It's true. Last week I flew to Nigeria, of all the random places in the world, and asked my girlfriend, Rene Marshall, to marry me. And guess what? She said yes.
Here's the full scoop, minus the spit-swapping and other TMI sorts of things:
So, as many of you may already know, I have been dating this girl, Rene Marshall, since the summer of 2005 when we met at camp and decided, after some awkward salsa dancing and capsized sailboats, that we liked each other. We have dated long distance throughout much of our relationship-- me in Paris, Rene in the States; Rene hiking the Appalachian Trail, me at Middlebury; Rene being in Nigeria, me being in Guinea. Despite the separation, however, we've continued to grow closer and closer over these past three years.
After visiting with Rene in Northern Ireland last year, I felt a real peace about the idea of marriage in a way that I hadn't ever felt before. I began praying about proposing and felt God giving me the green light. Over Christmas, I asked her folks if it was cool, and they both said to "go get 'em slugger." Well, not in as many words, but they gave their blessing. So I decided to start planning a ridiculously cool, amazingly romantic, stunning surprise proposal trip to Nigeria, where Rene was and is working as a Youth Camp Coordinator for Serving in Mission (SIM).
Rene's little sister, Kari, happens to be working in Nigeria as well. The same city and everything. How helpful! I had been thinking, for a long time, of surprising Rene with a proposal in a way that was creative, fun, and communicated to her just how special she was. Guitars, campfires, scandalously romantic poems came to mind. So, after I got back from my X-mas trip to the States, I emailed Kari and asked her if, indeed, it was possible to come to Nigeria without Rene knowing it and propose. She said, "go get 'em slugger." Well, not in as many words, but she said she could help make it work. So we got to work with the nitty-gritties: visas, plane tickets, dates, rides from airports, places to stay, etc. We worked it out so that Rene-- wonderful, oblivious Rene-- would think that I was coming to visit at the end of May, when, in reality, I was actually coming to visit on April 21st. And Kari-- my inside woman-- made it all happen on the Nigeria end, with help from other folks as well. I was to show up in Abuja early on the 21st, be taken to the camp where Rene was working, and propose, in stunningly unforgettable fashion.
So-- plane ticket bought, rides arranged, passport in hand, butterflies in stomach, I boarded the plane from Guinea to Nigeria and prayed for the best.
The flight from Conakry to Lagos was four hours late. Thus, I got into Lagos-- the second most dangerous city in the world for clueless white dudes, studies show-- at midnight. I was terrified. Kari had said that she had set up a person to meet me at the airport and put me up for the night, but of course, this was Africa-- why would anything go "according to plan?" Silly western notions. So if Plan A didn't come off, I was planning on holding up my wallet and passport, writing "ROB ME" on my forehead in permanent marker, skipping out the airport singing "It's a Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood" and hoping for the best. Yet, thanks to my wonderful planners, I got to stick to Plan A and was met by a Nigerian man named Stephen who held a sign saying "Kyle Rene." I figured, since I knew 50% of the people represented on that sign, it must apply to me, and so I approached the man, shook his hand vigorously, and asked him if he was indeed the person who was supposed to meet me here. He said yes. Woohoo! So, in typical wonderful African hospitality, I was taken from the airport, showered, fed, hosted, and generally well loved until the next morning, when I was taken back to the airport to get my flight to Abuja, and from there, a car ride to Rene's camp in a town called Gombe.
Unfortunately, I missed my flight to Abuja. Two things caused this: 1) me having my clock an hour behind (I gained a time zone coming to Nigeria) and 2) African punctuality (or lack thereof). Stephen, my main man, came into my room at what I thought was 5:30am, and told me to get ready to go to the airport for my 6:50am flight. No problem, right? Except that it was 6:30 and I had twenty minutes to catch my flight! So it wasn't until I was being driven out onto the tarmac, watching my plane's outside door being closed and sealed, that I glanced at the clock on the car I was in and realized I was indeed an hour behind. Grrrr.
So, trying to keep my breathing pattern normal, I hurried back into the airport and went to the airline desk.
"Uh, sir?" I accosted the disinterested airline official. "I just missed my flight and need to get to Abuja. What do I do?"
The man gestured at the ticket window. "Go buy a new ticket. Plenty of airlines have flights to Abuja today."
"I don't have any Naira. Is there any way you can just put me on a new flight?" I gave him my best pathetic-white-dude look and smiled beseechingly.
"Go talk to the people at the counter," he said.
I thanked him and walked over to the ticket counter. There were three large Nigerian women behind the glass.
"Good morning, ladies-- I just missed my flight to Abuja and I was wondering if there's any way I can get on a new flight this morning."
I tried to look cute. They all looked at each other.
"Bellview Airlines only has one flight a day. You can come back tomorrow morning and catch the early flight," one woman said.
"I need to get to Abuja today though-- are there any other flights?" I asked.
"Why do you need to get to Abuja today?" one asked.
"I'm proposing to my girlfriend." I smiled winningly and gave her bambi eyes. They all laughed and clapped.
"Well-- in that case, paying 14,000 Naira for a new ticket shouldn't be a problem, right? Anything for a proposal!" the woman said.
"But ma'am," I said, "I don't have any Naira! Do you guys take credit cards?"
They shook their heads.
"Is there any way you can help me?" I pleaded.
They all looked at each other, again. The one on the right typed a few things in her computer and printed off a receipt. "Here--" she said, "Take this money and go buy a ticket on the Afrijet flight at 8:15." She refunded my ticket and handed me the cash.
I wanted to kiss her.
"Thank you, thank you, thank you, all of you!"
I dashed over to the Afrijet counter, got a new ticket, and went to the gate to board my new plane. Sweet, sweet, Bellview Airlines employees!
Arriving in Abuja, I was met by two Nigerian guys-- Victor and Shammah. They told me that they had been informed of the grand plan, and had been commissioned by Kari and co. to escort me out to Rene's camp in Gombe. Shammah even had a video camera, and told me he was going to take lots of film "to make the engagement even more special." Great idea. We all piled into Victor's van and drove the nine hours to Gombe.
We got there after dark due to the looooong drive, and had a quick team meeting. I had wanted a) to have some kind of campfire to invite Rene to and b) to have a chance to shower, change, and look presentable after 24 hrs of continuous travel. Neither seemed to be feasable, due to three hours of torrential rain and the location of Rene's camp being at a local school. So, I threw on a collared shirt, hastily applied some Old Spice in the back of the van, and told the guys I was ready.
Prepping the big surprise, we found a spare classroom that was a little ways away from the rest of camp and arrayed our flashlights around the room in order to provide a sufficient amount of light for the video camera. I grabbed my guitar, checked to be sure it was in tune, and positioned myself with my back to the door. One of the camp staff went and got Rene and told her to come because "a camper was crying and needed to talk to her."
We waited a few minutes. I fiddled with my guitar. Agony.
I heard her feet, shuffling across the floor behind me, my heart leaped into my throat, and then:
"No freaking way."
I turned slightly, to see Rene: hair askew, eyes squinted, staring at me, smiling, shaking her head slowly back and forth.
"Are you kidding me?" she asked rhetorically, still staring.
I smiled back and told her to have a seat on the bench in front of me. She sat down slowly, still shaking her head. I took a deep breath and proceeded to play our favorite song, the song we were both singing when we first met: "In Christ Alone." I strummed and sang the first and last verses, and then pulled out a letter I had written to her and read it. I told her I loved her and asked her to marry me.
And guess what? She said yes!
So, turns out we're engaged! Rene and I had a wonderful week in Nigeria together-- visiting with her friends, seeing the work that she's involved with, walking through the Jos market, eating meat pies, going on a safari (sans animals, phooey), playing ultimate frisbee with the horde of missionaries that live in the city. It was a joyous week, if short. It looks like we'll be having the wedding early next summer, after we both get back from Africa. Should be a blast!
Thanks for reading. There'll be more from Guinea in the next installment.