Wednesday, 7 January 2009

Nice people behind desks

Anyone who’s had anything to do with officialdom knows how bloody annoying it is when the person who’s ‘dealing’ with you is unhelpful or badtempered. It’s not like you want to be there – inevitably, you have to: getting a passport or ID document, applying for a bond, booking a driver’s licence. Really, you do have better things to do.

So I was quite chuffed, on my recent travels, to find that everywhere I went, officialdom didn’t hassle me. All the passport control/security checks/customs posts were quick, well manned and efficient; even the Uber-hyper security guards in Dubai, who asked me to remove a bracelet that I’ve worn for about a gazillion years and which can’t come off any more, and which made their machine beep, just shrugged when I told them this, and moved swiftly along to the next person. (Fortunately, they didn’t find the bomb I’d hidden underneath it. JUST JOKING.)

But there were two officials who went above and beyond the call of duty.

One was an employee of a local bank, whose identity I can’t divulge because if I did she’d probably be fired. It was at Cape Town International, and I had an hour to go before boarding my flight to the UK, and I went to her to ask her to give me R6 000 of the money I had in my bank account (ie, my money). But I had forgotten that the stupid stupid stupid South African FICA laws are still being rigorously applied (really, guys, do you honestly think producing ‘proof of residential address’ is going to stop international money-laundering and the like??) so I hadn’t brought my latest utility bill with me.

‘Sorry,’ she said, ‘but without proof of residential address, I can’t help you.’

As she said this, a foreign arrival to our shores (British, as it happened) nipped up to the counter next to mine, handed over a bank card, and was given a small fortune in South African rands, no questions asked. (I could tell by looking at him that he had millions stashed in a Cayman Islands account, the product of a child-porn ring and a worldwide network of heroin dealers.)

My bank clerk and I watched this transaction in the kind of silence that can be very loud. Then she looked at me and said, ‘Give me your card,’ and disappeared into a back room.

Two minutes later she came back and slipped R6 000 in cash through the slot. ‘Never tell anyone I did this,’ she said.

(And that is why I love South African lawlessness. I just hope she never finds out that I used my R6 000 to buy all that guy’s heroin.)

The second time was at Heathrow, which is – and I’m sorry if I’m offending the British here – a zoo. It’s furiously badly organised, mind-bendingly ugly, sweatily overheated, annoyingly overcrowded, very badly signposted and a sheer disgrace to international travel. My friends Kevin and Michele queued with me in the Dubai (economy) line for really quite a long time before finally we reached the check-in counter.

The clerk asked me to put my luggage on the scale, which I did, and she said, ‘You’re 12kg overweight.’

‘Is that all?' I said. ‘After all that Christmas pud, I’d have said it was nearer 20.’

She smiled. Tiredly. I got the message.

‘Okay, no problem,’ I said, ‘I’ll pay. What’s the damages?’

She put her head on one side; her expression said, You poor sap, you really have no idea, do you? ‘Thirty-four pounds,’ she said.

I did a quick calculation: about R500, not what I’d choose to fork out as my farewell, but I’d manage. I reached for my wallet.

‘Per kilo,’ she said.

I don’t have much memory of what happened during the next few minutes but apparently I turned very pale and had to sit down.

‘Look,’ said the clerk, leaning over her counter and speaking down at me. ‘Your hand luggage seems light. Do you have space in that?’

As it happens, I did: since you’re not allowed anything liquid, aerosol or gel on the plane (they call this LAGs, you’ve gotta love it), my trusty old satchel was practically empty – I only had it with me because moving swiftly from subzero temperatures to midsummer heat means that eventually you’re going to end up with a coat and a scarf and a hat and gloves to carry, and I didn’t want to, so I’d left a big gap in my backpack for them.

‘Repack,’ hissed the clerk. ‘Put everything heavy into your hand luggage.’

Quickly, Michele, Kevin and I retreated in order to do this and I removed 12kg of books from my suitcase into my backpack (well, I had been to Waterstone’s, okay?).

That done, the same check-in clerk waved us back (we didn’t have to queue again, yay!) and cleared my lighter luggage through to Cape Town. Me, with 12kg of hand baggage, she booked onto the plane.

This kindly (and amazingly cost-saving) measure raised a question: why should 12kg extra in the passenger compartment rather than the hold make a difference? (I really would like to know the answer to this question, if anyone has it.)

And it did have a rather sweaty spin-off – our plane left Heathrow late, so we landed in Dubai late, and I had to dash through Dubai airport to make my Cape Town connection, with a bounty of books bouncing about on my back – a six-minute, 12kg, R6 500 sprint.

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1 comment:

tonypark said...

Yes, it's nice when it goes right, isn't it?

We were boarding a plane recently and the man weighing our bags prior to check in stopped us and said:

"I can't believe it."

"What?" I replied warily, sensing danger.

"You're the first people I've seen today who are actually UNDERweight!"