By Muyiwa Adetiba

My first trip out of Nigeria in almost three years started with a phone call from my daughter and my nephew. They must have worked on a sales pitch together. My brother who had over the years, shown an even greater unwillingness to travel, had been persuaded to attend his granddaughter’s graduation ceremony in the UK. 

From there, he was to head for the US to spend time with his son’s family. The package for him included attending his youngest grandson’s birthday party and watching some US Open matches live. Having succeeded with him, the challenge was to use him as a bait to lure me out. Everybody in my family knows I love sports especially tennis and would often stay up late to watch matches across time zones.

Perhaps more than that, those close to me enough know I desire to watch at least a top level tennis match live. I wish to experience the atmosphere and the ambience of a live match. I wish to experience what a 200km per hour serve feels like. My daughters had suggested Wimbledon or one of the Masters series where the top players would feature.

These offers were enticing but not enough to overcome the challenges of visas, airline tickets and sheer inertia. There had to be more to the package. My brother coming over, my wife being in the US, as many members of the family as possible converging in New York to make a family reunion of sorts, added to the package. Hence the sales pitch where a promise of a semi-final ticket was made among other inducements.

The trip to the airport could not have started on a worse note. I woke up on time to crosscheck my travel documents as usual. To my consternation, I couldn’t find where I had hidden my hard won and much treasured Basic Travel Allowance (BTA) – people my age will find this familiar.

It took twenty, almost thirty minutes of frantic searches to figure it out. By then I had become panicky because it had upset my carefully planned timetable. It was a Monday morning and I had no idea what the traffic to the airport would be like. Mercifully, it was good. Even the queue around the dropping off area was kind.  I had made it to the terminal on time.

Although the process of checking in was more orderly than I had feared, I still found a bit of congestion. It turned out there was an online form that had to be filled. An official offered to fill it for me. He didn’t ask for money. The immigration and customs officers were nice and chatty. It would be cynical of me to suggest it was all in anticipation of money since no overt request was made.

The airport itself didn’t seem to have witnessed any change in the three years I had been away from it. The moving walkway or travellator wasn’t working – I’d have been surprised if it did. The plane departed on time which was a relief in itself given the threats of several airlines to stop flying into Nigeria because of remittances at the time.

I had barely settled onto my seat when the Inspector General of Police walked in. In my younger days, I would have found a way to strike up a conversation to get a few quotes off him since he was just a few seats behind me and it was a long flight. Instead, I smiled and kept to myself like all elders do. Time happens to everyone.

My trip to the US crisscrossed a few States and I won’t bore readers with details. But two lessons are worth pointing out. One happened in New York and the other in Washington D.C. The first week of the US Open was mostly about Serena Williams who was drawing the curtains on an illustrious career.

I am not a Serena fan but so much was the sentiment around her in the media that I was tempted to go to Flushing Meadows for her last hurray. Fortunately, the price of tickets had gone off the roof. What struck me as I watched her on TV was her intensity during her matches. She took every point as seriously as she did throughout her playing career. Many people expected her to go out in the first round.

She did not. She kept surprising her fans and the tennis public with one set after the next. At 41, she appeared very fit. She must have subjected her body to a strict regime to be in that shape. The lesson here is that those who desire fame and fortune must realise that they come with a package of hard work, determination and self-denial. While a star dropped off in the first week, another was born in the second week.

A certain Carlos Alcaraz became the youngest player to win the US Open in 30 years. And at 19, he also became the youngest No 1 player in the world! It’s too early to tell what the future portends, but Carlos has the skill set to go far in his chosen profession. But then talent alone is never enough to stay at the top in any vocation.

You need luck, a steely determination, a willingness to keep reinventing yourself and a support system that can handle the demands of success. Time happened to Serena after 25 glorious years. It will happen to Carlos too. What matters is what he does with the intervening years.

In Washington D.C, I went to Ground Zero in anticipation of the 21st anniversary the following week of an event that shook the whole world. It was in late afternoon and the crowd had thinned out. This afforded me the opportunity to spend more private time around the ‘scene of crime’. I looked at the names of thousands of people who went to work that day and never returned home.

I looked at the names of hundreds of people who took a flight that day but never reached their desired destination. I looked at the names of dozens of fire fighters and rescue workers who died trying to save lives. And because of this dastardly act twenty-one years ago, many courses have been altered irretrievably and the world has not been the same since then. Although many of the perpetrators have been brought to a form of justice as the world knows justice, it’s hard to find closure in the hearts of those who have had to pick up the pieces.  

I remember distinctly where I was when one hijacked plane struck the first of the twin towers of the World Trade Centre. I remember the incredulity. And then the horror. Five days later, I was shot by armed robbers on my way home and left for dead. The lesson here is that every day and every journey could be the last. I was lucky to have survived. Thousands of the 9/11 victims were not. Let us therefore strive to touch lives positively whenever we can. It could be our last act on earth. 

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