On a Wing and a Prayer

Thursday 23rdAugust 2018

We left for Bandaranaike International Airport on the stroke of midnight. As we climbed into the Kangaroo van with our 7 pieces of baggage and five items of hand luggage, we were quite surprised and very touched to see our neighbours (who are our extended family) all come down the garden steps to help us load our bags into the vehicle and wish us a safe journey to our unknown destination. I felt sad to say goodbye to my brothers and sisters and nieces and nephews. We sat in gloomy silence as the van sped away into the sultry August night and said our silent farewells to Sri Lanka as Colombo and its suburbs flashed by in a kaleidoscope of brightly lit condominiums and large looming shadows of closed up office buildings.

We arrived at the departure lounge and went through security and check in, then strolled through the harshly lit corridors to collapse onto the seats by the boarding gate, completely exhausted from running around jumping through bureaucratic hoops and a severe lack of sleep over the final frantic days leading upto our departure. I opened the three envelopes that friends and family had pushed into my hands just before we left, asking me to open the letters once I was on the plane.

One long and lovely epistle was from a niece who has a wonderful way with words so that her letter was a real pleasure to read. The other included a laminated copy of the Gambian flag and a photo of both our families together. The final envelope contained a beautiful letter of appreciation and the most amazing amount of money: 500 dollars tumbling out of the envelope as I stared at the notes in complete astonishment. All my friends are generous to the point of extravagance but this gift of love really knocked my socks off! Of course I handed over the notes to Paul who put them in the common family kitty for use in The Gambia should the need arise.

We were soon en route to Doha where Paul and I had both been offered jobs as Head of Primary and Class Teacher of an international school there three years ago but we declined because we felt that we couldn’t place our two tweens in the middle of the desert and expect them to thrive. We sat in the massive, glitzy airport there and watched thousands of people converge on the sweeping halls and lounges with giant floor to ceiling television screens.

After a short transit, we boarded another Qatar Airways plane on a long haul flight to Africa. We flew north of the Arabian peninsula and across the Mediterranean Sea over the Aegean Sea passing just south of Greece – Rai dreams of going there because of her love of the tales of Greek gods & goddesses she imbibed through Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson series – and Sicily as we flew over the Adriatic Sea with Italy in the distance – Rai also desires to visit Rome someday as she has also read a lot on Roman gods & goddesses!

Then we were flying over north Africa and landed in Morocco disembarking finally at Mohammed V Airport in Casablanca – what an amazing way for me and the kids to enter Africa for the very first time! Paul and I were thrilled to be in Casablanca because of all its associations with the romantic movie starring Humphrey Bogart & Ingrid Bergman and I played the theme song ‘A Kiss is Not a Kiss’ from the original soundtrack over and over again on my Samsung Galaxy phone during our long transit there.

Rai listening to music on her big brother’s farewell gift of an iPod Nano

We were happy to stretch our legs and walk around the airport which we had researched online and read that it was a dump with unhygienic toilets but it turned out to be quite a pleasant place with clean washrooms and even a Starbucks where I was able to get a Cappuchino! Jordan was thrilled to have access to free wifi and spent all his time chatting online with his friends and posting pictures on Instagram. Rai curled up on a seat to read the fantasy novel she had bought from Sarasavi and munched happily on chocolate croissants.

Jordan checking in with friends he left back in Sri Lanka

Our flight on a unheard of airline called ‘Royal Air Moroc’ was delayed by an hour with irate passengers demanding to know the reason why and ground staff saying things like ‘The crew is here and ready to fly but the Captain has not yet arrived’. Paul and the kids were as anxious as anybody else to board the plane and finish the last leg of our very long journey but I had visions of a drunken pilot trying to become sober before take off (had read about a Sri Lankan pilot who had flown an aircraft in an inebriated state and was recently charged with criminal negligence) and was in no hurry at all preferring to remain on terra firma for however long it took to have the pilot and the plane completely fit for travel!

When we finally embarked, we were struck by the fact that our fellow passengers were a motely band comprising of mostly black men and women but quite weird in their attire (hippie outfits, dreadlocks, red leather jackets) with a smattering of stranger looking white people (older people with dyed blonde hair). Everyone just sank into slumber soon after boarding with our family, at the tail end of a very long journey crossing three continents, being more exhausted than the others. I had a window seat and kept gazing out at the pitch black night then following the flight path of our plane and praying for the Captain to be in complete control of his mind and body in order to make the best decisions as he flew the plane. 

Suddenly I noticed that our flight path was taking us way out over the Atlantic Ocean instead of flying in a straight path from Morocco to The Gambia over the rest of west Africa. I wondered whether it was because there were some countries at war in that region and the plane had to avoid their airspace but still thought it was very odd that the flight path should be so far out to sea. Pressing my nose against the window I peered down and saw the ocean far below illuminated by the flashes of sheet lightning that lit up the sky from time to time. Watching the flight path with much trepidation, and praying with my heart in my mouth, I saw the plane perform a wide arc as it dipped south of The Gambia and came in over the coast of Guinea Bissau before the pilot’s announcement crackled over the speakers ‘Cabin crew, prepare for landing.’ As the plane began its descent, I could see pelting rain and more flashes of lightning but could hear no thunder. We landed in Yumdum Airport in Banjul, the capital of the country at 3:00 am.

Friday 24thAugust 2018

As we staggered off the small plane with our hand luggage and stumbled through the steady rain that was falling from a pitch black sky to a waiting bus to be taken to the small airport terminal, we had reached the limits of our physical endurance. Jordan gamely carried his own backpack as well as the family laptop bag. Rai was asleep on her feet but didn’t complain at all. When we approached Immigration, an official filled in the forms for me and the kids because we were on SL passports with a month’s visit visa obtained for us by the school. Paul had no problems with his British passport. We moved on groggily to collect our baggage and found that all seven pieces had arrived with us against all odds and in answer to fervent prayer – glory to God! Jordan was very helpful being quick to identify and lug off our heavy bags when they came around on the conveyor belt. He also got us the trolleys we needed to put our bags on.

However, when they were being screened, one of our bags was marked and taken to a small closed room and Paul was asked to go and see the official there. When he went in, the officer had greeted him with a big smile and welcomed him to The Gambia.

Officer: I will not open this bag to check it – if you give me some money to enjoy – to buy something to eat and drink.

Paul: (staring at him blankly) What?

Officer: (still smiling broadly) Sir, give me something for me to enjoy and I will let you take the bag.

Paul: (growing increasingly irritated) What do you mean?

Officer: Sir, give me something for me to enjoy.

Paul: (so exhausted that he was not thinking straight & losing his temper) So you want me to bribe you?

Officer: No, Sir, just something for me to buy food and drink.

Paul: (very loudly) You want me to give you a bribe, do you? 

Officer: No, Sir, no bribe! It’s okay – you can take your bag and leave now.

Paul told me afterwards that he was getting ready to give the fellow some small amount of money thinking that it was inevitable in the end, but the man was apparently embarrassed by Paul’s accusation and got rid of him hurriedly. 

Meanwhile I waited by the rest of our bulky baggage with the kids. Two porters sidled up and began to chat to us obviously looking for a tip. We were met by a driver called Lamin who brought the original copy of our SL visit visa and sorted things out with the Immigration officials in an inner room. 

We walked out into the drizzle and crossed the rain slicked tarmac of the car park to his battered Pajero jeep. He drove us through a silent Banjul and across the lively and crowded suburb of Senegambia where people who had partied all night celebrating Haj that week were just returning home at 4 o’ clock in the morning. We drove into Serekunda and Lamin stopped in front of a dimly lit building bearing the name ‘Riyan Apartments’. A tall young Gambian strode out of the main entrance and helped Lamin carry our many pieces of luggage through the foyer with its beautiful African oil paintings and through a small wet garden into a cosy and comfortable two-bedroomed apartment in a row of townhouses. We dumped our bags in the living room and ran upstairs to shower and dry ourselves on clean white towels. Falling gratefully into beds with soft white sheets and fluffy pillows, we sank into a peaceful and prolonged slumber that lasted most of the next morning. It was sheer bliss to come out of the muggy night and sleep in A/C comfort with a ceiling fan that spun the cool air in circles around us!

The next morning we drew back the curtains and were thrilled to see a lovely little swimming pool right outside our building with bright tropical flowers growing in the garden and the blue skies of Gambia arching over us.

Blast from the Past
These magenta flowers brought back lovely memories of the front lawn of our Jambugasmulla Road house in the 1960s

We were also delighted to walk out of our building and find that Maroun’s, the best supermarket in the country, was located right next door to our guesthouse! Paul was so excited to see British products like Fray Bentos steak and kidney pies on the shelves. Since The Gambia became a tourist destination for Brits in recent times, the Lebanese supermarket chain imports goods from the UK according to British tourist demand. The bakery had the most delicious French and garlic bread as well as packets of fresh naan. There were different kinds of cheese, ham and sausages and a fresh meat section with chicken, beef and lamb for sale. There were also treats such as crisps and cola cans and chocolates that Jordan and Rai enjoyed snacking on through the next few days.

We had fresh bread and delicious butter and two different kinds of cheese and ham for brunch washed down with Tetley’s tea (ahem!) for Paul and me and with apple juice for Jordan and Rai. The Head of Admin at the school, KC, came to visit us in the afternoon and told us how she had been sleepless the night before as she watched the flight path of the plane we were on, knowing that a terrible thunderstorm over west Africa was the reason why the pilot had been compelled to steer the plane away from the African mainland and in a wide arc over the Atlantic Ocean going as far south as Guinea Bissau in order to avoid the adverse weather conditions and approach Gambia from the south west.

We were dumbstruck to hear this news which later drove me to my knees in thanksgiving to God for His divine intervention at that point in time when we might so easily have been driven off course by the storm or been forced to make an emergency landing. He had worked through the Captain of the plane (whom the passengers had maligned so badly and blamed so much for the flight delay) to land us safely at Banjul airport! I recalled with deep gratitude the Lord’s reima word to me from Psalm 100 before we departed from Sri Lanka: ‘I will protect you from all harm. I will watch over your life. I will watch over your coming in and your going out from this time forth and even forever more’.