Part 1: Travellers and pilgrims

We, the pilgrims, gathered in the Egypt Air check-in foyer at the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport around midnight. We were standing in groups or sitting on cold metal seats. There were families from Nairobi, Mombasa and Kisumu; and from Tanga, Dar es Salaam and Arusha across the border. All dressed in komi libaas (full religious attire), looking around and memorizing faces that we would be seeing for the next 10 days from sun up to sun down. Shy smiles and inquisitive looks for the strangers; warm hugs and full-palmed salaams as distant relatives were reunited.

A group of men from the organizing committee came in around an hour later dressed in white saya kurta (a coat without buttons worn over a kameez and trousers) and topis (Islamic caps). They carried boxes of potato crisps, egg sandwiches and a portable thermos of sweet, milky coffee to the envy of the other hungry, tired, sleep deprived travellers.

One volunteer passed crinkly bags of chips and sandwich containers around, as another created a factory line of precariously balanced small white Styrofoam cups of coffee. A group of three men shuttled over to the counters, their coat lapels flaring behind them, carrying batches of our passports and checked us in en masse.

Awakened by the food and hot drink, the plastic rustle of sweet and gum wrappers marked the end of our snack and the start of friendly chatter. Which family are you from? Are you going to Kerbala for the first time? What exactly is the program for the next couple of days? A camaraderie began to flower as individuals from varying towns and backgrounds developed a group identity. Room sharing arrangements were spontaneously decided, and requests for possible assistance made well ahead of time.

And then as the sticky sweet dissolved in the mouth and the chewing gum became rubbery, the enthusiastic babble wavered into uncomfortable silence. The metal seats were once again hard, and growing colder as the night air seeped under the glass doors of the foyer. The rustle of sweet wrappers was replaced by the rocking of chairs as bodies fidgeted and legs stretched.

Finally, the men returned and like roll call in a school, read out the names of passengers who jumped to attention and rushed to the front, grabbing luggage trolleys with one hand and gesturing family members with the other. Newly forged bonds with neighbours were forgotten and a buzz of urgently whispered “Chalo” (let’s go) and “Jaldi” (quickly) began.

With our passports and boarding passes in hand, we descended like a swarm on the check-in counters and the customs desks, and then draped the narrow escalators going up to the duty free area with our colourful ridas (burkhas). The young held the elbows of the elders. Free of  cumbersome bags, we daintily stepped off the escalator with our gaghris (skirts) bunched near our knees, delicately displaying a peek of lacy white petticoats fluttering near our ankles.

The excitement of having progressed to a different location quickly petered out, however, and deflated at the thought of another wait, some chose to wander the curved duty free corridors peering into dark window displays, intruding on the privacy of other travelers who were stretched across seats or sleeping on the plastic tiled floor. Others, competitively strode ahead to the boarding gate, eager to secure the closest seat to the door in preparation for when the flight was called.

Finally we began to board. We were undoubtedly the largest single group on the flight, among tourists, students and business visitors returning home. And the chaos began well before we were on the flight. Because our check-in had been orchestrated by a few members for the full group, families had been separated and so a husband was at the back of the plane while his wife was elbowed into a middle seat near the front and their children were scattered somewhere in between.

Ad hoc rearrangements began before the whole family had even boarded the flight with Gujrati instructions being shouted over the heads of other passengers, causing a huge pile up in the aisle only to finally arrive at your seat to find someone else in it. Petite Egypt Air flight attendants, barely able to contain their fury at the havoc, squeezed past irate passengers stuck in the aisles and insisted that everyone must take the seat that had been allocated to them in the boarding pass, trying desperately to put things right on a flight which had already been delayed. Unthwarted, reunited family members sat firm in their new seats.

Finally we were all settled: pilgrims and tourists, grumblers and smug smilers. And asleep within minutes asleep only to be woken by the sound of a hot meal. The cabin was stiflingly dry and the attendants, furious at having had their authority challenged so early on in the journey, were rude and aggressive. A request for a glass of water earned you a couple of sharp words, and then total refusal.

August 14 2012

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