We headed for Somalia with National Geographic pictures dancing in our dreams. Reality woke us up.
When we left Washington on that Tuesday afternoon in October 1982 we expected to spend the next two days in Rome – one day for sleep and one day for sightseeing. But at the end of the seven and a half hour flight from New York to Rome, we learned that our hotel reservations were for the previous night, our airline reservations for Mogadishu had us leaving that very night, and there were no hotel vacancies for even a quick nap. Fred phoned the communicator at the embassy in Rome who offered to let us rest at his house, but the distance to his neighborhood precluded that plan.
My head ached and I strained to think of any alternative to ten hours in the airport (with a nine-year-old and an eight-year-old). I felt like sitting down on the floor and crying. Before I could fall to pieces, Fred remembered the Satellite Hotel in Ostia, where we had stayed on our way home from Cameroon. He called and reserved the only room they had left. There, we napped, had dinner (our cheeky waiter refused to serve us unless Dakota removed his cap) and got ready to take the hotel bus back to the airport for our 11:00 PM flight. The bus arrived late and by the time we checked in, the only four seats together were in the smoking section. It was hot, stuffy, and fumey for five and a half hours to Addis Ababa and an additional two hours onward to Mogadishu.
I watched my family close their eyes, one after the other, Tina, then Dakota, and finally Fred. I envied their slumber while I squirmed and shifted in futile search of a comfortable position. My head grew heavy and my neck felt thin and brittle. Every time I fell asleep, my falling head jerked me awake. I fantasized about an airline seat equipped with a velvet band to wrap across my weary forehead and tether me to the headrest of my seatback. With interruptions for take-offs, landings, food service, and loudspeaker announcements about seatbelts, Fred and the kids got about three hours of sleep to my one, and not enough for any of us.
My first view of Somalia from the airplane window had the intensity of an acrylic painting -- deep aquamarine water met brilliant white sand reflecting searing sunlight, the sky neon blue and streaked with feathery clouds. As I stepped out of the plane onto the mobile stairway, I brought my hand up to shield my eyes from the blinding light. Dry, clear air replaced the stagnant airplane smaze, and I inhaled with pleasure. I filled my lungs with freshness, such a relief from the second hand smoke that dominated the last eight hours. The air felt charged with ozone and spiced with the perfumes of frankincense and myrrh.
Fred's co-worker Tim and his wife met us at the gate. They explained that they were not allowed to accompany us into the arrival lounge but would meet us outside afterward. The embassy expeditor Hajji Hussein, dressed in a flowing white robe and crocheted skullcap, stepped forward to guide us. We expected him to flash our diplomatic passports and ease our way past the formalities in the manner to which we had become accustomed.
A gray metal door opened into bedlam. Screaming, gesturing, shoving madmen crammed every square foot of floor space in the gymnasium-sized arena. Fred moved close to Hajji Hussein and got a firm grip on Dakota's hand. With Tina in tow, I stepped up behind Fred and wrapped my fingers around the back of his belt. I kept my head down and avoided making eye contact with anyone, especially the wild sixteen-year-old boy soldiers waving their fully loaded AK-47s and shouting unintelligible commands above the din.
Hajji Hussein pushed, shoved, and shouted his way through the mass of bodies. We trailed behind like the tail of a kite. Our destination appeared to be at the center of a siege by hundreds of raving lunatics. Who were these people and what were they doing in this restricted area? ###
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Next time: more from Part Five: Somalia Safaris