July 18, 2008 — A few tears of goodbye, but mostly smiles of excitement and joy, dressed the faces of the young people gathered early Friday afternoon at the Cyril E. King Airport, bound for Rwanda and undoubtedly the greatest adventure of their young lives.
Well-wishers and family members surrounded them, giving last-minute instructions and snapping pictures. Parents and even casual observers seemed nearly as excited as the sojourners.
"Are you the Rwanda group?" one passerby whooped, waving. Word about the trip had been broadcast across the airwaves earlier in the day. Ava Gumbs of Radio One, pen, pad and tape recorder in hand, moved from one traveler to another, hoping for some insight into or a good quote about what would make a 17-or-so-year-old want to spend a summer vacation traveling halfway around the world to care for and serve children left parentless by disease and war.
As Ava persisted, several of the young people were already providing service as they helped King airport stalwart Daphne the skycap heft the 50-pound, be-ribboned luggage onto two huge carts that would soon disappear — hopefully not forever — into the mysterious TSA and baggage-handling labyrinth.
Cecile had purchased special ruby-colored glitter string to be attached in numerous skinny bows to the group's 40 or so suitcases in an effort to keep our checked bags together through the four flights and 3,000 miles they were about to travel to reach Kigali — Rwanda's capital — early Sunday morning.
We all got together to have our picture taken in front of the mountains of luggage — well, almost all of us. A notable, unnamed few were a bit later to arrive.
But all the teenagers were on time.
Most of them have traveled through the Caribbean and United States. A few have not.
J'moi just returned from band camp in North Carolina, where he studied tenor saxophone.
Brandon lamented a missed trip to Walt Disney World, but agreed that Rwanda was a decent consolation prize.
Karlen says she's traveled quite a bit, "but not like to Rwanda."
A few have traveled to Europe. Chelsea's been to Spain.
But none of us — except Sonya — have ever been to equatorial Africa.
Vaccinated and armed with anti-malaria medication, this group of fearless young people is clearly up for the adventure.
Earlier in the week, during our last get-together before d-day (departure day), I asked, "What is the thing you are most afraid of?" Few expressed any doubts or fears at all about the 15-day journey they were to make — not only into Rwanda, but into the orphanages of the country that was ravaged first by genocide and then by HIV/AIDS.
"I am excited to meet and communicate with people of a different culture," Denzel said.
"I can't wait to go to the game park," Karlen said.
I have traveled some in my life, but never with a group of teenagers, and never to the African continent, though it has long been a dream.
In that dream I never envisioned making the trip armed with paintbrushes and toys, accompanied by a dozen near strangers — teenagers at that.
But as I begin to learn just a little bit about these special youngsters, it may turn out the be "the only way to go."
One thing is for sure. In the end, we will no longer be strangers.
To be continued … sap.
Editor's note: To learn more about the trip that has spawned "Rwanda Journal," click here.
Editor's note: For more about the trip, read first lady Cecile deJongh's Travel Journal.
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