(I've changed the name from "Rants" given that I can't really rant about many things that frustrate me here, at least not without getting into some sort of trouble. As such, you'll have to wait for the book.)

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Comedy of Errors

When I was in college I took a class on theater, cinema and society. One of the things we studied was the comedy. Not comedy as is understood by the popular modern definition tied mostly to humor but by the academic and more traditional definition. In very simplistic terms, a comedy contains variations on the elements of surprise, conflict, repetitiveness and the effect of opposite expectations. Our trip to the US was a comedy in the classic sense containing all of the above elements – particularly the last one.


We boarded our plane in Amsterdam and the comedy of errors began. We taxied out and proceeded to stay on the tarmac for the next 6 1/2 hours (without leaving the plane). They closed the airport while they were de-icing our wings but then couldn't get us off the plane since all the gates were occupied by airplanes and the ice on the tarmac was preventing the tow vehicles from being able to pull any of them away from their respective gates. Even the movable stairs were unable to come retrieve us due to the ice. So we sat. Fortunately they turned on the entertainment system and even served us a meal as we could see the terminal off in the distance.


 When they were finally able to move the movable stairs, we were able to disembark and get into the terminal. What awaited us was pandemonium. The airport of full of thousands of desperate and angry people. Moreover we received no information so we didn't know where to proceed to deal with what came next. The transit/information desk had a queue that was over a kilometer long. Hotels were all booked. KLM staff were providing mixed, confused and errant information. We were told there was no possibility of being put on another plane until the next day - at the earliest. We were basically hosed with no indication as to when we'd get away. Long story short, we ended up joining the thousands who had plopped themselves on the cold floor someplace and settled in for the night. We had no pillow or blanket so we just made do with what we could find. About 4am I got up to walk around a bit. It was a surreal scene, I have to say. Thousands of bodies strewn about the airport. There was a bizarre stillness in a building I'd only known in hustle and bustle.



Our plan now was to get in line at the gate of any plane heading to North America. I jotted down the morning's flights on my unused boarding pass from the day before and we headed to the gate of the first one. Detroit. Not a bad option if we could pull it off. In addition to the thousands held hostage by the airport, thousands of people were unable to arrive in Amsterdam due to the closure so we knew we had a chance. Within an hour or so of queuing up, they canceled the flight. Our bad luck continued. On to the next gate. Detroit as well. After another hour or so, news came forward it was delayed. On to the next gate. Minneapolis. This time our luck held and the agents eventually arrived to do the security screening. It was looking promising. In the meantime the line behind us was now the length of a football field and as we neared the front I felt as though we were on the Titanic fighting for a spot on the insufficient life rafts. It made me wonder how I'd be in a life or death situation. Get the hell out of my way, women and children, we need to get to the US for the holidays! Hopefully I'd be different but all I knew at this point was that I was in no mood to let anyone sneak in front of us to grab one of these precious seats heading out across the ocean. We'd already traveled from Bujumbura, to Kigali, to Nairobi prior to arriving in Amsterdam and after a night on a cold, carpetless floor, I wanted to get the hell out of there.


Once we obtained the boarding passes, I refrained from performing a touchdown-like celebration and calmly walked towards the bar code reader. Humbled by the experience on the plane the previous day when more than one announcement of our imminent departure (accompanied by cheers) was subsequently thwarted by follow-up announcements telling us that we were doomed. There was no guarantee until we were safely landing on American soil, or ice as was the case in Minneapolis.


  The plane was very late taking off of course due to all of the passenger re-bookings but we were in no mood to complain. Much to our relief, we finally arrived in chilly Minnesota. It was hard not to laugh at the scene of 20+ inches of snow and a perfectly functioning airport after the pathetic 3 inches in Amsterdam (with no wind) that had created all of the chaos the day before. Both KLM and Schiphol Airport got caught with their trousers around their ankles. Normally very professional companies, my hope is that there will be some lessons learned. Possibly not given that the blame seems to be so diffused amongst all the entities involved.



We made our way through immigration and were not surprised to see that our bags did not make the trip. Alas, the comedy of errors continued.


  We were left with only one night in Minneapolis before our scheduled flight to Louisville. As suspected, they still didn't arrive despite assurances that they would.


We arrived in Louisville and have now spent two nights at Priya's parents. While it's nice to be settled with the holidays now underway, we have now been 5 1/2 days without our bags. Each day brings new assurances by earnest and sincere-sounding airline employees of their continued existence and imminent arrival. But they don't appear.


Surprise, conflict, repetitiveness and the effect of opposite expectations. It was a comedy and clearly not very funny.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Hendri

There’s a lot to comment on and I just haven’t had the time to do so. My last few weeks have been a whirlwind of travel, busy and stressful times at work, and getting settled into the new house. Amidst all of this there has been some significant emotional drama, some of which I’ll share now.
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A couple of weeks ago, we received the visitors that’d I’d mentioned a while back. These were the kayakers who were on an African whitewater expedition/adventure film project that was taking them through Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi and the Congo (DRC). The film was to be about their expedition, but also the turbulent history and recovery in the countries they are traveling through and the strength and hope of the people they meet along the way. Our organization wasn’t sponsoring or hosting but simply providing them informal support here and there in addition to welcoming them to visit our projects.
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I’ve been in contact with them for a few months, particularly Hendri, their South African guide who is based in Uganda. I advised them on travel into Rwanda and Burundi and helped them with visas. We also set up interviews for them with some of our staff who’d lived through genocide and civil war – testimonials that were nonetheless positive messages about overcoming mind-blowing adversity.
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Hendri is a legendary African guide and a world class kayaker. The two guys with him, Ben and Chris, are amazing professional kayakers and had done kayak adventure films before.
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Hendri and I had been in touch periodically during the trip prior to their arrival in Rwanda and Burundi. They had satellite and cell phones he used it to keep me up to date on their progress and inform me about the potential timing of their arrival in Burundi. It was finally determined that they’d make it through the upper part of the Rusizi River, arriving at the Burundi border on Nov. 23rd. I’d suggested that the lower part of the Rusizi that flows into Lake Tanganyika adjacent to Bujumbura – the part that forms the DRC-Burundi border – might not be safe. In addition to crocodiles and hippos, there’d been recent reports a large number of bodies being found in the river (roughly 22 of them), many of which displayed signs of torture including at least one beheaded corpse. They received similar information from others so they prudently decided to stop near the border.
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Their opting out was a relief and we sent a vehicle to pick them up and bring them to Bujumbura. It’s about an hour and a half one way. When they arrived at our offices, it was good to finally meet them in person and hear about their adventures so far. Unfortunately I had to travel soon after their arrival so we basically had lunch at a nice place on the lake (which they absolutely loved after roughing it for quite some time). I had originally offered to put them up at our new house but given that I had to travel for a couple of days, I told them that if they were still in Bujumbura when I got back, we’d have them over.
Sure enough, when I returned on Thursday (Thanksgiving) they were still sorting out some of the logistics of their trip and wouldn’t be leaving until the next day. Though tired from my travel “up country”, I honored my promise and within a very short time we were all up at our house on the terrace sipping drinks and exchanging stories.
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Much of our belongings were still in boxes but we’d rapidly pulled out enough things to get by and provide beds for our three visitors for the night.  They turned out to be great. Far from the meathead thrill-seekers that one might anticipate, they’re a nice combination of smart (well-read), humble (more interested in our humanitarian work than talking about their own impressive backgrounds), humorous and gracious.
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After drinks on the terrace, we went to a nearby Indian restaurant for some great Indian food. Priya and I obviously have an affinity for Indian food and to have such a fantastic place so close is pretty cool. Hendri referred to it as the meal of the trip.
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We returned to the house and Chris and Ben proceeded to open up computers and begin downloading film. It’s a massive and fascinating project. The goal was to amass tons of footage that would be edited upon return to the US. The filming would be used in a number of ways, one of which would be to present it in adventure film festivals. Everything had to be downloaded in Bujumbura so as to protect what they had so far in case they were robbed or it was damaged. Though they had impressive water-tight bags in their kayaks, there was always a chance that something would happen.
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In between times of attending to the computers, they seemed happy to watch some TV and just relax. Hendri, being the guide, didn’t have to deal with the film stuff so he and I chatted about other things including life in Africa and adventure activities. Though I’ve dabbled in adventure, I tend to keep quiet around people like Hendri since he’s the real deal. He’s pushed African river exploration harder than anyone on the planet and that’s just one piece of the amazing things he’s accomplished. All the while he remains humble and seems quite happy to spend his time talking about other things.
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The downloading lasted through the night though by the next morning they assured me that they’d all slept quite well. During our discussions they informed us that as hard as the previous weeks had been, the next stretch would be the most arduous and dangerous. That seemed hard to believe given what I knew about what they’d already done. It wasn’t clear but it seems that the next stretch had only been attempted once or twice before and that the last person that attempted it was never seen again.
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We all went to the office the next morning. They wanted to use the internet and then they’d go back to the same lakeside restaurant we’d been to before while they awaited their boat to continue their travels to the Congo. We exchanged information, said our good-byes and off they went.
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There were a couple of times during the visit that I remember looking at them and wondering if we’d ever see each other again. Hendri offered us a standing invitation to his place in Uganda. Ben and Chris are from northern California and southern Oregon, places I know and are near and dear to my heart. But at one point when Hendri was talking at the Indian restaurant, I seriously wondered whether something serious might happen to them. It’s a morbid thought but the dangers of doing something like this are evident. And to see some slight signs of apprehension, even on the faces of these hardened professionals, it made me more nervous for what lay ahead.
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Hendri told us (and Ben and Chris) that they were going to be focused on these last few weeks and that they had to be done by Christmas. He was looking forward to meeting his girlfriend after it was over to go on their planned 3-month vacation together. He also took my parent’s address since he said he wanted to send us something after they were done. Though I said he didn’t need to, he seemed like he had good taste so I secretly hoped that he would.
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Over the past several days I hadn’t heard anything. I assumed that I wouldn’t. I knew that there was no longer need for our logistical and scheduling coordination. I figured I wouldn’t get a report from NY about the trip until they were done and I’d also be able to check their blog postings.
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Then yesterday morning I received a call from NY. My fears, and the fears of many, had been realized. Tragedy struck. Hendri, Ben and Chris were working their way along the Lukaga River beginning at Kalemie. The information that we have so far is that Hendri was attacked and pulled from his kayak by a crocodile day before yesterday. Neither his body nor the kayak were found. Ben and Chris are unhurt but obviously devastated. They were able to call out using the satphone and were taken the six and a half hours back to Kalemie.
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I’m a bit surprised at how much I have been taken aback by the news. I’d only known Hendri a short time and nonetheless I connected with him quite well. We had a lot of similar interests and perspectives about living sub-Saharan Africa. My guess is that we would have stayed in touch and likely met up in Uganda at some point. The horrific nature of his death adds to the sting.
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There’d been much talk about the dangers of the trip from the time we were informed about it. We seriously wondered whether they’d even make it to Burundi. Once they’d made it this far, I was more optimistic about their chances.
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I don’t claim to have the mindset of an adventurer – certainly not at the level of these guys. Having said that, I think I understand something about what drives them. I was discussing the incident with a staff member yesterday and she asked the rhetorical question as to how anyone would choose such a crazy occupation and willingly put himself in such danger. Based on my conversations with Hendri and his love for his work, he’d have asked the rhetorical question in disbelief as to how anyone would willingly choose to sit at a computer all day. He just seemed to love what he was doing and he could have cared less if anyone recognized him for his accomplishments. As one person described him, he simply did it for the love of adventure, not for the limelight. My deepest sympathies and prayers for his family and friends.
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