Thursday, May 14, 2015

About 8 am Amsterdam time, the cabin begins to stir in the morning light. I take my malaria meds and wish, as usual, that I had slept better. As we approach Ireland, we get into some fairly constant mild turbulence, just as the flight attendants are passing out cups of water. That makes for an interesting time. They serve a light breakfast over England—we pass right over Liverpool and Leeds, north of London—and we descend into Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport.

We need to check in again at a kiosk; though they’ve checked our bags through to Accra, they haven’t issued the boarding passes for the AMS/ACC leg. That’s routine; then we walk to our gate to double-confirm departure time and get the lie of the land. Since it’s four hours to flight time, I claim some real estate in the seating area, tell the kids to leave their bags and be back for lunch at 12:30, and send them off to explore the airport.

I’m surprised by Schiphol (pronounced “SHIP hole”). I expected it to be newer and flashier, but it looks a little worn and tired. Which, come to think of it, so do I.

The kids spend their time recharging their electronics and using the airport-wide free wi-fi; I spend a little time recharging as well. We regather a little before 1, and 4 of them—Michaela, Amber, Jessica, and Emily—decide they’re hungry enough to eat lunch, so we find a little sandwich shop down the concourse and get a booth. Then back to the gate to get our stuff and move to a new gate—they changed it on us—and sit forever waiting for flight time. I notice that they’re starting boarding absurdly early—1:40 for a 3:20 flight. But it turns out they’re redoing security, which means that we have to pour out the water we refilled our bottles with from the water fountains in the airport, and endure the standard modes of semi-dress and prying eyes. All to no purpose, I guess, because we’ve already done that at Atlanta. Sometimes I wonder if the system is designed more to make a show of being secure than actually doing anything. But that’s too hot a topic for this journal, I suppose.

We’re all seated in one row, 37, almost in the back. Except for Gershon, who’s always seated separate from us, because he’s ticketed separately, because he’s going home to Hong Kong after the trip, and not back to ATL with us. So he’s a couple of rows in front of us, in the middle of a set of 3. He notices that there’s an empty aisle seat a few rows back, and he determines to grab it after takeoff.

We’re about 20 minutes late taking off, and we’re headed straight north—which, you might note, is the wrong direction. Wind, again. We make a long circling turn to the east and eventually end up on a heading for Accra. When the little chime rings, Gershon hits the aisle at a dead run and claims his aisle seat. Soon others of us from middle seats follow; Jess and Amber get a row section to themselves, and Charity ends up by herself in the very back corner. I guess I’ll have to yell at her for being the last one to get to Accra.

The flight attendants pass out the immigration and customs forms. Now we’re getting serious. I pass around the info everyone will need to know—local address and phone numbers, etc.

We follow a pretty direct path, from Amsterdam over to Paris, then south just east of Barcelona, across Palma Island, and into Africa east of Algiers, not far from the historical site of Hippo, Augustine’s home town. Now we’re on the long haul over the Sahara. Jessica and Sarah run up to an exit row to get a better look out the window—not that there’s anything to see, of course.

Dinner is served. This is the first time I’ve flown KLM, and I’ve heard that they’re better than average. The choice is pasta or whitefish; being a former Bostonian, I choose the obvious. It’s chunks of whitefish in sweet and sour sauce, with white rice on the side. Very good. And there’s a nice piece of muenster cheese with crackers, and a dessert that appears to be a form of whipped cream with mixed berry sauce on it, and real, actual berries incorporated into the sauce. KLM for the win.

I’ve advised everybody to stay awake on the plane if possible; in my experience, when changing time zones it’s easier if you stay up for the regular bedtime when you arrive in the new place. But I fail to follow my own advice, dozing several times. I find out later that everybody else backslid too.

It’s a 6-hour flight, passing through Mali (but not that close to Timbuktu), then Burkina Faso (the old Upper Volta, so named for the river that eventually finds its way to the Atlantic Ocean through Ghana, where the man-made Lake Volta is the country’s main supply of both water and hydroelectric power), then into Ghana right at the corner of northern Togo. We set down in Accra about 8:15, just about exactly 24 hours since we took off from Atlanta. And that, my friends, is what not taking a direct flight will do to your schedule. In 2013, when we flew direct, I believe it was about 6 or 8 hours.

So we’re in Africa. And now the excitement begins. We’re among the last off the plane, so we’re behind everybody else in the line for immigration. I’m surprised that nobody’s checking our yellow fever vaccination cards; I had really emphasized that to the team. The passport check is routine; next is customs, for which we’ll need to get our luggage. When we arrive at the baggage claim, to my surprise none of our luggage is there, nearly an hour after we’ve gotten off the plane. But several minutes later, we see one of our ugly cardboard U-Haul boxes sealed with duct tape, and pretty soon everything else sidles in on the belt. (I should say that our boxes are ugly not because of anything U-Haul did, but because [a] they’re sealed with duct tape, for crying out loud, and [b] they’ve been torn up pretty bad by the baggage handlers.) As is usual, the customs people make a show of wanting to charge us extra for—something—but then let us through without charge.

Now comes the gantlet. I’ve warned the kids about this. As we exit the building, the hall is lined with people looking for our money, asking if we want a taxi, pretending to be customs agents, whatever they can think of to get money, usually deceitfully, from the rich Americans. I plow through, saying, “No, thanks,” repeatedly, and the crew follows like ducklings.

Out in the plaza we see Timothy. It’s good to see him again. More about him later. He leads us across the street to where the cars are parked; he has several friends from Accra to help us get everything loaded. But despite everything, the thing I’m trying to prevent happens anyway. Several of the shysters join us, a couple of them touching the boxes on the carts so that they can claim that they “helped” us and should be paid. We repeatedly tell them that we have what we need and don’t want the help, but they hang around, pestering us for money. When Timothy tells them to leave, they turn to me, figuring that the white guy will be an easier touch. Heh, heh. I tell them that I’ve been here before, that I know how their game is played, and that they’re not getting any money. They argue. I tell them again. They go back to Timothy. I view that as a moral victory of sorts. 🙂

Finally we send them packing, and the team looks at me as though I’m the incarnation of Satan himself. Well, hey. Gotta be wise to the culture. And now it’s part of their cultural education, in unforgettable form.

It’s a quick drive to the Baptist Mid-Missions guest house, just 6 kilometers away. We stop along the way for some bottled water and then unload all of our stuff into the house. The Ugly Boxes will stay here for the 3 weeks we’re in Wa; we’ll take them with us when we leave for Tanzania.

We decide that enough of us are hungry that it’s worth getting something to eat. Timothy runs out to Papaye, a really good chicken and rice place—I remember it from last time—but it’s closed (it’s after 10 pm), so he hits KFC. Mmm. Our first genuine African meal. Kentucky-style.

Our first priority after eating is showers. We have two showers available, so we all take turns getting rid of the grime of 3 continents in 24 hours. There’s no hot water, but the “cold” water isn’t really that cold in the heat of Accra. The men’s shower trickles, but the girls say there’s decent water pressure in theirs.

The guest house is quite comfortable. Like every other residence here, it’s surrounded by a high wall and a locked drive-in gate, which the caretaker opens to those who belong here. There are apartments on the first floor—Timothy has one of those—and a large suite upstairs, with a full kitchen, a living room, a laundry room, and 6 bedrooms, with enough beds for everyone to get his own. There’s electricity (220V) and wi-fi (though the router appears to be off tonight—I learn later that it’s off because they haven’t paid the bill) and running water. One of the first things we talk about is not drinking it. The team will need to get used to routines like brushing your teeth using bottled water. I suppose someone will eventually be mindlessly rinsing his toothbrush off under the tap and then realize what he’s just done. Maybe he’ll get away with it—tap water roulette!—or maybe he’ll spend that night throwing up. All part of the unpredictability that is (most of) Africa.

Wa 1 1044 Wa 1 1045

When the showers are finished, it’s just after midnight, but only 8 pm Greenville time, and we all decide that we’re awake enough to have a time of evening devotions. I read from 1 Corinthians 12 and talk a little about how important diversity is to a team effort—how since God has providentially brought us together, we’re a diverse bunch, with different abilities and ways of looking at things, and that’s a good thing, since it enables us to approach challenges flexibly and creatively, if we’ll just listen to and respect one another—even though we’ll probably get on one another’s nerves occasionally. So we’ll learn to celebrate our diversity, find out what everybody’s good at, and discipline ourselves to function as a team. Sounds good in theory; we’ll see how it goes.

Electricity is both unreliable and expensive here in Accra, so I tell them we won’t be using the air conditioning. We all retire to our respective rooms and fall asleep to the steady rhythm of the ceiling fans. First night in Africa.

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Dan Olinger

Chair, Division of Bible in the BJU School of Religion.

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