by Tami Nantz
How two crazies made it to Africa in one piece.
On August 5, 2014, Anna and I boarded an Air France flight around 8:45 p.m. enroute to Paris, France, our first leg of the journey. Check-in was uneventful and getting through security was the easiest I’ve ever experienced. Air France was, hands down, the best flight I’ve taken in all my years of flying. The plane wasn’t even half full, seats were very comfy, and the [mostly male] flight attendants were friendly, helpful, and a tad easy on the eyes. (which, let’s be honest, never hurts)
I learned two things on this rather lengthy trek across the ocean. First, I do not care for plain, unsweetened french yogurt, but it’ll do when it’s the only thing they have to offer your gluten-free eating self. I had no clue Air France offers gluten free meals, but I now know they can be ordered in advance. That would’ve been super duper helpful to know ahead of time, but I am thankful we planned ahead with granola bars and beef jerky. It was ever so yummy paired with that unsweetened yogurt. The second thing I learned was that it’s always a great idea to take earplugs for an overnight flight…the very adorable bubbly, rambunctious children sitting behind us DID, in fact, get a good night’s sleep. Eventually. We, however, weren’t quite so successful.
The miracle of air travel always amazes me — how we can take off, and within hours be transported to a place thousands of miles away. In total, Anna and I traveled nearly 6,000 miles over the course of two days. On this leg of the journey, we left Washington, D.C. Tuesday night August 5th around 9:25, and arrived in Paris at 11:25 the next morning.
Getting through customs in Paris wasn’t at all complicated, it was just a lengthy process. Once inside, signs weren’t at all clear and there is very little airport staff available like we have in the states. (I quickly realized that paying better attention in both my high school and college French classes might’ve been a good idea, because when we finally did find someone that could help us, she spoke almost no English) Anna and I had the hardest time figuring out whether or not we were at the right gate, and once we were able to locate the Mentor Leaders team we were meeting there, we both breathed a huge sigh of relief and probably hugged those poor souls like they were our long lost friends. Exhausted, we boarded the plane headed for Lome (pronounced low-meh) at 1:45 that afternoon. Six hours later, we landed, and that is when our journey truly began.
Nothing could have prepared me for the emotion I felt when I saw Lome for the very first time from the window of the airplane. I guess I expected at least the city to be somewhat modern…and it is, in terms of things like the occasional house with electricity and motor vehicles. But electricity is sparse and even when a family is fortunate enough to have it, they often only have a single bulb in the main living area, perhaps one in the bathroom. That’s all. In Gbentchal, the only buildings that have power are the medical clinic and the Hope Center (church), and that is only as long as they have gas (and money to buy it) for the generator. They use it sparingly, because the nearest town is an hour and a half away.
Getting through customs in Lome wasn’t as much a terribly difficult process as it was lengthy. We stepped in and were immediately met by a physician checking to be sure we had our yellow fever vaccination cards, and I suspect (given the way he checked us out) that he was also looking for signs of other issues since the Ebola virus was currently hitting other parts of Africa in a huge way. Once checked, we got in line for customs and were waved through pretty easily after about an hour wait.
The most difficult part of the process is typically getting luggage through, because they normally inspect it thoroughly. We sent our luggage through and only 2 bags were checked. I’m not sure if our team leaders paid off the right people, which is common in that part of the world, or if this was some sort of divine intervention. We exited the airport, met dear Pastor William, and found the tiny van into which we would pile 18 adults and on top of which we would pile luggage nearly as high as the van. I was sure it would tip over, but the guys had it all under control and secured the luggage so well we knew it was going nowhere.
Sunny – our very capable driver who, honestly, would give any Nascar driver a run for his money – drove us from the airport to a home where we would have our first meal in the country. I quickly learned that stop signs are merely a suggestion, intersections are first come first served — whoever blows his horn first (and probably loudest) gets the right of way — so we just held on super tight, and enjoyed the ride through the very dark, sparsely lit city. I’m not entirely sure, but it seemed like the only paved road was the main road through the city. It looked like a war zone. I honestly just rode in silence, stunned, and on the verge of tears.
Our arrival at the home of a local pastor and his family who would be feeding us was met with much excitement. We walked into a sort of courtyard area, where the homes were made of cement, floors were either cement or mud, and curtains hung in place of doors. The dining area was situated out-of-doors, where half the team ate, while the other half made their way indoors. A traditional African feast was served, must have been ten courses. I found the food quite delicious, although some things were a tad difficult to get down, due to the unknown ingredients. (I quickly learned to appreciate Dr. Steve’s humor and very direct instructions on what may or may not be pleasing to the palate) Our hosts served us every course, and were more gracious than any host I’ve ever had stateside. The African people, I quickly learned, are some of the most gracious people on the planet.
Following dinner, we made our way to the hotel where we would be spending our first night. One of the nicest hotels in Lome, the lobby area was dimly lit with one lone lightbulb. It was the cleanest thing I saw in Lome that night. The floors were made of tile, stairway was made of tile with glass/metal banisters — very simple, and by African standards, extremely nice.
The guys unloaded our luggage, we dug through it under the night sky to get a few things we needed, so that we could replace and reload the luggage that night after showers were taken. While the rooms had a working bathroom complete with toilet, sink and shower, our toilet didn’t flush, the shower was just a trickle of cold water, and the sink had no running water. But, a shower is a shower, and we would soon find out that it’s a luxury item and not at all common in other parts of the country. The bed was very nice, hand made by local artisans, and very comfortable. There were portable air-conditioning units in every room, an item that is an even more rare commodity than a working shower. The room also held a rough, handmade wardrobe closet and a desk & chair combination. I’ve never been so thankful for a pillow on which to lay my head.
After a short four hour sleep, our team of sixteen, along with Pastor Williams and our driver Sunny, emerged and loaded the van, excited to be headed for our final destination. For more than fourteen long hours we rode, stopping only a few times to stretch, eat and use the bathroom. The drive was not an easy one and resembled a roller coaster ride more often than a van ride—most of the roads we travelled were paved, but were absolutely full of enormous potholes. Because of the terrain and lack of regulation on vehicles, pollution is a huge issue. By the time our team arrived in Gbentchal Thursday night, the entire lot of us were covered in dirt.
As we neared our destination, the paved road came to an end, and the pathway before us appeared to be a partly dry, partly flooded riverbed. (we arrived during rainy season) About halfway in, the van got stuck, so out we piled in the pitch black of night to push the vehicle out of the mud. As we moved forward, we encountered several more huge mud holes, and Sunny got out, hiked up his pant legs and walked through them to make sure they were shallow enough to drive through. Over and over he did this until we arrived in the village of Gbentchal and the pathway became more smooth.
…to be continued…
(ALL photos in this post were taken by Tami, NOT Anna. You can clearly see she did not get her ability from her mother…scroll across the photos to see captions)