In December 1994, after I had just turned 21, I lost my wallet and about US$300 in cold, hard cash somewhere in the departure terminal at OR Tambo International airport (then called ‘Jan Smuts’) just hours before I boarded a flight for New York and a dream solo adventure in the USA.
I remember saying goodbye to my parents, clearing passport control, and then while rummaging through my bulbous, black leather money belt, descending into a mad panic when I couldn’t find my wallet amongst my Thomas Cook travellers cheques and passport.
Heart beating feverishly, my anxiety building, I checked and re-checked my money belt, retraced my steps all the way back to the passport control kiosk I’d just passed through, but found nothing.
I was utterly forlorn. I would have wept, were it in my nature, but instead simply deflated quickly like a popped balloon.
The anticipated thrill of the trip – a birthday present I had chosen instead of having a party – and the excitement of traveling abroad had completely vanished, replaced instead with a dark cloud of guilt (what would I tell my parents?) and deep embarrassment (what a careless fool I was).
All that wasted money.
Later, as I sat dejectedly on the South African Airways jumbo jet waiting for take-off I realised what had most likely happened: I’d gone to a store in the airport to buy something to read on the plane (a South African Sports Illustrated magazine no doubt) and other nick nacks. After paying, instead of putting my wallet back into my money belt, I had mistakenly and carelessly slipped it between the money belt and my pants, where it had simply fallen to the ground.
Either that or it had been stolen by some brilliant pickpocket whose speciality was money belts. Either way, someone hit the jackpot at Jan Smuts that evening. I hope they spent it well.
After sitting forlornly on the plane for a number of hours, as it sped through the night sky on the long 18-hour journey to the ‘promised land’, I resolved that I couldn’t allow these unfortunate series of events to ruin a four week adventure. After all, they would mean wasting even more money.
Initially, I tried to work out a plan where I would somehow be so spend thrift on my travels that I would recoup the lost funds – this involved a journal of daily entries of savings made, drinking water instead of buying a Coke, that sort of thing- but that ‘brilliant idea’ did not last long.
Instead, I simply chose to forgive myself and went on my more or less merry way exploring the sights of New York, Chicago, San Francisco, Los Angeles and San Diego – minus US$300 in cash.
My carelessness was not though confined to losing my wallet.
Arriving in the US in my jetlagged state, having forgotten about things like time zones, but eager to unburden myself, I’d rung my parents at some ungodly hour to tell them of my misfortune.
My father, fearing the worst when the telephone rang at that time, had sprinted down our passageway, forgetting in the dark there was a security door in the way (a phenomenon of many Johannesburg homes, it separated the bedrooms from the rest of the house) and nearly knocked himself out trying to get to the phone in the entrance hall.
In the confusion of the corridor dash he’d presumably also forgotten that he might disturb a gang of burglars rifling through the display cabinets of my mother hand-me-down antiques and bric-a-brac. (We were, if my memory serves me true, actually burgled once while we slept in our beds snoring safely behind the locked security door).
Despite being on the receiving end of more stupidity on my part, my parents were exceedingly nice about all of their money I had lost and encouraged me to enjoy my holiday.
However, for years later I was reminded by my family, whenever I prepared to go overseas, to try not to lose all my money before even getting on the plane.
This long-running joke, that was never quite a joke, created I think, a kind of Pavlovian reaction in me: whenever I prepared to fly anywhere, an uncomfortable general anxiety surfaced in my gut accompanied by some irrational thoughts and somewhat obsessional behaviour.
Irrational – in that my anxiety about flying has manifested into a palpable fear of missing my flight.
To counter a myriad of possible, but unlikely scenarios that might befall me on the way to the airport – getting a flat tyre, getting stuck in traffic, the taxi I have booked not arriving, forgetting something and having to go back home – I like to leave for the airport many, many hours earlier than is necessary.
As I usually arrive, without incident, many, many hours earlier than necessary, this only feeds another nervous affectation – a need to constantly pat myself down, checking that I still have my wallet, passport, boarding pass and any other important documentation, and that they hadn’t dropped to the floor, been stolen or simply carelessly left behind.
You will at least be pleased to know (dear reader) that I have dispensed with the god-awful money belt. I prefer having my wallet and passport in the front pockets of my pants where I can reassuringly feel their presence.
As I have grown older and a bit more chilled, I have become a lot less anxious about the trip to the airport and departure lounges no longer generate quite as much stomach-churning action as they did in the past.
Somewhat wiser, or at least more experienced at life, I am able to acknowledge the irrational nature of my worries and doubt.
If anxiety does surface, I remind myself that if I miss my flight, the trip simply wasn’t meant to be or that the plane I never boarded will almost surely plummet into the ocean. It seems to work a treat.
Ironically, my wife and I backpacked around the world in 2010 and pretty much nothing went wrong.
We travelled through 26 or 27 countries, took dozens of flights, bus, train, ferry and boat trips and never missed any of them.
We never lost a single piece of luggage – our expensive Kathmandu backpacks always reappeared no matter whether they were thrown on the roofs of dusty buses in Marrakesh, loaded onto a plane in Delhi or squashed onto a boat in Kho Phi Phi – and we never lost a passport or wallet between us.
As for airports, we breezed through all of those without – miraculously – a penny unaccounted for.