O’Hare, 3 hours
The security line is long and slow. I have plenty of time. A baby on her mother’s shoulder smiles randomly at people. I catch her eye and smile. She smiles back.
After going through security I hold my passport and boarding pass in my hand while I put my jacket back on. As I am walking to my gate I feel something scratchy in my sleeve. It is the boarding pass.
I fill my water bottle on the way to the gate. When I sit down the cap pops open and it spouts water all over me. It misses my phone.
At the gate a huge man sits down right next to me although there are a few other open seats. When a flight to Vienna begins to board more seats open up and I move. I hope he is not insulted.
I open my purse and get out my phone and glasses so I can finish the Sunday crossword. Then I open my purse again and look for my glasses. Duh. The trip hasn’t even started.
A good-looking young man in a short retro tee stoops to adjust his baggage and in so doing reveals a flash of butt crack.
I can’t hear what an airline agent is saying as she calls for a boarding because she isn’t using the PA system. Many people around me are getting up. I watch and listen to the repeated announcements and still can’t figure out which flight is boarding. I join the line. When I get to the agent she says Air France is the next gate over, about two yards away. This is Wow Air to Reykjavik.
I stand by the Air France gate even after I learn it won’t board for another 15 minutes. I soon acquire a queue.
Chicago–Paris, 8 hours
My seatmate is Mr. Butt Crack. He seems nice enough but I’m not in the mood to make new acquaintances and, besides, I feel I know too much about him already.
I use my new “Turtle” neck support. It works pretty well and I sleep for maybe an hour. The rest of the trip is torture. Mild, but torture all the same.
Charles DeGaulle, 2 hours
A two-hour layover should be plenty of time for the transfer to the Kinshasa flight, which, my travel agent said, leaves from the same terminal, 2E. I follow the signs to K gates, which lead me to a monorail. I get off at the K gate stop and again follow signs and then there are no more signs and I am about to enter terminal 2F. This can’t be right. I backtrack. Finally I see the huge overhead sign to K gates. It’s where all the people are standing in a very long security line. I have to go through security again? Yes, I have to go through security again.
Since I wasn’t anticipating going through security again my 32-oz water bottle is still one-third full. May I take it through? No, I may not. May I dump it? No, I may not. What to do? Drink it. All of it? Yes, all of it. While people wait behind me, I guzzle.
At the gate I realize the temperamental handle on my carryon bag, the one I put overhead, isn’t collapsing. The bag is smallish but they are checking many carryons because the plane is full. As I pass through the boarding line the agent eyes my bag and is about to pass it until I tell her the handle isn’t collapsing. So she says I have to check it. As I step aside to retrieve my computer from the bag, the handle collapses, easy as you please. Too late. I check the bag.
Paris–Kinshasa, 8 hours
I make several trips to the toilet, strategically, between meal service and seatmate naps. I’ve been well hydrated by my forced water consumption.
Another 8 hours of torture, hardly any sleep; movies or reading just not possible.
As I am considering making a final toilet run, the young woman sitting between me and the toilets gets out her makeup kit, spreading brushes and pencils and powders all over her seat tray. She spends the last hour of the trip working on her face, right up to the false eyelashes, and trading equipment with the young woman sitting on the other side of me. The restroom line has suddenly gotten long anyhow so I abandon all thought of extricating myself to pee.
As I get up to deboard I notice that I have been sitting in the wrong seat. D was the aisle seat and the two beauties should have been sitting together in E and F. I could have had easy toilet access and they wouldn’t have had to pass their mirrors and brushes across me. Didn’t they notice, or were they afraid to point out to the white lady that she was sitting in the wrong seat?
N’djili airport–Kinshasa guesthouse, 4 hours
The only thing I am asked at passport control is the address of the place I am staying. I tell them the name of the guesthouse. But what is the address? I explain that that information is in a bag that I had to check at the last minute. I repeat the name of the guesthouse, where most American church workers stay when coming through Kinshasa. Finally something registers and I am allowed into the country.
I am met as planned by the Jeffrey Travels agent. My bags are among the last to arrive on the very slow conveyor. The airport is as I remembered: no visible restrooms in the arrival areas.
It is raining and, since the construction of the new arrival wing has put the Jeffrey lounge in an inconvenient spot, we have to walk through the rain to get to it. Once I pay for my ride to the guesthouse the driver is eager to leave, so I don’t ask to be guided to the scuzzy restroom that I know is lurking somewhere inside the terminal. Last time I came the guesthouse was less than a half-hour drive away so I feel confident.
It is pitch dark at 6:30 pm. We breeze along the airport highway, built by the Chinese. When it was under construction, airport trips used to take 2–3 hours. It is as I remember, many people out walking in the dark, even though it is raining and few have umbrellas.
We come to a traffic jam. After 15 minutes or so we get around a bus stationed crosswise in the street and several cars pushed together nose to nose. It is hard to tell if there was an accident, or several, or if people were just trying to make a turn across several lanes. I have to pee. We get moving again.
We breeze along again and, just when I think we are getting close to our destination, we come across another traffic jam. I can see from the hill ahead that it is huge. We inch along for half an hour. The driver tries a detour on a very rutted street but gives up after a few minutes and turns back.
People on foot are weaving through the tiny spaces between cars, which keep forming more and more lanes. They are wet and in a hurry. After a while we come to a complete stop.
Next to us a battered Toyota is behind a shiny black Mercedes. Nothing is moving, anywhere. The Toyota rolls up, bumps the Mercedes, and toots. The Mercedes driver, a large, well-dressed man, gets out. Just then our line starts to move so I don’t know what happens next.
We come to a standstill at a roundabout I recognize–the guesthouse is a mile or so away. After a while, people in buses get out and start walking. I would consider doing the same if I were really sure where I was, didn’t have suitcases, and it weren’t raining. I really have to pee.
I ask the driver what is the longest traffic jam he has ever experienced. He says, “This is not normal.” I consider the consequences of 1) losing total bladder control and 2) spending the night in a little red car in the rain.
I try meditating. I have no thoughts except, What am I even doing here?
We have been stationary for a full hour. A heavily armed policeman joins the pedestrians weaving around the stopped cars. After a while, there are signs of movement. The cop is directing traffic.
I arrive at the guesthouse at 9 pm. The trip from the airport has taken two-and-a-half hours. I made it.