20 September 2017

Time to Go Home!

raTravel is part of what I do – not who I am, but sometimes that’s how it feels. Friends and family think jet setting round the globe is exotic and I must admit it is a privilege to be able to see the world at someone else’s expense. However after a while the shine wears off and it can easily become a chore. Airports are no fun anymore: the endless queues through security and the inevitable flight delays; spending hours sitting in an airport departure lounge can put years on you, especially when it is populated by tired children and parents with oversized bags and empty wallets.

My trip to Haiti had already been very eventful as I visited relief projects on behalf of UNHCR, but that is another story.

With my mission complete it was time to go home. Nine gruelling days in the bush had left me both physically tired and emotionally drained. All that remained was the overnight trip on a crowded bus from a remote village back to civilisation and the airport: fourteen hours sitting on a backless bench, surrounded by small people with large bags containing all their worldly possessions, including a variety of livestock. The sights, sounds and smells of that night are indelibly etched in my memory. It was a humbling exercise that brought new meaning to patience and gratitude, and strangely, left me with a feeling of accomplishment as if that was another task ticked off on my bucket list.

As the sun rose through the dense smog that lay like a shimmering silver blanket over Port-au-Prince, I was unaware that I had another important lesson to learn that I would never forget.

The sheer poverty and destitution that I had witnessed in those last few days had me all cried out. The anger and torment I felt inside over the injustice I had seen had consumed all my waking hours with rage, but now, after another sleepless night I had come to an end of myself: I felt nothing, thought nothing, saw nothing.

As I walked through those airport doors I went into automatic; familiarity kicked in; just when I thought I could go no further, the traveller took over and I knew I could make it.

I don’t remember much of the detail; all airports appear the same to me: the noise, the chaos, the crowds. I scanned the screens looking for my check-in gate and aimlessly wandered to the back of the appropriate queue and squatted on my case, which duly collapsed under my weight. Like me, it had started this journey full of hopes and wishes but was returning empty and deflated by the realities of a broken world. The needs of the people here were such that I could not have two shirts and see my brothers and sisters in Christ with none, so I had only the clothes I was wearing and in my pockets remained my tickets, my passport and a mango that my last three coins had bought me at the bus depot earlier.

The long line of would-be passengers was a welcome relief for me. No haggard faces, dejected eyes or begging hands, just fresh clothes, smiles and joyful laughter as we eased our way gently toward the desk. I paid little attention to what was happening, preferring instead to simply spectate, occasionally drifting off into a world of my own to slowly let my batteries recharge.

“Good morning!” the young lady at checkin greeted, awakening me to reality again.

I handed her my ticket with a diffident smile and returned her cheery greeting, relieved to be speaking English again.

“Passport please,” she said with a melodic creole ring to her voice.

This time my smile was more assured as my spirits lifted. I was going home, home to a real bed, home to a hot shower, home to clean clothes, and food, the origin of which I might recognise. OK, so I was actually going to America, which definitely was not home, but today it would suffice, today just about anywhere, outside of Haiti, would pass for home.

I reached over, tentatively showing her my open passport, and as she took it I found myself pausing before letting go. Years of travelling in less developed parts of the world had taught me that, ‘a fool and his passport are easily parted.’ That moment of anxiety reminded me I was not home yet, and her next words struck real fear into my weary frame.

“Departure tax, please,” she said without a care in the world.

“Sorry?” was my only reply, so unexpected was this request.

“We require twenty five US dollars and a thousand Gourdes from each passenger on departure, sir.”

I stood staring at her for what seemed an age as I waited for the stunning impact of her words to wear off. What was I to do?

I had no money and no way of getting any. Why had no-one mentioned this at any stage of my stay or in preparation for departure? How could I, a seasoned traveller, have missed something this vital, this fundamental? Where had I gone wrong?

Enough of the recriminations, what was I to do?

“I’m sorry, I don’t have any money on me right now,” I answered honestly.

“That’s fine sir, if you would like to visit our airline desk then I’m sure they will be able to help you rebook another flight later in the week.”

“But I have a connecting flight to catch to London later today,” I explained, for no one’s benefit other than my own, since no one else cared.

No cash, no departure! What had been the longest of nights was now morphing into the longest of days. As my mood sank into despair I prayed a Nehemiah style prayer – Dear Lord, what am I going to do now?

At that moment I felt a hand on my shoulder and turning round found myself face to face with what I can only describe as a gentle giant, for there behind me stood a portly grey haired gentlemen, perhaps in his early sixties, gazing at me with a beatific smile.

“May I be of some assistance?” he asked, in a slow American droll, as he laid a wad of local notes on the check-in desk, followed by two crisp, fresh, green backs, a twenty and a five.

I was speechless, which is not like me. I stood there agog, as I watched the girl count the cash and issue my boarding pass.

“Thank you so much,” I eventually mumbled.

“How can I pay you back?” I inquired.

“Oh don’t worry about that, son, just glad to help.”

“No, but I insist! I need to know your name and address so I can repay your kindness.”

“I guess we’ve held this queue up long enough, I’ll see you on the other side,” and with that he turned and walked back to his place in the queue not far behind me. I picked up my bag and headed through security and into the departure lounge.

I stood close to the doorway waiting for this guardian angel to enter so I could continue our discussion regarding my making restitution, and to express my sincere thanks for his amazing kindness toward me. I rehearsed over and over what to say and how I would act when I met him, eagerly inspecting each new passenger as they emerged.

“Flight AA 869 to Orlando is now ready for boarding. Will all passengers for this flight please come forward to gate B with their boarding cards and passports ready for inspection.”

Slowly we all filed onto the plane with me bringing up the rear, still looking over my shoulder in anticipation. How had I missed him? How could he have got past me? He must have boarded already. I’ll see him on the plane, won’t I? He must be here somewhere. After all, he said he’d see me on the other side!