Some situations you simply cannot imagine until they happen to you. You simply can’t, trust me.
I’ve experienced one recently. In fact, it’s not over yet.
I set off for Africa. First for Senegal, and then for Kenya. I didn’t intend to write about it, but something unexpected happened that affected me a lot, so here it goes.
My suitcase got lost. Somewhere between Belgrade, Paris and Dakar, it just vanished.
Wanna know what it’s like when you’d planned to spend three weeks on another continent and prepared yourself for everything, including malaria-infected mosquitos and the lack of hangers in hotels and then – puff, no suitcase?
So one night, not long ago, I was waiting at the Dakar airport to claim my luggage. The plane had delivered some 500-odd passengers (10 seats in a single row, times approximately 50 rows). Piles of bags, suitcases and boxes circulated on the conveyor belt. My suitcase was yellow. Big and real yellow. That’s why I’d bought it in the first place, it was like no other. Other people grabbed the grey, dark blue and black pieces of luggage, checked their labels.
Half an hour had passed. It’s fine, I thought, people had warned me about things moving a bit slower in Africa. And there were still so many passengers around me, waiting like me.
Patience is a virtue.
Or maybe not.
Suddenly, I saw a board with some names on it. It had appeared near the carousel and was getting dangerously close. I could see my name. Ouch…. My first impulse was to pretend I hadn’t seen it, it had to be a mistake. I knew this was how the passengers whose luggage hadn’t arrived were notified sometimes.
No way, it’s not gonna happen to me, no way in hell. My sheer will power will undo the curse. I’ll stay near the carousel as long as it takes.
An hour later, crestfallen, I went to report the lost luggage. I identified some people in the queue as my co-passengers. They were cheering each other („it’ll all be fine, you’ll see, they’ll bring it to you this time tomorrow“. Yeah, right). A plump lady started shouting in a local dialect. She almost knocked me down as she rushed to take the phone from the guy at the desk and call her husband for help.
It was my turn. My sad story was met with the airport clerk’s total indifference. He wrote down the name of manufacturer („Sasonat, is it?“) and the colour. Do I know the phone number at the hotel? Nope. He jotted down the mobile phone number I use in my home country (shoot, I’ll have to check the roaming rates for Senegal). I was handed an envelope with some letters and numbers on it. I had no idea what they meant, but hey, thanks anyway.
I’d get my suitcase, no worries. Tomorrow most likely. They couldn’t guarantee it, though. But that’s all right, they were used to this. ,
But I wasn’t.
All I had on was a pair of jeans, a T-shirt, a thin jacket, socks and a pair of trainers. I carried two backpacks: one with a laptop and other tools and equipment I needed for work and the other containing a camera, a tablet, and personal documents. And a lipstick.
That was all.
I arrived in Africa with almost nothing.
What is it like? If you really want to know, read on.
The hotel wasn’t very good, but at least it was clean. I immediately went to see a colleague next door and cried on her shoulder a bit. She was kind enough to lend me a T-shirt to sleep in and a shirt for the next day. I only had to survive one day. This time tomorrow my yellow suitcase would join me and share with me its precious contents weighing some 22 kilos, including my summer clothes and shoes. How bad can it be?
Next, I took a shower. Maybe I could use the complimentary toiletries. But the content of the plastic bottle which read “Shampoo and Shower Gel” didn’t look very inviting, as it smelled and looked very much like a dishwashing liquid. Ok, water would do. A toothbrush, a toothbrush, my kingdom for a toothbrush. I couldn’t borrow one, could I? And buying it in the middle of the night wasn’t an option.
Never mind, tomorrow was a new day.
In the morning, I put on my colleague’s shirt, looking super funny. But I was still in a good mood, positive that I would get my luggage by the end of the day.
In the evening, I went back to the airport. It was some 50 km away from the city. The traffic was awful, it took me at least an hour and a half to reach it. But at least, my suitcase would be there.
Not. Again the help desk, the kind officer asking me why I was there. He wrote the phone numbers I should call on the envelope I’d received the day before. It’s Africa, adapt or go home. “Ma’am, check the Lost Luggage section at the airline’s website to keep track of your suitcase”.
What if there’s no info? Nothing then. Be patient and persevere. It had to show up.
Day 2 w/o
suitcase, somewhere in Africa. I have to buy the basics. A
small problem, when you have NOTHING but a borrowed shirt, is what exactly is
basic. Well, everything, I guess.
In the shopping mall, there were three super expensive shops and two more with reasonable prices. And that was it.
I left loads of money in a Mango shop, which I would otherwise never visit. To save some money, I decided to by the underwear in a supermarket nearby. That would prove to be a big mistake so I would go back to the mall in a few days to purchase some good-quality French lingerie.
I managed to control the urge to fill the trolley with everything I saw. No need, I’d surely get my suitcase back shortly. Why spend too much on what I didn’t really need?
I got the answer soon enough.
A friend (I won’t name her, but Spomenka, surely you’ll know it was you ;)) suggested I should buy some clothes offered on street stalls and machine wash them. A washing machine? What a luxury! I couldn’t possibly hope to use one at the hotel.
It was my first visit to Africa and my first contact
with its culture. The locals are incredibly nice. Everybody always says “hello,
how are you, everything ok?” So, it’s not only the exchange of hellos. A broad
smile is a must, followed by routine questions about the other person’s mood,
health, family, etc.
All this has to be repeated everywhere: in the shops, when you approach a cab, at help desks of all sorts, in the restaurants. I’ve been here only 8 days and I’ve got used to this so easily that I catch myself occasionally adding more questions than necessary. I only hope I don’t get too used to such platitudes. If I go on asking people all this when I return home, they’ll think I’m not right in the head.
As a white person in Africa, or at least in Senegal, you are almost never left alone as you walk the streets. There’s always a beggar or a seller trying to offer you something locally made for an unreasonable amount of money. You simply can’t get rid of the unwanted company. They don’t really care about what you want. They don’t even really want to hear your answer to the mandatory “Hi, hello, how are you, everything ok?” I once went to the local market, filled with small shops and stalls, and ran out as fast as I could. Haggling can’t be avoided. The starting prices is at least the double of what is negotiated in the end. And the final price is not realistic either, but they have to make some profit. You haggle all the time: for clothes, souvenirs, cab fare.
Day 4 w/o suitcase. Little by little, before I return home, I’ll most likely buy enough stuff to fill another suitcase. Another friend, she’ll know it’s her ;), told me: It’s only stuff, don’t worry so much.
I don’t have my PJs, I sleep in another person’s T-shirt, but ok, it could be sexy.
I could go to the beach to relax. Right, my swimming suit is in the suitcase. Buy another? Let me think about it some more.
I’ve broken a nail and don’t have any clippers or a file. Should I try biting off the protruding part?
I have the trainers I travelled in and I’ve managed to find some flip-flops that work for me. It’s ok to try on new stuff occasionally.
I look like something a cat dragged in, even after I bought some shampoo and found a comb in by backpack (it was neatly tucked in next to the lipstick). I could dry my hair with a dryer but there wasn’t one in my hotel room. I had better luck with the next room, but it couldn’t be plugged in. Never mind, I don’t need it anyway. Beauty’s only skin deep. I’ll make a messy bun. But I have nothing to fix it with. Ok, I’m off to the shopping mall… again.
A colleague texted me. “Try to see this as an adventure.” Right, it actually is an adventure to put on some clean clothes when all you have is:
3 T-shirts and 2 pairs of linen pants
2 dresses from the local market
I also have the flip-flops made in Spain (or so I was told), which gave me huge blisters in no time. I should put a band-aid. Luckily, I have one. In my suitcase. Maybe I could get some at the chemists? What a splendid idea! To get to the nearest one I’d have to get a cab, exchange the compulsory “hello, how are you, everything ok?” with the cabby and, of course, negotiate the fare.
Out of decency I’ll spare you the details of what it’s like to wash your clothes in a hotel (in the 21st century). Is there a laundry service in the hotel? Of course! But this is Africa, everything moves slow. And takes at least two days. At the very least.
Ok, fine. I can certainly hand-wash the few pieces of clothes I’ve bought. I can hang them somewhere and they’ll surely dry quickly. Right. There are no hangers in the hotel room. That’s why I always carry the spare ones. In the yellow suitcase, where else?
Day 6 w/o suitcase. I’ve visited all the local markets, I’ve befriended all kinds of salesmen. One knew that I was from Novak Djokovic’s country. I promised myself I would buy something from him. He deserved it!
Thankfully, the rainy season hasn’t started yet
because I’ve been told stories about the local malaria mosquitos, and getting
sick would be too much. No, there is no vaccine against malaria. I’ve brought a
wonderful Swiss spray which guarantees survival.
It’s in the yellow suitcase.
Day 8 w/o
suitcase. I’ve turned into an African woman. I’m wearing a
long, colourful dress which looks like … you know what on me, with my red hair
and pale complexion. In desperation,
I’ve bought a mascara and a makeup remover. A nail file. A hand cream. A body
lotion. A facial cream. And so on.
I’m otherwise completely all right. I’ve met many people. They keep asking me if my yellow suitcase has arrived at last. They pity me. My friends from home have stopped caring about my plight. I’ve posted some interesting and funny photos on the social media in the meantime, so they probably think all is well.
But, then, is there really an alternative? Am I supposed to post the photos of my real life? Come on, who does that?
The other night I dreamt that I was in the Belgrade airport and that my suitcase had been located. But I couldn’t reach it because it was outside the building, surrounded by wild boars, which in real life had left the woods and swum across the river to escape the floods.
Day 10 w/o suitcase. They’ve found it! It’s in Paris, all alone in some storage facility. The bar code label fell off and the luggage handlers couldn’t see the name tag. I spent ten days clicking pointlessly at the airline’s web site (I won’t name it here, but they’ll hear from me, that’s for sure) and nothing happened. For ten days I dialled all the airport services I could think of. And I never once forgot to say “hello, how are you, everything ok?” first! I think everybody here has heard about a crazy woman looking for her yellow suitcase.
All that’s left to do is for the Paris airport to send it to Africa.
Day 11 w/o suitcase…