Thursday, July 13, 2006

Weird Times At The Beirut Airport

Days like today, I think back to the Middle East. Here's one of the weirdest things that ever happened to me at the Beirut Airport: I was flying up from Arabia to visit my Dad. He was temporarily in charge of Tapline, this company that runs an oil pipeline from Arabia to the Mediterranean, and he was staying on top of a hotel in downtown Beirut. The Middle East...just getting off the plane you hear mystical sounds that may or may not be there. I was around 20 at the time, and I made a fairly large mistake. I picked up someone else's suitcase that looked exactly like mine. Now, that could have been huge trouble. Worse yet, I saw that customs was in Middle East mode, which is kind of laid back, and since there was a long line, I just walked out past some soldiers and hit the street. The Arab street, as they like to call it. Evading customs could have also been trouble, considering I had a suitcase that was not mine. When I got to my Dad's hotel suite, I went into my room and popped the bag. The first thing I saw was a carton of cigarettes. I didn't smoke cigarettes. It became immediately obvious what I had done. There were men's clothes but fortunately, nothing worse. A lot of unusual stuff happens in the Middle East. Money, weapons, hashish, documents; there's lots of potential for trouble. In the screenplay it would have been the suitcase of a spy. Fortunately, there in my Dad's hotel suite in downtown Beirut, it didn't appear to be the suitcase of a spy. I closed the bag and went out to have a drink on the balcony with my father. I had decided not to tell him. Harry's #1 good trait was to be considerate of strangers, and always to be respectful of everyone. He would talk to a cab driver with the same respect as the King of Saudi Arabia whom he often had to go see, and it was not an act. Harry was respectful of friends and strangers alike. He was an oil company worker in government relations so he was essentially a diplomat, and he would have not been pleased that I had taken another passenger's suitcase by mistake. Of course, a bunch of drinks later, I told him about it. He was okay, and simply said I had to go back to the airport first thing in the morning and make it right.
The Beirut Airport - just bombed today again by Israel - is quite a place. The Middle East is a mindblower generally but there are certain points where you feel the whole crazy heat more than others and one of them is the Beirut Airport. When I got out there with the bag, I had no plan. There was a huge door coming out of customs with a bunch of soldiers milling about. I noticed they were paying little attention and were mainly chatting. I decided rather than spend a long time going though the Middle East airline counter, etc... upstairs, that I would just walk past the soldiers in through the outdoor.
This - in retrospect - seems a little crazy but you have to remember I was young and life was an adventure. I made it in the door, essentially penetrating the security of one of the hottest airports in human history, while carrying someone's else's suitcase, and walked back to the luggage area. There I saw my bag, still sitting on the floor near where we had come in the night before. I switched bags and began to leave. I had all my ticket stubs etc, so I was good to go through customs this time, except of course I intended to try and just walk out again. I had nothing to hide, although it could be seen as strange that the plane had landed the night before and I was just now making it through customs. So I began to bolt. This is when my father's example of how to live life kicked in. I realized I had already screwed over some random person in the Middle East and the least I could do was own up to it. I went to an airline official and told the story. The man seemed to know the details, and went into an elaborate long scolding: "You must pay attention." He went on about how the airline had to buy the other passenger a new set of clothes - the whole bit. Having been raised in the Middle East, I knew this was a Middle Eastern thing. He was probably making it up and for sure he didn't really care. This was verified when a beautiful woman walked by and he stopped in mid-sentence to watch her pass. I apologized again in a Middle Eastern way which is to say 1,000 times and left. Eying the door out I saw the soldiers and the customs. Nobody looked too engaged so I carried my bag right past them, hopped in a cab, and went back to Beirut.


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