Being the Dirtiest Person on the Plane


I check my watch. It’s 3 a.m. Today I am returning home. It is still dark and there is no electricity from 1 to 6 a.m. so I am packing my backpack with a flashlight. With no real toilets, a hole in the ground, I always worry when I have to pee in the middle of the night. I am getting a lift in the back of an open pickup truck. There is something magical about travelling at high speed through the desert with the stars so clear and bright above my head. In the past people travelled by the stars at night and known landmarks by day. The nomads used their shadow as a compass. The moon is so different from where I was born. It is not straight up and down but on its back. Like a little boat. It’s a two-hour drive to the landing site. I have to wait in the middle of nowhere or so it seems.

I hope the pilot knows my location. I am relieved when I spot the propeller plane. My flight with the propeller plane will take 3 hours. Something you are not used to in this age where such a flight normally takes 60 minutes. At least it has his perks; music will be constantly playing on the plane. Joyous African music which is still only available on cassette. It takes the plane two times to land. The pilot offers me fruit! What a treat. I try to sleep on the plane but there are no air vents. It is too hot to sleep. I can’t fly directly home. I have long stopovers before I can get on the plane to Paris. I am surrounded by many nationalities. Most people are recognizable by traditional dresses. Beautiful people are all around me. We are waiting for our next plane to fuel. My passport has to be checked and they are weighing my luggage on a plastic scale. The scale is similar to the one I have in my bathroom at home. Then I am being weighed. Phew, I am not too heavy. I am allowed on board. My fourth flight will be to Paris and then I can catch the next flight to Amsterdam.

Before reaching the KLM gate there is the welcoming committee also known by the name of airport security. Trekking through the desert has left its mark on my appearance. The scarves I wrap about my head and down the nape of the neck form loose, layered, garments around my body. No ironing, washing cloths by hand, drying them in the sun and in the wind filled with sand makes my appearances look suspicious. I am so tired and hungry that I rather go to the nearest Starbucks. But it looks like that my bags have to be inspected. Standing in the middle of the security lanes I realise that time is different here in Europe. Time is money. Questions have to be answered in seconds and the security officer will definitely not offer me a piece of fruit.

A woman has lost her son. I help her look for him. Now what would be the destination of a 4 year old on the Gaulle airport? I wish I had my guide Hassan with me. He is the best tracker I know off. He is able to tell you not only the time a person passed but can even identify them. He could tell me the direction and origin of the journey and also estimate the weight and contents of the load. In all fairness, we are in lack of sand here. Luckily Bertrand (the 4 year old) was hiding behind a chair in our lounge.

Finally I am in the KLM flight to Amsterdam.  I have pains in my arms and legs. I am broken. But it is that kind of pain you get addicted to. I never felt so good in my life. I must look I am starving because the stewardess gives me several sandwiches. I am grateful and also accept the coca cola, peanuts, cookies and other food my fellow travellers offer me. Life in Africa is survival and fish or meat is a luxury. Eating has a different meaning there and even feels different. I never have a feeling of being full.

It struck me now that I am the only female between men in suits and realise I am the dirtiest person on the plane. The steward hands me a travel kit containing also an eye mask and slippers. I can’t help to giggle. I am afraid I will have to clean up first before I use these extremely white slippers. I don’t want to take of my jacket nor my dusty cloths. It would feel like detaching me from the desert. I am not ready for that. It is always difficult the first week when I return to the “normal” life. There is something nice about my clothes being so dirty and knowing why. The dirt on my boots is a statement. Nature rules where I come from. It is a world built of dirt roads and dust. The sandstorms tell us they will never bow to the pressures of the modern world. They won’t allow you to become dependent on an i-phone or a television. When the air grows still and in the distance a huge yellow or black wall of sand and wind stretches into the sky I realise I have no control at all over the forces of nature. Something we have forgotten about in Europe. It is that feeling I want to hold on to and experience the gratefulness that I may enjoy the safety and the luxury I have at home.