Thursday, December 21, 2006

Home for a Holiday Visit

Frankfurt Airport. I’m writing on a napkin. None of the shops here sell notepads. They sell plenty of perfume and booze, though. Not that I have any euros on me. I’m only carrying Kenyan shillings, which sounds really quaint and irrelevant from here. The developed world hasn’t been as much of a shock as I expected yet, except for winter. The weather report on the plane said temps here would be 23 degrees F and, well, they are. I’m freezing my ass off. I didn’t bring any warm clothes. I’m keeping myself warm with my inflatable neck pillow. There’s this huge Christmas light display here, festive and tasteful, and I’m probably the only person who isn’t completely numbed to Christmas lights. Me, and the Japanese guy snapping photos of it like mad.

I’m already noticing ways that I’ve adapted to Kenyan village life. Despite my last post, I’ve forgotten how to queue. I keep catching myself rushing forward to fill any empty space closer to the front of the line, and edging closer to the person in front of me to prevent any determined mamas from cutting in line. When I got on the plane in Nairobi my first observation was, “Everyone is white.” We were going to Johannesburg so I guess that made sense. And I’ve forgotten that not everyone lives on the equator because it’s 7:30am and still pitch black outside.

I know I'm in the west because: No one has ching-chonged me yet, and there’s a 100 percent chance no one will in the next three weeks. People are mostly odorless. No one stares. No one peers over my shoulder at whatever I’m doing (although I caught myself doing that to someone on the plane).

In Nairobi I asked a security guard, “Where is the South African Airways counter?” He pointed and said, “There.” I said, “Where?” He said, “There.” I said, “Where?” He said, “Just there.” I said, “Where?” He said, “You are not seeing?” NO, OBVIOUSLY NOT.

In Frankfurt I asked a guy at the information desk, “Where is the United Airlines terminal?” He pointed and said, “See the blue sign above the counter? You’ll go there and check in at 9 am. They’ll tell you which gate to go to.” Ah, communication.

Washington Dulles Airport, 3:45pm, EST. Well, it was only an 8.5 hour flight but it felt like forever, probably because I didn’t sleep. They managed to lose my bag, too. Merry Christmas, everyone. Your gifts are still in Germany. Or South Africa. Or Kenya.

As we were taxiing to the terminal after landing in DC, I caught a glimpse of an American flag flying somewhere on the tarmac. I realized it’s been 19 months since I’ve set foot in the U.S. The flight attendant said, “To all our passengers, welcome to the United States. And to our returning citizens, welcome home,” and I lost it. Big hot tears rolled into my lap, and the German girl in the seat next to me scowled and edged away. The guy at the customs counter said the same thing. “Welcome home.” Is it standard protocol or did they recognize the look of a battered American returning from the front lines of rural Africa? Maybe that’s too dramatic. But I’ve imagined this feeling for the last few months, although I forgot to imagine the Borders and Starbucks that I saw as soon as I stepped off the plane. American consumerism doesn’t disappoint.

Everyone has a giant phone now. Do they show movies or something?

My friend Zadok just immigrated to the U.S. He is marrying a Peace Corps volunteer who finished her service last year. I went to his going away party in my village. I met his family, visited his home and saw what he was about to leave behind. I was envious that he was going to America forever (Kenyans say people who immigrate to the U.S. never return to Kenya) and I was only going for a three week holiday, but I didn’t envy the isolation, the longing for the familiar and the frustration with cultural oddities that he’s about to experience. America may seem at first to be closer to heaven for many immigrants, but moving to another country always ends up feeling farther from home no matter how many people say the streets are paved in gold.

Addendum, Dec 22: I got an email from Zadok today saying he is great and having the time of his life with his fiancee and her family. Karibu Merikani! :)


Blogger jo said...

I have had your blog in my 'favorites' for some time, but just now starting to read it. Got the address from my daughter who is a PCV in Kilingili, Kenya. I will be going there in July. :-) The one thing you said about the welcome home - - no matter how many times I come back thru immigration, I find that is the best. They always say that, no matter what port I come in thru and it's the best thing to hear and gives me the best feeling! Welcome Home! jo

5:22 AM  
Blogger Ebony said...

welcome home justina. hope you have happy holidays. thanks for sharing so much on your blog.

10:06 PM  

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