There's something incredibly disorienting about a developing world airport in the dark. It was 8pm when my shuttle approached the Kilimanjaro airport in Tanzania. I recalled my arrival only two weeks ago, though the overtime my brain is working processing the billions of unfamiliar sensations makes it seem months ago.
It's a common experience whenever I enter one of these back-water airports. Its chaotic. And confusing. The lights are all centrally located at the terminal and only yards away from the 'curb' it seems the light is sucked out of the air. Due in part to their low wattage. The lights are always placed high and aimed helpfully at the ground there but the angle hits passengers directly in the eyes.
The overall effect is the sea of, in this case, black faces absorbed into a silhouette of shadows all calling out in a language I hardly understand. Hands reach out from every direction and grasp my bags or trolley by the same handle I'm using... Thick accents say, 'my friend, I should help you?' Or karibu bwana, 'welcome, boss' I can't see their faces only their hands and wrists. The lights crunch my pupils, as they attempt to adjust to the sharp contrasting brightness.
Its chaotic ... And wonderful. I remember the first few times I experienced it many years ago. I was grabbing for my wallet and passport ... Afraid of pickpocket's groping, hungry fingers. This morning I laughed at my former self.
I feel now that I'm never far from home. These people are understandably desperate for the tips that come from hoisting bags or offering unofficial cab rides. They have found a niche and know the flight schedules for arrivals and departures of every major carrier.
The KLM aircraft seems freakishly huge on that tarmack. I walked out on the concrete to the monster A330. I felt incredibly small.
Behind me, a cacophony of heat and humidity... And a gaggle of people who all look alike there. That is not a racist comment. They all look like shadowed silhouettes. They look like backlit mountains before the full moon rises behind it. Details are lost and only the occasional hand or voice that penetrates the darkness becomes visible in the blinding light.
I no longer fear those places as I did the first few times. In fact. Its much like a homecoming now. Though there is human greed and corruption. If I mind my head and keep a sharp eye, its more like returning to open arms at the holidays now. Those hands are only a few inches away from broad smiles and quick laughs as I attempt my broken swahili. A few slang words like the one for 'cool' always gets the same response... 'How you know this word?' It gets a laugh and oddly those groping overly helpful hands feel more like a massive welcoming committee to me now. Perhaps the bright backlights are helpful, like a Mardi Gras mask that suppresses inhibitions. Our overly safe theatrically lit western curb sides maybe are less humane. Inhibition reigns and we avert eye contact, let alone breaking the physical space barrier of touching someone else's bags. The audacity of the curb chaos is also the charm in it.
So I'm now here in Amsterdam at the gate. I'm heading home. I know my kids will be there with Melinda. They wont stop at the bag handles though, because like the throng at the curb in Kilamamjaro they are the welcome committee. Personal space is disregarded. And.... They wont stop at the bag handles because they will be wanting to see what bwana has brought for them. Gifts from afar. Chiefly, the difference perhaps is that concept of personal space. 'Karibu' is the swahili word for Welcome. Its used interchangeably between 'you're welcome' and 'welcome' as in 'welcome home'. That's the thing that in the poverty of the place... or at least the 'poorness' of it, poverty being reserved for hopelessly poor... the thing that struck me was the wealth that is in a freely given smile or a hand, a word, a laugh. Along the curbside in the shadows of the waiting throng, personal space is not only over-rated, it's karibu at its finest.
Arrive in fear and you'll miss it as I did many years ago. Tired as you are from your journey, get your smile ready. The shadows are waiting.