Tuesday, June 17, 2008

BA #55, Seat 44J, at 34,000 Feet

The rear cabin of this British Airways 747 to Johannesburg is an interesting place. Once you make your way past the suits and the families in business and premium economy, you get to the back of the plane with a bunch of young people with backpacks instead of suitcases. They’re mostly Americans, (a lot of them Christian,) and they’re all on their way to Africa to do humanitarian work for a couple of months. This flight will drop everyone in Jo’burg, where smaller planes will disperse us all to destinations across southern Africa.

While boarding, I spoke quickly with two women going to Zambia (to help build a school) and I’m sitting next to two guys from Atlanta on their way to Malawi (work in an orphanage). I met someone who used to live in Mbabane – the first local I have known –doing missionary work. And there are a bunch more young people on similar trips. It’s very cool to think of this British Airways plane depositing people throughout Africa this summer to do their best to help people pick themselves up.

And strangely, unless they’re traveling together in pairs, almost every one of these young folks is sitting in the middle seat. This flight is jam-packed and I pulled 44J (“It’s a window seat,” I was told at JFK), sitting between my friend off to Malawi and an older gentleman who was lucky enough to get the window. (Maybe this is part of the terms of the ‘humanitarian fare’ ticket, which was purchased for me.) My legs are a bit long and my shoulders a bit broad for a middle seat on a ten and a half hour flight, but I was expecting to be uncomfortable in many ways when I signed up to go to Africa, so why not start now?

My stop in London was shorter than I expected, but I made good time of it. The flight out of JFK left late, and we were delayed landing at Heathrow. Air Force One was on the runway and they closed the airfield for about a half hour, jamming up the works and putting my flight into a holding pattern. All told I had about 2 hours less than planned in London, but still made it into the city for a quick visit at the Tate Modern and a short walk along the Thames. (Thanks, W, for cutting short my cultural experience. We were also delayed on the way out of Heathrow tonight as they were still working out the backlog from the President.)

Arriving late into London, I thought about cutting out the museum visit and just staying at the airport, but was glad to have made it to the Tate. It set the trip off on the right tone – getting out to see some good art and to explore a bit sure beat sitting at the airport.

Being on my second consecutive overnight flight, the whole TNS/Swaziland project hasn’t quite sunken in yet. The week before I left NYC I was busy taking care of housekeeping tasks and saying goodbye to family and friends. I didn’t have the time to think too much about what my work and life in Swaziland will be like for the next few months. It still hasn’t hit. I’ve been reading up while on the plane, but I expect to really start to feel it when I get on my next flight, or – more likely – when I get into a car at the airport in Manzini, and head to my apartment or the TechnoServe office. By the time I walk into my Wednesday morning meeting with all the players for TBP, I think I’ll start to get a feel for what it will really mean to be in Swaziland.

For choosing to spend five months somewhere, I asked remarkably few questions and had little information to go on before diving in. I felt really comfortable with my friend’s TNS experience, the organization’s reputation, and their on-boarding process. I think I’ve strayed away from asking too many questions so I could come with a very open mind.

(Live update from the flight… my tray table didn’t work and I was able to move to 49H, an aisle seat, and life is now much, much better. So much for living with discomfort.)

As I get closer, I’ve also been starting to feel and recognize the pull of Swaziland as somewhere exotic that I would never otherwise have the chance to get to know. I’ve read some, and have spoken with a few people who have been there, and have a limited knowledge about the country (it’s the smallest country in the southern hemisphere, the last absolute monarchy in Africa, sugarcane is responsible for 17% of the GDP, they are ranked 161st in the world in soccer – thanks, Matt! – have an extremely high HIV rate – 39% among adults, and it gets cold at night), but these facts don’t get me a sense of what the daily day-to-day will be like.

There’s a lot I will figure out as I move along, but I have set some expectations. I expect the work to be challenging and engaging, and I expect to stretch myself mentally in a way that I haven’t in quite awhile. I expect to see a ton of poverty and problems, and am not sure how I will react to that. I expect to work with very some sharp people, and learn a lot from them. I expect to have a hard time remembering and pronouncing the African names of some of the people I’ll be partnering with. And I also expect to have difficult and lonely moments, and to get through them.

I’m a little bit sad that my time for telling people, “I’m going to Swaziland," is coming to a close. I’ll still get to say, “I’m in Swaziland,” or, “I was in Swaziland,” but “I’m going to Swaziland’ had a nice ring to it and was always the start of an interesting conversation. It’s such a mysterious place to those in NY, and the US. In my brief conversations with folks on the flight to London and during my time in town, it has seemed a little less foreign for those in the UK. And once I get to Johannesburg, it may seem merely pedestrian.

So, for the last time, I’m on my way to Swaziland.

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