It all started with some terrible news on Tuesday morning. Just after breakfast, I learned that there had been a bombing at the Brussels airport and then a little while later one at a train station. As my colleague, Gerardo, and I were thinking about the many people who had lost loved ones and had their lives changed in an instant, we realized that we had a problem too. We were in Freetown, Sierra Leone and were scheduled to fly on Brussels Airlines through Brussels the very next day. It quickly became apparent that it could be a long trip home. Little did we know how long it would be.
On Wednesday, we got up bright and early, checked out of rooms and waited. Our Sierra Leonian teammate was supposed to pick us up and he was late. Waiting for him would be good practice for what was to come. When he did finally arrive, we learned that he had been struggling with a bout of Malaria overnight and had just taken some medication. In checking the airline website that morning, it indicated that our flight was still scheduled to leave that afternoon, but that seemed impossible with all flights to and from Brussels grounded indefinitely. Our assumption was that the computer must not have been updated.
We quickly made the decision to visit the Brussels Airlines office downtown and see if we could be re-booked. Given the reality that very few international airlines flew into and out of this particular African country (particularly during the Ebola crisis), we were prepared to have to stay a few extra days. At the airline office, we were pleasantly surprised to see only a handful of people waiting to be helped. When it was our turn to be helped we were delighted and surprised to learn that a flight was already on its way to Freetown to pick us up, but we were being re-routed through Frankfurt.
After a quick visit to the Bible Society and a final lunch with our teammate we made our way to the water taxi terminal and waited for our boat to take off for the airport. We were scheduled to leave at 3:30PM and looked forward to getting the journey started. Then things began to take a strange and almost comical turn. At about 3:45, we were informed that the boat would actually not depart until 4:30 as there were some passengers still on their way from the downtown area. They assured us this would not be a problem for getting on our flight. Finally around 4:25, we headed off into the afternoon sun and got about 3 minutes away from the dock when a call came in for the boat pilot. How he heard anything over the roar of his engines is still a mystery to me. We then learned that one more passenger needed to join us and that he was going back to boat dock. Not a very auspicious start to the trip.
When we finally arrived at the airport, we went through two different screenings for Ebola where the primary concern seemed to be our temperature as they were using external electronic detectors. Given the heat of the afternoon, the frustration over leaving so late and the uncertainty that lay ahead, I was actually surprised that we didn’t get flagged for being overheated. As we entered the airport itself we saw a large crowd of people sitting in what would normally be the departure lounge at any other airport where loved ones would say their goodbyes. In this particular case, it looked like a doctor’s waiting room where no one was getting any attention. As we sat down, we began to hear that rumors had been flying around all afternoon that the flight was not actually coming. Fortunately, we knew that was not true, but what we didn’t know was that the flight was actually going to Zurich, not Frankfurt now.
About two hours later, (yes I did say two hours), we finally got word over the loud speakers that they would begin the process of checking passports, doing a security check and giving us our boarding pass. It all sounded so orderly. Then they told us that they were forming two lines, one for British and American passport holders and one for African passport holders. Everyone else would have to wait. My colleague, who has a Uruguayan passport was not amused. Shortly after getting my passport checked, I was standing at the bag check table when I heard the officer next to me say to the passenger next to me, “Sir, you know that you can’t take fish on this flight.” As they began to discuss this dilemma, I took a quick look into his suitcase and realized that my dirty clothes was the least of their worries. I cannot even begin to describe the color and odor of the other items.
After that extraordinarily thorough check, I thought things might be looking up until I turned around. Behind me was an ever growing line of people waiting to get their boarding passes and to have their bags tagged. Apparently whatever process their computer was using to re-book all of us to our final destinations was taking longer than expected. When I finally did get to the counter (thanks to my friend with the Uruguayan passport and business class access), I was quickly given my boarding passes and my luggage was taken away. Now I could breathe a sigh of relief – or could I? As I looked at the boarding passes that I had been handed, I learned that I was now going to Boston before landing in New York and that was going to take place two days from now. That’s right, I was boarding a plane on the 23rd and was not scheduled to land at my final destination until the 25th.
My colleague seemed to be having difficulty being re-booked to Miami and suggested that I go on ahead through security and wait for him on the other side. At around 11PM, nearly three hours after we were originally scheduled to leave, they told us to get ready to board the plane. As I got in line to board the bus to get to the plane, Gerardo was nowhere to be seen. He had never come through the security check point. This friend who is my colleague is also my boss and this was his first trip to Africa. Now, I was about to get on a plane without him. As I sat down in my seat on the plane, I had a moment of panic as I realized I might be leaving him in Africa. As the plane doors were closed for takeoff and after a quick check with a stewardess, I learned that he had just made it onto the plane. He may have been the last person to leave the terminal.
With my heart pounding just a little less, I settled in for the six hour flight to Zurich. Upon arrival we were greeted with the expected Swiss efficiency and a help desk right inside the airport doors. My boss, friend and colleague had not actually gotten any boarding passes for the rest of the trip and would need extra time to sort things out. The gate agent looked at my boarding passes and suggested that I go to the gate area for the flight to Boston and see if they could get me on an earlier flight to the US and maybe even New York. Optimistically, I told Gerardo where I would be and even the exact gate I would meet him at and I took off.
At the transfer desk near my departure gate, I learned the sad news that all flights to the USA were heavily booked that day and that there was nothing they could do to help me. All I could do was settle in for the eight hours until my flight was scheduled to leave. At least I would be able to chat with Gerardo and compare notes on how the trip was going from his perspective and do some debriefing about our trip to Africa. Three hours later, there was no sign of Gerardo. How could this be possible? Had I lost my boss twice in the space of 24 hours? What kind of traveling companion was I anyway? Then it dawned on me. Maybe he had been successful in getting a flight to Miami and was already on his way – I sure hoped that was what had happened.
After lunch, I dutifully worked on some reports and did some reading and walking around. With only three hours until my flight now, I took a quick glance at the departures display board to confirm my gate location and saw something disturbing. Right next to the listing for my flight were the words “technical problems” and “delay”. My flight would now be leaving three hours later. Clearly, I needed to learn some more patience. At about that point I also got a message that Gerardo had made it on a plane to Frankfurt, but he would have to stay overnight and leave the next morning for Miami.
As I got onto the flight for Boston, I sat down in my seat and prayed that I would have an unremarkable seat companion next to me and that I would be able to sleep. Then Alex sat down. He was a young college student from the USA on his way home from Budapest with his two friends who had been on spring break together. As he removed a bottle of beer from his back pack, took a swig and greeted me, I knew this was going to be an interesting trip.
God knew what he was doing too. It is possible that all of these delays were for the purpose of my ongoing education. The next two hours were a surprising and wonderful opportunity to hear about music, philosophy, social justice and life for this millennial generation. Alex was engaging, funny and probably a little surprised that an old guy like me cared much about his life. I was able to make a few book suggestions and he seemed to appreciate it. He even invited me to stay in touch and gave me his contact information.
As I finally arrived back in Philly the next day, I realized that this was now officially the longest one way trip I had ever taken in my many years of flying. I made my way down to the train platform to head home and was nearly about to get on the train when I got the call. God was not done yet. A representative from the airline was calling and asked if I was “Mr. Almack”. When I responded affirmatively, she told me that she had my passport. How could that be possible? Then I remembered that I had put it in the seat pocket in front of me during the flight and I must have forgotten it. So you can guess what happened next. I did get my passport back, but I also missed my train.
An hour later, I got on the right train and headed to the train stop that I had told my wife to meet me at. As the train conductor came around to sell me a ticket, I checked with her to confirm that we would actually be going to that train stop on this particular train. Sure enough, the surprises were not done. They had recently changed the train schedules and now only went to the stop before the one I had been expecting to arrive at. I looked down at my phone, realized that my battery was almost dead and prayed that it would have enough “juice” for one last call. God has a sense of humor, but He is also merciful. The call went through. Deb met me at the train and I was never so grateful to be home.