THE RETURN

'There are far better things ahead than any we leave behind.' - C.S. Lewis

It's our last day in Benin City, and after a joy filled morning spent with my friends at the cinema, it's now time to load our bags in the van and say our final goodbyes. As we do so, threatening storm clouds roll in and darkness settles upon the compound in the early afternoon. It isn't long before we are all cooped up inside the president's house as a vicious thunderstorm engulfs us. A battle rages on outside as one natural force tries to out-do the other. Gail force winds tear branches off of trees and lightning strikes at leisure, followed by loud reverberating thunder. We should have departed for the airport by now, and although I am dismayed at the thought of being delayed, I can't help but hope that our flight has been cancelled. I try to suppress any thoughts of flying in such conditions.

Shortly after, nature seems to settle down and we decide to make a dash for the airport. We lunge ourselves into the van and combat the sea of potholes and mud in an attempt to make it in time. Upon arrival, we unfurl our cramped bodies from within the muggy vehicle and launch ourselves, along with our luggage towards the entrance of the airport. We pass through security and find ourselves sitting in a large, cavernous and dim lit terminal. We learn that our flight has been delayed due to the storm, and pray to God that it arrives in time, as the runway is not lit and the airport closes at six. Darkness is descending more rapidly because of the sinister storm clouds and I am concerned that the flight will arrive in time for us to be ushered out and told to come back the next day.

In the meantime, I occupy myself by conversing with team members and observing people around me. I have been drinking so much water that I find myself needing to use the toilet, so I cross the sparse terminal to where the washrooms are located. I enter the women's and will my eyes to adjust to the dark interior as there are no lights. I veer left and choose a stall second from the end. When I enter in and lock the door with a key, I turn around to realise there's no toilet paper, so I proceed to unlock the door. The key doesn't seem to be working, so I try again, and again and again. Upon numerous attempts over the course of about ten minutes, I resign myself to the fact that I am an unfortunate prisoner inside a smelly toilet stall, in a dark washroom, in a loud and echoing terminal. As I devise an escape route, I realise there is just enough room under the door for me to slide out on my belly. Although it's less than ideal, I'd rather that than spend a night in here. I try not to think too much as I crouch down and pop my head under first, followed by the rest of me. I mentally pray that no one walks in right at that moment, but can't help but giggle at the hilarity of the situation. After all that effort, I fail to locate any toilet paper in the washrooms so I trudge back to my bags to retrieve some Kleenex before embarking on round two.

It has now been over an hour of waiting for our flight, and no one seems to know how long it will be. Airport staff can be seen standing out on the tarmac in anticipation of its indefinite arrival. It's not too much longer and we find ourselves standing in a 'line' by the gate as staff walk up and down checking our tickets. I can't help but feel a little nervous at the chaotic and somewhat panicked attempt to have us ready for when the plane arrives, and the feeling only intensifies when I see the plane taxi close up to the gate. All exit doors are hurled open the instant it comes to a standstill and passengers flood out in such haste, that I am concerned for their safety. Seconds later, I am just as concerned for my own safety and that of my fellow travelers as we are herded out onto the tarmac like animals and instructed to start embarking the plane at the same time as preceding passengers are exiting. I enter from the rear exit door and am instructed to 'sit anywhere' by the visibly stressed flight attendants. Locals seem somewhat unfazed by the proceedings, but the same cannot be said of me. I gaze around as people stumble into any seat and I begin fervently praying. People have scarcely sat down when doors are secured and the plane starts taxiing. Simultaneously, flight attendants make a quick show of life vests and that is about the extent of the safety demonstrations. Darkness has descended outside and silence engulfs the cabin as the plane perilously hurtles down the unlit runway. Loose seats rattle and shake about with every bump or sway and overhead compartments threaten to fall apart.  In a matter of ten minutes, our plane had landed, unloaded, reloaded, taxied and taken off. I'm not sure whether I should be impressed or extremely concerned.

Two days later, following our late but safe arrival in Lagos and after a wonderful Sunday spent exploring the city, our team arrives at the airport to take off towards home. It's late afternoon, and I'm struggling with some sickness. I'm tired, hot and weak from exhaustion. I just want to get through security and sit down at our flight gate. In order to enter the airport, we have to walk through a security checkpoint where we pass our bags and ourselves through a scanner. As I stand in line for check-in, a staff member summons me and instructs me to go to a booth where a man questions my visit to Nigeria and directs me to another line where a number of army personnel are standing behind a row of tables. When my turn approaches, I place my bags on the table and open them up for inspection. The first officer swabs my bags; the second opens them up and glances at the contents and the third actually sifts through them. Satisfied, they tell me to proceed to yet another line! Here, my bags are weighed, my passport checked and my tickets printed. Although equipped with a conveyor belt, it appears to be unused, so I watch as my bags are thrown onto a pile of luggage in front of the desk. Minutes later, three men approach the mound and transfer the luggage onto trolleys, before disappearing with them.

Our team assembles after the lengthy check-in process and advance to security. I am thankful that we can sit down soon and rest. I fill out a departure form which appears to have been typed in Word. I join a line to have my form approved. When it's my turn, I draw near to an officer who simply glances at it and points me to... another line! A stern looking officer, who has headphones in his ears, calls me and questions my reason for visiting. He stamps my passport and I advance to yet another officer who checks the stamp in my passport. The next procession is for security and I am about to pass out at this point. As I patiently wait, a pool of perspiration collects at my feet. An officer directs one person at a time to a single scanner, while an additional scanner remains inactive. I marvel at my restraint and surprise myself by not screaming when I am ordered to a desk featuring five idle officers. One of them barks for my passport and upon seeing that it is Canadian, questions if I've ever been to Canada. I don't know whether to laugh or cry. I rejoice when I make it through the plethora of procedures, but my joy is short-lived. Upon arrival at my gate, I am utterly dismayed to find no seats.

I crumple onto the floor in exhaustion but when a line beings to form, I am near the front. A lady checks my passport and ticket and I pass through a door into a long narrow room behind frosted glass walls. A male and female line forms and we wait to be patted down. I move along to a woman who ask me to remove my shoes and pats me down, before progressing to a table where a male officer opens up by bags and removes all the items before replacing them. I rush to find a chair and collapse in it, where it will undoubtedly be a lengthy wait before we are allowed to embark onto the plane.