Bribery and paranoia: My first brush with airport security
After a phenomenal few weeks I was coming to the end of the garden route (South Africa) and had no plan. Being the plucky modern man that I am I decided to consult my favourite internet search engine for some ideas. “The Pyramids of Giza and the Sphynx”, too far away, “Table mountain”, I’d just been there, “Victoria falls”, perfect. Before I had checked any of the logistics my mind was already made up. Half an hour or so of messing about, moving money, checking prices and so on and it was done, flights to Livingstone were booked, one way.
At the time I preferred an early morning flight, favouring the “stay up all night and pass out on the plane” approach (I used to get anxious on planes so the faster that I could get to sleep the better). Early morning flights are often the cheaper as well so everyone’s a winner!
Cut to the morning of the journey, I’d misjudged it, I woke up panicked and disorientated in a chair after an unintentional two hour sleep in a spitefully comfortable hot windowless room. “Oh crap, have I missed my flight?”. I hadn’t but time was short. I quickly bundled together my things and shot out of the door. I had intended to have a nice shower before I left but now my plans were out of the non-existent window. Thankfully the taxi driver that I had organised the previous evening had hung around for me and although sweaty, smelly and flustered things were back on track.
We arrived at the airport with just about enough time to spare. At this stage I was smelly, tired but ultimately relieved. The check in and security went well and soon enough I was sat on the plane for the first leg of the journey. I sat in my seat by the window and got settled, the middle seat to my right was empty as well so I was really nice and spread. “Ahh, time for a nice bit of sleep”. No such luck. Behind me there was a bit of commotion, “probably just a domestic” I thought. Soon after the ruckus a generous portion of a man grumbled his way into the aisle, brandishing the stub of his boarding pass, and started scanning back and forth open mouthed with confusion as he made his way down the plane. Of course he was coming my way, I could sense it, of all of the empty seats I knew that this guy was destined to be my own personal nuisancemonger. Sure enough, down he parked into the seat next to me. After a moment of stress trying to find comfort he became passive, oozing his clammy arms over the rests that pressed into his flanks on either side. The noise of him grazing throughout the flight wasn’t my issue, I remember this man so well because of the series of biological attacks that he released sporadically throughout the journey. Hot soupy farts so vivid and offensive to the pallet that I could see people flinching on impact at least six rows ahead of us and looking around accusingly at one another. It was barbaric, unforgettable and unforgivable.
I didn’t sleep on the first flight. I was tired, hungry and now in addition to my body odour I could also boast a smell of “eau de anus” infused into the fibres of my clothes thanks to my flatulent travel companion. Like a zombie (in look, smell and temperament) I waited in Johannesburg for the next leg of the journey.
The next flight was fine, everything was perfect barring one moment where a bit of turbulence made me drop a saucy bit of food right down my front and into my lap. I went to the bathroom and caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror. What a state. I did my best to have a little clean up in the sink but my efforts were futile, all I managed to achieve was a large unsightly water stain and additional moisture in my fringe (which was already starting to adhere itself to my forehead).
We landed, I was an absolute mess. I remembered that in my carry on luggage I had a bit of after sun lotion. “Maybe that will mask the scent, it smells a bit like plants surely that’s an upgrade from the effluvia that I’ve drawn together”. Whilst the plane taxied I rubbed the after sun into my face, neck, arms and legs. I know that for a fact someone else has me as the antagonist in the story of their journey, “and then he started rubbing himself with herby lotion, what was wrong with that guy?!” – whoever you are, I’m sorry.
Finally the journey was over, I stayed in my seat for a little bit so that everyone else could get off first (why rush at this point, two more minutes won’t kill you) I gathered my stuff together and stepped out of the plane. The sun was bright, hot and upsetting. “I can’t wait to get to my hostel, have a nice shower and then a well earned sleep” I thought as I made my way down the stairs and across the tarmac into the terminal. A long line formed at the doorway. We queued for a while, I remember the relief when I saw my bag on the luggage trolley heading to the terminal from the plane. fifteen minutes or so later the line reached a point where I was stood in the shade, “not long now”. I had built up a fresh sheen of sweat from the blazing sun and I remember feeling really unwieldy in my own body. I was swaying a bit and had a bit of an irregularity to my walk.
Soon it was just me left in the line, ahead of me the customs official was talking to a guy that looked a bit like a hybrid of a policeman and a military general. I took my passport out of my bag and approached. Things didn’t feel right. I looked the dude in the eye and tried to replicate the blank serial killer stare that I have on my documentation. “What is your name?” he said in a low voice. “Jack Tidball … ” there was a long pause. He didn’t look happy with my answer. “Jack Elliott Tidball … ” again he didn’t look convinced. A large gent’ loomed up to me, it was at this point that I knew I was in for some drama.
Moments later I was sat in a little brightly lit room. All that was inside was a wooden table, a couple of chairs and I could see that my bag had been bought into the corner of the room. On the wall opposite was an ominous looking cabinet, I didn’t even want to consider what was inside. It reminded me a bit of the interrogation room in The Matrix when Keanu Reeves gets the metal squid thing put into his bellybutton. I was suddenly hugely aware of my appearance, stumbling about, squinting from the light, dirty, greasy and I not only smelt like a refuse site but I had also helpfully covered myself in a lotion that smelt like a nondescript selection of potentially incriminating herbs, not an ideal situation.
All that was running through my mind at this point was “I’m going to get the rubber glove, I’m going to get the rubber glove … if I did get the rubber glove, would they even use a rubber glove? … that guy’s hands were massive … what’s inside the cabinet? … probably rubber gloves”. Just to clarify, when I say “get the rubber glove” I mean a full exploratory cavity procedure, every cavity, use your imagination*.
The door opened and the army general police guy entered. Without a word he went to the corner and purposefully unzipped a pocket of my bag. He reached in with a confidence as if it was his own and pulled out a red pouch. It was my first aid kit. Before traveling around Africa I had been advised to take a first aid kit that was a bit more comprehensive than a bit of antibacterial cream, plasters and some diarrhea pills. Part of the kit was a sterile set of needles “just in case you go to a hospital in the middle of nowhere and you don’t trust that the equipment is clean”.
“What is this?” he asked with calm authority, still standing.
“It’s my first aid kit, just in case I get ill, I bought most of it in Boots” I replied like a schoolboy bitch.
“Boots? What do you mean Boots?” his expression told me that he wasn’t as familiar with the UK high street pharmacy as I had hoped that he’d be.
“It’s a shop… and it sells first aid kits and stuff” (Don’t get the rubber glove, don’t get the rubber glove, don’t get the rubber glove).
He was quiet for what seemed like an eternity while he thought. Usually at this stage in the story I will try and be cool and blasé about what went down. I’ll say something like “and then I pulled some money out of my pocket and bribed the guy to let me go on my way”, imagine that! If I just pulled out money and tried to bribe him he’d just laugh, take the money, rubber glove me for fun, and then set about putting me in a Zambian jail. Instead it went a little something like this.
He finally sat in the chair that was across the table from me and spoke clearly and quietly. “If you give me some money then you can go, English money”.
“I’ve got US dollars” (People like US dollars, it makes them feel like they are in “the movies”).
He didn’t say anything at this point but I could see in his face that US dollars were right up his street. The question now was how much to go for, too little and he’d “laugh, rob, glove and jail” me, too much and I’m throwing money down the drain. Lucky for me all of the US notes look really similar and I had a mix of denominations and the bigger ones were really well hidden. Again my mind was racing “How much did the bottle of water that I bought in the queue cost? Is that what a local would pay for a bottle of water? Surely not. I’m going to give fifty bottles worth. Maybe I could make some kind of commotion and get the police involved to help me. Nah, this clearly happens all of the time because he seems very well rehearsed. $50 isn’t enough, go for $60 ish. You’ve got two twenties, two tens and some ones they’ll look like loads all fanned out on the table… I’m definitely getting gloved”.
He broke the silence. “Give me $50”
That was it. I’m sorry for the anti climax but that was it. I never found out what was in the cupboard (I think I was one of the lucky ones), after our chat he returned the first aid kit to my bag and helped me put it on my back as I slid a fifty dollar note neatly into his hand. I walked out, he had a quick word with the customs guy, stamped my passport and then I was on my smelly way; (I just want to add a disclaimer at this point. I’m sure this doesn’t happen all of the time but after my journey I think I was just hyper-susceptible to any scams. Maybe the whole thing was a legit procedure and I just had my thumb up my arse to it all – gloved of course) ready for the rest of my African adventure and what became one of the most beautiful experiences of my life, Victoria Falls.
Instead of giving you a step by step account, here are some pictures that I took at the falls. I can’t stress the beauty of this place enough, please go and experience it for yourself, no picture will ever do it justice.
Sunrise (Tilt your screen and it’ll look better).
“My name is Grave, like the ditch!”
Always time for a photo’ opportunity.
Right: Zambia. Left: Zimbabwe. The sound and power of the falls at this point is phenomenal.