Standing at the baggage claims counter at South African Airways domestic arrivals, Johannesburg, trying to get back to the plane to retrieve my passport and plane tickets, I watched the lone woman staffer proceed slowly from carousel to carousel, removing the still rotating baggage in the empty baggage claims area.
"Is anybody coming?" I asked another person waiting at the same counter. "That's her," he replied. Missing my passport, missing my tickets, and growing increasingly worried, I waited for the woman to arrive back at her desk and wondered why she was moving so slowly. It was all I could do to muster a smile as she approached and to explain my dilemma.
Unknown to me at the time, the woman was Diddy (pronounced 'dee dee'). Also unknown to me was the fact that she was finishing, in all probability, a shift in excess of 12 hours, acting as the point of contact for all manner of travellers in distress.
I haven't been kind to the SAA baggage claims department in recent days, and I will say, with some justification. It should not have taken three days to recover the documents. And someone should have been available to get the passport right away, given the ugency of such a loss. And at some point, somebody should have mentioned that SAE is a separate airline.
But I will also say that without Diddy, I might well have been in much greater difficulty. It was Diddy who took the original report, and she took ownership of it, in a way that did not become apparent (or even evident) until today.
When the passport was (eventually) found, she tried to contact me at the Intercontinental Hotel. At first, the hotel claimed no knowledge of me (and they had, after all, completely lost my Monday evening registration, which would have been a disaster had Tony Carr not coaxed me to Cape Town).
She then convinced them that they had heard of me, and obtained the phone number I had (correctly) supplied to the hotel on check-in. It unfortunately was sent to her missing one digit, and hence, when she tried to call my home she got a response in Portugese or Spanish, not the English she was expecting.
She then somehow was able to determine that I was booked on the British Airways flight to Cape Town, and managed to get a message to them as the plane sat at the gate. A British Airways steward came to me and handed me the message Diddy had sent. By this time I already knew that South African Express had found my passport. Diddy's note, however, contained the vital information that I had not been given when I enquired at the baggage counter - the reference number for the claim.
When I showed up at the counter bright and early this Wednesday morning, having taken an alternative 6:45 a.m. flight to give myself time to claim the passport, I was greeted at the booth by Diddy, who recognized me on site. She smiled a big smile. "Mr. Downes," she said. "Did you receive my message?" I had, and presented her with the slip of paper on which it had been written.
The pouch was still at the SAE office upstairs. "My friend," she said to the person at the other end. "I would love for you to give me a visit. And could you bring the item..." and then she read the reference number. Time passed, as I watched her handle the requests as they came in, the early hours of another workday I now knew would end after ten o'clock at night. Like an officer directing traffic, she moved bags, enquiries and other matters with dispatch.
One passenger had lost his grey baggage cart-suitcase. He had place the ticket to his next flight in the baggage, and so was now without a way to get to the next stage of his trip. He also needed the contents for a presentation he was doing that afternoon. I watched Diddy go through the possibilities - alternate carousel, alternate terminal, alternate airport - quickly and efficiently.
The man was unwilling to accept that his baggage had not been placed on the plane. She politely gave him document and reference number for future enquiries. "There is a grey bag like yours on carousel four," she said, obviously aware of what was rotating about on each of the six carousels. He left, without checking carousel four. The grey bag was still circling when I left.
Diddy's friend, meanwhile, had apparently not accepted the kind offer of a visit. "I will have to go upstairs and get it," she said, turning off her seat and with a great puff of air making her way out the door and away. By then I had taken off my jacket and was listening to tunes on my iRiver, so I smiled and said OK.
About ten minutes after Diddy had left, another person arrived, carrying my missing item report - the one I had filled out five days earlier - and a blue pouch. I looked at it. It was much larger than mine, and labled for some city council of some African city. It was - to my horror - not mine. I looked at it as it sat on the counter, trying to will it to be mine. My heart sank quickly as I began to review the backup plans that had been made just in case of something like this.
The package sat on the counter and we all waited for Diddy to return, me hoping against hope that she would have found my blue pouch in the SAE express area. She returned, about ten minutes later, empty-handed. My last hope was dashed. Then she took the blue pouch, opened it, and there, inside, lay my pouch with my passport and my plan tickets. "It came to us this way," she explained.
Now there is justice in this world. How probable is it that my blue pouch, found by the cleaner on the aircraft three days after it was left, would be placed in another blue pouch, found by the same crew on the same plane at the same time? I shuddered to think of what would have happened had this small South African town chosen red, and not blue, as a civic colour. But then, Diddy would probably have checked in any case.
Diddy handed me my pouch, I confirmed the correct spelling of her name, thanked her sincerely and profusely, and told her that I would be writing this post. Her face lit up, and I could feel the warmth of her smile.
Tonight, Diddy will be slowly walking from carousel to carousel after the last flight has come through the airport. She will remove the grey bag off carousel four and, if it is that man's, tag it and put it in the back room, properly matched to the reference number. Two or three impatient and worried passengers will wonder why this large black woman won't move any faster and why she won't leave the bags and come attend to their needs.
But I will know. And at at ten o'clock tonight, as I sit about six hours out across the Indian Ocean on my way to Sydney, I will raise a glass to Diddy.