images en route home

kigali.  mid-morning november 22.  flustered and overheating in front of an airport check-in desk.  moving my stuff from one bag to another, hefting the bags on and off the scale, trying to fit within the baggage limits.  i’ve donated most of my clothes, books, and assorted possessions in favor of spending my precious kilo allowance on coffee, fabric, baskets, and other souvenirs.  once through the line, boarding card in hand, i return to my fan club outside for final goodbyes.  one by one a smile, a hug, a thanks, a wish for the best.  mugisha, fulgence, justin, emmanuel, chantal, nepo… it gradually gets harder to hold tears behind my eyes… innocent… adolphe…… amanda.  i look at her and then we’re both heaving, tears bloating our faces, words overwhelmingly insufficient.  what you have been to me, how you have changed me, why i couldn’t have made it without you.  all said in a hug that refuses to let go. 

the loudspeaker calls to board.  pull away.  turn.  walk.  one foot in front of the other up the stairs, through security, onto the tarmac, up the steps to the plane.  right foot left foot sit.  sunglasses on to hide my tears.  the plane rolls forward, turns, picks up speed – wait! let me off!  i’m leaving myself behind but dragging it with me.  full engine throttle, nose lifts, and i’m silently breaking down, the only signs to my neighbor the shake in my shoulders, white knuckles gripping each other, my breath drawn-in short and held without release.  in my head i’m exploding.  two years of working as hard as i could to make whatever impact i could, two years of challenge frustration elation disappointment satisfaction learning.  i gave every ounce and i have nothing left.  i am wrecked.  i am devasted.  i can’t breathe it hurts so much.  leaving rwanda.

nairobi airport a few hours later.  pacing.  my ipod pumps angsty damien rice as i march up and down the long airport corridor.  i move with purpose: i WILL get to the end, i WILL turn around and march back, i WILL do it again and again and again.  if i stop i’ll crumble.

nairobi airport three hours after that.  numb.  sitting on the carpet staring at the wall.  the tears have gone out of me and now i’m simply waiting to be home.  home is still 23 hours away.  i reach for a book i have little intention of reading and a slip of paper falls out of my bag.  it says.  “#5 this one time in musha i ate a poisonous plant and my mouth swelled up and i passed out.”  i smile.  the first smile in hours.  i don’t know how or when this slip of paper was slipped into my bag, but i know there will be more.  and there are.  between the folds of my book, in my sunglasses case, in every secret zipper pocket of my bag.  i find a few at first search, then gradually come upon another and another with mild surprise at her ingenuity.  as my london-bound departure draws nearer i am haunted by the notes, finding new ones where i’m sure i looked before.  stories of our crazy times together – showering in the rain, inside jokes through interminable teachers’ meetings, people we met, moto rides under the stars, a broken bed, some stories too embarassing to recount here.  my best friend has left me the best goodbye gift: memories to sneak up on me when i need them most.

somewhere mid-air over europe.  i emerge from restless airplane sleep puffy and disoriented.  out the window is a clear starry night.  there’s orion.  standing up.  for two years living at the equator, orion lay down in the sky for me.  now he stands.  i’m going home.

london heathrow.  it’s 5 am and freezing.  i wander empty halls of polished marble, glass and steel.  shiny.  sleek.  i’m too exhausted to walk, too cold to stop moving, too drained to think clearly.  i need water but refuse to pay 2 pounds for it and am still too much in africa to consider drinking from the tap.  so i wander.  i go up and down (and up and down) escalators for the novelty.  i stare at rows of glossy magazine covers without focusing my eyes.  i am on a new planet where nothing is human and everything is sanitized.

new york jfk.  unknown time.  i don’t remember getting off the plane, though i suppose i did.  i don’t remember getting my bags from the luggage rack, though they must have arrived.  i don’t remember hearing american accents coming from my neighbors’ mouths, though i imagine there were some.  i vaguely remember seeing my parents and sister in ‘welcome home’ newspaper hats coming towards me with open arms and ready smiles.  i fully recall the awesome array of cold cuts at the subway sandwich stand in the arrivals lounge.  and i can still feel in my bones the biting cold, colder than i’d felt for years, cold enough to chap noses and numb fingers, cold november wind attacking me en route to the car.  and the next thing i remember i was home.

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~ by aliciawolcott on December 1, 2008.

2 Responses to “images en route home”

  1. you don’t remember the welcome home hats? they were wrapping paper, not newspaper, they had tassles. and i spent a lot of time on them. plus i made that awesome sign. man, i am happy to see you are writing on the blog again (or were, three months ago), but kinda bummed that all my hard work was for naught.

    see if you get a welcome home hat next time.

  2. you know i did miss the welcome home hats on friday. i know if was too much to ask for, given that i called you up in the middle of the night and begged you to meet me at the airport, but their absence was felt.

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