Through another series of visa mishaps and miscalculations, I’ve managed to turn the short cross-border jaunt from Jerusalem to Amman into a long afternoon of overpriced taxis across miles of blistering earth. Really, I’m turning into a regular Lawrence of Arabia. Back in charmless Amman, my stomach fattened on a few last rounds of hummus, my backpack stuffed with bootleg DVDs, I say my sad goodbye to five months in the Middle East – a heartfelt massalamu that’s only slightly dampened by the grinning, mustachioed cab driver who tries to rip me off on my way to the airport.
It’s a two-hour flight to Doha and a five-hour wait till my plane leaves for Nairobi. Qatar is like the waiting room of the Middle East, a place where virtually anyone going virtually anywhere stops for long enough to raid the duty-free shops and – if my experience is any indication – grapple with dysentery in the musty bathrooms. It’s hard to pin down just where all these stomach problems are coming from. My own meal on Qatar Airways – a plate of tender lamb casserole and parmesan polenta cakes, chased by a mango and date mousse – will probably ensure smooth bowel movements until well after I’ve touched down in Kenya – though what sort of hell is bound to break loose from there, I can only guess.
There’s a group of Kenyan businessmen in the waiting area – big, boisterous guys whose tailored shirts are straining against their broad shoulders. Nearby a few women in colorful dresses are trying to corral their restless tykes. Young guys in baggy jeans are slouching in their seats, reading self-help books. One is hunched over The Very, Very Rich with monastic intensity; another is leafing through Over the Top, a book which – judging from the beaming executive on its cover – might carry a subtitle along the lines of: “How I Got This Shit-Eating Grin On My Face, and How I Plan to Keep it There.”
For my part, I’m busily dog-earing pages in my guidebook and wondering whether the $12 in my bank account will qualify as “sufficient funds” in the eyes of Kenyan immigration. I’ve been holding out for a paycheck that’s a week overdue, forcing me to put two cups of coffee on a credit card that, admittedly, has gotten a healthy work-out in recent weeks. I’ve set aside enough cash for my entry visa – a whopping fifty US bucks – a taxi to my hostel, and a daily budget I can hopefully stretch until the weekend. At that point, my mental calculations quickly come undone: a concession to the humbling fact that I’ll probably be asking my parents to bail me out with an emergency hundred bucks.
We pass from one waiting area into another, smaller waiting area; a few white tourists are positioning themselves by the door, waiting for the shuttle bus that will take us across the tarmac. There’s a lithe blond couple giving each other affectionate squeezes on the rump and a red-cheeked girl with a laptop case slung over her shoulder who practically has NGO stamped on her smooth young forehead. A grizzled old guy is standing nearby, flexing his calf muscles. He’s wearing a broad-brimmed hat and khaki cargo pants and a camouflage vest with so many pockets you can practically squeeze a family of five inside. There’s no doubt in my mind that he’s spent every waking minute of the past eight months planning The Ultimate Safari™. On his back a bright red pack is bulging with a bunched-up sleeping bag and, undoubtedly, enough emergency preparedness kits to outfit FEMA. When we land in Nairobi I suspect he’ll be marching straight onto the tarmac, desperate for someone to just square his shoulders and point him in the direction of Maasai Mara.
It’s after midnight by the time we’ve boarded, settled in, and taxied onto the runway. There’s a church group from South Korea crammed into the back aisles beside me, a chatty, tittering pack of college kids who I’d seen not long ago, strumming their guitars in the waiting area. An earnest kid with floppy hair and red, horn-rimmed glasses is sharing my armrest. We talk a bit about Kenya: it’s his first trip, but rather than chasing the “Big Five” through the bush, he’ll be spending it doing something he ambiguously refers to as “church work.” He asks about my own faith, and I admit that while I was raised Orthodox Christian, I don’t practice anymore.
“Why not?” he asks.
“It’s a five-hour flight,” I say. “Don’t push it.”
We lift off into the Arabian night, and within the hour I’m gorging on my second Qatar Airways meal of the day. Really, these long layovers aren’t such a bad idea. In Nairobi we land in the cool pre-dawn hours; the sky is midnight blue, the baggage is on time, and the exchange rate is not entirely unfavorable. I take a taxi to my hostel on the outskirts of town, down a bumpy dirt road shaded by towering trees. The night porter lets me in and offers to wake the receptionist, but I decide to give her an extra half-hour’s sleep. The birds are chattering – coos and caws and high, nervous trills that warble and then soar with a crystal pureness. The first gray light of day is seeping through the trees, and this is how my African story begins.