The seatbelt sign lights up.
Some of us had problems tying our shoelaces in kindergarten and now clicking the seatbelt tongue into the slot part looks tough. It’s like throwing one string of shoelace over the other, left brain over right brain, mixing up our logic.
The Rolls Royce engines thunder, it’s the sound of ten thousand atmospheres rushing past. The metal ends of the seatbelt vibrate in-sync with finger bones.
Without looking outside the window, those of us in the middle seats know KQ-470 is now floating because the tyres are no longer bumping over the runway tarmac; the vibration in our finger bones has stopped. Looking outside, those of us at the window seats watch Nairobi slope as KQ-470 banks right. And right, and right, until we have all turned one-eighty and are climbing, moving south, outbound to Maputo.
There are streaks of rat brown rust on the aileron at the edge of the right wing and the aileron flutters spasmodically in the face of powerful winds. That’s how we know KQ-470 is flying fast. We see the rusted part juxtaposed against a dropping Nairobi. Some of us think about what happened in Cameroon. (A nocturnal Cameroon jungle 5 kilometers south of Douala International Airport where KQ 507’s flight recorder is found. Analysis in Canada confirms KQ 507 banked too much that night and the pilots panicked and it fell out of the sky.) Some of us have a fear of heights.
Over Nairobi National Park now, carpets of bush and trees. Water surfaces like ponds, rivers, streams fracturing the landscape symmetry. Clouds outside our windows, their fluff, their shadows on the carpets, the landscape running into the horizon where its hazy because the clouds pack up over there under the pressure of perspective and all the far things look obscure except for the infinite blue sky. Sometimes the landscape symmetry is fractured by shining rooftops which may be isolated game warden posts or some safari lodge using solar panels. This is where some of us admit we have been brainwashed because we are looking for something more dramatic down there. Like an overwater marina trench gouging out some hallucinatory valley, or a Kilimanjaro rising high into outer space. But it’s boring outside their. Kilimanjaro to the left is some small stone burger with melted white cheese spread over it and all else is a flat plain stretching on and on, carpets upon carpets of trees and bush. Small looking hills here and there.
Fingers clasp the edge, the elastic edge, of the pouch that’s in front. It’s warm inside the pouch. Fingers of the other hand grasp the glossy in-flight magazine called msafiri. The name has no capital letters. The magazine is warm. It’s like the pouch is part of a living animal, warm blooded and soft inside. Possibly the body heat of the guy in front has seeped through his seat and now comes out from behind here. The elastic edge catapults back into position as fingers let go.
It shows four elephants walking on the banks of a lake shore at the golden hour. It could be either late dusk or very early dawn. Thick orange sky flaming around the top of page 36, around the elephants in the middle, around the lake water which reflects everything above and around it. The photographer has also employed contre jour technique; the four elephants and the thin strip of ground they walk on form the only darkness; elephant silhouette. They walk eastward, following one another, ready to walk out from the right edge on page 36. msafiri has no capital letters.
The air-hostess rolls the drinks trolley down the aisle. The drinks trolley is a tall steel box. The air hostess puts her hands inside the tall steel box and brings out a cold can of Coca-Cola. Fingers leave page 36 and curl around the cold can. Is it possible the guy in front sucks the heat out of all the Coca-Cola cans on KQ-470 and leaves them chilled? Because after a while the fingers curling around feel the cold fire. The fingers burn in the near freezing heat because they don’t want to let go. Then, on the lower spine, a soft push is felt. From the seat behind a hand has gone into the warm blooded animal and has pulled out a glossy magazine. This is what is felt on the lower spine. The air-hostess rolls the drinks trolley down the aisle and puts her hand inside.
It shows an aeroplane window. Outside, grocery shopping is in freefall. Clouds are sculpted carefully in the shape of cauliflowers. Millions of conjoined cauliflowers and no two have the same size or shape though they all have the same feel. The sky is the blue colour from our nursery school days, the blue that looks happy and carefree. Grocery is falling out of a brown paper bag. Bananas, loaf of bread, milk packet, leaves of lettuce, or is it cabbage, a box of eggs, eggs as white in shading as the cauliflower clouds, a packet of pasta. A slice of pizza seems to have docked away from the brown paper bag earlier and is in a more advanced state of freefall but the particles of mushroom, capsicum and green olives are clearly visible amidst the cheese of the pizza. This is on page 33. The advert for yaya. yaya does not have any capital letters.
On page 21 there is another aeroplane window. This one shows portion of an aeroplane wing where the Rolls Royce engine is. Colour of the aluminium is very clean. The wing edges and round Rolls Royce engine are like buttocks, thighs, breasts voluptuous curvaceous. This is aluminium pornography shot with a Carl Zeiss Apo Sonnar T* 4/1700. An aeroplane wing and engine have never looked more beautiful. No rat brown rust. No clue that beyond the page the wing has an aileron fluttering spasmodically in the face of powerful winds. And looking past the boudoir photography, down on earth there is wildebeest migration (savannah, acacia, Mara River and stuff). On page 48: “It looks like it was assembled from spare parts – the forequarters could have come from an ox, the hindquarters from an antelope and the mane and tail from a horse. The antics of the territorial bulls during breeding season have earned them the name ‘clowns of the savanna’.” What does one of us recall? Which white guy said that in which documentary?
Fingers have memory and they left something in the pouch. They left a touch. A plastic bag. The plastic bag is torn open. It’s a pair of headphones. Like a headband they go around the skull, the fingers adjust the earpads. The fingers of the other hand explore the sides of the armrest, trying to find the hole. The headphone jacks in. But it’s a dirty sonic. Sonofabitch aeroplane radio, can’t hear anything clearly. The earpads are farting poo booh. Stuff the headphones back into the pouch, crumple the torn plastic bag and drop it to the carpet. Some of us are susceptible to barotrauma at this stage when the cabin pressure levels to seventy six kilopascals; the internal headphones, in the head, start whining like hungry dogs under a full moon night. Some of us become aware the aeroplane is still very loud and we need to pee.
Walk down the aisle, handball team here, canoening team there, the black T-shirts, ‘KENYA’ in big capital letters blazing in white ink across everyone’s chests, boxing team here. Every team has its own physical dimension. Basketball team have bigger biceps, judo team have more pronounced deltoids. We are talking of each team having its own unique body size. Tennis ladies team have the best looking legs, steeple chase ladies are small, short, thin and hard as stone at the thighs.
Though we all wear the same black T-shirt, we are not coeval.
Every team has its own mental dimension. Boxing men don’t hear the very loud plane. They comport noise into silence. Focus goes into the hand. The coach is shouting outside the ring, the crowd is roaring in the stands. Hear only the hand hitting the others jaw, the sound of spit flying out from between teeth. The steeplechase ladies think of rhythm, how they will proportionately divide running strides every four hundred meters by how many jumps over the hurdles by how the wind velocity will keep harmony with the rest of the track variables.
As we stand on the pee line, the curvature of the earth cuts clean shapes outside the windows.
Everyone in front of us in the pee line is a federation official. Big stomach guys of Judo Kenya or National Basketball Federation. Skinny, too much lipstick, skinny lips, pee ugly Tennis Federation ladies.
Inside the cramped toilet there are stripes of faeces clinging onto the sides of the metallic toilet bowl. The officials always shitofy everything. The toilet paper is soggy. We are not sure whether it’s because of the alcoholic disinfectant they were doused with at factory level or because of the humidity inside here. We are even afraid to touch the taps because officials have touched them before us. We come back outside with raw, crotch grabbing fingers; squeezing past big stomach of Handball Federation, to enjoy the pleasant climate of the economy class. Ahead, big stomach of Judo Kenya is walking past curtain, the purdah behind which a seven course lunch is being served in Premier Class and we wonder why the big stomachs wants to use our toilets.
We are back outside, walking the aisles. Some of us get back to our seats next to colleagues and in that particular row we feel like one family because to the left is a chess player who specialises in the Najdorf and to the right is a chess player who specialises in the Grunfeld. In that row we speak the same language, Kasparov, and we fly over middle Africa together.
But some of us get back to our seats and feel estranged. To left and right are some of us who speak in incompatible languages, like how do we process a Minority Attack using Judo’s Ashi-Waza, foot and leg techniques? We feel alone. We are mixed up in this row over here.
Sections of mountain ranges and vast clouds gradually slide out of one window and reappear in the next one.
And then one of us will use the aloneness and pull out a laptop, have the air-hostess put a cold Tusker can on the fold out, slide out table, next to the laptop. The Tusker tab is then peeled away, froth foams out and slides down the can whilst Fritz is fired up and King’s Indian moves are put up for scrutiny under the infinite analysis function. That’s it; there are no other sportsmen like the chessplayers. We look like we were assembled from spare parts – the weak chest could have come from a malnourished parking boy fluttering in the face of powerful winds in urban streets like a rat brown rusty aileron, the big stomach from a sports official, and the sharp eyes of the brain from Carl Zeiss.
KQ 470 floats over Maputo. It banks sharply and we are pushed by gravity rightwards. The windows show white is the predominant colour in the city, white buildings sprawling across our field of vision. We are now like a satellite ready to drop to earth. We entered KQ 470 carrying Nairobi oxygen, we will walk out of it exhaling Maputo carbon dioxide. The seatbelt sign lights up.