DATELINE: Saturday, April 2, 2005

So there we were, sleeping away, safe in the knowledge we didn’t have to get up `til breakfast time and that our flight didn’t leave until 1:45 that afternoon.

At 5:45 a.m. our hotel phone rang. It was Butch. He and Andrew had gotten up to see Flo off and while they were at it Butch had rechecked everyone’s flight information. It turned out that only his flight left at 1:45 p.m. Everyone else’s left at 8:45, same as Flo’s. We had 15 minutes to pack all our stuff and be downstairs ready to go before Sylvana arrived with the van. He said he would call Tito and Jo Ann so they could bring us our empty luggage.

“Who was that?” Ashley asked as I put the phone down. I told her it was Butch and informed her of our predicament and deadline.

“You’re kidding me, right?” she said.

“Nope.”

To say that we were panicked by this news is putting it lightly. Neither of us had done any packing whatsoever the previous night and all our stuff was scattered. So there we were, neither of us even technically awake, running around the room grabbing clothing and possessions at random and hurling it all into bags unfolded. I’d been optimistic that we could get it all done in 15 minutes, but the whole still being mostly asleep part and the still being very fatigued from our week really put the crimp on that. It was like we couldn’t figure out what we were supposed to be doing next. And in addition to clothing, we had to pack up our fragile items too. Ash had four pieces of pottery and I had all the little clay sun-faces and several bags of chips to worry about. We decided to put it all in our carryon luggage, which we could at least be sure we would have on our persons and could be responsible for not breaking. We certainly didn’t trust the airlines to extend to us the same courtesy.

Through the haze of morning, it occurred to me that this might be a practical joke on the part of Butch. I didn’t know how revenge-minded he was, but a prank of this magnitude would sufficiently get us back for all that stuff we did to him while he was sleeping last week. I could just see us breaking our butts packing and rushing downstairs only to find Butch there waiting with his camera to take our picture, laughing away at us. Ooh, that would be mean. We’d deserve it, but it would be mean. At that point, though, I figured having it be a prank was preferable to having to do a mad rush to the airport with Sylvana driving. She drove crazy enough when we weren’t under the gun, so I was not looking forward to the ride when we were.

After 10 minutes had passed, Butch called us back to tell us we could have until 6:15 to be downstairs. This was actually very good news, because we were nowhere near finished with packing. Unfortunately, it meant that this was not likely a prank after all. And it wasn’t.

Perhaps ironically, the last time Ashley had been in Central America, she’d had to flee the country as fast as she could and here it looked like we were about to have to do the same all over again.

We got downstairs at 6:10. Jo Ann, Tito and Sylvana were there, ready to go, our luggage all packed in the back of Tito’s truck. We loaded up and hit the road.

Fortunately, traffic in San Salvador isn’t very hectic at 6:15 on a Saturday morning. We were able to zip right along at a nice clip and made the 40 minute journey to the airport in seemingly record time.

San Salvador’s airport a very nice, but also very small for the amount of passengers it sees. Even at 7a, it was extraordinarily crowded, and that was just outside. Once again, my airport fears set in and I became very paranoid about our luggage. I didn’t know if it was justified or not, but we’d not had any time for a San Sal airport expectations briefing. I’d have to just be paranoid and wing it.

We unloaded all the luggage from the truck outside the airport. Though most of it was empty, it was still an awful lot of luggage to be lugging around. Butch gave us money for the $32 exit fee we would have to pay and then Jo Ann and Sylvana helped us get everything inside while Tito stood guard at the car. The inside was even more crowded than the outside, with thick queues of people as far as the eye could see. We said our goodbyes to everyone and said we’d hope to see each other in a year. Then Dr. Allen, Mary Ann, Andrew, Flo, Ashley and I headed on in to our place in line.

Oddly, the huge lines didn’t seem to really hamper us much as far as getting through customs went. I paid the exit fee and was given receipts for all of us that we’d have to show at further gates. We then checked our luggage and proceeded to the next set of lines we’d have to stand in. With all the bustling of the crowd, we managed to get separated, which wasn’t a problem until it came time to show the receipts for our exit fees at the next set of doors. After that it was just a brief stop at the metal detectors, a quick x-ray of shoes and carryon luggage and we then found ourselves in the far less crowded airport terminal area. This was a very long hallway that lead to all the boarding stations for all planes. Ours was pretty far down the hall, but we had a half hour to kill, so we weren’t in any great hurry.

We said our goodbyes to Flo, who was headed out on a separate flight to Honduras, and then ate breakfast at a small airport café where they served pastries and coffee.

Even with the big journey ahead of us, I was feeling surprisingly calm about it all. It’s I knew that the worries of the world and the hustle and bustle didn’t really amount to anything and it would all work out okay. Why get worked up about it? I mentioned this to my traveling companions and they felt the same way.

Once aboard the plane, I put on my seatbelt as instructed. It was the first time a safety belt had graced my lap in two weeks.

We could definitely tell we were back in the United States when we landed in Houston. It seemed like everyone we encountered was determined to be rude to us and the customs process suddenly became far more complex than it had been in Central America.

Our passports and customs forms were checked repeatedly at every step and there a lot more walking to be done and many more long lines to stand in. Most of the customs people were cranky too, yet we remained strangely calm.

We went through the X-Ray machines and Dr. Allen’s odoscope turned up in the shot and he was pulled out of line so that all of his luggage could be inspected by hand. Never mind that four members of our five member party all had odoscopes in their bags too, his was the one to get flagged.

Once we arrived at our departure gate, everything was fine. Then the little sign that said “Charlotte” disappeared and one that said “Philadelphia” appeared in its place. Our gate had been moved. Most people would have been annoyed at this, but we just looked around and found the new one across the way and moved. No biggie.

While we waited at our gate, a stewardess for Continental Airlines came by and gave us each claim tickets for our carryon luggage. This was going to be another smaller plane, like the one we’d flown to Houston in from Charlotte, so there wouldn’t be space in the cabin for everyone’s carryon bags. We took the forms, left our bags on the jetway and didn’t think much about it.

We boarded at 1:20 for our 1:35 flight. Dr. Allen and Mary Ann had seats together as did Ashley and I. And Andrew was just across the aisle from us with a good view of the baggage handlers as they loaded everyone’s carryon luggage into the plane’s hold.

“Hey, that guy’s dropping bags!” Andrew said. We couldn’t see what was going on, but Andrew could and said the handler was just yanking bags off the jetway and letting them fall six feet to the ground. He held onto them as they fell to give them a guiding hand, but fall they did and seemed to be landing pretty hard. This was probably the first time we began to get really riled up for most of the trip. The whole point of putting fragile items in the carryons was so THIS wouldn’t happen and here it was anyway.

We called the plane’s steward over and told him what was going on. He said he’d file a report about it and that shut us up for the moment. Our nerves calmed again and we settled in. Soon they plane taxied out onto the runway to await clearance to take off.

And we waited.

And we waited.

And we waited.

At 1:40, the captain came on the speaker and told us that Charlotte was closed due to weather concerns and we’re going to have to wait 50 minutes before they know if we’ll be able to take off.

At this point, the passengers around us suddenly freaked out like it was the end of the world. People began grumbling, loudly and seemed to be of a mindset that asking us to wait for 50 whole minutes might just be the death of us. Our party remains calm.

Somewhere near the front of the plane, a baby began screaming. Not crying, mind you, but screaming full-out, lungs ablaze, hardly stopping to breath. The air in the cabin, which had been warm from all the people aboard, now feels hot. Our party remains calm.

Two seats behind us, a man with a gruff British accent began loudly using his cell phone to call someone in Charlotte named Bonnie to tell her he would be coming in late. We know her name was Bonnie because he said it 20,000 times. His connection wasn’t very clear, so he just kept saying her name over and over and over, then, getting no response, he’d hang up and dial again and begin the process anew. Finally, after minutes of just going, “Bonnie?! Bonnie?! Bonnie?! Bonnie?!” he managed to get a good connection with her.

“Bonnie?!… Bonnie, I can’t hear you…. I said, I CAN’T HEAR YOU!!… I hear loud voices in the background… Bonnie?! Where are you at, Bonnie? Are you having trouble answering your phone, Bonnie?! I hear loud voices there… I said, I HEAR LOUD VOICES THERE!… Can you go to some place where it isn’t so loud?!!” This is what we all were hoping for by that point. Evidently she moved and he began asking her what the weather was like there, to which he didn’t seem to get a satisfactory response because he began chastising her for not paying attention to the weather reports. If he’d shut up for five seconds, he might have heard the three other people around us phone home to Charlotte to learn that the weather was very windy.

Regardless of Bonnie’s bellowing husband, we the mission party were still very calm about it all. Even Andrew, who had the most to lose since Charlotte was not his final destination and he had to make a connecting flight from there to D.C., didn’t seem at all put out by the delay.

We waited on the runway for 50 minutes, with the screaming baby and the screaming Mr. Bonnie going full blast.

At 2:30, the flight crew came on the speakers and announced that we still didn’t know our take off time, but were going to head back to the terminal anyway because a passenger needed to get off the plane. I assumed the guy was maybe just connecting in Charlotte too and wanted to get off and try and catch a more direct flight to his destination. So they fired up the engine and we taxied back within walking distance of one of the airport terminals, but they didn’t let us off. Instead, we just sat there waiting, as the flight crew explained, for a bus to come and drive us to the terminal. And we waited. And waited. And waited.

After at least 10 minutes, the steward came back on the speaker and said, “Ladies and gentlemen, we were taxiing to a gate to allow a passenger off who was sick. But now the passenger doesn’t want off, so I’m not sure what we’re doing here.”

We all laughed at that. I had to hand it to the flight crew for having personality. Shortly after this, they came back on and announced that we had received word from Charlotte and would be taking off at 22 past the hour. Since it was now around 2:50, both we and the captain had assumed Charlotte meant 3:22. Uh, no. It turns out they meant 4:22, a fact that wasn’t learned until we’d waited ten more minutes. The captain had to come on and break the news to us that it would be another hour and 20 minutes before we could leave. He said that it was up to us if we still wanted to deplane and go back to the terminal.

“If you want to deplane, we’ll call some more busses and they’ll probably take another hour,” he then said.

The passengers voted to deplane. This time the busses came fairly fast and we were whisked the 100 grueling yards to the terminal. Once there, we were told we would only have 15 minutes in the terminal before we had to bus up and head back to the plane, so we needed to be sure to stay near the announcement system speakers so we would know when to get back on the busses.

So we sat around in the terminal for 15 minutes. Far from being annoyed, I think most of our party found the whole thing pretty funny by this point. We found it even more funny when we bussed back to the plane and it was discovered that Mr. Bonnie was no longer aboard. The steward walked to the man’s seat and asked if anyone knew who the man was and where he was. This query was answered by a chorus of other passengers saying, “Bonnie? Bonnie?”

The captain gives Mr. Bonnie 2 minutes to appear, then shut the door to the plane. Ten minutes later, Mr. Bonnie came running across the tarmack and they let him in. He returned to his seat, quite shame faced.

At 4:22, we took off.

Our flight home was beautiful with an amazing view of the sun as it set in the West.
Our arrival in Charlotte was indeed accompanied by some bumpy weather, though. It was pretty windy then, so if it had been windier earlier I’m glad they kept us on the ground for as long as they did. I don’t take too well to having my plane tossed around in the air. The pilots got us down just fine, though.

We went through our carryon bags once they were returned to us at the jetway. Nothing seemed to be broken at first glance, but when we went back through them the following day we did find that part of Ash’s clay cooking set had been broken and a couple of the clay sun-faces I had were chipped. We also learned from the Continental Airlines website that their basic policy on this is that even if it IS their fault it’s not their fault, they take no responsibility and they won’t be reimbursing anyone for any items that they damaged. Thanks Continental.

By the time of our arrival, Andrew had indeed missed his flight. But he was able to make arrangements to pick up a flight the following morning and could come stay with us at Ma & Pa’s back in Hildebran and drive over in the morning.

In a reverse of our first day at the airport, we shuttle bussed with our luggage back to Dr. Allen’s truck. I was even wearing the same clothes, and pulled my hoodie/pillow out of my bag to keep me warm against the North Carolina chill. I had hoped the bus driver who’d marveled at all the bags we had two weeks ago would be our driver, but it wasn’t him.

We were all quite hungry, by then, so we stopped off at a Ryans buffet in Gastonia on the way home, where I had a great deal of difficulty not saying “gracias” to our waitress whenever she refilled my tea. It was fantastic food, but I ate far too much of it—stuffed myself stupid, really—and then was embarrassed that I’d eaten so much when I’d just returned from a place where people often have so little. I was miserable in mind and body for the rest of the evening.

Arriving home at Ma & Pa’s house was bittersweet. On the one hand, I was glad it still was Ma AND Pa’s house because Pa had lived through his fall from the roof of the cabin he’s building nearby. On the other hand, it was tough for Ashley to see her father sitting there encased in neck and wrist braces. Seeing him like that reminded her that we’d nearly lost him. She put on a good show when in his presence, but that night was a fairly sleepless one for her.

Pa was doing well. He was still on some pretty serious pain medication, but his wrist was already doing better than expected. He knew then that his recovery was going to be a long one, but his determination to get back up and running and his perseverance at physical therapy have gone a long way toward making that recovery faster. We didn’t know it then, but Pa would remain in the neck brace until mid-June, but his wrist has made a far better recovery than his doctors ever thought. It may never be 100 percent again, but it won’t be because Pa didn’t try to get it there.

We sat in the living room that night, with Dr. Allen, Mary Ann and Andrew, telling Ma & Pa some of the highlights of our trip. It was very hard to do, because at that point everything we’d experienced felt far too big to even know where to begin. You can’t encapsulate an experience like that in an evening (or even in a blog over the course of several months—believe me, I tried and it just hasn’t worked to my liking).

As we were to learn over the coming days, most of the time you don’t even have an evening’s worth of time to spare to tell folks about your journey; instead you have to give people who ask about it a quick snapshot in just a few minutes. Ashley’s method was to simply explain that we saw over 2600 patients in two countries and over 850 of them were lead to Christ. That seems to work pretty well.

 

THE END (FOR NOW)

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