The following is the second installment on How to Fly with Babies and Dignity. It covers preparation tactics, boarding procedure, and how to get your own row by exposing your breasts.
It also hits on the history of SABENA’s relationship with Congo; includes a rather unappealing Belgian fellow and nuns reading pamphlets about orphans; and ruminates on the inherent evil nature of humankind.
The series is based on experience gleaned mostly from intercontinental flights--admittedly a different beast than the more finicky domestic situations—but hopefully will offer insight for all travelers.
We Embark with Good Intentions
Though we have been through a sort of hell (via Brussels and Kigali) since the previous installment of How to Fly with Babies and Dignity, I continue to stand strong on my approach of sophisticated travel in these times of passenger degradation. A recent harrowing experience cast important light on the issue, however:
Never be too proud to resort to Plan B, and
Everything is fine compared to genocide.
Always embark with good intentions, for the journey, they say, is the destination. Despite a raw experience on our way to Norway, SABENA deserved a second chance. Also, how often do I spend a whole day focusing entirely on my children? Also, I had received an email that “A Cosmic Trigger Event” was to occur during the day we were flying: “Peace and Prosperity for all Earth and Mankind.” I was secretly looking forward to the effects of “an ultraviolet pulse beam radiating from higher dimensions in Universe-2 [that would] cross paths with the Earth on this day.” And, at 30,000 feet most of the day, I hoped to benefit even more. I was ready to radiate.
Preparation, Preparation, Preparation
I spent two days obsessing about the flight. Relatively easy compared to our usual cross Africa, cross-Atlantic, cross eight time zones trip, but due to absurd, last minute reservations on a flight through Brussels and Rwanda, it would be 4AM to 10PM day, with two babies, and no business class.
No contemporary parent regrets the $100 spend on portable DVD player, but four hours of battery life puts a panicky edge on that thing, and I recommend the extra battery purchase as well. For the girl, I pack bags within bags within bags. For any journey over eight hours, I pack the biggest carry-on suitcase allowed (one that rolls!) with a million extra diapers (once, I missed being stranded and trapped in Heathrow Airport for four days by just a few hours.); extra outfits for the inevitable disasters; extra wipes; a medical kit (cold medicine, teething gel, diaper rash ointment, eye ointment (conjunctivitis had broken out in the girl’s school before we left), anything for potential ailments); baby blankets; and valuables, etc. The girl’s little personal bag fits into the suitcase and we take it out just before boarding. In it, treats: a new coloring book, stuffed animals, new stickers, a new book―whatever keeps the two year old’s inner-wolves at bay.
Then, one or two (depending if traveling alone or with partner) easy-to-reach under the seat in front of you bags with the essentials: three diapers/child for grabbing, the wipes, bottles filled and ready, a hidden lollypop, etc.
Thus we set off, as streamlined as Posh and Beck going out to watch tennis.
A Brief Interlude: Please Pause for the History of SABENA in the Congo
From this SABENA website
“When SABENA was formed, it was funded in part by Belgians in the colony of Congo who had only a year before lost their air service, an experimental passenger and cargo company between Kinshasha, Lisala and Stanleyville. From 1925, SABENA pioneered a route to Africa and to Belgium's interests in the Belgian Congo.
“SABENA chose to use landplanes for the Congo operation and a program of aerodrome building in the Congo began. These were finished in 1926 and SABENA immediately began flights within the Congo in line with its mandate, the main route being Boma-Leopoldville-Elisabethville, a 1,422 mile route over dense jungle. The first flights were with De Havilland d.h. 50 aircraft, then replaced with the larger H.P. W8f airliners which had three engines and ten seats.
“SABENA flew aircraft out to Tropical Africa, its Congo colony, occasionally but mostly these aircraft were shipped out. The flight from Belgium to the Congo had in the past taken 51 days... a mammoth flight. But as the 1930s progressed SABENA cooperated with Air France and Deutche Luft Hansa on over-flight rights (who also had interests in routes over Africa and the Congo) and began its first regular scheduled service from Brussels to Leopoldville in the Congo.
“SABENA's first long-haul flight to the Congo occurred 23 February 1935 and took five and a half days. It was flown by a SABENA Fokker F7b on a direct service. The following year SABENA purchased the latest airliner, the Savoia-Marchetti S.M. 73. At a speed of 200mph it reduced this route to only four days and the service ran alternative weeks in cooperation with Air Afrique who flew the every other week.
“1961 saw a major upheaval for SABENA in the Congo colony. When the old Belgian Congo became the Republic of Congo, the Belgians fled, transported by SABENA. This was the end of the impressive regional network of routes and airports in Congo that the airline had built up since 1924.”
We Love Plan B
No flight through Rwanda is complete without its nuns reading pamphlets about orphanages and earnest Dutch volunteers reading reports on the “Gender Dynamics of the Genocide”. Belgium’s history (SABENA is its national carrier) with the heart of Africa (Rwanda and Congo are neighbors and both former Belgian colonies) is a fraught and complicated one, beginning with luxury-loving kings on one end, and Africans being whipped by rubber at the other. As an American whose president has dragged us into a questionable situation elsewhere, I do not (can not) pass judgment. But on the periphery of my awareness, I have sometimes sensed a mutual, slightly masochistic dependency between the tiny, former Belgian colony, Rwanda, and the Belgians. And Africa still attracts its share of Belgian eccentrics.
So I should not have been surprised by the Belgian sitting next to me, a rather dandruff-y, woman-loathing, child-molester type, who snubbed, “’Parle pas Anglais,” and dismissed our suggestion that he move to the open seat in the front row, center. “Mais pas une fenetre,” he grumbled.
Well, have your fucking window seat, I thought, but regret it. Because by the time I boarded this ten hour, all day flight home, we had been traveling for seven hours already with two excited and sleepless babies, and Posh and Beck were left back at the gate in Oslo. I was a nub of my former self, my body a thread of exhaustion, my patience shot. Our good intentions were left shattered all over the pounding headache/4AM wake up, the three security checks (jewelry off, computer out, baby carriage closed, GIRL’S PINK COWBOY BOOTS OFF, etc), the sleepless children, the bad airplane coffee, the recklessly and endlessly nursing baby…
When chatting together in the galley, or gliding stork-like down the airport corridors to their flight, SABENA attendants seem lovely and gracious, sophisticated and friendly. But upon approach, they turn steely and invincible; cold, unyielding automatons working under orders from some National Socialist flight attendant manual. I was tired of them. I was tired of traveling. I had exhausted every subtle, manipulative tactic for a decent flight, and got nothing back. It was time, dear readers, to bring out the breasts.
And so, in the first row/aisle seat I did just that. Detached by now from any self-possession, I ignored the 250 passengers shuffling by, looking down upon me… for each immediately turned away. As bedraggled and defused as I was, I was still wearing pearls and Cole Haan knee high boots. That, coupled with breasts popping out all over the place, presents a sort of tarnished image that unsettles the common man. We hadn’t taken off yet when I had breastfed the baby AND changed his diaper―and the man with the dandruff was gone. For the whole flight, the seat next to me was free.
Baby Breaks Record for Longest Stint without a Nap, Ever
It was a long flight. Sometimes I looked at my watch and marveled that only ten minutes had passed since the last time check. I thought about how time passes in prison. With the baby eating the hair he had just ripped from my head, I had a moment gazing down on the Alps―a rough sea of clouds banked up against jagged snowcapped mountains―and a part of my mind yearned to be sitting down there, alone. Forever. But the day did eventually pass, and the time came to prepare to land in Rwanda…
Where our layover (couldn't get off the plane) stretched from 30 minutes… to 30 more minutes... to an announcement about a technical problem and a promise of just another 30 minutes.
FOUR HOURS LATER, without dinner,
…we were disembarking, carrying our babies and bags into the pulsing central African night, our long-underwear shirts and leather jackets (appropriate for Norway and Nairobi nights) immediately sticking with sweat in the tropical heat. The airport in Kigali is what you might expect from a small, landlocked, African country―deserted by now; the air drenched with a sweet-smoke smell from burning fires; airplanes of dubious origin parked, registration numbers painted over; a visa guy looking at your passport like it is the first passport he’s ever seen in his life. It took an hour and a half for SABENA to usher its 50 or so Nairobi-bound, weary passengers through the visa counter, to gather all the luggage (including one suitcase full of frozen salmon, creating a curious spot in my heart for its outcome by morning), with three guys in orange vests helping us through the darkened silent airport. The girl was whimpering, the mother too. But not one person (not fellow passenger, nor staff) thought to let the family with children go ahead for anything, and I was too depleted to ask.
Also, I was engaged in another distant, life... transported back to the few months I spent here in 1998 and (though I haven’t smoked a cigarette in three years) Oh how I yearned for the taste of an Embassy and a double vodka tonic at the American Club. As the shuttle vans from the hotel arrived and we were shoved in, I was thinking of my first arrival in Rwanda four years after the genocide: that spooky, deranged, shocked world I entered. The van sped off, I watched my pocketbook with its (long story) $3,400 of cash inside fall from some other bag and I vaguely hoped I would remember it when we got to the hotel. The van was dangerously packed and I pictured our confused families as they processed the shock of the tragic news: “A car accident in Rwanda?” they would say, “but… how is that possible?”
How Is That Possible?
It’s hard to feel sorry for yourself because of a slight mechanical delay, however, as, careening through Kigali, you think―and how can you not?―about those 90 days in 1994 when 800,000 Rwandans were murdered, by hand, by machete, by their very neighbors. That’s almost a million people killed in six weeks in a country the size of Maryland and oh, how these streets were filled with blood. As I clutched the baby and my stinging bleary eyes gazed with love at the back of his precious smooth lovely bald innocent head, I imagined what it must have felt like being a mother here 12 years ago, carrying her babies through hell, hiding them in attics and cellars and banana groves and much worse. I imagined the mothers fortunate enough to escape, how they must have stared at the back of their baby’s head with a sort of emotion I could never conjure. And I imagined the ones who didn’t make it through the checkpoints or through the night, as I have many times before. I have sometimes felt a sadness so deep during my times in Rwanda that the night actually shimmers with it. Sometimes, it feels as if ghosts are hovering in the valleys, lining up along the walls and filling the trees with their longing.
No Matter, No Matter―the Babies, the Dignity
Even the best hotel in Kigali (of Hotel Rwanda film fame) is still a pretty crappy hotel, with a suspicious carpet on the floor and no air, none, in the room. I had all the carefully packed, extra baby outfits in our carry-on, yes, and about 400 extra diapers for THIS VERY SORT OF POSSIBLE OCCASSION. I felt victorious as I changed the babies into clean shirts and thought about where I would have found a diaper at 1:30AM in Kigali had I not been so damn organized. I only regretted not having packed some underclothes for M. and I, and that is a tip will pass on to you. But I barely cared. I was filled with concern and a little fear. The children were too spooky with exhaustion to sleep. They were hot and there was no food and when the baby started crying in uncharacteristic little jabs of wails, I started crying too.
Wait, One More Short Digression
Rwanda is an amazing little beautiful and tyrannical country, with all the elusive mysterious, vicious, and brutal politics expected from the heart of Africa. It’s also rather orderly, something not always expected from Africa. Wide cobble-stone sidewalks, streetlights, and round-abouts with not-bad memorials of mothers and children surrounded by bougainvillea have replaced the shattered, bullet-ridden, war-torn capital since my stay there. But nothing in Rwanda is at it seems. There was something about the waist-high palm trees planted methodically along the main road that was touching and determined, but also sinister. Representing a determination to move away from the past, yes, but maybe not out of human compassion and ultra-violet pulses radiating from higher dimensions. Maybe, perhaps, from a defiance to secure a certain ‘established order’.
Or maybe they were just a row of recently-planted palm trees.
At 4:30AM we woke to return to the airport and catch the 7AM flight home. In these situations, M. is like a tranquilizer of optimism, and the babies were nothing if not Valiant. But I am a spoiled, irritable girl from Massachusetts who wanted to throw things and bite people, or at least call someone who knows someone who could further bankrupt this stupid airline. (I even snapped at a Kenyan nun who was being glorious and benign when we re-grouped in the hotel lobby at 5AM). I spent the whole time drafting letters in my head to SABENA about how they must provide milk on board for such situations, and how the room in the hotel was out-dated, and the driving hazardous, and the malaria for babies in Rwanda fearsome, and the whole rubber scandal of the 1800s was ALL THEIR FAULT, and so was the genocide for that matter, and if they only had a shred of compassion there would be no corruption or war or poverty or AIDS or wife beating in Africa today.
Back at the airport (without water or coffee or anything), as we passed through the fifth and final security point in 24 hours, the couple in front of us kindly gestured for us to go ahead of them. The gesture was so gentle, so unique in our experience, that I almost started to weep again.
Ok, the whole rubber thing, the genocide, the sad state of the Earth isn’t really SABENA’s fault, not even Belgium’s or Rwanda’s or anyone’s fault specifically. But, with seven hours of sleep in the last 48, my deranged mind was wondering if it’s simply human nature to resist offering your seat to a nursing mother, or to conduct genocide on your neighbors. I was wondering, I admit, if evil was the core of humanity, contained only by the frail restraint of socialization and education. Perhaps the heart of Africa is more prone to these sorts of disruptions; but it was only 150 years ago that rebels were parading around Missouri with necklaces of their victims lips, teeth, and hair. And some would call today’s situation Iraq, perhaps, at times, a bit barbaric.
And, Thankfully, We Are Home
It was a bright, beautiful day in Nairobi when we landed. The airport was peaceful, there were no lines. We got a London cab big enough to carry the family and the entire luggage, including the suitcase full of salmon. The driver was a kind soul, he handed us the day’s newspaper. The babies, both babies, both sweet, gentle, patient, babies, fell asleep in our laps as we pulled away from the airport and for 40 minutes we languished in the cab’s warmth and silence. When we pulled into the driveway, we found that the jacarandas in the yard had begun bloom while we were away. The yard was carpeted in their glowing, purple, falling flowers.