Into the West
I think I’ve always been good at compartmentalizing my life. It helped me a lot during university, when I could focus on one task at a time, and not think about my overwhelming workload. This came into play again when I sat on the Gautrain on my way to the airport. I was calm. I read my book. I couldn’t yet see the bigger picture of why I was there. I couldn’t comprehend that within hours I’d be flying across the Atlantic Ocean to South America. It didn’t perturb me that I was taking a big risk by leaving everyone behind in the hope that I’d find something worthwhile on the other side of the planet. I didn’t feel excited about getting on the plane, or nervous about my stopover in Brazil. I was more concerned with keeping my suitcase from falling over and staying out of everyone’ way. The rest of my attention was focused on Jane Eyre.
I do really like airports. The people there are so interesting. As I walked into O.R. Tambo I spotted a minor South African celebrity, followed by a man whose face was covered in tattoos. What diversity. I also noticed that people in airports dress quite elaborately, with tall boots and big hats and fancy suits. Much later, while I was waiting at the airport in Brazil, I realized that the reason for this was because people don’t have space in their luggage for boots and suits and hats, so they wear them on the flight. Many travelers look glamourous out of necessity.
I caught my flight without a hitch. It was a long trip, but I had movies to watch. I spent the flight sandwiched in the middle seat, in the middle aisle, between two gentlemen who slept through the whole flight. Trips to the bathroom were, for me, a rare freedom.
In Brazil, the customs official who stamped me into the country was a friendly young man who seemed more nervous than I was. Perhaps he was new.
I exchanged some American dollars into Brazilian Real, and then caught a taxi to my hostel. I was worried about the cost of the taxi; I was certain I was going to be charged a fortune. It was an official airport taxi, so I didn’t expect to be swindled, but airport taxis have a habit of being exorbitant. It was only when I was halfway to my hostel that I realized I should have caught a shuttle to a closer airport and just caught a taxi from there. It would have been a lot cheaper.
The driver was old and quiet, and when we arrived at my hostel he presented me with a written out bill for about three quarters of all the money I’d exchanged. I paid without protest, and then pretended to forget to tip.
I checked into the hostel, and made brief conversation with a British guest named Ollie, who was looking for a smaller padlock for his locker. I happened to have a spare, and so he was friendly with me out of gratitude. It was about 19.00 at that point, but it was 23.00 in South Africa, and I was feeling it. I didn’t have the energy to go exploring. I only managed to walk a block or two until I found a convenience store. I bought two minute noodles for supper, some yogurt for breakfast, and then went back to the hostel.
While I ate the noodles in the kitchen, my nose started bleeding profusely. The air in the plane had been dry, and so my nose had been stuffy since I’d landed. I went to get some toilet paper from one of the toilets, and at the exact moment that I walked past the doorway of an adjacent shower, its door opened to reveal a pretty American girl wearing only a towel. It was so sudden that I leap violently to the side and crashed into the doorway of the toilet to which I was headed – a clumsy bloody mess. I’d had enough of that overlong day by then. Sometimes, when you’re tired but you have a lot to do, days can seem very long. Even more so when you travel west. On Monday I arose at 05.30, and only got to bed again twenty hours later – at 21.30.
Not surprisingly, I awoke early the next morning, my body thinking it was 09.30, when in fact it was 05.30 in Brazil. I’d strategized that I would get a lift only to the nearby local airport, and from there catch the shuttle to the international one, where I would board my flight to Chile. Unfortunately my taxi was late, I discovered I had to wait a long while for the shuttle, and then it had to make its way across town in morning traffic. So when I got to my airport I discovered that I was a few minutes too late to check in. It was 09.30 at that point, and I had to pay more money to get a seat on the next flight, which was due to take off at 20.55 that evening.
It was a wait of almost twelve hours, but waiting in airports is something I’ve grown accustomed to. I walked about, I ate a meal, I got coffee, I watched things on my laptop. I sought out the sounds of the English language, but they were few and far between. In South America, everyone speaks either Spanish or Portuguese or both, and if you know at least one of those then you don’t have much need of English. It seemed as if English, a juggernaut of a language in most of the rest of the world, wasn’t given any attention here.
A few hours before my flight I saw a Starbucks employee gesture to her colleague to look out the window. I followed their gaze and noticed that a massive hailstorm was raging outside. It was eerie. I began to form a thought along the lines of “This is unusual…” when I remembered that I was on a continent I’d never been to before. Maybe this was usual.
Usual or not, it delayed my flight by an hour. I had little energy left at that stage. I couldn’t even focus on my book. I paced and I stretched in preparation for the long sit. Fortunately, on this flight I had the whole row to myself, so I could stretch out and nap. It was a short flight, but the downside to this was that there was constant activity. Refreshments were served, then cleared away, then there was turbulence and everyone had to sit upright with their seatbelts on, then a meal was served, then it was cleared away, then there was more turbulence.
I hardly slept at all.
At immigration in Chile, I was dead on my feet. As I handed over my passport, the woman behind the counter asked me how long I planned to stay in the country. Now, since I was coming into the country as a tourist I had to act like one. Unfortunately, I was too tired to remember the date on my return ticket. “Erm… A few weeks…” I said vaguely.
“Wait one moment, please,” said the woman, who then left the counter and went off somewhere. This made me nervous. She was probably going to get a security guard to interrogate me. She knew I was planning to look for work. I’d been caught.
In her absence, I tried to go over my cover story. But I was too tired to remember what that was. The only plan I could come up with was to say “Tell you what, let’s forget this whole thing. I’m going to go lie down next to that wall for a few hours and then let’s just try this whole thing again in the morning. Okay?”
The woman returned with a form for me to fill out. I took it from her without question, and attempted to fill it in on the very narrow sill I had available to me. The top of the pen kept clattering on the glass as my hands shook. Only about halfway through the form did I notice that I was a declaration that I didn’t have Ebola. I had to fill it in because I was coming from Africa. I had nothing to worry about.
The taxi from the airport in Chile was a lot cheaper than the one in Brazil. The driver tried to be friendly, but then just apologized for his inability to speak English. He put on the radio and I heard Roxette singing “Spending My Time” in Spanish. It was probably the perfect song that could have played at that moment.
I arrived at my hostel at around 02.00 in the morning, and was checked in by a friendly Chilean man named Ale. He had very long hair. He took me to my room, which was large and had exceptionally creaky wooden floors. It was late, but I was in high spirits. I had finally arrived at my destination, far in the west.