Life in the Trees

Shelly’s Note: I have several friends who are gifted writers with incredible perspectives and stories. From time-to-time, I’m inviting them to guest blog on here with me.

Kari Costanza is one such friend. Kari and I met at World Vision in 1996. We were both young women back then. We’re not old women now, but let’s just say that people call us “Ma’am” more often than they used to.

Kari is always traveling the world for work. I suspect she doesn’t have a closet in her home. She just lives out of her suitcase for the few days of the year that she’s there. I asked her if I could share this particular story, fittingly about her luggage. Here’s Kari…

Kari, on an previous trip to Rwanda in 2009

Aug. 6, 2012 – I travel a lot for work and usually everything runs smoothly. My biggest travel decision is between chicken and beef. Unless there is fish. Fish trumps them both.

But yesterday was a different story. The day started well with a sendoff brunch at my in-law’s in New Jersey. If your last name is Costanza, you know how to cook.

I had frittata, waffles, and scrapple—a sumptuous Pennsylvania Dutch pork product I eat once every two years because it takes that long to digest.

We drove to the Philadelphia Airport where I would connect to Detroit, Amsterdam, and finally Kigali, Rwanda.

In Philadelphia the weather literally turned. Sunny skies were replaced by ominous clouds. Still we boarded the plane and prepared for takeoff. As we waited in line to taxi, the pilot came on the radio: “There is a band of nasty weather to the West. All flights have been cancelled.” We waited on the runway for an hour until he said: “We’re heading back to the terminal.”

I waited for my luggage in the jetway. The plane was small and the baggage handlers had taken it from me at the airplane door. When we deplaned, they gave it back—damp, but in my hands.  I waited with thousands of stranded passengers in the terminal, watching a spectacular lighting storm. We oohed and aahed and hoped it would end soon.

An hour later we boarded for Detroit. We sat at the gate, not moving. I grew more and more nervous. I was going to miss my connection to Amsterdam. I did what nervous people do. I bit my nails. I twirled my hair. I tapped my fingers. I may even have twitched. We finally got underway.

I decided to read. I always take books about the country I’m visiting along.  For this trip I’d brought My Father, Maker of the Trees, by Eric Irivuzumugabe, who had survived the Rwandan genocide in 1994. Eric told of losing his mother and siblings during those terrible 100 days. How he’d watched the massacre from the top of a cypress tree. He described the horror he felt, listening to the screams of women and the cries of babies as they died below. How it was difficult to remain in the tree, how the branches dug into his legs and how perching exhausted him. How he nearly gave up and climbed down to die.

My tension level increased with each page. The flight seemed to be taking hours. When we landed, we just sat—again—on the runway. Not moving. Just sitting. With no one explaining why. I was screaming inside my head, Get me off this plane! 

Once in the terminal I learned my plane for Amsterdam had indeed departed. I would arrive in Rwanda late.

I talked with Delta agents, got new flights for the next morning, and settled into a hotel in Detroit. I’d been on the road for more than 12 hours and had gone backward—West, not East.

When I opened my suitcase, I found that everything was wet inside—my socks, shoes, shirts, and slacks.

My first inclination was to feel woe. But then I thought of Eric in the trees. He endured true hardship. This was just a blip. I covered the floor with my wet clothes, creating a small forest on my hotel room rug.

Kari’s forest of wet clothes

Then I climbed into bed, a luxurious bed, the kind that makes you think, “We need a new bed.”

As I rested I thought about Eric. How frightened he was. How uncomfortable he was. How he wanted to give up. But how those branches held him. And about how lucky I was. Mine was an inconvenience. A chance to do what I’m supposed to do anyway—trust in God’s ways rather than my own.

I’ll get to Rwanda. The story will be there. My clothes may smell like rain, but I’m from Seattle. That’s how I’m supposed to smell—like rain. Abundant rain. Rain that gushes from the skies, soaks the earth, and grows sturdy trees with strong branches.

[Kari Costanza is the editor of special projects for World Vision. She has written, photographed stories, and produced videos in 40 countries for the organization.]

The View From Up Here

We have reached our cruising altitude of 35,000 feet, and the flight attendant has announced that we can now turn on our laptops, our pda’s, our iPods, our personal electronics, our Sonicare toothbrushes, our electric shavers, and our stun guns. But our cell phones must remain off. No texting.

Texting on our cell phones in the air, I’ve been told, makes the plane turn right. It also wrecks havoc on international stock markets and affects the democratic election process in Iran. Oh, and it affects American Idol votes too.

So while I have four books (but no Kindle yet—my birthday’s in September if anyone’s wondering) to keep me occupied, I’m instead firing up my laptop to share my deep thoughts about air travel today.

Frankly, it’s hard to know whether I’m in an airplane or a food court. Passenger 6A is eating chicken teriyaki for lunch. 7D has a lime salsa burrito. Apparently all of us read the notice on our itineraries stating that “food will be available for purchase” on our flight. But we grew up watching Gillian’s Island, so we know a 3-hour tour might be a lifetime aboard an aircraft where food will be available for purchase. We aren’t taking any chances so we boarded with food and our 84” carry-on suitcases to avoid extra baggage fees.

Physical baggage. Emotional baggage. Traveling evokes all the possibilities out there. Enroute to Amsterdam, I was once asked out for dinner by a Greek guy who taught me how to make moussaka and explained the process of creating extra, extra virgin olive oil. On another trip, a guy in Dam Station asked if he could photograph me. Most prison mug shots look better than my best photos so I said no. I also suspected that the photo might turn up in prison or on the internet in a different form, so no thanks.

Then there was the dude on a previous flight to D.C. (half Dutch…what’s with the Netherlands connection?) with whom I had lunch with the next afternoon. So I was kinda thinking that in the plane seat lottery today, I might get seated next to some hot CIA agent who might want to whisper government secrets in my ear en route to our nation’s capitol. Alaska Airlines did me one better and placed me next to the one empty seat on our full flight. No date lined up for tomorrow, but I did have lots of elbow room.

When I’m traveling with my kids, they eagerly pull out the laminated safety cards illustrating what happens in the event of a water landing. “If we crash, will we get to slide down those big inflatable slides?”

My kids are still at the age where they strictly heed all safety guidelines and rules. They know, for instance, that they won’t be able to light up their cigarettes while the no smoking sign is illuminated. Katie wet her pants on our last flight. When I asked her why she didn’t get up to use the bathroom, she pointed to the seatbelt sign and told me she wasn’t allowed to take her seatbelt off.

“In the event that oxygen masks should drop down from the overhead compartment, please place your own mask on your face before assisting children.”

“Why do they want you to put your mask on first?” my kids asked.

“Because the other passengers are hoping that in the event of an emergency, you’ll all pass out and be very quiet,” I replied.

“Place the oxygen mask over your nose and mouth and breathe normally. The first minute of oxygen will cost you 45 cents and every minute thereafter will be charged at 10 cents a minute…”

Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of earth

And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;

Sunward I’ve climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth

Of sun-split clouds – and done a hundred things

I’d write more but the books are a callin’ and I’m watching my elbows from those heavy carts wheeling down the center aisle. For all my vacationing friends hurtling through the somewhat friendly skies, traveling mercies!