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Published: July 12th 2013
I once thought that I might lose my life back in my senior year of high school when I had a gun pointed at my head during a robbery. Saturday night was the second time.
I was on a Lufthansa Air flight from Frankfurt to Addis Ababa, via Khartoum, Sudan. We made a stop in Khartoum to drop off some passengers, as planned. But about 30 minutes away from our landing in Addis, as I was in the plane bathroom, the captain suddenly came onto the loudspeaker and shouted, "Emergency descent! Emergency descent!" Just like the time I was robbed, I suddenly felt like I was in a dream and everything moved in slow motion.
I rushed back to my seat. The crew told us to look at our passenger safety instruction cards and to get into the emergency brace position with our head to our knees and our hands over our head. I could not believe what was happening.
For the next excruciatingly long 10 minutes, maybe even less, all kinds of thoughts ran through my head. I thought about how grateful I was for everything I had experienced in my life and all of the wonderful people in it. I thought about how devastated Ken would be when he heard I had died, and how guilty I felt for pursuing this kind of work despite his concerns about potential risks. I thought about my life insurance policy, and how I was glad I recently increased it. I thought about how I would get my laptop and phone back if we had to exit on the slides they put out of the cabin doors during an emergency landing. I thought about all of the flights I could remember that had made safe emergency landings. I thought about how I knew nothing about Lufthansa Airlines and regretted not flying South African Air through Johannesburg.
And I prayed. I am not a religious person, but I needed to recite something to calm me down. So I recited several key Hebrew prayers to myself.
I could not stop shaking.
Eventually the captain came back on the loudspeaker and explained that we had a sudden loss of cabin pressure at 30,000 feet. I later learned this means you have 30 minutes to breathe before passing out and dying. We had to drop down suddenly to 10,000 feet in order to be at an altitude where we could still breathe. But because we were about to fly over mountains into Ethiopia, we had to go back to Khartoum for a "crisis landing" because we would have never cleared them. But we were safe. The danger had passed, and we were going to survive.
The passengers broke out into applause, and the crew, who seemed more panicked than all of us, broke out some champagne. There was a young French woman who was also traveling alone sitting across the aisle from me, so I invited her to sit next to me. I just wanted to be next to someone. Everyone chattered away, still in a state of shock. When we landed, I passed around my phone so people could call loved ones.
The shock continued as we landed in Khartoum and were ushered into a hot waiting area in the airport. Over the next couple of hours they ushered us from waiting area to waiting area, took our passports from us, and then stuffed us into shuttle buses and taxis and brought us to hotels. It was 1am by that time. I ended up at a place called Kanon Hotel with about 15 other passengers (I heard there were 160 of us total). It was nice, and the room was comfortable.
I finally got some water when I got to my room, but there was no food available. So I ate the apple and smashed muffin in my carry-on luggage. We never received our bags when we got off the plane, but luckily I had one change of clothes, deodorant, a toothbrush, my meds, and all of my gadgets with me. Even though I had just been traveling for 24+ hours and was exhausted, I could not sleep. I think around 3am I finally drifted off.
I had set my alarm for 7am, thinking we would be on an early flight out of there to Addis. But there was no update when I awoke, and then I couldn't go back to sleep. So I went to have breakfast at the hotel restaurant and met another couple that was on the flight, a German man and Spanish woman from Barcelona. We exchanged stories of how frightened we were, and how we were going to be late for our final destinations. They were on their way to a safari in Tanzania and a few nights in Zanzibar, and this was their first trip to Africa, ever. I learned this was the first trip for many people.
The camaraderie that built up among the passengers was comforting. Everyone was keeping each other informed of the little information we had and looked out for one another. I met an Italian guy going to work in Rwanda; a half Kenyan/half Seychellian guy who lives in Switzerland that does private security for people like Jay-Z and Method Man when they are in town to perform; a Chinese guy working for the World Bank who missed his meeting with 6 African Ministers of Education in Addis; a coffee buyer; a DOD guy who had a friend at the US Embassy and made them aware of our situation; and a group of 8 college freshman from southern California with their professor on a three-week African excursion.
Throughout the rest of the morning, many of us hung around in the hotel lobby waiting for news, others went to sleep to attempt to adjust to the time difference. But none of us wanted to stray too far from the hotel because we could depart at any moment. Plus, we had no passports. And I was getting worried messages from my uncle about the high-levels of anti-Semitism in Sudan; me being a young American woman with a Jewish last name and no passport was not a good combination. I tried not to think about it.
We were told there would be a plan for us after lunch, but by mid-afternoon we were still told nothing. So I announced I was going to the airport to try to retrieve some answers (and my passport), and about 6 other passengers said they would join me. We piled into the tiny Lufthansa office, but were referred to the Ethiopian Air office, which we were told was operating the flight. We were told no news other than there was an Ethiopian Air flight late afternoon that may have some standby seats.
So 4 of us went to the terminal to wait it out. About 45 minutes prior to the flight I had a business class boarding pass in my hand, and an Austrian woman in the same situation also had a ticket. But before I could step away from the ticketing desk, the man told us the final passenger had checked in, and he needed one of our tickets back. "Let me go," the woman said to me firmly, and I knew right away there was no arguing. So I went back to the hotel.
For the next 6 hours I sat on hold with Lufthansa, United Airlines (the flight codeshare under which my ticket was booked), and the after hours service for my travel agent. Luckily the Internet was okay and skype was fairly manageable. I finally secured my own ticket ($206 later) on the next Ethiopian Air flight first thing the following morning. I was not leaving it to Lufthansa to put me on another flight who knows when.
The next morning I got to the airport, got my boarding pass, and was finally given my passport. Although, at first the guy holding them gave me a stack of US passports and mine was not in it, and I felt another wave of fear come over me. But for some reason he had it in another pile.
A very cramped 2-hour flight later, I arrived in Addis. No luggage, however. I was told the plane we had arrived on from Frankfurt had never been unloaded for some reason, and that my luggage would arrive later that night, or maybe the next day. Maybe. But I had a flight to Malawi to catch.
So yesterday I spent many hours on the phone with the Addis baggage claim office, and many emails back and forth again with my travel agent to see if I could delay my flight to Malawi until my luggage came. I knew if I went to Malawi sans luggage, there was a good chance I would never see it again. But I could not delay my flight again unless I was willing to pay $1100.
Luckily, when I went to the airport very early this morning, my luggage was waiting for me (but no one had called to tell me so). I got my final boarding pass and checked in. And now I am finally on my way to Malawi.
I have never felt so exhausted and run-down and defeated. This has truly been the trip from hell. A lot of it was due to the chaos of Africa, but I think even more was due to the fact that Lufthansa did nothing out of their way to get us out of Khartoum after our terrible experience. I keep telling myself things can only improve from here, and I keep trying to focus on the fact that I AM here. I am alive, I am healthy, and I am uninjured. And as I type this I am flying past Mt. Kilimanjaro. After hearing the captain shout "Emergency descent," this is far more than I had anticipated a few days ago.
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