Nonfiction by Dawn Gernhardt
When asked about being an overseas volunteer—working for little pay and room and board in another country—people often make assumptions, saying things like, “Oh, you’re a giver!” or “You must be a good person.”
Poverty, Inc. discusses the pros and cons of the “giving industry.” As for me, like most people, we’re muddling around, trying to be somewhat decent people out in the world. Well-meaning kindness can have surprising consequences. And sometimes “generosity” backfires like an old truck with a poor transmission.
At an airport in Senegal, traveling back to my volunteer assignment on the multi-island nation of Cape Verde, I thought I’d done my solid deed for the day.
Starting at check-in, I stood in line with one compact backpack. Due to my lack of checked bags, I obviously hadn’t stocked up on goods from the mainland—like all the other passengers flying home with stacks of boxes and bags—crammed with electronics, clothing, music, and more they’d be selling at their open-air market stalls and small corner stores.
Allotted two items for free, each extra item onboard cost several hundred escudos. The cost of bringing merchandise home cut into these small-time vendors’ profit margins or necessitated a high markup to account for large “shipping and handling” costs.
A sweet-looking, portly, middle-aged woman glanced at my one bag and approached. “I have so many bags and you only have one,” she said, conspiratorially, and low. “It won’t cost you anything to bring a second bag. Will you check in one of mine as yours? No one will know.”
In the days prior to 9/11, I considered being overseas in a small airport. Sure, I’d heard the constant warnings broadcast through crackling speaker systems around American airports.
“Don’t leave your bags and personal items unattended. Don’t take packages or candy from strangers. Report any suspicious baggage to authorities.”
Scary airport possible scenarios back home included hairy unabombers, smarmy drug lords, and strange substances leaking from oddly shaped totes. White powder in balloons, ticking sounds, and murky characters in trench coats. In mainland Africa, a little old lady, traveling with her family, with a few too many plaid plastic zippered bags, costing her a small fortune to fly them back to the developing country—surely she wasn’t plotting to overthrow the peaceful government. I wasn’t being her mule. Just one bag.
“Sure,” I side-glanced and side-stepped, scooting one of her many cheaply packaged cubes over towards me with my foot. Heart racing, we waddled up, one small step at a time, along the line of dozens of passengers making their way through two lines of boarding and security.
Glancing around as if about to commit murder, my upper lip sweat even in the light air-conditioning. All the other extra packages of all the other passengers were the same size and shape as this one I’d agreed to shuttle onboard. The conveyor belts ate the cargo from the boarding area and pooped them out on the tarmac below for loading onto the plane.
When I reached the air personnel, I hefted my backpack up and grunted while wielding this stranger’s heavier than expected bag with a huff. The Senegalese woman behind the counter didn’t blink and code switched into speaking perfect English. There were no other nonlocals but me in the line.
“Are both of these your bags?” she said, eyeing my backpack in comparison to the cheap plastic case.
As I touched my face and neck, I remembered reading somewhere this was how liars behaved. With a cough, I jammed my hands into my jean short pockets, and out came a high-pitched, “Yes?”
She shook the generic unlabeled plaid plastic weave as if trying to guess the contents of a holiday gift. Then scrutinized my American brand backpack with my American luggage tags, American locks, and American sweaty smell. The difference between the luggage was audible.
“Both of these?” she said, looking over my head at the wall behind.
The unlikelihood of this plastic one being mine held us together in a silent vortex. Surely, the air personnel woman would call my bluff, motion for the rightful owner to approach us, and demand she pay the fine for her extra bag.
“Mmm hum,” I nodded and closed one eye, waiting for a verbal slap on the wrist—which didn’t come. She kept the ruse going, seeming to work.
“If you say so,” the attendant launched the two bags I’d checked onto the conveyor belt without effort. Both were sucked through the collection bin and dropped down to the promised land of the plane below. That was easy.
The air attendant pressed two checked-baggage receipts into my hand, still warm from the printer, and I floated free and clear along the walkway of joy to the seating area. We two accomplices sat away from each other on hard plastic seats in the waiting room. Only a nod between us in acknowledgement—the scheme worked. At the arrivals baggage claim on our island, I planned to check the numbers on the receipts, and slip her the paper matching her bag, while keeping mine.
Every seat full in the packed boarding area, an earthy body heat filled the enclosed space. An hour passed. Then another.
My first return flight between the archipelago and mainland Africa. Maybe this is normal? Out the large windows overlooking the tarmac, we could see our plane sitting lethargic and still. I’d suffered through many delays in the states so I settled in for an even longer wait.
Outside, several people gathered at our plane’s baggage loading door. Ten different airport personnel removed every single item—hundreds of luggage, bags, boxes, dozens of plaid plastic zippered containers, and one American backpack—each set in perfect columns and rows dotting the entire asphalt zone outside the plane.
Serious about the weight of the load? Experts in packing their tight storage area? OCD about color coordination? I wildly guessed why the airport crew might be behaving in this unusual way. Until the intercom sounded.
“Every traveler on the flight from Dakar to Praia, please exit the waiting room, go down to the tarmac with your baggage claim receipts, pick up your previously checked items from the ground, and hand them, again, to the baggage personnel to be reloaded on your airplane prior to departure.”
While everyone frowned and shrugged along with me, I was the only person down on the hot melting pavement who didn’t recognize her second bag. Easy to spot my backpack, but the plaid plastic bags now mocked me with their uniformity. I didn’t know which was hers.
So this is how they teach a person a lesson in Senegal? I got off rather easily, considering I could have been arrested or detained. Because of my “kindness,” the baggage agent proceeded to force me to admit that I’d lied. No passenger would sneak a bag onto one of her planes without paying the extra baggage cost. Rules are rules. All the other passengers, pilots, flight attendants, ground personnel, and air traffic control would have to wait while I learned proper airport security protocols.
In line to hand my one American backpack to the Senegalese baggage agent who’d joined us down on the tarmac, my vision blurred with embarrassment and shock.
At the plane’s baggage door entrance, the same crisp and sharply dressed woman crossed her arms and tapped her lovely heeled toe while I padded up in my American flip flops and dusty feet and shins from walking everywhere.
I took a deep, humiliated breath, handed her my one lonely, grey, shoulder-strapped backpack, along with the two baggage claim receipts. She didn’t have to ask, I blurted out, “I’m sorry. I was just trying to be nice. This is my bag. I only have one bag, not two,” then averted my eyes.
“Mmm hum,” she dished my earlier words back to me with a knowing smirk, while probably thinking, “damn volunteer do-gooders,” then pointed for me to return with the droves of tired and hot other passengers—I’d delayed—back to the waiting room.
We in the waiting room watched. One sad and lonely plaid plastic bag sat flatter and melting in the sweltering heat outside.
On stage, the woman I’d “helped” retrieved her extra item, walked head low and shaking to the front baggage check-in area from before and took the “opportunity” to try again. With no other eager beaver volunteers to ask, the woman checked her additional bag for a substantial fee, then returned to join the other passengers mulling around in the stale waiting area, hoping to board sometime this century.
Huffing and puffing back over, the disappointed woman returned many escudos lighter than before, and glared at me. Angry I hadn’t held up my end of the bargain. I held up my hands and shoulders in apology and sputtered, “Your bag, the other bags. I couldn’t tell the difference.” If only I’d stuck to the volunteer mantra of “making a difference,” instead.
Dawn Gernhardt is a writer living in southern California. She earned a master’s in Creative Writing from New College of California. Her nonfiction is published in Pink Panther Magazine. Find her satire in Wry Times, Funny-ish, and The Haven. She’s currently working on a novel. Follow her work on Twitter, Medium, LinkedIn, and dawngernhardt.com.