When I left Congo a month ago, the jacarandas were in full bloom. Now upon my return this weekend, it’s the flamboyant’s turn. The sticky purple blossoms of the jacarandas are an annual reminder of our original September arrival, while the fiery-red flamboyants announce the rainy season is about to begin. Both are a sight to behold.
I had been wondering if my month-long escape to Florida was not quite long enough, as a very grumpy me landed in Addis Ababa in the early morning hours Saturday and began searching for someone to help finalize our upcoming Christmas booking. I’m attempting to cash in our hard-earned frequent flier miles, for the first time ever, and get our flights for free. I had tried online several times, on both sides of the Atlantic, always ending in some mysterious, unexplained error. In response to these errors I had spoken to several customer service representatives on the phone, who could offer no help other than to tell me this sort of transaction had to be done in person. In Washington DC, in person, they told me to try in Addis. In Addis, in person, they told me to try in Lubumbashi. This was the last straw, as we had tried once before to deal with our “local” office where neither Seb nor a Swahili translator could communicate with ease. Now, in Addis, I tried hard not to raise my voice as I protested that surely there’s no better place to get this done than in the center of the Ethiopian Airlines empire.
Persistence pays off. By now I’m familiar with the African way of doing things, which is that “no” often means you just haven’t asked the right person or in the right way. (Ironically, “yes” can mean the same thing, which is even more confusing.)
After three rejections in two hours that morning in Addis, I finally found the right person, who finished sorting out the tickets for me twenty minutes after they’d called my flight. I was signing his paperwork in mid-air while running to the security checkpoint, but at least he took me straight to the front of the line. I hate budging, and mentally steeled myself against the sneers from the folks I had cut off, but they never came. Like me, they have probably learned that in this airport, running late is rarely the passengers’ fault.
The last time I was in this line, a month prior, I had let half a dozen people in front of me who were also running late for whatever reason. Once I finally passed through, I found that my gate was not on the other side. I could see it, but only through a glass wall separating us. I began frantically asking every employee I came across how to get over there. Their answer was always to exit the security line I had just spent thirty minutes passing through, and go through another one. That time I could not help raising my voice.
By now we have collected a dozen stories about the annoyances of this particular airport. Gates are not marked, and lines are completely random. They have television monitors everywhere, but none of them work. I found a new screen this time that looked like it was showing gate announcements, but they were all from the night before. This same morning I went to brush my teeth in the lounge ladies’ room but aborted the mission when I found a man in there, washing his feet in the sink.
All this to say that when I finally arrived at the airport in Lubumbashi, an airport laughably less developed than the one in Addis, I breathed an audible sigh of relief. I don’t know how to explain that despite being a country known for its corruption, its notorious shakedown of arriving passengers… to me, five years later, these are still just rumors. What I consistently find when I exit the aircraft is a bunch of smiling faces and a chorus of “bonjours.” Zero problems at immigration, zero problems at customs, zero items missing from my baggage. I know we have our own team of guys at the airport working hard to make this as smooth as possible for us, but no one knew who I was for the first twenty minutes, and they were all still as nice as pie. I wanted to kiss every Congolese face I came across.
Of course I reserved the kissing for my husband, who greeted me three hours later after a long, bumpy, dusty drive home, and my cat, who somehow survived in my absence. This morning Lucy the monkey bounced down from her bamboo perch and refused to take my offering of an apple until we had thoroughly checked each other for lice. In Florida I never made it to the hair salon; today I’ve received a blowout for free.
It’s good to be home.