Shawnda: The Journey

June 5, 2011

Well, I am now sitting in the Dubai airport.  I can honestly say that I hope to never come back to this airport.  Walking through its futuristic supermall-like walkways is about 5 times worse than the sidewalks of the U of M campus; not one person knows how to walk and everyone seems completely oblivious to the common rules of locomotion.

As for my flights, my first was more than what I had expected.  The plane was practically empty and I had a whole row to myself, although its full potential was not taken advantage of: I slept for about a half hour.  The Canadian airport in Gander, wherever that is in Canada, had by far the best gift shop ever.  We unloaded right outside, and it was raining, and the first thing I see when I walk in…Canadian flags, a maple syrup stand, and fur vests.  The food actually wasn’t bad either, and they gave us more than enough including an awesome brownie that rivals even Cosmic Brownies.  The flight landed a little over an hour and a half late in London, giving me about 5 hours to kill at Gatwick.

Not only did they have little to choose from, I probably wasted about 30 US dollars on a pay phone and water.  I didn’t understand how to use the phone of course, and it had a minimum charge.  So, sorry Mom, I tried to call but was too technologically challenged to do so.  As for the remaining money, I bought a US Weekly, warm bottle of water, and a bottle of flavored water which amounted to about 9 Euros, so approximately 18 US dollars is what I’m guessing. London seems nice, it is still so odd that people stay to the left.  I have officially decided that I am going to raise my child to have a British accent, which is just about the most adorable thing ever.  It was so hard not to start talking in accents while I was there, I’m still so tempted.

My flight to Dubai was absolutely terrible.  I was on the most awesome plane ever, Emirates, which had TVs in the head rests of the seats with new movies, I watched Just Go With It, The Green Hornet, and part of Country Strong.  We got complimentary pillows and blankets, the meal was awesome and tailored to my diabetic needs, and the ceilings in the plane had lights that looked like a starry sky.  Perfect right? Well it was near impossible to enjoy all of this while gagging from the BO from the people next to me.  I honestly don’t think I’ve ever smelt such bad BO in my life.  I was seriously considering slapping the guys arms down every time he raised them, but was too incapacitated by the smell.  Also, the man had no idea how to use the TV, which was touch screen. He would then continue to speak to his family with his headphones in, unaware of the fact that every person could hear him.  He spilled a Heinekin and half of his dinner on his lap, and managed to leave some of his wrappers in my seat too.

However, I did meet a UK girl who is traveling to Thailand to give a presentation at a conference about bats, which she studies.  She has been all over Thailand, and her trips there made me appreciate the contrasting simplicity of my own.

So now, I am waiting at gate 213, 2 am (about 5 PM at home), still unsure if it’s the right one, for my connecting flight to Dubai.  I’m tired of waiting, my legs hurt, and I’ve slept about 2 hours within the past 24. There is a Starbucks and PeaBerry here, but I don’t know the money exchange and don’t want to get cheated just for some coffee and what is most likely the best frozen yogurt ever.  I just want a large Americano right now, sans cream.  I’m tired of stale plane coffee, which does not help my 90 year old bladder and fear of vortex death toilets.

I want a shower.  I was expecting everyone to look equally as crappy on these flights, but it turns out I’m the only one who dressed in sweat pants and a tshirt, while everyone else is in trendy cute outfits that are most likely uncomfortable.

And still, after all of this, it has yet to hit me that I will be in Africa in a day.  I am set on either bungee jumping or zip-riding at Victoria Falls, or riding on elephants there although it is not very nice for the elephants.  I hope that we will all have time to travel around Botswana and hopefully South Africa.  I would love to see a soccer or rugby game too.  I can’t wait to go shopping. I’m holding off on airport paraphernalia.

So my flight to Jo-berg proved to be the best so far.  I met the most interesting person and probably learned more on that flight than I have ever learned from a class or the news.  I’ll begin, however, by describing the first two people I met before my neighbor.  I met one girl, who I had to poke awake, who was going to Mozambique to visit her father.  Another girl was moving to South Africa to live with her boyfriend.  She got a 3 year visa, and had just come from Germany, where she went on a cruise with said boyfriend.  She majored in psych at Colorado State.

Now for the interesting man.  He was coming from Afghanistan, where he had just spent 20 weeks and was returning home to Jo-berg to visit his pregnant wife for 2 weeks.  His job?  He supplies fuel to American troops in Afghanistan at a place containing over 180 million liters of fuel.  On average, 25 of his employees die from bombings every month.  We continued to talk about his job, the uselessness of American occupancy in Afghanistan, and the US in general.  It is almost embarrassing having to explain to people that you do not agree with many things your government is doing, and when people from other countries know more about your own than you do.  Actually, it is very embarrassing.
We talked about how the healthiest countries are not necessarily the richest, and about how corporations and industries control our government.  It was amazing how much he knew about everything.  He has lived in over 18 African countries and showed me pictures of Ethiopia, which were devastating, South Africa, which is breathtaking, and Namibia. There was a picture of a young boy laying in the street in Ethiopia with elephant foot; his leg and foot were swollen to about three times their normal size.  There was also a man with a giant tumor growing out of his head about the size of a pineapple.  It is just so hard to grasp that things like this are so common there, and that not everyone has hospitals and doctors readily available.
Just seeing his pictures of South Africa and Cape Town assured me that I will return to Africa some day to spend time in the country, just traveling and sightseeing.  It has so much coast line, with the tumultuous Atlantic on one side and the calm Indian Ocean on the other.  There was a place called “God’s Window”, which you have to travel through a rainforest to get to.  It is so high up that the clouds are below you and birds fly below you, and it is what you would imagine God sees when he looks out his window.  If you are a golfer, South Africa would be your Holy Land for a lack of better terms.  It is very popular to build golf course estates, which are unbelievably well-kept lands with mountain and ocean views.
The most interesting part of our encounter, however, was the album he showed me of his work site after a suicide bombing.  It was possibly the most sobering experience I’ve had, yet was also disgusting and horrific. Seeing pictures of incinerated cars, piles of bricks and woodwork, and dead bodies made the situation so much more real.  A group of men drove into the compound, and despite having multiple people shooting at the car, the group was able to drive into the building and detonate.  These incidents happen so frequently, yet we never see their true devastation in the news.  I saw pictures of severed legs, fingers, feet, and a whole face (yes, a face that was just blown off of one of the bombers).  There are signs all over Afghanistan saying “America go home” “I hate America” etc. etc…it just makes me wonder, what is actually happening?
I never take the time to catch up on current events or history, and seeing these things makes me regret it more than ever.  We are so fortunate as Americans not to encounter these attacks or such political unrest, yet they are happening abroad and many of us are not well-educated on the issues.  I don’t speak for everyone of course, I am sure there is a large fraction of people who are much more responsible than me and stay updated. But still, how much does the news tell us?  How much do our professors teach us?
We talked about health care and public health, and one piece of advice this man gave me was to always question everything, and to always consider the alternatives.  It may not always be best to question others, but always question yourself to determine the best decision.  I have honestly never truly questioned what my professors have taught me, especially in science.  I just assume that information in text books is definite, unbiased, and true.  I focus on learning it, but not where it comes from or if it is the best solution.  In labs, we learn a single way to do something and repeat it, but is that the best way?  Although it may be the quickest solution, is it the safest, healthiest, cheapest, or most reliable?
I already feel that I have learned a great deal on this trip, and it has barely started.  I’ve seen things many people have never had or will have the chance to.
My mind is open to experience whatever this time throws at me.

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