after six flights, I am on kenya's coast. I feel like a poor traveler. after years of throwing my backpack on the top of local buses and bumping from country to country, i have forsaken discovery in favour of renewing pleasures that abyei does not afford. yesterday, immediately after my sleepless arrival, I ate fresh ocean fish in a sour coconut sauce, drank a glass of white wine, and fell asleep on a wide, white bed with a surplus of pillows and an air conditioner whirring above me. 24 hours later, I have left my room only to swim.
for me, traveling is best done on the ground, bus to bus, and planned only when necessary. with the five days out of khartoum that we are given after three months of volunteering, there is little room for mistakes, and only enough time to catch up on one's sleep. we are allowed to go to five countries for our rest: tanzania, kenya, uganda, egypt, or jordan. we are not allowed to go home, because the familiar gravity of one's own bed might be too strong to break. my home is abyei, and after a short respite, that is where I will return.
traveling is also best done on the ground because it avoids it in the air. flying is for the birds. for me, putting a hundred humans in a metal cigar and propelling it into the atmosphere using combustion is not a miracle of modern aviation, it is foolish. like we are not only tempting Fate, but we knocked her out with a sucker punch and are holding smelling salts under her nose.
my discomfort with lifting off the ground with a thousand kilograms of gasoline and navigating incredible distances at incredible speeds while avoiding incredible numbers of other missiles with similar trajectories does not improve with the number of times I fly. I fly all of the time. the only thing that has improved is how quickly I accept my inevitable end with every unanticipated click of the aircraft.
"well, I guess that's it. I've lead a good life. seen amazing, beautiful things. I knew it was just a matter of time. should have taken the bus."
the flights in northern sudan have done little to quell my belief that I am flying on borrowed time. the other day, as we waited in agok (WFP?), the afternoon clouds started to gather. as is typical of the season, light wisps of cumulus cloud are blown out of the way by their thicker, thunderous cousins who hunch on their flat base, just at the dew point, and grow, and grow, and blow, and rain.
in an hour, in Agok, the sky was shifting from blue to dappled gray as the plane dropped out of it. we had a two hour flight to kadugli, the nearest tarmac landing strip, where we would refuel. we climbed through the gathering wind, our tail waggling from side to side, and flew north. wind whistled through the door behind me. we ascended to several thousand feet, and as we reached the base of the clouds, we bumped against it. bump. bump. as we were being thrown up and down, one of the passengers turned to me and said, "I'm going to get some shut eye", and I was like, "what? in this tin coffin? fine. you sleep, I'll use my mental energy to keep the plane aloft." so we flew to kadugli, our heads brushing the clouds, one of us fast asleep, one of us fast awake. below us, the scorched earth raced by.
after circling kadugli for what seemed like an inordinately long time ("is this normal? they would tell me if there was a problem. I'm pretty sure they would."), we bumped shakily down. "crosswind.", the pilot explained as he opened our door. we stepped out onto the tarmac. "umm…", he said, "refueling takes about 15 minutes, but we've gotta watch that, see what it's gonna do." he pointed his thumb over his shoulder. lightning sparked in a black horizon. "which way is El Obeid?", I asked. he gestured over his shoulder again."
the tiny airport was full of UN soldiers and staff waiting for a plane that, when it arrived, made our plane look like a toy. their's was big and muscular. ours was made of balsa wood. I joined our pilot outside. we sat, smoking, as the wind gathered, and watched the storm. "what happens if we fly into that?", I asked, over the shhh of blowing sand. the pilot made a breaking motion with his two hands.
it came towards us, but never hit the airport. we could see it dash the hills only a kilometer away, feel the weight of it on our skin, but it never crossed the runway. after several minutes, the UN plane loaded its passengers, and smoothly lifted off from the runway with a certainty that must have been contagious.
"I think it is blowing itself out," the pilot said. "let's give it a shot."
a shot. perfect. the college try. and if it hasn't blown itself out, we'll just….
the storm looked over its its shoulder at us as we lifted off in the wind. we were all bolt awake. we flew, certain, straight towards el obeid. the storm had shifted, but had not gone. by no means. as we lifted past the hills, it stood in front of us, an angry purple bruise. mounds of clouds. flicker. flicker.
a day or two before, I had sat on the veranda in the compound and watched storm clouds roll in on top of each other. I imagined being up there, not in a plane, but just hanging in the mist, feeling the crackle of electicity in the air, looking for sparks amidst the twisting grey fog. perhaps nature had interpreted it as a wish, and was making it come true.
instead of flying into its blackness, we circled back towards kadugli. I could see the jagged silhouette of the nuba mountains as we flew west, away from el obeid, away from the storm and wondered about where I would sleep.
we did not land. we flew past the airport with one eye on the storm, and started to circle its margins. we were never more than a thousand metres away from the rain. when the storm moved closer, we veered away, our balsa plane bobbing in the wind. from my window, behind the cloud of dust the storm had stirred, I watched trails of rain draining onto the sand. (hey, pilot… lightning…. come on, look… to your right… it's getting closer… what are you doing?... lightning…. does he see it?... no… look…. it's just there….. he's not looking…. what?... what are you turning around for? ... aren't there important instruments to be constantly monitored? ... ...let's fly closer to the ground…. skim the trees…. actually, let's just set this bad boy down, and have a good think about this whole endeavour…. all in favour?)
we followed the sun, over the mountains, just outrunning the storm, moving west… west …north a bit… north… west… north… north… northeast… northeast… around it, into a bright pocket of sun. we sailed through white, harmless clouds, and unclenched our hands from our arm rests and smiled at one another. we would be in Khartoum by sundown.
i wonder not why I feel this way about airplanes, only why everyone else doesn't. there is only one way to fly.