The Tyranny of Airport Security

July 29th 2015

*BEEP-BE-BE-BEEP! BEEP-BE-BE-BEEP!*

I roll over and fumble to silence my unnecessarily obnoxious alarm. I peer at my phone’s tiny screen: 5am on Thursday morning. Blearily, I role out of bed and trip over piles of clothes to reach the washroom. After splashing my face I stumble back into my room – slightly more alert – and start haphazardly tossing the clothes into my backpack. I guess I’ll worry about outfits when I get there. Who packs the night before, am I right?

The reason for the early morning and the last minute packing is that today Jeremy, Shelby and I are finally going to Rwanda! My amazingly awesome, fun, cool friends Erica and William happen to live in Kigali, and they graciously invited us to come visit. So, at precisely 6am, we load our bags into the taxi waiting outside.

In Canada, a 6am ride to the airport would probably mean seeing a few other cars, and maybe some early morning joggers. But not in Kampala: in the 45 minute trip to the airport we drove through markets already bustling with people, while kids in uniform trekked to school on the dusty road. I guess now I know why it’s always too loud to sleep in!

After navigating the busy markets we arrive at the airport two and a half hours before our flight. We congratulate each other for being so on the ball. Heck, the security hasn’t even opened yet! Little did we know what we were in for. Here’s the breakdown of our airport adventure:

7am – Once the security opens, we stroll over to the check in counter. We’d been told that we had to apply for a visa three days before departure, so on Monday evening we dutifully filled out the online form (alright, mayyybe I did mine Tuesday morning. Always the procrastinator). Anyways soon after, we received an email asking for our letter of invitation, so we hastily messaged William and he whipped one up. I updated my application, and Wednesday night my visa was confirmed. Perfect. At that point Shelby and Jeremy hadn’t gotten their visas yet, but we figured it was no big deal and we could take care of it at the airport. But boy were we wrong.

Fun fact: Canadians are actually the only people who have to do the online application before going to Rwanda. We are the only ones who need a letter of invitation from someone within the country. Why? Because after the Rwandan genocide the Canadian government pissed off the wrong people by harboring some suspected perpetrators. Even though Rwanda no longer has DCO status, these potential perpetrators had their Rwandan citizenship revoked, and faced persecution if they returned. So, Canada took them under their wing. Much to the disgruntlement of the Rwandan government.

Of course we didn’t know any of this background when we showed up at the airport. All we knew was that the airport staff wouldn’t give Jeremy and Shelby their boarding passes until they saw their visas. Which they didn’t have. We tried to explain that they had applied three days beforehand, and even gave them the two tracking numbers. The airport staff took these, and went to make some calls to Rwandan immigration. They told us to wait…(famous last words).

7:30am – We’re told to keep waiting. Our flight doesn’t leave until 9:30am, so no rush. The airport has free wifi, so everything is fine.

8am – The airport staff ask for our letter of invitation, which they scan and send to Rwandan immigration. They say they’ll hear back soon. We’re feeling optimistic.

8:30am – The man who was helping us tells us his shift is over, but that he’s told his co-workers our story and they’re looking after it. He wishes us luck.

8:45am – The new staff member comes and asks us for Shelby and Jeremy’s tracking numbers. We explain that we’d already given it to the guy before. This gets us nowhere, so we give it to him again. We’re back to square one. The man asks to borrow one of our cell phones since his is out of phone money, and he makes a call. He hangs up, looks at us, and casually tells us that the visas won’t be processed until tomorrow so we’ll just have to fly out then.

I’m sorry, WHAT?

Obviously, at this point we’re trying to stay calm but we’re more than a little panicky. What does he mean we can’t fly out until tomorrow?! Our flight leaves in less than an hour!

We get the number the man had just called in order to speak to the Rwandan side directly. The man on the other end tells us there is nothing he can do, but he can give us the number of immigration. He hangs up. He hasn’t given us the number.

The airport staff tells us that our best bet is for me to get on the flight and to try to reason with immigration when I get to Kigali. “Great”, I think “I’ll just hop on a plane and leave Shelby and Jeremy behind. THAT makes sense”. Also, that’s a telling sign about Entebbe Airport if the best way to get something done is to go somewhere else…

Alternatively, we’re told to go to the RwandAir office and cancel our flights. We can rebook when they get their visas. Grudgingly, we head up there to do so, but we haven’t given up yet. We start calling everyone we think can help: Erica, William, the Canadian consulate, the guy with the immigration number. No answers.

9am – The Rwandan immigration number is texted to us. Jeremy calls – the woman on the other end doesn’t speak English. I call – I get far enough to learn that the lady on the other end is named Gertrude. She asks what I want to talk to her about.

Ok, so wrong number. Jeremy is pissed. I’m pissed at him for being pissed. Shelby quietly hands us chocolate. We try to breathe.

9:15am – Our flight leaves in 15 minutes. Erica calls me back. I tell her the story, explaining how for some reason it’s going to take a whole extra day to send an email, and in the meantime we’re stuck at the airport. She’s apologetic and confused (in the background I can hear W swearing). Erica tells us William will go to immigration and try to get the visas fast tracked.

9:36am – We cancel our flights. The man at the desk tells us it’ll cost us each USD 100 to rebook them. Our blood temperatures are rising – we don’t have that money to spare, but what can we do? We go back downstairs and wait for William to call.

10:09am
– William calls. Good news! He kicked up enough of a fuss to get the visa process sped up. They should be emailed within half an hour. Phew.( It isn’t until later that we find out that he accidentally – and then purposefully – told immigration that there were three kids stuck in the airport in Kampala trying to get on a flight. Whatever works right?)

When William hears about us having to pay a fee, he says he’ll head to the RwandAir office in Kigali to see what he can do. We wait for him to call.

10:48am – The visas arrive via email. No word from William, but the next flight to Kigali leaves at noon. We have to act fast if we want to get on it. We decide to go try to get on the next flight, and pray that William gets back to us before we have to pay.

10:51am – We ask the man at the RwandAir office if we can get on the next flight, and he responds by making two unrelated calls and sending three emails. Finally he looks up and tells us that the gates have already closed for the noon flight. He says they close at 11 – it’s 10:58.

At this point I’m mad. Through clenched teeth I tell him there must be something he can do. He looks at my red face, picks up the phone, says a few words, puts it back down. He says we can make it but we’ll have to run! No mention yet of the extra fees.

11:02am – We’re back at check in, showing the new woman there the visas on Jeremy’s computer. She sees that he doesn’t have the official copy, and instead only a screenshot that says ‘approved’. She tries to tell us it isn’t sufficient. She calls over the manager. Having witnessed our whole fiasco, the manager looks at the screenshot, looks at Jeremy’s shaking hands, and decides to let us through. We rush to the baggage drop area, where there’s a line.

11:16am – I have my ticket and my bag has gone through. A police officer cuts in front and gets his ticket. Jeremy and Shelby step up to get theirs. The system shuts down. Great.

The two staff casually sit back, calmly debating what to do. We tap our fingers – our flight leaves in 45 minutes. The next one won’t leave until 5pm. After what feels like hours, they each pull out manual boarding passes and start laboriously filling them out. The woman ‘helping’ Shelby asks her the same question four times.

11:25am – Tickets are done, bags are checked. William calls: he just talked to the manager on our end, who told him the ‘Morgan girl’ had just gone through. He apologized about the confusion, and said we wouldn’t have to pay a penny (or in this case a shilling).

11:39am – We’re through security. We’re at the gate. She’s taking our tickets. She’s motioning for us to board the plane. All seems to be in order. Do we dare congratulate each other or will that jinx it?

In some sort of airport shuffle, the lady who had been checking Shelby in is also collecting our boarding passes on the plane. No wonder she wasn’t in a rush! Given the lack of emphasis on time here, all the airport staff must have been bemused by the stressed, red faced mzungus who were kicking up all the fuss.
We’re on the plane. The pane is taking off. We did it!

8:30pm – We’re sipping cocktails at an art gallery overlooking the hills of Kigali and recounting the morning’s adventures to Erica and William’s friends. Everyone laughs, and we chalk it up to just another travel adventure. What a life!

In conclusion, here are the lessons I learned from our airport fiasco:
1) Don’t piss off the Rwandan government.
2) Show up five hours before your flight.
3) William is the best person to have in a pinch.
4) Don’t take no for an answer.
5) Always have chocolate handy.

Advertisements

Strange Encounters

June 10th 2015

As you may have already read on Jeremy’s blog, yesterday we went rafting at the source of the Nile! I have my own version of the events typed and ready to go, but I’ll wait to post it until I have the pictures to go with it.* For now though, I want to talk about a strange encounter that I had before we got in the rafts: an encounter with my former self.

Let me back up a bit. Yesterday I woke up at 6:30am in order to be ready for the rafting bus to pick us up at 7:10. When we boarded the bus, still rubbing the sleep from our eyes, we were struck by a funny sight: the bus was full of a dozen white girls. Jeremy and a few Ugandans were the only outliers, since everyone else was an average height, average weight, dirty blonde, sports bra-wearing, slightly sunburnt white girl, with her unwashed hair thrown into a messy bun. Essentially, they looked just like me and Shelby.

A few minutes after we’d plunked ourselves in our seats, we discovered that the girls not only looked like us, but the majority of them were 20-22 year old Canadians. Go figure. But even more coincidentally, they soon told us that they were in East Africa on an Operation Groundswell trip. Now those of you who know me well know that this is the same company that I traveled with to Peru the summer after my second year. And, even more coincidentally, I only chose Peru after the trip to East Africa I was meant to be on was cancelled due to a lack of enrollment. Crazy! What are the odds that I’d run into members of a trip that I was supposed to be on three years ago, with an organization that only has five staff and does two East Africa trips per year?! Not very high, I’ll tell you that much.

So for the purpose of this post, I’m going to say running into them was fate. Hearing them talk about their experience so far, I was transported back to my Operation Groundswell trip. Except in hindsight vision is 20/20, so I saw it in a completely different – and much less flattering – light.

It was the summer after my second year of university that I decided to go to Peru. At that point I’d taken one full year International Development Studies course and had decided that it would be my second major. I liked it because it dealt with global issues, with the purpose of creating positive change in the world. So when I decided to go to Peru it was because 1) I wanted to travel for an extended period, and 2) I wanted to get some real experience in the field of development to know firsthand what the challenges are. I knew a little bit about the pitfalls of voluntourism** so I was determined to do it right. Unfortunately, due to limited time – I had a job starting in June – I was unable to go on a more extended trip, which might have been the more ethical thing to do. I also chose to go with a group instead of going alone, which was good for the sake of my comfort, but maybe not as beneficial from a development perspective. Still, I was confident that I could find a way to still do some good.

When I found the Operation Groundswell website, I liked it for several reasons. Firstly, it was a small, Canadian-based organization started by students with the mindset that development trips shouldn’t break your bank account. They gave a detailed explanation of where my money would be going to, and they had a fundraising component which would go towards buying the materials and making a donation to all the projects we’d be working on. Secondly, all the organizations we would visit were created and run by locals, and our role would simply be providing manual labour. Thirdly, they made no big claims about changing the world – the idea was that we would be backpacking for our own personal gain, but we would be doing so as ethically and sustainably as possible.

Luckily for me, everyone on my trip was a development student. My trip leaders were also well versed in the issues with development – they made sure we read books like Eduardo Galeano’s Open Veins of Latin America before our departure, we took a week of intensive Spanish classes upon our arrival, our leaders had regular de-brief sessions with us during projects, and they were incredibly respectful and mindful of everyone we encountered. For the last few days of the trip we had a ‘disorientation’ session, and when I returned to Canada I took an experiential learning course to reflect on my experience (it was actually from a student in that class that I learned about this internship – funny how things work out).

In Peru I had no illusions about saving the world, but I was also fairly certain that because of my careful choices and my trip leaders’ diligence I hadn’t caused any harm, and had maybe even had some mutually beneficial encounters. But talking to the girls on the rafting trip yesterday, I was forced to once again look back at my experience with a critical eye. I still maintain that my time in Peru wasn’t necessarily BAD – I certainly gained a lot, and at the very least our donations went straight to the local organizations – but I know the practice of voluntourism isn’t something I’m proud to say I’ve participated in. Especially after hearing those girls say things like how they saw the “real Africa” because they visited a slum. Even a five minute conversation with them made me uncomfortable.

Now one reaction would be to sneer condescendingly at these twelve girls, disgusted by their ignorance to the glaring flaws of voluntourism. But then I realized that these flaws were only glaringly obvious to me and my fellow scholars, as students of International Development Studies. I’ve spent the last four years studying the ins and outs of development – learning about the problems with voluntourism and the detrimental mindset that the Global South needs “saving”. But when I was nineteen and signed up for Operation Groundswell, I wasn’t too far off from where they are now. True, I’ve never owned a piece of Lulu Lemon clothing in my life, or gotten an inaccurate tattoo of a world map on my feet, and I’ve never said something about getting to stay with “real Africans”. But I may have been similarly smug about seeing a different side of Peru because we spent some time with a family in the Patchecutek slum outside of Lima.

So am I somehow better than those twelve girls? No, most definitely not. More educated on development issues maybe, but not better. I think they probably think they’re doing really great work. They genuinely want to help. Little do they know that the well they built probably needed to be redone by locals after they left. Or that the mindset of “saving Africa” is robbing the agency from a whole continent of intelligent, creative people. But that’s not their fault – like any of us they’ve most likely grown up with the rhetoric that Africa needs saving, and that the problems on this continent somehow happened in a vacuum, instead of being created and perpetuated by people in the Global North.

Mohammed Ali once said, “service to others is the rent we pay for our life here on earth”. Those girls are simply trying to do service, but are maybe approaching it from the wrong angle. But on that note, what is the right angle? In her article entitled ‘The Problem with Little White Girls, Boys and Voluntourism’, Pippa Biddle explains how as a 19 year old she realized how silly it was that she had flown to a developing country to build a house – despite having no expertize in the field – when there were many highly trained carpenters and stonemasons in the village who could have done a much better job. Similarly, in Peru I struggled to strip bark from a log, and then watched a local Peruvian man do it in a fraction of a second. Pippa Biddle makes the point that often, the best way for the white, middle class development worker to do development is to not be there. In her case that meant working with a camp in the Dominican from behind the scenes. She says she would much rather have the children there look up to a local counselor who they look like and can relate to, rather than a foreigner who will leave in a matter of months. This is a hard pill to swallow for those of us who like to travel and be engaged on the ground, but this probably just shows the level of selfishness associated with development work – at least in my case.

Finally, the sense I get is that often people doing ‘good’ development work look down on those doing ‘bad’ voluntourism. This is true in many situations in life – people judge others for being ignorant, but then often don’t do anything to reach out to that person or meet them where they’re at. It’s not fair to those girls to judge them for their actions but then not give them the chance to learn more. If people had scorned me for having been a voluntourist I would never have learned about all its flaws, or what to do better. Not that anyone really knows how to do better. But I think a start would be counteracting the stereotypes that Africa needs saving, or that the West is somehow better than the rest. To watch some awesome clips from people who are already doing this, check out the links below:

http://endhumanitariandouchery.co.nf/

http://www.africafornorway.no/

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_8GZjZTZrWA

To conclude, I hope this post doesn’t sound too holier-than-thou. These are just my musings from yesterday’s encounter with twelve slightly exaggerated versions of my 19 year old self. I’m definitely much different than I was then, but I’m sure I still have many blindspots.
______________________________________________________
*The pictures were being sold for an outrageous price, so as poor but resourceful students we haggled with the camera guy and decided to split the diminished sum between the six of us in our boat – one girl took the pictures, so we’re waiting until she can find an internet café to send them to us.

**Voluntourism is the act of going overseas for a volunteer placement and to travel. Usually the placements are short term, sometimes over a March break or a Christmas holiday. Trips like Habitat for Humanity, Me to We, etc. are perfect examples. The issue with voluntourism is that such short term projects are likely to do more harm than good, since unqualified young tourists just swoop in, get an ‘authentic’ experience that makes them feel validated and then leave. It also might perpetuate the negative stereotypes that the visitors have about the country because they aren’t there long enough to understand the local dynamics. Although the trip members undoubtedly learn a lot, the communities rarely benefit. Furthermore, people pay ridiculous amounts of money for these trips, most of which goes to the organization that’s sending them and not to the people in the place they’re going. Very few of the organizations are actually locally based, which reeks a bit of neo-colonialism. I could go on, but you get the idea.