Prayers on Planes… and Persistent Professors

Back when I lived in Namibia, it was no secret that my parents were none too pleased that I was living alone by myself in a foreign country. They didn’t hesitate to let me know that they worried about me because I had no one to take care of me. (Insert my twentysomething year old self ranting about how I can take care of myself, thankyouverymuch.) One of the things they especially prayed for when I had to travelled in between countries was that God would put a nice young man in the seat next to me. Their intent was that I would meet the right guy flying all over the world (which I eventually did), and while that didn’t happen in Africa, ironically, their prayers were always answered as I ALWAYS found myself next to some nice young man on every flight.

Of course, they should have probably been more specific with those prayers. On my way to Namibia, I flew across the Atlantic with a man from London holding my hand and nearly crying during some pretty awful turbulence, all while swearing that he would never leave merry old England ever again, which I’m pretty sure is NOT what my parents had in mind. (I remember sharing the Gospel with him, then suggesting that he should have the flight attendant bring him something STRONG to drink before he cut off all the circulation in my hand. Which he did, praise God.) Then, when I flew from the north part of Africa down to the very south, I spent the entire flight with an eight year old boy sleeping and drooling on my shoulder. (Nice, YOUNG man, to be certain. And he was a snuggler! Bonus.) Then there were trips in between countries in the southern part of Africa during my two years of service, where I met National Geographic photographers, college guys heading home to Botswana, South African military men on leave, and lots of German holiday backpackers who wanted me to give them the insider info on Swakopmund. All nice young men, all incredulous that an American would choose to live in Namibia for two years, all open to hear the Gospel while we flew to our destinations. It was a weird but great time in my life, being amazed constantly at how open people were to hearing about Christ, being able to share real truth, real honestly.

The day I left Namibia, we were having east wind. If you know anything about Namibia, you know that a good portion of the country is desert, and Swakopmund sits near some of the largest sand dunes in the world. When the east wind blows, it sends the dry desert wind from the east out towards the ocean, dragging the sand with it, and Swakopmund? Gets it worse than any of the other towns, so much so that on that particular day, I had my doubts that any flights would be leaving as visibility was quite bad thanks to all the sand in the air. Once I got to the airport in Walvis Bay, I saw that my flight to Johannesburg was indeed delayed. This gave me more time to cry as I said lengthy goodbyes to my pastor and his wife and my friend, Margit. Such hard goodbyes, after two sweet, sweet years.

Finally, we were able to board the plane, where we waited. And waited. And waited some more. My connection in Joburg was a quick one, and because I was switching carriers from South African Air to KLM, two companies that weren’t affiliated with one another, I was going to have to go through immigration to get to baggage control, over to the Dutch airline’s gates to get my tickets and drop off the luggage and then back through security. HEADACHE, y’all. In an international terminal post 9-11 as an American citizen (which meant more security measures back then) where I didn’t speak the primary language well enough to feel comfortable doing so. And the longer we sat there, I knew I was running the risk of missing my flight to Amsterdam and all the following connections. The pilot came on the intercom and told us that we were all waiting on three people from another flight that couldn’t land earlier thanks to east wind. The good news was that they were on the ground now and that we would be departing shortly. I was thankful that things were going to get moving soon and that the seat next to me was still unoccupied on this relatively empty flight, knowing that it meant I would have time to process the goodbyes in silence, by myself. It would be good to have a moment of peace.

All illusions of that actually happening were all but demolished when the three people from the other flight got on our plane. There was an elderly couple, obviously together, who made their way to two of the MANY empty seats left and an attractive Afrikaner man in his early thirties who looked over the seats, stared right at me, and made his way over. I remember groaning inwardly as he shot me a fabulous smile and said, “Hoe gaan dit?”

Ag, man. Ag, nice, young man. (Thanks for nothing, Mom and Dad.)

“Baie goed,” I said, blowing my nose, and managing a polite smile. And hearing my awful accent was enough to make him switch to English (praise the Lord), tell me his name was Pieter, and ask if he could sit with me. I told him he could, gearing up for another round of the same conversation I had already had hundreds of times. You’re an American? Yes. Ag, man, shame! Why would you come all the way out here? To tell people about Jesus. Really? Ja, ja, ja…

But this guy? Was different. He was, of course, curious as to why the American girl was crying as we finally left Namibia, but he seemed to be more intent on distracting me from even thinking as he TALKED. MY. EAR. OFF. Within the first ten minutes of the flight, he had talked enough to establish that I was moving home after two years in Namibia, that I was from Texas, that I was a runner, that I was a missionary, and that I was just barely going to make my connecting flight to Amsterdam as it was and would not be able to join him for dinner in Joburg. (Ahem.) And in those same ten minutes, he had talked enough to inform me that he was originally from Cape Town, that he was a marathon runner himself, that he was en route back to the university in South Africa where he taught, and that surely we would land earlier than planned and I could at least have a drink with him in the airport. (Shame, man.) I didn’t know whether or not to believe half of what he said until he gave me one of his business cards, and sure enough, he had a PhD and was on faculty at a fairly prestigious university that even I, clueless American that I was, knew about. On and on he talked, prompting me to talk just as much, and making me very nearly forget how sad I was to be leaving Namibia.

Once we reached Joburg, there was another delay. I was really sweating the quick change at this point, but Pieter confidently assured me that we were in Africa where nothing ever happened on time anyway, so my next flight? Would probably be delayed. Giving me (oh, yes) plenty of time to go grab that drink with him. (He was persistent, y’all.)

I’m not sure why it was like this, but those flights from Namibia to Joburg emptied out actually on the tarmac, where you would have to deplane, then get on a bus to ride over to immigration. I was hurrying as fast as I could, determined to catch the first bus, and I was pretty sure I was going to lose Pieter in the process… which was my intent, honestly.

He must have been telling the truth about the marathon running, though, as he managed to hustle at my speed and get on the same bus… where we sat, again, delayed, giving him more time to jabber away. Ag, man! (Pronounced “ahhhhk, man!” if you want to say it like Piet would have.) The elderly couple he must have gotten to know in their mad dash over to the plane in Namibia boarded while we were waiting and looked over to where he sat next to me with a smug expression on his face.

“I see you found a good seat on the plane, eh, Pieter?,” the old man said in a heavy German accent.

“Ja, man,” Pieter smiled back, glancing over at me. “Should have arrived earlier so I had more time to make some plans, eh?”

“Shame,” the little old woman giggled at me.

“Shame, indeed,” I said back to her.

By the time we finally got that bus moving over to the terminal and entered immigration, we were less than an hour away from my next flight’s departure time. The line for non-South African citizens had at least a hundred people in it, while the South African citizens line had FIVE. I thanked Pieter for his company and the conversation, planning to get in that unbelievably long line, when he put my arm through his and walked me over to the other line.

“I’m not a citizen,” I said dumbly.

“Ja, but you’re with me,” he said, smiling, “and I am.”

I began to wonder if this was one of those situations I had read about in all those safety booklets they gave us at orientation two years earlier, about how in international airports, you probably shouldn’t hand your passport over to a questionable Afrikaner man even if he has a PhD and runs marathons for fun, but the alternative was missing my flight, so I just went with it.

The guy checking the passports stamped Pieter’s with no problem, then spent a few minutes looking over mine curiously, glancing up at both of us when he saw that I was a US citizen. I was pretty sure he was going to send me right back to the other line, or worse, when Pieter said more than a few words to him that I couldn’t translate. This caused a few laughs and smiles from the other men at the desk, as Pieter turned to wink at me.

There’s no telling what he said. But it got me through passport control in record time and over to baggage claim, where he began taking care of all of my luggage for me, then volunteered to take me all the way over to KLM’s baggage check. This is where I discovered that travel in South Africa? Would have been a thousand times easier during those two years had I just had a charming, handsome, Afrikaans speaking male with me on all of my trips. Why hadn’t they told me this at orientation, y’all? We were moved to the front of nearly every line thanks to Piet’s quirky assertiveness, where all the KLM ladies were more than happy to help him out when he flashed his smile at them (shame, man), and he somehow managed to get my luggage checked through all the way to Dallas, through three flight changes AND airline carriers. SHAME, man.

At this point, standing at security, less than thirty minutes out from my flight, I just wanted to cry all over again. Because I was going to make it on time, I was leaving Africa, and God had totally sent this bizarre man to make it happen. As we said goodbye, Pieter gave me a hearty hug and the standard cheek kisses. (I say standard, but the only other men who did that to me were in their eighties. So, maybe Piet was being a bit cheeky himself at this point.) He once again lamented that there would be no time for that drink, as I told him “baie dankie, Piet” for all of his help, and as he assured me “pleasure, Jennifer.” And he told me if I should come back to “Mother Africa,” I had his number, even as I smiled my thanks again and went through security.

And so, I said goodbye to Africa… and went to Amsterdam. Then to Detroit. And finally on to Dallas. And thanks to my parents’ prayers, I was able to share the Gospel on each of those flights with one nice, young man after another, each one more bizarre than the last.

Perhaps they would have prayed something different had they known, eh?

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