It appears that my high school class will have an unofficial meeting at a venue in Florida this fall. I ended up being involved with parts of the planning, so that does seem to obligate me to actually show up.
I’ve already booked myself a room, which if you knew how many oddities I indulge in about travel, would profoundly impress you. Funny for someone who grew up traveling! But planning makes me anxious. I find it easiest to plunge off on a whim– it used to always be a big question if I would get a visa to go to Nigeria to visit my parents, and often I would buy a ticket and go within forty eight hours of receiving my passport back from the Embassy. Stuffing my cheap new-bought luggage with basic supplies like bottles of peanut butter and plastic-bagged toothpaste, seed packets, colored chalk, dried Chinese mushrooms for my mother, and BOOKS, I’d make every square inch count.
I particularly remember a night in the Lagos airport back in the days when it had open walls to the outdoors. Geckos and major cockroaches with dancing troupes of moths passed through, and military with Schmeissers and riding crops coming in every two or three hours to beat sleeping ‘vagrants’ out of the place. Never bothered the whites or the people in good clothing, I think that was how they decided if you were a legitimate traveller or not. But I recall having John McPhee’s Oranges, and a fat new biography of Samuel Johnson to keep me awake for the night. Rarely have I been so thirsty, before or since.
The next morning the airport woke up around four or five AM, small birds opening a seething noisy chorus in the trees around the building. I found a man who knew where he could get me a soda, and I found an unofficial porter to help lug my suitcase over to the domestic flights section. I said the suitcase was cheap, didn’t I. Well, the handle tore off. No options for fixing it, so he loaded it onto his head and we marched on.
I had a ticket, but because of a late arrival the night before, had missed my flight from Lagos to Enugu. So I got in line with my ticket and waited in what shortly became a seething throng. I was denied every flight through the day, despite my best manners and firmest insistence on my right to be seated. I think they may have realized that I was not going to give a bribe, and was possibly becoming an embarrassment, so they finally gave me a boarding ticket for the last flight, after the dark had come down with the early suddenness it does on the Equator. It’s interesting that I have no recollection of managing to get any meals in that long day, but I did get a few sodas.
Such a relief to be seated on that flight– I didn’t believe it until I fastened the belt. Another forty miles of driving lay ahead to reach my parents’ home in Nsukka after I would land. By this point, since none of my efforts to telegram ahead seemed to have worked, and I was a day and more late, I knew no one would be waiting for me in Enugu. When our little Fokker began an abrupt descent to Enugu, the gentleman ahead of me down the aisle on the window seat began to chant “Pray God, a safe landing, pray God a safe landing,” which he kept up until our plane touched down in the darkness. It was a safe landing and we all cheered, probably inspired by the man up the aisle.
I walked off the plane down the roll-up steps with the Nigerian night holding me in its heavy warm fist, and all I felt was triumph. Of course, that soon shifted to the tension of the assault of taxi drivers and a bidding war to get a ride. That I didn’t have enough money in my pocket, cast no shadow on my bargaining. I had no conscience left about such details, and knew that my parents, if I reached them, would be happy to pay. Soon we were lurching through the night traffic of Enugu. I made a little conversation, but the driving was challenging, involving goats and pedestrians and other vehicles, so I soon subsided, figuring it prudent. Once out on the highway, we sped along pretty well, but it seemed an interminable ride. I’m guessing now it wasn’t much over an hour and a quarter. I recall talking a lot with the driver about times over ten years ago in Nigeria and my wonder at being back now, in 1976.
I didn’t have a street address for my parents’ house, but my driver knew a solution. He could go to the University of Nigeria at Nsukka postal center, because they would know.
I went in with him to the green-white lit building. I was shocked to see the white metal clock on the wall said it was no later than five minutes of nine– we’d barely made it before closing. I felt like it must be midnight. The neatly dressed man at the counter made me feel my messiness, my unbrushed hair, my rumpled days’ old clothing, the coating of dried sweat. At first all I saw was his shaking head, but he went to consult with an associate, coming back at a trot. Yes, now he had the name right, he could give us the address.
We circled around in the taxi and back a part of the way we had come, before we drove up into a little driveway.
“We are here,” my taxi driver said.
“Wait. I need money to pay you.”
Was it truly the right place? I went to the front door. I knocked, looking and seeing no one through the glass panes, I opened the door. There was my mother seated at the dining room table under the big paper moon lantern that held the electric bulb, working on a pile of papers. A small vase of roses and gardenia stood near. She looked up.
“Hi, Robin,” she said. “I thought you might be coming, one of these days soon.”