And away we go…

Crossing that gap between the preparation and actual start of a trip is an imperceptible thing. When you’re knee deep in unanswered voicemail to some West African consulate that won’t tell you why they’ve returned your visa application unprocessed, or staring at your stacks of “summer weight” shirts trying to remember which ones you treated with Permethrin for your last foray into malarialand, you can’t look forward and pick the point at which the Trip Will Have Started. Is it when you’ve zipped the suitcase closed for the seventeenth (and final) time before throwing it into the car? When you’ve kissed your wife goodbye and stepped through the sliding glass doors? I don’t think you can say in advance when it’s going to happen – you just know when it has. Your breathing changes, your posture relaxes and, in some way – some way I don’t yet have words for – your senses broaden. It’s the feeling you get when stepping outside on a bright day. Suddenly you notice sounds, smells – the feeling of a light wind on your cheek. That laser focus of the pre-trip checklist: which tube of toothepaste? Sweater or fleece? Neck pillow? That focus is gone, and you can release yourself into the flow of the stream your preparations have laid out for you.

And what preparations they’ve been. Maybe it’s like having kids, where you never remember how much trouble the last one was when you start on the next, but I don’t think I’ve ever wrestled with more exasperating logistics. Granted, this is Africa we’re talking about, but still. The Nigerian Embassy sub-plot is worth a post on its own, but there were so many more so-bad-they’re-funny episodes that that I don’t know where to start. Those of you who follow me on Facebook or G+ have already been apprised of my discovery that Air Nigeria isn’t apparently in the habit of accepting credit cards on the phone (oh, the irony!) – if you want a one-way ticket from Lagos to Accra, they recommend you buy one in person at their walk-up counter. Sigh.

The fact that I’ve had to wrestle with this bit of knowledge is a decent portent of the trip ahead.

I’m headed for Nigeria, first of all, but you’d figured that one out already. Four days there to help with a Google event in Lagos, then off to Accra (Ah-‘crah, emphasis on second syllable) to meet up with the rest of my Google.org team. We’re spending a week in Ghana meeting with local developers and technology users to learn more about information access challenges faced by “underserved populations”. More about that as it develops. We’ll be spending most of the week around the perimeter of Accra, then heading north to Tamale (‘Ta-mah-lay – emphasis on first syllable) for a couple of days investigations there.

Running our fingers over the enormous map of Africa that covers our communal meeting table back in Mountain View, I observed to no one in particular that from Tamale, it was only an afternoon’s drive across the border to Ouagadougou, in Burkina Faso to the north. A place like Ouagadougou (Waga-doo-goo, or apparently “Ouaga” to the locals) is somewhere you want to visit just for the sound of its name. Pete looked up and volunteered: “I’m in.”

Alas, we’re not going to have time for this particular cross-border foray, but I am looking forward to traveling with this team. We’ve been working together, mostly at our desks, for the past four months: Paul, Pete, Jenny, Greg and I, but I’ve got a feeling that this trip will really cement the team. And I’m looking forward to that. Some projects I’ve joined, it’s been for the lofty mission, or sometimes just out of convenience. But this project? It’s for the team – I really like these guys, and love working with them, on pretty much whatever they decide needs to be done.

So here I am, eastbound. The sun is somewhere behind us, throwing long shadows over low hills below covered by a spiderweb tangle of suburban developments. We next touch ground in Atlanta, then comes the long haul across the ocean to Lagos. Wild, exotic-and-a-little-bit-scary Lagos – not a place I would ever have expected to find myself. I’m getting a little bit of a tingle thinking about it; I guess that means the trip has really started.

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