As we transit through Abu Dahbi international airport, I am struck by the change in the mix of people around me. I am no longer just another fair skinned man. Rather, I am in the minority among the many people from the Middle East, Africa, the Sub-continent and the Philippines. A mix of languages floats through the air like a perfectly tuned orchestra. The long flowing sounds of Arabic mix with the familiar accents of Indian with its occasional English word. There’s other languages too: French, something that sounds Scandanavian and, of course, Tagoolog.
Everything is different to at home. There are Mars Bar and Bounty flavoured milk drinks. The currency and exchange rates are a mystery. And written Arabic language abounds. Yet, at the same time, it’s just yet another modern international airport with free wifi, gate lounges, flight announcements, passengers with red-rimmed eyes from lack of sleep and bodies sleeping anywhere they can find a space. This is where the 850,000 people who are in the air at any given moment on any given day move to, from and between flights.
“Look at the desert,” Dad says as the plane rises to its cruising altitude. I lean over him and look down. The sand stretches as far as my eyes can see. It looks exactly like the pictures in the old National Geographic magazines I used to read at the doctor and dentist. Even from this high up the dunes look huge and imposing. I can’t help but feel a sense of awe at the peoples who have made this place their home and the explorers who have braved it.
As the plane climbs higher, my view is obstructed so I settle in. I read a bit from Tom Allen’s Janapar, watch snippets of Monsoon Wedding and some other random movie, and try to get some sleep because I’m tired from the journey. As we land I know I’m in Africa when I see a clump of African trees; the sort you see in brochures advertising African wildlife safaris.
We are processed quickly by customs at Nairobi airport. It takes longer to complete the two short immigration forms than it does to pay our $US50 for visas and walk to the baggage claim area. It’s Valentine’s Day and I find a pair of red roses thrust into my hands by friendly airport staff as I walk out under the African sun for the first time. Welcome to Africa.
For some reason I had expected an Asian-style scrum to greet us but, instead, it was quiet. I notice so much during the taxi ride to the hotel. A herd of cattle graze on the highway median strip near the airport. The dents in the car bodies shows how common touch driving must be as our taxi driver zig zags his was erratically through the traffic, pushing in front of dented old buses and trucks. 125cc motorbikes slip between the traffic, jumping up onto the footpath when the road is blocked. A group of men push a heavily laden cart up a hill, unapologetically blocking the entire left lane of the road. And people walk everywhere: men in jeans and filthy old shirts, women in high heals with beautifully braided hair and men selling their wares along the road. I feel a long way from home but it only took me 36 hours to get here.