Saturday, May 12, 2012

The Long Trek Home

It was finally time to head home. We flew home on our originally booked flight, 5 weeks and 6 days after we left the U.S. Our agency told us that leaving on your original flight, without having to change plans and re-book tickets, is rather rare. We bathed and packed up. The kids were so very excited.

We left our hotel at about 6pm. It took about 2 hours bumping along roads worn down by the torrential rains of the rainy season. The station wagon we were in was taking on roads that appeared to be straight out of a Jeep commercial. The back was full of our luggage so the back seat/bench was filled with me and all 4 kids while Josh rode up front. Ryan was on my lap and I quickly learned that you have to carefully position your head so as to avoid a headbutt with each giant natural speed bump. 

Our driver knew the streets of Kampala backwards and forwards. He took us on plenty of short cuts. We drove down roads lined with rows of small houses made from corregated tin. I kept seeing images of movies where people were being smuggled out of the country. Why did we get to jet away to a "better" life and all those people we drove past didn't? One day I was talking with one of our drivers about the U.S. vs Uganda. He said that he loved his country but if a plane landed tomorrow that would take anyone and everyone that wanted to go to the U.S., that no one would be left in Uganda. We talked about the fact that the U.S. is not perfect and there are poor people. But we agreed that the defining difference is opportunity. Not everyone who works hard in the U.S. achieves their dreams, but there is a lot more opportunity to do so.

When we got in the area of the airport, the kids asked every 2 minutes where the airplanes were. They had never seen one before. The driver finally promised, in Lugandan, to tell them when he saw one. We got to the airport with about 4 hours until departure (it's not too safe to travel after dark in Uganda and we didn't want to take any chances of missing our flight). We were so early that we couldn't even check in. So we waited in a waiting room for foreigners. We never saw the waiting room for Ugandans. I would have guessed that it was not as nice. Foreigners always got preferential treatment. We spent our last bit of shillings at the little cafe stand. 

Finally it was time to check in. We had 2 full carts of luggage to push. Thankfully we had opted to only do backpacks for carry-ons. We had planned ahead and brought a carry-on for each kid. They LOVED their backpacks. We gave them to them about 3 or so weeks early. Let's just say that we had to institute a "no backpacks at the dinner table" rule. The backpacks were a huge help as I had told the kids that they would be totally responsible for their own stuff. We purposely didn't pack much in them knowing that they would have coats they wanted to take off and other things that they would want us to carry for them that we would have to tell them "no put it in your backpack." We simply couldn't handle juggling junk on top of everything else. 

Thankfully I thought to keep a copy of the court decree with us. But I failed to make a copy. So I was allowed into the terminal in order to walk to the far end to make a copy. I was told that I owed 200 shillings. I told the guy that I would come back with the money. I returned, handed over the papers, and informed Josh that we owed 200 (about 8 cents) shillings for the copy. He reminded me that we had spent all of our shillings and didn't have any dollars with us. A very kind American man behind us tapped me on the shoulder and slipped me a 500 shilling note as we waited for our "all clear" to enter the terminal. Later we would cross paths with him at which point I gave him his 300 shillings change and thanked him. 

We went into the terminal and then into another secured area where our plane would board from. However there was no bathroom in that area. 4 kids, 0 bathrooms, you do the math! The security guard got annoyed with my frequent trips in and out and told us no more. Another American told us "he can't say that, you just do what you need to." My thought was that I wasn't going to test it and risk missing our flight, even if it was just a slim chance.

The kids were SO very excited. Looking out the window at the airplanes, they weren't even sure what they were looking at. I had to clarify what was part of the plane and what was the food cart unloading and what was the luggage ramp. They stood at the window looking at the airplane for over 1 hour. Sarah kept bouncing up and down, over and over and over and over. 

Our flight was scheduled to depart after midnight. At that point we had been awake for 18 hours! As the departure time got closer we realized they weren't going to have the traditional early boarding for parents with young children and those needing extra time. So we figured out where the front of the line was. By then at least 50 people had lined up. We walked to the front, cut in front of everyone, and sat down. We didn't explain ourselves, we were too exhausted. But I think our reason was pretty clear, even to perfect strangers. They didn't say a single word. In fact, they backed up and gave us room.

Upon boarding the plane, I spotted a toothbrush and a teeny tiny toothpaste for each person. I almost cried! Oh to have a clean toothbrush! (For those who don't know me personally, I put my toothbrush(es) through the dishwasher every day. You wouldn't eat off the same fork for a week without washing it, would you?!) I was sitting in between Ryan and Sarah while Josh was directly in front of me with Sylvia and JoAni on either side of him. EVERYthing was new. We showed them how to put on their seatbelts. We tried to answer their 10,000 questions about everything they were seeing. We explained that they each had their very own remote AND they were allowed to press the buttons! I started hearing a sound. I was looking all around when I realized that Ryan was pressing the flight attendant button over and over. Ooops! Ok, not THAT button Ryan!

It was a 9 hour flight to London. It was EXHAUSTING! Going to the bathroom was a major ordeal. They didn't know how to walk on the airplane with the floor being angled and moving. The door to the bathroom kept shutting on them every time they tried to open it. I showed them to knock on the door when they wanted out. They didn't know how to flush. They didn't know how to turn on the water, get the soap, or get paper towels. Oh and did I mention that there are 4 of them?!? All the food had to be explained in terms they could understand. Mostly it consisted of us saying "meat! that meat! bread! that bread!" They wanted to eat the little sugar packets that were for the coffee... and we let them. EVERYone knew we were on that plane! At one point Josh was trying to explain the movie selection to Sylvia. He was trying to explain the Smurfs movie and I was yelling over the seats "little blue people! They're little blue people!" 

We had about 8 hours in London. We went in one elevator and they just looked at each other confused. Then we went in a glass elevator. WHEEEEE!!!!!  We took lots of rides up and down the escalators. About 4 hours in, we saw a sign that there was a play area. It was an area full of toys AND babysitters. We both sat 20 feet away, wished we could sleep, continually reassured the kids that we were right there, and just slumped over in our chairs. 

The second flight, from London to Seattle, didn't go too smoothly. Our tickets had 4 seats together and then 2 single middle seats. This made for an impossible equation. I approached the gate agent and asked if we could board early in order to get situated and asked if they could help us with the seat situation. They told us to ask a flight attendant once on board about the seats and to just come over when boarding. Next thing you know, boarding had started and we were out of luck. Once on board, I had the kids sit down in the 4 seats and asked a flight attendant for help. Right away the kids were on edge that we weren't immediately sitting with them. Now at this point we had been awake for about 34 hours. My fibromyalgia was definitely not helping. I could feel the pain throughout my body. The flight attendant responded to my request for assistance by saying "well this is going to be a little tricky because it would involve a person giving up a window or aisle seat." Looking back at it, I think he was going to continue by saying "but I'll see what I can do"... but he never got that far. That's right, I came unglued! ALL RIGHT THEN! YOU CAN TELL THAT PERSON THAT THEY CAN SHOW MY KID HOW TO BUCKLE THEIR SEAT BELT, HOW TO UNBUCKLE THEIR SEATBELT, HOW TO EAT THEIR FOOD, WHAT THEIR FOOD IS, HOW TO USE THE MOVIES, and on and on! He cut me off by agreeing to help. A very nice man agreed to give up his seat. When I said thank you he replied by saying "I have 4 grandkids, if you can adopt 4 I can change seats." So it ended well, but all of this stirred up my chronic pain. Hours later I ended up puking my guts out in a tiny airplane bathroom. 

For weeks we had been telling the kids that we would need to take 3 airplanes to get home. So it created mass confusion when we told the kids upon landing in Seattle that we were in America. For months they would refer to Seattle as America 1 and Spokane as America 2. At this point we had to pick up our luggage and re-check it in and pass through customs. This involved a bit of a distance and so we had 2 luggage carts piled up with no free hands to keep track of kids. The very last thing we wanted to do was lose track of someone, even if for a moment. So I instructed JoAni to hold onto my backpack and Sylvia to hold onto JoAni's backpack and Sarah to hold onto Sylvia's backpack and Ryan to hold onto Sarah's backpack. There we were inching along like ducklings. People literally stopped to watch. 

All along our voyage, people watched us. We were certainly a spectacle. None of the looks or questions were negative. People were just very curious. Every security checkpoint was an ordeal. JoAni's English was improving. Sylvia was understanding basic instructions. But we could barely communicate with Sarah and Ryan. They didn't understand what was happening. I would go through first. Then Josh would attempt to restrain the remaining kids, releasing one at a time, while I stood on the other side trying to wave them through. At one point either Sylvia or JoAni tripped one of the alarms so they wanded her. I wish they had waited just a moment so I could try to explain it to her. I just remember a very worried and confused look.

By the time we landed in Spokane we had been awake for about 58 hours. Once we got home and got the kids in bed it was late at night and 60 hours of being awake. We were nearly delirious with exhaustion... and we all woke up at 2am! Josh and I tried to force ourselves to sleep more but it didn't work. By 4am the whole house was up.

I had imagined our trip home a thousand times. I thought that when the first plane finally took off, that I would cry with joy that we had made it, but I didn't. We were too busy attending to 4 very overwhelmed kids. And it didn't feel safe to celebrate yet. I thought I would cry when we landed in the U.S., but I didn't. Too busy and not safe yet. I thought I would cry when we successfully passed through immigration in the U.S., but I didn't. I thought I would cry when we landed in Spokane, home sweet home, but I didn't. I thought I would cry when they were all tucked into their beds for the first time, but I didn't. It was such an extremely overwhelming trek home. I was and am so thankful that we made it. The entire travel experience, including the 6 weeks in Uganda, was extremely intense. And as extreme as it was, I am just glad that we made it through. We survived. 

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