By the time we boarded the van for the airport at 3:00 p.m., we were nearly sick with exhaustion and frustration. No boarding passes for the kids. Averaging less than 4 nights of sleep. Two rambunctious kids. A 33 hour journey ahead of us. I would have cried if I had the energy.
To add to the tension, we were now without any agency staff. No interpreter. No bodyguard. Only a driver who didn’t speak English. If we were stopped by the police again, there would be no one but this stranger to defend us. Our ability to get back to the United States rested on his shoulders. And we didn’t even know his name. Or his willingness to help us.
We drove for only a few miles before our van turned into a neighborhood of what looked like small apartment complexes or office buildings. Soon we found ourselves pulling up to a tall wooden gate between two high cement walls. A guard opened the gate, and the van moved forward. As the van pulled into the compound, Ken and I looked at each other wide-eyed. What was going on? This was clearly not the airport. No where near the airport.
A uniformed man pulled the gate closed behind us. And locked it.
The driver stopped the van, got out, and began talking to the guard a few yards away. Their tones were not distressed. Nor were they joyful. They were just loud. We listened, trying to catch words in French that we knew. Even Ken couldn’t figure out what they were saying.
Should we get out? Should we stay put? Was this the end of our journey, for good this time? After all, all of the people who had been hired to protect us were now off protecting someone else.
The midafternoon sun quickly heated the van to an unbearable temperature, as the 8 of us sat inside trying to figure out what to do. We were already nauseated from the stress of the day, and the heat was adding to it.
After 10 minutes or so, Ken offered to go ask what was going on, using the French that he knew. (Thank you to the Canadian school system that made him take 7 years of French!) He got out of the van and approached the driver and the guard.
A few minutes later, Ken returned, “We’re just picking up someone else on the way to the airport.”
Sigh. That would have been nice to know before we pulled in!
Almost immediately after Ken got back in the van, a few people came out of the building and a young woman dressed in a crisp white blouse squeezed into the van with her luggage.
I was immediately impressed with her beauty. I know it sounds strange, because I usually don’t think about people’s outer beauty, but she was stunning. A broad, kind smile graced her face. Perfect white teeth. Beautifully braided hair. Sparkling eyes.
As she settled into her seat, she asked, in English, “Are you all from America?”
We burst into laughter from the tension release we all felt, “Yes! We are!”
“Well, I am going to America today! What a blessing to get on a van with all Americans!” (And one Canadian, but at this point, that really didn’t matter.) “Would you mind if I practice my English with you?”
Oh my goodness, would we mind?! We loved it!
As we chatted with this young woman, we found out that she was moving to Chicago to study Catholic theology, and wanted to return to the Congo someday to teach others. We laughed when we noted that the two men on board were pastors . . . but protestant. She laughed in return that we all loved and served the same God. We told her about our adoptions and our hopes for our children. She told us what we were doing was a very good thing.
Our beautiful new friend knew no one in America, and was naturally a bit frightened, so we began to tell her about Chicago and the things she would see and do there. We described the city and the transportation, and told her that she would love America.
As we drove toward the airport, she was able to describe Kinshasa, the political climate, and the economic hardships of the country. We were captivated by her genuine concern for her country, and how other countries so easily take advantage of the hardships of the DR Congo. We were engrossed in every story and description she made of the sites we were seeing. We were so fortunate to have her on our van!
The time to travel to the airport went by more quickly than I imagined, and soon we found ourselves at the parking lot. The driver stopped, and indicated we were to get out and get our luggage. I was a bit dismayed because I know others who had paid for the “protocol” didn’t even get out of the van until the driver had walked through all the check points inside.
Nevertheless, we had no choice, so kids and carry-ons in tow, we headed inside. We were a bit behind the others as we stepped inside the airport doors.
Before we knew it, a police officer just inside the door was yelling at Palmer. We stood frozen. The kids were terrified. We were terrified. He demanded to search Palmer’s luggage (in French). We prepared to hand over Palmer’s backpack, and then he laughed and said that he was just kidding. After all, he said, Palmer was just a child.
We didn’t think it was so funny.
We found ourselves inside a great circular room with chairs at the edge, interspersed with a half dozen offices or windows with lines outside them. We sat down. The driver indicated that the men needed to follow him, and the ladies were to stay with the children. They went to an office for 10-15 minutes, and then came back out with exit paperwork approved.
Then the driver indicated that our family needed to get in another line, while the other family waited. Our new African friend had lagged behind with us, and we asked her why we were going to the line. She told us it was so that we could get boarding passes.
Great! Boarding passes! That’s what we need!
We followed our beautiful friend to the line for boarding passes. There was a roped off area to start the line, and we stepped behind our gracious friend. Then a woman and her husband pushed their way in front of us. Then another older woman in a wheelchair and her family stepped in front of us. It seemed pretty clear that we became the people to cut in front of, but there was nothing we could do to protest. We were separated from our new friend.
After a considerable wait, we finally stepped up to the window, which was behind iron bars. The officer asked for all of our passports and our yellow fever cards. We surrendered all four. We were motioned to step to the next window, and we did.
The officer behind the next window handed us Ken’s passport and my passport as he confirmed our identity, and gave us each a pass. Then he went back to work.
A few minutes later, he handed us Palmer’s passport, and his pass. Then he motioned for us to step aside.
But wait, what about Addie Rose?
Ken asked about her pass and passport, but he was ignored. We stood to the side, trying to catch his attention, but he wouldn’t acknowledge us. He began issuing passes for the people behind us. Handing back passport after passport to those behind us. Still nothing for Addie Rose.
We turned to our driver to help us . . .
Where was our driver?! We had paid him a lot of money to stay with us to make sure our children got their boarding passes! We had been assured that he would stay with us until we got on the plane, which was still four hours away!
But our driver was gone. He had left us at the line for the boarding passes and was nowhere to be found.
With every person that got a pass and their passport, panic started to rise. Why weren’t they giving Addie Rose her boarding pass? What was the problem? How could we fix it? What did they want from us? How much did they want from us?
The giant circular room was filled with lines that were moving forward, paperwork was being processed for others. People continued to cut in front of us in line.
We were alone with no interpreter, no phone, no wifi, no way to call anyone for help getting Addie Rose’s passport and boarding pass. We had no recourse against the official behind his barred window who wouldn’t even acknowledge us.
Meanwhile, the officer continued to hand out passports and passes to everyone but us.
We were stuck. Oh, how I prayed that our army of saints was praying for us at that very moment!
We needed a miracle.