Getting there is half the horror

“It's this humid in January?” I thought as I stepped off the Though I only had to catch two flights, from DC to Paris and then Paris to Conakry -- it ended up taking a full three days to finally get there. I hoped this wasn’t the travel gods’ way of warning me of worse ordeals that awaited me in Guinea.

I had booked my flight with Air France, thinking it would be a kinder, gentler carrier than a nebulous African airline, one of which I later heard described as Air Peut-Etre – Air Maybe.

After a sleepless night crossing the Atlantic, we touched down at Charles de Gaulle airport in a Paris drizzle. A shuttle spat us out at the doorstep of the terminal, where we were briskly moved through security. My bags being checked straight to Conakry, my only task was to find the right gate and wait. A five-hour layover would be just enough time to have a pain au chocolat and café au lait, sample the duty-free perfumes, and brush up on my French with an Elle magazine.

The flight was delayed an hour. Two. Three. Four hours. I kept trolling for news, pacing by the counter, though there were no attendants in sight.

“Hmmph. Back in the States this would never happen,” I thought to myself. “They would have a full weather report and a message from the captain telling us what to expect.” I felt myself slipping into that strange condition that always hits me once I leave American soil. Patriotism. Though first to criticize American consumerism and conservatism at home, as soon as I find myself on foreign soil, I felt called to be some sort of undercover ambassador, bringing to light the positive side of American life.

Like respect for schedules.

Five hours. The sprinkles smearing the window onto the runway turned into a flash snowstorm. Six, seven, eight. As the hours piled up with the snow, I tried to sleep in the airport's seats that were designed to prohibit sleep or relaxation.

Finally the listing for the Conakry flight on the departures screen blinked from en retard to annulé. There was a sudden uproar as my fellow passengers learned that the flight was cancelled.

A pale, dark-haired ticket agent who looked as if she’d been sucking on limes finally showed up to field our questions. “No, there will be no other flight for three days,” she said, lips pursed and nose high. “You can return to your original destination or wait for the next flight.”

Go back to Washington? Or sit in this bardo for days like refugees? This could not be happening.

“As the cancellation is due to weather, the airline is under no obligation to provide accommodations,” the agent added.
It was a lie, plain and simple. If the plane had taken off at its appointed departure time, there would have been no weather problems.

“What do you expect us to do?” cried out a woman wearing a long, oversized African-print dress, with two young boys in tow. “Why are we being punished? The other cancelled flights are getting food and hotels. This is racism!”

“We don’t have visas for France!” another man shouted. “It’s easy for you to just tell us to stay in Paris for three days. We can’t even leave the airport!”

“You can go to the immigrations line and see if they will give you a transit visa. I’m sorry, but there’s nothing I can do,” she countered.

She sure didn’t look sorry, only maybe sorry that she took this job. I doubted that there was an equivalent expression for a “people-person” in French, but in any case this woman was not one.

With this proclamation, the agent disengaged from the crowd and started gazing into her computer. I wanted to slap the blasé look off her face. She wasn’t doing much to rectify my stereotype of the cold French snob.

Meanwhile, the African would-be travelers surrounded the ticket agent like angry bees, screaming demands and protests. One young man, tall as a basketball player, reached over to pound on the agent's computer keyboard. Madame Les Friendly Skies called security, and a pair of stubbly-headed airport cops marched in with puffed-up chests, threatening to cart off the rabble-rouser if he didn’t calm down.

Though the man in question backed down, there was still no chance of putting this crowd to bed. I couldn’t follow all the fast French flying across the counter, but what I caught wasn’t kind. Seeing that we were not going away, the agent’s supervisor finally came around and magically found us seats on tomorrow's flight. She also gave us hotel vouchers, though it would be 45 minutes waiting in the biting cold -- me dressed for tropical Guinea with just a thin short-sleeved shirt on -- before a shuttle arrived to take us to the hotel.

A woman whom I had noticed at the counter stood next to me in the cold. She obviously wasn’t African, though she didn’t look American either. Greek, maybe?

“What day!,” she said to me with an Eastern European accent.

“You are on the flight to Conakry, yes?”

“Yes, I am. At least, if there is a flight.”

“You look miserable cold. Here, take this sweater. I have another.”

“Thank you so much, but don’t you need this?”

“You can give it to me once we are on the flight.”

Sheepishly I accepted. A few minutes later the shuttle bus came.
The number of people waiting for it had multiplied, and the rush for the door caught me off-guard. The woman picked up one of my bags with her free hand and nodded me on. I followed behind her as she pushed her way on the packed bus, its floor slick with slush.

“Thanks so much! My name’s April by the way.”

“Katrina. Very nice to meet you.”

“Where are you from?”

“I am from Croatia, but I work with UNAMSIL, the security mission in Sierra Leone. I am a logistics officer. Eat with me and my colleagues for dinner tonight, if you would like that.”

What luck, to have connected with some nice UN people before I even got to Africa. I checked in and cleaned up, head aching from sleep deprivation, and headed for the restaurant. Katrina was there with a mixed bunch -- a Russian pilot, an African-American in procurement and a Danish program officer. I got a plate from the buffet -- chacuterie (cold cuts) and various types of mixed salads ruined by too much mayonnaise. Gourmet French food, indeed. My respect for the French was dropping as low as the thermometer had today.

“So what’s Freetown like?” I asked John, the African-American. “Do you like working for the UN?”

John looked at me with thick eyebrows raised high.

“Let me ask you this: Do you know why most people work for the UN?”

Somehow I didn’t think my reason of wanting to change the world was going to be the winning response.

“Duckets. Moolah. Biiig bucks. Now I happen to like my work, but I also have a family to support, and the kind a job a brother like me could get back in the States?”

“Well, I’m not in it for the money. I honestly and truthfully want to make a difference,” I said.

“Well, maybe you will and maybe you won’t. But let me give you some advice. Don’t you dare try to improve on the almighty UN-ocracy, and you’ll be alright. You best just learn to stick to the format and go with the flow, even if it seems to be heading in the wrong direction.”

I swallowed hard. Was I making a big mistake? Was it too late to take the agent’s offer of going back to New York? No, I would stick it out – it was all about experience, this life, in whatever form. I would adapt, I would change, I would learn to cope. I always had.

“How do you like working in Sierra Leone, Katrina?” I asked, hoping for a change of opinion.

“There are the most fine beaches in the world there. I run on the beach after work every day. Don’t believe the media -- Sierra Leone is one of the most beautiful, peaceful places, at least since the war ended. But I do not have much respect for the people. They want the UN and other organizations to take care of them, though the people do not want to work. They take no initiative but they want to take, take from the rest of the world.”

“You can’t trust anyone,” she rattled on, since no one was stopping her. “Your maid can steal from you, steal anything, even if you pay them well. I guess they learn it from the government – it steals from the humanitarian aid countries like yours give. It is not surprised it is still so undeveloped. None of the money ever arrives to the people, and then they don’t know what to do with it if they got it.”

I felt defensive for a people I hadn’t yet met. How could this racist woman make her living from a nation of peoples she didn’t trust or respect? How could she be so calloused? They probably stole from her because she was a bitch, not because they were bad people.

Then again, what did I know? She lived in West Africa and I’d never even been.

Luckily someone changed the subject to rumored changes in the UN pay scale. Sierra Leone being a “hardship post”, UN employees there were entitled to more money, though with the new stability, this might be lowered.

I wasn’t listening to the conversation anymore. I was lost in a maelstrom of doubting thoughts and creeping fears. Would I be able to withstand the bureaucracy? Would I be miserable trying to change it, or would I give into it and become just one more sell-out?

The following day I woke with a crushing headache and dark circles under my eyes like a junkie’s. Between the jet lag and the questions that tossed and turned in my head all night, my sleep had been troubled.

The Conakry-bound passengers all shuffled onto the shuttle together. Despite my pride I followed the UN crew like a lost puppy-dog. Halfway through the check-out line, Katrina looked at my luggage. “Do you not have a lock on your bag?”

“No, I guess I’ve never really used one…”

She shook her head like a tired mother. “They will take your things if you do not lock it! I have lost a camera – they cut right through the bag – so I always get the plastic on.”

She rifled through her purse and came out with a small padlock.
“Here, use this, I do not need it.”

I gulped. Accepting presents from the enemy. Why did she have to be so nice to me? It was too confusing. Psychological dissonance, I believed they called this, if I remembered social psych class correctly.

“Thanks. You’ve been too kind,” I said, clicking it in place and pocketing the key.

We waited again an extra four hours before the plane finally lifted off the ground. All that time gave me opportunity to meet some of the locals: a smelly but smiley young Guinean now married to a Swiss girl, on his way home for his father's funeral; another man of Malinké descent (one of Guinea's four main ethnic groups) coming home after discovering his French wife in bed with another man; and yet another young Guinean working for Shell Oil who proudly gave me his business card. The other whites on board looked to be businessmen or aid workers, all lacking the wired, eager expression planted on my face.

I was the only greenhorn on the plane. Here I had already traveled around the world to countries in Europe, Asia, South America and the Middle East. Yet I suddenly felt like a real rookie, excited and nervous the way I did when I went on my first third-world trip, arriving in the high-altitude capital of La Paz, Bolivia, and feeling as if I had landed on another planet.

Looking down as the plane began to dive, I fixed my gaze on the black expense of the Atlantic and the tiny sprinkle of lights that was Conakry. It seemed as if we were landing in a village and not a nation’s capital.

This was Africa, yet another world. I had so many stereotyped images in my head from years of National Geographic, wildlife documentaries, atrocious news stories of war and poverty. Yet I really had no idea what lay ahead. Whatever preconceptions I had of Africa, they were about to be challenged.



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