The Qantas ground staff at the counter knew straight away.
‘How old is your son?’ she asked, looking at Sam standing behind us in the queue.
‘Sixteen,’ Benison replied.
The woman bit her lip. ‘Do you have his birth certificate, or a certified copy?’
Benison and I shared a look. ‘What? No.’
‘It is a requirement of entry to South Africa when travelling with any minor under the age of 18, I’m afraid. It is to stop child trafficking, which is a big problem in Africa.’
I was indignant. ‘Nobody told us!’
‘Err, actually…’ said Benison, ‘I do recall reading that when I booked the tickets. But that was months ago.’
‘Where do you live?’
‘Annandale,’ I replied for Benison.
We quickly figured out we just had enough time for Benison to dash home in a cab, grab the certificate and get back in time to board the flight to South Africa. That is, if all went well and the certificate was where we thought it was. Best not to consider the alternative…
She scurried off in a panicky search for the nearest available cab, while I tried to remain calm, chatted to the Qantas crew about Sam and our trip and waited.
Sam read Tintin and The Blue Lotus. Tintin is his latest obsession, and one we’re happy about. Any exposure to narrative helps teach him social skills, and Sam’s social and communication skills have come a long way since we were last in Africa, 18 months ago. It was going to be interesting to see how he had progressed since our last trip.
This journey, only two weeks rather than 6-months as previously, was really just planned as a family holiday, rather than an autism intervention, a chance for Benison, who missed out last time, to meet some of the wonderful people and experience some of the amazing places Sam and I encountered back in 2015.
With only two weeks up our sleeve, our itinerary was limited to South Africa and Namibia, the first two countries Sam and I visited last time. We thought it would be interesting to observe and contrast Sam 2017 with Sam circa 2015, particularly in these countries, the first he visited on the last journey. I suspected the difference would be profound. Assuming we ever got there!
Finally, with fifteen minutes to spare, Benison hobbled back to the counter with birth certificate in hand and moon-boot on foot (consequence of a broken foot a month earlier). The staff, by this time almost as happy as we were, issued the tickets, gave us express passage through immigration and we were on our way.
On to the long haul to Jo’burg, fourteen hours in daylight, following the sun.
Even on the flight, we witnessed the difference in Sam’s attitude to Africans. Sam is now keen, sometimes overly keen, to engage with strangers. He also had in his head, rightly or wrongly, that he had perhaps been rude to black Africans on our last trip, principally because he found their poverty confronting at times. Sam doesn’t judge, only observes. He’s devoid of racism, but, of course, in a country with such a fraught history as South Africa, there’s always the worry someone will take what he says the wrong way.
As expected, on a flight to Africa there were many Africans, black and white. Sam set out to settle the score. Waiting for the toilet, standing in line next to Benison, he noticed a black African woman approach the queue area. ‘Don’t push in! I am first!’
‘Sam, she’s not going to push in.’
After exiting the toilet, he held the door open for the woman. ‘It is free now.’
He then turned to Benison, ‘I was helpful to the black woman.’
Benison face-palmed. ‘Sam, it is not necessary to say that.’
‘What?’ Sam said, perplexed. He’d only been trying to help.
Of course, sometimes Sam’s habit of saying what we’re all thinking has its good points.
On another toilet visit (the 14-hour flight provided many opportunities) he noticed a white male passenger scrolling through photos on his laptop, all of him and his friends posing, guns in hand, over the corpses of African animals. In one, the man’s foot was resting on the bloodied head of a hippo.
‘Animal cruelty!’ Sam yelled, pointing at the photos. ‘Animal cruelty is bad.’
Benison, secretly concurring, hurried Sam back to his seat, not daring to look back to observe the man’s reaction.
We both agreed it would be a very interesting trip.