Wednesday, March 2, 2011

A "Homegoing" - Part 3: Going "back to Africa" on my own terms

Mr. Baldwin's, "Where are you from" story is familiar to most of us whose ancestors' entry into this country "was a bill of sale" (the remainder of the discussion's here and here).

Growing up in the Deep South, I was always confused when white folk would sneer at us and say, "Y'all niggers need to go back to Africa!"  Angrily, I'd always say to myself, "What?  (I was little!), I ain't never been to Africa!  I was born right here!"

Obviously, that "distance created, created deliberately" to which Baldwin referred, coupled with the physical and psychological barbarity experienced at the hands of our countrymen for hundreds of years (and counting) - had all been very effective in ensuring that I too, would have no knowledge whatsoever of whence I came. 

But after more than 25 years of critically thinking and realizing that I both wanted and needed to know, I now had a golden opportunity to physically and psychologically  diminish that "distance" in less than 48 hours - and  not at the behest of any of those "real Americans" in Dixie - but at my own.

My own, "Up in the Air"...

Before I dive into this, let me just say that from Newark on out, all times are approximate given my very, American idea that I didn't need to figure it all out.  After all, everybody's got clocks right?

But while my mind had dismissed keeping up with the whole time-change thing, I discovered later on that the body had been paying strict attention.  In very short order, it would register its stern opposition to my wearing it the hell out - with a vengeance!  But I'm getting ahead of myself. 

I'd left home at 9:40 a.m. CST headed to Houston.  The flight was about 45 minutes and since we didn't have to deplane as they dropped off and picked up passengers, I texted the sons and called Rhoda to check in while we sat on the tarmac.  The unloading and loading went pretty quickly - and shortly after noon, we were on our way to Newark where I'd change planes for Europe - and lose an hour. 

We arrived at 4:30 p.m. EST, and as we disembarked and blended toward our gate to Brussels, the linguistic composition of the passengers noticeably shifted from mostly English-speaking, to a veritable Tower of Babel!  And to my surprise, I was starting to "hear" bits and pieces of French and Spanish conversations going on around me.  I thought to myself, "Aww yeahNOW, I'm feelin' that whole international traveler thing!"

I checked in and sent the husband a text letting him know where I was (I didn't in Houston because of the 10 1/2-hour time distance).  When I hit send, I got a pop-up saying the battery needed to be charged.  A frantic search of my carry-on produced nothing - I'd left the damned charger on the kitchen counter!

Serendipity reared its beautiful head once again though, and not too far from my gate (thank the Lawd!), I found an electronics store.  I picked up a compatible charger and headed back to the boarding area, stopping for a large cup of coffee on the way.  Taking a seat near a plug, I sipped coffee, people-watched and waited.

When the call to board came at 5:40 p.m., I was ready.  Settling into my seat, I pulled out Mab Seagrest's, "Memoir of a Race Traitor" which I should have been able to finish on the plane, if only I could've just concentrated on one thing.  At 6:30 p.m. EST - which I note because it marked my descent into real time-change hell! - we began to taxi down the runway. 

Watching the lilliputian, Newark-Liberty International recede from view - I exhaled.  It had been an absolutely beautiful day for flying so far, and the trip had gone without so much as a hitch.  The stone was more than halfway rolled up the hill.

Our estimated arrival time in Brussels was 7:50 a.m. (CET) - a seven and half hour flight!  All I knew was I'd been awake since 6:40 a.m. (CST) and the body was saying, "Hey!  How 'bout a little shut-eye here!  But since my seat was one row behind the exit row, I  resisted.   I thought I'd better pay close attention to the signal-woman in the aisle, since I sure as hell knew I couldn't drink up all that water out there if we crashed into it!  But once the show was over - I was down for the count.

I remember being awakened for dinner and later, standing in a short line to "answer the call."  Awake now, I considered writing, but getting the laptop - out of the carry-on, in the overhead bin - was more than I wanted to do.  Instead, I watched "Eat, Pray, Love" and really enjoyed it!  When it was over, I looked out of the window into a pitch-black night and decided to read.  The body, however, had other ideas.  After only a few pages - I passed out again.

I was happy I had a window seat for the many times I awoke and found myself leaned into the bulkhead, scrunched up on that little pillow, with that thin, little blanket pulled up around my neck.  And based on that telltale damp spot where my face met my palm, I'd definitely been sleeping with my mouth wide open.  In between sleep and wake, I vaguely remember a kid crying. But since that's what kids do, it didn't really interfere with the many catnaps I'd have between then and Brussels.

I awoke to the flight attendant asking me to pull my seat back up because we were preparing to land.  I raised the window shade and realized it was the beginning of a gorgeous morning!  As we descended, the view of the city just took my breath away!  It was absolutely stunning!  I made a mental note - "Get a Rick Steves book and plan one of those Eurail Pass trips to Europe!  You need to see this place and the surrounding countries at ground level at least once before you check the hell out!"

I made my way off the plane, following the herd to Customs and Immigration.  I stood in a fast-moving line and after my documents had been verified and the pat-down was completed, I traipsed right on through the checkpoint (I was sure glad I'd gotten that visa beforehand!).

Upon arrival in Brussels, everyone with connections to Africa had to trek to Terminal T.  Since we had an almost four-hour layover, I took my time, window-shopping and people watching as I walked through this fairly new and very clean airport (I took the moving sidewalk whenever I could!).

I didn't see "Up in the Air," okay?  But, I am convinced there's some connection with that movie coming out and this Nespresso ad, plastered all over the Brussels airport at what seems like every three feet!  I mean he's cute and all, but I'm not buying a coffee-maker cuz he says so! {smdh}

When I got to the gate, there were no Brussels Air representatives there yet, so I decided to go freshen-up.  And just like the rest of the airport, the bathroom (my number one pet peeve) was spotless!  A young Black woman - with beautifully smooth, not made-up, coffee-colored skin and Senegalese twists trailing down her back - was standing at the mirror talking to a little Black girl, no more than seven or eight years old.  She was wearing the same "joined plaits" in her hair that I used to have from first to fourth grade.  With a strangely "full" feeling in my chest, I stopped in the doorway for a minute thinking, "Two faces of me!"  I'd have that feeling more times than I could count from there on out.

I smiled and said hello, excused myself as I passed between them and chose the first stall.  I could hear the little girl saying she lived in America, but she was going to The Gambia  with her mom (in the stall next to me as it turned out) because her grandfather had died.  Then she asked, "How come you talk like that, are you from Africa?" The young woman laughed and said proudly, "Yes, but I live in France!  I'm going with my father and uncle to see my grandparents back home in Senegal."

When I came out of the stall, I almost collided with the little girl's mother.  Smiling, we both apologized for the near miss and said hello as her daughter came over, excited to tell her all about her new "friend."  I walked over to the sink to wash my hands, silently enjoying the small sampling of the beauty of the African diaspora in this Brussels bathroom.

Hands dripping, I was looking around for one of those folded-paper towel holders or, one of those on-the-wall dryer things, when what sounded like a vacuum cleaner starting up made me jump.  I turned to see the Gambian mother with her hand in this yellow, air-blowing thing.  I laughed and told her, "That's exactly what I was looking for - I think!"  Moving my hand around, I noticed the "Dyson" logo on the machine and thought to myself, "Vacuum cleaners?  Fans?  Seems "air" is quite lucrative for this guy!"

I started back to the gate, stopping for a bottle of juice and some gum.  Good thing my new phone had a "Smart Converter" app on it, because she gave me the price in Euros and I would've had no clue how much it was in dollars!

I got to the gate and checked in among a sea of faces in various shades of black, brown and yellow, wearing everything from traditional African attire to typical, Western jeans and sweaters.  There were some whites, but the passenger composition had shifted.  People of color were in the majority in that camp!  And it felt good.

I pulled out the laptop and sent the men in my life this short email:

Sent: Sun 12/5/2010 6:38 PM
Subject: One last flight!
It's 2:30 a.m. home time and 9:30 am (not sure) here in Brussels. Flight to Gambia leaves at 11:20 a.m. Will text when I get there.
Love you guys and thanx for everything!
I really didn't know what time it was anywhere! The computer said 6:38 p.m., the clocks said 9:30 a.m. and I just guessed about what time it was at home (I didn't even consider the husband's 10 1/2-hour time difference from CST!).

After making some small talk with a lady next to me, I read a bit while we waited for the call to board.  When it finally came I was excited.  In about six hours, I'd be planting my feet on terra firma for awhile.

I got situated in my window seat and a few minutes later, two young Chinese men took the middle and aisle seats next to me (three of their friends took the middle row of seats across the aisle from us).  No offense intended, but I think deodorant is mainly a Western thing.  I could be wrong, but it sure seemed like it when my nose started stinging with the scent of body odor gone bad.  All I could do was lean into the bulkhead and wait until the nose adapted to the scent as it usually does.

Once we got up in the air and the signal-women had done their thing, the simulated flight path displayed on my very own miniature TV screen caught and held my attention.  I watched as the little plane flew up and across the UK toward Ireland.  I looked out of the window just as we flew over a cluster of windmills somewhere in southern Ireland and thought smiling, "This is way better than playing, "Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego!" (a game we played fanatically when the sons were small!).  I leaned back in my seat, put on the headphones and started watching, "Two and a Half Men" - and promptly fell asleep.

The seat-neighbor's head falling on my shoulder, and the sound of the captain's voice, saying something about approaching Casablanca woke me up.  I looked out of the window and as far as the eye could see, there was nothin' but sand -- from the almost black, to a rainbow of browns, reds and beiges.

I fumbled for my camera, and over the next couple of hours, I intermittently snapped pictures as the terrain changed from sand alone -- to sand meeting water at the coastline. I got that "full" feeling in my chest as I watched all the different shades of the same "grains" pass by my window.  After awhile, I went to the bathroom to get the circulation going in my legs - waking the seat-neighbors. No harm, no foul though because the food cart was in the aisle when I got back and e'erybody was wakin' up! I squeezed past back to my seat, skipping the meal in favor of a steaming cup of coffee.

I switched my TV to the simulator thing to see exactly where we were. The little plane was slowly moving south toward Senegal. I leaned into the bulkhead and read myself into another catnap.

As it turns out, the body decided to go for the "dead sleep" instead, keeping me damned-near comatose for about an hour and a half. Not until I heard the seat-neighbors talking back and forth in Chinese as they got their bags out of the overhead bin, did I realize we were on the ground! Wide awake now, I turned to look out of the window for the African Renaissance monument I'd read about last year -- and there it was in the distance. We'd landed in Dakar...

...and I heard my beautiful, young sister, India in my head, singing...

Photograph: Seyllou/AFP/Getty Images
I can appreciate the fact that the monument's been a real bone of contention for a lot of people in Senegal.  But I can't argue with what the analyst said in the last paragraph at the link because - it does "make a heck of a first impression for a visitor upon arriving in Senegal."

Even though I couldn't see it in detail from the plane, I knew it existed.  And getting a chance to be there to see it - even if only in silhouette - it meant a great deal to old, mushy-'bout-my-people me.  I plan to go back and see it one day - only up close and personal the next time.

The layover in Dakar, much like the one in Houston, was brief.  We didn't have to deplane, and the unloading and loading of baggage and passengers went quickly.  Before I knew it, we were slowly taxiing down the runway, sending that damned stone careening down the other side of the hill at quite a clip as we took off.  Once  airborne, I took a couple more photos of the city and watched as the sun began to set on the horizon.  I sat back in my seat for the very last time as we made the 20-minute trip to The Gambia.  And yes, I was feeling pret-t-t-y good about what I'd accomplished.

To be continued - A "Homegoing" - Part 4a:  Being there

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