Saturday, February 23, 2013

homeward bound, at last.

So back to the story of how we got home. Where we last left things, I was at the KLM office in Nairobi, trying to get us rebooked, and Kevin had just been dropped off at the hotel.

What I didn't mention earlier is that while we were still at the hospital, I called the special number that the airline doctor had told me about - the folks who would rebook us on the next available flight. I spoke with "David" briefly, and understood almost all of what he said. But my difficulty understanding the Kenyan accent kicked in - and this was after I had done quite a bit of talking and listening - with airline staff, doctors, nurses, cashiers, pharmacists, fruit vendors and hospital waiting room denizens. My brain had relibrated significantly. In fact, I had automatically picked up a habit that Kevin has, and that our friend Mary in Lamu has as well - adjusting my own accent to sound crisper, with no diphthongs and more precise consonants, to match the Kenyans. But for the life of me, I couldn't understand the last 50 syllables coming out of David's mouth, and it sounded like those were the important syllables.

There had been a shift change at the hospital, and Kevin's nurse, Sister Mercy (no kidding, her name) had left, to be replace by Japheth, a guy. I asked Japheth to talk to David. He learned that basically, rebooking was going to take a bit, and that David would call me back. We waited. And waited. And waited. Finally, I called David back, had a brief conversation, and then the same 50 syllables rolled off his tongue. Crap! What is he saying? I put Kevin on the phone. Oh, rebooking will take a while. He will call us back.

We figured, best to assume we aren't getting out of town tonight, so I called Amit, and he told us to head to the same hotel we'd been at the previous two nights - a swanky place, and interestingly, the very same hotel my mother and I had stayed at on a trip we took to Kenya in 1998/99 - by the time we got there, they'd be ready for us.

Japheth ordered us a taxi. Even though David was working on rebooking, we knew the KLM office was only a block away from the hotel, so I got dropped off there while Kevin and the luggage proceeded to the hotel.

It was quarter to five. They close at five. At five of five, it was my turn in line.

The ticket agent peered into the abyss of the online system. "The flight tonight is full. The flight tomorrow morning is full. Next available time is maybe two days from now."

No no no!

We pondered this. And then she said something that kinda scared me. The next available flight matching our itinerary was on March 5th - the day after Kenya's election.

There are a variety of opinions about what might happen with Kenya's upcoming election, but one set of opinions, which has plenty of evidence to back it up, and we had spent an hour in a coffee shop with a friend who outlined this all in chilling detail, is that there could be trouble. The 2008 elections were problematic, to put it diplomatically. Violence. Bloodshed. Etc.

Besides which, Kevin is starting a new job on March 4th. We are clearly not waiting until March 5th to leave the country.

The ticket agent says, "let me talk to my manager" and goes over to the corner where his desk is. Ten minutes pass. She comes back and tells me that the best option is a morning flight to Kilimanjaro, which is 504 km south of Nairobi. To be followed by a sixteen hour layover, 1:25 am flight to Amsterdam. Right around then, I really wished I could get hold of Kevin, but I don't have the number for the hotel. I ask if they can find out the number of the hotel and it takes three people to conclude that oh, they don't, and they don't have a way of finding out - no phone book, and the internet just tells you the international booking number for the chain.

I call Amit. Trusty Amit, Amit knows EVERYTHING. He says he'll text me the number. In the meantime, the manager explains to me that if I have a letter from the hospital, he can waive the rebooking charge for Kevin. I produce the letter, and he makes a copy of it. But, he notes, he cannot waive the rebooking fee for me. And that fee is? $250, thank you very much.

Right then, the text comes in from Amit with the hotel's number. And a second later, in staggers my boy. KEVIN! Kevin, my love! Kevin and the manager confer about alternate airports we could go through - Kili is the closest. For some reason, nobody thinks to ask about other European cities - Frankfort, Luxembourg, Paris. We're just fixated on Amsterdam because that's where we'd come from on our way in.

The three of us discuss the various scenarios. We decide to go with Kilimanjaro. It's an hour away from Pete and Charlotte - maybe we can spend time with them. I whip out the trusty iPad and message Pete. I also see I've gotten an email from a guy - a filmmaker who works for the UN - who's been living at Pete and Charlotte's - and I let him know our situation and he messages me right back that there is a business lounge at the Kili airport where we could hang out.

Kili it is then.

The manager, bless his heart, our streak of angels is not at an end, waives the $250 fee to rebook me. This time, we get a printed receipt from the cashier that will allow us to get into the airport. And we go back to the hotel to contemplate the state of our dirty laundry. On our way into the hotel, we talk to a taxi driver stationed just outside, and arrange for him to pick us up at 5:30 am the next day.

We go in search of dinner for me - pizza at a restaurant in the hotel's ground floor - not half bad. As we walk in to our room - the very same room we'd been in - our phone rings. It's David, from KLM. He sees we've rebooked through Kilimanjaro. Too bad, he says - he would have put us on a flight through Luxembourg. AARRRGHHHH. Let it go, Sarah, let it go. Africa clearly isn't ready to release us yet. It will be fine. Trust fall, trust fall.

We go to bed at 8:00 pm. Kevin passes out cold while I go through a wave of adrenaline let down. I have the tones of the machines that go bing going through my head - the steady beat at an unchanging pitch that represents the heart beat, and the oxygen saturation levels beep that changes pitch according to the values being measured. I begin to give myself Reiki and feel all the tension drain from the top of my body down into my legs, which start twitching and convulsing. I work through it. I relax.

I set alarms for 9:30, for midnight, and for 4:45 am -- the first one for Kevin's next dose of paracetimol and potassium, the midnight one for the Cipro, and the last one for the taxi.

The next day, all goes smoothly at the airport. Well, "smoothly" is a relative term in Kenya, I think. The ticket agent for the first flight, which is with a regional carrier, can find no record of our Amsterdam to New York flight, so she checks our luggage through to Amsterdam only.

I go over to the KLM line to try and resolve this and eventually, I do, but I'm pretty sure it's only because I have already chatted up the regional carrier's manager (her name is Margaret, which leads to me saying"Oh, my grandmother's middle name is Margaret, I have a friend named Margaret..." and lots of smiling back and forth). When it comes time to send someone running behind the lines to find our luggage and apply new tags to it, Margaret sees that it gets done.

We formally exit the country and go to the gate area, where we learn that our flight's been delayed by an hour. When we finally board, they apologize for the delay: the pilot got food poisoning! Kevin and I laugh, in a commiserating sort of way. Happens to the best of us, apparently. They had to get a crew up from Dar es Salaam.

So off we go to Kili. Since we've already been to Tanzania to see Pete, we don't have to fork over the $100 per person for the visa, we can go in on our existing visas. Our plan was to call Pete and see if he could send Joe, his driver (he's got a dedicated driver, as the UAACC is a busy place) to get us. We're walking past the luggage carousel, and I happen to glance over, and I see my bag coming down the conveyor belt. That's not supposed to happen, our luggage has been checked clear through to JFK, what the hell? Maybe it's not my bag. I go to look. Yep, that's my bag, and here's Kevin's. They're labeled for AMS and JFK. Shit. OK. We grab the bags and head out and there is a swarm of people angling to provide us with taxi service and who is the most persistent of them all? Why, it's Joe!

So before we know it, we're on our way to Pete and Charlotte's!

Where we passed a MOST refreshing day, with two full meals for yours truly. I cooked oatmeal for Kevin twice in Pete's kitchen - that's all he could stomach. We napped in the afternoon. Met yet more cool people - a woman who'd just summitted Kilimanjaro in a nine-day expedition. Journalists. Jason-the-guy-from-the-UN was there as well.

At ten pm Joe got us loaded back in the van and we headed back to the airport. All of the sudden, we were surrounded by white people again - it was oddly surreal.

At 1:00 am we walked outside to board the plane, a big beast of a thing - up 26 steps - they don't use jetbridges at Kili. They boarded some from the front of the plane - we boarded the rear of the plane, so we got to walk the full length of it. The sight of that huge aircraft, all lit up at night, seemingly floating some 20 feet in the air, was incomparably beautiful. I was exultant.

We are going home! Finally!

By now, we are on the AMS to JFK leg, two and a half hours from landing. I am relieved, but also ... not quite ready to be going home, to be honest. I AM ready for a complete full dose of clean clothes, to be sure. But this trip, my 4th to Africa, has been the one where I have finally kicked into accepting what the parts of Africa that I've seen, ARE. It is beginning to feel comfortable and right and normal to me, the countless little details of what's different. Ranging from power outlets that have little switches next to them to turn the outlets on and off, to the presence of countless people walking, walking, walking, everywhere, at every hour of the day and night, on hard-packed bare ground next to the highway. The open-fronted sheds that constitute the strip malls along rural roads. The ubiquitous advertising for Coca-Cola, in the remotest regions. The sight of lean Masai striding along with their walking sticks laying across their shoulders, resting their arms on them. Billboards advertising things you never see advertised on billboards in the States, like disinfecting soaps, and office furniture. The use of headlights and turn signals to convey far more information between drivers than is ever communicated by those devices in the States. I could go on and on.

I'm afraid the States is going to come as something as a shock.

Oh, and there's also the fact that in the next few weeks, we are packing up our house, and moving to Connecticut.

Yeah, there's that.

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