Tuesday, June 18, 2013

An Unexpected Adventure

This past week has involved getting my two oldest children to and from MK camp.  First of all, let me say that I am so very thankful for the people who give funds dedicated to our children so that they have this opportunity.  I am thankful for leadership who care enough about our children to allow an event like this to be a proirity.  Many of the children who live in West Africa can live pretty isolated lives without the advantages of church youth groups or county recreation leagues.  Just having it on our calendar was a big, big blessing during our rough spring.  It was something to look forward to.  In fact, one of the first questions our girls asked on the day of our evacuation was, “Does this mean we won’t get to go to MK camp?”

It was decided that I would accompany the girls to and from camp.  The good thing was, the camp took place at a resort about 2 hours from some very dear friends of ours.  So, while the girls were getting their awesome experience, I was back in the capital city soaking up some TLC and lots of laughs from people who love my family.  It was a huge and much needed blessing.

That being said, let me share with you a little about our traveling adventures.  We flew on an African based airline, which has mixed reviews.  I’ll be honest, as long as it has a decent toilet and the pilot is skilled enough to get me where I’m going safely, I’m usually not an airline snob.  But, I began to have my doubts on day one of the journey.  We went to the airport on the day that we were scheduled to travel from our city.  We jumped through all of the hoops of getting checked in (which are far more traumatic in Africa!)  As we were walking away from the check-in counter, I noticed I only had one set of boarding passes and nothing to show when I got to our layover country.  When I asked her, the lady behind the desk said, “Has anyone told you that you won’t be going all the way to “insert destination city” tonight?”  

Long story short, apparently the flight to my final city no longer operates on that day of the week, but NO ONE had bothered to tell us that.  The airline insists the travel agent should have known.  The travel agent insists that the airline didn’t tell him.  Bottom line is, I am very glad that I asked for the boarding passes, so that the problem was communicated to me. I was irritated that the lady behind the counter was going to send us on to our layover city of Lome, Togo without telling me I would be stuck there for 24 hours.  

Fortunately, we were going a day early, so without too much fuss, I went up to the airline office and politely explained our problem, and they reissued my tickets for the next day.  Then, some nice man went and helped us get our luggage off of the plane so that we could carry it home and try again the next morning.  I was ultra polite and patient.  The man was ultra helpful.  No. Harm. Done.

The next day, we haul it back to the airport and wait in all of the  lines again.  The man who had helped us the day before sees us waiting and greets us warmly.  We jump through the same hoops, and get to the counter again.  I show them the papers from the previous day’s visit to the airline office, which they had assured me would be all I need to check-in.  I show the papers to the lady at the counter and she tells me that we aren’t booked on the flight.  Now folks, at this point, I am getting irritated.  She tells me I will have to go back upstairs to the office.  I tell her that I went to the office yesterday and she needs to get someone from the office to come downstairs.  She tells me that I’m not getting on the flight until I go up to the office.  So, the two girls and I haul our luggage upstairs to the office.  I burst through the door and immediately catch the eye of the man who had helped us before.  

Well, I didn’t have to say a word.  Let’s just say he might have been as irritated as I was.  He immediately became a bulldog advocate for us, making sure that everyone at the counter knew getting us on that flight needed to be their priority.  Thank you Jesus.

We arrived at our final destination with our little adventure story and I joked with my friends about how thankful I was that we didn’t have to spend the night in Lome.  Because that would be awful.  Because I don’t know anyone in Lome.  And my French is terrible.  And it would scare me.

Fast forward to our trip home.  We check in at our first airport.  The check-in process is pretty smooth.  The lady behind the counter seemed to be a bit confused by our reservation, but some sort of supervisor was helping her and we assumed she was a trainee.  We started to walk away from the counter, when I noticed that I only had boarding passes to Lome, not all the way home.  So, I questioned the supervisor.  He was insistent that they would issue them in Lome.  I got very, very close to him.  I bent down to look at his nametag on his lanyard.  I looked him right in the eye and I said, “Now, on the way here, I almost got stuck in Lome.  I don’t want to get stuck in Lome.  Can you assure me that I will get on a plane in Lome, to Accra today? Because if I don’t get on a plane today, I will consider it your fault”  He smiled a big smile and assured me that it will be okay, they would take care of getting me on the plane in Lome.

Now folks, I do not pretend to be an authority on West African culture.  But in my short time here it has been my experience that many nationals will tell you what you want to hear, even if it is not the truth.    I don’t get it yet, but it is appropriate in their culture to lie, if telling you the truth would upset or disappoint you.  I knew this.  That is why I immediately went to another MK mom who was sharing the first leg of our journey and I told her about our boarding pass issue.  She assured me that coming to camp, they had only been issued one boarding pass and that they were set up to print them at the transfer station in Lome.  I decided that the guy must be right and we boarded the plane for Lome.  That was a mistake.  Never again will I board a plane without ALL of my boarding passes.  

Because, as I write this, I have just spent the night in Lome, Togo.  When we arrived there, we only had about a 90 minute transfer window.  Lucky for us, they moved us to the front of the pass printing line, I have no idea why.   So, I stepped up to the counter, showed the lady my papers, and she became confused.  For the next 60 minutes, a bunch of different people with radios came to and from desks waving our papers.  No one would tell me what was happening, every time I asked they would tell me someone else was coming to help.  At one point a man told me they were figuring it out and I even asked him directly if I was going to get on the flight to Accra.  He assured me they were taking care of me.  

Once it was too late to board the plane and someone finally got brave enough to tell the white lady their version of the truth, I realized I had been duped.  The airlines basically told me that our West African travel agent cancelled the flight.  Why would our travel agent cancel a flight?!?  The travel agent spent some time researching yesterday and he insists that they seriously overbooked the flight and they had to bump some of us.  I’m not sure who to believe, but I can say that we’ve done lots of work with the agent and never had a problem before.  Not to mention, 3 Asians and 2 Ghanians were also mysteriously cancelled from the flight.  

At this point...I have spent 60 minutes with my girls watching a sea of people treat us like idiots.  I am tired, I am stressed, and I have just realized that I am not getting on a plane home today.  Then the airline manager walks up to me and asks me if I want to go to Accra by air or road.  I do what any woman would do at this point.  I burst into tears.  People here hate it when we cry.  But, I could not help it.  I was stressed and angry and a bit frightened.  I tell him that I cannot make this decision without contacting my husband. 

Let’s just say that over the next 2 hours, I saw the hand of God all over everything.  It started at this point.  I got into my backpack and pulled out my phone, having no idea how I was going to use it.  I knew I had run out of phone credit and I couldn’t reload it in another country.  Then, I saw an extra phone that had been given to me to carry to someone else.  I powered it on and it had just enough credit for me to call Ryan and tell him the very basics.  I asked him to start researching if we had any contacts in Lome and what my options were.  

Then the airlines came and collected the 8 of us who had been left behind.  They took us through immigration, where we were issued a 24 hour visa into Togo.  They took us to baggage claim, where I was happy to find that they had managed to pull 3 of our 4 bags off of the plane.  This meant soap and a change of clothes were at least an option.  They called someone and had the forex money exchange office opened up so that I could get cash.  Thankfully, Ryan had insisted I take some US bills with me, in case I had any trouble.  I will forever make that my travel practice now, because the ATM would not work for me in Lome (funny, I hadn’t thought to tell my bank I would be there.)

At this point, it had been at least an hour from my initial phone call to Ryan.  Because my credit was zapped, it wouldn’t let me make or receive phone calls.  I kept insisting that the airlines needed to let me call home.  They took me to the manager’s air-conditioned office. I tried for the next 30 minutes to dial out using the manager’s phone and the call would not go out.  Finally, I resigned myself to the fact that I was going to have to just do whatever the airlines advised.  The problem was, all of the English speakers had disappeared and I was sitting in an office full of French speaking employees and other stranded passengers.  I picked up the desk phone in a last ditch effort and dialed for at least the 20th time.  Amazingly, Ryan picked up and we both yelped with amazement that we’d gotten a call through.  Ryan gave me the name and number of a man who was the employee of the Baptist Mission in Togo.  He told me that he didn’t know for sure what the plans were, but this man knew my situation, he knew we needed help, he was on his way to meet us, and he could be trusted.  I had one of the airline employees call him and tell him where to find us.

All of this time, when the manager would enter or exit, I reminded him that I needed confirmed tickets for the next day’s flight.  A small time passed and then our new friend appeared.  He had arranged a place for us to stay and he asked if we were ready to go.  I told him I needed tickets before I could leave.  I sought out the manager and insisted I get tickets NOW.  He made it happen and we exited the airport.  Our friend had traveled on motorcycle, so he helped us get a taxi.  He helped us buy a SIM card for the phone and enough credit to call home a couple of times.  We hopped in the taxi and the taxi driver followed our friend to our home for the night.

Let me just say, I had no idea where we were going.  We had managed to get stranded in one of the few West African countries where our organization does not operate a guest house.  Everything you can imagine ran through my head.  I kept saying to myself, it’s one night.  We can sleep anywhere for one night.  I felt better going with this man, who was one of our employees, than taking my chances with a hotel and transportation provided by the airport.  Especially since I was traveling with two beautiful white girls in a country where I don’t speak the language.  

You can imagine my relief when he turned into a gate which was clearly marked (even thought it was in French) as the Baptist Seminary of Togo.  I knew that a group of Baptist Seminary students would take care of us, even if we don’t speak the same language.  Go bless ‘em, with one hour notice, they had found a place to accomodate us.  

The taxi unloaded our things on the sidewalk and eagerly offered to return for us the next morning.  That’s when I knew I had paid him way too much.  Not that I cared at that point.  We made arrangements for the next morning and the girls and I waited to be shown to our sleeping quarters.  

While we were waiting, I looked at them and made some comment about how they needed to find their smiles and whatever happened, we were going to be grateful.  We all agreed and we were all imagining that we were about to enter a seminary student’s apartment where we would be sleeping on the floor, using a squatty potty, and eating fish heads.  We were ready.  Imagine our surprise when we were shown to a lovely little apartment that is obviously used for guest housing.  We had a fridge, a hot plate, a flush toilet (minus a seat), and the bedroom had AC.  They had obviously given us the best they had to offer and we were so grateful.  

Ryan’s contact stayed around long enough for us to agree on a price for lodging, inquire about where to find food and water, and make sure that we could safely walk the neighborhood.  Once we had those questions answered, we thanked him profusely and collapsed on the couch where we all voiced the things that had been running through our heads over the last 3 hours.  Then, we decided to take a food inventory because we were hungry.  We’d been promised a restaurant when we got home and so none of us had taken our airplane meal very seriously. 

We emptied out the contents of our backpacks.  The team that had come from America to lead the MK retreat had left lots of American snacks with the kids.  So, we had 3 mini boxes of cereal to eat for breakfast.  Then I remembered that I had run to the “American” grocery store with my friend the day before in her city and picked up a few treats to take home.  They were in one of the bags that we had been reunited with, so that meant we had a can of Easy Cheese and some almonds.  We were on the right track.

Our backpack contents, primarily camp leftovers.

Then, we counted our money.  I had exchanged a $100 bill and by the time I paid the taxi, the night of lodging, the phone card and credit, and given a few gratuities along the way, I knew we weren’t going to have any extra.  I counted out enough for the taxi ride back to the airport and then we set out on a walk to find some provisions.  It was obvious that white folks don’t often roam the streets we were walking and we got lots of stares.  But, we also got bottled water, cold sodas, a couple of packs of Indomie (like Ramen), and some bread to eat our Easy Cheese on.  We did pass a man grilling meat sticks and we contemplated buying some, because we usually like the meat sticks.  But, then we contemplated having tummy trouble on the airplane ride home and decided we’d play it safe, since this was not a seller we’d bought from before.

We came back to the room and feasted on an odd assortment of God’s provision.  I got to hear lots more stories of the girl’s week away and it was a sweet time.  At this point, it was a whopping 6:00 and though we were tired, we weren’t quite ready for bed.  That’s when Abby remembered that the team had given them all an Itunes card at camp and she had used hers to download two episodes of DC cupcakes the night before.  So, after we all took something that resembled a shower, we cranked up the AC, piled into the double bed we were going to share, and we watched 90 minutes of DC cupcakes.

Looking back on the whole experience, I can see how God just had us right in the palm of his hand.  There were a dozen little things like Ryan having the Togo contact’s phone number because of a detail with our van transfer last month.  When we were sitting off to the side waiting for our boarding passes, I was really tempted to freak out.  But I kept repeating scripture to myself and reminding myself that God loves us and He is in control.  I certainly saw that play out as the events of the day unfolded.

As cool as this adventure has been, we’re hopeful that we get to go all of the way home today.  Our travel agent has assured us that we are confirmed on today’s flight.  And since we don’t have internet here in Togo, if you’re reading this, that means I’ve made it home, where I have internet.  Hooray for home!

1 comment:

Grammy of 6 said...

So happy to hear you are home. What an adventure the three of you had. He is good all the time!