“Think of the long trip home.”
–Elizabeth Bishop, Questions of Travel
For almost all of my twenties and thirties I resided in Austin, Texas; my widowed mother lived 2,000 miles away in our ancestral home outside Asbury Park, New Jersey. Game to the last, she visited often, particularly after her grandsons appeared on the scene.
She would come out of the baggage claim with her roller bag and tote, a Carlton 100 clamped between her lips, and after a quick kiss I would inquire, “How was your trip?”
For my mother, the reply to this question was no routine nicety. “Tough,” she might pronounce, sucking on the skinny white cigarette smoked in the car despite all protests. Then she would dive into the account with relish, exuding the triumphant yet embittered air of a field marshal summarizing a battle won after many reversals.
As her visit proceeded, others would politely pose the same question, and she would tell her tale again and again. Certain words would float toward me over the hum of conversation at a party or bar — runway, turbulence, layover.
Later, when I moved to Pennsylvania, she could get almost as much of a nail-biter out of her three-hour drive on the turnpike, fraught as it was with overturned tractor-trailers, inexplicable jams at Bethlehem or Pottsville, mysterious aberrations in the operation of E-Z Pass.
Well, the only pursuit more delightful than recalling one’s mother’s quirks is re-enacting them. I find myself adopting so many of the questionable habits of lost loved ones these days, from my father’s bellowing and name-calling, to my grandmother’s bottomless dish of Hershey’s Kisses, to my first husband’s weakness for synthetic codeine. An odd sort of memorial, but a memorial nonetheless, and in that light I present this logistics-only account of a recent trip to Uganda with my mother’s namesake, my daughter Jane. We flew there the day after Christmas to visit our friends, Jim and Steve, a writer and a medical researcher, who are based in Kampala for a year.
From the outset, I was a little nervous about our chosen carrier, Ethiopian Airlines. But it turned out they were lovely, and our seat mate on the outgoing trip — a cute, rotund fellow named Tesfaye — made the 12 hours from Dulles to Addis Ababa go by quickly. “Let’s focus on what’s important, Jennie,” he said, urging Jane to turn from identifying world capitals on the seat-back monitor to stopping the stewardess so we could get some wine. He showed us videos of his wife and baby and told us how sad it was that we wouldn’t get to spend any time in Addis, apparently the party capital of Africa.
As soon as we bid him adieu, we learned our flight to Entebbe was delayed; our three-hour layover had become eight. The Addis airport offered chaise longues, duty-free shops, and a lady pouring Ethiopian coffee for clients sitting in a circle on low wooden stools. Soon we had exhausted these delights and went to the gate. We sat. We looked around. We experienced digestive issues (actually, this was just me). We met a retired community college dean from California named Connie, whom we ran into again on New Year’s Eve at a safari lodge in Uganda.
After a few hours, airline staff herded us to a distant dining room, fed us a complimentary cat-food dinner, herded us back to board our plane. All in all, we were quite malodorous, worn-out and greasy by the time we arrived in Kampala — but happy to see Jim and Steve and be off on our African adventure.
However, this is not an article about rhinoceroses and hippopotamuses, thick on the ground as they may have been, so fast forward to the return trip, which took an epic 48 hours, topped only by the storied return of my mother and my son Hayes from France in 2005, a tale of such tension and drama it was retold at my mother’s memorial service.
12 noon, January 5: Embark from lodgings at Mutungo Hill, Uganda.
We were traveling home with Jim, who was taking a break from his African year to visit a writer’s colony in New Hampshire. Our driver Godfrey got us through Kampala traffic and to the Entebbe airport in record time.
1:15 pm, January 5: Entebbe Airport
Arriving four hours before our scheduled flight, we immediately learned it was delayed until 10 pm, missing our connection in Addis. The agent explained that we’d spend the night and the next day in an airport hotel at the airline’s expense — all the cat food you can eat! — and take the Dulles flight the following night. This was bad news for Jim, who would now miss a reading of his play in Baltimore, and no better for Jane, who had had enough of travel complications and was worried about missing school.
We tried to settle in at the airport cafe, but it was very hot and uncomfortable and there was no wireless. All my ailments — stomach, eye, hip, leg — were acting up. Several hours in, I sprang for admission to the Karibuni Club, a special waiting room for rich people and frequent flyers, offering AC, upholstered furniture, free drinks and snacks. Entertainment included both the sunset and nighttime call to prayer, which drew Muslim men of all ages to materialize and form a line as if about to take an exercise class or do a country-western dance.
2:30 am, January 6: Addis Airport
After disembarking, all the people who had missed connections lined up to learn their fates. The ensuing scene was “It’s A Small World” run riot: a scrum of saris, djelabas, kaftans, many types of headgear, babies tied to fronts and backs, one man who had fashioned the Ethiopian Airlines blanket into a kind of ceremonial drape, a melange of international body odors and tongues. We recognized some of our companions from earlier portions of the journey — the long-haired Italian who looked like Yanni, a pair of squat, swarthy brothers, a truly maddened person who elbowed his way through the line screaming, “Do you know how much money I make in Laos?,” then laid his infant on the ticket counter saying, “Is this her bed?”
As usual, the sufferings of transit along with its leveling powerlessness proved a crucible of character. Everyone who was not losing it shared surreptitious sighs and glances.
Unbelievably and luckily, I had remembered I had a friend in Addis Ababa — Justine, the daughter of my former literary agent, now married to a U.N. diplomat. The clerk pushed an old dial phone through the ticket window, and people watched suspiciously, sure I was getting away with something, as I called her to say we were in town.
The next morning: Addis Ababa
Justine explained that due to the peculiarities of the Ethiopian calendar, it was Christmas Eve, 2006. Seriously. In fact, the actual date in Ethiopia was December 28th, Christmas was the next day, and New Years had been celebrated back in September. At this point, it all seemed about par for the course. Justine was less sanguine about the recreational opportunities of Addis than was our old pal Tesfaye, but we spent a fine day in her care. A driver took around to look at a few hotels and construction sites, then dropped us off The Greek Club, a VFW sort of place with dark paneling, pictures of Athens, and outdoor tables on a patio overlooking a basketball court. We ordered spanakopita and souvlaki, probably the traditional Ethiopian foods of Christmas.
Justine and her husband were confident that our flight would go off as scheduled, since flights to destinations outside Africa tend to run more reliably, and they were right. A fifteen-hour trip with a brief layover in Rome returned us to the year 2014 and sub-zero wind chill at Dulles. Would our luggage be lost? Would our battery be dead? Would we freeze to death on the terminal sidewalk before the parking lot shuttle ever arrived?
But, finally. all went well. my little car was waiting where I had left it, iced over but ready to go, and our native country welcomed us with exquisitely-paved roads and surprisingly little traffic.
I wish I could have called my mother to give her the report; I can just imagine her cursing sympathetically between puffs on the other end of the line. How proud she would be of our tenacity and resourcefulness, how she would exclaim over her granddaughter’s conduct under duress. Though doubtless she would easily trump our ordeal with details of her delays and missed connections underway to the smoking section of the afterlife.