Wednesday, January 16, 2008

First Worlds

Landing at O.R. Tambo airport after almost a month in the UK, my pleasure at seeing wide open skies and bright sunshine deepened as I was greeted – or not – by the passport control woman. She was very busy, deeply engaged with her colleague in an intense personal discussion which obviously took precedence over my more itinerant needs. Having spanned three continents in two days, I thought I deserved a little of her attention. She did not. After an eternity, she grudgingly attended to me. I was glad to see that people still have their priorities right in this country. Communication amongst peers is certainly of more importance than dealing with mere travellers. After all, you never know where they’ve been.

This interaction was soon followed by another airport staff member shouting out “Number Four!” every time I asked him on which carousel the Dubai flight’s luggage would arrive. There were two flights arriving from Dubai at the same time and when I tried to ask him if it was the SAA or Emirates flight, he just shouted, with extreme aggression for added comfort, “Number Four!” I was most pleased to see that he too was conserving energy for more important things: getting over his hangover for example would have been a good priority judging by his alcoholically tinged breath. I resigned myself to a long wait and threw off my incipient exhaustion to consider the contrasts between England and South Africa.

In London, airport staff were scattered all over Gatwick with only one aim in mind: to help you. For example, on our flight over, I was in extreme distress, dashing madly through the vast airport trying to find my connecting flight with only thirty minutes to spare due to two delays on previous flights. The Gatwick staff didn’t have a clue how to deal with the situation properly. They should have taken a lesson from their South African colleagues. Instead, they ushered me and my daughter to the front of security queues and passport checks, and guided us through the nail-biting minutes and even let us onto the connecting flight after that airline had shut its gates. And they were pleasant about it too. Why, you’d almost think it was their job to help air travellers. How misguided of them. They could have spent their working hours far more valuably chatting to their friends. After all, it was nearly Christmas and there was a lot to talk about.

Once in the heart of the British countryside, the differences continued. Staying with family in Northumberland the recycling processes which they tried to convey to me as a matter of national importance took on the hue of rocket science. This was serious stuff and mistakes would not be tolerated. Paper and all its derivatives went into the greeny-grey wheelie bin outside the back door. Plastics and all its derivatives went into the browny-black wheelie bin outside the same back door. Bottles and glass containers had to be drained and washed and then placed in cardboard carriers to be taken to the bottle bank down the road. Organic matter was destined for another wheelie bin whose colour my mind had simply blanked out by then.

I thought nostalgically of our much simpler and more effective method of recycling back home. We put our black bin bags out onto the grass verges outside our homes with the rubbish neatly arranged in well-mixed piles of organic, non-organic and who-gives-a-damnic. And then we wait for the poorest of the poor, those who might have benefited from a social security grant had our hard-pressed government not been engaged in buying national essentials such as armoured tanks for our own good, you understand. These impoverished human beings come on bicycle and on foot to sort through the debris of our lives and reclaim it as their own. It doesn’t take long before the fag ends of our lives are scattered all across the pavements. Rubbish even the destitute reject are then clinically picked over by hadedas and neghbourhood dogs. It’s a far less complicated method I think and it’s much more “circle of life.” And of course it’s much cheaper too.

And then there’s London: more people per square inch than there are ants in the Kruger Park. And all of them trying to get onto the tubes at the same time as me. Who designed this system, I want to know? What made them think of tunnelling underground so that a network of trains can ferry you to anyplace in the city within a matter of minutes? Where’s the fun in that?

In South Africa we cater for our national need for human interaction by having the good old taxi system. In this way, people have much more fun. The taxis challenge every road user and passenger to test their wits on daily journeys as they break the rules of the road and of civilization as we know it. This innovative method of keeping passengers and other road users entertained does have a fairly dangerous edge, but at least we appreciate the fact that we’re alive. None of that quiet complacency for us. After all, wasn’t it Dylan Thomas who said we should meet our end with a bang and not a whimper? Or was that the Minister of Transport? I forget.

Whatever or whoever, South Africa makes you relish every precious moment that you are still breathing. Ah, it’s good to be home.

First published in Sunday Independent, 24 February, 2008.

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