Thirty hours and three flights later, I’m back from Bali. It was 29 degrees when I left Denpasar Airport wearing what I’d worn for a month – baggies, t-shirt and slops. It was four degrees the morning I landed in Johannesburg. In between, I had spent 12 hours in Singapore’s Changi Airport, which was like being in a mall the size of a small hyper-elitist city – a city where it’s easier to find a diamond tiara than a beer.
Dozens of high-end shops, scattered among fern-fringed lakes filled with gold-plated koi bigger than bull sharks, were offering permanent buy-two-get-one-free specials. Since my bag was already full, I could only buy stuff that I could carry in my tummy. After walking for days, I came across an Irish pub in which no proper Irishman would ever set foot. I told the waitress, an Indian woman, that I was extremely interested in their three-for-the-price-of-two specials and ordered a Tiger draught. The menu said it was 19 Singapore wotsits. Idly, I googled the exchange rate. The lager I was quaffing with such cavalier disregard was costing me R180. I choked, beer spurting from my nose. I quickly put my head down, licked it off the table and called for the bill.
The waitress brought it over. I was being charged 38 wotsits, seemingly on the assumption that I was emotionally invested in the special. Apparently in Singapore a man’s word is his bond. Not in South Africa, mate. I told the waitress in no uncertain terms that all deals were off. She pointed at the bill and wobbled her head. Durban Indians don’t do that head wobbling thing, but I understand it can mean a lot of things. For me, it meant I had to get out of there as quickly as possible. You don’t get to be the third richest country in the world by allowing feral foreigners to renege on verbal agreements. Wobbling a lot more than my head, I left 20 wotsits on the table and fled.
You know how crazy people say that when you die your soul goes somewhere to be judged and then you’re sent off to heaven or hell? Airports are like that place. Nobody is inside an airport because they want to be there. You’re only there so you can be somewhere else. Free will ends where the travelator begins. Once you’ve shown your boarding pass to the human equivalent of Cerberus and passed through the gates of aviation hell, there’s only one way out. You bought the ticket, you take the ride. There’s very little difference between being trapped in purgatory and trapped in transit.
Crushed together in a confined space with restricted freedom of movement and knowing we will never see each other again, we descend to the level of ravening beasts. Common decency and social graces quickly fall away. Filthy hands are deployed to stuff toxic airport food into snarling mouths. The strong elbow the weak aside in stampedes for the toilet. The fat and the furious sprawl selfishly across seats. With every fresh opportunity for free wifi, happy loving couples set about ignoring one another with grim determination for hours at a time.
And beneath it all, bubbling like a terrible boil constantly threatening to break the surface, we are all aware that in a very short space of time we could be hanging upside down in our seat with seconds left to live. That’s why I always ask for an emergency exit. If I’m going to die, I want to be able to put my seat back and stretch my legs out.
Airports also do something truly dreadful to children. Upon realising that their parents are slack-jawed and speechless with indifference, the sugared-up urchins waste no time mutating into ungovernable savages. It’s Lord of the Flyers wherever you look.
There was one in particular I had my eye on. It was shrieking in that incomprehensible tongue only toddlers can understand and appeared to be under the impression that it could run through solid objects. The yammering gibberish was interspersed with yowling and yelping and nobody but me seemed to be on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Some poor bastard is going to be sitting next to that, I thought. Yep. I was that poor bastard. Well, it was across the aisle from me, but still close enough to put me at risk of cardiac arrest or a homicide charge.
The insufferable troglodyte wept and wailed for ten minutes before we had even taken off. Then I heard a woman behind me say, “For God’s sake, stick something in its mouth!” I mentioned drugs but the mother’s attention was already locked on to the interloper in 45C. A strange woman telling a mother what to do with her child? That’s a declaration of war. There was a sudden outbreak of “don’t push my buttons, lady” and “last time I checked, you didn’t own the plane” and “you’re messing with the wrong lady, lady”.
I imagined that very soon a fight would break out and everyone on the plane would kill each other. The only survivors would be me and the brat, and I’d have to adopt it. The mother grabbed the mewling whelp from its bumbling father and stuck a nipple in its mouth. In an instant, the enfant terrible passed out. I wouldn’t have minded a hit of that myself.
As it was I had nothing to drink. I hadn’t even been able to successfully sneak a bottle of water onto the plane. How the hell did the Guptas manage to smuggle R40-billion out of the country without anyone but the president, the intelligence services and half the cabinet knowing about it?
The staff I encountered at OR Tambo International were friendly and cheerful. “Welcome home, sir,” said the immigration official, stamping my passport with a big smile. “Go right through,” said the customs guy, giving me a slap on the back. Ha ha. Yeah, right. Toto, I have a feeling we’re not in Bali any more. I’m going to have to get used to being in the land of the surly and home of the sullen all over again.
On my 8am connecting flight to Durban, everyone was dressed for business meetings. I was dressed for the beach, hadn’t slept in 24 hours or shaved in two weeks. Nobody made eye contact with me. I asked for a Bloody Mary but was told that this was breakfast time. I pointed out that it was lunchtime in my brain – obviously referring to the fact that my brain was still running on Indonesian time – but she wasn’t to know this and simply thought there was something wrong with me. Which there is, but it’s not what she thinks it is.
Skimming the papers during the flight, I knew I was well and truly home when I read this, “Professor Zulu told the (Moerane) commission that if politicians, especially at councillor level, had to be qualified to take up their posts, murdering for positions would be greatly eliminated.”