Saturday, September 04, 2010

#1: A Day of Travel, An Evening at the BEY Airport during Iftar

I left Klaipeda on Wednesday, September 1st, and I don't think I will ever forget that morning.  When I awoke I realized that the day I never expected to arrive had, indeed arrived. I have come, gone, traveled, packed so often that I can easily do that without thinking, which is what I did.   Thinking too much about what I was leaving and what was really happening would have made it impossible to keep going.  Knowing that  new faculty, temporarily in the apartment below me, were planning to move in later that day, I tried to leave things in good order.  Nevertheless, there was still a long explanatory note at the entrance as I closed the door for the last time.  I had been truly happy there--definitely happier there than anywhere else I'd lived in Klaipeda.   The charming Old Town always seemed safe, the walk to the bus, the grocery store, the old market, church easy and my well-appointed apartment, one price for cable TV and 4+ news channels, a classical music channel, wireless and all utilities; life there was good.

My friend drove me to the airport at the ungodly hour of 5:10 am, arriving in Palanga at 5:43.  I knew I was in trouble and worried about it all night until check in.  I'd weighed my 1 large suitcase and knew there was no way I could escape paying overweight.  I only prayed for mercy.  The pleasant surprise was that, rather than 20 euros/kg. I was charged much less in litas.  Perhaps they were tired or took pity on me because I looked tired?  Not sure but I escaped a serious problem and took my too-heavy carry on and violin and handbag and satchel on board.  That too was a miracle these days.  By airports, my travels on Wednesday took me from Palanga, Lithuania, to Copenhagen to Athens to Cairo and finally to Beirut.  I did all that to arrive 5 hours earlier than the direct flight from Riga, Latvia.  I also was allowed more kgs. in luggage on SAS than Air Baltic.  Other than getting snagged in Athens at the Egypt Air desk and having to check my carry on (for free) the schedule worked perfectly.  I was not sorry to let them take my carry on after I retrieved my laptop.  It was too heavy.  They were right about that!

We were given a cold tray of snacks, juice, etc. on the final flight so that as soon as the sun went down observing Muslims could break the fast.  Sitting in my row with 2 Muslim men, I refrained from eating, putting the whole thing in the plastic sack provided for later.  As you'll see in the next post, that proved to be a smart thing for other reasons.  When we arrived, the sun was just going down which meant that every observing Muslim was on a mad dash for Iftar, the feast breaking the fast.  On the face of it, Ramadan sounds like a harsh sort of observance and, in the heat of the day, it is--not even any water for most people during the day.  On the other hand, the evening celebrations more than make up for any deprivations.  They also complicate, delay, and destroy any efficiency one might expect in services--here read, "Immigration."

I got into the line marked "All Passports" and, after waiting, being forced back by an Arab businessman, always more important than a white woman, I made it to the official's window.  Not unkindly, he saw my letter of invitation from the University and sent me over to the far end of the room to stand in another line.  Getting up to that window, the official said I should walk to the back of the room, a bank window, to pay for a stamp I needed.  In the meantime, a young man, looking at my letter, took it to another office. After being displaced in the bank line several times by several businessmen who either ignore or don't see women, I got to the front.  I explained I didn't have my letter but that I was sent to this line.  He asked where it was and I told him it had been taken and pointed to the young official running back and forth between one office and another.  Casually, without any special urgency, he left his window, went out his door and across to the office diagonally across from us, another long walk.  He walked back in a few minutes, got behind his window and  said, "$34.00 please" and I slid him my Visa Bank card.  He said, "We don't take cards."  I said, "Oh, OK.  Show me an ATM, Cash Machine so I can get some cash for you."  Had I known, I would have gotten money in dollars from a bank in Lithuania but no one in HR had said a thing about this.  The bank man said, "There is no ATM inside the terminal.  Go over to that office and tell them.  Maybe they'll let you out to get money!"  Visions of Tom Hanks ran through my mind only these visions weren't funny.  This is not the first time I've felt stateless but one of the first times it might have affected me seriously.  

I came to the office, explained my story.  Under no conditions could I leave the airport, of course!  I should take a seat and relax.  All this time I'm thinking, "Who is the university person who should pick me up?  Will they wait?  Can they help?"  Ahead of me were two Nigerian men.  The main  official guy said, "I'm going to call the university and get the number of the driver who has come to pick you up.  Then I'm going to call him and ask him to go to an upstairs office and pay the fee.  He'll call the bank and tell them it is paid and they'll issue you a stamp."  So, I was invited to sit down and wait.  I did.  When the 2 Nigerian men finished one of them turned to me and said, "You are a professor?  So am I.  I will pay for you."  He handed me $100.00  He said, "I'm a professor here for meetings from Abuja. I'm happy to help."  I accepted the bill and was explaining that I would get to the ATM outside the aiport to repay him before he left.  At that moment, the phone rang and the official said, "I have the number of the university representative.  I will call him now."  I handed the professor his money back hoping I had not lost my last chance to get out of the airport that night.  The official called the driver, as it turned out,  and he agreed to go pay the fee.  I was told to go back to the Bylos Bank.  I did.

When the Bank Man saw me again he said, please have a seat and I will call you when I hear from them upstairs that it has been paid.  I sat down to wait...again.  Some 5 minutes later I heard, "Professor!  Professor!" so I came back to the window, was handed a little postage-looking stamp and a receipt and told to go back to the second line I'd been in.  I did.  When I was the very next person and motioned forward, the young official--the running-around one--said, "No!  You need to be in that line."  The line was behind me at a side desk and not one I'd been in before so, why not?  I explained that I'd been told to come forward.  He insisted I should go back where he pointed, so I went.  In front of me were about 10 Asian women, probably domestics, being led through the process by an older, in-charge Asian woman.  After 20 minutes while the official went through each passport, each document of each woman, he called the young running-man back and told him in Arabic that I should not be there.  By now, there was no one left in the "Passport, with Visas" line to help me.  The young man said, "I will help you."  Why did I trust HIM?  "Please follow me" and he proceeded to walk out of the restricted area.  I hung back thinking, after all this time I'm just going to walk out of here?  He said, "No, come!"  So I did, violin case, satchel, purse, and travel documents around my neck. 

We came to another row of windows with only 2 people left in them, one munching something as quickly as she could.  The young running-guy said, "Sit here and wait.  Everyone is at the feast and I will try to find my friend to get the visa for you."  Really?  So, I did.  (Did anyone count?  That was 7 lines and one, the last one, un-line--waiting by myself.  Elapsed time:  1.30 hours so far.)  After a long time he said, "I have it.  You can go."  I said, "No, I can't.  I don't have my luggage and by now, have no idea where it is."  He said, "Follow me."  I did.  I was stunned to see my two pieces circling in the carousel still.  Amazing.  So, all the loudspeakers warning us to mind our luggage, etc., etc. ?  Sure. 

As soon as he saw that I had my luggage, he bolted, yelling after himself, "See?  All is well, Have a nice time!"  I managed to take it all out through the "Nothing-To-Declare" gate and saw the driver with his "Dr. Geri Henderson" sign.  We made it to the car and I climbed into the back seat to eat and see what I could in the dark, nearly 2-hour drive to faculty housing on campus.  (To be continued.)

No comments:

Post a Comment