“From the Forests and Highlands we come, we come.”
(Out of Africa page 2)
I was walking on a bridge from the old to the new, from the familiar to the unfamiliar. It was a melancholy walk, a walk of mixed emotions. I hated to end things, but longed to begin them. I was reluctant to go, yet eager to leave.
“Remember, people are helpful,” my mother said as I stood at my boarding gate. My family and some friends were gathered to see me off. Hannah had returned early from her honeymoon just to say good-bye in person, a wonderful surprise. My parents were passing out sheets of labels with my new address on them. (Since I would be in the care of an American Embassy I had a Washington D.C. address. This helped greatly as any letter or package could be sent with U.S. postage. That meant nothing would be opened or pillaged through along the way as it would travel in what was called “the diplomatic pouch.”)
They called for boarding and I said my final goodbyes. As I walked toward the jetway I looked back into the earnest gazes of the people I loved. Their smiles were urging me forward, their hands reluctantly waving “Good-bye.”
I settled into my seat and tears filled my eyes. When the plane took off the only spot of land on which I had ever lived disappeared from view. I cried all the way to Chicago. The man next to me occasionally patted my knee.
Three hours later I was on a flight to London. After dinner was served they dimmed the cabin lights, but I couldn’t sleep. I kept thinking about how I was flying over the Atlantic. Suddenly the earth was huge, and I so small on it.
Four hours later the sun came up and I caught my first glimpse of green in an ocean of blue. England. Sure I had seen Lady Di’s wedding via satellite, but here people were living on a completely different piece of terra ferma. While I had been paying out dollars they had been doling out pounds. While I had been waking up to coffee they had been sitting down to tea.
I landed at Heathrow Airport and entered a world of delightful British accents. After exchanging some money I headed to a small shop for a snack. Picking up what looked like cookies, but was labeled “digestive biscuits,” I walked to the counter. I held the biscuits in one hand and a fist full of coins in the other. The clerk picked through my coins and I became aware that each was labeled, pound, pence, or shilling. I felt embarrassed for acting like a child.
When I asked a man for help in finding my way and he said “Are you from America?”
“Yes” I replied.
“Oh yup. Ah cahn tell iyt,” he smiled as he offered assistance.
I took a shuttle to the Gatwick airport and boarded a train for London. I found a window seat and enjoyed watching the English countryside roll by, old farmhouses, cows, gentle hills, long grasses. All were beautiful in the early morning light. As we entered the city hundreds of houses stood shoulder to shoulder as they watched us chug through their tiny backyards. Each had fresh laundry waving on the line and nodding bunches of blooming flowers. It was a fine welcome.
When I stepped onto the platform at Victoria Station I stopped for a moment to take in the place, the cathedral-like ceiling with its ancient wooden beams, pigeons roosting, flying and flapping about, rows and rows of train tracks with fresh steam rising from them… I felt I could almost see the millions of good-byes that had taken place there, soldiers hugging loved ones, ladies running along side trains weeping and waving. Something in me loved the place.
Near midnight I was back at the airport waiting to board my flight to Lusaka. I had spent the day touring London in the top of a red double-decker bus. I saw Big Ben and those men with the tall fuzzy black hats standing guard at Buckingham Palace. I bought T-shirts and key chains, and paid a shilling every time I used the restroom which was called the water closet, WC for short. I even took a nap in Hyde Park.
As the minutes dragged on I found myself looking around at the others who were waiting to board my flight, wondering what their stories were. Across the room I saw an attractive young couple. Like me they were slumped sleepily in their seats. She had dark hair and the face of a china doll. He was blonde, handsome and tall. Jealousy pinched at my heart. I could never have gotten anyone to come to Africa with me I thought as I did a quick inventory of boys I’d dated. I glanced around at the other passengers. Everyone had someone it seemed. Even those who sat alone had their wedding bands.
The steward broke into my thoughts and called for the boarding of British Airways flight 1251 to Lusaka. I tried to shrug off my loneliness as I shouldered my bags and boarded the plane. A half hour later we taxied and took off for the Dark Continent.
After a dinner of beef fillets in gravy the cabin lights were lowered. All was quiet except for the hum of the engines and the hushed tones of mothers and lovers. Using my jean jacket as a pillow, I laid across an empty seat and fell asleep. Everyone in my dreams had British accents.
When I woke up the sky began to lighten. I was rummaging through my carry on for my toiletries when I noticed an envelope my mother had shoved into my hands at the airport in Minneapolis. “Open it as you are flying over Africa,” she had said dramatically. I didn’t want to. It would be hard to see her handwriting, to read her parting words. Yet as she wished, I tore the envelope’s seal and removed the contents, a bulky card with snowy pine needles on the front. Opening it, I found that each of my parents had written a short message. I read my mother’s first.
Two things I want to send with you. One, the snow on the front. The second, a promise from God’s word. It goes like this: “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and lean not to your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge Him, and He will direct your paths.” Well okay, three things, the pin, to add a little class to Lusaka.
Love you, Mom
Taped inside the top of the card was a gem filled pin and earrings I had admired on our last shopping trip. What a kind thing to do. I don’t know why people’s parting words are so powerful but they are. As I looked at the verse my mother had written I hoped it would stay in my heart and become like a little compass pointing the way when I felt lost or wondered what to do.
Next, I read what my father had written.
I look forward to the next two years as a wonderful opportunity for you. I will be praying for you continually. I believe it will be a truly special time in your life. God is going before you to prepare the way. He will guide you and protect you while you are there, and bring you safely home.
God Bless You.
“Bring you safely home,” I liked those words. And there was my dad’s trademark “God Bless You.” I don’t think a day ever went by that my dad didn’t say “God bless you.” But in that moment, for the first time ever, I lingered over his words, really cherished them.
I stuffed everything back into the envelope and returned it to my bag. In need of a distraction I found my toiletries and headed to the lavatory.
As I brushed my teeth and tied my shoulder length blonde hair with a pink ribbon my eyes connected with those in the mirror. One of me was asking the other, “Will we make it?” Would I, now uprooted, survive the transplanting? I smoothed my wrinkled jean dress, gathered my things, and willed the butterflies in my stomach not to take flight as I walked back to my seat.
The cabin lights came on and breakfast was served. I sipped hot tea and nibbled a marmalade covered scone as I looked out the window. When the plane began to descend, a lump rose in my throat.
I will never forget my first view of Africa. The lush beautiful country I’d dreamed of was bare, brown and flat. Nothing but a few scrappy bushes broke the monotony. Where were the coffee planations? The long grasses? The jungles? What I saw was a land so desolate, so endlessly dry, I wanted to cry, to water it with my tears. I was devastated. It was so unlike what I had imagined.
All at once I felt as if I had been jerked awake from a pleasant dream, a dream that clashed loudly with my present reality. My thoughts raced as I inwardly started to panic. What was I thinking? What had I done? I wanted to yell at the vehicle moving me forward, “Take me back! I want to go back!”
Was this how realizing a dream felt? Like a mistake? Like a punch in the stomach? Like gasping for air? I would tell Dr. Keller I’d made an error, pick up a carved giraffe, and take the next flight back to… life as I knew it.
Why had I signed that contract? Made a promise of all things? “Two years is nothing,” my dad had said. “It will be over in no time.”
No time? Two years suddenly felt like an eternity.
My nose began to sting and my eyes filled with tears. I knew just one blink would send them pouring down my face. I will not blink I told myself. I will not begin with tears. Hold your eyes open wide, will them to dry, I preached to myself as the plane made its final approach.
And so with eyes wide open I landed. Not on a movie set, not on a book page, but on a small tarmac ribbon laid across the middle of the real Africa.