The Air France flight just took off from Toussaint L’Ouverture in Port-au-Prince, headed for Miami, after a pit stop coming from Pointe-a-Pitre. On the way up from Guadeloupe there was an older man and a younger-looking woman seated beside me, just behind the exit row on the left hand side of the plane. Haiti was their destination, as a young dreadlocked guy is now sitting in the window seat of my row, the middle seat empty.
It is now dark, after leaving Guadeloupe in semi-sunlight. As we climb, the lights of Port-au-Prince sparkle, just like you would see on taking off from any other island in the Caribbean, save for the smaller ones which you can see entirely as soon as you are only a few feet off the ground. On the larger islands like the one Haiti shares with the Dominican Republic, the city lights gradually fade into the darkness of the rural areas, with speckles here and there. When full darkness appears, you know you have edged land and are now heading out over the Caribbean Sea.
The young dreadlocked guy leans against the side and peers through the window, looking down at the lights. I imagine he is Haitian, and I imagine nostalgia is tugging at him as he thinks about his family and friends he has just visited and is leaving behind again. Earlier when he asked me to place a packet of Barbancourt into the overhead bin, he had an American accent, but the way he is peering down at the city tells me that he is Haitian. After about 30 seconds, he leans back in his seat, and closes his eyes as if settling in for a nap. Within 5 seconds he startles me as he suddenly jumps forward, pushes his head against the window and starts looking down once more. Haiti is pulling at his heartstrings again: He softly clutches the last sight as the lights start to disappear into the darkness. Filling his mind with every last ounce of visual and nostalgic fodder to feed his memory until his next trip back down. I know the emotional knots he has inside, for it happens to me every time I go home to Jamaica and am in the plane leaving again. Without fail. No matter how often I go, or how long I stay. A day, or a week. A feeling of nostalgia, missing things Jamaican, and friends and relatives Jamaican, and lifestyle and fun Jamaican. Bumpy country roads, sparkling blue sea and white clouds. Raucous laughter over a game of dominoes, waiting for the mannish water and the wood-fire roasted breadfruit and the curried goat to be ready. Every time. Even after almost 30 years of living overseas — more than half of my life.
The flight attendants are now interrupting my thoughts, as they push their carts next to me in the aisle to commence their food and beverage service. Usually I can see them coming, but my thoughts have blocked my view on this occasion. Wow, the attendant closer to me offers me a tray with rice salad, made crunchy with pieces of green sweet pepper and golden corn, along with a tuna salad sandwich and a muffin. Free. Certainly not American Airlines, which no longer serves even peanuts, much less meals in economy. At least, not for free. They make you pay. And to think I am a frequent flyer with them, having spent almost a million miles on lockdown in their iron birds, crisscrossing oceans and deserts and traversing mountains and cities. The other attendant is now asking me what I would like to drink. I already know what I would like, as I know the choices by heart. My usual coke zero. I am taken aback when she mentions beer and wine among the array of flavored sodas and fruit juices. Also free. My goodness, definitely no American Airlines around here. Air France is the thrill! I opt for red wine. I must remember though, not to mention this to my doctor in Miami who, coincidentally, is Haitian. She has been telling me to watch what I eat. Stay away from starches, or anything else with too much sugar. She will give me a good telling off if she finds out, although I am sure my readings will be a sure tattletale if I don’t pull up my socks before I see her for my next visit.
The darkness outside has brought calm to the dreadlocked guy, and he is now quite relaxed, fully reclined in his seat, with eyes closed once again. I wonder why he did not decide to spend Christmas in Haiti? Like all the passengers who had disembarked in Port-au-Prince on the pit stop from Guadeloupe? Christmas is such a wonderful time to spend with family. At the check-in counter in Pointe-a-Pitre, I had watched the Haitian passengers trying to convince the Air France staff to accept their overweight bags, tightly tied up to prevent them from bursting at the seams, as cabin luggage. At one time in my life I would have cursed to myself about why passengers did not check the weight of their luggage at home before luggo-luggoing with them to the airport. I guess age makes one more tolerant, although my wife does not think so, complaining that I am getting more miserable the older I get. Or, perhaps I did not complain bitterly inside because I saw myself in the place of the passengers, going home to spend time with loved ones, with all kinds of goodies in tow to share with them a bit of the life they had in another country. I looked at a not-too-elderly lady struggling with her heavily laden trolley, or, is it cart? — my British English background and my nova American English are at war again — and I smiled inside as I could see my mother in her. A bit unsure of the protocol of luggage and checking in and airline policies. I felt the joy of her anticipation of the excitement of going home. Christmas with loved ones. And it took me back to my own Christmases as a kid in Jamaica…
I am now relaxing in my seat, slightly reclined, with the memories of Christmas playing over and over in my mind. I feel peace. Life in the country in Jamaica – St. Thomas – was simple, but that is what we knew. Simple, but one where all neighbors were like family. Especially at Christmas. Everyone cooked and shared dishes across the fence. Or they exercised their seasonal, yuletide license to prance into anyone’s kitchen and command, without asking, the spoils of a full day of culinary labor. Succulent, coal-pit-roasted pork, roast beef, curried goat and rice and peas. Prefaced perhaps by a cup of mannish water. Epilogued by sorrel, laced with white rum, and spiced with pimento corn. Some of the men preferred it sorrel-less. The children were gifted with an entire bottle of D&G soda each! Didn’t have to share it with their siblings. And the Christmas cake – the mother of all cakes – was the icing on the, ahem, cake?
“Ladies and gentlemen, we are a few minutes away from landing in Miami…” My Christmas is cut abruptly. The lights in the plane come back on and we ready ourselves, buckling seatbelts, upright-positioning seatbacks and locking away tray tables. We are floating down and I see the lights of Miami. Coming up to meet us as we descend. We are now aligned to approach the runway. Instead of landing, the plane picks up a burst of speed and heads straight back up into the night skies! Everyone is silent, except for my Haitian neighbor who suddenly asks if I have a pen, his customs declaration form in hand. Maybe it is a way of calming his nerves, for the only thing we know is the plane is going back up. Some sort of emergency. Was there a plane on the runway? Or one crossing our path? Perhaps the wind had suddenly changed direction, creating a hazardous situation for landing? And the flight attendant’s announcement is of no help, as she calmly says, “Ladies and gentlemen, as you have noticed, the captain has aborted the landing. We will be landing shortly.” Shit, no, I did not notice. Are we not there yet? I am not nervous though, for my years of flying have numbed me into acquiescence in such situations. I know the meanings of the different sounds an aircraft makes, and this is not my first aborted landing. Everything will end well, as they usually do. We fly around for quite a while, the lights of Miami no longer in view. We must be somewhere over the Everglades. Just darkness. It seems we are banking, and as the plane slowly rights itself, I see the lights coming into view again. We are on the ground. Relief. Funny, though I am not scared of flying, I am always relieved when the rubber hits the tarmac. I wonder why? As we taxi towards the gate I wonder too, what just happened back there?
Merry Christmas all…