LETTER HOME: “AFRICA”
Dear Family and Friends,
Tonight I write you from La Pausa Café in the Buenos Aires International Airport.
It’s a generic bistro, the type that appears in many airports across the world. It has dim, beige lighting and an attempted-chic bar. The clientele seems weary. Many of them sip on coffees, hoping perhaps that a bit of caffeine might assist them in navigating airline check-in counters and cattle-like security lines. A woman is weeping as she walks past me, and a man, potentially her husband, wraps his arm around her shoulders. Such fertile ground for emotion, airports are.
The waiter is surprisingly friendly compared to the surly service I’ve had over the past month in Buenos Aires. He takes my order for a cappuccino a la italiana with a smile, and offers the WiFi password before I even think of asking for it. His friendliness provides a welcome contrast to the butterflies that have surprisingly installed themselves in my stomach. Tomorrow, for the first time in my life, I will step foot on the continent of Africa.
I keep saying the word to myself, as if I might reach some greater understanding of the complexity of the continent, simply by repeating the term. I say it again, hoping that I might have a sudden clarity for greater purpose as a traveler, as a human being. So far it’s not working.
* * *
In a couple of hours, I’ll board a flight that not only will transfer me across an ocean, but will figuratively reposition me into the big leagues of international travel. When I was young, Africa was always the most exotic of all destinations. It was a dream, a fascination; something that was furthest away from the reality of my semi-isolated Northern Canadian life. There is a residual romanticization. And, in my mind, this flight has a strong symbolism. Tomorrow, I demystify a dream. Tomorrow, I become a person who has been to Africa. It all sounds silly and slightly epic at the same time.
My coffee arrives. I swirl the whip cream with my spoon, and then sample the frothy sweetness and let my eyes wander across the bistro. The man across from me has sweat marks under his armpits. A group of three Middle Eastern businessmen take a table and chat casually among each other. They are impeccably dressed.
“Hey, Dan, do you think they have whip cream in Africa?” I ask myself facetiously.
Making fun of myself has always been a reliable strategy in helping deal with complex emotion.
* * *
My mind wanders back to the young, but stoic, Israeli fellow named Jonathan, with whom I shared a taxi to the airport. We were staying at the same hostel, but we hadn’t really spoken before the taxi ride. When I inquire into his next destination, he informs me that it is Israel. After seven months of traveling, he is returning home tonight.
“So, how do you feel?” I bluntly inquired to him, as if it were perfectly normal that he should disclose his emotional state to a stranger in backseat of a taxi.
“Sad,” he said, and paused. And then continued, “But happy to see my home again.”
We chatted a bit more about our travels, and then sat in silence, watching the lights of petrol stations and lamp-lit overpasses whiz by in the night. Both of us slightly weary wanderers, not fully equipped to deal with the intricate sentiments of long-term travel.
* * *
At the moment, I feel sort of small. And the world seems big.
I cannot help but be changed by this journey. The danger in demystifying a dream is that one must find something new for which to aspire. The sweetness of dreaming has always been a reliable world to where I have frequently escaped in my times of sorrow or suffering. Tomorrow, the pictures I have painted in my mind of Africa will be replaced with concrete images of an actual reality. Perhaps those butterflies in my stomach are the fear of saying goodbye to the kid who dreamed of big things. There is some tension inside; it is the trepidation of losing the innocence of seeing the world through imaginative, wide eyes. Travel couldn’t ever compromise my sense of wonderment, could it?
As I write these words, I discover that I might be learning something. Maybe travel is simply a ‘trade off’ – we exchange dreams for knowledge, we switch fantasies for world sophistication. The idea of this brings comfort.
Perhaps tomorrow when I step off the plane, the world will feel less big.
* * *
At the end of the café I can see a group of people looking over a railing, and down into the arrivals terminal. Seeing people reunited is the beautiful part of traveling. I could sit and watch the reunions for hours.
I hope that Jonathan has someone to hug him when he arrives. I hope he feels bigger because of his travels. I hope travel has made him a more compassionate human being. I hope he is more sophisticated, and that he still dreams of foreign places.
I begin to envision what it’s going to look and feel like when I arrive back home. But I stop, and bring myself back to this airport, back to this cup of coffee, back to this moment.
I don’t need to concern myself with the emotions of returning home. Instead, I shall go and demystify a dream, and deal with all the implications of doing such.