An Uncomfortable Arrival

I hoped it was Arusha when we slipped in. It was hard to know in the dark. The tinting film stuck to the “taxi” windows, all bubbly and peeling, made it even more disorienting. There were few working streetlights; those that did work revealed a shantytown in eerie hue. The driver, grimfaced under a stocking cap, looked straight ahead and never spoke a word. Vicki was unnerved.

The car navigated the canyons that cut through the road. A wheel into one of these ravines would end this trip immediately.

I held my breath. It had already been a difficult morning.

Wayward luggages circle the planet for eternity. They are doomed to fly but never arrive.

Wayward luggages circle the planet for eternity. They are doomed to fly but never arrive.

Earlier, we had walked out of the Kilimanjaro airport without Vicki’s luggage. Apparently her bag never made it through the pustule known as Chicago O’Hare. This was confirmed by a Tanzanian fellow at his station beyond the empty carousel. He pointed to a code on the CRT monitor and triumphantly crowed, “There it is!” For emphasis he tapped the screen. “See?”

We nodded, but our enthusiasm did not rise to his. I filled out the claim form. He assured us that the wayward bag would be sent from Chicagoland to Istanbul on the next transatlantic flight and then on to East Africa where it would be loaded into private car and driven to wherever we happened to be at the time of its arrival. That wherever may be in a canvas tent in the Serengeti.

Vicki recognized the odds and embraced the truth: the bag was destined for the Neptunian ring of luggages that have been circling our planet since the dawn of the Jet Age.

I stuffed the claim form receipt into my pocket. We passed Security. He wore a green trench coat that reached to the floor. In his arms he cradled a weapon as big as Texas. No doubt he was somebody’s Security.

On the other side of Security was a poorly lit room with a hodgepodge of red-eyed fellows. A few held papers with names scribbled in marker pen. We stopped, arrested by their sudden attention. I scanned the papers and faces again. Nothing. There was nothing there for us.

JRO (Kilimanjaro Airport) at night.

JRO (Kilimanjaro Airport) at night.

Stink! I had brought Vicki from the States to show her the magnificence of wild Africa. This was not the wild that I expected. We were alone, at night, in a rural airport somewhere between Uganda and Mogadishu without phone and with no clue where to go or how to get there.

Wait. I have a number. I don’t have a name or a phone, but I have a number. I dug out my notebook.

A large man in an uncomfortable suit was sitting behind an empty table in a porched area just outside the door. He looked official and preferable to Green Trenchcoat. I walked over with my notebook and introduced myself. I informed him that there had been some kind of mistake. A ride was supposed to meet us but it was not here.

His eyebrows went up. Then he introduced himself as Mr. Sam, the head of security. We shook hands. “I have a Tanzanian number,” I said. “Do you have a phone? Could you call it?”

Mr Sam pitched an awkward face. “I have a phone. But I have no credit on it. These things require credit.”

I recognize the ask and dug into my wallet. I handed him two dollars. “Would this help"?”

“Yes, it would.”

He dialed the number. After several rings, someone answered. A few words in Swahili followed. Then Mr Sam hung up. “Your man is close. Sit down here. Please bring your wife inside.”

After more than 20 hours of travel, Vicki preferred to stand outside in the fresh air.

After more than 20 hours of travel, Vicki preferred to stand outside in the fresh air.

I motioned to Vicki. She was seeking fresh air but was a bit too close to the dark parking lot for Mr Sam’s comfort. Taximen lingered in the lot beyond. Vicki returned. I joined Mr Sam behind the table. Vicki preferred to stand.

Suddenly the phone rang again. Another conversation. This one was a bit longer.

When he hung up Mr Sam said, “Your man may not be coming.” He then went on to tell me that sometimes these people are imposters. “Did you purchase your safari on the internet? Not all of these companies exist you know.”

The weight of his words chilled me. “No,” I pushed back the doubt. “This is legitimate. We’ve used this group before.”

He nodded without blinking. The phone rang again. Another conversation started and ended.

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The mediation continued. “There’s been an accident . . . or, eh . . . a car problem. No one is coming. Your host’s name is Mr Safe. But here’s what we will do. I will put you in a taxi and he will drive you to meet Mr. Safe in Arusha.”

“Can’t Mr Safe come here?” I asked.

“No. It’s too far.”

Mr Sam beckoned a taximan out of the dark. He was young and muscular and wore a stocking cap. In his presence Mr Sam told me. “Do not pay this man. Your host will pay this man. He will take you to him. Call me if you have a problem.” It is a nice thought, but I have no phone.

I looked at Vicki. We didn’t know who to trust. What was truth? Who was Safe? Who is Security? In moments like this when you are very tired and alone in a faraway place, terrible things run through your mind.

We swallowed and climbed into the backseat of the nondescript sedan. I gripped my backpack. Vicki had no luggage to grip. The driver hopped behind the wheel and turned the key. The car with bubbly windows accelerated into the African night leaving the man in the uncomfortable suit behind. We did not know where we were going but prayed that we would arrive.


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