Monday, April 14, 2008

before i forget: The Trip From Hell (or "Chicago to Kigali in 5 days")

Readers Warning: This entry is 9 pages, single spaced on Microsoft Word. If you don’t have time, and want the good stuff, skip to day 4 or 5. But it’s all good.

Day 1 (past tense): Thursday night:

7:30pm: It was with great effort that I tore myself away from the family dinner at my grandparents house, to make the long, snowy drive to O’Hare airport. I must admit, I was hoping the flight would be cancelled. I met the von Trapps at the airport. I was the official chaperone for the two youngest children. I had a bit of a Maria complex... carrying my guitar and leading them down the long hallways of O'Hare, it was difficult to resist sining "I have Confidence". Justin and Amanda could have done without the song.

We were greeted by a particularly grouchy ticket agent, who bewailed us for not getting our bags on the scale quickly enough and not being earlier for our flight. It’s always nice when people are helpful and kind. The flight to London was relatively uneventful. I took sleeping pills which is never a good idea, because you still can’t sleep, but feel worse about it because you’re artificially tired.

Day 2: (present tense):

11:00am We arrive in London Heathrow,
Justin leaves my guitar in the plane: The first glorious mishap. I run 1 mile, backwards through security checks, only to find the guitar case sanctioned (they thought it was a bomb). Thankfully, once they see a flustered young American woman, they assume I’m stupid and give it back, without much questioning.

1:00 pm We take a train to London, shop in Covent Garden, walk through Kensington park and eat scones at “The Muffin Man”: a perfect English day.

Until we get back to the airport…

5:58pm We arrive at Heathrow for a 7:00pm flight: which would be plenty of time, were we in the right terminal and already checked in.
We soon realize one of our mistakes.
(This section is annoyingly detailed. Skip if, like me, you hate details.)
[The trains from T3 (Terminal 3… easier to say) to T4 come every 30 minutes. Our train left 20 seconds before we got there, and we have to wait 26 minutes for the next one. This got us to T4 twenty minutes before out flight departed. Still fine, I thought, assuming people in the security line and at the gate would be helpful, and not not helpful.
And then we realize our second mistake.

6:53 found us near tears (well, I’ll speak for myself here) in front of the woman who decided naaaat to let us on the plane (I am convinced) to punish us (4 people board after us). Granted, we hadn’t been checked through by the grouchy man in Chicago… (details, details) and think we have been. We will found out later that it would have been entirely possible for the woman to check us in and let us on the plane… she was just in the mood to teach a lesson.
I’m going to teach her a lesson….
(If she ever tries to come to Rwanda and get involved in a PEACE plan, that is. Oh, I’ll make her wish she’d let me on that plane. She’ll see.) ☺
(end of details)

7:00pm Here’s where the real chaos begins. I call my travel agent at home. He says if we get over to the united desk ASAP, we might be able to catch the 9:10 flight to Ethiopia. Without thinking too hard, I leave wide-eyed Amanda and Justin at the desk where we are trying to reclaim our luggage, and run out to where I think the desk should be. Of course, United is in T3 (at this point, I am coming to loathe Heathrow). I can’t go back to where the baggage is, so I’m not sure If I should take the train and leave them, since it’s our only chance to get out that evening, or wait, like a responsible chaperone.
I rip out a page of my journal and write, with a ball point pen:


(To which I should have added, “good luck” or “God help you” because that’s about how much hope I have that they would find me.)

I chew a piece of gum and try to stick the paper to a post where they might see it, coming out of baggage claim. It falls off 4 times, and the paper is getting soggy from sticking and re-sticking my spitty gum. So I find a nearby wall and hope neither airport security or the cleaning lady takes it down before they see it.
I take the train to T3, only to find that United has closed for the evening. What can I do about it? Nothing. I try the “help line” but no one answers. I mean, there’s a message that says “Thank you for calling United… you know the rest. (The typical, supremely unhelpful message telling you to call back when it’s convenient for THEM, not you. Why do they even try to be polite in those messages? It only makes the customer MORE annoyed). So, it’s back to T4 to see if Amanda and Justin haven’t been swallowed by the Heathrownian abyss.

(try to understand, each time you switch terminals, you have to go down 3 huge flights of stairs and walk a half a mile of a hallway… hoping your train has not just left, because then you’ll have to wait another 20 minutes)

The moment the train lurches into movement, I get a call from Amanda saying “where are you?” They went to T3. No, they didn’t see my sign, they’re just smart. They only got 3 of our 6 bags from the desk. They’re calling from a payphone in T3 arrivals.

“Stay right there. I’ll be right back.” I then realize that I might have to talk to someone in T4 about tickets for tomorrow. I can’t call her back. So I go back up the 3 flights of stairs (for the 8th time that evening). My legs are aching at this point. I’m carrying 3 bags.

I find a representative for Kenya airways.
“You’re lucky” she says. “I was about to leave” I didn’t say I felt anything but lucky at the moment. “How are you?” I ask, in a moment of graciousness. “I’m pissed off.” She says. “ I just had to wait for a passenger for over an hour!”
“Well I’m pissed off too.” I say. “I just missed my flight to Africa, we lost half of our luggage and I lost the 2 children I’m responsible for”.
“I’m sorry.” she says. I know she means it. “I’m sorry too. “ I say, “I’m glad we got that out of the way”
She books us on the next days flight to Kenya. But tells us that we’re on standby out of Nairobi. No big deal, I think, we are 1,2, and 3 on the waiting list.
(In line with the rest of the trip, I was quite wrong.)
I take the loathsome train back to T3. We decide to go back to T4 and leave our luggage there. Another train ride (I really should have counted).
Take the underground into town, find a hostel, eat some Chinese food, and fall asleep exhausted.

Day 3:

We arrive at the airport 3 hours early the next day. Justin and I have a debate about whether it’s a sin to worry or not. He thinks worrying helps. I think it doesn’t. The conversation ends when I pull out my bible and read the “Therefore, do not worry about anything…” verse. “What version is that?”, Justin asks. I realize this is not the time to prove any point, when everything is going wrong. But in situations like this, I find my only defense is to let go of everything, try to laugh as much as possible, and let things happen… more out of a need to survive than piety.
Oh, and they have “found” our remaining 3 bags, and tell us they are “going to be on the plane.”
Ha ha.

Day 4: (I realize this is long. No one is forcing you to read on. But the worst parts are yet to come… because now we’re in Africa).

None of us sleep on the plane and we arrive at the Nairobi airport at 6:30 am.

(Description needed here: Nairobi airport is one LONG hallway, with about 20 duty free shops selling whisky, cigarettes and peanut M&Ms, one internet café which charges $2 for 15 minutes of internet or $4 per minute for international phone calls, and an “electronic shop” that doesn’t sell outlet adapters or cell phone chargers. There is ONE desk called the “Transfer Desk”. EVERY SINGLE PERSON who goes through Nairobi, has to get their boarding pass for their next flight at this desk. Let me say that again, there is 1 desk for all 2000 people in the airport. 1 desk. Uno. At it’s busiest, I’ve seen 3 people working behind the desk, but usually there’s only 1. The line is, at it’s smallest, 20 people long and can grow to 100+ people. Every one of them has an issue and is in a hurry. You can imagine, I’m sure, the amount of sighs, eye rolls, and elbow jabs.
There is ONE place to sit, at the end of the hallway, called the Java Café. Don’t be deceived. IT wasn’t nice. We sat in a sticy booth where a broken air conditioner was dripping on one corner of the table. The air conditioning never got fixed. That day, or the next. But I’m getting ahead of myself.)

I immediately go to the transfer desk to see about our “standby” status. After an hour in line we find out that the flight has been oversold by 18 people. But we should wait at the gate for 3 hours, just in case. The flight gets delayed 2 hours, so everyone gets a chance to check in… except for us. After 3 more trips to and from the café at the end of the airport, and asking everyone in uniform whether or not there is room on the flight, we don’t get on. Who is surprised? Not I. I wait in line another 2 hours to see when the next flight is (you have to wait in line every time you have any question, whatsoever, because no one else knows anything, except for the 2, slow-typing, assistants, behind that stupid desk)

“There is a flight tomorrow at 1pm, but it is oversold by 28 people” she says.
Who oversells flights by 28 people? I think to myself. In a way, it might make sense as a way to insure you’ll make your money, in case 29 people don’t show up, but I don’t think customer satisfaction/return factor into the thinking here. In the land of the desperate, how could it?

“There is a flight that leaves at 9am and there’s room on it” The slender woman with long, set aside, bangs, informs me.
“we’ll take it” I say.
Click-click-click on her keyboard.
“Oh, very sorry,” She crinkles her eyebrows “the flight has been suspended.”
“What does that mean?” I say
“I don’t know.” She says
“Sooo…. What-should-I-do?” I ask. I am beyond impatience at this point
“Leave your tickets with me and I will keep trying”. I leave at 5pm. Come back then.“ she says.
For some reason (mostly fatigue, I suspect), I trust this woman, and leave her my tickets. My solitary chance of getting out of this place.

I find Amanda and Justin, sitting on the floor nearby, leaning against a glass guardrail. “We have a visitor,” Amanda says. A petite elderly woman, clothed in one continuous piece of African fabric, is squatting 6 inches from them, in the place where I had been sitting. I look down at her. She looks up with watery eyes and smiles a warm, tired, clueless smile. “Well” I say “I guess we’ll find another place”

2:00pm We move to the transfer lounge, which is really just a big empty room, and fall asleep on the cold green tiles. I wake up at 4:30pm and go wait in line again to retrieve our tickets. The woman with the bangs is not there. I realize I should have asked for her name. I wait 30 min in line and when I get to the desk, the man behind it assures me that everything is going to be ok.

At this point I start getting sharp with him.

“Try to be patient” he says, over and over.
“I cannot be patient” I say, quite blankly. (The irony here is, I had no choice. In the US, we have the choice to be patient or not; To blow a fuse, or not. Because we know if we blow a fuse, something will undoubtedly happen. Not the case here.)
How can you be “patient” when a stranger is somewhere holding your tickets that are the only out of this country… and is about to go home with them. I was going to be in Nairobi Airport for the rest of my life.
At 5:30, The woman with the bangs shows up. I am so relieved to have my tickets back, I do not scold her for telling me she was going home at 5. However, she is still unable to access our flight, so we have to come back in the morning to see a woman named Penina (who I’m sure, to this day, doesn’t exist). Argh. So now it’s dinnertime. The chance of getting into town to see anything or stay anywhere has been shot. We eat at the airport restaurant. Terrible food, but we haven’t eaten all day, so my pizza tastes ok. Justin’s Lamb Masala makes me want to gag and the Ice Cream tastes like it has been frozen, melted and re-frozen 5 times over.

We rent “rooms” in the sleeper’s lounge, in the sketchy basement below terminal 3. Rooms are $40 per person for a tiny bed and table. There’s barely room to walk into the room. The beds are made of foam and the pillows are stuffed with burlap sacks. IF we sleep for over 8 hours, the price doubles. Needless to say, none of us sleep well.

Day 5:

6:30: wake up and take a cold shower with a bar of cheap soap and dry myself with a scratchy towel that must have come from a cheap beach hotel in the states 20 years ago. We get out of there by 7, and return to our stake in the transfer desk line.
I wait for about an hour in the line. I am 2 people from the front when a tall, well dressed African man runs up to the desk and says “excuse me, we have a big problem!”, in good English. I going to assume the man was Kenyan.
No reaction from the 2 people behind the desk.
“EXCUSE ME!” He repeats, more emphatically “We have a REALLY BIG PROBLEM! Please, someone call security!” There is desperation in his voice.
No one moves.
At this point, I’m assuming this is a rich Kenyan gentleman who has lost his luggage, and wants to complain to an official.
He walks up to one of the men assisting someone and, slamming his hand on the desk, asks: “Why won’t you call security?”
“There is a line, sir. You must wait your turn.” The timid man behind the desk says, without looking up.
“I don’t have time to wait in line. We have a problem NOW! What do you want me to do?”
“Whatever you wish” the man answers
“You want me to do what I wish?” The Kenyan challenges.
The man behind the desk nods, finally looking up, and then sideways at the angry man, who promptly picks up his computer monitor and throws it across the room.
The buzzing airport went silent.
“CALL SECURITY” the Kenyan yells.

At this point, I’m thinking “this is the part of the story where a group of men rush in with hand-cuffs and guns, and this guy gets escorted off the premises, and arrested.”

Nothing happens.

The man behind the computer silently collects his monitor, sets it back on his desk and begins to plug the wires back in.
The Kenyan is beside himself and starts shouting something in Swahili, arms flailing. At this moment I see tears in his eyes. This is not a petty baggage issue. The African men around me become involved in the dialogue. Soon everyone is yelling, but still, nothing official is happening. I look around. Is there any security in this airport?
Soon, the Kenyan storms out, back to the baggage claim area.
“What happened?” I ask the gentleman next to me in line.
“His mother. She fell on the plane from Dubai.” He answers in his thick accent, “She was dying but there was no one to help. Now she is dead. They would not call anyone.”

There is a dead woman. Down that hallway, a woman is dead. And no one doing anything. At this point I feel very unsafe. I begin to think about the woman I heard about at Bethel who raised from the dead a boy who had drowned in the ocean. The woman had been praying for a year that she would have an opportunity to raise someone from the dead, and would lie on her carpet and imagine herself saying the words “In the name of Jesus, wake up.” Wake up. Should I go pray for her, Jesus? Should I go now? I haven’t been preparing or praying for this moment…

At this moment, my number comes up in line. I went to the desk. I forget to even ask about Penina, since I’m sure she doesn’t exist.
“Sir, I have been here for 2 days and I have to get out of here. I don’t care how, just get me on a flight, any flight, to anywhere. Otherwise I will take a bus to Rwanda. Or walk.”
The man looks at me and smiles.
“The 9 o’clock flight has been cancelled, but we can get you on the noon flight”
“I was told it was oversold by 28 people”
“Who said this?” He asks
“Never mind,” I say. “Just get me boarding passes with seat numbers”
He prints off the boarding passes and 1 make him repeat the promise that we will, indeed, be on the flight at 12:00 pm. It boards at 10:45. This leaves me 2 hours to find the woman who fell on the plane from Dubai.

I follow the Kenyan man’s trail down to the customs area. There is a small room off to the side and the door has been left open. I can’t imagine what this room is used for on a daily basis. The place where they bring the sick and dying to keep them out of the way? It’s the size of a large bathroom. There is no furniture, no medical equipment. There are about 10 people crowded around what I assume to be the woman, lying on the floor, covered in a bedsheet.

“Excuse me,” I ask the man by the door, “I would like to pray for the woman”
“Hum?” He leans his ear into my face. I don’t think my volume is the problem.
“I want to pray” I make a praying symbol with my hands, like they teach you in Sunday school… like we always see Jesus in posters, His hands clapped together, index fingers and eyes pointed toward heaven. “For the woman” I point past his right hip to where I can see the sheeted bundle.
“Ah yes. One moment” He says, he calls a woman over and mutters in Swahili.
She looks at me. “You want to pray for this woman?” I nod “Do you know her condition?” she asks.
“Yes, I know that she is dead.” I say.
She raises her eye-brows, shrugs and says “why not.”

Now, to prevent this from sounding like a “from the field” missionary report, let me say that I had no feelings of calling or heroism in my bones. God did not say “Go and bring this woman back to life.” I just had the feeling I should pray for her. I was actually shaking. But bold, nonetheless. I knew what I had to do and had nothing to lose. Would these people thing I was strange for asking this woman to wake up, in the name of Jesus. Probably, but who cares? It’s His choice, not mine. He can do whatever He wants. Who cares if I look stupid. In this case, at least.

I ask around the room if anyone knew the woman. They shake their heads. What are they doing here? I wondered. The air in the room was utterly undignified. I shuttered to think about my own mother, lying on a cold floor under a sheet in some African airport, surrounded by a group of murmuring apathetic onlookers.
Someone had her name on a piece of paper. I can’t remember it now.

I repeated the name and said “Talitha cum” over and over. It’s the words Jesus used when he asked the girl to get up. The girl who was only sleeping.

This woman was not sleeping. I touch her hand through the sheet. It is cold and hard, like your feet feel when they’ve been outside too long in the winter… and they can’t feel your touch. She can’t feel my touch. Her belly is swollen. I touch it and it feels like a thick, tight balloon. She isn’t waking up.

I keep praying.

Soon my prayers turn from the miraculous to the ordinary. God’s Mercy for her soul; Peace for her family as they mourn. I pray dignity over her life. Realizing, as I pray, that these things may be miracles. Who knows. Who ever knows. Who knows what it would have taken for that woman to breathe again. Who knows why God, in all His power and Love wouldn’t do it. Who knows why I am stuck in Narobi, and on all fours in this strange room, listening to people chatter behind me about what went wrong.

“The problem was, no one phoned to say there was a sick passenger,” one woman said, matter-of-factly.
“Next time they should call a doctor.” Another added.

It was as if they were discussing a driving route they had taken that wasn’t sufficient. Like, next time we’ll take 1st avenue and not the freeway…

Why am I bending over this woman I’ve never met, touching her cold, bloated belly? I don’t know. But somehow, it felt important. In the same way it feels important to teach a child how to tie his shoe.

A man walks in, pulls the sheet back from the woman’s face, and I see it for the first time. It is squished the way a face looks when it’s pressed up against a window, usually making a face at someone. I marvel at how it has frozen this way. Don’t our muscles relax when they’re no longer needed? The man tosses the sheet back over her face and makes a sound of disgust and clicks his tongue as if to say “Too bad.”

I finish my prayers and stand up. Everyone in the room is staring at me.
“You are a Christian.” A woman says. It’s not a question.
“Why do you pray?” She asks

Why do I pray? I don’t know. Because it’s my best connection to God. Because it made sense as the only thing to do in that moment. Because God may have nudged me to do so… Because I know that woman was loved, deeply loved. But if she was so loved, why wouldn't God …

“Because God said He loves her.” I say
“And what does else does God say?” another woman asks, not mockingly.
“That He loves you all, very much, and wants you to know that he cares about you.”
My answer sounds like cotton candy. I hope, somehow, the meaning is translated.
“Uh” They nod in unison.
I leave the room and start back up the long hallway, back to the transfer desk. I’ve been gone for over an hour. I find Amanda frantically searching the area.
“Everything’s fine” I say. “We’re leaving at noon.”


We sit close to the door and are the first to board the plane. We refuse to believe that it is actually happening. Something else has to go wrong. It is not until we touch down in Kigali that I believe I am here.
And here I am.

I don’t want to write a summary paragraph at this moment. I believe (perhaps wrongly) that stories speak for themselves. And the “why” becomes less interesting as you look at the “what”. I marvel at how what happens to us, against our wills perhaps, becomes part of our stories, our experience that we draw from in the days to come.
Here’s to “Listening to our Lives”*.

I hope this finds you well and full of peace.


*a favorite book of mine by fredrich beuchner