Well, it was more like 2 nights, and they were in Africa, not Arabia, but it's a good story nonetheless.
I had just finished a 7-month stay near Livingstone, Zambia, working with Overland Missions, and I was looking forward to getting home to Wisconsin and relaxing for the holidays. It was a busy several weeks leading up to the day I left and I was flying on a buddy pass so I was hopeful I would get upgraded to business class and get to rest while flying in style and luxury from Johannesburg to Atlanta. That ended up not happening at all.
I left Livingstone on Sunday, December 18, and had an uneventful flight to Johannesburg, apart from a unexpected excess baggage fee. I got my bags and went to check in with Delta airlines for my flight from there to Atlanta and then on to Madison. I was flying on a buddy pass from a long-time employee of Delta and I was confident that my priority on the standby list would clinch me a seat on the flight and I would get home quickly. My friend had looked up the available seats and I was even confident that I would get upgraded to business class. The flight didn't leave until 8:20 pm and I checked in around 5:00 pm.
Immediately, the lady at the desk said that the flight was full and I had to return at 7:00 with all the other standby passengers to see who they would let on the flight. Okay, I didn't see this coming but I'm still pretty sure I'll make it on. My buddy has been working for Delta since 1969, I've got top priority, I'm golden. Next thing the lady says is that I'm only allowed one bag, not two like I had flown with previously. The good news is that I can avoid the $200 excess baggage fee by packing my two bags into one and transferring 10 pounds of weight into my carryon. Great, now I've got to spread all my belongings out on the floor of the Joburg airport and try to cram it all back in. Never fear, I'm an engineer and I'm good at Tetris so I'll find a solution.
I returned to the check-in desk at 6:45 filled with pride at my accomplishment of successfully repacking my bags and avoiding a ludicrously large baggage fee. To my surprise there were about 20 other people in the standby line waiting to hear about whether or not they also would make it home for the holidays. Nevertheless, I remained confident that my super-duper high seniority buddy pass would save the day and I would triumphantly leave all these lower priority chumps behind.
As I waited, I began to chat with some of the other standby passengers to pass the time. I soon heard about a girl also on a buddy pass who had been waiting in Joburg for 4 nights now and that there were several other people in line who had been rejected before as well. It started to look a little like there was a chance I wouldn't get on the flight tonight. I spied a girl wearing a shirt with some Portuguese writing on it and, because of my history of going to Brazil and studying Portuguese, I asked her what the significance of it was. Turns out the shirt is from a missionary school in Mozambique where she had just spent the last 3 months as a student. Even more surprising is that she had been ministry partners with a guy who had just previously been in Overland's missions school and I had been his instructor and we had spent some time together. Crazy small world. The girl's name was Kat and lo and behold, she was the one who had been stuck here for 4 nights, and on her first trip outside the USA no less.
An airline employee came out around 7:20 and regretfully informed us that there would be no standby or buddy pass passengers getting on the flight tonight. Crap, now what do I do? I would try again tomorrow but I was exhausted, I had no place to stay tonight, and I really hate haggling for taxi fare to get to whatever backpacker lodge I would end up at. I asked Kat what she had done for the last 4 nights and she gave me a recommendation of a lodge as well as the phone number for a friend of the ministry she had worked with who might be able to host me at his house. I called the number and sure enough, the guy lives a mere 6 miles from the airport and would gladly give me a place to stay. He hosts stuck missionaries all the time and had a whole empty bedroom I could stay in. Glory hallelujah! I had a place to sleep and someone to pick me up.
The bed was amazing, the house was amazing, the family was amazing, and it turned out to be the best possible way to pass a night and day stuck in a foreign city. I was so thankful for Sarel and his family for hosting me. Sarel dropped me off at the airport on Monday and we were both hopeful that I would get on the plane this time. Again I checked in with time to spare and was told to come back at 7 just like yesterday.
I saw a lot of familiar faces in the standby line and I got to chatting with Kat while we waited for the verdict about available seats. Even earlier than yesterday, the same airline employee came out and expressed his deep regret that again there would be no standby or buddy pass passengers on tonight's flight and most likely not on any flight out of Joburg until after New Years. So not cool. It was a ruling passed down from the upper management in Atlanta because they could make money on shipping excess cargo instead of filling empty seats with people they weren't making money on. No way to change it. The only silver lining is that we had the option to purchase our seats and then we would be guaranteed a seat.
Well, I hadn't planned for this in my budget and Kat was in an even worse position since she had no excess support raised to buy a ticket home. After mulling it over, talking to the ticket counter, and having a good cry (not by me, mind you), we decided to go back to Sarel's together and sort it out.
We got the word out to friends and family that there was an immediate need for cash to purchase our tickets and we started looking for the cheapest flights home. I didn't realize it until later, but my email appeal for help with airfare looked strikingly like those you get from a con artist petitioning you for aid using a hacked email account. Oops. Nevertheless, close friends and family and even people I have never met started to give toward bringing the two of us home for Christmas. By the next morning, we had enough from donations and from an advance on my airline budget section of my savings account to purchase our seats. Praise God for his provision through the Body of Christ!
We again returned to the airport after I had spent 2 nights in Joburg and Kat had spent 6 nights and we boarded the plane home. It had been a trying experience for us both but it turned out really well in the end. We were able to have several spiritual conversations with people we met while stuck there, Kat and I had some great conversations about ministry and leadership, we saw a beautiful picture of the unity of the global Church, and we saw God at work in provision and orchestration of unpredictable events in some pretty incredible ways.
I ended up arriving in Madison on Wednesday morning the 21st and Kat arrived in Portland later that same day.