Thursday, July 28, 2005

The Road to Gjakove

It was cold and raining when we woke up this morning at the Gatwick Travelodge. Our goal was to get everyone to the airport by 9:20am but making the two mile trip from the hotel to the terminal was an adventure in itself.

Sometimes no matter how hard you plan trips take on a life of their own as they evolve. This was certainly the case today.

Last night Keith and I arranged to have several taxis meet us at the hotel by 9:00am. Taking several taxis was cheaper than taking the local shuttle bus (and every Euro counts on this trip). However, the taxis showed up in spurts and were not prepared to haul us AND our luggage. I went in the first car with Lori Carrol and Leigha Phillips. Once I had them settled in a central location in the terminal I headed back outside with a luggage cart and waited for the next car. Soon Mike Hartman arrived he assisted me outside while I directed everyone to the central meeting location.

I know some people in our group openly questioned our decision about the taxis but I still think it was the best solution given our options. If we had chosen to take the airport shuttle everyone would have had to get up at least an hour earlier. I am pretty confident that most (including myself) would choose the extra hour of sleep if given the choice. Especially since the ultimate cost was the same.

Just when I thought this was going fairly smoothly given the rain, the amount of luggage and the number of cars, British Air decided they wanted us to check in immediately…and not as a group.

At this point, all sense of order was thrown out the window. I gave everyone their tickets and they were off. I didn’t see some of the group members again until after I got to the gate (roughly ten minutes before boarding).

In the end checking-in the way we did was the right thing to do. The Porter family and I were the last ones to get to the ticket counter. By that time the flight was oversold and British Air tried to move the Porters to the next flight (which didn’t leave for another two days). I don’t know who got bumped off our flight but everyone from our group made it on the plane.

The flight itself was far more interesting than the last one. There were 45 children on the flight including our group. I want everyone to know that the Muscatine youth were on their BEST behavior. Unfortunately, the others were not. It was a loud, if not humorous, experience.

The chaos continued when we landed. Unlike the last time Keith and I were in Kosovo there is an actual airport terminal in Pristina. Before, the terminal was nothing more than an empty aircraft hanger staffed by KFOR peacekeepers. The new terminal, which bears all the signs of a quick United Nations build, has multiple passport control stations and a working baggage carousel. There were also several planes from other airlines parked on the tarmac.

We finally cleared the crush of passengers that had rushed from the plane to passport control and started the long process of collecting our luggage. Thankfully, there are luggage carts at the airport. They are the same carts that were here nearly three years ago. At the time, baggage claim consisted of a KFOR peacekeeper placing each bag in a straight line in the airport hanger. I remember thinking then, "They don’t have a real baggage claim but they do have luggage carts!"

I am always worried at least one piece of luggage won’t arrive when I head overseas on a trip. Sure enough, one bag didn’t make it from London. It is Kate Johnson’s main suitcase. I felt really, really badly for Kate (remember, the next British Air flight from London doesn’t arrive for another two days.) But Kate was really calm (I would have been in a complete state of panic). I helped her file a claim with the airline. We now have to call the airport on Friday and hope the bag arrives.

Gjakove or Bust…Literally!

Since Kate and I were delayed leaving the airport I missed the big arrival on the other side of customs. Liz, a number of the children who stayed in Muscatine last year, parents and a handful of drivers greeted the group with great fanfare that included a welcome poster similar to the one I held up for the Kosovo group when they arrive at O’Hare a year ago.

We eventually we made our way to the vehicles and once again started the process of loading the luggage. We are all quickly becoming packing experts! In the end it took four multi-passenger vans, Liz’s small Jeep and a small cargo truck to get us to Gjakove.

The last time Keith and I made the journey to Gjakove, the road itself was more like an obstacle course of potholes and craters, and it took over two hours to reach Liz’s house. I was pleasantly surprised to find that the trip is much shorter now (less than 90 minutes) and the road is no worse than sections of the Illinois toll road. We didn’t have to navigate a single pothole. If that’s not a sign of progress, I don’t know what is!

This is not to say we didn’t have problems making it to Gjakove. Halfway into the trip, the Shropshire Music Foundation’s (SMF) van broke down. Burim, one of Liz’s volunteers who also visited Muscatine last summer, was driving that van. Keith was riding in that van and he thinks the transmission may have given out. But any problem here has a quick, if not simple, solution. The driver of the van traveling in front of Burim’s vehicle simply tied a rope from his bumper to the bumper of SMF van. To help get the SMF vehicle moving again, the van directly behind it gave it a little push and we were on our way with Burim steering and braking as needed. You will be pleased to know that the rope only broke once...not far from the outskirts of Gjakove. A few extra knots in the rope got us all the way to Liz’s house.

I fear that Liz has a major repair bill ahead of her…one that she can’t really afford…so keep your fingers crossed that the SMF van can be fixed quickly and cheaply!

Tears Start to Flow

I cried when I found Liz back at the airport. I cried again once Liz, our group and members of the SMF group packed into Liz’s tiny living room. Liz was right, this really is a miracle. I’m sure I will say this many, many times again in the days ahead.

Housing Arrangements

Tonight we settled into the place we will call home for the next 11 days. All of the adults are living in three separate houses that we’ve rented for this trip. All of our youths are stay in pairs with host families. With the exception of one household, all of the host families had children who stayed in Muscatine last summer.

Our youth are so excited about being able to see their friends again. Language barriers aside, you could see the faces of both the Kosovar and Muscatine children light up when they recognized each other for the first time.

Every day our youth will rehearse and perform with members of the Kosovo Children’s Music Initiative, the Shropshire Music Foundation’s program here. The adults meanwhile will work on everything from English classes to arts-and-crafts and from basic construction to medical and eye check-ups for local youth.

Tomorrow we will begin our working schedule. Our goal is to spend Monday and Wednesdays in two surrounding villages and Tuesdays and Fridays working out of a Gjakove school and Tuesday and Thursday afternoon and evenings in the Slovene Village displacement camp; the same camp Keith and I visited in 2002.

Until next time...

(Personal note to readers...these entries probably seem long to you but they really are only a snapshot of our adventures.)