Category Archives: Airports


Early morning airport. It’s still dark when I arrive. Inside the airport is bright and clean and quiet. Too early even for the airport annoncements. Too early.

A woman in a brown frilly dress and sparkly high-heel shoes walks by. Her eyes are dead, tired. A young couple struggles past – she pushing a loaded trolley, he in a wheelchair.

Downstairs, a man sits alone at a food-court table. Around him, counters are closed, neon signs are dark, chairs are still stacked on tables. He leans close to his laptop, typing furiously.

A man stands with his suitcase, staring blankly into the window-display of a still-closed airport bookshop. He starts as the shop clerk begins to roll up the security doors, and walks away.

Check in. A slow, empty space. So different from the chaos of families and groups and nervous first-time-flyers of the afternoon.

Security checkpoint is quiet. In the queue, a few people chat – acquaintances chance met at the airport. I smile thinking of similar chance meetings. Others in the line stand silent. Blank faces. Tired eyes. Hollow people waiting for the day to catch up with their wakefulness. Waiting for the day to begin.

A brightly lit restaurant offers coffee, greasy breakfast, muesli, yoghurt. Whatever it takes to get you through the day. To get you to the day. A day of work. A day of meetings. I stand, waiting for my take-away coffee and people-watch. Waiting.

My flight is called. A warning: boarding is about to begin. Waiting.

A man sits in the seats at the next gate, watching, tense. As if he is avoiding his own flight. His sandy hair brushes the collar of his casual shirt. Shorts and sandals. Unusual for the businessman’s 6am flight.

Two schoolboys sit nearby. Wide black and white ties, black blazers, school trousers. School uniform. Flying home for the break? One reads his book. One plays on his cellphone.

Next to them, a well-dressed, fashionable man. Not that I know much about fashion these days, but he is distinct; different from the standard dark-suited men. His shirt is tight, his hair spiked, he wears what must be designer jeans. He sits tik-tik-typing on his laptop, looking harried and rushed and self-important.

We wait.

Beside me sits a women in a red shirt and black skirt. Just a touch unstylish. A little messy. Perhaps some kind of lecturer? Later an overheard conversation on the plane: she is a recruitment specialist.

Boarding begins and I join the queue. Behind me, colleagues chat away in a mix of English and Zulu, laughing at some shared joke. Ahead, a good looking man with salt-and-pepper hair drags a black suitcase. It is one of the newer ones – a well-made hard case with a single handle, cabin-baggage size.

The line moves forward. We can see the plane. The sun has just begun to streak the overcast sky orange-pink. The line moves forward. I am with them, among them – these early-morning work-zombies. Flying to Johannesburg just for a day. Thousands of kilometres for a single meeting. The line moves forward.

The plane is cool and fresh. First flight of the day.  I slide into my window seat. A semi-regular seat. Today I sit in 23A. Last week it was 23F. They announce that the name of today’s pilot is Zooty. The plane fills up.

Safety demonstration. The same safety demonstration as every other time. I try to remember what it was like hearing that for the first time, the first time I flew (at least that I can remember) ten years ago. I can’t recall. I can’t imagine a time before these instructions were so familiar. I can’t remember how it was before travelling was so normal, so natural, so always.

We wait.

The plane taxis and picks up speed. That familiar lift, that moment of lightness as we take to the air. I exhale. The day begins.

As the sugar-cane fields and the silver sea drop away below me, I’m thinking of the next step, the next phase, the next adventure. A step, I hope, towards a life less ordinary. A life many airports away.

Weekend in motion

The weekend started at 5am on a Thursday. It wasn’t a long-weekend, really, but Thursday was a public holiday, so one day off turned it into one. I woke up anxious. I’m always anxious before travel, worried I’m forget something, scared I won’t wake up on time, nervous bookings haven’t been made, even when I’ve sorted them out myself. None of it ever happens, but the anxiety wakes me early. By the time my alarm goes off, I’m wide awake.

6am. Dawn is breaking over Durban as we speed towards the city. It takes half an hour to reach the bus station. 40 minutes really. It’s the first time I’ve taken a bus from the Durban station, I realise. The first time I’ve been since I arrived by bus, just over a year ago, moving to KZN.

Check in, stow luggage, climb onto the bus. In a curious (and pleasant) twist, I find myself not squashed into an aisle seat next to an oversized mama with fried chicken or, worse, a someone with a baby, but right in front, looking out at a waking city from huge front windows.

We leave almost on time, just as the sun is rising. Through Durban, past landmarks and familiar places. Two of the craziest weeks of my life happened in this part of the world, one at the Expo Centre, one at the ICC. I’m thinking about those weeks as we pass the ICC, Wilson’s Warf, the restaurant where I first tasted sushi. I got a message that morning from an old friend from those crazy days. The memories make me smile.

From Durban, we head south, towards Port Shepstone. This stretch of road I know well from travelling down this way for work. I watch the familiar river-mouths, the clusters of huts, the little towns. The bus drives on and on, gobbling up the road. I’m sitting there with my headphones in, my feet up and my seat reclined. I feel happy. Happy about the coming weekend, sure, but mostly just happy in that moment. Sitting there on that bus, with my music, watching the world go by, I am happy.

Just north of Kokstad, we reach the snow. A heavy cold-front hit the country a few days before, causing snow in all 9 provinces, I read somewhere and bringing traffic between major cities to a standstill. Now, the sun is shining and it’s beautiful. The snowy hills go on for at least half an hour.

We travel south after a stop in Kokstad: Mthatha, Qunu, Dutywa, Butterworth. We stop and pick up passengers. At Butterworth, we get out and walk around. The wind is still snow-cold. Somewhere on the Kei cuttings, a police van passes us going in the other direction and flashes its lights, warning the bus driver about a traffic cop hiding around the corner catching anyone who might be speeding. On and on.

It is dark when we reach East London. The windows of the bus keep misting up. It is cold outside. I rush into the ticket office to pick up another ticket for Saturday but they warn me that those buses are running late. I’ll have to make another plan.

That evening, I have supper with my family in East London and then head home to Stutt for the night. I haven’t been home for ages. It’s great to be able to spend a night at home. Home with the family and a fire and the cats.

The next morning, back to East London. Saturday is out, so I’m travelling on Friday afternoon. We pick up the ticket at a Checkers and head back to the bus stop. Rushed goodbyes and I climb aboard another bus. This time it is a Translux bus. It looks newer than the Greyhound I took the previous day. The bus is almost empty. The stewardess tells me to sit where-ever I like. I find a window seat and settle down. Their sound system is, mercifully, broken. The trip will be peaceful.

Along the beachfront, the sea a perfect blue that day, then out of the city and away. We take the same road as the day before but in the opposite direction, towards King William’s Town. This time, my mind is drifting. I’m miles away as I stare out of the bus window at the country-side that is so familiar.

In King William’s town, the bus fills up, but I still have an empty seat beside me. I put on my music when a baby begins to cry. Children so often disturb the beautiful peace of travel.

I barely see the countryside passing as we head on towards Grahamstown. I know this road so well. I drift in and out, sometimes noticing where we are, sometimes not. The landmarks pass, the familiar curves and twists of the road. How many times have I travelled here? How many trips to and from varsity? How many since?

In Grahamstown, the first thing I notice is that Birch’s is still open. It’s a Friday afternoon. How often I have arrived at or left from this stop. Never while I was at University here. For some reason, I never took the bus then. Since graduating, nearly ten years ago, I have been back so many, many times and each time this is where I arrive, where I leave.

I gather my bags and set off up the familiar hill, familiar streets, familiar houses. It’s a long walk, but a peaceful one. I turn down a quiet street and pass a man walking his dogs. He looks like a professor.

I’m staying at a backpackers. I check in and settle down. The website said they served food. It turns out the website was wrong. It doesn’t matter. The deck outside looks out towards Makana’s Kop. It’s starting to turn towards dusk. I watch the fading Grahamstown sunset. This town used to be home. I wonder if it is anymore. I meet a Canadian who is here to figure out what he wants to study. He talks about his family. They’re coming over soon, to see this strange country that has bewitched their son. We talk of history and ideas and the contrasts between countries and of humour.

I plan to go to bed early but instead find myself reading and catching up on the ideas of my own academic world. The conversation with the Canadian has left me wanting to engage, to think. The others who are sharing the dorm eventually head out for the night and I put away the computer and head to sleep.

Saturday is an early start. I am the only person awake in the place except for a lady lazily cleaning the kitchen. She opens the door for me. I settle down on the veranda to wait for my lift. I’m travelling with two people I don’t know. I want to be ready when they arrive.

Bags packed we head off towards Nieu Bethesda. I’ve never been there before but I assume the driver knows the way. Strangely, it doesn’t bother me when he intimates that he’s not 100% sure. Someone these roads, this part of the country, feels familiar.

We take the Cradock road, driving along through miles and miles of countryside. My countryside. When I travelled to Kenya a few months ago and found myself nostalgically feeling like I’d come home, this was the home I was thinking of. At Cradock, take the road towards Graaff-Reinet, past the Mountain Zebra Park.

I’m jerked back from staring at the passing landscape by a sign for Colesburg. We’re on the wrong road. We turn back and find out way again. How did I know? Colesburg was the wrong way. I get strange looks as we head off again.

At the T-junction with the Graff-Reinet road, we see the first sign for Nieu Bethesda. A few km onto the final stretch and the road turns to gravel. I realise I’m not driving and it’s not fair to say, but gravel roads through this countryside in this part of the world feel peaceful. Perhaps it is because the gravel forces a slower pace. You notice more. We pass a beautiful antelope in the camp next to the road. There is snow on the mountain peaks.

Nieu Bethesda is a tiny, tiny town in a ring of beautiful mountains. It is well known for its more eccentric inhabitants, most notably Helen Martins who lost the plot after her father died and turned her ordinary, small-town home into a crazy place full of sculptures and stained glass and paintings, known as The Owl House.

We meet the groom at the pizza place. A place as small as this could only have a pizza restaurant because of the tourists. The pizza is good. We go back to the house where they’re staying, right near the micro-brewery where they will get married.

The rest of the day passes in a blur of laughter and getting dressed and prettiness. Everyone helps to get the place ready. The moment arrives. It is relaxed and beautiful and intimate. There is beer. There is crazy, intelligent, interesting conversation. There is cake.

It’s a lovely evening, followed by a gorgeous, crisp morning in Nieu Bethesda. The snow-topped mountains sit in the bright sun. The trees look wintery and beautiful. The houses are the settler houses I love, all perfectly maintained and whitewashed. We have breakfast at a place called The Karoo Lamb. A few of us take the opportunity to visit the Owl House. Nieu Bethesda is not what I expected but it is beautiful. Definitely worth a visit.

By 11am, we’re back on the road. On and on, past the Mountain Zebra Park, past Cradock, past Bedford. We are driving into heavy, dark clouds. It seems appropriate. I feel such heartache at leaving the Eastern Cape.

In Grahamstown, I stop at one of my favourite restaurants for a quick late lunch before heading to the shuttle and out of town. On and on. The window of the shuttle bus is broken. Icy-cold air howls through the vehicle.

It is a relief to get to PE. I take the usual quick lap around the PE airports, remembering all the times I’ve been here and, more often than seems fair, been stuck here. Through security and, unsurprisingly, the flight is delayed. Luckily, the delay is short and soon we are making our way towards the plane.

We land in Durban after 9pm on a Sunday night. The driver of yet another shuttle is there to pick me up. Just another hour and I’m home. I’m tired but happy. I get caught up watching the Olympics closing ceremony.

Walking home from work the next day, I realise what this feeling is: I feel peaceful. I have no doubt, in fact I am certain, that it will not last, but just for a while, just for now, for a change, I do not feel restless.

Journey begun/Return

Last packing, last call to family, last day of work, last night. Waking early, too early. The driver picking me up is early. Hasty last-minute checks and I’m gone. My pack, my passport and a world awaiting.

Departure seems so distant now, so overwrought. Was I really that terrified? Was that really me?

This seems so hollow now, this back, returned, sitting in an office, walking around my house that doesn’t feel like mine. The familiar made unfamiliar by a whirlwind of change. The empty evenings weigh heavily on me. Mornings, I struggle up the hill to work, struggling to find the rhythm, the routine. Struggling to want to find it.

We get to Durban airport early. It was a free lift with a colleague whose flight is earlier than mine. I have admin to do, but first breakfast. A last bit of South African-ness before departure. From the window of the Spur, I can see the VIP pick-up/drop-off point for COP 17. I wonder if I’ll see any famous people. I wonder if I’ve missed any through my tiredness while I’ve been here already.

At the money-changing place, the teller asks me if I’ve ever done business with them before. I say no but she finds me on her system anyway. I had forgotten – before I left for Korea. What a strange, distant time ago. The twisted strands of stories linked together over time.

I buy a book. I drink coffee. I wait. I miss a call from Richard. I call back and John tells me Richard is at Cappello at OR Tambo Airport. My favourite. I haven’t even left Durban yet. I wonder idly if today’s pilot will be Captain Sunshine. Quite seriously, I was flown to Joburg by someone called Captain Sunshine just a few days ago.

The trip back from Uganda to Durban was long. Tired. An early start in Kampala. Waking up what seemed like just moments after a last video diary and a goodbye to the friends with whom we’d shared so many weird and wonderful experiences. Our taxi was waiting. He waited for ages because he had the time wrong. It’s starting to get light. Last sights of Kampala. The trip to Entebbe. First glimpse of the lake. We’re early. Coffee and samosas for breakfast. Waiting. A day of half-finished cups of coffee.

I get to Joburg and head across to Cappello. My airport. Familiar, friendly, home. The one constant in all my journeys. I’m glad we’re leaving from here. I find Richard and Reneilwe and we have coffee and chat. They change money, then up to the African airlines section to check in. RwandAir is right on the edge. They quibble over luggage weights. We move things around. Suddenly it’s fine. Someone else in the queue appears to be trying to take the contents of a house on the plane. Our flight is late; the check-in staff don’t seem to think it is worth mentioning. They hand us boarding passes and we’re set.

The weather doesn’t help my mood. After the gorgeous heat of Congo and Uganda, it is chilly here and misty and raining. I long to stay in bed and pretend the world out there is somehow different.

The work I rushed back for gets done in a day. I find myself with nothing to occupy my mind. I try to throw myself into academic work but the feeling of emptiness keeps coming back.

Through security at OR Tambo, Johannesburg. The passport control person looks at my passport picture twice. I’ve cut my hair for this trip and look nothing like that picture. We still have ages to wait but eventually it is time. We leave from the main international section, gate A10. Near where I caught the Delta Flight in August. Not the downstairs section with the African flights. I wonder if this is where I caught my flight to Korea. I can’t seem to place it. I love the feeling of this place – excitement mixed with nerves. It’s strange to be here with other people.

Entebbe to Kigali. I take the window seat so that I can see the lake. Africa from the air. All day, I notice other destinations. From Entebbe, a flight leaves for Juba. The in-flight Air Uganda magazine is all about Bujumbura. Kigali sits, tantalising, just beyond the airport windows. I muse and wish and contemplate, not wanting the journey to end. In Kigali, our flight is never listed on the board. We wait for RwandAir to return out passports and boarding passes with no idea if we’re on time. I walk. Pace, really – the airport is not that big. I look at all the things in the duty-free shops. I contemplate buying coffee but we have no local currency and I’m out of dollars. I am restless

Kigali at night. The flight lands way later than it is supposed to. I’ve lost track of time. It is night and the airport staff are rushing. They hand out pre-printed boarding passes to passengers transferring to Uganda. But not to everyone. I’m asked to take my boarding pass and go through but I don’t fancy the idea of losing the others – I don’t even know where I’m going. Confusion. Someone’s passport gets lost. It delays the flight further. Finally we’re gone. I’m sitting far from the others. Across the aisle from me is what can only be a South African farmer/game-ranger – complete with hat. He appears to be taking care of two small children. Or perhaps they’re just unaccompanied minors and he is a Good Samaritan. He tells me he is going to visit his girlfriend.

The shops are the strangest. Everyone said I’d find it hard to come back. So many people seem to find themselves revolted by the variety and luxury of shops back home after a trip like this. I don’t. I love the shops. I love the variety. I walk the aisles of my local Spar and feel joy that I live in a country where everyone has this kind of choice and opportunity. The first time I walked into the meat section, I nearly cried. And the fresh fruit and vegetables grown right nearby but washed and packaged and properly refrigerated so they haven’t gone off by the time you buy them. Fresh milk and cheese and ice-cold sodas. Herbs and spices. Kampala has these things – at Shoprite if nowhere else – but I keep thinking of Bunia and Epulu. And then I’m not thinking of those places. I’m thinking of home. I’m thinking of how this is the goal, the aspiration of so many African people.

Landing in Uganda. Entebbe is a much more impressive airport than Kigali. It looks bigger and more modern. There are sky-bridges. We go inside and fill out the obligatory forms and I find myself wondering, again, if anyone ever reads those forms. USD50 for a visa. Digital photo, fingerprint scanner. Richard gets a sticker, we just get stamps. Nearby, a team of cleaners is washing the floor by throwing wet cloths across the tiles and then pushing and pulling them, on hands and knees.

Flying back to Joburg. Richard falls asleep. I have a book and I read a little but I’m distracted. I feel like talking. I end up watching the bad teen movie they’re showing on the plane. We land easily. Joburg is green and beautiful under building thunderstorn clouds. So many houses, so many tar roads. Through passport control, luggage already on the carousel, meet John at the doors. I barely even noticed the little thrill of walking through those doors; I must be tired. Then check-in for my last flight and coffee. Good, proper coffee with hot milk and conversation. The last conversation. The travel-bubble bursts.

We find our driver at Entebbe and head off to our backpackers/guesthouse. At one point, the vehicle took a pot-holed turn too sharply and the spare tire was knocked off the bottom of the car. The driver and Richard fixed it and we went on. We arrive at ICU and checked into the room. Our fourth travel-companion, for this leg of the trip, is already there. She wakes up and joins us at the rooftop bar. We are all too tired to sleep, too much to say, too much nervous energy. Richard updates his journal, setting the pattern for the trip. Here we sit, finally, in the middle of the night, in a rooftop bar in Kampala.

Return. I have moments of feeling that it’s all pointless. I feel like a cliché. The ruthless, heartless, profit-driven businessman goes on a holiday to [insert name of poor country here] and comes back wanting to sell everything and become a good person. But I work in development already. I’m already on a path to working in places like the ones I’ve just seen. I am frustrated. I find myself not wanting to settle back into routine. I’m so scared the routine will swallow me up and weigh me down. I don’t want to get stuck. I struggle to focus, I struggle with the idea of waiting. I’m tired of waiting. I want to pack my bags and go now and do and be there. Not to be here.

I wake up to misty rain. Soft, soaking, ordinary rain. That is the metaphor. That afternoon, Christmas Day, just after we returned from wandering through the second-largest rainforest in the world, there was a thunderstorm. Watching the storm build up so quickly and the storm light turning everything golden-green. The storm was huge and powerful. The air was electric. As we walked back from town, the rain started. By the time we got back, we were soaked. So powerful, so beautiful, so exciting.So far removed from the soft, soaking ordinariness of return.