(Departures: Jomo Kenyatta International Airport, Nairobi. Expected date and time of departure: 15th November 2014 at 10 pm EAT. Final destination: Brussels Airport, Belgium; port of entry into Schengen area: Amsterdam International Airport, Netherlands.)
At twenty minutes past 9 pm, Kevin and I were inside the giant KLM 380 Airbus destined for Amsterdam. This was our first trip to Europe and, more importantly, our first flight ever. It was no holiday trip; our employer had sent us for training, to cram the white man’s expertise and excel like them.
After the white flight attendant, a lady, all smiles and struggling with Swahili word ‘Jambo’, showed us the direction to our seats, I was mesmerized by the serene environment inside the airbus, the fresh draughts of air from the sides, the immaculate orifices of lights with varying luminosity, the numerous LED screens mounted overhead, the neatly arrayed seats like lilies of the valley, and the collection of racially diverse humanity perched on the delicate seats.
Kevin was walking ahead. Amidst the enthralling scene of fineness, I lost track of him and sat on a seat marked 18C next to the aisle.
About three minutes later, there was a gentle tap on my shoulder; a Latina hostess with long flowing black hair (it was her coiffure, however, that dazzled me) and face toned with deep layers of mascara stood over me.
“Excuse me,” she said, feigning a plastic smile stretched across her oval, dimpled face. “You are occupying that gentleman’s seat.” She was pointing at some slender, wiry gentleman with a conspicuous bulb of a nose standing behind her.
The gentleman (he was Caucasian) looked furious. His tiny clean-shaved coconut head completed his brown, red-shot eyes that gave him the mean look of a dangerous drug baron from Temple, Texas I’d once watched in the movie ‘No Country for Old Men’. I only had to stare once at the hostile face and honor the lady’s marching orders.
What the heck? The plane is empty; must he sit here? I asked myself, growling as I moved towards the back of the plane where Kevin, I observed, was smiling at the melee.
“KLM is not Otange.”
“Hii sio Otange bana,” Kevin said as I squeezed into the seat, 45B, he had left empty. He had moved towards the window. He was referring to Otange, some notorious local bus in Nairobi, known by the Kenyan transport authorities for its recklessness on the road but treasured by travelers who love getting to the upcountry in time with minimum expenses.
As I eased into the seat, I read the ticket I held in my palm: Zone 4, Economy Class. Kevin informed me that I had sat in Zone 3, a higher flight class. He motioned that I place the laptop bag I had on my lap in the overhead compartment. I cringed. I was hesitant.
Worries that had been trailing me all through the airport resumed, for in that bag lay over ten thousand Euros in hard notes – money meant for our stay. I could not risk parting with the bag.
After a few minutes, I saw the same lady who had upstaged me from seat 18C moving towards my direction, asking passengers to place their carry-ons in the overhead cabin or place them on the floor.
I did not want to have another confrontation nor talk to her; I sat up, opened the compartment, placed the laptop bag, and slammed the cover. After a series of announcements and demonstrations from the flight crew, the plane took off.
I looked outside the window (occasionally darting back to the cabin just in case you know – someone studying my restlessness pulled the unexpected) and beheld the swaths of clouds engulfing the plane as highways, streets, and scattered stars of tall, well-lit buildings become blurrier with the rising altitude. Kevin, however, was spending his time navigating the movie collections from the nine-inch screen mounted at the back of the seat before him.
“Nothing is interesting here,” he said the moment the fasten-your-seatbelts sign went off. He stood up and excused himself; he wanted to use the loo at the back of the plane.
A white man came from behind and opened the cabin where my laptop bag lay, where our money lay. Who put you there? I wondered, my eyes wide open; a fly would have landed, peed, and left, and still, I would not have blinked.
He moved my bag aside, towards the far corner of the cabin, pulled out a blue bag embroidered ‘Tourista’, opened its zip, and took out a novel. He returned everything in order, then closed the cabin. Strange. Strange you are. Couldn’t you carry the novel in your hands before take-off?
Kevin was yet to return. Minutes later, a poke landed on my left shoulder, through the divide of my seat and Kevin’s. It was Kevin. He was now occupying a seat behind me, the same position as the one he had left, only now he had new company; it was the white man who had opened the cabin a few minutes ago.
“Come over. Something is interesting here,” Kevin said.
I thought for a moment. What could it be? The words of my grandfather came back to me, “Unlike the robber who whacks your back to snatch from the unconscious you, the swindler buys your confidence, charms you, then goes for the kill.”
“Hey, I am Phillip,” the white man said, extending his hand of greeting.
“Kaa pale,” Kevin said, pointing at seat 46C across the aisle next to the white man. I was still standing, intending to wrap up whatever it was that needed my attention and go back to my seat to resume guarding our gem.
“So, Bentley, right?” Phillip asked.
“I was asking Kevin here about this community Samburu, and he tells me you are the expert in this field,” Phillip said, tapping Michela Wrong’s book, It’s Our Turn to Eat, against his right knee.
“Mmh. Well, I am not exactly sure about that. What were you asking about the Samburu?” I asked, trying to look calm as my gaze darted from Phillip to the overhead compartment that now had moved inches farther away.
“I am from Scotland. I have been staying in the Masai Mara game reserve for the last two weeks. There was this documentary I ran into on YouTube about the Samburu. It was a case of infidelity, and the elders had assembled to intervene over it,” Phillip said before, looking at Kevin, he added, “your friend here told me you understand the issue better.”
“Not really. I happen to have narrated the story to him a month ago.”
The story Phillip was referring to involved a married woman who had been caught by her husband sleeping with another man. I had watched it on Citizen TV presented as a special report on culture. In the story, the emotionally wounded angry man slapped his wife several times before others rescued the poor lady.
The case was brought to the community’s elders who sat the trio, the man, his wife, and her lover, under a tree with strong, young men separating the two men from thrashing each other. After a round of talks, it was decided that the offending man should bring a cow to the offended man as a peace offering and a goat to the council of elders for slaughtering – a thank you for their reconciliation efforts.
The deal was agreeable to all; no sooner had the presiding elder announced the terms did the two previous antagonistic men hug in celebration knocking each other’s spears. The elders swatted their fly whisks over the woman, releasing her, cleansed, from the council meeting.
“I know exactly what intrigued you,” I said to Phillip, studying his face with a keenness that bore the mark ‘I am right’.
“Okay. Okay,” the Scot gave in, grinning. “So, why did he do that? The husband.”
“Well, in Africa, the woman belongs to the community, not an individual. In such a situation, a man is advised to keep peace with his kin than cling to the divisive ways of a woman who in any way they consider a newcomer in the clan.”
“Mmh. I understand.”
The Scot was amazed at the idea that the offended man said (I must admit I was shocked too when I heard his words on Citizen TV), “I have forgiven my wife. If I find her again with this man, it is okay; they are allowed to. But if I find her with another man, I will kill her.”
“There is nothing in it really, Phillip. You, white people, did this centuries ago before you invented civilization and it began choking you; we are just slightly behind your train of civilization,” Kevin chipped in. A wave of laughter pricked the quiet surrounding.
Some passengers passed mean glances at us, some glued uninterrupted on the nine-inch screens before them, while some slept. The plane was not full; swaths of empty seats dotted the economy section.
“Sure. The more you think the world has changed, the more you find nothing much has,” Phillip said the moment laughter died down.
It was one hour since we had left Nairobi. A hostess appeared from the front, five rows away, pushing a trolley with various drinks on top – Fanta Orange, Sprite, Mixed Fruit Juice, Pepsi, Red Wine, White wine, and KLM-labelled water. She whispered something into the ear of the passenger next to the aisle. After a brief conversation, she passed over a small packet, a sachet of cutleries, and a drink. She repeated the ritual to the next passenger.
“I saw your small scuffle with Alejandro over there,” Phillip said. Kevin’s face drew a smirk, pregnant with laughter.
“Ooh. Yea. I had sat on his seat, unfortunately,” I replied.
“Nothing really to curse about. In any case, the plane is much empty. He could have sat anywhere. But I guess we are all different,” Phillip added.
I was still suspicious, alert as ever; the Scot was too friendly. A mind like mine, raised in Nairobi, a city of fraudsters, always imagines, sees, and manufactures fraud.
He asked us what was taking us to Brussels.
“Training.” It was Kevin’s turn to do the explanations.
Phillip, probably in his forties, was born and educated in Pretoria, South Africa. But his parents migrated from Scotland; thus, he had been shuttling between Scotland, where he worked and lived with his grandparents, and South Africa, where he visited his parents during holidays. Phillip, a data analyst, was on such a return trip home, winding up his holidays in Africa, that he passed by Kenya to enjoy some heritage – wildlife, historical sites, music, and local culture. Next time he is in Nairobi do we have some time to take him around the city’s clubs?
“Why not?” Kevin replied.
I rushed to the loo to ease my bladder. Coming back, it was our turn to eat; in unison, we lowered the foldable tables before us. The hostess whispered a meal preference quiz; the Scot went for the chicken. He advised us to do so as well.
“Most strange meals can either disturb your stomachs or destroy your faith,” he said, before adding after a small interlude, “European foods are weird; stick to what is familiar or look for Mc Donalds.”
After the meal, which was eaten in remarkable silence (the white man’s table manners set the standard), Kevin and the Scot fell asleep, with their seats heavily reclined.
I stayed awake, on guard. If the swindling ever succeeds, it must be now, I thought. The Scot has planned his game, bought Kevin’s confidence, bragged about his tour quests, talked of the white man’s honesty and civilization, guided us on the best meals to swallow, labeled the Caucasian the bad guy; what now awaits is the kill against the gullible. I slept not an inch during the twenty-eight-thousand-eight-hundred-second flight.
The Scot turned and twisted like a python constricted in a gunny bag. His height of about six feet four bothered his stillness. After what appeared like an hour’s struggle, he rose from his seat, returned his book into the cabin, and resumed his seat, easing back as before in search of sleep.
Giant information screens mounted overhead displayed touchdown in thirty minutes. I yawned; my eyes were probably red from denied sleep.
The announcement for landing came on. Seats rose to upright positions, serving tables folded back in place, safety belts fastened. The order of these plane people wowed me. In Otange, my favorite low-cost, high-speed bus, safety, and order were myths. Any form of them only existed in the mind of the nervous few.
We exit the plane in order. Same orderliness we had followed while boarding. The hostess, the smiling pretender who had uprooted me from seat 14C, waved me bye.
“Enjoy your stay in Europe,” she said.
I feigned interest and replied, “You too,” as if I understood Europe, was her destination.
The weather outside was chilly; my body shivered a little despite the heavy hood I had planted over my head to complement the woolen trench coat. My warm, heavy breathing slapped my spectacles with spots of arched dew across the lens. I struggled to see clearly. The present condition was the exact opposite of the warm, breezy weather we had left behind in Nairobi; winter was setting-in in Europe.
Kevin and the Scot walked ahead of me. I followed timidly, occasionally opening my bag’s zip to feel the fresh Euro notes. Unlike Kevin and I who were buried in heavy clothing looking like stuffed animals, the Scot had it easy, with nothing more but a Tee and mini pants. Once, I watched him pull the plane-issued blankets over his head when the temperatures dropped below zero degrees.
We headed to a passport control checkpoint. I heard him tell Kevin of the nightmare (long lines, disorderliness, failing computer systems, race favoritism) that was India and other African countries’ security checkpoints and border control desks.
Here, it was a small, brief affair for Phillip. It took him less than a minute at the desk. Kevin and I each took five minutes.
The questions (Where are you from? Where are you going? And why are you going? Was this trip necessary? Couldn’t the training have been done from where you are coming? Show me evidence of how you will manage to stay in Europe? Is this your first time here? If not, have you ever exceeded your stay here?) made me feel like telling them that I knew they believed their Europe was like paradise to us, but that they were wrong – we were only there because they disturbed our beautiful continent with their civilization, ruined our primitive peace of mind, interfered with our reasoning, forcing us to visit their continent to learn their self-righteous ways; that, otherwise, I would have been blissful, at ease, minding my own business fishing naked at Lake Victoria (which they bluntly stole from us and renamed, it was Nam Lolwe) and happily married with sixteen children and four wives.
The Scot ran his left hand through his hair on the other side of the free as he waited for us, these two cornered little hobbits coming from the wrong side of the equator, to be released. When they let us go, he told us border control in Europe was run with a considerable level of paranoia.
I asked him, “You mean against black people?”
“Yea, sort of.” He chuckled.
We headed to the security checks that stood before the gates of our next flights. Kevin and I were now ahead of him.
Rubes. Midgets. Imbeciles.
I swiped my boarding pass at the electronic barrier gate in vain. I swiped again, trembling, fumbling further in successive attempts. Kevin behind me noticed my struggle. He stepped forward, attempted, but it failed still. Other passengers queueing on the other gates were going through faster like mice running from a suddenly lit room. I was sweating, so was Kevin. Clicks and growls of the impatient travelers built up behind us. Rubes, funny midgets, did someone say imbecile before jumping to the next line?
The situation was becoming desperate.
“Excuse me, may I?” Out of nowhere, rescue came. It was the Scot.
He took my boarding pass, swiped against the laser reader, and phew, the sesame gate opened. He did the same for Kevin, then finally his. That saying about the village and taking someone out of it, but its ways are ever stuck with him, kept ringing in my mind for the next few strides past the security checks.
The Scot told us we only had to – he had winked – steady the hands, hold the ticket with its barcode facing down, and swipe.
His flight to Scotland was leaving in less than an hour. He bid us farewell.
“Good Luck,” Phillip, the Scot, said. “I will look for you two on Facebook.”
We were hungry again. It was two hours before our next flight to Brussels.
Kevin spotted an Italian café. We mounted on the high stools slightly dwarfing an equally tall wooden table, designed to the nightclub’s level. There were other crisp, low-level seats arranged in a typical restaurant’s fashion, four comfortable chairs surrounding a round table. But we choose the high life, the high things.
I placed an order for beef barbeque pizza. Kevin flipped the menu, perusing pages, then started over again. He studied a page keenly; the waiter noticed his devotion to selection and went away to place my order first.
“Get me this,” Kevin said when the waiter returned with starters, a plate of bites, waffles, and charred spring onions.
“Alright,” said the waiter. Her English was broken; she had just enough to say thank you, okay, good, and such easy words.
I saw an animated conversation between the waiter and her other male colleague at the kitchen counter. They kept glancing at our table with the lady waiter pointing at Kevin. They realized we were looking at them, for I had tapped Kevin to join me in watching the scene.
They smiled at us, and the male waiter, the lady in tow, came to our table.
“Hello. Are you sure you can eat this?” he asked, exposing his partly crooked front lower teeth as his left thumb on the menu marked the meal in question.
“Yes, why?” Kevin asked.
“This is beef tartar. It is slices of raw beef with a piece of lemon on the side.”
Kevin was rattled, befuddled, and humbled. As he asked for more time to choose again, the words of our guardian angel, Phillip the Scot, came back to me, “Stick to what is familiar.”