O R Tambo Airport. I’m on my way to London and the airport is busy. The queues through security are long but everyone is friendly. Some of the time I’m not sure if the staff are chatting to passengers or their colleagues but it’s all very relaxed. Then another queue through Immigration. Long lines of people, some looking anxious, but the immigration staff are chilled. They thumb casually through passports, stamp, smile and often wish you a good trip.
The departure lounge is chaotic. It’s heaving with people and it’s very noisy. The duty free stores are busy and there is lots of talking and shouting in many African languages, English and an assortment of others. Some passengers, often quite obviously from the Northern Hemisphere, look slightly bemused. To add to the general sense of jollity, a Marimba Band is performing in the middle of the concourse. It’s also very bright down here; a rainbow of colour as African prints, saris, leopard print and safari outfits and Mandela-like shirts merge and mingle. In the Southern Hemisphere, Colour Rules.
The public address system is busy too. Announcements are made incessantly. Passengers are called by name, delaying this flight and that. Every announcement seems to be made by a different person with a different accent. They’re speaking English but it’s often quite difficult to tell.
The gate number goes up and I make my way there. It’s still chaotic. There’re hardly any seats and although we’re not yet boarding, optimistic passengers start to form lines. The ground staff appear at their stations but they’re not ready yet either and animated conversations ensue. I can’t understand the language they’re speaking except for the odd English word interspersed. There is much laughter. Everyone’s having a good time. I hear one of the ladies telling a passenger near the front of the queue that she’s been on duty for 9 hours and is looking forward to going home. ‘It’s been a long day’ she says,’but we must still smile.’ There are a lot of British passengers waiting to board this South African Airways flight and quite a few Europeans. They look on, wondering.
Eventually the flight is called and boarding starts. No boarding by seat rows here. The ladies checking the boarding passes are still chatting. They’re very friendly and wish each of us a good flight. It’s fairly quick and easy. You get on and fight your way down the aisle to your seat.
The cabin crew on international SAA flights are invariably charming and friendly and this flight is no exception. We’re greeted with smiles and enthusiasm and waved on down the aisles. We settle in.
Eleven and a half hours later we land in London. The plane is quiet and we disembark sedately. It’s a very long walk through Terminal 2 to Immigration and there’s a very long queue for Non-EU passport holders. The EU queue is long too but it moves quickly and the travellers disperse efficiently through the labyrinth that is Heathrow. The Non-EU queue is quiet. Subdued. Arriving in England with a foreign passport is a serious business. Nobody is smiling. Least of all the staff.
Some of the officials keep passengers for what seems like ages, asking question after question. Some unfortunate people are set aside in a sort of ‘holding area’ while other officials are called over. Eventually it’s my turn. The immigration man doesn’t look or sound English. He assesses me and studies my passport carefully. Points out that it expires in 6 months. I know that, I say. I have already applied for a new one. My visa is on page 19, I tell him. He checks it and stamps a page. A little reluctantly, I think, but perhaps I imagine that. I am allowed through.
There is no noise here and even the carousels are quiet. Most of the passengers on my flight had the ‘right’ passports and are already long-gone. I gather my bags, make my way out of the green channel and emerge on the other side and onto another planet.
For a disconcerting moment I wonder if I’ve walked onto the set of a sequel to that haunting movie ‘City of Angels’. Remember those scenes with black-clad angels etched against the Los Angeles skyline? The arrivals hall is hushed and every single person is in black. The cordon marking the ‘corridor’ for arriving passengers to make their way through is lined on either side by would-be Nicholas-Cage-men. They are, without exception, in black from top to toe and most are dark-haired. They wear long black coats, shorter black jackets or black puffer jackets and black scarves. They are all in black pants and shoes. They hold placards bearing the names of the people they are meeting. Welcome to Heaven. There is no shouting here. Definitely no Marimba Bands. And I’m glad I learned the rules a long time ago. I’m also mostly in black but even my dark blue jeans stand out; an inky smudge in a monochromatic landscape. Mentally, I change gear. There’s my driver. All in black. His English is almost unintelligible to me. He’s Turkish, I think. I remind myself to speak slowly and clearly. I’m in London. Many of the restaurant staff, shop assistants, Uber drivers and others with whom I will communicate, are not native English speakers.
We emerge into the icy outside and find the car. I’ve left the film set behind and the reality of London takes shape. The fog is lifting, revealing a glittering, bright blue sky. It’s freezing but beautiful and still, everyone is in black.
The return journey is the same just in reverse. Once again, there are more British and EU passengers on the flight than South Africans it seems. We fly through a glorious African sunrise and land half an hour early. The advantage of this is soon cancelled out when we find the arrivals/immigration hall in semi-darkness and crawling with hundreds of jaded, disconsolate people. International flights into South Africa are usually very long and most travellers are tired out. Ground staff are handing out landing cards. There are not enough pens. Do South Africans need the landing cards too? Yes. There is no electricity in this part of the airport building. It’s been off since 4am. The emergency lighting is responsible for the eerie glow. The South Africans are resigned. The foreigners are confused and some are noticeably stressed. Flights from other parts of the world have just landed too. There is a huge group from China. In the middle of the melee a chubby chap in uniform is repeatedly calling out ‘The Wireless is Dead!’. No-one is quite sure what to make of this. The Chinese tourists look more apprehensive than before. He seems to be trying to explain that the landing cards are necessary because all the computers are down. The airport doesn’t have generators for this sort of eventuality? Apparently not. ‘The Wireless is Dead!’ he bellows again. He’s very upbeat. He also asks us to fill in information for which there are no spaces on the landing cards. As usual, in the South African passport holders’ line, there are the predictable few with the predictable attitude. ‘Welcome Home’, they say. ‘Welcome to Africa’. It’s not helpful. I feel like standing on their toes.
Finally I reach a booth with my incomplete landing card. No problem. The friendly immigration guy scrawls the missing information across the top, stamps my passport, smiles, welcomes me home and waves me through. He is unfazed and having a happy day. Once again the luggage carousel is almost empty. Most of the passengers seem to be heading straight down to the Cape. I emerge into the blazing Highveld light, relieved that I’ve remembered to keep my sunglasses (unused for the past 2 weeks) close at hand. Another lesson learned. My husband has come to meet me, rock-steady and calm. I’m relieved. It’s an adjustment getting back. We set off home. After two weeks in London the driving is hair-raising. We dodge potholes, manoeuvre our way through busy intersections where working traffic lights are a distant memory and keep a wary eye out for wayward taxis. ‘This taxi stops anywhere, anytime’ says the bumper sticker. It might as well say ‘This taxi is a law unto itself.’ The sunlight is blinding and everything and everyone is ablaze with colour. I’m back in the Rainbow Nation and mentally, I change gears again – down, several times – and I remind myself again that there is a whole lot more separating this country from Britain than the distance between us.