Sunday, June 25, 2006

Travel and the chaos theory

Never was the chaos principle better demonstrated than in the crowded world of international travel. The butterfly flapped its wings in Adelaide on Friday morning when, most unusually, the airport was shrouded in thick fog. Planes were neither landing nor departing. My international connection was going down the drain quickly. But, it turns out, there were fogs in Sydney and Melbourne, too. Planes were circling airports waiting until they had to be diverted to safe havens. And the airport passengers waited and queued, asking questions, and they killed time, and gazed at the moods of the fog and the depressing departures screens. My plane was delayed for four hours, due to leave Adelaide half an hour after my international flight was due to leave Sydney.

A sense of utter helplessness. I sat and watched as, every now and then, a plane would roar in through a fog window and taxi to a gate - not my gate. My plane was not getting through. It had been diverted to Melbourne and had not yet left.
As the fog began to lift, the unflappable and helpful Qantas customer service staff found me a seat on an earlier flight. If, as they thought, the Sydney departures were delayed by two hours, I might yet make it. Little were they to know that, on landing in Sydney, our aircraft was going to have to wait on the tarmac for a queue of no less than 18 other planes to find a landing bay. Delayed flights were backed up badly. The delayed were being delayed by the delay.

I disembarked into another chaos in Sydney, to discover that my LA flight had, indeed, been delayed. By four hours! And, here was another, much bigger, airport in a state of swarming chaos. People were fretful and stressed. Again, the Qantas ground staff was besieged by travellers whose connections were in chaos. I queued for an hour to gain elucidation on my fate, chatting with a couple who had spent seven hours getting from Melbourne to Sydney and whose connection to Ho Chi Minh City was gone for ever. Angrily we watched the queue jumpers - particularly a group of Indian men who would not take no for an answer, would not join the queue and managed to occupy two of the four desk assistants for the entire hour. The desk staff was unfailingly polite - unlike the Indian men who were not only barking at the assistants but also shouting down their mobile phones at their travel agents, all the while, having one of their number deliver them coffees and cool drinks to keep them refreshed at their post. They refused to stand aside and wait, despite repeated requests from the desk staff. Our emotions in the queue were mixed. We resented these arrogant men very deeply yet felt a sense of superiority that we had the cultural grace to accept the given order of the crisis. We also wanted to go over and scream at them. But we just watched, realising that the Indian caste system was at the root of this phenomenon. These Brahmins believed that they had birthright to VIP treatment, they were born more important that the rest of us. We simply did not count. And we pondered the glaring irony that the higher incarnation was born to bad manners - like petulant, spoiled children.
It is not the first time I have observed this. Sadly.
The Hindu caste system is a terrible human con game.

When a new staff member started to work our tired queue, I was told that, somewhere, when my LA flight was in the air, Qantas staff would be sorting out new connections and we would be told at the baggage claim in LA. There was nothing else I could do. Just accept that I was in a vortex of chaos and had absolutely no control. That is the fate of the air passenger. It is a sphere in which one must let go.
The only game in town was time killing. Wandering around for exercise. Drinking coffee slowly. Gazing at the endless duty free arrays under their dazzling bright lights. Sydney International is graced by the civilized facility of a smokers' room - a very comfortable place within air-tight doors. Comfortable armchairs, a view of the tarmac, a television on CNN and, oddly, a departures screen which only seems to show the planes which have departed. Perhaps that is a wee punishment. Look, smokers, you missed your plane while you were having that ciggie.
Anyway, that smokers' room was my greatest comfort and pleasure as the hours rolled on. The four-hour delay was extended by another hour. No one seemed to know why. The waiting passengers were camped in aisles all the way to the departure lounge - which they were not permitted to enter. It was like an upmarket refugee camp - people sitting and lying on the floor, since there were no more seats.
Finally we boarded and I had the joy of my Frequent Flyer upgrade to Business - a sky bed. I blessed Qantas for this luxury and felt bad for the hundreds back in Cattle - which is where I usually suffer the trip. I loved my skybed. I loved the entertainment program. I loved the service and the food. I relished every detail. And I had a proper sleep for the first time in years and years of flying. It was a very good flight indeed.
And every ounce of its advantage was needed when we hit LA.
Almost every passenger was in the same boat as I - they had lost their ongoing connections.
And I, also, had lost my luggage.
The Qantas ground staff were there for us, handing out slips of paper with new bookings. As she handed me mine, the woman said "you have a long wait, but you have been upgraded to first to make up for it". I was charmed by the effort - and then devastated to discover that it was not true.
Why did they tell me that? Why?

So I had seven and a half glorious hours to kill in LA before the flight to Chicago whence I would take another plane to get to my destination of Boston. It would be an all-nighter.

The American Airlines Terminal, Terminal 4, is not the pride and joy of LAX. It is a bit down-at-heel. It has a bookshop and a couple of newsagents, a Burger King, two Starbucks, a tiny Chillis restaurant and a cyber bar along its concourse, as well as assorted departure lounges, of course. No smoking room. LA is very anti-smoking, so the few cowed and shameful addicts puff furtively out of doors amid the comings and goings of cars and buses. I am glad I decided to have a ciggie before I went inside - having to ask another smoker for a light, since all lighters and matches are confiscated these days.

When I hit the security queue, a large, uniformed black woman took an instant dislike to me, scrawled fiercly on my boarding pass and directed me down an empty cordon path to, as it turned out, the uber search section. There I had to take off my cardigan and shoes... They were in something of a hurry. The man grabbed my carry-on bag. "My computer is in there," I warned quickly before he could roll it through the scanner. "Take it out," he said. I did so.
And all my stuff vanished on the conveyer while I went through the body arch after which I was asked to stand on a mat and be patted down from top to toe - spread the arms, spread the legs etc. Then I stood at the conveyer and waited.
But my stuff did not appear. Instead, the conveyed was stopped and the other waiting people told to go to another line. And the guards started staring at me. How odd.
Then a policeman was called over. He stood and glared at me, a fierce rather frightening look. "What's the problem?" I asked. There was no answer. Suddenly no one was speaking to me. Instead, they were waving at some other policemen. Another one arrived. Then what seemed to be a senior one.
There was only one other person at the conveyer - an old lady with badly dyed yellow hair and a couple of fairly humble tote bags which had gone through the scan and were sitting at the end. They had asked this lady to wait a moment with her stuff. But I was the centre of attention. There was now a group of four policemen plus two security people, all glaring at me and occasionally speaking confidentially one to the other. No one would talk to me. I felt abject with fear and confusion. Uncharacteristically, I felt like crying. I was already caught in the traveller's limbo with my schedule in chaos. My luggage was lost. And now I was some sort of hated person with something terrible in my luggage. What on earth could it be. I racked my brains. My bags had already been scanned countless times. I was a careful, experienced traveller. I was a compulsive rule-follower who would never knowingly do anything wrong. So what had I done? What didn't they like? Why wouldn't they speak to me?
Then a young woman police officer arrived and told me to sit in a chair and wait. She asked to see my ID. It was in the luggage, I said. "Sit in that chair," she ordered. "Just wait."
So I sat, feeling frightened and perplexed. I was also offended. I found this official behaviour rather boorish. The basic courtesy of an explanation would not have been too hard.
The old lady was still hanging around, but they were ignoring her. She asked a couple of times if she could go, but they did not respond. So she just stood there by her two colourful little bags.
Finally, the policewoman asked me if I had said that there was a bomb in my bag.
Whaaat? I was dumbfounded. Of all the things.
"Certainly not," I replied. "The only thing I said was that I had a computer."
My head was spinning. "Computer" and "bomb" are not similar words. How could confusion arise?
Then she asked if I knew the old woman.
"No, she was just there. I am alone," I replied.
"So you didn't say anything about a bomb?" "No."
Attention turned to the old lady. "Yes", she said and started exlaining that some man, perhaps ahead of her in the queue, had some sort of tin of candy and she had joked by asking him if it was a bomb.
They proceeded to interrogate this woman, asking her name, place of birth etc etc etc.
My possessions were still firmly at a standstill inside the scanning machine. I was ignored again.
I asked if I may get my things yet.
"Just sit there," I was told. Then the woman police officer took the first sign of pity. "You are just the innocent bystander caught up in this," she said. Er, yes.
But still they would not return my things. They had not finished scanning them. They had to be swabbed and chemically tested. So I sat there, still feeling emotionally wrought and vulnerable. All they would get off their swabs was tobacco and boronia perfume. I had nothing to fear and I was not afraid. Until the security woman almost dropped my laptop. I flew from my seat to intercept the catastrophe. She was not impressed and tucked it casually and dangerously under her arm. I was now feeling insult added to injury. This was an appalling performance. I am all for high security - but there was an element of crassness here. They continued to be hostile towards me despite the fact that I had nothing to do with anything - and had remained polite to them throughout.
But, like a root canal job, the ordeal finally ended. I was free to go. With no apologies.
Despite the seven hours left to wait in the terminal, I did not attempt to go out for another cigarette. The idea of going anywhere near that security checkpoint again was too much.
I was just plain sad. Immigration and Customs had been welcoming. The groundstaff had been efficient and as helpful as they could. But these people need to learn to offer some slight grace to their hapless victims. If not a "sorry", then perhaps a smile.

So, I passed the hours by trying out the different departure lounges. I'd sit and read in whichever one was emptiest. When passengers started arriving, I would take a stroll and find another one, going into the ladies' room to freshen up, clean teeth, wash face, buying another (excellent) iced green tea from Starbucks...doing everything as slowly as I could. Knowing there was no food on the domestic flights, I had a leisurely burger and salad at Burger King. It replenished my zombie-like energy levels. And the time did its inexorable thing. It passed. And I was on my way, cattle class, to Chicago. I managed to doze for a couple of the four hours - and see a glorious dawn as we landed.

The two-hour wait in Chicago was nothing. I went out for a ciggie. Someone had left a lighter on the ashtray outside. I liked that. The airport was waking up, franchises opening, yawning people arriving for the red-eyes. I felt as if I lived there. As if there was no other world other than transit waiting in airports. And, as they go, Chicago airport is a good one.

At last, almost unbelievably, I was airborne again and on the last leg. That Boston was under low and evil rainclouds and the pilot had to do a very complex and delicate approach did not even faze me. I was just so happy that this was Boston - and there, at the end of the concourse, was my darling Bruce waving his precious New York Times. Aaaaah.

We reported my missing luggage and took off along the rainy motorway - to Burlington Mall where he made all things good by treating me to a luxury brunch at Legal Seafoods - Oysters Rockerfeller and Lobster Thermidor, no less.

At last the girl was smiling. Bigtime.

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