The night before I left for Africa I was restless. I tried to sleep but my brain was anxious and excited. When my alarm finally went off at 3:20am, I felt relieved that my tossing and turning now had a legitimate reason to be over. I gathered my stuff, checked my list to make sure I remembered all the last minute stuff, crept into my parents room to get some toothpaste, and quietly told them I was leaving. They sweetly got out of bed, helped me carry my 50lb bag down the stairs and hugged me goodbye. It was pitch black outside. I picked up my friend Jessica and we got to the church where around 40 people stood packing up the trailer and saying tearful goodbyes. It was sweet to see so many parents waiting around until the vans actually left. We divvied up amongst two 15 passenger vans and headed to Denver.
I very much expected all the kids to nod off but excitement was running high. When we got to the airport we began the crazy process of checking 19 people and 38 bags in. Thankfully we all made it through the check-in process and security with time to spare. Our first flight to Atlanta felt long. We had a few hours to kill in Atlanta so after lunch, Starbucks, and some shopping, we gathered as a team for our final meeting before landing on African soil.
Our skit team performed their first drama, we sang songs loudly, and we met to discuss the things we had tentatively planned for our week at the care point. And then, 7pm rolled around and we anxiously started to make final bathroom and gift shop runs.
Our Delta gate agents were disorganized, cranky, and rude. They couldn’t figure out if they wanted to check all of our passports again or just let us board. It may have been the lack of sleep or just nerves but I started to lose my cool. I actually had to take a few deep breaths and bite my lip before I handed them my boarding pass to get on the plane. I ended up in the middle seat of the middle row. Something that caused me a mild panic attack. I quickly moved to an empty row, got moved by a bossy flight attendant, and settled in a window seat next to two men I didn’t know.
Taking a few more deep breaths, tears started rolling down my cheeks. “This isn’t how I wanted to start this trip, Lord. If I can’t handle a few seat changes, how am I going to handle Africa and the unknown?” I tried to pull myself together knowing there was no going back now. A few hours into the plane ride, the tension started to ease a bit. I took some medicine to help me fall asleep and dozed into a mildly restful off and on sleep for about 7 hours. My body clock was very thrown off and I had no idea what time zone I was actually operating in.
When I woke from sleeping, I looked at the moving map and noticed I had 7 more hours until we arrived. Seven Hours. That was like flying to Nashville and back. I decided to start a movie – I don’t even remember which one – and ended up dozing off for a few more hours. Eventually I turned my tv to the live map and watched us inch across the Atlantic and over Africa. When we finally started flying over land again, I lifted my window shade and marveled at the texture of the earth below.
Normally when flying, you can see highways, plots of farmland, streets, and other types of organization. But not with Africa. When flying over Africa I saw desert, red soil, sand, no roads, or structures, and terrain I had yet to encounter in any of my travels. I was mesmerized by it. I kept alternating between the window and the map, eyes glued to what we were flying over. As we got closer to Johannesburg (or Joburg as it’s more commonly known), things began to change again. This time I saw raging fires and smoke everywhere I looked. Alarmed, I wondered if we had stumbled into a dangerous situation. If the city was alright? But the raging fires appeared contained and I didn’t see fire trucks or fire fighters, people fleeing their homes, or cars stopped on the side of the road. It seemed… normal… to the people of Joburg. Which I later found out that it was.
The feelings I remember having upon landing were similar to the ones I’ve had before first dates. Nervous. Excitement. Wondering if they’ll like me? Wondering if I’ll like them? As we touched down and pulled up to the gate I exhaled deeply and thought, “finally.” We exited the plane and were hit with a blast of cold air. They weren’t kidding when they said it was winter and central heat doesn’t exist anywhere in the country. We re-grouped in the waiting area, made it through customs, grabbed our bags, and met our wonderful in-country host Bob. Bob is a fairly recent missionary to South Africa. A welcome American face in a place where we were on sensory overload. We were escorted to our bus and taken to our base camp for our time in Joburg. A simple mattress, sleeping bag, and loads of extra blankets were never more welcomed than they were that night. And that’s where I’ll leave the story for now…