January 9, 2014
7:10 p.m. Eastern Time
Ethiopian Airlines flight 501
Over the Mediterranean
I used to be a patient person, but that was before I moved to Philadelphia. I just told a new colleague, who was just moving to the city, “You’ve got to say what you want when you’re in Philly. Don’t walk into a store and wait for someone to help you. Walk in and say, ‘Yo, can I get some help over here!’”
Speaking of Philadelphia attytude, I was going through airport security this morning and someone had left a Yankees baseball cap on the x-ray belt. I called, “Did someone leave a cap? A Yankees baseball cap?” And the man in front of me turned around, thanked me, and took it.
Another man — big guy, probably Irish-American, said, “Yankees! You shoulda throwed that on the floor.” Smiling, I said, “I’m just trying to be a good citizen.” He grinned. “You’re not from Philoffia, are you.”
My delayed flight touched down at Washington Dulles Airport, and I still had a couple of hours before my nonstop flight from Dulles to Addis Ababa on Ethiopian Airlines. But at my gate, there was a long queue — maybe a hundred people, and it wasn’t moving.
Did I need to wait in that line? I already had a boarding pass, and my bags were checked through to Addis, and my only carry-on was my small backpack.
I approached the front and caught the attention of one of agents. “Do I need to wait in this line?”
“Yes! You need a boarding pass!”
“But I have this one, see?”
“No, you need a different boarding pass. That one’s no good.”
So I went to the back of the line, which wasn’t moving at all. I struck up a conversation with a young woman who was going on a backpacking trip in Kenya, Tanzania, and Rwanda. She said, “Get used to this. This is so African — waiting in a long line for apparently no reason. Don’t rush. Just realize that you’re going onto Africa Time.”
I left the line and went to Dunkin Donuts. I ate my biscuit and drank my coffee. I responded to some e-mails for work, even though my “out of office” message is already on. And then I went back into the line, which had finally been moving but was still just as long as it had been. And then they called for boarding. “If you have a yellow sticker on your boarding card, you can begin boarding now.” And then, a few minutes later, “If you have a red sticker on your boarding card, you can begin boarding now.”
I struck up another conversation — this one with a big brute of a guy who looked like a trucker. I asked him where he was going. “Djibouti,” he said. “I don’t know why that country even exists. There is nothing there! You’re driving along a road, and you come across a group of men with shovels. They stop you and dig a hole. Then you pay them to fill in the hole and you keep driving. What kind of country is that?”
I said, “I guess the French wanted a port on the Red Sea, so they created one. And now there’s a tiny country there, but all it’s got is a port on the Red Sea.”
“Yeah,” he said. “At least on this trip, the feds sprang for business class. So maybe I’ll get some sleep.”
I wondered what his job was — some kind of government contractor — but I didn’t ask.
I was still 25 people from the front of the line, but there were 25 or more behind me. There were crowds and chaos. The people at the desk were unflustered. The people in the line who looked like they might be from Africa — the women in long colorful skirts, the men in track suits — were unperturbed. The Americans — a soccer team from Slippery Rock University off to do a service project, a church mission team, some aid workers, a few young hikers wearing bandanas, a wiry and spry old Jewish lady who will soon be climbing into high mountainous jungle regions to commune with rare gorillas — these were the frustrated ones.
But we all made it onto the plane eventually. And here we are, a collection of humanity. On my far left, a young man named Jon who works for a Lancaster, Pennsylvania-based aid organization that does microlending. He lives in Brazzaville and loves it, but his young wife wants to move back to Texas, where they are from. I can tell that he’s unhappy about returning to the States. But she wants to have kids, and not in Congo!
Next to Jon, a young Ethiopian man who listens to afropop on his headphones. On my right, a woman who lives in Angola while her husband works in the oil industry. She doesn’t like living in Africa — doesn’t like that one of her kids is at boarding school in the United States, doesn’t like that a head of lettuce costs $20 in Angola. I almost asked her, “Why don’t you eat like the locals eat instead of buying lettuce that’s been flown in from Chile?” But I think better of it. She’s not trying to do what the locals do. She is trying to create a “normal” American life for her kids, and she’s willing to kick against the goads to do it. I almost admire her stubbornness.
I’ve slept some on this plane, but my tailbone hurts now, and we still have four hours to do. I think we’re about to enter Libyan airspace — in fact, we’ll be over Benghazi in just a few minutes. May God grant rest eternal to our American ambassador who died 35,000 feet below me, and to all the people who have died during civil strife, both in LIbya and throughout Africa.
God, grant me safety on this trip. Safety for me, safety for those around me.