Thursday, May 12, 2016

I watch the progress on the map. At 11.06 we’re right over campus. Hmmm. Just 5 miles—and 8 weeks—from my wife, and no chance to say hello. About 12.20 we pass just south of my sister’s house near Cape Cod, kiss the south coast of Nantucket, and continue northeast toward the Bay of Fundy. No chance to see those remarkable tides from up here.

John and Jojo are seated in the same row as a Mormon missionary, headed out to Ghana to do his traditional 2 years of mission between high school and college. Bethany and I listen to Jojo give his testimony after John starts up the conversation with introductions. I’m seated next to a young Indian woman, but she has headphones on and appears to be engrossed in a movie.

We get supper about 2 hours after takeoff, or about 12.30 am. Odd time for supper. Even odder when you consider that in Amsterdam it’s 6.30 am. I always advise team members to set their watches to destination time immediately after takeoff if you’re changing time zones, to get your head working on the time change. So beef and rice for “breakfast” is a little disorienting. There’s also a slice of cheese. I’m expecting gouda—KLM is the Dutch airline, after all—but it’s Tillamook, produced in a scenic coastal town in Oregon. Delicious. And as you may have heard, when cheeses are gouda, you edam.


Bethany and I have changed seats so I can get up and walk around during the night while she’s sleeping. She engages the Indian woman in conversation, and I see that she has her Bible open as she talks to her.

The kids are all right.

It’s a long night flight. The kids, as usual, sleep better than I do. I call these overnights The Long Dark Night of the Soul, to be endured, like torture. My restless leg syndrome kicks in, as usual, and I spend a lot of time standing in the aisle, walking around the plane, figuring out which restroom is longest so I can do my knee exercises.

Knee exercises? Well, in case you hadn’t heard, I injured my knee—tore the meniscus—4 weeks ago when I, um, fell off my, um, hoverboard. I’ve been in therapy multiple times a week, working on getting the thing ready to fly (the knee, not the hoverboard). A tip o’ the hat goes to my therapist, Melissa at ATI Physical Therapy, for getting me put back together.

Oh. The restrooms in the back of the plane are nice and long. Exercises accomplished.

I manage to doze some back in my seat, but it’s a fitful night.

Breakfast at 11 am—5 am Atlanta time—with a pretty decent omelet and grilled potatoes, sausage, yogurt, and fresh fruit. Not bad.

A quick word about the writing style for these posts. I write for the parents; they’re the audience I have in mind. I’ve learned that parents want to know every little thing about the experience; they want to know what their kids are experiencing. Thus the details. I realize that many readers probably don’t need or even want all that. You folks get the privilege of scanning selectively; but I’m writing pretty much everything down in obedience to the Fifth Commandment.

We land at Amsterdam’s Schiphol (SKIP hole) airport, runway 6, at 12.53 pm. The first thing I notice is that everybody on the team has phone service except me. Drat. But there’s free wifi in the airport, again.

We learn that John and Jojo’s Mormon seatmate is one of about a dozen traveling together, all in white shirts and ties, all looking awfully young to be headed off to Ghana—and other nearby countries—for 2 years each.

Our departure gate is E-8, right next to the arrival gate. We do the essential potty stop first—you know you’re in Europe when you see female attendants in the men’s room—and then I buy everybody coffee. I’ve advised them against a lot of caffeine and sugar during the moves, what with the time-zone changes, but it’s early in the day, and they’ve had a relatively rough night, so what’s the harm? They feel better.

Just 2 hours till we board the flight to Accra. The kids are all busy on their phones. You know what I’m doing. Soon the line forms, and I realize that we’re getting back on the same plane we came in on. And so are our Mormon co-travelers. And I notice, with glee, that we’re pretty much the only white faces in line. And the accents are sounding familiar.

Ah. It’s good to be heading back to Africa.

As we board, I notice that there a small section partitioned off at the front of economy, labeled “Economy Comfort.” So that means, I suppose, that we’re back in Economy Discomfort. The Boys, Rachel, and Sarah are in front, about where the front group sat earlier. This time Bethany, Lora, the Oxford Comma, and I are in the back.

Some of you will get that.

There’s a delay.  We finally push back at 3.46, 20 minutes after scheduled takeoff. The purser announces that the entertainment system is broken—in his Dutch announcement I hear “entertainment system [the English words] ist kaput”—so I assume that’s the cause of the delay. Bummer. Now I can’t track flight progress on the little map. That’s pretty much my chief source of entertainment.

Wheels up at 4.05 off runway 36L. We climb out over the port of Amsterdam, with cargo ships docked and shifting cargo, then do the 180 necessary to head south for Accra. We cross a wide river and continue to climb through broken cumulus, with an occasional towering pillar of cotton candy. Eventually the peaks and valleys of cloud turn into solid overcast, so there’s nothing to see on the ground. I hope that doesn’t last; I’d like for the kids to see the Mediterranean.

Lunch is served at 3.30 Accra time—2 hours earlier than Amsterdam time—and it’s chicken or fish, both served with sweet and sour sauce. The Bostonian in me chooses the fish reflexively. And it’s not bad.

We talk, read, and doze through the rest of the flight. There’s not much to see. Around 8 pm local time (4 pm EDT) our ears start popping as we descend into Accra from the north. It’s dark now, and we can see the lights of towns and villages below. We touch down at 8.14 and then wait forever for the plane to empty. They use stairs rather than jetways in Accra, and we need to wait for the series of buses to arrive, fill up, and move away so the next bus can pull up. We all ride the same bus—I figure it’s a good idea to stay together, even though the buses are all going to the same place.

Inside the terminal we first line up for a thermal screen for Ebola, which—surprise!—nobody has. Then down to immigration, where there’s a significant line but it’s moving fast, with 6 windows open just for passports outside West Africa. No one has any problems, and we gather on the other side and walk down the hall to the baggage claim.

This one takes a long time; I suspect that our footlockers, because they’re designed to stack nicely, went on the bottom of whatever container they were in, so they’re about the last pieces out. Everything arrives, in tiptop shape. We roll our self-braking carts—sort of a dead-man’s switch setup in the handle—down a long ramp to the exit.

In years past, local entrepreneurs have gathered here, seeking aggressively to “help” you and cajole you out of a few cedis (the Ghanaian currency, 4 to a dollar; pronounced just like “CDs” but with the emphasis on the first syllable). So I gather everybody up inside the door and tell them to wait while I go outside—without any luggage—to find the people who are meeting us.

I see a Ghanaian holding a sign: “Dr. Timothy Seidu, West Africa Baptist College, Wa”—and that’s our contact, Pastor Kujo. He’s joined by a young man named Jephthah—he’s the muscle of the operation—and Ryan Owen, the proprietor of the guest house. We shake hands all around and then escort the carts out through the plaza, across the street, and into the parking lot where the vehicles are parked. Not a single person accosts us; apparently the airport has discouraged people from being so aggressive.

As soon as we step out of the terminal, I smell the wood smoke that is for me the quintessential smell of Africa. It’s good to be back.

We load the bags into the back of the pickup and tie them down. The kids ride with Ryan, and I jump into the pickup with Pastor Kujo and Jephthah. During the short ride to the guest house—we’re just about 4 kilometers off the south end of the runway—I learn that Pastor Kujo is helping another pastor with a new work here in Accra. He’s also well acquainted with Pastor Alfred Adjaottor, a former student of mine who’s pastoring here as well.

Arriving at the guest house, we unload the bags inside and go upstairs to our home for the night. There are 6 rooms, so 5 get their own, and a couple of the girls share a room with twin beds. There are 2 bathrooms with showers, so after a quick informational meeting—mostly dealing with tomorrow’s schedule—the guys let the girls shower first and then clean up themselves. (Seeing a spider on the wall of the guys’ bathroom reminds me to tell them not to kill the little beasties. They eat mosquitoes and are therefore good friends. Over the next few weeks the kids will get used to being in the presence of various creatures, spiders and lizards being the most common. After a while you get so you don’t even respond when you see one.)

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Time to turn on the ceiling fans in each bedroom—the primary technology for keeping us cool, since I won’t let them use the power-hungry window AC unit—and to get some rest. The kids think it’s hot, but because Accra had rain today, it’s cooler than normal. They’ll feel real heat in due time.

It’s 11 pm, and I’m wrapping up the journal while waiting for my turn in the shower. We’re tired, but safe and well, and we can’t really say that we’ve endured any significant hardship. I’d call that a successful trip.

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Dan Olinger

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

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