Friday, June 20, 2014

A tale about an airport angel

I didn’t realize how great the differences are between flying in the constricted confines of economy class versus travelling in front of the curtain—not until my trip to Africa several years ago. One portion of the flight was extraordinary not only for the superior level of service, attention, and space but also for how I came to sit in seat 1C.

It happened in the most unlikely of airports--in Zimbabwe,Africa.

Rainbow over Victoria Falls in Zambia
My husband Larry and I had spent two weeks on photo safaris in Tanzania and Kenya before heading south to see fabled Victoria Falls. After spending three days in the south central country of Zambia soaking up the misty ambience, we crossed the border to view Victoria Falls from the Zimbabwe side.

When it was time to leave, we were concerned because we had heard horror stories about traveling in less-developed Zimbabwe. So we were wary about flying to Cape Town from the small, chaotic airport.

We queued up for check-in along with hundreds of other travelers, barely moving even though an employee shepherded everyone, especially the gray heads,  into the proper lines. Just as we resigned ourselves to standing there for a long time, a small, wiry man walked towards us.

“Come with me,” the man said, nodding our way. Like obedient sheep (having been herded so much already, it seemed natural to follow), we left the line and wandered in his direction.
A narrow gorge showcases different views of
Victoria Falls on the Zimbabwe side
“Stay here,” he said authoritatively as he whisked our luggage behind a counter. We didn’t have boarding passes yet and weren’t officially checked in for the flight, so it didn’t appear that our bags could be tagged for our destination. But they were now out of sight.

“Your bags have been weighed,” the man reported in a crisp manner that suggested he was no stranger to this procedure. “May I see your tickets and passports?” It really wasn’t a question; he expected us to hand them over. We did.

Then he hurried away. And got lost in the crowd.

Then I was worried. Our tickets and passports were in the hands of a nameless Zimbabwean airport vagabond. Where did he go? Why did he need our documentation? Was he selling our way out of the country on the black market? Would we ever see him again?

I scoured the crowded terminal, but looking for the slightly built figure who now controlled our travel plans was like looking for the proverbial needle in a haystack.

We could do nothing but wait.

Afraid that we had lost our place in line and would need to start all over again, our concern increased. I fidgeted; Larry paced. I sighed; Larry grimaced.

Red sunset on the Zambia River
Finally, emerging from a wall of bodies, our airport acquaintance strode across the terminal, a smug smile on his face. He handed over all the documents we feared were lost.

“You’ve been upgraded to business class,” he announced, obviously pleased that he’d manipulated the system to his advantage.

“What do you mean?” I stammered, too surprised to process his announcement.

“You’re in business class,” he repeated. “First row. You’re all ready to go. Proceed to immigration.”

Caught off guard, Larry fumbled in his pocket for a tip but only came up with a dollar, a pittance for the huge gift we had just received. And, I’m sure, hardly what our airport friend expected. Only after the fact did we realize that our airport angel probably was a hustler looking for a large tip from what he imagined to be wealthy, weary tourists. (Ha!)

Ironically, our best tip for him was just because travelers look frazzled--and have gray hair as Larry does--doesn’t mean they have a stash of ready cash.

That flight was the best leg of a long journey. Never before had I been offered a glass of wine before the plane backed away from the terminal, had a linen napkin spread across my tray table, or been served a gourmet three-course meal complete with soft, hot rolls. Never before had I been the very first person off an airplane after arriving at my destination.

I vowed that if the gods of flight put us in the path of another airport angel, I’ll be sure to thank him properly.

Photos by Beverly Burmeier





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