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Into Africa

February 13, 2012

1. Arrival

It was already night when we landed in Arusha. After having flown with the sunset for three hours, the plane finally gave up the chase and the sun disappeared, which meant I didn’t get to see what Libya or the Sudan looked like from above. I didn’t have a window seat, but was prepared to fling myself across the lap of the guy who did until he either got sick of it and let me or got sick of it and moved. Luckily for him, there turned out to be nothing to see.

Once, flying from Cairo to California after our honeymoon, my ex-husband and I had an absolutely stunning view from 35,000 feet of the entire island of Crete. We had spent nearly a month there hitchhiking and backpacking the year after we graduated from college; when we got back to our tiny apartment in Paris, we hung a map of the island on the wall. As we took turns exclaiming over the view from the airplane porthole, it felt as if that map were spread out below us in high relief, its mountains dusted with snow, the very beaches we’d camped on limning its shore. Now, nearly twenty years later, I wanted to look down at the Sahara, maybe catch a glimpse of the southern Sudanese highlands or Ethiopia, but by the time we crossed the Mediterranean there was nothing but darkness to see.

Flying over Africa is the precise opposite of flying over the United States or Europe. In densely populated countries, the skies are dim and the ground is bright with cities and highways and cars. In Africa, the ground below is utterly, unfathomably dark. It’s like flying over the sea. But the stars above are so bright you feel almost as if you’re flying through them, and once you land (which requires the plane to turn on gigantic spotlights, because even the runway is barely lit) you cannot help but goggle at the sky, which has reclaimed an ancient magnificence you have never seen.  The air at Kilimanjaro International Airport smelled like woodsmoke. The plane–the once daily flight from Amsterdam, which departed for Dar es Salaam after we disembarked–was bigger than the airport. Inside, we waited to get our passports stamped (a moment during which I felt another inadvertent twinge of lost affection for my ex-husband, with whom I navigated many a third-world border crossing) and then passed through the glass doors to the airport’s other side. I was, after years of longing, finally in Africa.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. February 14, 2012 1:58 pm

    What first made you want to go, years of longing ago? I’ve been longing for years, too, mostly because of Meryl Streep. More stories please.

    • irretrievablybroken permalink*
      February 14, 2012 3:45 pm

      Hemingway, probably. Paul Theroux, too. How embarrassing. I think I read every book about white people in Africa–all but one. I’ll make a list.

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