Hey! 1, 2, 3, 4 of you, this way,” the chubby looking immigration officer beckons at us at the immigration post of the Muritala Mohammed International Airport, Lagos. Four of us move to the direction he points at. Before him is a big table, where like surgeons, he does dissection of passengers luggage.
With gloves in both hands, he ransacks the luggage with eyes on something only him knows. At my turn, I insist on opening my bags myself. The officer becomes angry with my strictness while his colleague fumes on noticing my eyes on their name tags.
Disappointed on seeing nothing to use as evidence to extort money from the four of us, he sighs and gives sign to another officer to thoroughly check our passports and visas on them.
“I am 62 years, and will be retiring next year. Why should I travel with fake visa? Please, give me my passport, I am not travelling again,” one of us shouts at the immigration officer.
“Give us our passports. Just because we did not give you bribe that is why our visas are fake. What about the other 100 people already in the waiting lounge,” another woman interjects, cursing the lean-looking officer further in Yoruba language.
On noticing the uproar, he almost steps out but a superior officer halts him, asking what the noise is all about. Before the lean officer opens his mouth, we narrate all the dubious attempts by the immigration officers to extort from us to the superior officer.
He collects the passports, checks and confirms they are genuinely granted. “Sorry madam, sorry all, we are sorry for the embarrassment. You should have told them you were going for pilgrimage,” the big man pleads. “Sack them, sack them,” we all echo as the superior officer keeps cautioning the lean officer. To make up for the ill-treatment, the superior officer takes us to the last check where our passports were stamped.
At least, he saves us the stress of queuing on the long line.
About 45 minutes later (3:30pm), a baritone voice from the cockpit wakes up our senses. Hello, gentlemen and ladies. I am Hans Ered, your pilot. Welcome onboard Atlas Jet Airbus 330 to Athens. Our flight time is 1:30 minutes to Yola International Airport. From there we will pick other passengers and continue our journey to Athens in Greece – Turkey and later Tel Aviv in Israel. Ah! Yola ‘ke,’ exclaims a woman beside me.
It is after the pilot’s announcement that I discover how empty the Nigerian Christian Pilgrimage Commission (NCPC) branded aircraft is. However, the flight to Yola International Airport Jimeta is as timely and as smooth as the pilot predicts.
From the window, the long queue of intending pilgrims from Adamawa State (about 200 already stamped to board our aircraft), and their heaps of luggage look like a refugee camp scene. The difference is that there are no tents as I once experienced in Monrovia International Airport.
At 5pm, the aircraft hits the air again, cruises at 38,000ft above sea level, but with full capacity. The pilot announces again to welcome the rest of the passengers. This time, he says the flight time is 4:25 minutes for a 3393km to Athens in Greece.
Shortly, the intending pilgrims all from Adamawa State start singing in Hausa language – ‘Mugode Allah,’ ‘Yayi Yayi Yeso,’ among other beautiful tunes that my friend keeps interpreting to me. Yet, the Lagos passengers keep singing in Yoruba. The aircraft becomes noisy; the hostesses cannot help but serve and even cheer them up with force smiles.
With 90 percent of the Adamawa pilgrims travelling out of the country for the first time, there is more drama onboard than in DStv’s African Magic. They were not apprehensive of those things peculiar to first timers. They keep looking through the windows, laughing and gesticulating. With the free sitting arrangement, I change my seat and make new friends onboard. Foremost among them are Baba Manga, an 81-year-old man who keeps thanking his local government chairman for giving him the opportunity to see Jerusalem and pray at the wailing wall for his children before he dies. “After seeing Jerusalem, the city of God, I can now come home to die peacefully,” Manga enthuses in Hausa, which James Aliu, the most enlightened of them, sponsored by his elder brother, interprets.
The hostesses keep enduring the noisy passengers, after all, they are paid to serve us. The food is fine, but no alcohol. I call the most beautiful of the air hostesses and ask why no alcohol onboard. She notes it is an order by the client and not the airline policy.
However, we eat the decorated food, drink the water, and cover ourselves at night with the duvet.
The nightfall takes major part of the flight, denying the necks protruding almost outside the window from seeing the panoramic views of landscapes and countries we fly across.
But, on getting to Tripoli in Libya, the pilot gives update of the flight and announces that we will be flying across the Mediterranean Sea soon. With darkness, and apart from light from few vessels sailing to and fro the sea, the Mediterranean, a natural boundary between North Africa and Europe, looks expansive like the desert we just fly past but could not see because of darkness as well.
But as our aircraft descends into Athens, the city is even more alive. I wonder what it is at daytime. The city is more illuminated. The aircraft hovers a little, I guess for us to see the city more before landing on very long runway at 11:37pm Nigerian time and 12:37pm Greek time. That is after the hostesses make sure all the seat belts were fastened and phones still switched off. The claps, Alleluya, and shouts of joy excite even the crew.
The pilot once again announces that only pilgrims to Greece will alight while the rest of us continue our journey through Turkey. All the passengers from Lagos alight in Athens, except two – one Angela and I. They will spend three days in Greece before joining us in Israel.
Of course, Mama Iliya, as she is fondly called by some of the Adamawa pilgrims, packs her luggage and follows the Lagos people. It takes the patience of a woman from the Lagos pilgrims to convince and bring her back to join her people. “Our plane has landed in Jerusalem that was why I went down,” she responds on getting on board again. Haba! Which Jerusalem, chorus simultaneously, while a lot more laugh her to scorn.
After one hour (2am Greek time), the airbus 330 takes off again. We landed at Antalya in Turkey at 3am. The airport is the operational base of Atlas Jet. However, we alight from the aircraft at this airport and pass through the immigration where they issue us new boarding passes. They are strict and so search us despite we are intending pilgrims. There, we transfer into an airbus 321 aircraft, though smaller than the big NCPC branded Airbus 330 we arrive with, that stay behind for servicing for the return trip of pilgrims who have completed the 11-day spiritual exercise. We take off after one hour to Tel Aviv in Israel.
Apart from the meal on the Yola-Greece leg of the trip, we are given only water, though most people slept.
After about two hours of smooth flight (around 4:10am), we land in Ben Gurion Airport, Tel Aviv. The stamping in and luggage collection are very swift here. On leaving the airport, we appreciate how much volume it speaks of aviation technology and security.
Shalom, Shalom rends the air as Tabar Tours, the grand handler of the Adamawa State pilgrims, welcomes us to Israel with a promise of a fulfilling and enriching spiritual exercise in the Holy Land.
They share us in five buses, and assign a tour guide to take over from there. “Hello, my Nigerian friends, my name is Eshad Isher, your tour guide from Tabar Tours. We are setting off immediately to Tiberas or Galilee for our first tour,” he notes, while the bus zooms off for the two hours journey.
Our thinking that we can rest before any tour is dashed. But we have to move because pilgrimage, according to the NCPC coordinator at the airport, is not funfair. So, we set off without resting.
By: OBINNA EMELIKE
To be continued