moving along quicker. He’s not very nice about it. “Move along, move along– don’t stop at the gate, queue at the cubicles,” he thunders. And now the whingeing starts. “Welcome to South Africa,” says the woman with the floral top and the bedazzled fitflops. “Just so,” adds the guy with the two-toned khaki shirt. “They couldn’t be friendlier. One would swear they don’t want us here,” he adds bitterly. “Dream on,” says floral top, giving a high five to her friend in front of her. Friend’s zebra-striped highlights quiver with moral indignation. Next they turn to us. “No wonder no one wants to invest in South Africa, if that’s how they treat us here.” I am stuck here. Should I disagree or act dumb? My stony-faced silence adds fuel to her fire. “And we’re paying their salaries, nogal. Wonder if they realise that!” Luckily the queue moves along. I am not your friend. Don’t think because we look alike, that we think alike.
Now it’s on to the carousel to collect our luggage. The flight from Amsterdam: Carousel number 7. A friendly guy comes along and says, sorry, the luggage will arrive at carousel number 8. “Just turn around,” he jokes. Now the whingeing starts again: “They can’t even get the basics right,” says the woman in the stylish Trenery’s travel ensemble. “Just hope that we get our stuff,” adds her husband with the snazzy red specs frames. Strangers suddenly become friends, sharing a common gripe. “My cousin’s cologne was stolen out of his suitcase,” says the young man with the soft shoulders and the milky goatee. He presses his panama hat firmly on his head. “That’s how it is, they just take what they want,” says red specs. “That’s how we do it here in South Africa,” sniggers his stylish wife.
For some reason no one notices that most of the officials greet you with a broad smile. They don’t seem to see that the queues are actually moving along, and that ground staff are ready to crack a little joke, even though it’s 12 at night and they must have had a long day. No one sees the joy of people coming home, meeting their loved ones. Will they appreciate the smooth flowing highway once they are on their way home in their luxury 4x4s? One would like to think that traveling gives you some perspective that what we have here is not all bad, but the whining at OR Tambo belies this fact.
As we start a new year, my wish for the country and its people is that we can see the good that’s around us and lighten up a bit. Think what it will be like if people arriving at OR Tambo feel joy, rather than aggravation, if they can smile at their fellow countrymen and know that what they have is so much more than they deserve.