I hate flying.
This is a recent development. When I was younger I loved it, the prospect of going to a new place, the novelty and to-do of packing, floating through security, discovering secret snacks and notes my mother had slipped into my backpack, drinking from my special Little Mermaid sippy cup. Then I got older and the Little Mermaid cup lid was lost, the snacks and notes stopped, the security became more complicated. 9/11 happened, and I steadily declined from loving flying to neutrality to hating it. My parents are no longer involved; instead, I book flights and arrange transportation and print out my boarding pass. It’s worse when going overseas–there is the constant panic in my abdomen that I have forgotten my passport, that the airline will have lost my booking, that I’ll forget something, that a different country’s laws about airport security will affect my carry-on, that the plane’s mechanics weren’t properly checked or the captain will fall asleep or Something Bad Will Happen.
I’m on a plane now, scrawling this on the barf bag. It’s the end of spring break and we’re en route back to Cape Town from Johannesburg. My head is full of words and words, and if I never hear anyone speak again I could die a happy woman. Animals, on the other hand (I am delighted to relate to you), don’t actually talk.
Let me tell you this about African animals and me:
upon watching a nature documentary in my parents’ sunny living room in Lubbock, my impression of Africa involves a vague open savanna and perpetual dry season. I was always impressed by the tenacity of the filmmakers, thinking they must have hiked through land sharp with lions and splashed through water oily with crocodiles to arrive at a water hole maybe three people were aware of in order to sit in what I imagined was a ThighMaster position for 12 hours behind some marula tree, waiting for something interesting to happen, like death or sex.
Then I went on safari.
Waking up before sunrise was in line with my idea of African game drives. But we neglected any (imaginary) remote parts of the country; instead, we traveled to Kruger National Park in South Africa and game reserves in Swaziland, where we bounced over paved and well-graded dirt roads in pickup trucks to view game on the side of the road in a place where animals were official. While there was something eerie and magical and, to use the word of my friend Allison, humbling, to watch a family of elephants lumber with their slow easy grace across a savanna sunrise, or the sudden butterfly discovery of male lions arrogantly lying in the tall grass, or waiting as four cheetah with flicking tails crossed the road un-self-consciously, or stumbling, heart pounding, six inches away from the fenced-in face of a roaring behemoth lioness–despite all this, I felt disconnected. All of this together was an experience that reminded me of driving through Yellowstone to see bison or the elusive grizzly; I felt segregated from the land, as though there was a denial that we were a part of one another. There seemed to be an attitude that land should be kept at arm’s length, viewed but not touched, like television or Victorian children who may not speak. Unsupervised hikes in the national park were not allowed. I wondered what to do to prevent meeting a lion in the bush, but anyone I asked seemed not to know, and upon reflection I don’t blame them: in their eyes, it’s irrelevant. How would you risk meeting a lion in the bush if you never go walking in the bush?
I wondered where the Africa everyone dreams about had gone, and found that it has disappeared, along with the frontier in America and wilderness around the world. The truth about Africa has less to do with lions and cheetah and wildebeests, and more with the hard glittering buildings of Johannesburg and the polyester uniforms of schoolkids. Rural KwaZulu-Natal prvince has round Zulu huts, but roofs are tiled now instead of thatched, and jeans have replaced whatever loincloth existed in the imaginations of Western people. Breasts are sexualized, and covered. The jarring juxtaposition of old Africa and new is fascinating and incessantly fresh and raw and surprising. It applies too to the African take on animals and conservation. At Moholoholo Wildlife Rehabilitation Sanctuary in Limpopo province, the white Afrikaner presenter derided “natives” for killing leopards for traditional uses. This is what I, as an environmentalist and an anthropologist, learned: in order for conservation to be sustainable, its ideals must be reconciled with those of locals, be they Montana ranchers or Limpopo Tswana. Otherwise, conservation is a synonym for imperialism.
In other news, my passport is accumulating exotic stamps. Swaziland is a tiny country squeezed between South Africa and Mozambique. It’s an absolute monarchy, one of three left in the world, and the king has I think about 16 or 17 wives. Things I know about Swaziland: it’s a leader in Southern Africa in virginity testing of young unmarried women, a movement led by older women who claim the practice reduces HIV/AIDS. Its currency is pegged to match South African rand. The South African border control was a boxy, industrial brick building, and I got a quick exit stamp under a glass window. I walked twenty feet to the Swaziland border control, made of wood and falling apart; the officer received my passport with curiosity. He noted the nationality. “Obama country,” he murmured. He stamped it and handed it back to me, grinning. He was missing a canine. “Welcome to Swaziland!”
Durban has Victoria Street Market (Indian wedding garlands and red spices piled in bowls and women with babies tied in towels around their bodies and big containers on their heads and meat markets and people, this is where people go to Live) and the largest mosque in the Southern Hemisphere. Johannesburg is like Fort Worth or Philadelphia, tall gleaming buildings and smokestacks and highways. Rural South Africa is indescribable, almost laughably photogenic. The mountains are tall and green, the fields are terraced like Peru except not as cold and wet and high, the tree farms line the roads with tall straight vegetation that has white peeling bark and sunlight seeping through to the leafy ground. The light is perfect somehow no matter what time of day it is, but sunrise and sunset are intoxicating, and require dreamy concentration.
And now we’re landing, and my hatred of flying, of being so far away from earth, is becoming immaterial as we get closer and closer to the ground. Nothing was forgotten and the plane stayed whole and apparently the pilots are all awake, or at least the important ones are.
When I sleep, I’ll dream of lions and South African sunsets.