Day 1 – Airplane

When determining the day counts for this blogalog, I set Day 1 as the day that we would finally be in Africa. For a while it seemed like an airplane might stand in our way for that to happen. In fact, a couple of airplanes entered into the equation.

You already know about the first. We learned last Thursday that our direct flight from DFW to Amsterdam had been canceled. No last minute mechanical problem, no real reason. The flight — or perhaps the airplane — just totally disappeared. In the grand scheme of things, the way ours disappeared was much preferable to other high-visibility plane mysteries of the day.

After great work by our travel agent and the fact that our fearless leader, Betty Gilmore, stayed on the phone and on social media for most of the day Thursday, an alternate plan took shape. Dan and Allison would fly to Houston and then to Amsterdam, while the rest of us flew to Philadelphia and then to Amsterdam. The happy reunion was to happen aboard KLM 579 as Aaron, Betty, Malcolm, Robyn and I joined Dan and Allison for our flight to Kigali. At several points along the way, we thought that might be simply a dream long lost.

10635925_924679183919_4084515460219195764_nDan and Allison did well on their end. Flights took off, four-hour layover in Houston, and another four-hour layover in Amsterdam.

But that’s not the airplane story.

The rest of us arrived in Philadelphia just a little late. But we made our way over to our flight to Amsterdam. Once aboard, it seemed we would arrive with about 2 hours to spare. As travel conversations go, we then began the what-ifs of security lines and customs and boarding passes yet unseen. Still, we were on our plane and almost on our way, when the captain tweaked the intercom and apologized for a small delay — a mechanical problem that had not been fully explained to the crew was going to delay us just a while longer.

A while became longer. The attendant crew chief made the next announcement of the good-news-bad-news variety. First for the bad news. The plane we were on, the one fully-loaded and with our in-flight meal in the warming ovens, was not going anywhere. But the good news was that, just a few gates away was an identical plane (sans the aforesaid mechanical problem and the warming dinner) awaiting us. We were told to move quickly to the new gate for reboarding.

2014-09-19 18.48.33Which we did. But the plane wasn’t ready and the time was set back yet another hour. Our new arrival time gave us only one hour between flights in Amsterdam. And again we began running the scenarios and the possibilities. By the time we were on board the new airplane and seated, the pilot had updated our arrival time to be less than 30 minutes from our departure time. Dan and Allison were over the Atlantic. We sent a few social media messages up to the cloud and hoped.

The new plane did fine. Unfortunately, one of our fellow passengers had a medical emergency disrupting the sleep for almost all of us. And when we did land in Amsterdam, we were told that we would have to remain on the plane until our stricken passenger could be removed by medical personnel.

Just in case you think this is all bad news, there was also a follow-up cabin announcement that the party going to Kigali (that would be us) would need to meet the gate agent who had our boarding passes in hand and who would escort us to our new gate.

Aaron and I were the stragglers getting off the plane, which had a little bit to do with the fact that Robyn shouted back for us to grab her bag — it was right above our seats — and a lot to do with the fact that our seats were only 3 rows from the back.

As we made our way on the jet bridge and high-fived the medical emergency guy still sitting in a wheel chair waiting for the medics, Betty called down the long square tube, “Run! Our plane is leaving and there’s not another one to Kigali for 2 days!”

So we ran. I am proud to report that many of our team are quite fast. And I can report that because I saw them disappearing from my view at an alarming rate. Nonetheless, we all arrived at Gate A47, the KLM crew was amazing and helped us through security. And thus it was that we fell aboard Flight 579 and saw, to our great relief, Allison and Dan.

Everything was good and this new airplane was a wonder of technological sophistication. A woman from Uganda even helped me get my personal little TV to work. We were in the midst of our dinner when we, for a few moments, thought that this airplane, too, might not deliver us with the desired effect to Kigali International Airport.

As our Dutch pilot would later explain, he didn’t expect the turbulence that caused our plane to drop what seemed like several thousand feet or the ensuing winds that howled outside and pushed us sideways. You heard me, we could hear the winds howling outside. It was a little frightening. On the bright side, I saved several hundred calories. Because I, along with most of the other travelers, simply put my fork down and vowed never to raise it again.

Another serendipity was the growing relationship I had with the woman from Uganda in the next seat. At each jolt and bounce of the plane, she reached out to hold a wider and wider piece of all things around her which, at one point, became me. While I would like to say it was a bonding moment for 2 strangers facing impossible odds, it simply felt like a death grip on my arm. So another serendipity was that the pain in my elbow made me forget some of the turbulence-related issues.

About the time we entered Grecian airspace, we moved past the turbulence and the captain came on and reassured us that all was well. And, in fact it was. Everything else happened as scheduled — unless you count the fact that my Ugandan friend and I were skipped during the afternoon ice cream service.

Upon landing, we found that our bags that were routed through Philly had not made it on board during our 10-minute layover in Amsterdam. We hope to have those by Monday night because those 4 were some of the supplies slated for the refugee camp next Wednesday.

So, if you want the short story. We took a couple of airplane rides. We arrived. Our hosts from ALARM met us at the airport.

We are in Africa on Day 1, safe and sound.


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