I sat rigid, still and upright aboard a behemoth 747 United Airlines jetliner which had just landed at Sydney’s Kingsford Smith Airport. Awaiting a chance to flee the beast’s innards, I nonchalantly turned on my iPhone. Messages filtered through with fury, the phone rumbling like a city besieged by aftershocks.
“I think you took my passport mate,”one of the text messages read. “In fact, I know you did.”
Profusely sweating, I peeled my moistened carcass from the worn seat to gain access to my carry-on luggage, which rested securely in the overhead bin. Believing it was a blunder too bizarre to commit, I frantically reached into the navy blue Swiss Army bag for any clue to the missing passport’s whereabouts.
Two days beforehand – factoring in time zones – I awoke from a comatose state at the break of dawn, still having to pack for the prospective journey back to Brisbane, Australia. After six luxurious days in Montego Bay, Jamaica, where I saw my brother blissfully wed, a cruel collision with reality loomed. Fragile and hung over, I wondered how I would conquer the Mount Everest of journeys. Chucking clothes indiscriminately into my barren suitcase, I inadvertently – to his bemusement – disturbed my roommate. Steve Cavanagh stirred slowly, like a black bear rustled from hibernation.
“Enjoy your flights mate,”said a chuckling Cavanagh, his tone fraught with sarcasm. “I leave a day after you and get home before you.”
His sentiment reinforced my disenchantment. I was off to the airport to embark on an excruciatingly elongated voyage, encompassing pit stops in Charlotte, North Carolina and Los Angeles prior to the penultimate flight, a painstaking 14-hour transpacific journey to Sydney, Australia. Once in the Harbour City, a snappy one-hour flight to Brisbane remained.
Sleep deprived, I struggled to keep my eyes ajar as I arrived well before my first of four flights was scheduled to depart. Like a transient living it rough, I sprawled out on the cold tiled floor and slipped seamlessly out of consciousness. Sangster International Airport’s public address system interrupted my deep sleep.
“US Airways flight 1228 destined for Charlotte, North Carolina is delayed for one hour and 30 minutes. Sorry for the delay and any inconvenience it may cause.”
Oh well, I thought, reckoning I had ample time upon arriving in North Carolina to catch the Los Angeles connection. I floated back into dreamland. Wiping the rheum – eye gunk – from my sore, bloodshot eyes after spending hours in what seemed like an unending drug-induced coma, I boarded the jetliner. The flight landed in North Carolina “without incident,”two words travellers never outgrow. Tailwinds slashed 30 minutes off the commute, which I considered insignificant at the time. As the plane inched closer to the gate I overheard fellow passengers conversing, all of whom were concerned with their connecting flights.
We entered the terminal building like a herd of sheep. Droves of disconcerted travellers, all awaiting interrogation from a customs agent, stood in a winding queue you’d more likely see at Disneyland. Ambivalence soon morphed into uneasiness. Our feet shuffled forward inch by inch, as if bounded by shackles. Finally I understood the need for concern. Was one hour enough to navigate through customs? I had serious doubts.
“We cannot expedite the process in any way,”pronounced the stoic, robotic customs agent whom I pleaded with. “Other people are going to miss their connections as well.”
I was unable to move, unable to express my displeasure. The diagnosis was grim. Was I condemned to make camp in an airport full of unhappy, anxious, impolite, and even more worryingly, zombie-like people? Directly to my left – and about 20 minutes better off in line – stood four belligerent women. They jived, pranced about and spread their festive spirit like an airborne contagion. Visibly unkempt, they appeared to be on the last leg of an epic binge, further exasperating my antipathy. Whooping and hollering like a bunch of drunken teens, the unruly lot drew death stares from hundreds of onlookers too preoccupied to voice their discontent. I, too, had bigger fish to fry.
About to break free from the confines of this abhorrent airport, I flung myself towards the customs agent – whom I would have approached with caution under any other circumstance – with disregard. Like a tweaked drug addict I propelled my passport to the agent, whose conduct was akin to that of a prison guard, someone unlikely tolerant of petulance or disorder.
“Is something wrong?”Agent John probed in his North Carolinian drawn-out drawl.
With a constricted throat, tremulous voice and twitching eyes, my mannerisms accentuated the fact I was on the verge of full-blown panic. Having ascertained my poker face is among the world’s worst, John repeated his question, this time more derisively.
“Is something wrong?”he bellowed.
Haphazardly I explained the dilemma with which I was confronted. It was 4:22 p.m. and the flight to Los Angeles was scheduled to depart at 4:35 p.m., leaving 13 minutes to clear security and collect my bag before having to recheck it minutes later,.
“Well relax,”John replied. “You’ll never make that flight, so forget about it.”
His words struck a chord. I had to make the flight or jeopardize missing the Sydney connection. As the plane tickets were purchased from airlines independent of one another, a swift $1,500 would be forever lost. Knowing no good would come from panicking, I kept calm – even after hearing John speak of further delays due to a ”computer blip,” an event the man next in line failed to grasp. He was discernibly irate, shifting nervously back and forth like a pendulum perpetually swaying.
“I’m going to miss my flight,”the perturbed person pronounced.
“You’re not the only one,”I murmured.
After being starkly scolded by John, the individual decompressed, visibly concealing his fury. Attempt after attempt to jumpstart the flat-lining computer faltered, until John, with one last calculated touch, miraculously made the device respond. It was as if his index finger brought the system back from the dead, like a defibrillator reviving a cardiac-arrest patient. I snatched my passport from his unyielding grip and took off like a jetliner on speed. Nine measly minutes before US Airways Flight 1437 was set to vacate the gate.
Somebody must have removed my massive antiquated suitcase from the conveyor belt, as it stood upright awaiting collection. Without breaking stride, I rolled the 23-kilogram beast 20 metres on its ragged, weathered wheels to the next baggage drop. Clambering up a flight of stairs, I arrived at the security checkpoint. Yet another line blocked the path. Surely this was the final nail in the coffin. I begged one security agent to let me skip the line. Unsympathetic to my plight, she brushed the request aside. Her eyes were dark and cold, seemingly devoid of empathy. I scanned the terrain, looking for any alternative. Through a maze of people, I spotted a short, rotund security agent. Compassion personified, he immediately identified with my quandary.
“Come on then,”he blurted out, his level of urgency matching my own.
I stripped off my shoes and belt and made it through security with two minutes to spare. Barefoot, I sprinted like a lunatic who’d recently escaped from a nearby insane asylum. Where was Gate 30? It had to be close. And then I saw it. The gate was within reach. Forebodingly, the departure board above the gate had changed. A flight to Indianapolis, Indiana flashed in bright, crimson lights. A representative at the gate piped up.
“You have 30 seconds to board this flight or it is pulling away from the gate,”he said.
I couldn’t believe it. For once, the slow-moving, pedantic pace at which planes depart worked in my favour. Gasping for air, I boarded the jetliner and breathed a boisterous sigh of relief, one that could be heard over the roaring Rolls-Royce engines.
The plane, its wheels screeching on impact with the tarmac, touched down four hours and a bag of M&M’s later. Los Angeles International Airport – LAX for those unfamiliar with airport acronyms – is an airport whose temporary inhabitants resemble a horde of rats you’d find deep below the London Underground. It is overcrowded, overwhelming and offers no reprieve. It is reminiscent of most major hubs – a necessary evil you can’t wait to be rid of.
Waiting to collect my bag, I took solace in the last-on-first-off rule. My suitcase would surely appear from the abyss as one of the frontrunners, like a gold-medal hopeful rounding the final bend. A plethora of luggage, however, rounded the conveyor belt in quick succession with no coffin-like, grey Atlantic suitcase in sight. The waiting crowd dwindled as relieved travellers left with bags in hand. I stood solemnly waiting. The conveyor belt had stopped spewing bags. While I managed to catch the flight to LA with a last-ditch sprint, my laggard luggage was not afforded the same preferential fate. After a US Airways baggage claim attendant begrudgingly guaranteed my lost bag would be delivered a day after I arrived in Brisbane, I jumped aboard a bus transferring passengers from the domestic to international terminal.
I lost my balance and, as the bus streaked away, fortuitously landed ass first on a vacant seat. A noticeably distraught woman – in her mid-20s – sat across from me. Tears poured uncontrollably from her swollen eyes, like a bursting nimbus during an Indian monsoon. Maybe she had recently parted ways from her soul mate; maybe she missed her mom with whom she was profoundly connected; maybe, like me, she had endured a journey too taxing to ignore. I pondered further the reason for her distress in flight as the Boeing 747 ascended over the vast, luminous Los Angeles skyline. Other than my having to fight for every centimetre of real estate, the lengthy and uncomfortable flight glided smoothly over the Pacific Ocean.
“Welcome to Sydney,”said the energetic flight attendant, unaffected by the 14-hour, 12,000-kilometre voyage. I had come – barring a few unavoidable incidents – through the ordeal intact. How quickly circumstances can change.
Phone incessantly abuzz, I dug through my carry-on bag and retrieved what I thought to be a package containing travel insurance. I ripped open the Velcro strap and found a Canadian passport belonging to Cavanagh staring me in the face. Reality, like Sydney’s serene, sundrenched day, had dawned. I had inadvertently nabbed his passport.
Numerous attempts to contact the 30-year-old restaurant manager failed. My world, now defined by a medley of emotions – embarrassment, horror, anger and shock – was in disarray. That paled in comparison to what my friend of 15 years had to endure. Cavanaugh, prohibited from boarding his flight to Calgary, was stranded in Jamaica. Running around incognito – as his checkout date had since expired – Cavanagh lived like a stowaway, making camp at the Iberostar Rose Hall Beach Resort with my cousin, aunt and uncle.
“I had to wear a disguise,”said Cavanagh during our first telephone conversation after he’d been prohibited from leaving the Caribbean island. He had avoided hotel staff for days by sneaking around the resort on tiptoes like a cat burglar. “I felt like a criminal on the run.”
At least he saw the humour in the comedy of my egregious error. Six days later – and after many meetings at the Canadian Embassy in Montego Bay – Cavanagh was issued emergency travel documents and permitted to board a flight back to the Great White North. A manager at the Vintage Steakhouse in Calgary, Cavanagh was unable to fulfill innumerable duties while stranded in the land of rum and reggae. Sounding like a chapter from a fiction novel, his truthful version of events fell on deaf ears.
“My general manager sacked me, mate,”he yelled down the phone. “They didn’t believe me. I’ve lost my job.”
I suppose the tale does sound farfetched. It was almost as difficult a sell as sand to a nomad of the Sahara, and Cavanagh was forced to provide indisputable proof of his recent predicament. Upon doing so, he was rightfully reinstated to his former position. Minus the sunk cost of a replacement flight, he emerged from the monumental debacle relatively unscathed, with a prolonged Caribbean holiday, a rosy-red face and yet another tale to tell.
I arrived in Brisbane a broken man, but I took consolation in the fact that I was 12,500 kilometres from anyone who knew the details of my bamboozling blunder. Time away and space apart, I hope, has an effect akin to the mind erasers’ flashing red light in the blockbuster hit Men in Black.
Now, if it’s not too much to ask, please stare into the flashing red light.