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The Misadventures Of My Anti-Ebola Suitcase

Anders Kelto's suitcase took its chlorine wipes on a detour to Paris.
Anders Kelto
Anders Kelto's suitcase took its chlorine wipes on a detour to Paris.

Over the past five years, I've traveled around Africa quite a bit. I've been trained in how to escape from a minefield and what to do if I'm taken hostage. I've been followed by police officers in Zimbabwe, threatened with arrest in Ethiopia, had my phone stolen in South Africa, and been shaken down for cash by a cop in military fatigues (swinging an AK-47 by his hip) in Kenya. I've also been on more scary cab rides than I care to remember. In short, I feel well-prepared to report from just about anywhere on the continent.

But when I was asked last month if I was willing to travel to Sierra Leone to cover Ebola, I felt the same twinge of anxiety that many journalists must feel. I was excited to go, but also slightly nervous. After all, this was Ebola.

To figure out how to protect myself, I began doing a lot of research. I read Ebola safety guidelines, spoke with returning reporters and attended an Ebola security briefing here at NPR. I read scientific reports to determine how we know what we know about the disease. Eventually, I felt prepared.

My last stop before departure was my local Target. I was armed with a list of recommended items: hand sanitizer, rubber gloves, chlorine wipes, rubber boots, throwaway clothes, a first aid kit and much, much more. I bought everything on the list and packed my suitcase with remarkable precision.

The next day, at Reagan National Airport in Washington D.C., I checked the 60-pound bag onto the first of four flights.

Twenty-four hours later, my producer, Peter Breslow, and I stood by the baggage carousel in the Casablanca airport. As the conveyor belt ground to a halt, I got a sinking feeling. And it wasn't just because a Muzak version of the The Godfather theme song was playing on repeat in the eerily empty airport.

My bag was nowhere to be seen.

Peter and I headed to the baggage office and filed a claim. It seemed the suitcase had somehow gone from Washington to Atlanta, then Paris — when it should have gone to Detroit, then Amsterdam, then Casablanca. An Air France pilot strike had just begun, meaning the company had no way to forward my bag to West Africa. The suitcase was stranded in Paris' Charles de Gaulle airport.

The next day, when we arrived at our hotel in Freetown, Sierra Leone, I got on the phone with a Delta baggage representative back in the U.S. and made my predicament clear.

"I'm in the heart of the Ebola epidemic, and the supplies that I need to keep me safe were put on the wrong flight. How are you going to get me my suitcase?" I said, trying not to raise my voice.

"I'm sorry, at this point we can't help," she replied.

Because the last leg of the journey was operated by a subsidiary of Air France, Delta said it was no longer responsible for my luggage — even though it was a Delta baggage handler who had sent the bag to the wrong airport. And because of the Air France strike, they said, there was nothing they could do anyway.

The supplies we had brought in our carry-on luggage would only last a few days. Plus, Sierra Leone was about to undergo a three-day national lockdown, meaning all stores and businesses would be closed. We concluded that we might have to head home much sooner than expected — possibly just three days after arriving.

In something of a last-ditch effort, we asked our local fixer, Umaru Fofana, a question that I assumed was a lost cause.

"Could we get all the supplies we need tonight, before the lockdown begins?" I said.

"Of course," he replied calmly.

Having read about shortages of medical supplies in Sierra Leonean hospitals, I had assumed there would be a similar lack of hand sanitizer, disinfectant spray, rubber boots and so on in local stores. But we found a bustling supermarket stocked with everything we needed.

"The cleaning stuff has really been moving lately," the store manager said. "It's been a profitable few weeks."

Contrary to what many people assume — and what is sometimes reported — trade between West Africa and the rest of the world has continued. Yes, there have been some problems — notably a food shortage that has driven up prices by roughly 25 percent — but at of the end of September, none of these problems had prevented supermarkets in Freetown from offering an impressive selection of chlorine wipes, bug spray and soap.

Over the next few days, I spent much of my limited free time calling baggage offices in four different countries, with various levels of success at communicating. A colleague back in Washington, D.C., who speaks English, French and Arabic helped. But we were unable to determine whether the suitcase was in Paris, Casablanca, Freetown, Washington — or somewhere else altogether.

I had the same phone conversation with the same guy at the Casablanca baggage office almost every morning. He would tell me my suitcase had arrived from Paris on Flight 1496 "this morning," and that he had forwarded it to Sierra Leone. I would reply that Flight 1496 had been canceled because of the pilot strike. How could my bag have arrived on a flight that never took off?

"Sir, I assure you, it arrived on that flight," he would say. And the next morning, we would have the same conversation all over again.

Finally, on the last day of our two-week trip, our fixer, Umaru, called the Freetown airline office, just in case my bag had somehow arrived.

"Yes," they told him. "It's here."

I rushed — quite skeptically — to the office. Much to my surprise, there, in the back corner of the dimly lit room, was my completely ordinary-looking — but now suddenly beautiful — black suitcase.

I was told it had been sitting there for about five days. For some reason, no one had thought to contact me, even though it was blocking an employee entrance, meaning people must have literally straddled or stepped over it every time they entered or exited.

The bag's impressive collection of tags suggested it had had quite a grand tour, visiting Belgium, Spain and Morocco en route to Sierra Leone. I grabbed the suitcase, rushed back to my hotel and then headed for the airport. I rechecked the bag, having never opened it.

Our our way home, we passed through the Casablanca airport and said hello to the baggage officer who had fielded my phone calls for the past two weeks.

"I sent it!" he shouted the moment he saw us, apparently assuming we had flown back to accost him. The Godfather theme still played ominously in the background.

When we got back to D.C., I again stood by the baggage carousel, this time at Dulles airport. It seemed to be taking longer than usual for my bag to arrive. Then, the conveyor belt again came to a halt, and I got that same sinking feeling. Once again, my suitcase was nowhere to be seen. I realized that I had packed my remaining doses of malaria medicine in the bag.

But this time, I didn't panic.

Two days later, the bag was safely delivered to my front door. As I write this, a month after my return, I am both Ebola- and malaria-free.

And I have an impressive supply of hand sanitizer and alcohol spray for my next trip.

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