Saturday, May 23, 2009

Dispatches in Transit

When it was my turn to step forward to the Peruvian immigration desk, the official was pulling the surgical mask far enough away her face to be able to speak into a cellphone. She was talking to her daughter. It seemed that a particular tradesman was supposed to turn up at their house by 8 pm that evening but had never arrived. There was now a new appointment, for around 10am the next morning. "Don't worry, mi hijita", she said. Your papá will be there as well". Back in Peru, I thought, grinning as the official stamped my passport. "Have a good trip", she said. "Thanks for waiting".

My taxi driver to the centre of Lima also had a surgical mask on. As we drove away from the aiport he pulled it off with a grunt of annoyance. "Can't stand wearing this thing", he told me. "The muncipality makes us, or we get fined".

Earlier in the day, at Santiago airport where I stopped over for 7 hours before the connecting flight to Lima, there were also official precautions against the H1N1 influenza. Everyone who got off the plane, whether entering Chile or in transit, was redirected into a little side room where they had to fill out a form giving contact details and declaring any flu-like symptoms, and then join a rapidly growing line to have a photo taken by a single masked official. The official repeated the same mantra over and over: Permanezca inmovil. Mire directamente a la cámara. Gracias. Puede continuar. ("Stay still. Look directly at the camera. Thank you. You can continue"). After the first twenty or thirty photos everything became more efficient, and the official had to cut himself off: Permanezca inmovil. Mir--Gracias!

I couldn't help wondering what the Chilean authorities were going to do with all that data (starting with around 300 passengers on just one full Airbus). With the forms being handed out and collected separately, it just required a couple to get out of order to frustrate any matching process with the photos. As for contact details, the only useful thing on my form was my email, which I think was probably illegible.

Peru was less counter-productively obsessive. All passengers getting off had to fill out a form about symptoms, and there were two nurses from the Callao health service waiting bashfully by the plane door to offer "advice or assistance", but no compulsory photo session. The masks, however, were just as ubiquitous.

My taxi driver from the aiport was friendly enough, but not very talkative. I told him it was first time in Peru for over two years; I imagined quite a bit had changed. He laughed briefly. "Nothing much has changed", he said. " You'll see". He looked dead tired, and said he had been working since 7 am, and would continue until dawn."Why do they make you work such long hours?", I asked. "I requested it", he said. He told me that he earned a fixed rate of 950 soles per month, around $300 USD. The extra hours would get a bonus, but according to my driver, shaking his head sadly, "it's not enough".

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