And… we’re back. Last days of the year, first full days of recovery. In the picture above, Lisa is getting in a few laps of cross country skiing on our local field before sunset, while our dog Lucky tries to get to grips with the fact that her owners have suddenly reappeared after abandoning her six months ago. That may take a while — at least as long as it will take me to get her back down to her usual weight — apparently, she’s been eating feverishly to deal with anxiety over our absence.
After an insane last day in Kigali (no, really; that was one for the record books), we had a refreshingly uneventful trip home. No real surprises getting out of Kigali; all our bags got checked, including the awkward box with my bike (of course, given the $100 fee that KLM insisted on charging, I would have liked to see the bike fully assembled and race tuned upon our arrival — but, alas, no such luck). The immigration desk was newly equipped with a camera and fingerprint reader (uh, why?) and staffed with a couple of friendly guys who actually smiled briefly and couldn’t be bothered to find anything wrong with our paperwork (slackers).
It is of course a well-known secret of the airline industry that sticking a 6’3″ guy with a 36″ inseam in a seat in steerage on an eight hour overnight flight is at least as effective as waterboarding him. With my knees wrapped around my ears, my back and neck screaming for relief, and my feet tingling from the rapid onset of blood clots, rigor mortis, or both, I would have confessed to pretty much anything the tired and overworked KLM cabin crew could have demanded. Thankfully, half the passengers on the plane got off when we stopped in Entebbe, allowing Lea and I to share a row of four seats between us for the night. Still, with less than two hours of sleep, I felt like export-grade shit when we landed in Amsterdam before dawn, swearing once again to never, ever travel by plane unless forced to do so by “circumstances entirely beyond my control.”
A five hour layover in Schiphol offered us a technicolor preview of civilization and a crash refresher course in crass and pointless consumerism. There was an Aston Martin parked in a liquor store by our gate, and a casino parked right next to the Swarovski jewelry store. In fairness, Amsterdam’s airport also features a library and tons of play spaces and zone-out zones, but still…
In addition to an infinite George Clooney-esque ego boost, Lisa’s Platinum status on Sky Team also gets her and a guest into the KLM business class lounge, so while she and Lucas luxuriated in the inner sanctuary of free food and stark but comfy and functional Euro design, Lea and I roamed the massive temple of duty free excess. Lea tried out the awesome foot-massage-by-fish at the Traveler’s Spa (no, really, it’s a thing), and we shared some ridiculously overpriced coffee and hot chocolate at Starbucks. I bought every variation on licorice I could find (and this being Holland, there were many, many wonderful variations), and we both marveled at how clean, neat, and excessively organized the place was.
Onwards, ever onwards. After the full body scans and professional-grade groping, the third degree interrogation by immigrations, as well as some last minute frantic emptying of water bottles (“take this plane to Cuba, or I’ll hydrate!”), Delta’s flight to Boston left on time with all four of us comfortably tucked on board. Lisa had worked her magic with Delta online and secured us seats in an exit row in Economy Comfort (surely an awkward confession by Delta that, deep down, they know the other half of the plane is Economy Discomfort), so I could actually stretch out and relax for a change. I got started on Daniel Kahneman’s amazing “Thinking, Fast and Slow,” but through no fault of his, I dozed off for large parts of the seven hour flight. A friendly, competent crew made the trip downright enjoyable — particularly the amazing hostess who was retiring after 42 years and was celebrated in style by her colleagues all the way across the Atlantic. Nice to see that in spite of the dogged determination by corporations to turn their staff into mere cogs in the machine, they remain real individuals with real personalities.
After a quick encounter with yet another friendly immigrations officer (who knew there were so many of them out there?) who really wanted a job as safari guide in Tanzania, we collected our mountain o’ crap at Logan and stepped out into the cold, gray world of December in New England. Bliss. Sheer bliss. The cool air felt great, the drab skyline looked inviting, the surly cabbies didn’t stare at us while asking for money, there was free wi-fi everywhere, and a big bus heading towards home.
I don’t know how it had been orchestrated, but it magically started snowing half way up I-93, and by the time we got to Hanover everything was white and blissful, providing the perfect backdrop for our return.
Running entirely on fumes at this point, I was overwhelmed by the army of good friends who had turned out in spite of the snow and the cold to to help us get us the very last bit of the way from the bus stop to our house. Really, truly a sight for sore eyes. Because when all is said and done, this is what matters more than anything — these are people I care about, people I think the world of, that I know I can trust to call on when I get out of my depth. More than anything, that was also what made a difference in Kigali, where similar good friends repeatedly stepped in and picked up the pieces I dropped.
It feels strange to be back where nothing has changed except those of us who left and came back somehow different. Where everything is as it was when we left, but we’re not, precisely because we left. Where we were sorely missed when we left, and where we have been warmly welcomed back by one and all. Where I truly feel at home and at ease.