I waited with bated breath for my entry permit.
Not the usual, Please God, I really, really want it. Nope! This was a 30-70 situation. Okay God, do your thing. I guess I kind of want it. But…if you have a conviction to have it denied…if in your view, this cliff is too steep…that will be your decision. I want you to know that I’ve really grown up since 2 hours ago when you said no to my fervent request for that really important thing (even though you can see just how badly I need it still.)
Anyway…that’s water under the bridge. So…in that spirit, perhaps you can say yes to this one by saying no? Do your thing, God. Please.
Barely 2 days later, the permit comes through. The Republic of Somalia welcomes me.
Dear God, you’re just on a roll, aren’t you? The one thing I asked. The one thing!!
The ticket quickly follows, and I watch every second with growing apprehension.
The eve of travel
I pack late into the night – that’s just my thing – I wait until the last possible minute. (I’m trying to kick this habit, but I always wait until the last possible minute to get started on the list of all the habits I want to kick! And this one is at the very bottom, so you can imagine.)
At 11 pm, I finally hit the sack. I needn’t have bothered. An hour of sleep is all I get. A dream filled hour. A blend of everything I know about Somalia. I see the women in their hijabs and the men making declarations on TV. I see the trainees jumping over sandbags, bullet magazines draped over their shoulders. I see guns poking out of speeding land cruisers…
At midnight, my eyes fly open. It is going to be a long night! I try to read, but Somalia keeps popping up in the text. I’m so wide awake, I take my daily dose of Duolingo. Then I just stare at the vivid images in the dark.
At 2 am, I finally doze off, only to wake up 5 minutes later. At 3 am, the alarm goes off and I’m relieved. At 3.55 am, my phone rings. The cab is here.
I’ve gotten into cars many many many times before. Zero incidents to report. But this time, I manage to hurt my foot. It’s raining heavily as we drive. I wonder if that’s an omen. And if it’s a good one or a bad one.
When I step out for the first security check, I notice that the top of my foot is bleeding. Like. Bleeding.
This omen has tetanus written all over it. When was the last time I took a tetanus jab? Eeek. Let’s just say it rhymes with rages.
At the terminal
I’m dragging 4 pieces of luggage:
- My laptop bag.
- My snack bag. (Don’t judge. I am going to Mogadishu. It’s all anjera over there.)
- Perfectly shredded and packed sukuma wiki. (Again, don’t judge.)
- My Personal effects bag. Okay, personal effects and 2 packs of ugali flour. I’m not kidding! They sent an email with a list of things to bring with me: Entry permit. Passport. $60 for a visa. Yellow fever card. 2 packs of ugali flour.
Now, I love the jilbab. Really, I do. But it gets caught between doors, it gets stuck on headrests, it basically gets in the way of me being me. Plus, I keep forgetting how long the dress is, so I’m tripping a lot. I’m walking about as awkwardly as a flamingo in heels when I hear a voice. (Airports are so cold. It’s really nice when a stranger speaks to you.) Just one problem, she says something that sounds like “…wara?”
Oh wow! I look like one of them! If I could, I’d do the dance that movie people do in circles – Taran Taran ta he! Taran Taran ta he! You know that song, right?
But my excitement is short-lived. She’s waiting for an answer!
“Good morning.” She replies. “..wara?”
She walks away with a puzzled look on her face.
Okay, I feel awful. Drowning in my jilbab, my tongue MIA.
It gets worse.
The women keep coming. I keep nodding my head and smiling. Oh, God.
I look in the direction of the voice. The words sound so good. I wrap my arms around them and cling. There! I point to the deadest aisle in the terminal. Turns out I can understand Somali. They just need to add a few catchy English words. Neat trick, huh?
Seriously though, the one time I come early, the counter opens a whole hour late! So now I have to sit here and avoid eye contact. I’m staring so hard at the floor, I start to notice feet. Feet clothed in socks! I look at my own feet. Clearly unclothed. Drat! No one told me to wear socks! Okay fine, I’ve seen lots of Somali women in socks and sandals. I just thought it was their little thing. More feet-in-socks pass. Yikes!
Then I see a pair of uncovered ones. The henna on her toenails is just beautiful. My doppelganger is at the airport! Hurray! Now, why didn’t anyone tell me about the henna? Guys, I really need to blend in.
I soon realize that there is such a thing as too much success.
I get to Passport control and find out that I do not look like me. My fingerprints check out but I have to stand there and convince them that this Somali woman is actually the afro-gal in the photo! I’m just about to throw in the jilbab when they let me through.
“Final call for freedom flight, final call for freedom flight….”
All I can hear is – final call to change your mind…final call to change your mind…
The official who takes my ticket is the same one who checked me in.
“I thought you were going to Bosaso. I was really wondering about your luggage.”
A chill runs down my spine.
“Is my luggage on this flight?”
“Lady. My. Luggage. Better. Not. Be. En route. To. Bosaso.”
She nods and scuttles off to correct her mistake.
Okay. She doesn’t scuttle until I’m on the bus. I don’t actually know if she scuttles. What I do know is that she thought I was going to Bosaso. That’s just math.
In the plane
You know that safety demo no one listens to? I cling to every word. In the unlikely event that we land on water…, if the plane catches fire…The flight host prances around his stage, pointing out emergency exits and stuff. Then it’s all quiet.
An hour later, the seatbelt sign goes up. We are now in Somali airspace.
Outside my window, the ocean stretches on and on. It’s like looking down at the sky. The plane starts to lose altitude, we are getting closer and closer. At the very edge of the water, we touch down.
Aden Abdulle International Airport
Formerly known as Mogadishu International Airport (MIA). Whoever changed the name, good call. People tend to go MIA. We don’t need the airport reminding us.
For the first time in my life, I set foot on Somali soil.
The moment is poignant.
The heat lines up a welcome parade. It has come with all its clan members.
Someone called Hassan is supposed to meet me. “Don’t worry, he’ll help you. And then Jaz will meet you.”
Ha! Famous last words.
I look around. No sign of anyone vaguely interested in helping me. I process myself.
Where is this guy?
“Where are you going? ” An official asks.
“My name is Martha. Someone is supposed to meet me.” I lunge at the straw.
He nods and speaks into his phone. Then he turns to me.
“The road is closed. You have to wait.”
“You know Jaz?”
“She is coming. We go pick your luggage.”
I think of my Bosaso-bound luggage with apprehension. We get to the conveyor belt…I have never been so happy to see my bag!
He picks it up.
“It has unga.”
He smiles. I don’t think he knows what I’m saying. He is on the phone again.
He is pacing anxiously. He stops right in front of me. Phone. Walks away. Phone.
Is he nervous? Should I be nervous?
What is happening? Why is my throat so dry?
Phone. Phone. Phone.
It’s a bit of a walk. Maybe 100 meters. I keep sneaking glances at the jilbab-clad woman in the airport windows.
Is that really me?
It is smoldering.
“Hot is good. Nairobi…too cold.” He smiles.
I smile too.
The car arrives. There is no woman in it.
Where is Jaz? Should I trust this car?
They shake hands. The driver opens the door for me. I pile in hesitantly. The guy on the phone smiles and waves goodbye.
In the car, the language barrier looms like a heat wave.
The driver hands me his phone.
I don’t really know if it’s Jaz. I’ve never met her.
“Sister, I’m so sorry. The road is closed. I will see you soon inshallah.”
The street is deserted. Only armed personnel at checkpoints. The driver stops at one checkpoint and asks questions. It sounds to me like he’s asking for directions.
Shouldn’t my driver know where we’re going?
…To be continued…