Friday, December 25, 2009

Christmas Eve/Christmas Diaries

Four (4) hours drive across the border and down Rwanda, from Goma to Kigali. Altitude: Varying dramatically through the green mountains of the Rift Valley.

Plastic Santa faces gilding the checkpoint on the DRC side of the border. Plastic – lovingly decorated – Christmas tree visible behind the copper who stamps my passport. But! Stark as always on the Rwanda side. Not a hint of messy holiday joy. Score one point for Goma! (To counter Gisenyi’s ten-thousand-and-five cumulative points.)

Crossing the border opposite us (heading Gisenyi-to-Goma) is a loaded-down white pick-up truck with something loose under the hood. It doesn’t cough – it doesn’t clang – it jingles. I swear to God. Jingles. Like St. Nick’s sleigh.

Kigali Airport.

The flatscreen TV with fuzzy reception in the waiting lounge is showing an Animal Planet special on small sharks. The vinyl gray creatures are being snatched from the sea by wide nets. They are then swooped up and paraded around for us by beautiful, aging men with sun-damaged skin and sunglasses pushed up to the tops of their shaggy dirty-blond hair. The bouncing camera zooms in gleefully on the yellow eye of a hammerhead. Its eye socket is round. Its pupil is over-enlarged and (the poet in me personifies the creature) panicky.

Merry Christmas little hammerhead shark, wherever you may be.

Forty-five (45) minute flight from Kigali (KGL) to Entebbe (EBB), 0212 miles. Altitude unknown.

Seatmate is trying to talk to me, even though I was clearly reading (and now am clearly typing something desperately important). He’s a tourist, eager to bond. ("Ooh yes, we’re in Africa, oh wow. We’re so bloody adventurous.") I snub him. He gets his revenge – his terrible, terrible revenge – by immediately falling asleep and snoring. Loudly. In my ear.

Two (2) hour flight from EBB to Addis Ababa (ADD), 0757 miles. Altitude: 35,000 feet.

Same Seatmate. Still snoring. Bah humbug.

(There’s the possibility that, after he wakes, Seatmate will write his own blog entry about the mean-spirited woman he was forced to share a row with for two entire flights. If he does, well then, what can I say but "Good for him!" and "Cheers!" to self-indulgent rants, his and my own.)

Addis Airport: The Place of Lost and Found Possessions

The first time I was ever in the Addis Airport was in 2005. My friend E & I were dragging our backpacks and our tired bodies towards the gate when a young man came sprinting after us. He was waving a cardboard tube above his head, a familiar tube. Rolled and stuffed in it (we knew) was the huge intricate painting-on-hide of the saga of the Queen of Sheba that E had purchased for a hefty price in Merkato, and which (we didn’t know) she had accidentally set down (to hold up a white scarf) and forgotten (we were so tired) in an airport gift shop. “Stop! Wait!” the young man called. E and her painting were reunited before we realized they’d been parted.

This time, I forgot my favorite fleece jacket on the plane from Entebbe. By the time I noticed it missing, almost an hour and a half had passed and I was heading back through security for my next flight. But! Christmas miracle! After looking a trillion places and questioning a billion people, I approached two lovely security guards. They, through crackly Amharic on a two-way radio, managed to locate someone who found someone who asked someone to check seat 14C on the Kigali-Entebbe-Addis flight. And they found my fleece for me! While we were waiting for the fellow to sprint across the airport with my fleece, the guards and I shared a nice Christmas Eve conversation, talking about lots of things: Evergreen trees, Congo, chimpanzees, feeding hyenas in Harare, and, always fun, the meanings of our names. (Translated to English their names meant, respectively, “Angel” and “Like”. They taught me the Amharic word for “sheep” because Rachel means “sheep” in some long-dead language Hebrew.)

I told them that my mother had bought me the fleece (she had) because mothers, and the need to respect their gifts, cross cultural boundaries.

But the Other Thing about the Addis Airport is This:

Every time I have been here, I have seen handfuls of couples (eight or nine or twelve on this Christmas flight alone), young, flushed, happy – white – couples, clutching their newly adopted Ethiopian babies to their chests. In the airport, you can watch these new families taking their first family photos, the man and the woman giddy, grinning, while the baby sleeps; kissing the baby all over, his tiny fingers, her hot cheeks, his shut eyelids. I have never been one of those people who sees problems with intercultural adoption. A child needing love is a child needing love, period end of sentence. But I do wonder what it must be like to be a person who works in the Addis Airport, be you the graying man serving coffee at the small restaurant – the rotund woman sweeping the linoleum floors – my two friends, Like and Angel, who found me my fleece – security guards, x-ray checkers, flight attendants. What is it like for you to watch, day-by-day, so many tiny children from your community get onto planes to leave your country, the country of their birth, to be raised in a foreign culture? It seems to me your hearts must slowly crack and break, watching this. Mustn’t they? I think mine would.

Six (6) hour and twenty (20) minute flight from ADD to Roma (FCO), 2779 miles. Altitude: 34,000 feet. Boeing 767-300.

It’s past midnight. Merry Christmas. Even when you are tired, like I am right now, it is important to write. Like a teacher once told me, “A writer is the same as a truck driver: both just have to get behind the wheel and drive...” Oh… screw it. I’m going back to sleep.

Ten (10) hours and fifteen (15) minutes from FCO to DC (IAD), 4495 miles. Altitude: 32,000 feet. Boeing 767-300.

It has been Christmas in Rome for four hours. I’ve slept through most of it. In the bathroom mirror, I saw that my cheek has a round red imprint from the drink indentation in the seat-back tray. I’m only awake now because some jackass keeps hitting the attendant call-button like he is an eight-year-old boy playing ding-dong-ditch. Not so silent night here, miles above the fields of France (where shepherds are presumably watching their flocks).

Here it is Christmas, but across the Atlantic, it is still Christmas Eve. This year, as we fly, chased by the sun, I will get to live through a thirty-one hour long Christmas. Ha! Not many other people will get that.

Dulles Airport, 4:51 PM Goma time, Christmas Day

Chai tea. Change of clothes. $15 ten minute manicure. America, it’s good to see you, too.

(“I live in eastern Congo!” I announced, overly loud, to the manicurist before putting my hands on the table – an excuse for the fact that my nails are dirty and bitten to the quick. That is, um, not something I’m proud of saying. But I was embarrassed to show her my nails – she whose canvas I take such terrible care of! And there’s little chance that she would know that there are men in every fruit market in Goma carrying around three-tiered metal baskets resplendent with a rainbow of nail polishes, ready to kneel on lava rock to paint your toes or stand to paint your nails at your first beckoning.)

Dulles Airport. Still and always, now and forever.

Shockingly - shockingly - the one tiny little United Airlines flight I have to take is delayed, by more than twice the length that the flight will actually last. I hate them. I want to embrace my American heritage and sue them. I want to cry. Luckily for me, the woman behind me began crying. She's become the honorary crier for us at this gate. No one else need cry now, because she's taking care of it for us.

Another woman spontaneously came up to me and handed me a People Magazine. "I've already read it," she said. Ah, human kindness. You win my heart back every time. Okay. I don't truly hate anyone. I'm just. So. Tired.

One (1) hour and one (1) minutes (seriously, that’s what’s on the schedule print-out from the travel agency) from IAD to Pittsburgh (PITT), 0194 miles, arriving at God-knows-when, Christmas Day.

Sleep. Sleeeeeeeeeeep.

Still to come: Forty-five (45) minute drive from PITT to my childhood home, hopefully with my parent’s new puppy snuggling in my lap.

I did ask them to bring her, Liesl, to the airport, so I can meet her as soon as possible. But I'm not sure they will.