I boarded the plane in Charles DeGaulle Airport, destined to stop over in Abidjan, the capital of the Ivory Coast, en route to Niger. Happily, Lia had come to Paris with me for a few days while I collected a work visa from the Niger Embassy.
We’d stayed by Argentine Metro station near the Arc de Triomphe, an intersection reduced to chaos the night before by striking French farmers. We’d even added to the chaos, given flight to a French Canadian family by their confusing a demonstration with a riot. Their path through the Metro line interchange at Gare de Neuilly was closed and they asked us for some guidance. We replied in French and at some point said ‘manifestation’ by way of explaining why the diversions were in place. They turned back and fled in panic, so fast we couldn’t recall them. I hope this doesn’t destroy any Canadian family myths about the political instability in Paris that caused them to hide from rioters and looters.
We’d taken the RER out to the airport and parted to make our ways to the different portals. She was going back to the chaotic stress of moving home and sending the kids back to school while I was off exploring in the Sahara. That’s the bigger story, the single woman managing a house move, the education of three kids while also working, teaching and writing a novel whereas the husband was off doing single task-geophysics in the back of beyond. Sorry, but that’s not my story today.
Today’s story is about an old bag. And a tall man.
Once in my plane, I had the luxury of sitting and strapping myself onto an enormous aisle seat in business class. I had already started reading about my project area and was getting back into work mode when a woman handed me a bag. She told me to put it into the overhead bin. Now, before I make myself out to be an uncouth, uncivilised ogre, who leaves his wife and family while he plays in the sand, let me assure you that ‘told’ is the correct word. I would’ve been dressed in gear more suited to the Grand Erg than Café Paris so perhaps she thought I was a maintenance man reading a manual. However, I think that’s a generous view.
This woman, who ever she was, was seriously entitled. She pushed the bag onto my chest, impatient that I hadn’t already jumped up to do her bidding. At the moment of confrontation, a steward spotted the impending hostilities and intervened. She thrust the bag at him and told him in her Gallic gallery voice that his attention to her during the flight would need to improve.
He earned my respect by apologising and then ignoring her tirade. I guess he’d seen the white-on-white issue with me and knew her disdains were universal rather than racist.
She and I never spoke though I watched her throughout the flight. A lot of what she did seemed bizarre. There was something disrespectful if not downright nasty about brushing her hair in the seat beside me. This happened almost every hour. I thought she was probably once very beautiful and much admired and that she still went through the rituals of keeping her appearance mirror perfect.
Added to that, she was the most untidy eater I had ever seen. Crumbs and chunks fell off her tray and table and onto her lap all the while she ate. She was very self-conscious about it, continuously looking around while eating. And assiduously avoiding eye contact with me.
All was revealed a few hours into the flight. Her enormous handbag, the fashion accessory to die for, was always on the floor at her feet. And at one point it seemed to move. She sensed my awareness and pulled the bag up, trying to close it. But it was too late. Yoda had appeared, inquisitively scanning knees around him.
I say Yoda. Who knows what name was bestowed on the pricked-eared, pink-grey hairless Chihuahua staring at me. But I am certain that the Star Wars Yoda was at least inspired by a Chihuahua.
I think I laughed. I think I softened. I think I turned and smiled at her. I know she glared back in angry defiance. I know that I despised her at that moment.
The Ivory Coast airport authority was scanning all incoming bags with x-rays ahead of the immigration desks. I watched as the wires and batteries, camera and laptop in my bag were scanned and attracted a detailed examination in a curtained cubicle. The last I saw of the French woman was as I entered the cubicle. I was parting the curtains, and looking back towards the source of some commotion, to where Yoda’s skeleton had probably been seen courtesy of the x-rays.
Later that day, I passed a few hours in Ouagadougou airport, changing planes for the third leg of my journey to Niamey. There was a TV in one of the big halls, broadcasting an TV5 interview with Hakeem Olajuwon, one the ‘Twin Towers’ of the Houston Rockets basketball team, the reigning back-to-back NBA champions and him, one of the best basketball players of all time.
The TV was surrounded by children watching this interview as Olajuwon drove among gleaming towers in downtown Houston and the Galleria area in an equally gleaming Range Rover. This was a vehicle specially built for the seven foot giant who grew in Nigeria, a country not two hundred kilometres from the TV surrounded by aspirants. The contrasts were shcoking.
The kids on the floor were bright eyed but in tatty clothes unlike the beautiful bespoke suits and shirts worn by Olajuwon. The clean gleam from the glass on skyscrapers and cars was utterly different to the ochre dusted tin-rooved homes all around the airport. The smell of the air from Houston wasn’t conveyed by satellite but we could be certain it wasn’t ammoniacal and slightly fetid as the air in the very unclean Burkino Faso airport. The manicured lawns of St. Augustine grass were in stark contrast to the bare laterite that surrounded the airport. The specially built Range Rover contrasted with the functional but once retired fire tenders out on the apron, proudly inscribed with ‘Donated by the City of Duisburg’ or was it Dusseldorf?
Aspiration is a universal if subjective human trait.
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