I was already plotting my meal at JFK, daydreaming about carbs and counting down the minutes until I would be holding Everett in my arms again. We had just driven from Yekepa to Monrovia---an eight hour drive on unpaved roads, made seemingly longer by the massive potholes scattered every few feet. The drive was no small accomplishment, and only the first leg of our long impending journey home.
I took a quick (see: cold) shower and unpacked a stuffed monkey from my suitcase to make sure I could access it quickly once we arrived in Sacramento. Per nightly tradition, I took two sleeping pills with a glass of water before tucking myself under the mosquito net with my Kindle. It was our last night in Liberia and while the trip had been amazing and full of adventures, I was definitely ready to go home.
The next day we got to the airport early and hugged Hannah outside the front door. Ashley and I nervously navigated our way through baggage and security, trying not to wince while we were thoroughly (and I do mean thoroughly) patted down. We found two seats together and pulled out our Kindles while I ate the only snack I had left in my backpack, a small package of fruit snacks. It was nearing dinnertime and all I had eaten that day was a granola bar and a small bowl of leftover soup. My stomach growled.
An announcement informed us that the plane flying in from Ghana, the one intended for our flight home, was struggling to land due to weather conditions. I had noticed it was raining on our drive to the airport, but never even considered that it might affect our flight. They estimated we would take off 45 minutes late, and I silently prayed that the rain would clear up while other passengers groaned in disappointment. My stomach growled again.
There was a tiny snack stand inside the airport that sold popcorn, soda, and a few other items. I told Ashley I needed to eat something and left my boarding pass with a security guard while I exited the gate. I was told I couldn't bring my popcorn or soda back in, so I had to eat and drink alone in front of the snack stand. A man in a grey suit sat down across from me and motioned for a security guard to come to him as I watched out of the corner of my eye. He said something to the guard and shook his hand, slyly transferring a wad of cash in the process. The security guard disappeared around the corner and came back a minute later.
"You're okay," he said to the man in the grey suit.
I chugged my coca-cola as the man turned to look at me. Suddenly feeling like The Girl Who Saw Too Much, I threw the rest of my popcorn in the trash and headed back to the gate. Another thorough pat-down was endured.
As soon as I saw Ashley's face, I knew something was wrong.
"They canceled our flight," she said.
No no no no no no no no no.
The plane coming to pick us up had circled around the airport for 30 minutes. Unable to land, they flew back to Ghana.
The room erupted in chaos. People started yelling, throwing luggage, cussing. A Liberian man stood up and yelled, "This is ridiculous! If we were in America, this airline would be paying for my hotel and transportation tonight!"
This was, of course, untrue, and yet another example of the idolized America I had heard about on our trip. Even in America, flights can be canceled due to poor weather conditions. The airline didn't owe us anything; it wasn't their fault.
The reality of the situation was slowly sinking in. We had no cell phone, no internet access, no car. We were going to miss our connecting flight in JFK and we would have to stay in Liberia for another night. We would not be getting home at 2:30pm on Saturday. In fact, we had no idea when we would get home.
An American girl was sitting near us and I noticed she had a cell phone. I politely asked if we could borrow it, and explained that we were stranded and needed to call Hannah to come back to get us.
"In a minute," she snapped, "I have some calls to make."
Another American approached us, Zack, and asked if we had a phone. We directed him towards the rude girl with the cell phone, who was busy yelling at someone. Ashley and I talked to him for a few minutes and learned that he had just finished a two month internship at the ministry of finance. He was clearly disappointed about the cancelled flight, and started talking about Chipotle and American beer. I nodded knowingly, and told him about my bagel and Starbucks fantasy.
We wrote our names and phone numbers on pieces of paper, a disorganized and unpromising process. All of the passengers wanted to know when the flight would be rescheduled, but the Delta representatives had no information. A few minutes later, everyone was instructed to exit the airport to collect their luggage. By this point it was raining sheets of water and you could barely make out raindrops. I reminded myself again and again that it was better to take a delayed flight than an unsafe flight. We borrowed a phone and got in touch with Hannah, who told us she would come back as quickly as she could. We had no idea how long it would take; she was 45 minutes away from the airport without a car or driver.
We walked out of the airport and I was overwhelmed with the scene in front of us---no less than 200 people were crammed under the overhang, trying to stay dry and find their luggage. Solicitors were everywhere, trying to sell people everything from gum and mints to necklaces and taxi rides. Ashley and I grabbed a spot near the window and I watched all of our carry on bags while she searched for our big suitcases. A bunch of trailers were parked in front of the airport and a few minutes later, suitcases were literally being thrown into the rain and into the crowds. Nobody was checking baggage claim tags or passports---it was a complete free for all.
Is this really happening?
Miraculously, Ashley was able to find all four of our suitcases, and, even more miraculously, was able to push her way through the crowds back to where I was standing with our carry on luggage. Zach stayed with us, as did the girl with the phone, and the four of us kept careful watch over our bags while we waited for our rides to show up. Eventually Ashley and I were standing there alone, with only a handful of other passengers nearby. The girl with the phone left, and we had no way to contact Hannah. We had no choice but to wait.
A couple of Liberian guys approached us and started making small talk. It began innocently enough; they taught us a few Liberian handshakes and asked us about California. Eventually they started asking personal, inappropriate questions, and begging for our phone numbers. One of them was very persistent and told me he wanted to call me once I got back to America.
"But I'm married!" I protested.
"It's okay," he replied. "You can just tell your husband that I am your Liberian friend from the airport."
I insisted that Brett wouldn't like that, and then he asked how he could find me on Facebook.
It was awkward but Ashley and I both kept smiles on our faces, careful not to upset anyone. Hannah arrived ten minutes later and we quickly threw our suitcases into the van, trying not to get soaked in the process. The driver was shocked our luggage hadn't been stolen. To be honest, I was too.
I used Hannah's phone to call Brett, who was (to nobody's surprise), already tracking the flight.
"Are you kidding me?" he answered the phone. I could hear the disappointment in his voice.
I assured him that I was okay and that we would figure out how to get home. Brett had already spoken to Delta and a few hours later he booked us on a new flight with Air France, set to leave the next evening with a four hour layover in Paris. Ashley and I tried to be optimistic and made jokes about our impending glamorous hours in The City of Love.
"Forget bagels and coffee! Let's find champagne and cheese!" I told her.
The next 24 hours went by slowly. We were out of food but thankfully Hannah was able to get us a bag of donuts around lunchtime. We ate two each and saved the rest for the plane. It was deja vu from the prior day: same check-in, same security, same chairs, same books on our Kindles. We each ate another donut and I offered the last two to Zach and the rude girl with the cell phone, who were both sitting on the other side of the room. Zach happily accepted; the rude girl not-so-politely declined my offer.
"I'm so sick of those," she scoffed.
I returned to my seat just in time for a small mouse to run across the floor, barely missing my toes as it scurried around Ashley's backpack. I screamed, loudly, and everyone stared at me. They must see mice in airports more frequently than I do.
A couple hours later we boarded the Air France plane, which was noticeably nicer than Delta. It felt like we were already in Paris, with the "Bonjour!" greetings and free flowing baskets of croissants and all. We sat down and got comfortable, preparing for the one-hour flight to Sierra Leone, where we would sit for two hours before the flight to Paris. The Rude Girl sat behind us and we painfully listened to her attempt to flirt with the cute American missionary in the window seat. Trust me when I say: it. was. painful.
The food on the plane was the best food I had eaten in two weeks. Every meal came with yogurt and cheese and salad and dessert, in addition to the main course, which was all kinds of delicious. The flight attendants poured Ashley and I cups of soda and handed us a huge basket of bread.
"You can take more than one if you'd like." they said.
DON'T MIND IF I DO.
Six hours later we arrived in Paris and it was the most beautiful airport I had ever seen. Talk about culture shock: we passed Hermès and Dior on the way to Starbucks, where I spent $19 on coffee and a breakfast sandwich. The airport offered free wifi for 30 minutes and I immediately Facetimed with Brett. It was the first time I had seen his face in 14 days, and he was just as handsome as I remembered.
Even though Paris was a long way from home, I felt better simply being there. It felt more normal, more regulated, more connected, more accessible. I could buy food, real food, and brush my teeth with the water in the bathroom. I felt less panicky, less anxious. After a four hour layover, we boarded another Air France plane, which was equally as fancy as the first. There were more good meals and more bread and more croissants, and those fantastic little TV's on the back of the seats with a full menu of movies and TV shows.
Twelve hours later we arrived at LAX and were ecstatic to be on American soil. Ashley and I had both saved our "best smelling shirts" for the last leg of the trip, and quickly ran to the bathroom to change our clothes and brush our teeth. We combed our greasy hair and applied concealer under our eyes, determined to not look like death upon our arrival in Sacramento. Once we had assured each other that we both looked as good as we could possibly look after 35+ hours of traveling, we practically ran to the gate.
Two more hours. Two more hours till we're home.
The sign above the desk read LAX - SAC - 6:30, and for a split second I thought we were at the wrong gate. Our flight was supposed to leave at 4:30, not 6:30. I was positive there had been a mistake, and quickly asked the Delta lady behind the desk if the sign was wrong. She apathetically informed me that the flight was delayed due to poor weather conditions.
Poor weather conditions? IN CALIFORNIA?!
I was so upset I couldn’t help but cry. I called Brett and he was equally frustrated but maintained his composure, which was more than I could say for myself in that moment. He told me I’d be home soon enough and that two extra hours was no big deal, even though we both knew that wasn’t true. I stood at the gate staring at the sign and had a complete meltdown.
It was like everything hit me at once: the eight hour bumpy drive, the cancelled flight, the rude girl with the cell phone, the luggage in the rain, being stranded at the airport, the weird guys harassing us, the extra night away from my family, my growling stomach, the mouse at the airport, the sick kid on the plane who coughed for 12 straight hours, the security, the lines, the waiting, the delays, ALL OF IT. I just wanted to be home so badly. I yelled a little and asked about filing a formal complaint with Delta as I typed out three angry tweets, which I deleted fifteen minutes later once I regained my sanity. Ashley and I went to the bar and drowned our frustration in beer and cocktails and a shared can of Pringles.
Finally, finally we boarded the plane to Sacramento. It was a quick, beautiful flight, one hour flying through the clouds as the sun went down. The sky was orange and pink and I suddenly felt at peace as the airplane filled with golden hues. I felt like God himself was welcoming us home.
We stepped off the plane and hurried past other passengers to the top of the escalator, waiting to catch a glimpse of our boys. There were only four people waiting at the bottom: Brett, Everett, Ashley’s mom Sarah, and Ashley’s son Rainier.
I waited for Everett to see me. He was holding Elmo in his mouth and staring at the people in front of us on the escalator. I could see Brett pointing at me, saying “Everett, look!!! There’s momma!!!”
Finally he caught sight of me, as I waved to my sweet baby boy.
Elmo dropped from his mouth in slow motion as he let out what I can only describe as an animal sound. His face lit up and he started clapping so hard his entire body was shaking back and forth in Brett’s arms. Tears filled my eyes as I ran down the rest of the escalator.
I couldn’t get to them fast enough.
I was home—home sweet home, where I belonged.
And it wasn’t until I was home, safe and secure with my baby in my arms and my husband next to me, that I could fully process what I had seen and felt while I was away.