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Flying in the time of fear

Despite a zillion security checks and paranoid airport officials, a visit to Toronto isn?t a drag.

india Updated: Aug 26, 2006 02:46 IST

If you put aside having to place your passport and tickets in a ziploc bag and then take off your shoes and jacket for security checks, you might just discover the lighter side of travel in the shadow of terror. The alert following the arrest of would-be bombers in London on August 10 resulted in a blanket ban on all electronic devices and liquids in carry-on baggage. Though Heathrow — where the checks were the most thorough and the flight delays the longest — now allows electronic devices in cabin bags, the initial blanket ban on them caused thousands of laptop and cellphone-toting travellers hours of worry.

Red alert

Travelling became a nightmare: apart from such regular problems as flight delays and baggage loss, you now had the additional worry of what and, what not, to pack. Several delegates in Canada for the International AIDS Conference in Toronto had transited through Heathrow and had harrowing tales to tell: some were practically stripped for security checks and made to forfeit everything that did not resemble a ticket or a passport. Flights got delayed by 10-12 hours, you could not call anyone as your cellphone had been checked-in and the pay-phones had serpentine queues… you could not even send home a postcard because all pens had been confiscated!

Wondering how sensitive electronic gadgets would survive insensitive baggage handlers on the flights through Heathrow sent many tech-savvy travellers — for whom laptops, i-pods, portable hard-drives, digital SLR cameras and cellphones are inseparable companions — into a tizzy. The most panicked were the cross-dressing participants at the AIDS conference who almost tore their elegant coiffure’s with manicured nails. No, they were not part of the carry-all creed that travel with a veritable electronic shop. They were men who rely on gel and water-filled padding to get the curves they wanted.

Beauty or duty free

“Do the new security rules mean that I have to declare my gelled assets at the airport?” one such ‘lady’ asked me. “I don’t want to give them up; it’s so difficult to get the right size.” Now that’s an occupational hazard security personnel may need to consider.

I was lucky that I got on board my flight at Heathrow after three simple checks that required — at worst — a thorough examination of my shoes and the waist-band of my jeans, but other travellers were not so lucky. A traveler from Mumbai on Air Canada raised a red flag because the chocolate chip cookies she had in her handbag resembled what security called ‘an unidentifiable mass’. Apparently a staunch follower of the ‘waste-not-want-not philosophy’, she promptly ate them all but was shattered when they threw away her lighter.

Harrowing experiences notwithstanding, travelling woes got mindspace only for the first and last day at the AIDS Conference. Most of the participants spent the rest of their time discussing the two Bills — Gates and Clinton — and competing for public and media attention. As usual, condoms were the quickest and surest way to grab eyeballs and many participants put this knowledge to good use. While the less imaginative stuck to displaying colourful condom balloons with AIDS messages scrawled across, the more innovative ones used them to stand out from among the over 20,000 participants.

Condomania

A drag queen from San Francisco — who insisted on being called Toots — wore condom bracelets and necklaces along with Austrian crystal jewellery. “Darling, there’s nothing hotter than wearing just a condom,” she smirked, giving passersby free condoms along with unsolicited backrubs.

A 35-year-old Brazilian artist Adriana Bertini from Sao Paolo had a psychedelic array of clothes on display that she had designed from condoms. Mannequins on display power-dressed in sunflower yellow business suits, candy pink tutus and crimson evening gowns, with one even exposing a breast, which the ‘artiste’ insisted was not a wardrobe malfunction. “It is a statement that showing skin is natural and should be acceptable,” she said. Why condoms? “I make art out of a material that suffers prejudice, despite being so needed by society,” she said, shrugging tattoo-covered shoulders. Incidentally, the condoms were not fresh or used, but factory rejects, so there was no spurt in population or HIV infections because of her queer choice of dress material.

Condoms were everywhere. Sex workers from the Asia-Pacific region had hot-selling T-shirts that read ‘Condomania’ and ‘Star Whores’. By the second day, they had run out of stock. Red AIDS ribbons made of condoms were also quite popular. Interestingly, condom major Durex gave free mosquito nets along with free condom packs to promote malaria prevention along with HIV spread in developing countries. In keeping with the mood, the mosquito nets were pink.

No condoms, alas, at the India stall which was so inconspicuous that even Indian participants had to look hard for it. The minister with his official retinue got lost reaching there, I was told. The only colour at the stall was the tiny basket of M&Ms and jellybeans that stall-minders enthusiastically offered to the Indian government delegation. When the minister left after two days, so did the jellybeans and the stall-minders.