Tales of Terminal One

It happens every so often. Sometimes you take it in your stride and move on. Sometimes the stupidity gets you cranky. So you arrive at Rome's Fiumicino Airport. You've had the longest walk ever to get to baggage claim and reacquaint yourself with your possessions.

You are looking forward to the castle, nestled in the Umbrian hills, where you hope to be in residence for some weeks; churning out what you hope will be a novel.

Luggage in tow, you head for the exit of Terminal One. And just as you approach the door, a man smiles at you and gestures uncertainly, as if unsure what language to speak or what signs to use. You stop. He asks for your passport in English doused in Italian accent.

"Why? Who are you?" you ask him.

"I am policeman," he says, gesturing for you to step aside.

He is dressed in a white shirt and matching shorts. You ask to see his ID.

He reiterates that he is a policeman; as evidence, he points to the uniformed policemen nearby.

"Show me yours and I will show you mine," you insist.

He chuckles, shakes his head incredulously but reaches into his wallet for his ID card.

When you show him your passport, you see the excitement in his eyes as he sees it is green. He opens it and he says, "Nigeria!" like a child who has found candy in an uncle's pocket.

He motions to a colleague. The colleague is reluctant. But the short officer bellows that you are Nigerian in a disturbingly familiar way; the other one, taller and dressed like a movie character - silver chain gleaming around his neck, toothpick sticking out of his mouth - starts walking to you.

Your mind travels to another time, another place halfway across the world, the first time your passport drew such excitement.

You were leaving Colombia after a thoroughly enjoyable stay. The Colombian officers at Bogota's El Dorado Airport were smiling and waving travellers on as they stepped through the metal detector. They were sitting down unflappably, gisting, laughing among themselves, nodding and waving. But your appearance piqued their curiosity.

You were the only African you had seen at the airport and even though they have Afro-Colombians, evidence of a legacy of slave trade, you were clearly 'exotic'. People had stopped you in the streets of Barranquilla and Aracataca and Cartagena and asked to take photos with you because you didn't look like the typical black Colombian. The National Television did a special report on you and the Indian journalist you were travelling with at that moment. She had only flashed her passport at them and stepped through the detector without incidence.

But when you showed the young officer your passport, he bellowed, "Niheriah!"and vivaciously summoned his colleagues. They abandoned their half-finished jokes and their seats and surrounded you. All six of them.

Your travel companion was baffled. You only smiled.

They asked to see your hand luggage. They riffled through your files, looked for hidden pockets and bottoms on your back pack, removed the battery of your laptop, sniffed it and sniffed the laptop too for good measure. They asked if you had checked in any luggage and insisted on retrieving your case from the plane. After frisking you, they asked that you submit yourself to a full body scan.

You are somewhat amused by this humiliation but your friend is agitated. She confronts the team leader, a Briton of Indian descent. He was apparently an expert brought in to train Colombians on curtailing drug trafficking because the country wanted to clean up its reputation as the narcotics capital of the world. He explained to her that because you are Nigerian, you raised a red flag.

You let them lead you to a room where they asked you to step into a machine. You were scanned, with your arms raised above your head. They used the eyes of the machine to see all the way through to your underwear and beyond. You saw them hesitate, as if the machine might be at fault for not finding anything on you. So they ran the scan again. You smiled smugly because you knew they were just wasting their time.

When you stepped out of the machine, one of them asked you to take off your shoes. He sniffed it and looked for a false sole where you could have stashed some hard drugs. Reluctantly, he handed it back to you.

They told you that your luggage had been retrieved from the plane and you should confirm it is yours and be present while they search it. You worried slightly that they could, for whatever reason, have planted something in it.

Through winding corridors and back channels they led you to where your luggage was waiting on a table, like some defective animal waiting to be operated upon.

You confirmed it was yours. They slipped on their hand gloves and opened the bag. They flipped through your books and sniffed them. Did the same with your body cream and souvenirs you had bought. They riffled through your clothes and shook them out, hoping something would fall out from the folds.

Finally they looked at you, the excitement all gone from their eyes now. You never knew until then that it was possible to be a disappointment and be elated about it. You watched them put your things together and ask that the bag be loaded back on the plane.

They led you to a boarding gate and told you your Indian friend had boarded already. But the airline officials said you couldn't board because your name had been flagged by security. One of the officers had to come tell them what a letdown you had been for not being a criminal and therefore of no use to them.

You were about to go through when you saw your Indian friend. She was worried; you could see the relief on her face when she saw you. She had apparently staged a protest saying she wouldn't leave until they produced you. The British-Indian had warned her against such a stand, because you are Nigerian and she could never be sure what you were carrying.

As you flew to Paris, you refused to let that last-minute horror show ruin the wonderful memories you had of Colombia. So you put those memories in a special place where nothing could reach them.

Now you resent this short Italian policeman for stirring that sullied memory of El Dorado, you resent him for wanting to damage any memories of Italy you are going to have even before you step out of Fiumucino. And it is with this umbrage that you watch the policeman he had summoned saunter to you, more like a movie star than a cop.

"First time in Italy?" he asks, accent thick like a castle wall.

You say yes. Movie Star grins but when he flips through your passport, the grin dissipates. He looks at you, nodding. He searches for words in English and finally conveys to you that you seem to have travelled substantially.

Shorty was already prepping for his surgical scrutiny of your luggage. He pulls on his hand gloves and asks you to open the bag. You do, feeling sorry for him because you know he will be disappointed, that you will not help him justify his payslip, or his being stationed at the exit of Terminal One. That you will not be the vehicle of his exaltations.

"Any food in bag?" Shorty asks.

You say no.

Movie Star and Shorty riffle through your possessions as the world streams pass, without hindrance, pushing or pulling their luggage into the welcoming arms of Rome. Like the Colombians had done, the two policemen sniff your things. Then Bingo! They find the drugs you had wrapped in a plastic bag. New bout of excitement. They unwrap the bag and find two sachets of paracetamol. They put these back and look for non-existent false bottoms, shake out your shoes and folded clothes. But with every traveller that zips past, your irritation grows.

Movie Star now knows it is hopeless. You see this in his eyes. But he won't give up. He asks you what your business in Italy is. You explain the Civitella Ranieri Fellowship you have been invited for but language hinders comprehension. He demands your invitation, and you hand it to him, relieved it is in Italian. He reads.

"Ahhh! Scrittore!" he says with some reverence, nodding all the time, pointing at you. You nod, no longer amused. So now that he knows you are a writer, he picks up the books he has seen in your luggage and looks at them with renewed interest.

Shorty asks you to help put your things back in the bag. You turn your face the other way.

Movie Star asks if there is someone waiting to pick you up at the airport, and if this person is Nigerian. Not Nigerian? Italian? Is she from Civitella Ranieri? He wants to speak to her.

"Why?" you ask him.

He balks at your tone. "Just because," he says, "just because."

He asks you to go fetch the person. You tell him you won't, you are not moving without your passport. With gestures and nods he explains he just wants to speak to her.

You call Ilaria on the phone. She was expecting you at Terminal Three. She will be there right away, she says.

"Is this because I am Nigerian?" you say to Movie Star.

He says no, but of course you know it is. It was even stupid to have asked. You know how your people have travelled the world selling drugs, scams and carnal pleasures, which the Italians seem to enjoy very much. They are not exactly saints. Neither are the Americans, the Russians or the Japanese. If there is a nation of saints, you are yet to hear about it.

You demand the return of your passport. He wants to hold on to it.

"Are you arresting me?" You are about to blow a gasket, the other thing Nigerians are famous for - that peculiar art of strident ranting. It is something you hate doing, but it has its usefulness, back home and here when you are confronted by other strains of idiots.

"No, no, no." He gesticulates. Again language fails him. So he hands over the passport. You take your luggage and wait for Ilaria by the exit. He insists on waiting with you. So you ask him what the problem is yet again.

"No problem. No problem. You are a good boy," he makes a sweeping gesture at your documents and luggage.

This annoys you. Not that he called you a boy because you know you might even be older than him - you put this down to his struggles with English. But that your being good is not good enough for him. So you bombard him with questions. No, he is not detaining you. No, there is nothing wrong with your documents. No, he found nothing suspicious in your bags. Then he says you can go. You insist now that he waits for Ilaria.

"No, no, you can go."

You insist because you like watching him squirm, struggling to explain his illogic. You scan the crowd for her face. But when you turn back, he is gone.

"Sneaky bastard," you mutter.

And then Ilaria is in front of you, smiling. You recognise her from the photo.

When you arrive the castle and start unpacking, you find the parcel of Sallah meat your wife had packed for you. You sit down and take a bite, wondering how the policemen missed it. You eat, savouring the fried mutton, determined not to let any policeman ruin the joy of discovered meat and yet-to-be created memories for you. You are going to write your novel with the taste of home in your mouth. But first you are going to write about those policemen at Terminal One.

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By 9jatravel / Administrator, bbp_keymaster

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on Nov 30, 2015

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