Saved in Port Elizabeth

2008-11-27 00:00

I am in the departure lounge of Port Elizabeth airport. The weather is foul. The wind is howling. The clouds are very low and ominously dark. Flurries of rain sweep across the airport. I have two hours to wait before my flight to Durban and home.

The place is very full of travellers. Near me there is a young mother with a baby in a carry- cot and a little girl of about two. I hear an elderly couple talking in German. Others look like weary business types, laptop cases at their sides, poring over documents. Perhaps, like me, they have come to the airport from long meetings in the city. Like me, they are tired and a bit irritable. My feet ache from hours of standing while giving an ethics presentation to a group of professionals.

My mind runs back to something I always emphasise at these workshops, where we explore ways of building moral capital.

“In ethics, in the wonderful realm of the good, small can be very big.” And I add that, unlike the cash in our pockets, moral wealth grows by being spent.

The wind gusts furiously and the rain falls harder. On the other side of the airport, I can barely see the tops of trees, so low is the cloud cover. With a stab of apprehension I sense what is coming, and sure enough, within 10 minutes it does. A flight to Johannesburg is cancelled. The plane from there has turned back because it can’t land in Port Elizabeth. Passengers are asked to report to the airline counter. They leave the departure area in droves.

Another flight is cancelled, and another. There are now not very many passengers left, all of us bound for Durban. Finally, our flight is cancelled too and we are asked to come back early tomorrow morning.

My heart sinks. I have already phoned all the hotels I can locate and they all are fully booked. I collect my checked luggage, hurry to the information desk and I am directed to an accommodation office nearby, where I join the queue. My turn comes and I am told that they have block-booked accommodation in guest lodges and B&B establishments.

My spirits lift. Maybe I no longer face the awful thought of a night spent on those ghastly airport seats. I happily pay the asking price and I am waved off to await a taxi driver. At last there is one for me. He takes me to a guest lodge where I find myself in a lounge full of other stranded travelers. The available rooms are all taken.

My heart sinks again, but I have reckoned without the lady of the house, whom I shall call Fatima because, I discover, she is a Muslim. Cheerfully she begins phoning other such establishments. Each time she finds something, and her stranded guests head outside for transport to a place where they can shower and sleep. At last my turn comes, along with a nervous older man from Durban and an overseas visitor who works for an NGO that supports township schools.

Our taxi driver is Fatima’s son-in-law. He wears Islamic headdress. I shall call him Ibrahim. He takes us to a building near the sea where we are shown to our accommodation, which is little short of luxurious, and tells us that he will collect us at an agreed time in the morning.

We thank him and he leaves us without asking for his fare. It is close to midnight and he has other people to ferry to their accommodation from Fatima’s.

It is early the next morning. The clouds have lifted and bright sunshine breaks through. I am back in the departure lounge waiting for my flight to Durban. We are told that it is on time.

I think back to the comfortable night’s sleep I enjoyed. I think back to Ibrahim returning us to the airport and politely mentioning the fares we owe him, which we gladly pay. He writes out neat receipts for the three of us, and we give him something for his children. He smiles his thanks, gets us luggage trolleys, shakes hands with us and wishes us a safe trip home.

To be sure, we all paid for the service we received, but not for the spirit of kindly helpfulness and the courtesy. In fact, the money we paid strikes me as too little for the help we were given.

I know that something special has happened, something that gives life to those words about how, in the realm of the good, small can be very big. I also know that a marvel of aircraft engineering will lift us into the skies and take us home. But even more do I know that there is a goodness that has already lifted us up and that on its wings we are already home.

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