Friday, August 15, 2008

Flying in Africa

My post earlier this morning was thoughts and recollections on returning to Sierra Leone. Last week I was in Benin for an assessment trip in anticipation of the ship's visit there last week. Brenda, who was one of my cabinmates during my DTS 12 years ago, was the other person on the trip. We met up with Daslin, one of my former managers who now lives in Benin. Getting there had a few humorous moments. One of them was when we walked across the tarmac to the plane and Brenda exclaimed, "You've got to be kidding! I'm not getting in that small plane." After we eyeballed our luggage and nodded to the guys loading it, we ascended the few steps into the 19-seater prop job. All I could think was, "At least it has portholes." One time I flew out of Liberia on an UNMIL flight and all the portholes were blacked out. It's very disconcerting to fly during a storm, through turbulence, and not know if the current descent is intentional or not nor just how close you are to the ground!

When we arrived at the airport, we had our luggage weighed (for all of you in the US worried about the new luggage restrictions, imagine if you had 12kg/26.4# for a one-week trip and you wanted to take a laptop computer that would consume about 8#. We asked for and received an extra 5kg allowance a few days ahead, so we had a bit more leeway and managed ok). Then they handed us our boarding passes...and in the process I noticed that Brenda had become Doris and I was now Arthur! For Brenda they used her middle name and I was given the first name of the next person on the manifest. And to think, I even wore earrings that day.

Arrived at the airport yesterday morning and had to wait outside for about 10 minutes for the WFP personnel to arrive. When they did, the person who checked me in for the last flight, greeted me by surname and asked, "You're flying again?" At least I was Marie this time and not Arthur. They still don't get that whole first name/middle name thing! The purser said every time she talked to them or emailed them about my flight, they called me Marie. Maybe Jean will get to fly home Tuesday.

I should have known there was something different about this flight when they weighed not only my luggage, but also had ME get on the scale! Let's just say that Brenda would not have been excited at what she saw when she walked across the tarmac if she'd been with me yesterday. The Toyota Land Cruiser the driver picked me up in had more headroom than the Cessna Grand Caravan with seats for 9 passengers. I had to walk hunched over to get to my seat. I picked the single seat in the front row so I had a clear view out the window without much wing interference. The safety briefing was a verbal from the pilot who pointed out a fire extinguisher in the door and a blue box in the back which contained enough food and supplies for a week should something happen to strand us somewhere!

At times it felt like a roller coaster ride, but the thing I love about roller coasters is that the swooshing sensation is predictable...and in a plane you never know when turbulence is going to hit. I thought my neighbor across the aisle was going to lose her lunch, the way she held her stomach, pursed her lips and kept blowing out her cheeks.

Anyway, it was a good flight and I think I may even have seen Mattru, Jong, where I used to live, from the air. It is pretty close and certainly had the different landmarks I could think of: what looked like the outline of the hospital buildings in an area soon after the town started, a split in the road later, the falls where we used to camp upstream, a small island mid-river, etc. The pilots had propped a GPS on the dash for the flight, so when I thought I recognized the village (I know you can't tell much from the photo above, but I could in person and when I zoomed in), I took a photo of the GPS. I couldn't see the numbers from my seat, but I could in the photo. When I look up the coordinates, they correspond pretty closely with the location of Mattru or possibly one other town on a different river, but that town is on the opposite bank of the river. Who knows. It's nice to think that maybe it was Mattru.

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