“All news out of Africa is bad. It made me want to go there, though not for the horror, the hot spots, the massacre-and-earthquake stories you read in the newspaper; I wanted the pleasure of being in Africa again. Feeling that the place was so large it contained many untold tales and some hope and comedy and sweetness, too… feeling that there was more to Africa than misery and terror …”
–Paul Theroux, Dark Star Safari
There is something about airports. An airport’s vibrancy is not the chaos of a city center, where any given person could be doing anything, going anywhere, or doing nothing and going nowhere at all. At the airport, we each have a departure point and a fixed destination. We are united in divergence, taking paths that crisscross the globe in predictable ways. This is a steady rhythm, the flow of a river toward the ocean, as people from all walks of life are carried through these narrows and into a broad delta, where they continue to uncharted lengths and depths, to meet unknown creatures and swim unfathomable currents.
Airplanes, too, have a certain charm for me, despite the discomforts: the slow trickle of blood into feet, tightening shoes and numbing toes; the dry, close air which tugs at throats and muddies ears; the way voices carry a bit too far, amplifying the wails of an uncomfortable child or the rhinoceros snores of a hefty man. Or there is the way the toilets suck at the air like goliath leeches when they flush; I don’t think I’ve ever stopped fearing, somewhere in the back of my mind, that they will swallow all of the air in the lavatory and take me along with it.
Perhaps what outweighs these miniature terrors lies just outside of the aircraft windows: the way the sunrise paints a scarlet, rose, gold, and navy backdrop to the South African flag painted on the wing stabilizers, in a palette that somehow only materializes when you’re hanging high in the atmosphere; the tiny crystal cobwebs that trace patterns on the window, melting into dewdrops as the airplane descends; the way the tin-roof glimmers or sodium pinpricks of settlements on the African landscape below seem to pass at a snail’s pace despite the airplane’s incredible speed; the way the clouds below reach toward you like stiffly whipped cream, ripple like a bowl of hot soup gently blown, or lay smoothly over the brown earth, a salty patina on a cracked mud flat.
As we descended toward Johannesburg, unpaved roads stretched over farmland like pale threads pulled taught. A flock of milk-white sacred ibises floated in formation above a wet, green landscape. Soon freeways appeared; an offramp curled like shaved chocolate from an overpass, only to end in dust and brush before it reached the road below.
A thud, a hop, and my stomach leapt momentarily into my throat as we returned to earth after 14 suspended hours. Then I was passing through customs. A round African woman in a blue uniform approached me.
“What is in that bag?” she asked, pointing to the large, oddly-shaped grey duffel that hung from my shoulder.
“It’s a backpacking backpack.” I responded.
“A backpack,” I said, making a motion like shouldering a bag.
“I don’t understand,” she said in a heavy African accent – Zulu or Xhosa, perhaps.
“It’s um…a bag you carry on your back?” I tried. I set it down and made to open it up and show her.
“Ah…a schoolbag?” She inquired before I could get the zipper open.
“Yes! Exactly. But bigger.”
“Oh okay,” she said, dragging the two words together, and waved me through.
I proceeded to the South African Airways counter to recheck my bags for my short flight to Pietermaritzburg. The nametag of the woman behind the counter indicated that she was called Patience, but she tapped her long fingernails and breathed heavily out of her nose as she waited for me to decide whether to pay the excess baggage fee. I finally relented and set off to find a wireless internet connection.
I started by asking at Mugg & Bean, a South African chain restaurant offering coffee and a wide array of international food. I had gotten wi-fi from there the last time I had passed through the Johannesburg Airport. I asked the host if they had wireless internet.
“What?” he replied. It was becoming the standard response, and I began to wonder whether I was laying on the American accent too thickly.
“Internet…wi-fi? Wireless internet? For my laptop?”
“Oh…no, try Wimpy.” I wandered over to Wimpy, a burgers and fries type of fast-food restaurant. (I can’t imagine how they’ve succeeded with a name like that in a country where masculinity is so highly valued.)
The woman behind the counter looked at me as I approached, and then turned to chat with one of her coworkers. They spoke in an African language and howled with laughter every few seconds. I stood across the counter from her as she leaned in profile, and waited for her to speak to me. Five minutes later, her coworker slipped away and she turned back to the counter, bent over, and began writing in a ledger without glancing in my direction. After a few minutes, I coughed gently, and she rolled her eyes upward.
“Can I help you?” She asked unsmilingly in a bored voice.
“Sorry… do you have wireless internet here?”
“Eh, no. Ask at Mugg & Bean.”
I thanked her and left. I clearly wasn’t going to get any help in the food court, so I began following the arrowed signs overhead that said “Wi-fi Hotspot.” I walked down a long, empty corridor, these signs appearing every 10 meters or so, and found myself standing in a corner at a locked double-door. I turned around and walked the other way, until the signs simply stopped in front of some souvenir shops. Exasperated, I headed downstairs to the information desk.
“All around here is wireless. Everywhere there is wireless,” he told me.
“Even at the restaurants upstairs?”
“Yes, even there,” he said. So I returned to the Mugg & Bean to drink a mocha and write emails until it was time to board my flight to Pietermaritzburg.
Maritzburg, the capital of the South African province of KwaZulu-Natal, is surrounded by a grid of eucalyptus and pine plantations, sliced neatly into blocks by pin-straight roads. As we flew low over them, I watched the harvest cycle play out below me like a flipbook – bare land, neighbored by a block of saplings, and acres of mature trees undulating with those of a lesser height. Closer to the airport there were red-brick government buildings, tracts of assembly-line suburban homes, tin-roofed shacks, a gaping quarry, a sprawling dump. I stepped off the propeller plane into the tiny, one-room airport, where I collected my bags from a raised platform and embraced an old friend. I glanced back out of the windows overlooking the tarmac and paused for a moment to watch the smoke rise in pillars from the countless controlled burns in the hills around town. During my first days as an exchange student in Maritzburg last year, I remember strolling across campus when pale flecks began to fall from the sky. My first reaction was, “Snow?” though reason quickly led me to abandon that notion. One of the flecks landed on my arm, and I rubbed it into a fine grey powder – ash. A few months later I entered a third-floor dormitory kitchen one morning to find the counters hidden beneath a thick dusting of the grey substance. The frequent burns also contribute to the haze that blankets the town, forced into low inversion layers – and consequently, into unsuspecting lungs – during the winter months.
And then I was back in the city, where it seemed that nothing had changed. I went with a couple of old friends to burger and beer night at Frankie Bananaz, a restaurant and bar whose menus are interspersed with photos straight out of a copy of Maxim magazine – slender girls in bikinis, gazing out from the laminated pages with sultry stares. The waitresses, too, approximate that stereotype. I’ve never been to a Hooter’s, but I imagine that the work uniforms on the girls at Frankie’s aren’t much different. After dinner, I spent some time reminiscing with friends, and then went to sleep, while outside my window the sodium streetlights glowed the neon hue of baked butternut squash.
…to be continued…