Day 1: Austin to Newark to…well, Newark

sunflower_mae

It is so hard to describe how I felt the morning of our departure.

Excited? Yes. Nervous? You betcha.

When I ran my first half-marathon, I remember standing at the starting line and feeling such a weird mix of emotions: excitement that all of my training was complete and I was about to embark on what I’d spent months preparing for, nervousness and uncertainty that I didn’t really want to acknowledge..would I actually make it to the end without dying? Would both legs still be attached?….and this thrumming anticipation.

let’s get going…let’s get going…let’s get going…

The trip to Rwanda was going to be long: a three hour flight from Austin to Newark, NJ, followed by a three hour layover, followed by an eight hour flight to Brussels, then a two hour layover before our eight hour flight into Kigali, Rwanda. From there, we would travel by bus for 2 hours in order to arrive at our temporary home in Musanze.

Twenty-six hours total travel time…whew. And, as I stood in the baggage check line, I had that same thrum of anticipation…

let’s get going…let’s get going…let’s get going…

Because, once you’re going you no longer have to worry about it starting. The experience doesn’t begin at the destination.

It begins with the getting there.

Each member of our team had two bags to check: a bag of our personal luggage and, in order to cut down on shipping costs, a bag of supplies for True Vineyard. Some of us were carrying giant cans of chicken or econo-sized jars of peanut butter which would be used for our meals. Others had pieces of a stove we would be able to use for cooking meals or had components of a water filtration system that would ensure we had safe water to drink. We were also allowed to take two carry-on bags and could use those to transport supplies or as a safety net in case our checked bags exceeded the 50lb weight limit.

Once everyone had their bags checked, we said goodbye to our families and made our way through security…where I learned a valuable lesson: you cannot carry canned chicken onto a plane. Who knew? Not me. I had tucked a couple of cans into my carry-on bag for fear they were going to make my checked bag too heavy. I stood there, red-faced with the witty fellow behind me announcing to the rest of the line that I was a “bona fide chicken smuggler” while the security guard patiently explained that, as there was no way to know how much liquid was in the can, they could not allow it on the plane. A teammate in the line next to me learned a similar lesson: no econo-sized jars of peanut butter in your carry on bag as it is considered a paste and therefore a no-no on board.

Thankfully, everyone else had an uneventful trip through security and we left Texas down only two cans of chicken and one vat of peanut butter.

We arrived in Newark, found the gate for our connection to Brussels and settled in to wait for our next flight. Unfortunately, we were unaware of tropical storm Arthur swirling just off the Jersey coastline. About an hour before we were supposed to begin boarding we received the first notification that our flight was delayed an hour. Then it was delayed another hour. Then another.

And they just. kept. coming. And it kept getting later.

But, in the midst of the continued delays and rising frustrations, I couldn’t help but notice our group of 14 travelers felt like an island of peace in a sea of discontent. I watched people in our group, who knew each other casually, learn more about one another. Others passed the time playing Fan Tan (note: I will never again travel without a deck of cards!).¬† Still others, kindly offered to watch the bags of fellow travelers who were not part of our team so they could stretch their legs or grab a bite to eat. As the delays kept coming and tempers flared around us, I appreciated the spirit of calm and selflessness that seemed to dwell within our band of weary travelers.

At 11 p.m., after eight hours of waiting, the airline made the following announcement:

“Flight 123 to Brussels has been cancelled. Thank you for flying United.”

thanks for flying

And chaos ensued.

The picture above does not capture the unadulterated fury that was aimed squarely at those poor souls working  behind that United counter. If I superimposed some torches and pitchforks into the crowd, it would give you a better idea of what those folks had to face. They were mobbed, shouted at, and insulted as exhausted passengers came to grips with the idea that they might not leave Newark at all.

But not my group. Prepare for some unabashed horn tooting, y’all.

As the crowd swelled around the gate counter, our group chose to divide and conquer. Some jumped immediately on their phones to call United and see about alternate flights (spoiler alert: there were none. I suppose that’s what happens when a tropical storm cancels every flight in the airport) while others stood in various lines trying to figure out what our options were (spoiler: no options, no flights). Time and time again, I watched team members handle disappointment with mercy and grace…like the sweet woman who waited on hold for an hour while a United representative checked into other flights only to have said rep pick up the line, ask “Are you still there?”, then hang up on her…twice. Others stood in mile-long lines, trying to secure hotel rooms for us as the airline cheerfully announced:

“All counters will close at 1 a.m. Counters will re-open at 5 a.m. We apologize for the inconvenience and hope you will choose United again in the future.”

Ummm…not likely, buddy.

But, once again, in the midst of all the disappointment and frustration, I found pockets of grace. To their credit, those poor souls in the picture above, who were also tired and frustrated, stayed long past the announced closing time and made sure we had a place to stay for the night.

God bless them.

In the end, after 12 hours in the Newark airport and 24 hours on my feet, our band of weary travelers stumbled into the Ramada hotel at 4 a.m….exhausted, disillusioned and uncertain as to how in the world we were going to get to Rwanda.

My last thoughts as I fell asleep that morning were:

1. This day, as frustrating and disappointing as it was, was part of the journey.

2. Ramada beds were the most glorious beds I’d ever laid upon.

3. The group of people I was traveling with had turned out to be pretty spectacular.

4. Thank you, thank you, God, for tucking pockets of grace and mercy into hard days.