Through Africa, again. The airport bus has delivered us from the plane and we’ve made it through the terminal and the long lines of yellow fever checks and hand-written visas. Our gazes now flit back and forth between creaky baggage belts, hoping our luggage will appear on one of them. A six-pack of plastic 2-liter bottles comes crashing down. I expect to see a fountain of Orange Soda spraying all over the suitcases, but the bottles survive the steep drop intact. Behind them, more suitcases come crashing. Why is that luggage belt so steep? No wonder why only about half the Africans I see traveling use actual suitcases. They’ve taken the shrink-wrapped luggage concept to new heights, forgoing the suitcase completely and just shrink-wrapping everything in layers of shiny plastic. A nice, firm bundle that’s easy to carry and won’t bust apart on a perilously angled baggage claim. Brilliant!
It’s with a sigh that I embark on these work-related African journeys. I love seeing new places and new cultures, that part never gets old! But I wish getting there wasn’t so difficult. Overnight layovers, multiple plane changes, no jetways, always a bus, “free seating” on the plane, and it doesn’t always smell so nice. The upside is that there is always lots of free food and free drinks, and usually enough Chinese businessmen on board to ensure that the plane is a Dreamliner. If only the video programming would actually play in something other than Chinese.
One time I was flying to Casablanca and the local guy next to me kept wanting to talk about his girlfriend, inviting me to “one of his houses” and telling me not to worry, because he sold drugs “but not the hard ones, only soft ones, your Mexican weeds.” Another time I was sharing the airport with a bunch of Saudis just after King Abdullah had died. It was 2 in the morning, cold, and the terminal was full of people in long white robes waiting for their flight to Jeddah. There was nowhere to sit because of the crowds so I found a wall to lean against near my gate. A few minutes later, I was trapped two rows deep behind a sea of wheelchairs. I’ve never seen so many older, distinguished-looking Muslims in robes sitting in wheelchairs! It’s never all that fun to be a young woman in a Muslim country, but trapped behind the wheelchairs, those older people smiled at me and I felt safe.
Another time I was flying back from Liberia and had a beer mug in my carry-on from the Monrovia Brewing Company (yes, that exists!) The woman rifling through my bag at the “security check” ignored my water and the peanut butter, but whipped out the mug and said “No!” I said “Why?” She said “Because you might start beating someone on the plane!” I told her it was a gift for my husband. After consulting with her colleague she decided that okay, I could take it, but only after stealing my cookies.
There are so many weird things that have happened while traveling in the past three years. My hotel shuttle getting in a car accident in Ethiopia. Sitting in the “VIP Lounge” in N’djamena, a windowless, airless shipping container out on the runway, full of over-stuffed couches and a little tray of sugar packets and Nescafe. Later loitering with the Marines on the Embassy compound and watching the Ambassador’s giant tortoise eat peanuts, because there was nothing else to do. Visiting the “airport” in Kinshasa. More like a glorified Third World bus station with airplanes instead of buses. Eating sushi in Monrovia during the Ebola epidemic. Seriously, sushi? How weird is this? And was anyone ever “welcomed to Liberia” before Ebola? Why are we doing it now?
I’m in Angola now, listening to the rain pour in sheets onto the street below, hoping those poor cars I see straining beneath the flood don’t get washed away in the torrent. Last night DJ music was thumping from the hotel bar, all the way up to the 17th floor. The hotel is the nicest in Luanda and generally more of a business venue, attracting diplomats like myself, airline flight crews, and rich oil barons from Texas (there is a direct flight between Luanda and Houston). The scene at breakfast today was different than the usual stuffy affair of politely folded omelettes and fluffy napkins, as the After Party was clearly continuing with the shrieking table of revelers by the window. Laughing, shouting, singing, clapping their hands for the waiters and snapping selfies of themselves. Animated and lively, completely unable to sit still! Like the party was still here, their gift to the world of song and joy still relevant, not realizing that 7 a.m. business breakfasters probably weren’t at the party, and were probably annoyed last night by the music. We all have something to offer the world don’t we? To keep us from being bland, stuffy, or from having too much fun. What would we do without each other?
I may not understand Africa, but I know it makes me smile. I have learned that life can happen in ways that don’t occur to me.