August 14, 2007

Tarmac impressions

Dana and I are going to Uganda in February. Gabrielle, one of Dana’s best friends, will spend her sophomore year of high school in Kampala, where she’ll attend an international school and live with family friends she’s met only once. An impressive and intrepid 14-year-old.

I’m planning a three-day gorilla safari in Uganda’s Bwindi Impenetrable Forest for me and Dana, after which we’ll hang out in Kampala with Gabrielle, whom I pray we’ll find well and happy and nursing, at worst, mild, manageable homesickness. We’ll tour the city and environs with her, treat her to lunches and dinners out and deliver whatever care packages her mom will have sent along with us. The girls are excited about the prospect of “meeting up in AFRICA!! YO!!” and I’ve started setting details like yellow fever shots and visas in motion.

When Dana and I touch down at Entebbe airport, a few miles south of Kampala on the northern shore of Lake Victoria, a wash of faint familiarity will come over me, as I’ve landed at Entebbe before.

I haven’t seen it, but I’ve felt it, courtesy of a 3 AM stopover on my way to Nairobi. When I bought my ticket from Brussels to Nairobi, I didn’t know the plane would stop at Entebbe – not because the fact was hidden from me, but because I was ignorantly focused only on Kenya. Ordering my ticket, I’d looked at the Brussels departure and Nairobi arrival times and skipped the lines of print between the two.

Months later and trip underway, the plane’s doors shut and, as we taxied from the gate, beginning our journey out of Europe and into Africa, the pilot welcomed us to our flight “to Entebbe and Nairobi.” I sat up straight. Entebbe... that’s Uganda... I’m going to land in Uganda... I looked around. Which of my fellow passengers, I wondered, would debark in Uganda, and which would continue to Kenya? The flight took on added interest.

At Entebbe, a cluster of ebony women with close-cropped hair wearing jubilant dresses of shiny, richly-colored cloth made their way up the aisle with bags, boxes and baskets of items they’d bought in Europe. They debarked, and in their places came mostly businessmen in thin black suits, bright white shirts and well-worn briefcases. Except for the time of day – before 4 AM – they could have been the corporate warriors who fly the every-hour-on-the-hour shuttles between business hubs like Boston and Philly, or New York and Washington. What would these men sell in Nairobi, I wondered, and to whom? What deals and discussions would fill the work day ahead? Or had they concluded deals in Uganda or beyond and were making their tired ways home to families waiting in Kenya?

The plane left the Entebbe tarmac, the lights of Kampala behind us and quickly out of sight, and we climbed over an unending expanse of utter blackness. The world below was pure pitch, a hole, and it scared me.

It wasn’t until I saw one single, bobbing light – a light on a boat – that I realized we were flying over Lake Victoria. The plane flew low between Entebbe and Nairobi, and I sat fixed to the window for the hour it took to cross the lake, looking for any light below. There were occasional cargo ships and tankers with multiple lights along their length; small fishing craft that sent only enough light to enable me to pick them out in their lonesome smallness and wish them safe harbor, candles in the wind, they were; and sporadic, star-like twinkles of gathered lights sitting on the arc of the lakeshore, jungle villages lit by wood and dung fires and, if the villagers were flush and commercially connected, perhaps a generator. Those small lights in the vast blackness are what I know and feel about Uganda.

There are other places I’ve been but not seen, places I’ve touched only through airport stopovers – dips down to tarmac to disgorge and collect people and perhaps refuel, or forced sojourns in the limbo world of transit lounges. While I don’t count these places as places I’ve visited, they inhabit some small space in the back of my traveler’s mind, and I can call up the impressions formed of them during those brief touchdowns.

Places like Kuwait – men gliding over polished floors in salt-white caftans, checkered headdresses and black dress shoes; Dubai – canals, dhows and the sterile glitter of near-empty luxury goods boutiques; Gander, Newfoundland – buffeting wind, blinding snow and the sensation of being at the edge of the world; Sao Paolo, Brazil (photo) – an impossibly huge and crowded place of concrete and corrugated tin where the wings of giant jets reached beyond the fence of the cramped airport's elevated taxiway and sailed over the heads of people on streets and sidewalks, casting entire neighborhoods into momentary shade; Anchorage, Alaska – lush forests clinging, along with hardy wooden houses, to mountains rising above a steel-blue sea; Seoul, Korea – neon, smog and sprawl; Damascus, Syria – low, whitewashed cube houses crouched beneath an unforgiving sun that blistered the earth and melted the horizon into a rippling heat mirage.

Perhaps I’ll land in these places again and stay long enough to leave the airport and see and learn more. In the meantime, I'm looking forward to flying again over Lake Victoria, landing at Entebbe and following the ebony women with their bags, boxes and baskets out of the plane and into the city.