“Free seating, free seating! Sit anywhere you want!” He had to be talking to me, as it was I who had posed him the question about whether or not he was in the right seat. By the way he pitched his head though, and his voice too, he seemed to be addressing all of the boarding passengers. Perhaps he was already inebriated, getting a head start on buffering himself from the paranoia of being up in the air for the duration of the flight, scheduled to take off in less than half-an-hour. A head start on the liquoring up was necessary, just in case the plane was not adequately equipped – rather, stocked – with the precious fear-of-flying antidote. Flying was meant for birds, and not for man, locked down in great big iron contraptions, hurtling through the skies at forty thousand feet. I have been on countless flights where passengers, scared of flying, either took sleeping pills before take-off, or started numbing themselves with alcohol in the airport bars before boarding.
It was mid-morning, and the snow was coming down softly when I boarded the plane in Sofia, Bulgaria. I was on my way down to Accra, Ghana. Ghana was going to be the first full stop of my tri-country sojourn. After spending some time in Accra, I was flying next to Abidjan, Cote d’Ivoire for a few more days, and then on to Bobo Dioulasso, Burkina Faso, by train. It was my first time heading to Africa – West Africa, to be exact — and I was excited. Growing up on an island as tiny as Jamaica, I had often looked at the map and tried to envision what it would be like visiting distant lands. Sure, Australia was far, and so too was China; but nowhere could be as remote as Africa, for the impression we had was that it was beyond Beyond. We had learned it was one of the continents, but, to us, continent and country, when it came to Africa, were one and the same.
My journey had started the day before in Brussels, which was home for me at the time. All of the direct flights from Brussels were full, for it was Christmastime, and it seemed the entire African Diaspora in Belgium was heading back home to be with family, just as we do in the Caribbean. But, come hell or high water, even if I had to strap myself to the wing of a plane, I was going to Africa. Fortunately, it did not come to that, as my travel agent had managed to find me a seat on Balkan Airlines, the official carrier of Bulgaria, now defunct. With all plans laid, I was flying from Brussels to Accra, with stops along the way in Sofia, Tripoli, and Lagos, a rather circuitous route to get to Ghana.. That’s how I ended up boarding a flight in Sofia. The scheduled one-hour stop there to offload and load joining passengers had turned out to be an overnight drama. Perhaps the start of my trip should have told me that things were not going to go as smoothly as I had dreamed. How come so?
Back at my third-floor apartment in Ixelles, in the southern part of Brussels, I had been busy trying to force-dry a wet shirt when my ride arrived to take me to the airport in Zaventem. Force-drying wet clothes with a hot iron was something I grew up doing in Jamaica, especially when I had to wash my only school shirt midweek during the night. Of course, there was no mid-day sun at night, and sometimes the night air was too cool to dry it on the wire line outside. Or, unexpected midnight rains would prevent it from breezing out on the line in the warm night air. So, without the luxury of a clothes dryer – I didn’t even know that such contraptions existed — I was forced, on those occasions, to resort to the hot-iron method. And so it was, that in the midst of drying my favorite shirt, which I absolutely had to wear to Africa, my doorbell rang. My ride had arrived. I donned the shirt, still warm and steaming from the hot iron, grabbed my bag and suitcase, said goodbye to my apartment, and headed to the lift. I could not let my ride wait a minute longer, and I was already running late for the airport.
I made it to Zaventem on time. Barely. They were just about to close the flight and I had to run through the terminal, literally, to catch it. With my checked luggage in tow. The check-in rep at the Balkan counter had told me there was not enough time for them to get it to the aircraft, but assured me that I could board with it. As I dashed to the gate, I thought to myself that it certainly would not fit in the overhead compartment, nor would it under the seat in front of me. Where would they put it? Maybe the Russian-made Tupolev plane would be able to accommodate it. It was going to be my first time flying on an Eastern European aircraft, so I wasn’t familiar with their internal designs. I was more used to the DC-10s, the Boeings and the Airbuses of the TWAs, the British Airways, the Air Frances, the Air Jamaicas and the Lufthansas of the world. Balkan Airlines? Tupolev? Both of them adventures in themselves. And so I flew from Brussels to Sofia, my large suitcase nicely propped up in the seat beside me, not even belted in! Except for that, it was an uneventful two-and-a-half-hour flight. But things were going to take a turn upon arrival.
Coming from the West, the Eastern Bloc for me was mysterious. Bulgaria was a Comecom — one of “them”. What should I expect — symptomatic oppression and depression? What would I feel –trepidation? We landed, and disembarked. Setting foot on communist soil was enigmatic: The terminal was dark and gloomy. It was night, but either the bulbs were not working well — some of them missing — or the ceilings from which they were hanging were too high, so much so that the light found the distance to the floor impenetrable. During the layover to change planes, I intended to explore the stores in the airport to get a synopsis of what life was like in a communist country. It was said that things were a lot cheaper than in the West, and I wanted to see for myself. I did get a chance to see the prices in the stores, and was amazed at how low they were! Cheap. Had I been returning home to Belgium, I would certainly have stocked up on a few items. But, I was about to learn still more about the country…
I waited for what seemed like forever to hear them announce the boarding of the leg of the flight to Accra. Nothing. Perhaps the Russian accent was so thick that it made the English announcements sound like a foreign language and was why I did not hear any announcement! I checked the board, and nothing. Eventually, the announcement came, after what must have been at least an hour after the scheduled departure time. We boarded a shuttle to take us to the plane. We circled, and circled once more. Then we headed back to the terminal and were told to disembark and go back to the waiting room. Another hour or so went by. Not able to stand the suspense any longer, one of my fellow passengers summoned over someone who seemed like a customer service officer. The answer the officer gave to the question about what was happening was, “The plane broke…” Nothing more, nothing less. The accent was weird. Eventually, I heard a rumor that we were going to be put up for the night, which turned out to be true. In a chaotic, crowded frenzy, the passengers shouted and pushed their way through the throngs as they responded to their names and moved forward to collect their hotel and meal vouchers. Armed with my vouchers, I was led out into the cold, snowy night and herded on to a bus with a group of fellow passengers.
The bus was akin to what we called in Jamaica a patty pan, back in the days. This one’s engine sounded like a rough diesel as it sputtered and came alive. Almost like an over-sized, souped-up, 2-stroke-engine, smoke-belching Trabant. As we left the airport and pulled out into the main road, we started to smell something like bad kerosene. The fumes were getting stronger, and though it was cold outside, we had to open the windows to get some fresh air. Somehow, I cannot remember much about the night spent at the hotel, except for the meal, which I could not handle. It was somewhat like oily liver. Tasteless. Just could not deal with it at all. At the appointed time the following morning, we were herded on the oversized Trabant once more, and shuttled to the airport.
The snow had ceased by the time we got there. It was cold and dreary on the outside, and we hurriedly disembarked from the bus and filtered into the terminal. On the inside, it was just as dreary as on the outside. Maybe not totally. Almost. Passengers moved about, either trying to keep warm, or trying to find their gates. I settled in the waiting area for the flight, praying that the plane had been fixed and that there would be no further delays. I had no way of reaching my Ghanaian friends who were to meet me upon my arrival, but I figured they would have gotten the news of the delayed flight. Quite likely they would have gone home and would be getting ready to go back later. It was then that the commotion broke my thoughts… A fight had broken out between two Nigerians. About what, I did not know, but it was pretty intense. I did not have a clue what they were saying either, but it did not take understanding a language to detect that the words being spat out were words of great wrath. It took the intervention of who seemed like a security officer to break up the squabble. The flight was finally called, and we were shuttled again, just like the night before, out to the tarmac to board.
And it was then, upon boarding, that that I found another passenger, a young gentleman, in my assigned window seat. Flying back then, I used to like sitting by the window, so I had one pre-assigned to me. Sitting by the window was my preference, especially in daylight flights where I could look down and admire the sea from a distance, or wonder in awe about mountain ranges and deserts, trying to establish that there was indeed a practical purpose for my high school Geography lessons. I had studied hard in school, and was determined to make the brutality of the acquired knowledge pay off one day. Miss Burey and Mr. Swann would be oh so proud of me. Nowadays, I prefer the aisle seats, even though it is sometimes bothersome when a passenger beside me has a water-retention problem.
Whether I liked his response or not, the guy in my seat was telling me he got there first, and he was not about to budge. Lots of other free seats on the plane, so what was my problem? I could tell by his accent that he was Nigerian. Not Ghanaian. I could tell, for one of my best friends happened to be Ghanaian. And, to my Jamaican ear, he had an accent relatively milder than the Nigerian girl’s who worked in my office back in Brussels. Besides, I had been around several Ghanaian and Nigerian fellow students while I was at university in France, so I knew the distinction.
So, with my seat captured, I made my way to another row to secure another window seat. Free seating. First come, first served. I was not going to put up a fight, for I was not too sure what the outcome would have been, and I certainly had no intention of finding out. By the time the plane took off, there were two passengers beside me, with boxes on the floor in front of them, their feet hoisted on top. I guess safety was not a priority for Balkan! I would not be exaggerating if I said that for the entire duration of the flight, up to our first stop in Libya, passengers whom I later learned were mostly Nigerians walked up and down the aisle, sharing booze and chatting and laughing. Some of them quite drunk. I guess the Christmas celebrations had started in earnest! For some strange reason, the raucousness subsided somewhat when we took off from Tripoli on the way to our next stop in Lagos. The celebrations were a bit more subdued. Later, when we took off from Lagos en route to Accra, the plane was two-thirds empty. Apparently most of the passengers from Sophia and Tripoli were Nigerians. As the plane climbed, there was a remarkable silence, and a Ghanaian girl now seated across from me muttered, “Thank God they are gone…” Sheer quiet on the one-hour flight to Accra.
“Ladies and gentlemen, you have just landed at the Kotoka International Airport in Accra. Welcome to Ghana.” The words pronounced by the voice of the flight attendant over the plane’s intercom made me shiver. Not from feeling cold. Shiver with the anticipation of setting foot on African soil for the first time ever. My emotions were getting the better of me. I had finally gotten to the Motherland, all in one piece, and after all the drama I had gone through from the moment I started drying my shirt with a hot iron back in my apartment in Brussels. Africa for two weeks of discovery! Going to see where my ancestors came from. I wondered if I would go past any relatives and not know we were related? Clearing Immigration, I found that my Jamaican passport seemed to elicit a strange reaction from the officer. He seemed excited to be welcoming a Jamaican to Ghana. I would discover, during my stay in each of the countries I visited, that my Jamaican passport gave me a kind of celebrity status. I would find out, to my surprise, how revered Jamaica was. I would discover how well-loved my island was, and how most of the Africans I would come across were dying to visit Jamaica, as much as I had been dying to visit Africa…