There are no secrets in this world.
Not that I was trying to keep this impromptu trip a secret per se, but since everyone under the sun seems to know that I’m en route to California at the moment (evidenced by the barrage of Whatsapp messages that flooded my phone the second I connected to WiFi in the Brussels Airport), I may as well craft a written reflection of the whirlwind going on around me and within me.
Within a span of 24 hours, I was told to book a flight to Sacramento, booked said flight, packed for a semi-indefinite visit back to California, said the requisite farewell-for-nows, made the 5-hour trek to Entebbe Airport with my (local) sisters at my side, and found myself sitting in my cramped but alarmingly clean seat upon a Brussels Airlines flight bound for the heart of Western Europe.
8-hour flight from Entebbe to Brussels. 7-hour layover. 8-hour flight from Brussels to Washington DC. Mad dash to catch a 6-hour flight from DC to Los Angeles, followed by one more tight turnaround to catch yet another flight home to Sacramento, the ‘City of Trees’ whose leaves have long since fallen, causing me to spend my drive through Uganda to the airport gazing longingly out at the forests, the sugar cane fields, and the indescribable greenery that inundates my sight every day. I miss it already…
My current mental capacity to adequately process the sequence of events that have led to me sitting with a 50cl Hoegaarden overlooking the foggy Brussels horizon is admittedly limited at present. Nonetheless, the reverse-culture shock concomitant with anyone’s return from 7 months immersed in Nile-side village life in Eastern Uganda strikes me as worth documenting. Largely because I know I’ll forget every observation I make by the time I board my next flight.
Let’s start from the top. Where the hell did all the black people go?
Oh yeah that’s right…I’m no longer the minority. I am a drop in an endless sea of white skin and blonde hair. And with that shift, I have become invisible. No eye contact, no greeting, no exchange of curious glances, and for once in 7 months, not a single child I have passed has acknowledged my existence. A warm welcome back to the West. I have spent a fair amount of time analyzing my role as a mzungu in Uganda, where my skin color and origins make me a public spectacle in every setting I have access to, aside from Nile River Explorers in Bujagali or Acacia Mall in Kampala. Often, it is not the most welcomed attention – it comes in the form of long, uninterrupted stares, or commercial-catcalls from boda drivers, or a deep and thoughtful critique of every single movement of my body or word that comes out of my mouth.
Here at Brussels airport, I have completely vanished.
Well, perhaps not completely. I have caught a few eyes this morning (is it morning? what time is it? what is time?), but not for the color of my skin, just the color of my clothes. On a previous flight out of Entebbe Airport, an airport employee at security takes one look at the shoes I was removing to place on the conveyor belt and asks, “Did you come from Jinja?” I asked him how he guessed. “I can always tell Jinja dirt when I see it.”
In just 24 hours, I have been transformed from a symbol of money, influence and power based on the color of my skin to being viewed by some (perhaps more than I’m picking up on) as just another filthy backpacker. I am, admittedly, absolutely filthy – I don’t think I’ve changed in a few days, nor do I plan to for the next few. This dirt is a part of my daily life – the Jinja dust will stick instantly to your clothes and be impossible to simply brush off. It is viewed as an indicator of a long boda ride or walk to town, nothing else. Here, I walk through the duty-free shops (the airport in Brussels is set up in such a way that you do not have a choice but to walk through some of them), and the lights beaming from the ceiling and display cases illuminate dirt that has become a part of my skin that I never even noticed before under the significantly dimmer lights that you find in any electrified-establishment in Uganda. My eyes burn from the brightness of every single light, and for the first time in weeks, I feel like maybe I should actually shower, not because it would refresh me, but because it would make me acceptable to be out in public.
I’m also looking at this rash that shows up on my left arm every other week in a whole new light…literally, and, well, literally.
Looking around me right now I see an 8-year old girl chatting on an iPhone 6. I see white people sweeping floors and manning the luggage being loaded into the planes outside my window. I see a family of four playing two separate games of chess while they wait for their flight. I see more people in the designated smoking room than outside of it. I see eyeglasses, everywhere, which means that the people around me that need bifocals actually have access to them. I see people walking, and they’re walking SO, SO FAST. I see winter coats, thick scarves, earmuffs. I see my breath. I see things I forgot existed. I see things I think I was trying to forget existed…
I don’t miss the West. I miss family and friends from time to time, I miss the Mojave Desert, the mighty redwood forests of California, the smell of the ocean, fresh sushi, hiking without a guide, and seeing my favorite musicians live…but I do not miss the life of relative luxury and ultra-individualism that comes along with it. I’ve spent so much time in Uganda complaining about how nice it would be to just blend in and not be stared at or noticed as anything out of the ordinary. Now that I am here in such a situation, I just miss home. My home. Uganda. In this moment, I am acutely aware of how lucky I am to have the opportunity to call such a place my home, and I will long for it until I return.
Now, I just took a break from writing this to run to the restroom. When I walked out of it, I looked at the wall between the men’s room and the women’s room, and saw something I forgot had ever been a part of real life. A shiny, gently humming steel box mounted on the wall, with a small, unassuming spicket sticking up from the corner…
It was a drinking fountain.
I drank, and drank, and drank. To be able to drink water straight from a plumbing system, without fear of parasites or bacteria, is a gift of the “modernized” and “developed” world that I do not take for granted. I have no idea what the coming weeks will bring, but I know that I am blessed to hail from a part of the world that is afforded such comfort, such privilege, and such opportunity. And I am blessed to be the healthy young man that I am right now, fully capable and primed to enjoy every last bit of ALL parts of this world.
I am blessed to have not just one home, but two. And this is just the beginning.