August 19: For Avery, Jeannice, Londale, Olivia, and me, staying an extra day in Africa after the departure of our other volunteers isn’t so bad: Precision Airways tries to make up for excluding us from the scheduled flight by putting us up at a first-class hotel, the Kia Lodge, right next to Mt. Kilimanjaro International Airport. It features a friendly dog wearing a collar which becomes the first animal I have ever touched in Africa. I enjoy my first two hot showers, one last night and another this morning, since leaving California on the first of the month. And I sleep in an enormous, plush bed of the kind I associate with really important people: President Obama or David Beckham, or maybe even Lady Gaga.
So waiting until three-thirty this afternoon to fly to Nairobi in order to make our connection to London is okay. Except that our plane stops abruptly as it rumbles toward takeoff; the pilot has discovered a technical problem. We return to the boarding lounge—or holding cell—for a wait of indefinite duration. Eventually we learn that our plane must be grounded for repairs and that Precision has no substitute aircraft. The seven-forty flight to Nairobi, now rescheduled for eight o’clock, will carry only those passengers from both the three-thirty and the seven-forty who still have time to make their connections out of Nairobi; passengers from the three-thirty and the seven-forty not traveling beyond Nairobi need to get on the ten o’clock flight. Yet when the five of us try to board at eight o’clock, we are turned away and told, mysteriously, that we’ve been put on the ten o’clock.
I had managed to defer gratification of my young companions’ appetites with promises of superior food in the Nairobi airport, but now they have reached their limit—or breached it in the case of Londale, a six-foot-six vegan for whom finding sufficient calories is always a challenge on this relentlessly carnivorous continent. We leave our holding cell, climb some stairs, and order dinner (my treat) in Mt. Kilimanjaro Airport’s only restaurant.
Dinner never arrives. A woman from Precision Airways comes huffing and puffing up the stairs to tell us that we must go right away: we’re on the eight o’clock flight after all. She disputes noisily in Swahili with our waiter and then shoves her way into the kitchen—to find out how far along our meals are, I suppose. We listen to the Swahili coming out of the kitchen get faster and louder. She emerges to pronounce the verdict: I should pay half-price, or twenty dollars. And then as I trail my more nimble companions down the stairs the waiter catches up to me and grabs my arm: what about the sodas and bottled water we had consumed? I still have a number of hundred-dollar bills left and one ten-dollar bill, but no time to make change. So I hand him the ten for our five dollars’ worth of drinks.
Out on the tarmac, the agitated face of Upenda, the Precision agent who had arranged our blissful night at the Kia Lodge, signals a problem: since the plane has only four open seats to accommodate our group of five, she needs to pull one already seated passenger off the flight, and she doesn’t have a plan. I tell her a true story:
“Last year this same flight was also overbooked by one. So the pilot chose one of the people in our party to sit in the cabin next to him.”
Upenda’s tense expression doesn’t change.
“The pilot you have tonight goes strictly by the book. He’ll never accept that.”
It turns out all right, though. The flight attendant gives up her fold-down seat for Olivia, a theater director and actress who is completely comfortable as she sits at the front of the plane, facing all the other passengers. She smiles and waves at everybody.
Things go smoothly to Nairobi and then all the way to London, where I make sure that Olivia and her friends get their boarding passes to fly to Los Angeles before buying them breakfast and saying goodbye. My own flight heads to San Francisco.
Only one further misadventure waits for me. An hour or so out of Heathrow, the Virgin Atlantic flight attendant serves me a disappointingly small meal. But one of the qualities of the Tanzanians that I admire is their resistance to whining, so I make the best of my pasta and meat sauce and try to eat my few grapes and apple wedges slowly. Suddenly the flight attendant looms over me.
“There’s been a terrible mistake, sir. You received the child’s meal that was intended for this young lady!”
I follow the line of the attendant’s finger and see, three seats to my right, tears streaming down the face of a five-year-old blond girl.
“Don’t fret, luv,” the attendant tells the little girl. “We’ll find you another meal and load it up with lots of extra sweeties.”
The attendant snatches my tray before I can claim the apple juice or the gingerbread cookie. I imagine teacher Edward watching me take even more food out of the mouth of a child and I am grateful for the attendant’s quick hands.—Don Stoll