I’m at OR Tambo International Airport. I am past security, my bags are checked and already in the belly of a plane, and I can SEE THAT PLANE out the window, so I know that it’s real. I landed in Johannesburg December 29th, the night before AfroPunk started, and I was supposed to stay a month. Then three. but it turned out to be nearly eight.
I overstayed my visa by almost 5 months, but I ended up with a ban waiver. Over my exit stamp in my passport is printed the word ‘COVID’ in ballpoint pen, seemingly explaining that I didn’t have a choice. I was stuck here like so many people stuck in all kinds of places all over the world.
This is my third attempt at leaving. Fourth if you count the flight bound for Paris that I let take off without me in February. But this is the first one I’ve come anywhere near actually boarding, and fuck me, it feels like a weight off my shoulders.
This has been so fucking scary for me. I, with my American passport, have never had to feel insecure about boarding a flight or being accepted into a country, and I’m unaccustomed to the anxiety that this situation created for me.
And look, I know I haven’t been in fucking Beirut or something. I know that. But seriously: while we’re on the subject, if you somehow missed it, a giant explosion decimated the majority of Beirut’s port. The cause was negligence, surely, but as far as we know largely innocuous (meaning: not any kind of attack or terrorism) but the result has been devastating. Hundreds of people died, even more were injured. Many are still missing. And many who worked or lived in the area have been left without income or a home or both.
I get that that is true terror.
But poor, little, naive me, ME who brags about traveling like it’s a goddamned sport, ME who touts my experience like it’s valuable: Covid reduced me to a newbie.
Planes have been my favorite thing since I first rode one when I as sixteen. That day, I spent about an hour in the air, barely even rising off the ground in little more than a prop plane from Portland, OR to Seattle, WA.
But I was hooked.
And twenty years ago this year I went overseas for the first time: I flew from Seattle to Milan and rode the train around Italy for two weeks. I was brand new and scared a lot of the time, constantly afraid of getting mugged yet still drunk off Peroni and grappa, stumbling around Rome three sheets to the wind like I was fucking asking for it.
This was before the European Union, and I bought everything in Italian Lira. I still remember the exchange: 1000 Lira was about $0.50, so you could do the math in your had pretty easily. A shot of espresso was 1500 Lira. A beer was about 6000. I don’t remember how much anything else cost. I made it back to the states still hungover and completely broke, but absolutely fucking entranced, like I was under a spell.
I went back to Rome the next year, and I even made it to Switzerland and France. I went to Germany and Spain and Belgium. I had left my shitty life spent sitting in some classroom in Portland painting a pineapple for six hours twice a week and I was, instead, falling down a staircase drunk in Berlin at five in the morning. I was eating crepes on the streets of Paris. I was waiting in a hundred lines for a hundred museums with my Olympus 35mm camera slung across my body by the strap like a goddamned pro.
And then I went back to the West Coast where I got in a fight with someone. The details are fuzzy these days, but that was the beginning of the now carefully honed proclivity I harbor to simply fly away from shit I don’t like rather than stay and fight through it. So I bought a plane ticket, and on September 10, 2001, I flew to Miami.
My return flight was a week later.
And I tell you this story because That flight did not phase me one iota.
The entire country and a lot of the world was terrified to fly at the time, but I showed up at MIA as fresh as a daisy thinking, “fuck it: if I die, I die.”
Much like this airport I’m sitting in right now, MIA was a ghost town. Only a few days into a completely new era of air travel, we didn’t yet have the TSA or need to put our liquids into little plastic bags. But I remember being SHOCKED when an agent asked me to take off my shoes at the gate, slip them into a bin, and step through the open maw of a metal detector.
But now all that shit is common place, right? Our luggage is even designed around the rigamarole we must now endure when going through security: special pouches for our laptops and reusable clear bags for our toothpaste and shampoo. Now we just have to add to it our face masks, shields, and hand sanitizer.
Exactly a month ago when borders were first starting to close, I wrote a letter I never sent to my friend Ashley that sounded shockingly like my own eulogy.
“Today is Tuesday, March 17th,” I wrote exactly five months ago, “my visa expires in eleven days, and I will have to board a plane sometime before that [ed note: obvi I didn’t end up getting to leave. You can read about that scary-ass time if you want]. I’ll have to sit in a dirty seat in coach and with a shaky hand, rub an alcohol wipe over my tray table like a prayer to a god I don’t believe in. And then I’ll land in Dubai or Istanbul or Kigali or Bangkok or any city that will take me–because the only thing that I’m sure of right now is that I’m even more likely to die if I go back to the States.”
9/11 was scary. That day we wandered around The Beach (which is not the actual beach, but rather a short hand for everything south of about 24th street in Miami Beach) and ended up at Playwrights and the Deuce. But for some reason, after watching the towers fall a hundred times on repeat on bar TV’s all over SoBe, we were prepared for whatever came next.
Or maybe we were just naive.
But we got through that, and I think we’ll get through this, too. One thing I can be sure of is that I will probably never be this scared to catch a plane ever again in my life. What doesn’t kill you, as they say, tempers you against what’s to come.
And what’s to come for me is that my flight to Doha is boarding right now.
[up next: DOH –> IST, tomorrow morning.]