Saturday, July 26, 2014

A Triage of Planes

Red Chili Hideaway, Kampala

As we cross the US, then the Atlantic and finally head South slicing through Europe to cross the Mediterranean to the North Africa desert and down to our sub Saharan destination, we are an amalgamation of enthusiasm and good humor, still bathing in our incredible fortune of the trip. We pass the time grazing on TV and movies, trying to sleep in awkward rubber-necked positions in our seats that seem to become more like little islands of existence for each flight package. We become increasingly vocal with row mates, telling people about the trip, about Invisible Children, our confidence and enthusiasm bolstered by Ben Keesey's parting words and the first hand experience we're rocketing towards.

At the end of the flight to Newark, a middle-aged man grumbles that his wife imagines they'd go out for dinner that night. He says how exhausted he is after the transcontinental flight we are concluding. I can't resist telling him we have two more flights even longer than the one we're on. He's aghast at our eagerness to literally go to the ends of the earth.

In Brussels, at the end of our Atlantic passage, we've acquired another traveler, a young woman who looks like she should have in fact been one of us. Jess introduces her and tells us she's going to Uganda on a mission with HEAL Africa. She seems eager to join us in our anticipation of finally getting to Africa during our layover. 

Ana, one of my fellow IC travelers, hears she's going to work with HEAL and gets out her book, Half the Sky, which has a chapter on their work. She quickly leafs to the chapters about HEAL that celebrates the organization's work with women in DR Congo repairing fistulae.

Our last plane, the final flight to Entebbe is filled mostly with white faces wearing church tee shirts, a African boys' choir returning home after a tour of the UK, and a small scattering of what might be Rwandans and Ugandans returning from trips abroad. The mood is bright, like the brand new Brussels airplane itself, an immaculate vessel with "pursers" wearing thin lipped smiles, tailored uniforms, and thin ties.

We are spread all over the plane in clusters, mine near two medical missionaries heading to Kigali to help train Rwandan medical students in ACL surgery. One, a doctor, the other a prosthetics sales rep traveling to assess the market. I tell them about Paul Farmer, the physician hero whose work in Haiti was the topic of so many discussions in my colleague Ken Sommer's Community and Development course from last semester at school. Farmer's mission: Provide First World medical care in Third World countries.

Seated behind them is an international studies major with a full sleeve of tattoos, the dominant one, a large Chinese dragon. His tattoos are saturated in fresh, rich colors. He was traveling to Kigali as part of a trip for a course to explore post-genocide Rwanda, an economic model that Amadou Sy of the Brookings Institution's Africa Growth Initiative calls "a good example for the rest of Africa." This will be his first trip outside the US.

Our last flight is a a mix of excitement and building exhaustion from lack of sleep. The long flight is the bizarre semi-wakeful fitfulness of upright sleeping and service carts that appear randomly without any natural relationship to our sense of mealtime.

We prepare to land in Kigali in the darkness, a cruel veiling of the exotic world that we are entering. I soak in the place names on the screen in front of me: Lome, Lusaka, Nairobi, Bangui, Mbujui-Mayi, Zanzibar, Arusha, Bujumbura, Kisangani, Kongo, Musoma, Rwamagana, Gitarama, Kibungo--all rising up like vapors at the back of the man's head in front of me.

When we land, I say goodbye to the medical boys who disembark, incredibly having slept most of the flight. Once the people who are going to Kigali have disembarked, we hear rumors of ice cream cones and go in search of what we missed while we were sleeping, a reassurance of having gotten at least some sleep.

The plane fills up again with people leaving Rwanda. I move my seat to make room for a family to travel together and move to sit next to Johann, an IT guy from Stockholm University sent to help a sister university in Kigali set up their network. We talk ed tech as a get-to-know-you, then Johann bubbles over with trip stories. He asks me if we're going to see the gorillas while in Uganda, something I had dreamed might be part of our itinerary. It wasn't. He tells me, "I'll bring the gorillas to you." He then spends the rest of the flight showing me photos and videos of a gorilla family he went to see in area of forest that Dian Fossey had done her work. He is giddy.

He laughs about slippery trails and muddy shoes, a guide car on fire at the side of the road (his own), and most lovingly about the gorillas and the children who smile and wave at them wherever they go. I realize I am getting his stories first and they deliver like tree-ripened fruits, full of the flavor of the land they grew from. It's a delightful two-hour flight that passes like water.

Our night time arrival continues to conceal the landscape beneath us as we land. At the luggage terminal, we grab our bags and head towards the throngs gathered to meet passengers. Smiling and holding a sign that says "Invisible Children Loves You" is Tony Buzilo, one of the boys featured in the original IC film, Rough Cut, now an IC celebrity. We roll our bags out into the inky darkness to a rough surfaced parking lot where two opportunistic locals help us load our bags into our the bus. As we stand there, I barely catch the silouhette of a Ugandan military man holding a rifle who passes behind us like a shadow.

The road to the Red Chili Hideaway, about a 45 minute ride from the airport, is surprisingly busy, traffic a steady stream in the opposite direction. The roads have no painted lines. People drive in the middle of the road until other traffic forces them over. A driving style that brings this back seat driver to resign control to the fates of the road. On the side of the road, locals gather over open fires roasting meat and socializing or huddle in doorways watching World Cup. I am exhausted but eager to see it all with my eyes which somehow seem too small to capture it all.

Red Chili Hideaway is a welcomed sight. A group of Americans are gathered poolside, the voices rising enough only so we can detect that they are American. We sleep in bunk bed dorms draped in mosquito nets. I don't remember any of it.


Meredith Hoffman holding the sign that Tony held at the airport.

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