An Air Warrior Is Defined by Battles Fought, not Miles Flown

Many people flying during the holidays go to battle and lose the war.  American Airlines promotes an annual road warrior contest.  The winner writes an essay on his/her most memorable airline experience. I considered entering but assumed they wouldn’t accept my entry since the flights didn’t occur on American.  I usually fly American if possible, but all North American based airlines suspended service to Liberia during the civil wars of the 1990’s.

I would define an air warrior not by miles flown but by the combat endured.  And, my story recalls one skirmish after another.  Even though I have traveled by air to more than 50 countries, nothing can compare to this assignment.

The battle began in New York City when I boarded an international flight to Abidjan, Ivory Coast on Air Afrique.  Sometimes, you get a sense about what will follow by how it begins.  We sat grounded by fog for three hours before take off.  I added the three hours to the projected flight time and prayed that I could shorten the trip with some serious sleep once we left the tarmac.  It is amazing what one sleeping pill and a glass of wine can do at 33,000 feet.

Thirteen hours later we landed in Dakar, Senegal for fuel and more passengers.  The agent booked us through Senegal and the Ivory Coast because there were no direct flights to Monrovia.  I knew my first trip to Africa would be a challenge.  We were some of the first people to visit the country during the brief period of peace enforced by the Economic Community of West African States Monitoring Group.  Joe Snider, a church colleague, and I made the journey to encourage Liberian Christians and review how we could best help in the country’s rehabilitation efforts.  We would visit the churches, a medical clinic and a boarding school yet to report on the damage to their physical buildings.

Our landing in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, included the amenity that we would be rewarded at nearly every stop both going and coming—a delay.  The layover grew from four to eight hours, pushing back our arrival in Conakry, Guinea to midnight.

The Guinea airport resembled a sidewalk sale with one hundred customers looking for the same bargain in front of one table.  Suddenly and shockingly, two scrappy sweating teenagers grabbed our bags and shouted something in French.  We walked briskly as they led us through a maze of customs, immigration, health checks, and dispatch.  Our self-appointed helpers then tossed our bags into the trunk of a taxi in the dimly lit parking zone, and held up a sign in English, “$20 please.”  Joe knew that was way too high from his previous flights in Africa and gave them $5.  The guys were not happy and undoubtedly cast a few French curses our way as we crawled into the dilapidated taxi and slammed the door.  I was learning that African airports are no place for timidity or kindness.  Instead, the key behaviors are aggression and firmness. We handed our hotel address to the driver, and he nodded, smiled, and mumbled, “I know.  We go.”

Within a minute we left civilization and entered a freaky darkness of a twilight zone.  It took an eternal ten minutes before we would see another vehicle or  a light.  I looked toward Joe periodically and he sat like a stoic monk, evidently not as concerned as I.  My mind played tricks on my insecurity and I finally whispered, “Could this guy being taking us some where to jump, dump, and rob us?”  He just smiled and said, “You worry too much.”

We finally arrived at the tiny hotel where a simple card table served for check in when the attendant finally answered our rapping on the door.  Again, the driver requested $30 and we decided to give him $15.  He kept badgering us through our registration and started to follow us to our room until the attendant turned him back.

This would be a short night because of our 8 a.m. departure.  The next morning we spoke with another traveler and learned the taxi fare to or from the airport was $8.  When we arrived at the airport the baggage boys converged upon us like ducks looking for a piece of bread tossed on the ground.  Finally two guys won the screaming contest, grabbed our bags and pulled us toward their pre-determined path.  It was scary to lose complete control of our possessions and our movement through the airport. We went behind the airline counter, through the a filthy employee break room, and unto the airfield.  The one visible plane belonged to a different airline.  No one had looked at our tickets until that point.  They just assumed we were taking the only departure that day.

We soon learned that our particular plane didn’t fly on Friday.  Our agent had not done due diligence in researching African airlines.  So, there we were, looking for another taxi back to the city with no way to contact our Liberian hosts about the change in arrival dates.

It was good to have a day to rest. Black marketeers approached us in the lobby offering us diamonds; an opportunity we would have in other hotels, coffee shops, and water closets along our journey.

The next morning we were back at the negotiating table with the taxi driver because of our early departure; he insisted that doubled the price.  I had begun formulating in my mind a presentation to mail to Guinness to nominate Conakry as the most difficult airport in the world.  I later changed my mind after a few hours in the Yamoussoukro airport.

This time the baggage boys ignored us and we pushed our way through the throng of people to the miniature airport check-in.  We reverted to the early days of international aviation—no computers, no scales, no respect for lines, and no nothing.  We had fallen right into the center of chaos and the French language.  We literally shoved our way toward the counter as others tried to make end runs around us.  I used my suitcase to block the flow on my right while Joe’s extra thirty pounds slowed the other side.  People warned us that Air Afrique always sold unlimited tickets for limited seating; and the seats were given to the fastest, the strongest and the loudest.  We stepped to bat with the best we had of all three, forgetting all the manners our mothers had taught us.

Somehow, we managed to get our tickets approved and then faced the expected bribe for the custom’s officer as well as the departure tax.  All of this required francs.  Fortunately, we had enough of the currency to pay these fees because it was obvious there was no monetary exchange service in the airport.  We met “Zacchaeus” at the last desk before leaving for the plane. He insisted on seeing our billfold to check for Guinea currency.  He was firm that no Guinea money could leave the country.  He confiscated the last few bills and coins we had.  We were glad to toss that money into his pot to exit the country.

When we climbed the wobbly rusted steps I could see we would be flying on a small W.W. II aircraft.  The well-appointed aircraft included no life jackets, no inflight service, no seatbelts, and no escape orientation. A couple of caps over the oxygen ports were totally missing.  I was thankful there were two people in the front seats, so I assumed we at least had two pilots.

One half of the passenger seats were removed to clear space for baggage and cargo.  It would be misleading to say we had no stewardess.  There was a lady that stood at the entrance of plane to check our tickets, and then disappeared until she came back with coffee for herself and sat down never to move again.

This was my first time to travel with baggage that moved around, made disgruntled sounds and even stunk up the place.  Not only were we hauling local beer, boxes of fruit and vegetables; we had two white bearded goats, one plump pig past ready for market, and several crates of restless white and red chickens.  Wouldn’t you know I sat next to one of the goats that kept trying to nibble on my pant leg?  The brief flight could not end quickly enough.

We arrived in Monrovia 24 hours late and unannounced.  Since Jimmy Carter was also arriving for peace meetings, the tiny airport was buzzing with people.  Our Cumberland Presbyterian hosts were not at the airport to receive us.  We cleared baggage claim, immigration, customs, and the health official—it was so good to hear English again, even if the accent was heavy and difficult to understand.  I learned the importance of having a travel mate in the third world; one person could watch the luggage while the other did necessary paper work and handled all negotiation.

Once again, we found ourselves at the mercy of the taxi driver.  We explained we were on a mission trip and he proceeded to charge us three times the normal cost.

(Note: Our visit in Liberia was ten days of unbelievable exposure to sadness and despair.  We did our best to bring some hope, but we left with a feeling the peace initiative would not last.  And, it didn’t.  But, this story only tells the difficulties of air travel.)

When we tried to confirm our flight to Abidjan to leave Liberia, agents told us the flight had been cancelled.  Their next flight was four days later—just what I wanted, four more days in a country tittering on the edge of war and swarming with peacekeeping soldiers.  So, instead we purchased tickets on Weasua Airlines.  I always get concerned when I can’t even pronounce the name of the airlines. Their license would be pulled five years later for safety infractions.

When we arrived the following day to catch our flight, Amos Sawyer, the acting President of Liberia, needed our plane to return from a peace conference in Yamoussooukro, the capital of the Ivory Coast and that we would not be able to fly directly to Abidjan.  Instead, they suggested we fly to Yamousooukro on the plane going to retrieve the President, and then rent a taxi for $30 for the three-hour drive across the Ivory Coast to Abidjan.  That was the only immediate option and we agreed with little thought.  I just wanted to head for home.

Upon arrival in Yamoussoukro, the place was humming with officials, African drummers, bands, young enthusiastic dancers in bright orange and red costumes, and adequate security to dispatch all the presidents of West African countries departing from the peace conference.  When we deplaned, we ran into a significant obstacle.  No one had told us we needed a visa for land travel across the Ivory Coast.  And, we were only getting portions of the bad news in a mixture of French and English.  Finally, we found a bi-lingual Peace Corps worker when we heard him swear in English when all his personal items fell out of his carry-on on the floor in front of everyone.  He agreed to negotiate with officials about the visa and eventually secured a one-day pass for our travel.  Then, when we found a taxi, we were shocked to find out that the taxi was not the estimated $30, but $300.  Such a fee was out of our range of possibility.  Eventually, we booked a bus for the three and a half hour ride to Abidjan for about $25, hoping we could catch our late evening flight.  It was a very bumpy ride on cushion-less seats.  The upside was the blaring Bruce Lee video heavily laced with violence and sexual espionage.

After a one more day delay in Abidjan, we were able to confirm a flight back to New York.  I stopped at the top of steps before entering the plane, and turned my head for one last look at the so-called “dark continent.”  This road warrior was returning exhausted, but unscathed, from the battle.


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