Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Whatever happened to the luggage?

For three days our luggage sat in Nairobi. We were assured by the harried woman at the Kenya Airways transfer desk that our luggage was going to Malawi as we flew to Tanzania. I took a breath to ask another question but knew it was futile. There are no assurances with luggage and when your luggage ventures into Africa the lack of assurance borders on the wish dream.

In Lilongwe on the second day without luggage sitting in the Kenya Airways office the extremely polite official came with a gleam in his eye. “We have discovered the problem, sir. The woman who told you she would see to your luggage, this woman she did not. So your luggage, it is in the airport waiting to come to Malawi.”

“Can we invite it come?” I asked. “Yes. Yes. We will do that.” And sure enough this invitation was accepted and our seven bags were sent to Lilongwe. Making our second trip out to the airport everyone was a bit cranky in the car. It’s about a forty minute drive out into the bush to reach the Kinsasha International Airport. There are maybe four or five arrivals a piece per day. You can tell it’s arrival time when all the taxi drivers stand near the door; you can tell it’s departure time when there are people standing at the counters to check bags.

We arrived in between these two windows so the airport had the feeling of a large coffee break. (I should be correct here: tea break). No one at Kenya Air knew what we were talking about so I just headed for the baggage area. Of course this was the first time someone stopped me when I walked back through customs. Verging on a bit of old-clothes-fatigue I bristled as I followed the police officer back to Kenya Airways where we were asked to wait for the baggage master.

The baggage master then took us right back to where we were only this time the police officer was gone. As we rounded the corner David let out a shout, “there they are!” And sure enough there were our seven bags all safe and accounted for. Yet, what David didn’t know was that the battle was only half won. Getting your bags is a minor victory as many visitors to Malawi have not so fortunate. So I didn’t challenge his glee. But I knew the second hurdle was before us: the customs agent.

Usually when I travel the customs agent is not a problem. The trinkets and souveniers I’ve bought in Israel or Turkey, Scotland or the Netherlands are of absolutely no interest to the customs agents at JFK. But when traveling to Malawi the tens of thousands of dollars of undeclared medical supplies and equipment . . . well it could very easily be of interest. There could be hefty duties; there could be hassles; there could be the dreaded “detainment.”

Seated beside our bags was this guardian of the nation. She was at her station so to speak, but she was not being very vigilant. In fact, she was on her cell phone and wouldn’t make eye contact. The baggage master went and retrieved the necessary documents for late luggage and after we signed it the customs agent could feel our stare. Still without looking up she waved us forward.

Now I should be happy that all the luggage arrived and that nothing was taken or confiscated or duty imposed, but I wasn’t. I had collared up. Always in the past my clergy collar had been the key to working our way through customs without any hassles. And here I was collared up and not even a glance. I hate to admit it but I wanted something for the effort.

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