There’s a decided degree of distaste reserved for airports these days, mostly because we are required to subject ourselves to levels of violations of our person as we’re probed and prodded in the name of security.
We understand the need for this form of security and truly appreciate its implementation.
But we are also aware that the function permits for arbitrary search and seizure, the encroachment on one’s personal rights, gives the security person the final say on determining who is allowed to board and the opportunity to extend absurd gratuitous misery in their position of power.
Maybe we have come a long way from the days Guyana’s airport personnel would brazenly say what it would cost to continue the exit process and point to the spot on their podiums where they expected to see the USD before they could continue the clearance procedure,while walking off to ‘check on something”. Maybe we’re no longer living in the time when they would manufacture infractions to commit extortion.
But Guyana’s international Airport still has more than its fair share of traveler’s woes; replete with a check in check out staff that is mechanical, officious, impersonal and unwelcoming. The term rude has been deliberately excluded. No need to serve a cherry on top.
Upon arrival, the charm of disembarking to an actual tarmac and walking into the terminal is quickly arrested at the check in points where there is a bruising collision between the professional appearance of uniformed personnel and their gruff interrogation style demand for duration of stay and address, their impatient gesticulations in pointing out inadvertently omitted information on a form that seems too rigorous and complex for the straight forward responses that are required. And it doesn’t help when you disembark as quickly as you could to get ahead of the crowd when a person comes and stands in front of you with a party of thirteen, makes an aerial signal to the person in cubicle you are next in line for, and you are told to wait while the party of thirteen is processed expeditiously because of connections.
No,they were not diplomats nor the family of diplomats. They were Guyanese party from Florida, like me, visiting the country but unlike me, had an escort through customs.
I watched with fury as the escort gathered their passports with the customs declarations forms and handed them to the check-in clerk who started his hand/stamp action on each passport, not once looking up, not once cross-checking a name to a face, not once asking a question of this ‘VIP’ crew. Before he was finished, the escort called two of the men and pointed them in the direction of baggage claim. They strolled away form the check in process even before their passports were given to them. The ‘escort’ waited and was then handed the batch of documents for the party he had just escorted to the check point.
I had just witnessed ‘heightened’ security in the face of Guyana’s drug- hub woes fall flat on its face. I wondered who was running the shift and what authority that person has.
By the way, who is the stocky Afro Guyanese guy with the glasses, ostentatiously barking orders to nervous subordinates who seemed to feel that channeling his brusque manner is a mark of professional efficiency… shouting to visitors to come forward? Surely, he couldn’t be the shift supervisor for he had seen the party of thirteen move ahead me and head to the cubicle without queuing up; without following any semblance of safety procedures.
Surely he couldn’t be a straw boss.
I approached the cubicle and the clerk who was all hands and stamp and no voice with ‘the party of thirteen’ donned his official cap. He asked me who I was, why I was there and when I was leaving. I chuckled inside. Now he was showing me he had some sort of authority.
I answered the questions sheepishly, not wanting to derail the role play of this youngster who had suddenly found his office gonads and was bent on letting me know that he had some…even if he occasionally has to put them away.
He slid my stamped passport to me with a terse , bumptious look.
Thanks Sir, have a good day.
Stepping into baggage claim area makes a compelling argument for why one should travel light to Guyana. The squeaky, mostly not working, carousel churns in the baggage at snail’s pace for those who were lucky enough to have received theirs; as the cacophony of competing voices from taxi drivers and baggage handlers contained behind the security barriers outside of the baggage grates against the tired senses of weary travelers. It’s easy to spot the infrequent visitor to this traveler’s chaos by the mixed look of bewilderment and frustration as he alternates his attention from the baggage carousel to the officer at the final exit who has very little interest in his querulous gaze.
That’s a quick mash up of the arrival.
The departure is just as joyless.
Arriving at 4.00 am for the 7.45 am departure guarantees only that you will be number fifteen or so in the line that stands in front of the lone passport – check personnel who stammers through your name not because of speech impediment but because pronunciation is a challenge.
My luck was down. There were four Chinese and several Brazilians ahead of me. The phonetics involved in those names became an extended sparring match between her tongue and teeth which, up to that time, had cost me forty five minute wait on her line – factoring in her steady journeys to the airline counter for official huddles over certain documents.
No. There was no other in- take personnel. She was the entire show.
Passengers continued to stream in to the lobby at that early hour, wheeled luggage and screaming babies in tow. The agent who was confounded by pronunciation was now joined by another who had set up his own lectern/service desk. The mad dash to be first in his line had caused several of those who were there earlier to lose position. A fierce exchange of graphic sentiment ensued, adding to the screams of babies, the admonition of parents and the inevitable query of where anything was – a testament to poor signage. Through all this the automatic self-check -in machine just stood there, adding only ornamental value. In keeping with everything else on the operational landscape, that, too, was broken.
The exchange amongst the line crashers had taken on new life. Security was not on hand; at least within proximity of this fracas which had become quite entertaining with the exchange of Guyanese cuss words delivered in a comical mix of an adopted British accent and a distinct East Indian Guyanese tone referencing Brampton, Canada, as her more organized, less chaotic home.
As I listened, I began to take stock of the area. The lobby was a fog of beige paint, poor lighting and floors with too much sand and dirt for them to have been cleaned prior to the first flight of the day. The brown carpet accented only to the extent that it showed more need for cleaning. Seating was limited to three or four rows of commercially coupled chairs placed in the far corners of the lobby- as if the designers expected only a smattering of traffic. For the travelling weary, the filthy floors were the default seating option. Tough choice.
By now I had gotten past the Insel check in desk and was heading for customs, when we were told to step back because they were accommodating passengers for Caribbean Airlines who had been delayed because of the inadequate staff quota at the initial check in point and were required to board within minutes, lest the pilot took off. I attempted to visit the bathroom in the interim but retreated in the face of what I will diplomatically describe as neglected restroom upkeep.
I headed back to my line and finally got up to the customs clerk who took my passport and paper work and asked me for some other form which I did not have. Well you have to get it M’am. What form? From where? Go back to the airline desk and tell them they didn’t give you one of these, he said pointing to a green form. Obediently, I left the line and headed back to line up at the Insel desk. It’s a good thing I followed that inner warning and got there at 4.00 am, I was thinking. By now it was 6.30 am and I still hadn’t gotten to the departure lounge. I got the form, filled it up and went back to the same clerk who gave it extended scrutiny, considering the information I provided was very basic. After a studious flip over of the two sided form and a shaking of his head in self-agreement, he slid the documents to me.I took my stamped passport and shuffled to the other phase of the departure.
Here, I was greeted by a two operatives for whom I all but undressed. No worries, since this is now the travelling norm everywhere but what was particularly troubling was the condition of the brown carpet I was expected to stand on barefooted. It had at least half an inch of sand and dirt. I asked to step over to a cleaner area and the female customs responded with a brusque head shake to indicate a negative. I stood in the sand. I was patted and frisked and then whisked to the end where my basins with my belongings were. Relief was in sight. The constant barking of instructions to frazzled travelers would soon be only a memory.
Wait. There he is again, yelling ‘NEXT!” and strutting with pigeon-chested gait through the rows of passengers who seem anxious to get to the departure lounge. Just who is this stocky Afro Guyanese guy with the glasses, ostentatiously barking orders to nervous subordinates who seem to feel that channeling his brusque manner is a mark of professional efficiency?
I ask again because he was here again, as if to bade me nightmarish farewell.
I gladly got fully dressed, gathering my computer, camera and other items with a show of finality. But I couldn’t ignore stinging sensation in my left big toe, more precisely under the toe nail. All I could think of was chigoe and the pile of dirt, dust and sand that I was forced to stand in during my security check.
Finally, I made it to the departure lounge and was able to buy a cup of luke warm coffee after standing twelve deep on line. I sat at one of the bistro tables and was joined by a man who had not been back to Guyana in forty six years. He lives in Canada and was a Public Health Official there, as he was before he emigrated. He insisted that the Cheddi Jagan Airport was the worst in the world.
I agreed that the airport experience was unfriendly, disorganized and insanitary but even with this trifecta of unflattering awards I was still hesitant to label it world’s worst.
I’ve recounted this visit as an appendix to a letter I received from a Guyanese friend of mine who visits Guyana with admirable frequency. At his last exit he was treated with reprehensible indignity and sought to address the matter through formal complaint. I have embedded the response he received from Guyana’s airport authorities.
Bear very firmly in mind that these incidents occurred shortly after the sector was reported to be poised to make a “quantum leap to the pinnacle of success”.
They occurred at the country’s main Airport at Timeheri where most of the tourists arrive and depart.