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Ignoring the Omens

I’ve been trying to make some changes in my life so that I travel less, spend more time at home, speak less, write more and generally live a lifestyle that’s more sustainable. I mean that in a personal, not environmental sense – while I’m happy to be leaving a lighter carbon footprint this year, the goal is not to feel exhausted, stressed out and pulled in too many directions. It’s been working – I’m traveling about a third as much this year as in past years – and up until a six-week stretch where I travelled almost every week, I was feeling better, hitting the gym most mornings, getting some writing finished, enjoying more time with family and friends.

And then, this trip. It was such a good idea: a workshop on digital advocacy for NGOs in Abuja, Nigeria. I’ve never been to the Nigerian capital, and the organizers and funders are good friends and had an excellent plan for maximizing our West African enjoyment: fly into Ghana just before the Obama visit to witness the chaos, travel over land to Lagos, through Benin and Togo, explore Lagos on a quiet Sunday, then fly to Abuja to give the workshops. I was supposed to meet the team in Accra on Wednesday.

And here’s where frequent travel catches up with you. My US passport had been fitted with one set of extender pages and had only two visa pages free. The overland trip to Lagos was out unless I could get new pages – not a problem, I’d just fly from Accra to Abuja. All I needed was a Nigerian and Ghanaian visa, and I had six business days to get them, after returning from the Open Translation Tools summit in Amsterdam.

So I hired an expediter. Said expediter is going to remain nameless, because despite some serious screwups, they ultimately bent over backwards to get the job done… but they sure didn’t make it easy. I sent over a dozen emails back and forth with the expediter, trying to ensure that they saw the online payment I’d made for the Nigerian visa. No problem, as they were in the process of getting the Ghanaian visa. I didn’t realize what sort of trouble I was in until I got a phonecall in Aspen, less than a week before I was slated to travel. “You send us a badly mutilated passport,” the message began.

Say what? I’d flown on that passport to Amsterdam about a week before – sure, it was old and a bit beat up, but hardly “mutilated”. “If it’s mutilated, it happened in your care,” I told the expediter. “I just flew on it. And you told me the Ghanaians gave me a visa – they wouldn’t have done that with a mutilated passport.” Agreeing with my logic, the expediter agreed that they’d go ahead and get the Nigerian visa.

On Monday, two days before I was slated to travel,. the expediter called to tell me there was another problem with the Nigerian visa. I sent the thread of a dozen previous emails about the Nigerian visa, and an angry note demanding to speak to a manager. Eventually, I got the company president on the phone who explained the problem – somewhere between the Ghanaian embassy putting a visa in the passport and bringing the passport to the Nigerian Embassy, the cover had come off my passport. He was reluctant to blame his staff or the Ghanaians – “You travel a lot, you’d already had new pages sewn into that book, and these books fall apart all the time.”

So, 48 hours before my flights, I didn’t have a passport I could fly with. If I got a new passport, I needed to get all new visas. And there was no way to get both a passport and visa before flying Wednesday. So after spending Monday understanding my predicament, I spent Tuesday making new arrangements – an appointment at the passport office in Norwalk, CT on Thursday for an emergency passport, an overnight visa from the Nigerian embassy, a flight on Sunday. Thursday involved a four hour drive, two hours in lines, a three hour wait, the discovery that the photos I’d had taken couldn’t be used in a passport, a sprint across town for new photos, a passport issued – ultimately – in less than 20 minutes, another sprint to the train station, and a hand-off to the expediter in Grand Central Terminal in New York to obtain the world’s fastest Nigerian visa.

When the passport with visa arrived in Lanesboro on Saturday, I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. I posted a couple of tweets throughout the ordeal, and the direct messages I got from friends were uniformly of the opinion that this passport trouble was an unambigious sign that I needed to stop travelling, that this trip was doomed, that I should accept the signs and cancel the trip. Driving to New York yesterday, I couldn’t help seeing experiences in terms of omens – the traffic backed up on the Henry Hutchinson? A clear omen that I should have backed out and weeded the raspberry patch. The rugby scrum to board the flight to Amsterdam? Unambiguous – a doomed trip ahead.

And now I’m on the second leg, flying to Abuja, and realizing that it’s all worked out. I’m about to get four days with good friends in a city I’ve never gotten to explore before. Assuming I can nail down a Ghanaian visa and plane ticket, I get 48 hours in my beloved Accra, where I haven’t been for almost four years. A week from today, I’ll be home, with no international travel for six weeks. These weren’t omens, but a run of bad luck, the sorts of experiences I’m usually lucky enough to avoid, but characterize many people’s travel. Maybe it’s not an omen, but a blessing, a reminder of how lucky I am to have a life where a trip to West Africa can seem “routine” until a passport problem blows it up.

My friend Ida Benedetto is heading to Ethiopia on a Fulbright scholarship. Fulbright brought me to Ghana for the first time sixteen years ago, and when I pay my taxes, I like to think that I’m sponsoring smart, eager twenty-somethings on life-changing voyages – it feels better than pretending I’m funding the CIA’s extraordinary rendition programs, for instance. Ida just went through the pre-departure orientation in DC – an experience I remember fondly – and links to a talk by Eileen Wilson-Oyelaran the president of Kalamazoo College, who offers four blessings for Fulbrighters going to Africa:

1. Blessed is she who embraces her mother, for she shall be the beneficiary of unimagined gifts.
2. Blessed is he who knows himself, for he will make better sense of his own responses.
3. Blessed is she who knows the difference between being a guest and a host, for she will refrain from putting her country and herself in a very bad light.
4. Blessed are those who are flexible for they will not be tied into knots.

I’m trying, Sister Eileen, I’m trying. That flexibility one is tough – there’s something perversely satisfying about getting tied up in those knots and announcing to the world how profoundly tied up you are.

Near the end of her talk, linked to above, Dr. Wilson-Oyelaran points out that only 3.8% of American students studying abroad travelled to Sub-Saharan Africa – that means that less than 8500 American students a year are going through the experience Ida’s about to go through, the experience that has so shaped my life and career. I wish I could find a better way to increase that number – my last attempt wasn’t as successful as I might have hoped.

I think I really would have been sad had my travelling companions spent the last few days in Ghana exploring with President Obama. From what I can tell, they didn’t get any closer than the millions of Ghanaians lining the streets to catch a glimpse of the motorcade. I emailed the folks I know in the State Department, hoping to get invited to at least one of the public events and got no reply.

Oh well. Perhaps I should have texted him instead. And it sounds like the visit is a bit of a sore spot in Nigeria, so perhaps it’s best that I’m not coming to Abuja with stories of knocking back some cold Club beers with the leader of the free world. That’s not going to stop me from scouring Makola Market for Obama-print fabric, though… I think it’ll make nice throw pillows.