Friday, June 1, 2018

Sometime in the wee hours of the morning, I get exhausted enough to doze off with my face in that tiny pillow, which I’ve place on the tray table for stability. I wake up to the still screaming children, as we’re headed east over the coast of Norway. Since Doha is on the east side of the Arabian Peninsula, the Great Circle route takes us pretty far north; we’ve come over Greenland itself and north of Iceland to get here.

I make a habit of setting my watch to destination time right after takeoff, to get myself mentally prepared for the time change. So it’s 10 am (3 am EDT) when I come to, but the cabin is still dark and window shades all down. Do a little morning ablution ritual, returning to my seat to find us over western Russia. Looks like we’ll head south through the Caucasus and into Doha. We’ve been airborne for 10 hours and still have 5 more to go. Jana’s awake now too, and watching some movie full of animated rabbits talking to one another. Maybe I’ll fire up the Orient Express again and see if it makes any more sense to me now. I do recall from my earlier haze that the cinematography was spectacular, but I was in no condition to follow the particulars of a murder investigation on the first attempt. I go to the middle of the movie and begin the business of re-engaging the plot.

An hour later, I wake up as the credits begin to roll. Yeah, I’m a real movie buff. Apparently I’ll never know whodunit.

Shortly after noon they bring lunch by. Jana’s asleep, face down in her neck pillow. I figure she’ll want to eat, so I wake her up. I get the eggs with mushrooms; she gets the other thing. Like mushrooms? Yukky face. Guess not.

The mushrooms are pretty good, and there’s a nice fresh fruit cup and yogurt and even a Twix bar, which, as you know, makes everything better.

Just 3 hours out of Doha now, and about 20 minutes behind schedule. We have only 90 minutes’ turnaround time there to start with; I hope it doesn’t shrink any more. And I hope they won’t put us through a security check here. They often do that in Africa and Europe, even though you’re not leaving the secure zone. Will the Arabian Peninsula be more likely to increase the security checks, or less? I guess we’re gonna find out.

Watch the cameras for a bit, as the Russian farms glide by beneath. Lots of farms; somebody’s working pretty hard down there.

There’s AC power at each seat, even in Economy, and free wifi as well. I get pretty excited about the prospect of being able to post the first day’s blog right at midnight, but my connection quits working just a few hours into the flight. I twiddle with it some, but don’t see any obvious problems. Well, guess you’re gonna have to wait to get your first daily fix.

With the cabin lights up for the meal, I figure it’s a good time to locate the rest of the crew. I find Olivia V in the next-to-last row on the left, awake and smiling. The three on the other end of her row are all asleep. I find Paige 2 rows ahead of them, in the middle seat, wrapped around her full-size pillow and also asleep. When we talked earlier, she said she didn’t think bringing the big pillow was worth it, because it didn’t seem to fit anywhere in the middle seat. But it seems to be working for her now.

So we’re all located and verified. All but 2 of us are sitting with at least one other team member. I’ll have to ask those 2 how the flight went, when they’ve recovered enough to talk about it.

Soon we’re just an hour out, over Iran, having passed west of Tehran a bit earlier. We’ll cross the Persian Gulf, or whatever the locals would have us call it, and find our way into Doha, Qatar. My first time here; I’m expecting it to be upscale, but we’ll see.

We land in DOH at 4.15, a bit late. As we’re taxiing, an announcement reminds us that this is the holy month of Ramadan, and eating or drinking in public during daylight hours is prohibited. I’m amused that the announcement is made to a plane full of Hindu passengers. And I’m reminded that the First Amendment is not global.

We’re not going to fritter away any time getting to the departure gate, especially since we need to go together, and 4 of us are in the next-to-last row of the plane. We gather in the terminal and hustle upstairs (I take the escalator; all the crew takes the long stairs. “We need to walk.”), following the “Transfer” signs. A long walk brings us to the security checkpoint; yep, they’re going to make us go through it, even though we’re not leaving the secure zone. The upshot of that is that security isn’t any tighter, but all the people going through it lose all their liquids—water, juice, whatever, anything picked up on the previous flight.

We all get through with no problems, but we guzzle a lot of water on the way in. Regather on the other side—I count, again—and head for our gate, E1. That involves taking a short train ride, but we just miss one and have to wait several minutes for the next one. The wait turns out to be longer than the ride. Signage is a little confusing, which surprises me, given that this is indeed a world-class airport—“5-star,” as it advertises itself. There are luxury shops everywhere, and the place is new and clean and beautiful. Wish we could stop to admire it—but we’ll be spending a night here on the way back, so we’ll have plenty of time then.

The strange thing is, the airport is virtually deserted. There’s just nobody around. I’m not sure why, but it is before sunset on a Friday, the Muslim day of rest and worship, and especially during Ramadan, maybe everybody’s at the mosque instead of traveling. But I do wonder what happened to all those Hindus who got off the plane with us.

Gate E1 is not far from the train stop; they’re boarding, but we have 10 minutes, so we opt for a potty stop. I go into the men’s room and point them to the matching ladies’ room. When I come out, there’s nobody to be seen. And I notice that the ladies’ room is closed for cleaning. Hmm. Wonder where they went. To the gate? I don’t see them in there.

Great. I lost my entire team. In Qatar. During Ramadan.

Then I notice one of them coming back from beyond the gate. There’s another ladies’ room down there, and it’s open. Of course.

Into the gate and immediately onto the plane. It’s an A320, not a widebody, with 3-3 seating. Annalee and I are in row 21, and across the aisle from her are Katlyn, Janis, and Jana. Jessica, Olivia S, and Gabby are behind them, and Paige is behind Annalee. Olivia V, for some reason, is several rows in front of us.

And the plane, like the airport, is sparsely populated. Most rows have just 1 person in them. If we wanted to, we could spread out and maybe get a little sleep a little easier, but it’s evening, and we’re spending the night in the Nairobi airport, and I think we’ll sleep better there if we’re, well, sleepy.

Takeoff from 16L, then, to my surprise, a left turn out over the gulf, directly away from Nairobi. I wonder if we’re avoiding Saudi Arabia? I know that Qatar has been in a bit of a kerfuffle with other Muslim countries in the region; don’t know if there’s a connection there. But we work our way southeast down the gulf, over the Strait of Hormuz, and cut the easternmost corner of the peninsula, the nation of Oman. So I guess it’s Saudi Arabia we’re avoiding, and not the whole peninsula.

Into Africa right at the tip of the horn, and over to Nairobi just north of the Somali border. No sense flying over a failed state, you know?

On landing, we ride a bus to the terminal, which looks completely under construction. I knew the arrival terminal here burned in 2013; I’m surprised that it’s not done yet. Everything is just, well, unfinished and more than a little confusing. I’m expecting to have to buy transit visas for everybody and start for the visa line, but I notice a sign for “Transit” pointing upstairs, so we follow it. The further we go, the less this looks like the right way to go. It’s like being in a multi-sectioned warehouse—think IKEA but empty.

Eventually, in a big empty room, we find a security screening set up, being run by a lone woman. We go through the metal detector, even though it’s just sitting out in the middle of the room. Then stop at a temporary-looking set of toilets, and then keep following the “gate” signs. It just gets weirder and weirder. I apologize to the team; “I’m not sure what I’m doing here.” “We know,” they say.

Gift of mercy.

After an interminable walk (pun fully intended), I see something familiar. We go through a narrow door and down a (temporary?) metal ramp, and we’re in the old departure terminal, with a long semicircle of gates along halls lines with duty-free shops containing an extraordinary amount of whiskey.

Where do we get our bags? We’re we supposed to do that back at the visa counter?

I find a Qatar Airways gate and ask a man there. He looks at my baggage stub. “Your bags are checked through to Mwanza.”

That’s impossible. We have to have them weighed by Precision Air and pay excess baggage fees because of their lower allowances. The agent says, “Because there were 10 of you together, they just checked them all through.” I’ve never heard of them doing that before. Our flight does make a stop at Kilimanjaro on the way to Mwanza; maybe they’ll do the bag weighing there. We’ll see. But at least we won’t be dragging our large bags—and 400 pounds of Tumaini baggage—through the airport all night.

The agent adds another piece of good news. “You can check in at the Kenya Airways counter.”

Now? We don’t have to wait until 2 hours before the flight, or 6 am?

Right. You can do it now.

So we check in for our Precision Airways flight at the Kenya Airways counter, and we have all our boarding passes.

Well, we’re in considerably better shape than I expected us to be in at this time of night (1 am).

Now one more matter to settle.

Where do we stay for the night?

I know people in Nairobi, and I considered setting something up, but we have an 8 am flight, and we need to be here at 6 am, and it just didn’t seem worth it to me to get a place to stay for what? 3 or maybe 4 hours?

I look around the airport. It’s clean and quiet. People are sleeping along the sides of the hallways. I’m not inclined to do that, primarily for security reasons. If we’re all asleep, anyone could steal our carry-ons, which have our most valuable items in them. I’m confident I can’t stay awake all night, and I don’t want to put that burden on any of the others.

There are airline lounges. Turkish Air is open all night, for $60 a person. Down the hall I find a Swissport facility for $35 a person. We’ll have comfortable chairs, electrical outlets, wifi, food, drinkable water, toilets, and most importantly, security.

I’d pay that for just the last 2 or 3 of those things. It’s a no-brainer.

We need boarding passes to enter. If we’d had to follow the normal policy of waiting until 2 hours before flight time to check in, this option wouldn’t have been available to us.

Providence is a really, really good thing.

It’s after 1 am when we enter. I lecture the group about being quiet. Americans are a noisy bunch and tend not to notice that overseas they’re considerably louder than everyone around them. Here, it’s 1 am, and people are asleep in chairs. I know what they’re going to want to do when they see the free food and the espresso machine.

They do react, but within reason. I’ll confess to shushing them a little.

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Dan Olinger

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

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