Transit Tales

Do you ever wonder if customs and immigration officers go through special training to be such stone cold jerks?  I’d like to think that most of them are perfectly nice people off-duty and the ‘Capital A’ attitude is just something they turn on at work. Keep the frazzled travellers on edge and those who are smuggling or doing something illegal are more likely to get nervous and give themselves away.

Well, I recently met a customs agent with a bit of personality. After the usual round of questions and a good, long look through my passport, the agent at Istanbul’s Ataturk Airport waved me through. He didn’t show any emotion until the last possible second when he leaned forward and in a soft voice said, “Oh, and your new president is VERY handsome.”

I didn’t tell him that he’s preaching to the converted but somehow I think he knew.  

I was in a good mood to start with, but getting a refund of the tax that I paid when I purchased an iPad and a decent backpack was a bonus. The refund process wasn’t too difficult and they paid in cash, which I then exchanged for US currency at a kiosk within the terminal. I actually left the country with more US currency than when I entered. And to top off the string of good fortune, I spotted a portable scale near the gate so I weighed my two fully loaded packs and they came in under 12 kg. I personally haven’t lost any weight in the last six months but at least my luggage is 2 kg lighter than when I left Australia in April.

The flight from Istanbul to Almaty, Kazakstan was uneventful. I was asleep within 15 minutes and didn’t wake up until the pre-landing announcements. I can sleep through just about anything but apparently the words “place your seat in the upright position” are as good as any alarm clock to my subconscious brain.

While waiting for the connecting flight to Delhi I had a chance to catch up with a guy that I spoke with briefly while we stood in lime at check-in.  

Ishaq Timorzada is a carpet dealer from Kabul, Afghanistan who now lives and works in Delhi. I told him that I will be starting a new career next year, and while I don’t know what it will be, there’s a chance that it has something to do with auctions. “Persian” carpets are often sold by auction in Canada and I think the whole process is need of a shake-up.  I asked if I could pick his brain over a coffee.  He graciously answered my questions for the better part of 90 minutes.  

Carpet merchants in Canada have a bad reputation – mostly well deserved, I’m afraid – but Ishaq struck me as anything but the pushy salesman. Quite frankly, I liked his business philosophy. He is a stand-up guy in a business rife with shady characters and dishonest practices.

We chatted about his life in Afghanistan and India, his international travel and the countless dignitaries and celebrities he has had the opportunity to meet as a 6th generation carpet dealer.

For several years Ishaq and his older brother operated the lone carpet shop on the huge airforce base in Kandahar. According to Ishaq, every high ranking officer who ever passed through Kabul bought at least one of his carpets. He showed me photos of when he presented carpets to countless visiting politicians and foreign dignitaries, including the presidents of India and Afghanistan. He’s quite the self-promoter, to put it mildly.  

As he was swiping through the photos on his phone he said, “Oh, have you seen this one?” It was a short clip of Maryam Monsef being sworn in as Canada’s Minister of Democrat Institutions. I had not heard her name until election night but Ishaq knew her life story. (Her father was killed by the Taliban, her uncle ‘disappeared’ while attending university, and Maryam, her widowed mother and two sisters came to Canada as refugees when Maryam was 11.)

Ishaq was obviously very proud of Maryam and I suspect he was also in awe of a country where an Afghan refugee could get elected to parliament and named to cabinet at the age of 30. I told him that I was very proud of that country, as well.

An hour later we were flying over the snow covered mountains of Kazakhstan when the in-flight entertainment was turned on. Kazakhstan’s Air Astana offers one hour of silent entertainment on all short haul flights. To my great surprise, just about everyone on the flight was chuckling along with Just For Laughs “Gags” which is shot on the streets of Montreal.

Nothing like a little taste of home before landing in the craziness that is New Delhi, India.

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