Monday, March 10, 2008

Almost missing the plane to Africa

I don’t know why it always surprises me that after a year, it’s difficult to travel to Africa. I have become soft – used to traveling around Europe on cheap airlines with electronic kiosks and my elite status boarding pass. But I’m also cursed – moving to work to Europe to work at MSF took every veneer of sophistication, patience, or pride that I had and destroyed it. I used to be able to navigate security seamlessly at Dulles Airport. I had the science of packing for a trip down to an hour. I knew exactly what to do and when to do it. I had a tidy little life in Washington DC. Good friends I could call at any point, restaurants that would deliver to my apartment, a cute and homey apartment with free cable TV and wifi access.

Now – I haul two suitcases to the metro, to take the train to the airport at Schiphol. Bicyclists ring their bell at me as I navigate the bike paths, sidewalks, tram tracks, and roads. Teenagers run past me as I lumber down the stairs, tugging my too heavy and bulky luggage with me. I miss the first metro. I push my way through the Dutch people and the interminable tourists with my bags to check in for my flight to Central African Republic. Finally! I’m going back to Africa! Back to the field. 9 months and 2 weeks after I started my job, I’m finally getting what I was promised a year and six weeks ago – my first trip to peer inside the inner workings of MSF.

I booked the tickets a month ago when the dates where confirmed. I carefully save my emails in a highly regimented systems of Active and Other. Inside the Active folder, there is a folder called trips. I keep all the emails of my itineraries in there. While I haven’t been to the field, I’ve taken approximately 15 trips to London, Berlin, Brussels, Geneva, and Paris since starting the job. I know the travel agency well. But Desiree (what a name for at travel agent) is leaving us for greener pastures. She’s entrusted my travel well-being to two new people. So far so good, I got an itinerary that while not perfect suited my needs. Yes, I’m traveling through Libya but I’ll make it to Berlin for my friends birthday and I’ll get to spend 10 good hard days in the field before that.

Smugly, I arrive at the Air France/KLM ticket counter and try to log in on the kiosk. I had attempted an online check in earlier but was not dismayed when it didn’t work because after all, I’m traveling to Africa. It was only 1 year and six weeks ago that we insisted on paper tickets because of the unreliability of electricity in Northern Uganda. I’m going to Central African Republic – a much more difficult context! Of course electronic tickets won’t work. So I use my elite boarding pass to circumvent the approximately 200 Korean passengers waiting in line and go straight to the Business class baggage check. I have two hours before my flight to Paris (despite lingering on the phone with my father) and I feel pretty good. WRONG.

Africa is always waiting to throw a wrench in your path when checking in for flights. It’s Africa’s way of saying “Don’t be so arrogant. You don’t know anything. You need to slow down, be patient, and wait for things to happen. And if you push or are bitchy, well, you had better believe its only going to get slower.”

“Madam, the computer will not allow me to check you in because you are too late for your flight!” But I have two hours. “Go to the Ticket Counter”. I go to the Ticket counter. “I’m sorry Madam, but you are not on this flight. You were booked on an Air Afrique flight to Libya at 9:30am this morning”. My itinerary clearly shows that I’m on an Air France flight for 8pm tonight. It’s 6:30. Time is ticking. Something went wrong. Somewhere in my meticulous planning of balancing a trip to Portugal, a trip to Berlin, a trip for work, I ended up doing something wrong. Or did I? I never approved a 9:30am flight to Libya that would end me right back to Amsterdam. Somewhere the wires were crossed. Another previously discarded itinerary was booked.

I must have known. I was doubtful that things would go smoothly for me. I was knocking on wood and throwing salt over my shoulder. This afternoon, I stopped by the travel agency to check on my ticket and to get a copy of my electronic ticket number. The new Non-Desiree was being trained. He was harried. He was speaking rapid Dutch with another woman. I waited patiently to double check. He handed me the paper. All I did was check to see if it said Bangui. It did. I didn’t double check the times. I left because I already felt a bit of a prat with my questions, my desires for guidance, my demands for protocols and checklists to make me feel a bit more at home. How could it be harder to go to Africa with a giant organization that moved medicine and eager white doctors and nurses all over the world than it was when it was me, another woman (usually), some money and a passport. I landed in Syria and drove into the Lebanon war. I was on the plane with women being trafficked into Liberia 2 months after Charles Taylor stepped down. I flew alone through Ghana Airways into Sierra Leone and navigated a ferry crossing. I drove in a car through the mountains of Rwanda and survived a near death incident. And here – a Dutch travel agent flummoxes me.

But that’s the experience of being an expatriate. It’s the daily humiliations, my friend Jennifer told me. The inability to make a flight from the most modern and convenient airport in Europe. The inability to take a minute and swallow my pride and double check things. The fear of being thought a simpleton. An American! A person without a travel background! Not ONE OF US. My pride. My insecurity.

It’s a good lesson for Africa. Africa is filled with arrogant white people demanding that their way be the way that Africa goes. I do not know the Central African Republic but I’m sure they have more than their share of pushy Western development and relief experts. A good reminder to try not to be one of them.

I made my plane.

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