Last September, before I even knew I’d be going on a trip to Africa, my eight-year old grandson and eleven-year old granddaughter installed Google Earth on my computer while visiting at my Edisto Island home. We found ourselves traveling via satellite across the causeway and bridge onto Edisto Island from the mainland and up Highway 174, turning onto Peter’s Point Road and eventually circling my dock and the house, where the three of us sat at my laptop. My two young computer experts assured me the satellite images were several months old, and we could not be seen through our windows. But I felt at one point as though I could reach through the computer and collect trash from the highway! It took my breath away. And it frightened me. We had traveled through the computer, and we had found- us!
For me, it has been a couple of months and a trip to Africa since, but last weekend, Allen and Ticelyn were once again with me on Edisto, and we found ourselves on Google Earth. However, this time we drove via computer across the causeway and the long bridge from the small island country of Bahrain to Saudi Arabia. I had become interested in Bahrain, not because of recent news reports of revolution but, amazingly, because of the snowstorms in Paris that had altered my flight plans in December!
Before leaving for a six week trip to Africa on December 18, I knew nothing of Bahrain. At the library I researched Cameroon and Ethiopia because I would be traveling with a native Cameroonian and her husband, a professor of African studies, who both now teach in Korea. Two of their students would be traveling with us. I surely did not want them to discover how ignorant I was of world history and geography. I neglected to research Finland. That slipped by me. Two of our travel companions would be from Finland. But I had no reason to research Bahrain. Why would I?
Little did I realize as I sat in the Columbia airport December 18th waiting to fly out, significant snowstorms in Europe would affect my connection in Paris. After hours in the airport, my entire schedule was rerouted, and instead of flying through Atlanta, I found I would be flying to Washington, DC.
On December 19th, I finally made it as far as Washington and was put on standby but did not get a seat on a plane. That, however, turned out not to be such a bad thing after all. My niece, who lives twenty-five minutes from the DC airport, rescued me, and I spent a pleasant evening and morning with her family in their home. The next afternoon found me back in the airport waiting to board a flight to Paris from where I then would travel to Douala, Cameroon and meet up with my friends coming from Korea.
I saw many exhausted and frustrated travelers who had not been as fortunate as I was to have relatives nearby. Most of us had experienced snow-related delays. Some had spent the night in the airport. I’m a people watcher, and that helps pass the time in a situation like this where you have a lengthy wait. Among my fellow travelers, I noticed two slender, young Arab men sitting across from me obviously weary, but like me, patiently waiting and observing. They talked occasionally to one another or sat silently. One of the young men had a red Santa hat perched jauntily atop his head.
After about forty minutes without a book to read or crossword to work, I became restless. I got up to stretch my legs and eventually went over and sat beside “Santa.” Did he speak English? I wasn’t sure. “I like your hat,” I said. His face lit up, and we laughed.
He was eager to practice his English. He told me they were cousins, in the U.S. for a year, going to school to learn the language. “Santa” is majoring in engineering in their home country of Bahrain, but to succeed in that profession, he told me one needs a complete mastery of English. They had learned in school to write and read it, but because they were having trouble speaking English, their parents had sent them abroad to study, practice and become fluent. They were excited to be going home on their holiday break. I confessed that, although I had heard of Bahrain, I knew little about it.
We passed thirty or so enjoyable minutes this way. I never did get their names. “Santa,” as I think of him, was either the more extroverted or confident in our language, so he and I talked, with his cousin occasionally joining in. I’ve always been curious about what life must be like for Muslim women, so I asked these boys, “Tell me about your mothers.” They were eager to talk about their moms for whom it is obvious they have much affection. I found out then, and later during my travels in Cameroon and Ethiopia, asking about a mother can be the key to engaging young people, especially young men, in conversation.
As we finally arose to board, my name was called over a speaker to come to the desk. Due to my experiences the last two days, I grimaced and looking at my new friends said, “This can’t be good. Pray for me!” Instead of another cancellation, I was surprised to learn I had been upgraded to business class and told to walk the red carpet to the plane. For me, this was an unheard of luxury, and I was baffled as to how I’d won the lottery so to speak.
I passed my young friends in line as I walked down the red carpet past them, “Eat your hearts out, guys! I’ve been upgraded!” I waved my boarding pass, and they laughed and reached over as if to grab it from me. To what could I attribute my good fortune of new friends in far flung places and a business class seat! After a couple of tense days, my heart was happy!
Could it get any better than this? It could. On the plane, I found myself seated next to a delightful gentleman, David, who worked for the U.S. Army, a higher up wearing a business suit, and employed in some capacity over Africa and the Arab regions. We shared champagne. He showed me how to operate the luxury recliner. He told me they had probably overbooked economy, and that was how I’d gotten my seat. I was told to play it cool and never let on that I was not a seasoned business class traveler. We laughed a lot.
I told him I’d met the guys from Bahrain, and he said he’d seen us talking. David told me about Bahrain, that it was a small, island country, sophisticated and modern where the conservative Saudis travel the causeway on weekends to party and let down their hair, so to speak. I told him I regretted I knew none of their language, and he volunteered to teach me a few phrases. I eagerly jotted them down on a scrap of paper and practiced saying them over and over: “Hello, good friends. How are you? I’m fine.”
We flew on across the Atlantic. I looked for those boys as I walked my aisle to get the kinks out of stiff joints, rehearsing those phrases in my mind. I hoped to surprise them with my newfound ability to speak their language, but I did not see them.
It was night as we crossed the ocean. We slept. In the morning, as we ate breakfast, I reviewed my Arabic. My helpful seatmate, taught me also to say, “Good morning, buddies!” but I doubted I’d see my Bahraini friends again. My affable travel companion and I exchanged business cards and eventually disembarked into a dreary, frozen Paris, having by now also shared stories of family and career. It had been the most relaxing and entertaining flight I remember ever having, and he agreed.
Charles de Gaulle Airport was crowded and confusing as I rode a bus and several elevators and another bus and stood in lines. At some point, I was told there was a problem with my boarding pass for the next leg of my journey and was shuttled off like a pinball to yet another line. It turned out to be a minor problem, easily corrected. However, as I stood there in line, headed for Africa, I was surprised and elated to see up ahead in the same row a Santa hat and my Bahraini friends who were headed for the Middle East! What were the chances? They seemed just as happy and startled to see a familiar face in an unexpected place. Imagine their surprise when I hailed them with a “Good morning, my young friends! How are you?” in what I was certain was perfect Arabic. They were stunned! We laughed and spoke briefly before having to rush off in opposite directions. I left them wondering how I knew none of their language in the U.S. but could speak it in France!
The world seems to shrink as you travel and make friends along the way. Now, watching the political upheavals in Africa on the evening news, I feel affection and fear for these people as though, I personally have something at stake, although the African countries I visited are not these I see on the evening news. Tunisia has overthrown its dictator. Egypt has broken free of theirs. I see strife in Bahrain and feel compelled to travel there over the internet with my grandkids and to tell them, “We have friends there now, you know. Let’s say a prayer for them, for all these countries, for these people are so very much more like us than not.