Saturday, July 31, 2010

Let Us Know When You Can See the Mountains

Flying back to the US last week made me appreciate virtually uneventful international travel. Let me tell you about truly, hands down, the worst day of my entire life.

Karl and I were flying back from a 10 day visit to Afghanistan to visit my brother and his family. It was COLD. In fact, they said it was the coldest winter in 50 years. Of course it was. You don’t want to pick a warm winter to visit a war zone where heat is optional.

In a normal trip to the airport - you walk inside, find the check-in, get your ticket and fly away. The “fly away” part being key in that scenario.

Not so much in Kabul on this day.

Driving to the airport (notice the low visibility)

We first went through security outside of the airport – “security” in the very loosest sense of the term.

The men have an actual “security building” of sorts, but for female passengers “security” is a dark little shack that looks like it’s out of Deliverance – with a serious looking Afghan woman who glances at the contents NEAR the top of your suitcase- not inside- because, of course, if you were going to hide a weapon of mass destruction in your suitcase you would lay it ON TOP OF your undies and nightgown (you certainly don’t want random Muslims looking at your undies – a self detonating bomb is a sure-fire way to distract them from any embarrassing under garments).

Once we were “through security” our driver took us to what appeared to be the American equivalent of “long term” parking and dropped us off– it was that far from the airport. We were instructed to stand with about 100 other passengers and wait for our flight to be called.

This sounded somewhat reasonable. Somewhat. However, they didn’t seem to be calling our flight (no loud speaker system, no flight information boards) – just a parking lot with too much snow and some unofficial man blocking the gate.

We started to ask around. It appeared our flight was canceled. I say appeared because no one quite seemed to know. We couldn’t call the airline (they weren’t open yet – it was 6 am – why would they be open?). We couldn’t call our travel agent (it was midnight in Omaha).

I was 6 months pregnant at the time and FREEZING (did I mention it was the coldest winter in half a century)? My undaunted husband sprang into action. They wouldn’t let us go into the airport to try to make arrangements (since our flight was canceled), but Karl found someone who seemed to know something. Oh, he knew something alright. He knew if you paid him 50 bucks he could get you closer to the airport (something more promising like short-term parking distance from the actual building). We gladly paid the bribe and got about half-way there. He passed us off to someone else who, for another bribe, got us to the airport door. At the door we paid a third bribe and were finally in.

Still of course, the airline hadn’t opened yet. It was 8 am. Why should they be open to answer pesky customer questions?

We were instructed to wait in a lounge that looked like it had not been in use since the Soviets left. Literally.

Around 10 am the airline finally opened their desk and when Karl asked about our flight – the airline employee said he could get us on a later flight for a little sompin sompin - $200 specifically. At this point Karl was finished donning out bribes for a legitimate flight we had already paid in full.

The airline also explained that they couldn’t take off until they could physically “see” the mountains (it had been snowing and the mountains were blocked from view). Kabul is surrounded by mountains and apparently they don’t have typical airport commercial radar for planes to be able to take off without being able to PHYSICALLY SEE the mountains. This was a point of concern.

He said to Karl, “Since you’re up in the lounge with all those windows – could you let us know when YOU can see the mountains?”

How we presume the mountains should look


When WE can see the mountains?

This was a point of further concern – much further concern.

After hours and hours of waiting – it eventually cleared off and we could, in fact, “see” the mountains. We had met a very nice American from the state department who took pity on us and somehow sweet talked her way to getting us on the later flight to Dubai.

It was about 4 pm. We had been waiting a long time in the terminal filled with Taliban looking men. They didn’t look pleased either – but I couldn’t tell if it was the delayed flight or the inevitable unpleasantness of being Taliban that vexed them.

The snow had subsided enough that the mountains were now visible. FINALLY we were traipsing over the tarmac to our beloved plane. And then it began to snow...again.

Boarding our plane moments before it begins to snow
(with mountains somewhat visible)

It snowed so much in that 20 minute period that once we were snug in our seats, the pilot walked to the middle of the plane, took a careful look out the window and determined that there was too much ice on the wing to leave. No instruments needed for THAT crucial decision apparently.

Out again onto the tarmac and back to the Taliban Terminal.

Another hour passed.

And another.

No information boards – no loud speaker announcements.

Finally a character that perfectly embodied Jack from Lost emerged. A fellow passenger with an Austrailian accent, he stood on his chair and began to make announcements.

Jack’s first announcement: They don’t know if we will be able to take off tonight!

Some murmuring. This was perplexing – as it was now dark and you certainly COULD NOT see the mountains – to say nothing of the fact that all information seemed to be relayed through Jack from Lost.

We considered packing it up and trying to catch a flight another day – but our luggage was AWOL in the annals of Kabul airline delirium.

Jack’s second announcement (20 minutes later): We may be able to take off tonight if ISAF can give us clearance to leave in the dark!

Applause broke out. No one else seemed to care that Jack was the only one that knew what was going on (ISAF was the “International Security Assistance Force” that acted as the governing body at the airport. Weird. But at this point – what isn’t?).

Jack’s third announcement (1 hour later): ISAF has given us clearance and we’ll be taking off soon!

More applause. Where’s Kate?

And so we were back on the tarmac, shuffling through the snow in the pitch black, headed to our certain doom.

Once on the plane and settled in, the ice began to accumulate again on the wings. This time ISAF said it was OK (how this is OK I’m not sure). They announced that they would de-ice our plane, but since we were the third plane in line to take off, it would take about an hour.

I tried not to notice that the plane looked like it had been pieced together from several different airlines. The seats said American Airlines, the beverage cart was Delta and the bathrooms featured British Airways appliances.

At this point in the melodrama off my life – I began to feel a bit ill. OK, maybe not just a bit ill. I was crammed into a hot, dark plane, 6 months pregnant with the worst cramps of my life. Worse than child-birth pain. And nausea.

I threw up. Into the bag.

Karl got me a new bag.

I threw up again – into the new bag. That one had a hole in it. I essentially threw up onto myself.

Karl got me another bag – presumably without a hole.

I threw up again – and again. On myself –in the bag – it was hard to tell.

I was in the fetal position in my seat. It was excruciating (I later found out it was an appendix attack).

For three hours we sat on the tarmac – me throwing up – in my own personal hell. It took this long to de-ice three planes – as they were using a garden-hose equivalent to spray the de-ice stuff.

Jack got concerned.

Jack’s fourth announcement (shouting from his seat on the plane): I’ve spoken with the pilot and told him we DO NOT want to take off if it’s not safe.

I’ll say we don’t!

Enough was enough so Karl went to talk to the pilot himself. He decided that he needed to get his wife to the hospital.

Once to the pilot’s door he looked down to see a few guys on the tarmac – dressed very unofficially – arguing about the details involved with de-icing a large plane. Becoming convinced that they had never de-iced anything before, he told the pilot we needed to get off the plane immediately.

The pilot said in a thick middle-eastern accent, “No! We take off now!”

Where is Jack when we need him?

Karl returned to our seat, the plane finally de-iced, and we heard the pilot start the engine. Well – start is an exaggeration. It sounded like trying to start a car when the engine is dead. He turned it over again. Nothing.

Apparently the pilot didn’t take into account the energy that would be used running the heat on an airplane sitting on the tarmac for three hours.

The plane’s battery was dead.

What else is he failing to take into consideration, we wondered? Altitude? Wind velocity? Fuel? Very, very disconcerting!

ISAF comes through again and gives us a jump start.

The plane was now ready to take off. “Ready” may be pushing it.

However, we did a “cork screw take-off” and circled hard to presumably miss the mountains. Karl was convinced we were about to meet our certain death (in my condition this didn't sound so bad). He wondered, "If you crash into the mountains, do you see the plane folding like an accordion in front of you? Or do you just die instantly – glad to finally be off of KamAir?"

Trustable Wings?

I proceeded to throw up on the three hour flight to Dubai. The stewards were smoking in the back, sleeping on the floor and not caring much about finding more holeless throw-up bags. Karl, in a state of total desperation, convinced the crew to let us off first, due to my dire medical emergency.

We landed, pressed our way through customs and I laid on the pristine Dubai airport floor while Karl tracked down the first aid crew. About this time I started to feel better.

In the end – I was fine – and we somehow managed to catch another flight back to Omaha unscathed.

I walk away with 5 insights I will hold dear the rest of my life:

1. It’s never good if the airline puts you in charge of visibility (run fast if they ask YOU to let them know when you can see the mountains)

#2. Jack Shephard can come in handy in any airline emergency.

#3. Save your appendix attack for a first-world country.

#4. A garden hose can accomplish many things, but de-icing a 737 is not among them.

#5. Always, always check the throw-up bag for holes BEFORE use.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Sleep is for Sissys

Ahh….20 hour flights with children. God bless the other passengers.

Great to be back on American soil! Let me recap the highlights of flying home this week.

#1. LUGGAGE IS OVERRATED: We got on board in Cape Town around midnight on Saturday night. Good thing Karl realized half-way through the luggage check-in process that they were only sending our bags HALF-WAY to America. You know, just everything we need for the next few months in the US. What-eva.

#2. SLEEP IS FOR SISSYS: On the first stretch from Cape Town to Amerstam (from midnight to 8 am), I thought – this is GREAT! The girls will sleep…they are EXHAUSTED BEYOND WORDS. Emme participated in the plan, but Jensen was so excited about the er-plane that she slept an hour. Yes, ONE HOUR, folks. I was delighted.

#3. SECURITY IS A LITTLE JACK BAUER: Amerstam has the most impressive security in the world. You can’t buy a bottled water IN THE AIRPORT and bring it onto the plane – because they do an additional security check at the gate. They gave us a mini interrogation about why we had been to Afghanistan two years ago and the security risk of our possibly-sketchy -housemates back in Cape Town (we had been living with another couple that had access to our luggage).

He was so serious - I wanted to confess to every crime I had committed since 2nd grade - including writing a letter to our neighbor about the mistreatment of their mangy half-starved dog and making Mrs. Wilson cry (I mean really – how much stock can you put into an animal rights letter written by a 9 year old?) and dressing my brother up like a girl and parading him around the neighborhood calling him Christina (it’s possible he hasn’t yet recovered from that one). In my defense – he was overdo a haircut and his cute little hairs were a BIT curly on the ends – plus the neighbor kids bought it and I must have had a good half dozen people in awe of my newly produced sister .

Thursday, July 15, 2010

This is Africa - A Photo Blog in South Africa! Pictures say it best...
This is our house key and gate-to-blockade-the-front door key - along with the button for our front gate.

All the keys here are "skeleton keys." (I feel like I'm living in the 1950's - without the Mrs. Cleaver niceties). Since they don't actually "cut keys," if you need a copy, you go to the store and say, "I need the #M24B." (which will be a key already made with grooves to match your key). Somehow I don't see how this is a very safe method. Surely there's got to be a lot of #M24B's out there that will unlock my front door?!

Security gate in front of our neighborhood with electric barbed wire (most neighborhoods have a gate)

You are not allowed to pump your own gas. Since unemployement is so high - they create jobs wherever possible. We'd like to know what happens if you commit the crime of self service - but no one here has been brave enough to try it. These guys are serious!

20% of South Africans live in an informal settlement township - with homes much like this...

I realize I'm beating a dead horse here - but I just really, really don't get it. Most faucets have the seperate hot/cold spouts. Isn't it more work to put in two faucets? And there is NO counter space in the bathrooms. This may be the #1 best thing about America - COUNTER SPACE! Please kiss every inch of your bathroom counter and think of me.

Plastic mail "boxes" outside our gate - you may be nice and safe inside the gate, but your mail is definitely at risk

Electricity box in our garage (you buy the electricity at the store and then put the code in the box at your home). For example, 293 credits will last us about a week. We did the math and electricy is about 3 times more expensive than the US. Painful! We are seriously considering not using the lights and walking around with head-lamps - maybe a little too Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs?

Steering wheel on the right side of your car (even after 6 months, I still get in on the wrong side)

Typical grocery cart (mini double-decker) - I can fit about 2 things in there

Jensen and me in rain boots (it's the rainy season now).

Not unusual to see baboons on the side of the road - they are smart little suckers and if you leave your windows down will jump in your car and try to steal your keys. HOW do they know the keys are important?

Cockroaches cover the digital clock numbers on the microwave at Africa House. So horrific I can't even discuss this one!

One interesting point on telling time - for 1:15 they don't ever say "one fifteen" - they say "quarter past one" and "half past one," etc. I asked what they would say for 1:50 appointment - and they said, "Oh we would never have a 1:5o Americans are too exact!"

Friday, July 9, 2010

So About Those Romans…

I love the 4th of July!

I love the fact that we told England to go home and made our own country. I love our flag and our patriotic songs. I love America’s Americanness - I love the amber waves, small town parades, big city hurry, a million choices and goodwill of my fellow Americans. I love my country!

This 4th of July we invited over a bunch of Americans, had a grill-out and lit “fire balloons.” Fire Balloons are a Jensen family tradition. My grandfather owned a little shack by the Elkorn River and taught us how to take a piece of newspaper, fold it at the corners, pin it and light it. When the wind and the humidity are just right – these elegant balloons will soar into the air – brilliant with a thousand points of light - “fire lace” in the sky.

When you’re in South Africa and fireworks are nowhere to be found – you rely on the 50 year old tradition of your grandfather – and light some Fire Balloons. It didn’t quite work this year – but we had fun in the failure.

Video: The Fire Balloons NOT Working (4th of July this year in Cape Town)

Video: Just to prove they do work (4th of July a few years ago in Omaha)

We were graced by a few non-American friends willing to be a good sport about the whole event. When the room spontaneously broke out in the American national anthem - we pleaded with our expatriate friends to sing their nation's songs. Germany and Holland represented and it was very Fourth of Julyish in World-War-II-Allies-Axis-Global sort of way.

Surround by national pride, this 4th of July made me think about my Americaness, and I am reminded how much the first century disciples thought about their Jewishness.

Picture this…Jesus has just spent 3 years with his twelve best friends, God Himself teaching them personally and doing a bunch of miracles – you know – walking on water, healing the sick, raising the dead, all that. He is brutally tortured and killed for being God – then miraculously comes back from the dead. Just to be sure the disciples GET IT – He hangs out with them for another 40 days – walking through walls, eating with them, telling them cool stuff.

Jesus put all his eggs in one basket – the basket of a few random guys that frankly missed the point most of the time. Now he's about to leave and these 12 guys are IT.

Just as He’s literally minutes away from His ride in the sky – He gives them his final words – unveiling THE HISTORIC PLAN TO SAVE MANKIND : Them + Holy Spirit

Since Jesus was not going to be around, He sent them One better –THE GAME CHANGER. Before the Holy Spirit, the disciples just couldn’t get it together, BUT after the Holy Spirit invades their life – they change the world.

Once Jesus breaks down THE HISTORIC PLAN TO SAVE MANKIND …you know what they say?

“Yeah, Yeah, Yeah – so about those Romans. What we really want to know is when will our country be restored? These Romans are a big, fat pain and basically we just want OUR country back. We miss being in power and since it looks like you’re about to head out of here – if we could just get an ETA on Getting Our Kingdom Back – that would be fantastic.” (Acts 1:6 - roughly)


The God of the Universe is unveiling his plan to save mankind for all time and they just want their country back?

Even though the disciples would have driven me CRAZY and I would have NEVER included them in my grand plan to, literally, save the world, I learn much from them because we are sadly similiar.

Jesus’ response to them was so kind (Acts 1:7,8) – He said…

  • “it is not for you to know the times or dates” (He didn’t squash their hope for their country, but said don’t worry about the ETA)
  • “you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you” (what they really wanted was power – power to be restored to the Jewish people – and here Jesus is telling them they’ll get an even better kind of power, the Holy Spirit)
  • “and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth (reminds them that He has called them not just to their little Jewish world – but the ENDS OF THE EARTH).

The ENDS OF THE EARTH can be anywhere – your office, your neighborhood, your Kindermusik group, the Antesaka of Madagascar (one of the 30 unengaged, unreached peoples) – anywhere you are called.

Just when I wanted to say to God, "Yeah, yeah, about those Romans..." God called us, The Ostrands (and all of our overflowing Americanness) to this little spot on the tip of Africa.

He has called you too. And it’s AMAZING!

The best part is that He has a calling ONLY YOU can fulfill. No one else.

Floyd McClung, the director here at All Nations, talks about a prestigious position he was once offered with an influential mission organization. He was honored and would have jumped at the chance - but when he prayed about it...God said, "I have many people that can do that job - there is something else I want you to do that ONLY YOU can do. If you don't do it - no one else will."

Embracing your calling is the best, most scary, exciting thing you will ever do. Ever.

Don’t know where you’re called (and I say WHERE not IF)? Just ask God.

He longs to tell you! He is waiting – on the edge of His seat - to tell you!