(a little bit long but here is the story of our incredible journey last weekend, in case anyone is interested in details. jet lag makes for quiet, early morning blogging hours…)

I left the United States, or tried to, Thursday August 28. I was going home. My intent was to land in Djibouti at 2:45 a.m. Sunday morning. I would pass through Chicago, Doha (Qatar), Nairobi (Kenya), Addis Ababa (Ethiopia). On Saturday I had a required 22 hour layover during which I would drop my kids off at boarding school, see their new high school dorms, meet their dorm parents, and generally ensure things were off to a good start for their freshman year.

The flight from Minneapolis left almost two hours late and we were off on the adventure of a lifetime. And here is lesson number one:

We had a bad time. We weren’t suffering. Some might call what we have been through these past five days (I’ll say five because I started on Thursday and ended on Monday) suffering.

I suppose in the dictionary meaning of the word, they would be right. It was hard, stressful, exhausting, confusing, frustrating, enraging, and completely out of my control. But in the emotional sense, I feel funny calling it suffering. Every plane flew safely. We spent one night in a nice hotel on American Airlines’ dime. We spent over $200 in food vouchers on, again, American Airlines’ dime. We dealt with staff who, though not god-like in their ability to solve our problems, were empathetic and seemed genuinely concerned about our welfare.

We were not shot at, our homes were not destroyed by fire or earthquake or flood or war, we broke no bones, felt little hunger, had no sense of our lives being in danger. We weren’t victims of a crime or violence.

We were tired and sore from lugging bags (had to check and recheck them multiple times) and wanted a shower, a toothbrush (never, ever, never forget your toothbrush on international flights), and a place to lie down but that is not the same as wanting a child not to have cancer, to not have been evicted from a home, to have a reliable source of income, or a stable and functioning government.

Due to our late departure we missed our connection, by less than five minutes, to Qatar. We ran, we sweat, we pleaded but the plane taxied away before our very eyes. After retrieving our luggage, we dragged the bags to the Radisson.

Here are lesson number 2 and 3: A little calmness goes a long way and misery loves company. Another woman had to retrieve her bags because her flight had been cancelled. She was furious. She insulted the lost baggage employee, insulted the airline, called people names, yelled, and generally made a stink.

Not because of any strength of character on my own part but simply because I was already too tired to muster rage, I spoke calmly with the same employee. She made a call on my behalf to her supervisor and retrieved my bags quickly.

The other woman eventually got her bags and we wound up on the same shuttle to the same Radisson. She spent the entire time huffing to her husband about how awful the experience had been. Henry, Maggie, and I laughed about the haul we picked up from Caribou on our food vouchers. The first haul of many. Had we known, it might not have been so fun.

Misery loves company so don’t give it any. I knew that once I started down the complaining route my kids would follow. I saw this in the woman and her fellow passengers. They riled each other up, egged each other on. I was with two teenagers who could easily derail into complaining. I already don’t like flying and tend toward impatience and could easily derail myself into complaining. We all made a conscious choice that we weren’t going to get on the complain train. This was quite possibly the best thing we did.

And here is lesson number 4: Take things as they come. No sense in worrying about making that connection or meeting that bag upon arrival. You can’t do anything about it. Worrying only makes you more upset and ruins the intervening experiences.

Had we known how hard things were going to get we would not have been able to laugh at Henry talking in his sleep and asking us what we would like to drink. We would not have enjoyed pedicures (at that time I thought I would no longer leave the airport in Kenya and spent the money I would have spent on that visa on pretty toenails. I was wrong but Maggie still got pretty blue toenails). We would not have laughed at the absolutely ridiculous American television that is on in hotels after midnight.

The next afternoon we boarded our plane now heading for London instead of Qatar, now on American Airlines instead of Qatar Airways. Qatar has better movies, better food, better service, better seats, gives you toothbrushes, socks, and face masks. American Airlines gets you there. Eventually.

They get you there five hours late. Due to a dented door on the outside of the plane, we sat on the tarmac for three hours (after more than an hour delay in boarding). They got us to London but not on time to meet our next connecting flight and thus we were handed more food vouchers and rescheduled tickets. This meant I would now have to rebook my final leg to Djibouti by purchasing a new ticket.

That was possibly my lowest moment up to that time. It took about three hours and more money than I want to think about. And here is lesson number 5:

I have so much to be thankful for. I had the money, or at least the credit card, to get myself home. This is a wildly unique experience in the global scheme of things. Almost everyone in the airport (probably there were a few refugees) is a person of some kind of means. We are in an airport! I know people in Djibouti who have never been in a car. Wealth beyond compare.

We had 51 pounds to spend and had already eaten a delicious Lebanese lunch with our other voucher. The employee said, “Spend it all, girl. They should have given you more.” We ended up literally throwing fistfuls of candy bars and gingerbread men into bags, he added cookies and croissants and fruit buckets. The kids brought it to school.

To make a long story just a bit longer, I will tell you that the tears began to actually leak out when, upon arrival in Kenya, we were missing bags. The hardest one to be missing was Maggie’s bag of clothes and some medicine for a friend. She handled it well, with a passing moment of discouragement. I had to bite my tongue and rub my red eyes to keep from finally, finally yelling at an employee who had nothing to do with the missing bag and was wonderfully helpful.

No one knows where the bags are or which airline is in charge of them or what the numbers are that are attached to them. We may or may not ever see them again.

None of us will go naked. It is just stuff.

I still have one leg to go. I am writing this in good faith that I will get to Djibouti at 2:45 a.m. with no further ado.

P.S. My kids are 100% amazing. This isn’t something I learned on this trip, I was convinced over fourteen years ago. But I saw it again. They did not complain one single time. There was no whining. Not even when the bag with all the new school clothes went missing. Not even when they had to get to school a day late and miss all the first day things with friends and have less time to prepare for classes Monday. There was anxiety, frustration, disappointment. But there was also laughter, gratitude, prayer, and the verbalizing that we were making quite the great memory together. That made the entire fiasco worthwhile.

Here they are, pretending to have an awful time.

crying in heathrow

P.P.S. Kenya Airways has done a heroic job of finding our missing bags and as of this writing (I am now in Djibouti), they are on their way to their respective locations.

*image via Flickr