As journeys go, this was one of the most arduous and exciting we have ever expereienced in all the 22 years we have lived in Africa. I'm going to give you a blow by blow journal of events starting with the afternoon before our departure.
2 p.m., Wednesday, 09 August 2006
I call Air France to check on our baggage. We have 27 pieces that we want to take onto the plane, 19 of which will be going as excess baggage. Even though we pay $150 for each excess piece (maximum of 32 kg each), it is the cheapest way to get the things we need to the field. I have been calling for the previous three days to get the baggage approved for the flight. There is still no confirmation of the baggage going on the flight, and a check with the office in Paris reveals that the Paris office is closed for the night. Panic begins to set in. I call Jim Knowlton, a colleague with SIM, to ask him if there is another way to ship our bags. He says the container going to Niger is full and to ship air freight would almost certainly result in a 65% duty slapped on our goods on arrival. He tries to call the airline without success. I hand the packing list to Daniel to have him look over the contents and decide which pieces of baggage are priority and which could be left behind to ship another way, if necessary. We decide that there are 11 excess pieces that must go on the plane with us, leaving 8 that could come later. The boxes that must go have all the computer equipment and the most valuable stuff in them. I start estimating the value of the contents of each piece that could be left behind. The rest of the evening involves packing.
7:45 a.m., Thursday, 10 August 2006
I am roused from bed by a phone call from Pastor Terry. I had slept in due to the exhaustion from the night of packing, but I was awake. Terry asks me if I have heard the news. I say, "No." He informs me of the plot to blow up 20 planes in mid-air traveling from England to the US. He says the threat level has been upgraded and security at airports has been increased. We must take all liquids, gels, sprays, and medicines without our names on them out of our carry-ons and put them in our checked luggage. Frantic unpacking and repacking ensues.
8:15 a.m., same day
I call Air France. Our baggage still is not approved, but there seems to be some misunderstanding about how much baggage we have. The airline thinks we have 480 kg of excess per person!! Our total excess turns out to be only 550 kg. That's still a lot, but a long ways from what they think we have. Did every agent I call on the previous four days submit a new request for baggage? I call Jim Knowlton again and plead for help. He gets on the phone with Air France. I call Pastor Terry to inform him of our predicament.
Jim K. calls to say that our bags are approved to Paris but not to Niamey. He is still on the phone with Air France.
Jim calls with the word that our baggage is approved all the way to our destination. Thank you, Jim! However, the airline requests that we remove Daniel's BB gun from one of the bags and also take print cartridges out of both printers. More frantic unpacking and repacking. The BB gun is shipped to our headquarters in Charlotte for probable shipment on the container.
We sell our van. This had been a big item hanging over our heads.
The church van arrives to load up our baggage. It goes first to the MRF storeroom where we had been putting our bags after we had packed them. Then it comes to the house to load up the last pieces. Everything fits, and there is even a space between the ceiling and the boxes to see out the rear view mirror.
After final goodbyes and a prayer with those gathered, we leave for JFK airport in New York with Pastor Terry as our driver. We have had enough of goodbyes and are sad to leave all our friends old and new behind. We wish it would get easier, but it doesn't.
We stop at a Subway in Matamoras, PA to get some food to fortify us for the trip. It will be our only real meal for the next twelve hours. Jim K. calls us on Pastor's cell phone to tell us to hurry it up and get there as quickly as possible.
We cross the George Washington Bridge into New York City. Traffic gets much more crazy, and we are getting anxious to get there. We don't experience any major traffic congestion on our way into the airport.
We arrive at Terminal 1 at JFK airport. We quickly find the Air France desk, but getting all our baggage up to the counter is a big job, even though it's not very far. We hire four carts to lug it all, but it takes several trips and a lot of time and effort. It takes us over two hours to check in all our baggage and weigh it, but thankfully the agents at the desk can see the approval for the baggage on their computers and don't question the number of pieces or the weight.
We head for the security line to go past customs to our gate. Predictably, the line is long and slow, and Nancy and Daniel get in a longer line. They discover some things in Daniel's carry-on that he had forgotten to remove, and they confiscate them. We have to take a lot of things out of our carry-ons to show them to the security people. Thankfully, they let me keep my Nasonex spray.
Cleared through customs, we walk to our gate at the end of the concourse. We walk right onto the plane as boarding had started 10 minutes previously.
Our scheduled departure time comes and passes. We wait in our seats in the plane. Eventually the pilot comes on to inform us that there are 20 people supposed to be on the flight who are still trying to get through security. Later, after a count of the number of passengers, he informs us that one passenger did not get on but his baggage did. The hold must be opened and the baggage removed. We pass another 30 minutes waiting.
Still at the gate. By now the sky is becoming black, and it's not because the sun is setting. A tremendous storm is approaching from Manhattan Island, and the wind begins to pick up. We are not cleared to leave the gate. The storm hits with a bang and a shudder at about 8:30 p.m., and we are grounded. Around 9 p.m., the pilot informs us that the airport has been closed. We are hungry and ready to climb the walls of the enclosed cabin. Everyone is getting up to walk around and get something to drink.
We have now been on the plane five hours, but it has not moved one centimeter. However, the storm is blowing itself out, and the airport is reopened. Finally, at about 10:35, we pull back from the gate.
Lift off! We are served a nice meal on the plane, and then I actually doze off for about 3 and a half hours. I never sleep on planes, but I am so exhausted from the frantic pace and all the uncertainties that I do sleep this time. We are fairly certain we will miss our connecting flight from Paris to Niamey, as we are six hours late, and we only had a scheduled layover of 3 and a half hours.
That is just the first day of the journey, and there are still four more to go.
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