Wednesday July 4 2012

Kiev Airport: where the colour of my skin was a ‘problem’

The writer at Kiev Airport where she was stuck for two days after she missed her flight.

The writer at Kiev Airport where she was stuck for two days after she missed her flight. COURTESY PHOTO 

By Nshunge Musheshe

Last year, I was a “study abroad student” in Denmark as they call them. I had my spring break plan jotted on a sticky note: OUTBOUND- Copenhagen-Stockholm-Barcelona-Prague-Paris-Amsterdam-Oslo-and back to Copenhagen. Satisfied with what I had, I made my way home.

I got into a bus and as I walked to the back I saw a friend from my university in USA. I smiled and sat right next to her. In not more than a minute, we were talking about spring break plans. I told her mine and she told me hers. She mentioned “Athens”. Why had I not thought of that? I changed my plans immediately. I told her I would be her travel buddy, so my plans had to change in order to fit Athens in and also be able to afford: OUTBOUND: Copenhangen-Athens-Paris-Brussels-Amsterdam. I was very satisfied with my plan.

I spent the whole night googling tourist sites in Athens. I was on momondo, skyscanner, booking buddy, cheapoair, ryanair, you name it but all too expensive, so I decided to go back to my refuge: expedia and voila the ticket to Athens was $130. I reached for my card and purchased the ticket with Aerosvits airlines, transit: Ukraine. I simply brushed off ideas like requiring a transit visa, what aerosvits was or even the fact that I have a Ugandan Passport that on some occasions has been a disadvantage. What mattered was I would spend less than $150 dollars.

Travelling light
Being the casual traveller that I am, I woke up just one hour before my flight and rushed to Copenhagen airport thinking to myself that I will do the express check-in on the self-service machines and go board my plane. I run right past all the queues. I slowed down as I approached the machine, pulled out my ticket and passport and continued to select ‘English’ then ‘check-in’ and finally ‘airline’. My airline was not listed. I tried again, and I was not in luck! So I asked the attendant and she told me I had to join the long line because aerosvit does not do self-check in. I swore telling myself I was doomed.

“Ma’am where to?” I was asked. I mentioned Greece with a smile as she checked for all the visas and asked me if I had any luggage. I said yes but a carry-on. She said no luggage was allowed on the plane whatsoever so I handed over my bag with a big sigh because I really hate baggage claim. Having managed to get onto the plane without much hassle, I sat comfortably, already imagining walking on the ancient Greece soils.

We landed in Ukraine two hours later—Kiev International airport. I grabbed my phone, threw away the tiny blanket and rushed out to catch the bus to my transit terminal. I lined up for the security check, anxious though, for I only had 30 minutes to catch the next plane. As my luck could have it, the security man asked to see my passport. He opened every page twice while looking into my face. He asked me, “Transit visa madam?”

I jumped in very defensively to say, “I have a Schengen visa and valid American visa, I do not need a transit visa plus I need to catch my flight soon.” He looked up at me and said “No English, just Russian,” then he walked away to the immigration offices. I stayed calm, just like the way I do when I quietly plan to kill someone, and I also wondered why he worked at an International airport anyway. Isn’t English a requirement? He returned 40 minutes later. He looked up at me and then my picture on the main passport page. He did this thrice until I lost my mind and asked why. He said bluntly “not same person, hair very different”.

“Wow!” I thought. “Who says that? I took this picture a long time ago obviously.” But I was depending on him for mercy, I asked him to look at my eyes and compare. He left again. At this point, my flight had left. I was a few minutes away from “seeing stars”. He finally returned with my passport and without apologizing, he asked me to go to my boarding area.
I run, hoping for a miracle, and when I approached the gate, the young gentleman grabbed my boarding pass and scanned me in.

“Phew, so close,” I said to myself. Then his supervisor came and actually made me see stars saying that once I was late, they could not let me board the plane. She handed me my boarding pass and asked me to go talk to the ticket offices. I decided not to cry. I walked over nicely and hoped for good treatment, at least to be bumped to the next flight. And of course I wished that a building would fall over the security man. I was thinking about my next move. I wondered if it involved buying a new ticket, cancelling Greece or creating a very big hole in my budget.

Racist innuendos
When people talked about racism, I swore upon my life that everyone reads too much into things. I told all my friends that racism only exists when you are looking for it. Boy was I wrong. The supervisor came to me and asked me to recite my case. So I did and I asked her for options but instead, she said, “Next flight ticket is 650 euros or next day is 450 euros, otherwise go back to Copenhagen or call your parents to send you the money for the flights.”

I asked her to hold up right there. First of all, that is a lot of money and second of all, I was not even sure I had told my father about my destination. She continued to talk to her friends in Russian, looked at me and said, “Do you see black people at this airport?” I froze. “No tears,” I said to myself and I asked her if I could change my ticket at a lower fee because I have that right for a year at least. She had not even mentioned this option. So after a lot of begging, she said that I could get four army men to accompany me to the tickets office outside the airport because they did not want me to disappear into Ukraine—really!

The fee was 100 euros but the flight would be in two days, and that would mean sleeping on the hard chairs and in the cold, with no food for two nights. I returned into the airport and I still said to myself that I would not cry in front of them.

My phone battery was dying and I did not have my luggage. My shoes, my dresses! What would happen to them? I pulled out my iPod with nothing else to turn to and somehow the first song that came up was “I am blessed”. I switched it off quickly because it did not fit the purpose at this point. I made up my mind to pick out some “katangala”. I returned to my corner and I wailed, while I drank until I fell asleep. I watched the mornings come, people fly out and I counted the days. When I finally got to Greece, I only had one day. Not enough time to go to the islands, orto visit the museums with the ancient Roman and Greek history.

Recently, I read in the news that Kiev International airport is one of the worst airports in the world. My battles are half fought by that statement. I am glad I am not the only one that feels that way.