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.