When booking flights I select which side of the plane to sit on based on the flight path and what land marks might be seen, where the sun will be, will there be a sunset or a sunrise, and I try to avoid window seats over the wings. I can’t always get the window seat I want but I try.
On my recent trip to England and Tanzania I flew from Salt Lake to Chicago to London. Then London to Addis Ababa to Kilimanjaro. Then Kilimanjaro to Mombasa to Addis Ababa to Frankfurt to London to Dallas to Salt Lake. When I booked these flights I wasn’t able to get a window seat on all flights and was not able to reserve a seat at all on the flights in Africa and out of Frankfurt. I checked back often online to see if any window seats opened up. They eventually did. I tracked down the phone numbers for the airlines in Africa and Germany and called them and reserved window seats. I had window seats for all 10 flights and I was really looking forward to the flight from Addis Ababa to Frankfurt because it was during the day and I would be flying over Africa and Parts of Europe I had never flown over (the flight to Addis Ababa was during the night so I knew I wouldn’t see much on that one).
When I boarded the flight from Addis Ababa to Frankfurt there was some confusion about the seats around my row. The rows were not identified well and none of the passengers could agree on which was row 14, 15 and 16. Either way someone was sitting in all the window seats and one of them was mine. So I got the attention of a flight attendant to help straighten things out. Turns out there was no row 14 on the sides of the plane (though there was in the middle) and the man in 15A (my seat) actually had seat 15C (the isle seat next to me). Once we had established which was row 15, I said to the young man sitting in 15A “That’s my seat.” He quickly moved over and I took my seat by the window.
As we flew out of Ethiopia I watch the green hills transition to the sand of the Sahara Desert. It was very impressive. Sand dunes all the way to the horizon. Usually no signs of water or plants but there was an occasional oasis with a few plants and maybe a little water. Then we flew over the Nile River where it was very wide. Not much vegetation along the edges of the river just a blue river running through the orange sand.
Eventually I got up to use the restroom. While waiting in line I glanced back towards my seat and saw the man in 15C leaning over my seat to look out the window. It dawned on me that he probably wanted the window seat and sat there hoping to get it. He looked up and saw me looking his way and reacted like I caught him doing something wrong. He quickly sat up straight in his seat and then just turned his head towards the window. It was then that I notice his T-shirt. It read “Stop Tribalism - Only One Tribe.”
I can’t say that I know much about the conflicts and problems in Africa but I am aware that tribalism plays a big role in problems all over the continent. When I returned to my window seat I turned to him and said “I like your shirt, I like the message.” He said thanks and told me he designed the shirt. He didn’t like all the violence in his country, Kenya and wanted to do something about it so he made these shirts. “He said we are all the same people. It doesn’t matter where you come from or what color you are, black or white, we are all the same people. There is only one tribe.” I agreed. Then he said “Is that the Sahara?” I told him it was and we talked about how huge it is and how amazing it is that people have been traveling across it for thousands of years. From what we could see it was hard to imagine surviving out there for very long. He told me he had heard stories about the Sahara all his life and this was the first time he had been out of his country (and on an airplane) and really wanted to see the Sahara. I asked him if he wanted to trade seats. He politely said he could see fine from his seat. I told him to let me know anytime he wanted to look out the window. He could just lean over and we would look out together.
We continued to talk. He told me he was a university student and was tired of the violence surrounding an election and wanted to do something about it. So he designed the t-shirt. The shirt also had “Stop Tribalism” written in Swahili and on the back it read “PEACE” and “AMANI” which is peace in Swahili. He didn’t have much money so he and his friends got someone to teach them how to screen print and they made the t-shirts themselves. As his peace campaign started to grow they got the attention of politicians who criticized them because they believe violence is part of a democratic society. He could not explain their logic behind that but only noted violence between tribes has been around a long time. He also got the attention of a German professor and his grad students who were working on a book to promote peace in Kenya. I believe he helped them with the book. He was invited to give a lecture to the German Ambassador to Kenya and the media. He really liked giving the lecture and hopes to find a career that gives him opportunities to give lectures.
As we talked we watched the orange Sahara abruptly end at the blue Mediterranean Sea. The German professor is sponsoring him to go to Germany for a month. He didn’t think he was going to be able to go because he was having a lot of trouble getting a visa. Just two days earlier he told the professor he couldn’t go. The professor made a bunch of phone calls and was able to help him get the visa. He is now working on his masters degree and starting a more formal organization to promote peace. He has also started an Alcoholics Anonymous Association because alcoholism is a problem. He tries to make it transparent that he is not making money from his efforts to help others and promote peace. He believes if he benefits financially from this work people will not believe he is really trying to help. His critics still attack him claiming his goal is to make money.
We talked about our flight path and how we would be flying over Greece, Bosnia, Italy, the Alps and Austria on our way to Frankfurt. As we approached Crete I said “We’ve got to get you in this window seat.” This time there was no polite hesitation, he jumped up and switched me seats. He was so trilled. First time flying, first window seat and first time seeing the world at 30,000 feet. We looked out the window together this time with me leaning over. His eyes were fixed out the window. I could see how much that meant to him and how much he appreciated the view. He pointed out cities, islands and mountains and had me take pictures of them. We talked about the histories of the places we passed over. He knew much more history than I did. He was amazed by all the mountains of the Alps, “So many mountains” and the forests of Germany.
I was so happy to see someone who really appreciates the opportunity to look out an airplane window at our amazing planet. And humbled by this energetic young man who is standing up for what he believes, PEACE.
One of my most memorable flights ever and not because of what I saw out the window.