Take Me To Your Leader

4 11 2008

“What are all these people doing in my garden?” (Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands and President Ahtisaari of Finland in Helsinki)

Today, millions of Americans will cast their ballots for the next president of the U.S. – and more people around the world will be watching than probably ever before.  For one of these two men, his life will change forever. Never again will he be able to book a last-minute sell-off to a 3-star all-inclusive in Acapulco; never again will he be able to engage in a beer-drinking contest at Daytona Beach and in future he will send the Secret Service down to the swimming pool to spread his towel on a sun-bed at the crack of dawn.

 

And, for much of his life, like most world leaders, he will be disrupting the travels of people all over the world!

 

I was connecting through Cincinnati-Louisville airport during the run-up to a presidential election. Our turbo-prop commuter aircraft had closed its door and was taxiing towards the end of the runway when the engines stopped and we came to a halt. The pilot announced that the president’s aircraft, Air Force One, was on final approach and under federal law all aircraft at the airport had to shut-off their engines and remain where they were.

 

We watched the blue and white 747 land on the neighbouring runway and only once it had taxied clear were we permitted to continue on our way.

 

That was nothing compared to the greeting I got in Bangkok during the APEC Summit, however.

 

High security is nothing new at airports, but finding yours surrounded by tanks and sand-bagged machine-gun nests raises the eye-brows of even the most seasoned of traveller. The annual APEC Summit attracts the leaders of the nations who border the Pacific Ocean which means not only the U.S. president but also those of Russia, China, Japan, Australia and Canada amongst others. Once I had fought my way through the usual hordes of passengers, friends, family, police, security – and this time also military – and managed to check-in, I heaved a sigh of relief upon entering the sanctuary of the departure lounge…although the presence of trigger-happy soldiers even in here was actually a little less than comforting.

 

Taxiing for take-off, we raced straight past a line of official aircraft on the far-side of the airport. Beside Air Force One sat the equivalent transport of all the other leaders – and a small army of armoured vehicles and soldiers.

 

A few days later my ability to navigate through Kuala Lumpur was restricted by the summit of the Organisation of the Islamic Conference when I found myself opening the terminal door to an Iranian minister and his impressive entourage. He nodded his appreciation before being shuffled into a large black Mercedes with the Iranian flag flying from its bonnet all accompanied by a motorcade of cars and motorcycles. Of course, all of these were minor inconveniences compared to my return trip when the highway connecting Kuala Lumpur to its suburban airport was closed while the leaders of the Islamic nations were shuttled en masse back and forth and I was deprived of 4 hours sleep to beat the roadblocks!

 

Sometimes though, the presence of a world leader goes completely unnoticed such as when I discovered I was sitting opposite a former Canadian prime minister on the Toronto subway. There was no red carpet, no official press corps, no brigade of security with earpieces and lapel pins, no coterie of assistants and, as I was on my way to a meeting, thankfully they didn’t shut down the system while he travelled.

 

Photo and post by: Simon Vaughan

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