As we checked in at Boston’s Logan airport, we chatted with a remarkably friendly employee; she scanned our passports and printed boarding passes and luggage tags. Then the moment of truth: weighing the bags.

Between us two, we had four bags to check, each stuffed to the gills, and four carry-on items, also jam-packed.

We had packed in our respective hometowns, both with no idea what to expect — as our employer honestly didn’t quite know what to prepare us for. Would we be working in an overrun ETU, managing patients? Would we be helping to construct a new ETU from the ground up? Would we be a community liaison for infrastructure reconstruction and rebuilding?

And regardless of what our professional roles would be, we’d packed enough from home to keep us healthy – mentally and physically – for the next six weeks. Clothes for the transition from rainy to dry season. Bedding, malaria nets, electronics. Over-the-counter medications for a range of possible ailments, prescription meds for prophylaxis and treatment of common ones. Snacks, electrolyte powders, peanut M&Ms (they don’t melt as fast in the heat). A good luck charm from a friend in New York, a bracelet from a roommate.

The damage was grim – each and every bag weighed over 50 pounds. Three of the four were only a pound or two over, and thus had a blind eye turned to their small excesses. But one was well over 50, un-ignorable, and the airline employee said as much with some regret.

We both nodded. “We know,” we said, calm and accepting. “We’re more than happy to pay the fees for it; we knew it would be well over the limit.”

She eyed us for a moment.

“You’re flying there to help, aren’t you?”

We nodded again. Up until this point, we had not mentioned our reasons for travelling to West Africa. “We’re nurses.”

“Hang on a minute,” she said, and stepped away from her computer and back into an office. She came back a moment later, tagged our bags, and hauled them onto the conveyor belt. “No charge,” she said, and handed us our boarding passes. “And good luck.”

~ ~ ~

After “cold training” at the Mock ETU and “hot training” at the real ETU, we were given our tickets to deploy to our work sites. But they came with an unexpected restriction — no more than 20 kilos of luggage. Period. Due to the aircraft being used, all carry-on, check bags, all of it could not exceed 44 pounds.

One nurse started to laugh. “This sounds like flying into the bush in Alaska. I used to wear almost all of my clothes on my person, so they wouldn’t count toward my baggage allowance. They’d weigh me before boarding, and stick me on one side of the plane, and all the locals on the other to balance it out!”

Someone ran out to market and bought a luggage scale, and the cull began.

Spare pair of shoes: Out.
Duct tape: In.
Hardcover books: Out.
Solar charger: In.
Sleeping bag, down jacket, winter hat: Out.
Rain Jacket: In.**
A dozen protein bars: Out.
A jar of peanut butter: In. (it lasts for more meals than the bars)

We each planned to leave a second bag at the compound; the hope was that it would be shipped to us within the next two weeks on a freight flight. But we realized that there were things we would never need and could never use, and then we discovered the Sisters.

Another nurse in the group had volunteered with this charitable religious order on previous trips to Africa, and was delighted to find a convent down the street from our dorms. She spent several afternoons with them, catching up on news and sharing stories of mutual acquaintances. She relayed this to us at dinner, and we all exchanged glances across the table.

“Could they possibly use some donations?”

Into two enormous shopping bags went clothes, scrubs, shoes, excess OTC meds, vitamins, supplements, sani-wipes, hand sanitizer, gloves, masks, galoshes, socks, pencils, sugar, Ovaltine, tea, instant coffee, bandages, soap. A nurse came to my room with an armful of goods for the bags, and grinned. “You know, I’d packed a lot of extra stuff, planning to leave most of it behind. I just didn’t expect to be doing it so soon!”

~ ~ ~

The moment of truth. One by one we hooked up our bags and lifted the scale. My turn: 19 kilos.

The peanut M&Ms could stay.

– – –

**The tail end of the rainy season is lingering here as an effect of global warming; one Liberian-American nurse at training, deeply disturbed by the change, said that when she was growing up in Liberia they would be well into harmattan by this time.