Knowing I’m leaving the country makes flying out of awful LAX more tolerable. I enjoy seeing the different colored passport covers in the security line. The family in front of me hold maroon passports and are speaking Italian. Another family nearby speaks in French. I spot a navy-blue American passport and see its American owner scratching his balls. Yeah, I see you dude.
On the plane, the pilot says something in English. Her Dutch accent is so thick, all I can hear are phlegmy-sounding words. I have no idea what she’s saying. As long as it isn’t: “The plane is crashing”, we should all be fine.
The 747 is giant with two levels. I’m seated in the middle section in a non-aisle seat and feel trapped. To my left is an older woman, with a heavy accent of unidentifiable origin. I would later notice she is flying to Tehran. She seems to know how to speak some English, but doesn’t appear to understand the English I speak. We are about to take off and a giant tote bag sits in her lap. The flight attendant asks her to put it underneath the seat. “I’m fine,” she says. The flight attendant laughs lightly, “It’s actually not fine. You have to put it underneath the seat.” “Thank you,” says the woman, “but, I am fine.” With mild frustration the flight attendant says, “No, you MUST put it underneath the seat.” The woman acquiesces, puts the tote at her feet and begrudgingly pushes it under the seat in front of her. As soon as the flight attendant walks away ,she uses her feet to inch the purse closer to her. I’m not usually a stickler for rules. But, I don’t mess around on airplanes. I’m not trying to die or be maimed. If there’s turbulence and that giant sack hits me in my face…. As we take off, the woman grasps a rosary.
On my left is an older Asian couple; they sound British. The male half of the couple looks at me as if he wants to say something. He gives me that curious, “I wonder if this person speaks English” look and perhaps decides I don’t as he closes his mouth before any words make it out.
Each seat is equipped with a private TV. The display is currently showing our flight path. It occurs to me as I look at the map, my eyes lighting up: “Holy fuck, I am going to Africa!” The screen displays the distance to Amsterdam, in kilometers, where I have a short layover. I don’t know what the hell a kilometer is. I have tried many, many times to learn the metric system, but my brain seems have a block when it comes to that particular information.
KLM’s service is excellent. The flight attendants are attentive and welcoming. They feed us so often it feels like I’m constantly eating. They even provide warm towels to wipe our hands between meals! The selection of free movies, recent and classic is not shabby. I watch American Reunion (it was alright), Safe House (meh), and Friends with Kids (I fell asleep toward the end and have no interest in picking it up from where I left it). United, American Airlines, Delta – please take note: this is service.
18 hours later I arrive at the Kilimanjaro airport. I am informed that Americans must purchase visas at the airport before exiting. The lines are long, but fast-moving. When I make my way to the window I am told the visa is US $100. I hand the agent my credit card. “We only accept cash,” she says. My eyes widen. I have US $20 on me. I’d intended to withdraw cash at LAX, but the terminal I was in wasn’t flush with Bank of America ATMs like others.
I tell the agent, “I don’t have any cash.” She stares at me briefly and then repeats, “You need cash,” and sends me over to her colleague. I am now his problem. He repeats, “You need cash.” I know, I know, I need cash, let’s move on from this. “What can I do?” I ask him. He tells me that I can leave my passport there and come back the next day with the cash. Is he kidding? Leave my passport?! Every international traveler knows you never part with your passport. But, I have no other option. I have to find the volunteer coordinator who is meeting me at the airport. She’ll know what to do.
I walk out of the immigration corral into the baggage claim area. Only passengers are allowed in the baggage claim. I walk by an older African woman who says “Hello” with a tone that sounds like a threat: “Hello, I will kill you with my eyes.” I am distracted and her greeting doesn’t immediately register with me, so I don’t return it. She says “Hello” with even more malice this time. I say “Hi” back and she gives me a look that seems to say, “Damn right you say hello!” I guess she works there?
I can feel tears starting to pool in my eyes. I feel the burning in my throat that accompanies a crying jag.
Do not cry, I will myself. Do not fucking cry! You are stronger than this and have been through much worse. It’ll work out. But, I have no passport and I can’t grab my luggage. Is this the beginning of some Locked up Abroad shit? My imagination is sometimes too active for my own good. Of all things, I think of The Amazing Race. Fans of the show speak of the “killer fatigue” that often strikes contestants, causing them to freak out over the smallest of things: “My hair is oily. I can’t speak the language! My life is over. We’re going to lose!!!”
I do not like the way murderous “hello” woman is looking at me. I ignore her and walk up to a kind-looking younger woman. I begin, “I…I…passport…I…” Oh god, I’m crying. “It’s okay,” she offers, “What’s wrong?” I am so thankful she speaks English. “Passport…no cash…(deep breath)…I don’t…he won’t give me my passport…” Stop crying and just spit it out! “Ok, who is meeting you?” she asks. “Volunteer…I’m…volunteering…I don’t know where she is!” She tells me, “Go find your friend and you can go drive to get cash and come back.” There is, of course, no ATM in the airport. How convenient.
I walk out of the baggage claim fearing that it’s the last time I’ll see my passport and luggage again. I scan the waiting crowd for a sign with my name. I see a petite woman with short, curly hair holding a sign with the name of the organization I’m volunteering with in African colors, green yellow and red, on a poster board shaped like the Continent. Thank God! Her name is V_. I learn later that she is from New Jersey. She sounds a bit like Bethenny Frankel. Actually, she kind of looks like her too.
This is not the impression I want to make: “Hi, I’m the girl who said in her application that she travels a lot, doesn’t stress easily and goes with the flow. I am also an idiot who doesn’t have any cash, left her passport with a strange man in a foreign airport and cannot speak a full sentence without stopping to compose myself so I don’t cry.” She assures me it’s okay. She has seen it all. One of the current volunteers didn’t realize he didn’t have any blank pages left in his passport when he attempted to cross into Tanzania from Kenya. He ended up stranded in Kenya for a week while he waited to get more pages. That makes me feel a little better. I apologize for being a hot mess. She says soothingly, “It’s okay. There’s no need to dwell on it. We’ll get you cash and come back.”
The cab driver is incredibly cooperative and drives 20 minutes away from the airport to the nearest ATM. It’s out of cash. Of course. Thankfully, the next ATM works. Cash obtained, we head back to the airport. On the way back to the airport, I learn that V_ lived in Madrid for 13 years and France for nine. She first volunteered with Give A Heart to Africa in 2010. She loved the experience so much she decided to take a year off and volunteer here full-time. I’m awed.
Back at the airport, I again ignore the murderous “hello” woman and head back to the visa window. The man with my passport grins broadly at me and says, “I knew you’d be back tonight.” “Yes, I’m here! Thank you so much for being kind to me.” “You too,” he replies with a warm smile. He takes care of the paperwork and sends me over to get my photo taken. I smile and fix my hair for the picture and one of the women at the booth giggles at my primping. I don’t like not smiling in photos whether they are for visas or not. A young man hands me my visa, grins at me and declares triumphantly, “Welcome to Tanzania! It is a beautiful country. Maybe you will come back to stay one day!”
The house where I’m staying is about 45-minutes from the airport. There is a heavily gated door with an electrified barbed wire fence atop it. A security guard is inside the gate for our protection. We arrive to a pitch black house. The power is out. I’d been warned that the power and hot water are spotty. The house is small, but comfortable. There’s a bunk bed in my room, but I will not have to share it just yet. A mosquito net drapes the bed like a canopy. V_ says to me, “This is your home for the next three weeks.” I like the sound of that. Welcome to Tanzania.