As my phone’s alarm made its way into my dream, I woke up a little disoriented and confused. What is this strange noise? Why would I set an alarm? Why is it still dark outside? Suddenly the synapses connected the dots. Airplane. Africa. 8:00am flight. Okay, here we go! Time to get up kiddos! Family dressed, bags repacked, shuttle ride taken, check-in complete, security gates cleared. We had the typical whirlwind of airport activity for the next two hours and gave little thought to our destination as we plodded through each procedural step.
Later as I sat sipping my last cortado style coffee in the Barcelona airport and watching my kids have too much fun on the people-mover adjacent to our gate, the changes we were about to experience over the next 24 hours started to sink in. My mind rolled over the impending hours on planes, the herding of our kids through a busy Middle Eastern airport, the process of finalizing our tourist visas upon arrival in Ethiopia, and then finding the local contact we’d never met outside an airport facility we’d never seen.
Six months ago the anticipation of all this would have had my heart pounding and a ball of anxiety rising up in my throat. Yet, as I sat there drinking that cortado and watching Alison skip and prance the wrong direction down an empty conveyor belt, I found myself strangely calm about it all. If there’s anything I’ve learned after traveling with my family for the last 6 months it’s that worrying about these things is futile. In the end it all eventually works out.
And this certainly proved true for our travel into Africa.
Thanks to the personalized entertainment systems at every seat and the friendly flight attendants bringing us food and drinks constantly, our first 6.5 hour flight into the small country of Qatar was over before we knew it. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a little disappointed when we landed before I could finish my third movie.
I hadn’t given much thought to what the Qatar airport would be like, but it kind of surprised me. Clean, shiny and filled with high-end retail shops, it felt more like an upscale shopping mall in Los Angeles. After spotting several Arab men wearing the traditional white long tunic, pants and head scarf, Ali finally said, “That guy looks like he’s going to a wedding to be the bride.” We had to have a big discussion on differing customs and ways of dressing, all of which was completely lost on her I think. The best part about Qatar for the girls was the elaborate and artistic children’s play area, which had them entertained for our entire layover.
When we got back to our gate to board our second flight, we got a sneak peak into the Ethiopian culture we would soon be entering. A huge crowd of women wearing brightly colored clothing and head scarves filled the hallway. Their happy voices and high energy made it feel like we were going into a party rather than onto an aircraft.
When we got to our assigned seats we realized we’d been upgraded to business class somehow. Score! On this particular plane, this was a serious upgrade, with seats that reclined down to beds and more leg room than even Brian could possibly need.
While certainly a welcome surprise, I think the quiet, spacious luxury of this last flight in our journey might have made the transition into Ethiopia even more jarring. As soon as the plane touched the ground, a series of joyous, tribal cheers erupted throughout the plane. Immediately most of the passengers were on their feet opening the overhead storage bins as the plane taxied to the terminal. The flight attendants went nuts and tried to get people to sit back down, but they were powerless to stop the mayhem. Our family had barely started to get our things together when a throng of petite yet bizarrely strong female passengers began pushing their way from behind us to the front of the cabin.
Once we’d gotten off the plane and through the doors to the terminal, the reality of where we were smacked us in the face…or I should say passed a red laser across our foreheads. Medical staff were waiting to take laser digital temperatures of every passenger. While I do appreciate this precautionary measure by Ethiopia (which, by the way, has not had any cases of Ebola), the fact that the girls and I are all battling colds and sinus infections made us a little nervous about what might happen if one of us did have a fever. Luckily, we didn’t.
As soon as we got through the quick medical screening, we moved on to the customs check-in where we spotted a cat. Yes, you read that correctly. A feral cat was in customs. Under normal conditions seeing any animal would elicit the classic, simultaneous “Awwwww…” reaction from our girls. However, the absurdity of seeing a cat in a secured international passport check-in area was not lost on them. Emily said in a rather stunned tone, “Uh, there’s a cat in here. This is so different already.”
As we entered the customs line the now familiar shoving and jostling began again. However, being foreign visitors in need of tourist visas, we were quickly pulled from this mass of humanity and parked in chairs off to the side. Clearly, it was going to be a while for us.
While we awaited the arrival of someone with the authority to handle foreign visas, Brian was allowed to go retrieve our luggage. I waited in the chairs with the girls. Alison slept through all of this, and Emily appeared surprisingly nonplussed after she’d gotten over the initial shock of seeing a cat in customs. However, when I looked at Liv I saw big, silent tears coming down her cheeks and a quivering little lip. I reached over and hugged her, and she buried her head into my chest. “I don’t like this,” she choked between sobs. “I want to get back on the plane. I just want to go home.”
“Oh baby, I know,” I said, stroking her white blonde hair and planting a kiss on the crown of her head. “I know this is so different.” A pang of maternal guilt pricked my gut. Change can be so hard on kids sometimes. While I know in my heart this travel experience is doing good things for our girls, I understood the panic Liv was feeling in that moment.
I gave her a big squeeze before taking her face in my hands and looking into those big blue eyes. “But listen to me, Liv. We are safe. We’re getting through this weird moment together. It’s going to be okay. I promise.”
Then I stood up, handed her the passports and said, “Come over here and let’s get our family past all this.” She blinked a couple times, straightened her shoulders and took the stack of passports in her hands with the same reverent care she would have given the Sorcerer’s Stone. She and I stood in a line that was going nowhere, but the simple act of doing something seemed to immediately calm her down. Soon we were talking to the British photojournalist behind us and before long Liv was smiling and laughing again. Child crisis averted.
A short while later we’d gotten our visas and our bags, and the five of us were making our way out into the parking lot where Amy, the local director for Cherokee Gives Back, would be waiting for us. I scanned the mass of people outside the terminal for a white, female face but didn’t see one. Brian quietly called out a comedic sounding “Aaaaaa-meeeeee, where ARE youuuuu….”
And then suddenly there she was, emerging from the crowd like an old friend. After getting all bags and kids loaded into the van, we did the short drive to the house. We’re staying in a large guesthouse Cherokee Gives Back offers to volunteers visiting Addis. We threw our luggage into our rooms and Amy gave us a quick tour. Before long we were falling into our beds exhausted.
As I drifted off to sleep I thought, “Well, we made it to Africa…now what?” That we would find out after the sun came up.