July 15, 2009
The sun never set.
We flew into tomorrow across the Atlantic Ocean and the sun just never set. Sunset melted into sunrise in a seamless wash of blood-orange and fiery pink. Around 11pm they gave us breakfast and turned on the lights. “Good morning!” In one hour we would be landing. It was 6am Holland time; their day had only just begun.
Scott and I munched our Egg McMuffins and watched the world lighten outside, talking about everything from Borat’s irreverence and penchant for potty humor to the battle between evolutionary biology and Creationism to, my favorite, UFOs.
“They way I see it,” starts Scott, his green eyes twinkling from behind his enormous glasses that circle in wide arcs across is face, “they’re either here to use us for food or entertainment.” I smile uneasily. I am bizarrely self-conscious about our conversation. I do not normally talk about aliens, and even though I will never again see the people in the seats ahead of us, I am painfully self-conscious. This sounds totally crazy. I usually change the subject when my dad talks about aliens in public.
I didn’t expect a conversation with a complete stranger to take on quite such a life of its own, but 8 hours after boarding, Scott and I were still talking. He was interesting – an aging surfer-dude, an English major drop-out. He looks vaguely like he’s dressed for safari – beltless field pants and khaki snapdown shirt with two front pockets. But he’s wearing scuffed white tennis shoes and carrying a battered leather satchel. No, he’s not going on safari. He’s visiting the Ukranian family of his late wife. It is almost a year to the day that she, a translator with the looks of a model, 26 years his younger, died of rare and incurable synovial cancer.
The man is a walking contradiction. He does customer support for Verizon, yet doesn’t own a phone. He his smart and well-spoken, yet his thought process is penned up behind rigid pillars of belief that he can neither articulate nor defend. He is searching for answers to an existential question and denouncing science because it cannot provide the spiritual satisfaction he is searching for. We argue about the mechanics of evolutionary biology, and I wish I had with me any one of half-a-dozen of my colleagues who are better versed in this than I. We argue about species concept, direction and design, barriers to natural interbreeding, gradualism and venus flytraps. I desperately want to escape this circular conversation. Scott is searching for a “why” – but science can’t give him “why,” it can only give him “HOW” or “how come.” Science cannot make sense of the unbearable beauty and tragedy that we encounter in our lives, and this frustrates him.
Somehow we escape the circular debate with no resentment. We talk about the warmth and generosity of families from former USSR nations. About honesty in expression. About Beauty. About Freedom. About being meaningful in our lives. We talk the whole time and the world lightens around us and I do not even notice when we land.
That’s when I should have said goodbye, shaken hands, and wished him a heartfelt hope for luck in this life. But instead we got breakfast. I was tired and wanted to be alone with my thoughts and my little pocket-sized Swahili phrasebook. When he asked me, I told him that I rarely keep in touch with the people I’ve met along the way. It is hard to maintain the magic, I say, it seems to only prolong the end. Better to remember the friends I’ve made by spotlight searches through my memories, remembering them vibrant color, than to let them fade slowly out in dwindling mundane emails. I do not say that it is because it hurts me that people I love write me, and I do not find the time to write them back. Or that it hurts to never hear back from people that meant so much to me for a flashing moment in time. This keeps it simple.
When we part ways, he says with a sardonic smile “let’s keep in touch,” and I feel guilty for how impossible I’ve made that. I give him my CouchSurfing name and tell him he can find me there, but as we walk away, we both know that we will never speak again.
Alone for the first time, the Amsterdam airport is big and bustling. There are corner coffee bars where people stand with their lattes and cappuccinos – I guess this is a world where there is no time to sit down? But for one of the world’s international business and travel capitals, it does not feel as fresh or space-agey as I imagined. The toilet paper looks recycled and feels single-ply. But the people are beautiful and seem to know a dozen languages. I fall briefly in love with the young Indian guy working the chocolate counter. He greets me in English – a lucky guess? I ask, Or can you tell us by sight? He’s usually right, he says. He has a slicked up faux-hawk and the most beautiful voice I’ve ever heard in conversation. Before boarding my plane to Nairobe, I impulsively return to tell him this but he is gone. Oddly, that’s okay – he will remain in my mind as this flash in time – the boy with the beautiful voice.
And then I’m off. Somewhere between Sarejevo and Malta, the water below is deep blue and vast. I see the white wake of a boat below and tell myself it’s a great white whale, it’s tail fading into the blue behind it like brush strokes in an oil painting. Over the Ionian Sea I get a choice of Italian Pasta or Chicken and Rice. Floating across the Sahara I sip on a plastic cup of cabernet. The day before and the day ahead seem distant and surreal. I don’t know how long I’ve been traveling or how much farther I have to go.
It is still daylight when we land in Nairobe, where all the signs are happily in English. I stroll through the duty-free shops, stocked with $76 of Clinique perfume, generic luggage, and m&m’s. Once inside the pre-boarding area, I sit on the dusty carpet and curl up on top of my carry-on, my arms laced through my bags 5 times over. I’m no fool when it comes to watching my back, although I manage to misplace the stub of my boarding pass. It is a small airplane, the kind that you have to walk across the tarmac to climb into, and even though they have checked our passes, they need to check our stubs before we can climb the stairs into the little puddlejumper. So I kneel desperately on the tarmac fumbling through my bags with no success until the attendants take pity on me. They find my name on the roster and let me through. The plane’s not full, it doesn’t even matter; I can sit where I want.
It is after 11pm when we land in Dar es Salaam. I make it through the visa line in record speed, and am in a taxi-cab by 11:40. I barter with the driver before climbing in, warned by my colleagues that they are all in cahoots to rip of incoming tourists for a ride into town. I’ve practiced this conversation in Swahili again and again, but when the drivers swarm me outside the automatic sliding doors, I am caught of guard. “Taxi?!” They shout. And then in English: “How are you? Would you like a taxi?” Stunned, “Well, yes,” I say, “how much to the city center?” I kick myself. That was supposed to come out as “Ni gali gei kwenda Dar es Salaam?” When he tells me a price that is 4 times what it should be, again, I am too stunned to respond in Swahili. I lose momentum. So I feebly barter in English, with limited success. But it works, and despite the driver’s tendency to take red lights as subtle suggestions instead of law, we make it to the Luther House Hostel in one piece.
It is midnight, a full hour earlier than I had expected. I am ecstatic…and exhausted. I’m sharing a room with a German collaborator whom I have yet to meet – all I want is my own room so I can change the clothes I’ve been wearing for the last 2 days and fart in peace and privacy. But the hostel was full and we are on a tight budget. So I dutifully drag my leaden suitcase up the narrow steps. I’m a backpacker with a bum shoulder; I hate suitcases but have no choice. Phil has promised to have cold beer waiting upon my arrival, which he does. There’s a spotted cat on one. “Cheetah!” I say excitedly at quick glance. Yeah…it’s a leopard. He forgives me easily, if only because I also had to forgive him for booking the “double” room that had just one big bed instead of two twins.
We tried to switch it at the front desk – “You see,” we explain, “We just work together. In fact, we only met today.” “Ohhh,” says the clerk with a devilish grin. “Because if you were a couple, it would be a good thing!”
You kind of have to love this country.