Preparing for an assignment is always stressful. Research, logistics, contacts, equipment, gear and the proper clothing are just some of the areas I need to get under control. Finally arriving at the airport was always a time for me to relax and regroup before beginning to work. But lately, airport security and delays, coupled with jet lag have created a new kind of stress.
Recently, my friend Mike Yamashita called me from his hotel room in Mexico. He was frantic because his Mac computer, the one he needed for the lecture he was going to give, had been picked up by someone else going through security. Mike had retrieved a Mac identical to his own, as had another passenger.
Luckily, the person with Mike’s computer made contact and both computers were able to be exchanged within a few days.
Another colleague, while going through security in Doha, Qatar in the middle of the night, was so exhausted that he simply forgot to retrieve his computer. He didn’t realize it was missing until he arrived at Dulles International Airport. Again, he was lucky in that security in Doha was able to find his computer and send it to him.
Of course, I thought these were random incidents. There was no way that I would ever forget or lose any equipment, especially in an airport. But jet lag, airport confusion, and distractions can happen to anyone, even me.
I was hit hard with the potentially disastrous consequences of airport stress when I arrived in the Kathmandu airport, after traveling for over 30 hours. I was shooting a last minute assignment for the National Geographic magazine on Lumbini, Nepal, the birth place of The Buddha. The baggage area was total chaos; three planes had arrived at this small airport around the same time. I had changed planes in Doha, Qatar and of course I was concerned whether my baggage would arrive with me in Kathmandu. I was tired, jetlagged and generally out of it, but was ecstatic to see my bags of lights, stands and cold weather gear on the conveyer belt. A colleague from the National Geographic was traveling with me. A local customs fixer from Kathmandu met us with the proper paperwork to get all of my equipment though Nepalese customs. I was carrying a bottle of duty free liquor in a plastic bag, a gift for one of the people I was going to be working with and I was concerned that in all of the confusion it might break. My shoulder bag held my laptop, books, a small camera and lens and reams of paperwork.
We slid through customs and headed out to the parking area which was even more chaotic than baggage claim and customs. My local helper and his assistants quickly loaded our bags into the back of the van and my colleague and I took a seat inside. As we proceeded through heavy traffic to our hotel, I was relieved to finally leave the airport. But my relief was short lived. When we got to the hotel, I stood at the back of the van and supervised the off loading of the equipment and luggage. Everything was there – except my Tenba rolling bag of cameras. It wasn’t in the van and it wasn’t with the hotel bellman. My first thought was that it must have been left at the airport. The last time I remembered seeing it was when I took it out of the overhead on the plane and wheeled it to the baggage area. I assumed one of my helpers had loaded it onto one of the carts and put it in the van with the other luggage.
Panic overtook my jetlag as we headed back to the airport, fighting our way through the traffic, knowing that every minute would be another opportunity for someone to walk off with the bag. I hoped that it was still in the baggage area, but if someone did take it they would be caught going through customs. As we raced through the back streets of Kathmandu, I asked the customs’ fixer to call someone, anyone at the airport to try to find my bag. I was in total shock as I came to grips with my stupidity in losing control of my cameras. Ten minutes from the airport one of the locals’ cell phones rang in the van and another Nepalese conversation ensued. When the call ended, my fixer looked at me and said the bag had been found. My next concern was whether someone might have grabbed something out of the bag, or that the black rolling bag that was found might not have been mine. Since I carried it on the plane, I had neglected to tag it with my identification.
When we arrived at the airport we were faced with another challenge – going backwards through customs into the secure bag area. We were denied permission. But my fixer called his friend inside customs who eventually came out and brought me into the luggage area. He took me to a small counter on the side of the baggage area where there were approximately fifty unclaimed bags. There, chained with a padlock was my Tenba. I showed the counter attendant my passport and boarding pass but since my name wasn’t on the outside of the bag there was nothing to connect me to it. The attendant asked me what was inside: “a lot of cameras and lenses, I hope”. We unzipped the bag and everything was there.
What would I have lost if the bag hadn’t been found?
2 Canon 5D Mark IIs
8 various Canon lenses
1 Canon Strobe
2 500 gb back up drives and cables
2 Battery charges
Many CF and SD cards
I have no one to blame for this but myself. I have tried to make excuses in my head: jetlag, worrying about breaking the bottle of liquor and my local assistants taking charge of the luggage. But at the end of the day, it is my responsibility to ensure that I have all of my equipment to do the photos and to complete the assignment. This means making sure that everything I put through security, I retrieve. It means that every piece of luggage and equipment that I check is taken off the conveyor belt. The stress of preparation is for naught if you don’t have the gear to do the job. My colleagues and I were very lucky. These incidents could have ended differently.