I’m not sure if it’s traveling that I don’t like, or if it’s just that I don’t like being away from my kids – which usually happens when I travel since most of my trips are work-related. I suspect it's a combination of the two.
Nonetheless, I’ve noticed that there’s something about traveling and being in another country for a short while that has an almost spiritual effect on me sometimes. Once in a while, it happens while the plane is landing and I’m in my seat, looking out the window. As I land in countries I’ve only read about, I sometimes have an overwhelming feeling of awe at God’s greatness, and at the fact that He’s made it possible for me to visit a number of these places.
And then, there’s the quietness of the hotel rooms. I’m so used to being surrounded by commotion and demands, that being in a hotel room in the middle of nowhere, all by myself, draws me closer to God sometimes. To combat the feelings of guilt about leaving my children behind, and the loneliness of hotel rooms (as opposed to my own home), I turn to God and feel a special kind of closeness sometimes.
On one particular trip last year, I was moved by three things: the thick quietness of my hotel room, a movie, and a news clip.
The movie was a true story (my favorite kind) – the simple but touching story of an unemployed, African-American woman. A single parent in a low-income neighborhood who courageously stood up against the entire police force, with all the odds against her, and successfully drew national attention to the discrimination often faced by the urban poor.
I was profoundly touched by this simple movie. To crown it all, I switched to CNN and discovered it was Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s 80th birthday. He was being interviewed, along with his family members and others, and his contributions to the fight against apartheid were expertly chronicled. I was in complete awe of what God can do with our lives if we just let Him. The thought of these two people, coupled with the quietness of my room, led me to tears. I had a strong urge to just worship the Lord in the quietness of my room, marveling at all He is able to do. I decided to just worship Him for a few minutes, just because. I don’t do this nearly enough.I was relieved to be heading home the following evening, and this probably played a part in making me so emotional, too.
My flight had some ridiculous delays that night. As we learned that the flight had been delayed yet again, after having waited a couple of hours already, I exchanged exasperated glances with the lady sitting next to me. We struck up a conversation and eventually began to converse like old friends. She was a young American lady doing some de-mining work in an insecure African location. I stared at her admiringly while she talked about her work; nodded understandingly, as she talked about her family challenges. We made our way to a café and had some pizza together, continuing our conversation for another couple of hours.
‘Are you signed up with this whole frequent flyer mile thing?’ she asked.
‘Yes, I am – are you?’
‘No,’ she said.
‘Oh, you should definitely sign up, especially given how much you travel. There are quite a number of benefits.’ I described the application process as we finally stood in line, waiting to board.
It was my turn now, so I handed the flight attendant my boarding pass.
‘Have you ever traveled business class?’ she asked, standing behind me.
‘Only a couple of times,’ I replied, turning around to look at her. ‘And the times it’s happened, I was upgraded because my boss went up to the counter and sweet-talked the flight attendants.’
Just then, there was a resounding beep as my boarding pass went through the machine. I quickly turned back to the flight attendant, slightly panicked. I couldn’t bear to have anything else happen tonight. I just wanted to get home.
‘Is there something wrong?’ I asked apprehensively.
‘Oh, no,’ he said, casually. ‘We’re just upgrading you to business class. Enjoy your flight.’
I turned back and stared at my airport friend, eyes wide and mouth open. She stared back with surprise and a touch of envy. I said my goodbyes hurriedly, apologetically, and left her behind.
Oh my God, I thought as I settled in my large, comfortable seat, stretching out my long legs. Poverty is terrible. You mean some people actually get to travel this way all the time?? Thank you Lord, for this privilege. I’m just so shocked. This has never happened to me without any ‘manipulation.’
I had some juice and then began to doze off, lulled into a light sleep by the buzz of the airconditioning. I was awakened from this sweet sleep by someone standing next to me, obviously trying to get into the window seat right beside me.
‘Excuse me, Mum,’ the voice said, gently. I looked up and stared. Then I wiped my eyes and blinked to be sure I wasn’t dreaming. His sharp, alert, kind eyes stared patiently back at me. I nearly fell out of my seat.
Guess who it was?
ARCHBISHOP DESMOND TUTU!
My shock and hesitancy didn’t go unnoticed by those around me. They were equally awe-struck, but a bit amused by what I would call my ‘bushmalism.’ I finally gathered myself together and stood out in the aisle while he moved past me and took his seat. As he did so, I wasn’t sure what to say. I couldn’t just not say anything, like a bush girl. And so, I said the first thing that came to mind:
‘Happy 80th Birthday, Bishop …’
‘Oh, thank you, my dear. Thank you so much,’ he said graciously, humbly.
Thank God I’d watched CNN last night. Okay, so what should I say next, I wondered. Should I strike up a conversation? About what, though? Should I ask how Nelson Mandela was doing? Nah … bad idea. I kept trying to get a glimpse of him out of the corner of my eye. I noticed he was trying to get the attention of the flight attendant to hang up his coat.
‘Let me take that for you,’ I offered.
‘Oh, no, no – don’t worry. He’ll come get it eventually’ – which he did.
I sat uncomfortably in my ultra-comfortable seat, wishing for a few minutes that I had my sister’s personality. She would definitely know what to say (probably even exchange business cards) and have a great story to tell later. I said nothing further.
A few minutes later, I was glad I didn’t strike up a conversation. Archbishop Desmond Tutu had fallen into a deep sleep right beside me, totally ignoring his dinner.
The plane landed in the morning. ‘You have to say something before you get off,’ I told myself. ‘These things don’t happen everyday.’
And so I grabbed my laptop and said, ‘I’m really honored to have sat next to you on this flight. I hope you enjoy your stay.’
‘Thank you, thank you, my dear,’ he replied, graciously, clearly used to the effect he has on people.
He was ushered off the flight and met by a group of protocol people at the end of the hall. When I got home and switched on the TV, I found him officiating over a ceremony. I was doubly glad I hadn’t disturbed his sleep. The poor man had walked off the plane and right into a high-profile event.
I knelt down by my bedside. Thank you, Lord, I said.
I was convinced that God deliberately did me a couple of special favors; deliberately wanted to show me His greatness and His ability. He just wanted to ‘rub it in’ a bit and remind me of His incomparably great power. Just to make me feel special, just to let me know He’s there. I can’t explain how I’m sure, but I just know God was letting me know He’s with me, He’s watching, He’s caring.
He did it just because.