Sunday, July 16, 2006

Sunday Scribblings: With Baggage

Every time I travel through Johannesburg, no matter how sturdy the lock, my baggage has been tampered with.

To date I have lost two good-quality padlocks, one of them the original Swiss Army lock that came with the bright blue suitcase of the same brand that my dad bought me several years ago. That lock was a warrior and had held up against perilous travel conditions and pilfering hands in bus stations and sleazy hotels all over the world. Until Johannesburg.

The first time was on the way back from our holiday visit to Brasil. I had managed to misplace the padlock that was on my suitcase and Ricardo and I, fully aware of Johannesburg’s bad reputation, made a special effort to buy a new lock in the São Paulo airport before catching our flight. Not surprisingly we were ripped off at the airport shop and ended up paying $14 for a small combination lock. At least with 4 number wheels we thought the thing would be impossible to crack open. But we were wrong. Arriving in Maputo the shiny gold lock was noticeably missing, and I made a small scene verifying the contents of my suitcase right there on the baggage claim floor. Satisfied that my leather jacket and favorite high heels were still in place, we headed home and wondered how the lock had possibly disappeared.

“Did you not close it properly?” I asked Rico somewhat accusingly.

“Yes, of course,” he said. “I even scrambled the numbers.”

“Do you think someone cut it off?”


Ricardo then told me about a report he’d seen on Carte Blanche, the South African equivalent of 20/20, where they had exposed a crime ring in Johannesburg airport. Apparently some crooked baggage handlers were paying street boys a few pennies each to sit in the airport basement and try their luck cracking the codes on the combination locks guarding the suitcases that sat idle during international layovers. An idle boy with nothing better to do has a pretty good chance at guessing the combination of at least two or three locks a day. When the boys weren’t able to open the locks, the baggage handlers would sometimes take lock cutters to the suitcases that oozed wealth – the Louis Vuitton sets and monogrammed matching safari bags.

Apparently the reporters from Carte Blanche had used hidden cameras to catch the baggage handlers and street boys in all their lock-busting and thieving ways. When the head of Johannesburg airport security was confronted with the footage, his response was that only 15% of passengers complained about missing articles in their luggage and that, for him, was an acceptable rate. No need to do anything more about the problem.

After losing my lock on the way back from Brasil, I still had some doubt in my mind as to whether we had failed to close the thing properly or if my bag had really been the victim of a South African airport crime ring. My doubts came to an end when, on our way to Botswana last month to go on safari, my Swiss Army lock was busted. I didn’t notice it was missing until Ricardo and I were already squared away in our tent at Seba Camp. I went to get my pair of wool socks out of my suitcase and noticed the lock was gone.

“Rico, did you open my suitcase?”

“No, why”

“Well, my lock is missing.”

“You didn’t take it off already?”

“No. They must have broken into my bag in Johannesburg.”

I pouted and started going through the contents of my suitcase to see if anything was missing. Everything essential I’d brought along was still apparently in its proper place. I put the missing lock out of my mind for the duration of our safari.

For the trip back to Maputo, Ricardo and I managed to condense all of our valuable items into one suitcase and secure it with his lock (although the notion that our belongings were safe because of a padlock was quickly vanishing). Upon arriving home, were pleasantly surprised that our bags hadn’t been further tampered with during our layover in Johannesburg.

The next day we unpacked and got back into the rhythm of normal life. We piled our dirty clothes into the washer and did a load of laundry. We made an appointment with the vet to come give our kittens their next series of shots. And we realized that a trip to the local grocery store was urgent given that the only food left in our kitchen was a pack of instant chicken soup, some mushy potatoes, and a plastic bottle of vegetable oil. We usually walk to Mohamed and Bros., a small Indian-run market a few blocks away. As the morning sun was already quite strong, I went to grab my Dior sunglasses as I can’t stand strong light in my eyes. I searched and searched, and for the life of me couldn’t find the huge white case where I always keep my non-prescription sunglasses.

After about 10 minutes of searching, it hit me. I’d taken my Dior sunglasses to Botswana. I usually wear glasses and prescription sunglasses, but I’d brought along a pair of contact lenses and my non-prescription sunglasses as a backup just in case I managed to somehow squash my regular glasses on safari. Since no bad luck had befallen my regular glasses on the trip, I hadn’t even realized that my Dior sunglasses were missing when I searched through my suitcase at Seba Camp. I felt my face flush with anger. The stupid baggage handlers and their gaggle of lock-busting street boys had ripped off my sunglasses!

Granted, I got these sunglasses at a huge discount on over a year ago ($30 for a $200 pair of glasses!). Granted, I usually wear my boring old prescription sunglasses. Granted, I don’t really need 2 pairs of shades. But sometimes I like to look glamorous, or simply crave the convenience of not carrying around two pairs of glasses and their respective cases no matter where I go. And now my chic Dior plastic frames were gone, off to a better life with some suburban Joburg madame who had likely purchased them from some street corner hawker while waiting in her Audi for the light to turn green.

I have always looked down on people that get their luggage plastic-wrapped in the airport as total suckers. But now, after my experiences with not one but two busted locks in Johannesburg, I think I will be first in line for that service next time I travel. At this point it seems to be the only solution that will ensure that I arrive at my destination not only with my baggage, but with all of my valuables as well.

For more stories about baggage, click here.


Susannah said...

it's so true that any flashy-looking suitcase will be targeted first, don;t you think? that's why i always travel with the most boring crappy looking suitcase imagineable! no valuables in there boys.... poor you losing your glasses though - it doesn't matter that they were discounted - they were *yours*. and i bet you looked gorgeous in them :-) x

Jemima said...

Fascinating story, I learn so much from you Ali, it's a shame you had to be a victim of crime to get to it.

I've always been jealous of people with snazzy, matching cases since I always end up with dull, dark coloured luggage bought quickly for as little as possible. I'm seeing that possibly rubbish luggage is a good thing.

Safiya said...

Having your luggage plastic wrapped? I've not seen this before.

I also have very dull looking luggage, which I'm now pleased about.

telfair said...

Ah, well, cheap bags get pilfered, too! The last time GB flew to South Africa for a meeting, he had several expensive dress shirts stolen out of his luggage. We didn't really know where the theft might have occurred since he went through 4 different airports altogether for connecting flights, but now we know -- Jo'Burg!!

Alina said...

I've only traveled by plane twice. Once to Italy, Rome and once to Turkey, Istanbul. Both times my baggage was not secured in any way, but nothing happened, thank God!

Really sorry about your glasses! I hope that somehow another fabulous pair makes its way to you.

Ali la Loca said...

Well, about half of my luggage is dull and second-hand, the other half is bright colors and relatively new. Nothing designer, but good sturdy suitcases.

All of the above have been tampered with!

~Safiya - I can't believe you've never come across the plastic wrap machine! To me it looks like a giant cotton candy spinner, except instead of sugar it whirls about a sheet of industrial plastic. They do about 3 or 4 layers around your entire bag and not only does it protect the suitcase from scratches or spills, it keeps out little hands!