Deepest, darkest and densest …

If you read this column regularly, you’ll notice it wasn’t here the last two weeks. Then again, neither was I. In fact, I was about as far away from My Home Town as I could be without heading back to it. Specifically, I was in Tanzania, on Seidentour.

Seidentour, simply put, is a vaction my extended family takes every year — or at least every year we can. My brother is the moving force behind it. Essentially, some article in the New York Times will catch his fancy, and his imagination is off and running. And the next thing any of us know, we’re off and running, too — this time literally.

About a year ago, he decided we were going to kick out all the jams and go on safari in Africa. And thus my missing the past two week’s columns, as I was roaming the savannah, pith helmet on my head, desert boots on my feet, bush jacket on my torso and the usual idiotic smile on my face.

Actually, my smile might’ve been even more idiotic than usual, because being in the African bush, seeing flora and fauna I’ve never seen before and will never see again, is overwhelming. Sure, we’ve all seen pictures of giraffes and lions and elephants, but seeing them, in the flesh, sometimes no more than 10 yards away, is almost impossible to process. Certainly it was for me.

The people in the camps were super-competent, super-knowledgeable and super-friendly, so every day passed effortlessly without worries or glitches. All that changed, however, when we tried to fly out.

Attempts number one and two

We had all our paperwork in order; we’d arrived almost three hours before flight time; we had no prohibited items in our luggage. Unfortunately, as soon as we tried to check in at the airport, none of that mattered.

Here’s how it shook out: There were 10 of us in the party; the first seven checked in and immediately got their boarding passes. That left The Unholy Three — my brother, sister-in-law and me.

As the senior member, my brother went to the ticket counter first. Since it’d been trouble-free with the others, I figured it’d be the same with us, so I paid no attention to what went on between my bro and the ticket agent. At least I didn’t at first. But after at least 10 minutes of my bro and the agent talking back and forth, I realized something was amiss. And the longer I looked, the more it seemed something was very amiss. How could I tell? Simple, the more my brother talked, the more the agent shook her head. Finally, he broke off their convo and came back to the group. And now he was shaking his head.

“What is it?” I asked.

“She can’t give us our boarding passes,” he said.

“Whattaya mean she can’t give ’em to us?” I asked.

“Look,” he said, “I’ve just had a hard enough time with her. Do you think I have to explain to you what ‘not giving us our boarding passes’ means.”

“OK,” I said. “So lemme ask you another question: Why won’t she give us our boading passes?”

“I’m not sure,” he said. “Her explanations were so roundabout and vague, I’m not sure she knows why.”

“All right,” I said. “Time to call out the big guns.”

“What’s that?” he said.

“Not ‘what,'” I said, “‘Who.’ Namely me.”

And before he had a chance to make a snotty reply, I was at the counter. I gave the agent one of my million-dollar smiles, said hello in Swahili (one of the three Swahili words I learned) and handed her my passport.

She took it and fiddled around with her keyboard for a several minutes. Finally, she looked up.

“Sorry,” she said, “you can’t board the plane, either.”

“I can’t board the plane?” I said. “Would you please tell me why.”

And so she did. At least I think she did. The truth is her so-called answer was so convoluted, the more she talked, the more I thought I was listening to Professor Irwin Corey. I understood each word, individually, but when she strung a bunch of them together, I was as lost as the poor sods on the Franklin Expedition. So I did the only thing I could — I walked back to the group, shaking my head, like my bro had done.

Big business takin’ care of business

Next up the batter’s circle was my niece Becky.

Becky heads the HR department in some huge corporation and prides herself on her ability to deal with people. She’s so proud of it that she says even the people she’s fired still like her. I think her ability to deal with hyperbole might be almost as good as her ability to deal with people, but now at least I had a chance to see the mistress herself at work.

The smile she gave the ticket agent could’ve lit up the Mariana Trench. The agent smiled back.

Ah, I thought, progress at last!

But as is too often the case with me, I thought too much, too soon, because after a minute or so, both Becky’s and the agent’s smiles had vanished, replaced by the agent shaking her head, and Becky shaking with thinly disguised anger. Finally, she turned on her heels and walked back to us.

“Well?” I asked.

“She’s impossible,” Becky said. “She agreed we have our reservations and even our seat numbers, but she still can’t give us our boarding passes because she doesn’t know the access code.”

“Doesn’t she have a supervisor who can do that?” I asked.

“I asked her that,” she said, “and she gave me some line of crap that I couldn’t make heads or tails of. On top of that, she said we should call our travel agent.”

And what a brilliant suggestion that was, especially since back home it was 3 a.m., and Sunday besides.

All of us fell silent. If this nonsense kept up, we three would miss our plane and would be stuck in Dar es Salaam for another day … at least. And that could cause us to miss our connecting flight in Amsterdam. Sure, it wasn’t a matter of life and death if we missed the planes, but it’d be inconvenient, and expensive.

The fear factor

My sis-in-law let out a big sigh.

“All right,” she said, “I guess it’s my turn.”

And with that, she walked up to the counter.

Now a note about my S-I-L. She’s small, verging on tiny. She is almost always smiling and upbeat, and she’s a good people person. She listens to people and on the whole is empathetic. In short, she is not in any way an imposing person. Nonetheless, as soon as she reached the counter, the agent took two steps back and her entire body language changed. Where before she’d been condescending, almost haughty, now she was smiling sweetly, almost obsequiously.

My S-I-L started talking, and the agent, who’d done nothing but shake her head, was now nodding, almost robotically.

My S-I-L leaned on the counter; the agent took another step back, smiling and nodding all the while — the very picture of agreement.

Then the agent picked up her phone, punched in some number, and a minute or so later a man in a sport coat and tie came in — obviously someone higher on the airline food chain. He said some things to my S-I-L, tapped away on the keyboard, and in almost no time, we had our boarding passes and were on our way to the big metal bird, and home.

No one could figure out why the agent stonewalled the rest of us but suddenly became my S-I-L’s best friend, but I think I know. It was my S-I-L’s glasses that did it.

A week before, she’d lost her regular glasses, so she had to wear her prescription shades all the time, indoors as well as out. And indoors, because her shades were so dark, she still couldn’t see very well and had to get closer to people to make out their features. So how did that cause the agent to defer to her? Simple.

First, she couldn’t see my S-I-L’s eyes, which can be unnerving.

Second, while my S-I-L wanted only to see the agent’s face, she was also invading her personal space, which obviously unnerved her.

And finally, stereotipically, what group of people wears dark shades all the time, even at night or indoors? If you guessed viallainous Third World secret police, you’re right.

It was all a primal combination: Everything turned my S-I-L into a virtual tiger … and the agent into a virtual pussycat.

Of course, this is all conjecture on my part — no one can know why the agent did a complete turnaround. Still, I think my explanation is true, even if it is stranger than fiction.

After all, it was the master himself, Mark Twain, who said, “Truth is stranger than fiction, but it is because fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities; truth isn’t.”

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