As the familiar Land Cruiser pulled into the driveway at the Outpost hotel, we realized with a pang of sadness that this would be the last time we’d see Rob and Peter. They had been our guides and protectors, taking us on a journey of over a 1000 kilometers, and would now accompany us for one last drive to Kilimanjaro Airport, about 40 minutes out of town. Having spent the better part of two weeks with them, having come to depend on Rob to keep us out of harm’s way for so long, and having trusted our lives to Peter’s driving skills, we realized how much we would miss them. On the drive to the airport, everyone was pretty subdued, It wasn’t until all of the baggage was unloaded onto the sidewalk at the terminal and the inevitability of departure become clear, that we finally said proper and heartfelt farewells.
As soon as we had said our good-byes, and watched the familiar but empty Land Cruiser drive away, we had to come to terms with another imminent departure. Joni would be staying behind to board a later flight to Zambia, where she would finish her year-long internship in Lusaka. The full realization that we wouldn’t see her again for another six months made the wait at the terminal that much more melancholy, and when it was finally time to queue up for the walk out of the terminal and the waiting plane, there were more tears as we contemplated the long, cold, daughter-less months ahead.
Other than that, our departure was uneventful. There were no incidents, no missing papers, no need to bribe the officials, no fanfare or excitement.
I have a memory of walking to the plane in the hot sun (I think we left at about 2:30 in the afternoon, and it was always hot at 2:30 in the afternoon). We climbed steps and boarded the plane. Then the doors closed, the plane taxied to the end of the runway, and a few moments later then we were in the air on our way to Mombasa, the first leg of our thirty-hour journey home.
After a short flight and landing in Mombasa, our plane sat on the tarmac for an hour with its engines and electrical systems off. This came as no surprise, since the same thing had happened when we had been traveling in the other direction. Still, it was stifling. The afternoon sun, the extreme humidity from the Indian Ocean, and the closeness of the cabin made for an oppressive atmosphere. Thankfully, the crew had opened the rear door of the plane for unloading things, and there was a small platform where we get a breath of fresh, albeit humid, air. Even moving as little as possible, I found myself sweating freely, and pondered grimly how that would feel for the next day or so without a chance to wash up. After about an hour and a half, our purgatory came to an end, the lights and the air conditioning came back on, the engines whined into life, and we took off again for the four-hour flight to Addis Ababa.
I have only vague memories of seeing Ethiopia’s capital city from the air. It’s a shame, because I’m sure it was a wonderful sight, but somehow I had lost my capacity to appreciate any new vistas, and was focused instead of the next few hours. We deplaned in Addis at about 8:30 or 9:00 p.m. local time, and were scheduled to depart on an Ethiopian Airlines flight to Rome about ninety minutes later. I have a very clear memory of hurrying to find the gate of our flight, although I suppose I was always doing that, so maybe it was another leg of the journey I’m thinking about. In any case, any hurry was badly mistimed. It turned out our flight was delayed. Actually, it was extremely difficult to figure out exactly what was happening, and listening to other passengers spread rumors only added to the confusion. Had our flight been cancelled? Had it been delayed? Was there even a plane available?
The hardest thing was not knowing how long we would have to wait in that terminal. I can amuse myself pretty well for an hour or two, but after that, I’d rather sleep, or at least stop trying to find things to do. So as 10 p.m. passed, and then 11 p.m., I and everyone else got more and more cranky. I did take advantage of the long delay to change some of my undergarments (the ones that had clung to my sweaty skin in Mombassa) in a bathroom stall. This was not a comfortable experience in any way, but being in slightly less sodden clothing was worth it.
I believe that it was at the airport in Addis that Ann bought two little carved wooden elephants. That’s all she remembers about this part of the trip, and even that memory might be a false one, since she could have bought them at Kilimanjaro airport, or at some other point in the trip.
Finally, around midnight, we got the word that we would be boarding. It took another half hour, but then we were on the plane, and sometime before 1 a.m., we were in the air, heading toward Europe.
I tried to sleep, and mostly failed. Of course, Ann had no trouble nodding off, but even though I was very tired, I couldn’t get comfortable. It seemed that every hour or do, I’d fall asleep for a few minutes and then something would wake me again. I tried to listen to an audio book, but I was too tired to enjoy it, and not tired enough to let it coax me into a deeper nap. So the night passed.
There’s no reason to drag out the story of the next 12 hours, or make the experience of trying to drop off to sleep sound more interesting and less miserable than it was. I asked Ann what she remembered about that part of our trip, and the only thing she could recalls was that I was the only one who got up to wander up and down the aisles, out of boredom and the idea that I ought to keep my blood moving. She’s always thought it funny and ironic that I was the only one who took that precaution.
We landed in Rome in what seemed to be the middle of an interminable night. There was some shuffling of passengers off and on the plane, and then we took off again for the trans-Atlantic flight to Washington, D.C. Because we were flying West, it took many more hours before we were aware of sunrise, and the gradual reddening and then lightening of the sky was drawn out and seemed to last an immodestly long time. At some point, it became light for real, and when we descended through the clouds on our approach to Washington, we realized that it was an overcast day. At about 10 a.m. local time, we touched down at Dulles International.
Even though intellectually I knew that we were only a few hours away from walking through our own front door, I felt that in Washington time seemed to slow to a crawl. There was a long delay getting through customs. I also remember that at one point Ann, her brother, and I were walking ahead, and lost track of Loren, who was lagging behind. For 10-15 minutes we didn’t know where he was (it turned out he had just stopped to buy a drink or something), and this seemed like a big deal. What if he missed the flight to Boston? Eventually he showed up, but our needless panic shows how we were all dealing with the effects of overall exhaustion and lack of sleep.
Finally we were through customs, and at a different gate, then on a smaller plane for the last, short flight to Logan. As the plane accelerated down the runway and we took off for the final time, I finally began to sense the end of the journey, and it was like coming back to life.
It was cold in Boston. You could tell that even while inside the terminal wondering if your baggage would show up. Every time the outside doors would open, you’d feel a draft of startlingly icy air. Since we had been away, there had been 20 inches of snow, and there was snow everywhere.
Walking out to wait for a taxi, the reality of winter in the Northern Hemisphere seemed strange and foreign. I supposed I would get used to it again. In any case, it seemed that life would now return to familiar and boring routines.
In fact, it was about to get much less boring.