From Fright To Flight: A Journey From Kenya To US


On a recent 17-hour non-stop flight from Dubai to Houston, USA, PETER KIMANI recounts how the longest single trip of his life rapidly changed from a calamitous ordeal to a pleasurable, memorable experience

"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times," Charles Dickens writes in the opening lines of his classic novel, Great Expectations.

It perfectly mirrors my state of mind as I leave Kenya for the US. There are great expectations about the study programme ahead, but the impending journey is fast degenerating into a calamitous ordeal.

Hours before the trip, an email from the university contact that has been coordinating airport pickups flashes. I don’t need to open the email, for the subject line says it all: "Airport volunteer/pickup help not available."

I immediately place a call to my host, a student from Swaziland whom I have been introduced to by our mutual friend in Nairobi. His phone doesn’t go through.

In the eleventh hour, the meticulous planning is falling apart. I have nobody to pick me from the airport; I’m not even sure I have a place to sleep.

That night, I’m scarcely out of the bathroom, which I attribute to the anxieties of the trip. But I panic when my four-year-old son starts competing with me to the bathroom. I have a running stomach; he is vomiting after every hour.

In the thick of impenetrable darkness, we start the journey to the Nairobi Hospital, the mist of the night suddenly melting into a drizzle. It is 1am.

We are back home after two hours, just early enough for me to catch a few winks of sleep and administer medication on the boy.

I start the morning with Imodium tablets for my unsteady stomach. A friend picks us from home. Even my son, Tumaini, appears sufficiently recovered for the airport trip.

The check-in is seamless

I push my luggage down the scanning equipment, kick off my shoes, glide past the security area, load my luggage onto a trolley and head down to the Emirates check-in desk.Conveyor belt

"Are you sure the bag is not over 23kg?" The female attendant asks with a hint of a smile. My firm response in the affirmative elicits a bright smile. "Yes, you are right," she says as the red bleep of the weighing machine confirms my two bags are not over the limit.

The bags are tagged and pushed down the conveyor belt, another tag is provided for my hand-luggage. I step out to join family, friends and colleagues who have come to bid me goodbye.

I also want to monitor my son’s health. He declines to eat anything but fries, which we reject outright. But with the passage of time, we realise he might as well have his way, or else he will spend the day without food.

The outcome is instant. I scarcely survive with dry clothes after he vomits inches away from me. It is the best of times; it is the worst of times.

Little triumphs

Finally, it is time to go. A hug here, a peck there, and back to the ritual of kicking off the shoes, before ambling through the Immigration desk.

I’m ready to slump and sleep through the hours ahead, and they are many: Six hours from Nairobi to Dubai and 17 hours from Dubai to Houston, USA.

That’s makes it 23 hours. That means two issues of The Standard will have been printed between the time I leave Nairobi and arrive in Houston.

"Na upige picha nzuri ukifika huko," (take good pictures when you get there), the Immigration official says, grinning after recognising me as a journalist.

Alright, a few minutes and I can sleep for the rest of my life, I think to myself as we board Emirates flight EK 720.

I’m leaving a sick child behind, I have no one to pick me from the airport and my host cannot be reached.

I try the number one last time. I realise I had missed one digit. I am breathless as I dial the proper number.

Sibu, the Swazi student’s baritone, is the most reassuring voice I hear that day. I quickly explain my predicament. "I will be there," he says calmly.

I board the plane cheered. Things are suddenly looking up! Now I have a pick-up from airport, and it’s none other than my host.

"Sir, can I keep your jacket for you?" one air hostess asks when I settle in my seat. Things are quickly progressing from bad to better, almost best.

The hostess takes the jacket and returns with a drinks list, from champagne to wines and juices. I am tempted to celebrate these little triumphs with champagne, but it’s hard to predict how my restive stomach might respond.

I order some juice, but soon throw caution to the wind and get some seafood delight. After the meal, I drift off to sleep and only wake when we start the descent to Dubai.

The brief gush of heat as we disembark feels like a slap on the face, but the glide onto the cool course is as comforting. There are more treats at the lounge, from drinks and snacks to the Internet.

I gobble copious amounts of Lipton tea and nuts, read the news and edit a story, and send emails to Nairobi and Houston to check on my son’s health, and update Sibu on my trip.

A Raisin in The Sun

Soon, we board the plane from Dubai to Houston. It’s 17 hours non-stop — the longest stretch I have covered all my life at once. What can you do in 17 hours?

I resist the food and decide it’s time to sleep. But the range of entertainment is truly enticing.

The flight’s Information, Communication and Entertainment Unit boasts a staggering choice of over 1,200 channels of entertainment, including over 280 movies, some pretty good films I would have loved to watch but never had the time. Now I have 17 hours…

I flip my seat into a sleeping position, stretch out the blanket and cover myself, then hail the hostess for nuts and a glass of water. Then I select Invictus, the 2009 biographical sports drama inspired by Nelson Mandela’s use of rugby to break apartheid’s segregationist legacy in South Africa.

The highly entertaining one-and-half-hour film documents how Mandela turned an ill-motivated team on a losing streak to world conquerors by sharing English poet William Ernest Henley’s short poem, Invictus.

Woolly clouds

I take a nap after the film, you might call it a commercial break, as I nibble on the nuts and think of what other film might interest me.

When I wake up, I decide since I’m going to America, how about a nuanced American film? I choose A Raisin in The Sun. Originally a staged play, it relates a black family’s struggle in Chicago in the 1960s.

The family patriarch has died and his widow uses his life insurance money to buy a home in a white neighborhood where they are clearly unwelcome. The film ends with the family deciding to stay put, which I rather like.

I’m dreaming of a raisin in the sun when the woolly clouds tear away. A shy Houston sun shines through. I smile at the shining sun, but also for a truly pleasurable trip.

The hostess arrives with a bright smile. She has brought my jacket.




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