I have encountered very few places in my life that induce the soul tingling feeling of true difference. I am fairly well travelled, and also rather introspective; I know that it’s possible to be on the other side of the world without feeling it. The world seems to expand and shrink with a sometimes comforting regularity. So many places look the same, and so many experiences feel the same. If one were a person comforted by habit (which I am not) It would be possible to go to sleep in cold, white 800 thread count sheets, head on a soft pillow, to wake up to the same personalized phone alarm, shower, get a morning Starbucks, stay in touch online, grab a burrito bowl for Lunch, stream the same music, have pizza for dinner and then settle in for Netflix and wine. This scenario could take place in pretty much any city in the world. Is that a comforting thought? Well, Maybe.
I was supposed to go to Africa last year. Planning issues arose and the trip was postponed a year. Sometimes a year seems so far in the future that it almost sounds like never, and so close to the past that it seems like a vague cloud over anything beyond three months ago or so. I can’t really remember how I felt twelve months ago. I know the past few years in overview have passed like a wave graph: the sun shines on one area as another crumbles, Fortuna’s comic dance.
I’ve spent the last four months agonizing about planning my future, about taking control of reins that seemed dropped in my own hands for the first time, about circumventing some brand new interference between me and the ultimate finish line. I don’t know if it’s a universal adult thing, or a pressure I feel alone, to come up with the correct answer, the perfect plan, when really most decisions that have ripened and ended in my life have come on like a fog and evaporated the same way.
I spent 4 weeks before Africa in New York, London, Cologne, Vienna and Opatija. No five year plan ever became clear. In the days leading up to Africa, I was asked a lot what I hoped to get out of it? “Honestly,” I said “I want to get my head out of my own butt”.
It took more than 24 hours of travel time to get to Rwanda. I ate my regularly delivered tray of carbohydrates, and anticipated each small box with its sundry of individually wrapped snacks that never fully complemented each other and couldn’t be returned to the box in the same Tetris precision they’d been packed in, even empty. Being on a plane shrinks life back to almost toddler stage. It’s an exercise in giving up control over everything including if you arrive at all to whether you’re allowed to go to the loo. So we busy ourselves trying to vary positions by an inch or two in our minuscule space, and expectantly watch the flight attendant hand out boxes of food we wouldn’t ever select or pay for on terra firma with the anticipation of a child expecting a gift, and hoping when we finally have it in our hands and breach the tape we’ll see a tiny sliver of cheese and not a tub of thirty calorie yogurt.
In lieu of sleeping on the flight, I read a biography of Adele, listened to Leonard Cohen’s spectacular last album, and thought about beginning to write a story. When we landed, it almost felt unbelievable, the fact that we had finally arrived at the destination a stranger prospect than us continuing in stratospheric limbo forever. It was dark when we climbed the stairs out of the huge plane, but even that fact seemed like a false clue as to what time it was and what time it was supposed to be.
The airport smelled of warm wood, like there was a welcoming fire somewhere just out of sight and it looked like a throwback, as though we’d wished see what air travel was like twenty five years ago only with a nod to modern TSA practices (like removing your shoes) but repeated three times because of a glitch in the time traveling matrix.
Airports don’t really count in travel, instead they are more like the plunger a pinball is released into just before its shot into the real action. It feels like a journey getting from point A to point B, an I’m going from Toronto to Kigali focus, so once I was standing in the airport reunited with my luggage, I felt a centrifugal excitement mixed with uncertainty, which only lasted a moment before I saw Eddie greet someone he knew and about eight that he didn’t. Very kindly a whole group of people from our garden building team who had arrived the night before had come to collect us at the airport. I was touched by the kindness: that so many of them chose to come, their warm introductions, their help with our luggage.
When they introduced themselves, I felt a twinge of panic that I would never remember their names, lazily turning the two or three I remembered over in my mind, until they fell away, and I found myself staring out the window, watching the unfamiliar dark streets of Kigali seemingly open up. It felt like a cosmic set designer was furiously assembling them as we drove through, stacking small colourful stores on top of each other, as though the whole city was a container ship.