Monday, October 31, 2011

"Our Destination: Freedom"

I arrived at the Istanbul airport at 4:30 in the morning. Hazy, I set my two ginormous bags through the screener and confronted my first hurdle. I should back up and say that my luggage this time around was less than traditional. I was carrying a 20kg flack jacket with ceramic plates, a large blue ballistic helmet, and a VHF hand-held radio and charger. Since these items are technically military equipment I had been given an “end user certificate” (really a letter with a lot of stamps on it) to provide in case of trouble with airport authorities. In Istanbul they pulled me aside over concern for….the radio. That’s right, flack jacket, of course you’d be carrying that through an airport. But a nice walkie talkie? Must be dangerous. After some wrangling I removed the battery form the walkie and proceeded to my gate.

My gate was populated entirely by old women and men dressed in off-white robes and headscarves. A few more western dressed folks gathered towards the front. Since there was nowhere to sit, I shoved myself up against a wall in the middle of the “white” crowd that was bound for Mecca later in the day. You could say I looked more than a little out of place. When my flight was called I got into line with a lot of men. Men and literally two other women. Myself and an Indian woman were the only ones uncovered.

I wandered onto the plane only to find my seat (the window in a section of three) taken. Unable to communicate efficiently in Arabic, the stewards had to move around five or so people until my seat was opened up and I nervously passed through the gentlemen I had forced to move. Before I left, people had spent so much time warning me of “aggressive Arab men” and how I should expect to be treated poorly that I braced myself for an unpleasant ride sandwiched against the side of the plane. My Libyan seat-mates could not have proven those people and me more wrong. And I should say, my Libyan friends and colleagues have continued to do so throughout my time here.

As we got set to take off, the young man next to me tried to strike up a conversation in very limited English. Through pantomiming and his father’s assistance we exchanged names, origins, and basic details. They expressed their frustration over the continued fighting in Libya and said they thought it made life worse than under Gaddafi. Since these two were businessmen I got the sense they may have been given some extra space from the now former dictator. They said that once they landed in Benghazi they would head to their home in Adjadabya about two hours to the west. Intermixed in all of this was how happy they were to welcome me to their country.

As the plane began to descend into Benghazi air space I was suddenly snapped out of a daze I was not aware I had sunk into. We flew over a small farm that had been burned out, now filled with spent rockets and weaponry. My trip to this point had seemed so normal and pleasant. I had left a loud, disjointed, and often dysfunctional (no offense my beloved Kenya) developing country for the sleek efficient curves and services of Istanbul. We touched down in Benghazi and I was jolted back into remembering where I was headed.

The plane taxied and we walked down a ladder onto the tarmac. In front of me was a large sign that proclaimed “our destination: Freedom.” Everything else was in Arabic. We took a bus a few hundred feet away to the airport door and walked into our visa lines. Someone from my organization was waiting up front, so after the oil executive was taken through I got to jump the queue myself. We walked downstairs to a single carousel. And then we waited. And waited. And waited while authorities checked our bags for contraband like alcohol. To my great relief my bags arrived and we set off for the office, after grabbing water and a tissue from a “revolutionary” Kleenex box with the words Feb17 written all over it.

Revolutionary flags were flying everywhere on the way to the office. With the exception of one or two buildings with burn marks or the occasional giant hole the city looked completely unaffected by war. Signs about freedom, revolution, and unity peppered the dry landscape, broken up by palm trees and sand colored buildings. 15 minutes of driving on well paved and marked roads and I was delivered to the office...err house AND office.

To be continued...

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