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The Carletonian

The Carletonian

Navigating unfamiliar instiutions in a South African airport

<m a chronic overpacker. I pack my entire wardrobe into one faithful, awkwardly large purple suitcase, “Giant,” that takes a great deal of effort to carry up and down the stairs of my house. Whether I’m traveling back to school in Minnesota or to some hostel in Tanzania, I will most likely pack the same items. I like to think that I’m prepared for whatever will come my way. My rather naïve thought process often lands me just above the dreaded pound cutoff.

Most of the time, I’ve paid this monetary dole dutifully and unquestionably; I’m the only one to blame for my excessive and ridiculous tendencies, after all. However, throughout my flights in South Africa I paid not a single cent for my heavy baggage. At first glance I counted this as an astonishing victory on my part, and an act of unspoken kindness from airline employees. However, these gestures were not so unspoken, and not so helpful to anyone beside myself.

My first encounter with this was in the middle of July in the Johannesburg airport. My shoe had come untied and large perspiration circles formed on my t-shirt from sprinting awkwardly through the terminal trekking Giant behind me. I arrived at the ticketing station, late for my connection. I’m sure my panic showed on my face. My spilling of credit cards and ID’s on the counter was an indication of my worry. I was not particularly friendly or talkative, and neither was the late 30-something male employee checking me into my flight. He analyzed my passport, and with an elongated lift of the neck looks down to my bag on the scale and cuts in bluntly:

“It’s too heavy, you know.”

Due to my aforementioned tendencies, I answered with a curt “I know. I’ll pay whatever, I just need to get to my flight on time.”

He looks completely unimpressed by my pathetic plea to get to the gate, and instead of replying, his co-worker swivels a chair next to him, eyes me and Giant quickly, and takes me off balance when he asks:

“You like rugby?”

I pause, puzzled, and raise an eyebrow, “Um, I guess,” trying to sound passively optimistic about where this was going. In all honestly, I know as much about rugby as I do about how to speak Afrikaans. That is, nothing at all.

“Man, she looks like a girl who would like to watch rugby on the weekends and drink beer. That kind of girl shouldn’t have to pay for a bag,” he exclaims triumphantly. His friend agrees with a smile encroaching on his straight-lined face, and Giant is quickly ushered onto the conveyor belt. I respond with an exclamation of exuberant thank-yous and other meaningless professions of how grateful I was.

The truth was, I was excited. I didn’t pay an absurd fee and made my flight on time. I thought naively how proud my grandmother would be of me using my “feminine wiles” to get my way.

The more I reflected on that experience, I realized I didn’t get my way whatsoever. I played into the game of male saviors of young, lost American female travelers woefully unaccustomed to this sort of subtle corruption that happens on a daily basis. By thanking them profusely, I gave them the satisfaction of admitting that I needed their aid, and would eagerly bend the rules to get what I wanted. I played into the hand that I could get away with something for being a young woman. There’s no immediate payoff for the employees, other than the satisfaction of knowing I’d be in debt to them. But the chauvinistic attitude attached to the act was not what bothered me in the long run. Unfortunately, we come across that constantly in our own country.

What pushed my buttons more is the fact that this was just a miniscule example of what occurs in South Africa constantly. Fines, most prominently traffic fines, are never paid. Policemen let minor offenses go regularly. The result is that in many areas, infrastructure is lacking. Roads in some major cities, and many roads in more rural areas, are dangerous and unmonitored because of the citizenry neglecting to adhere to guidelines set up to make communal living better. In an odd way, it made me grateful to be the Democrat and a dutiful taxpayer I am and have been raised to become. Sure, we don’t want to give our money away. But this experience made me realize that I’m glad to have these somewhat bothersome institutions and regulations in place. The money does, after all, go somewhere for the communal good.

Immediately after visiting South Africa, I embarked on a study abroad in Japan. At the Japan Airlines counter, I rolled in Giant and struggled to lift the suitcase on the scale. It was five pounds overweight. Yes, I should learn my lesson. But overpacking seems to just be in my blood, and I have to accept it. And more eagerly than ever before, I passed over my credit card to pay the fine.

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