San Francisco-London-Nairobi Diary: The Size of the World
I’ve just returned from an altogether exhilarating safari in Kenya and Tanzania, which I’ll be writing much more about soon in the Feature Destination section of Don’s Place. But before I do that, I wanted to write about the beginning of the trip, and the unexpected riches and revelations even that small slice of travel offered.
To begin the odyssey, I decided to break up the San Francisco-to-Nairobi journey with a 24-hour layover in London. I departed from San Francisco on a sunny Saturday afternoon and deplaned in London on a dark and drizzly Sunday morning.
Almost immediately I was struck by Travel Lesson #1: Travel marvelizes the mundane.
Because it was Sunday, repair work was being carried out on the Underground station at Heathrow airport, so I was forced to find the replacement bus that was taking travelers to the nearest working Underground station. This little adventure in direction-asking and stair-navigating – everyone unfailingly polite, if a bit obtuse, with crisp British accents magically emerging from their mouths -- finally led me to a long damp queue, a steamy short bus trip, a humid expulsion from the now sauna-like shuttle at Hatton Cross station, more direction-asking and stair-navigating and then, even more magically, a comfortable seat on the train, which passed for almost an hour by the extraordinarily green soccer pitches and parks and the neat townhouses and brown and white half-timbered shops of Hounslow West, Central, and East, Osterley, Boston Manor, Northfields, et al, all the way to King’s Cross.
If you know London well, you probably think by now that my brain-batteries are running low. And I know that if I had been a resident of London, this little tour would have been irritating, inconvenient, discomfiting and boring. But for me, everything was new, everything offered fresh information and education. Look at how green those fields are! Look at the neat rows of townhouses! Look at that little vegetable garden and the dilapidated tool shed behind it! Look at the man in the patched tweed jacket who just offered his seat to an elderly passenger! The mundane made marvelous.
After settling in to my hotel, I explored the nearby streets – curry and sushi shops! beauty salons and yoga studios! -- then visited the home of two friends in a leafy London suburb for afternoon tea. We talked about child-rearing and career changes, home remodeling and the most enviable London neighborhoods, and this kind of everyday chatter seemed ineffably exotic on the other side of the ocean.
The next morning I trundled back to the airport on the same train, exclaiming again at the greenness and neatness, then boarded the flight for Nairobi.
This was a true magic carpet ride. First we flew over the green, brown and gray plaid of England: fields and forests, terracotta-roofed houses, brick and stone buildings, a castle! To eyes that hadn’t seen Europe in a few years, it was a fairy-tale landscape.
Then glinting blue water stretched below and before long a baguette crust of beach and a green manteau of fields. France! Crops, pastures, forests, fields and farmsteads divided into a neat paint-by-number peinture. Cars crawled along country roads taking people on their Monday morning errands – while I flew to Africa.
As France slid beneath me – a huge dense forest now and a river curving through -- I realized how much I missed it, how I longed to live there again. Suddenly we were encased in white puffy stuff, cloud-wrapped, then the sky turned into a Mondrian painting: bright block of blue above, bright block of white below. We emerged into eye-squinting sunlight and I thought of Greece and the light that had demarcated every rock, ruin, poppy and olive branch when I lived there a half a lifetime before.
Soon the clouds beneath dispersed and we were over blue water – the Mediterranean – and a coastline curved in the distance. I pulled out the in-flight magazine and turned to the flight-route map. There it was: The elongated outline of Italy through the window replicated the outline in the map in my hands. We were flying by the ankle in the Italian boot -- that city must be Naples -- then the green hills and red roofs of Sicily appeared, then the toe of the boot and the curving coast along the Ionian Sea and the heel and then blue, blue, blue.
I finished my second glass of sparkling wine – a mid-air ritual I have faithfully observed for a quarter-century now – and as we plunged into another comforter of clouds, fell asleep.
I awoke just as we were leaving the last bit of blue behind and crossing intractable expanses of monochromatic brown: Africa!
I took out the map again and it was then I realized Travel Lesson #2: Travel personalizes the planet.
For a few hours I had been re-emerged in Europe, engrossed in the English countryside, ordering a café crème at a sidewalk café in France, exploring fluted Peleponnesian ruins among orange poppies, savoring a salad of cucumbers, tomatoes, black olives and feta cheese washed down with a glass of retsina….
And now, what had been an atlas of far-off names in news reports was suddenly coming to life right below us: That’s Egypt down there! That’s Sudan coming up! Simplistic as this may seem, suddenly the wide world took on an intimacy, a reality, that it hadn’t had just a day before. It was right below me, a part of my world in a way it hadn’t been 24 hours ago. And in a sense, that made all the difference: The struggles and the triumphs were happening right there, not just words in a newspaper clipping or images on a TV screen.
We passed over the desert – striated, streaked, pocked, not even a speck of green or blue to relieve the eye. It seemed absolutely relentless, merciless. In the distance black blobs like globules of oil appeared on the sand – oases, enlivened by a thin straggle of settlements with what looked like plumes of black smoke wisping from one.
The sere sand went on and on and on, numbing in its enormity, rippling like an ocean, until the ripples ran into black hills.
I wondered: Are camel caravans plodding through this expanse even as we fly over? Is a blue-robed Tuareg looking up at us even as I write?
We flew on, toward Kenya, and the world spread and spread beneath me, in infinite expanse.