I recently spent two months as a guest of the English Department at the University of Calgary. I was on a sabbatical, completing work on my doctorate.
Getting to Canada involved an almost twenty-hour flight: an hour from Durban to Johannesburg, in South Africa, then about nine hours from Johannesburg to Frankfurt, and a further nine and a half hours to Calgary. And I am not one of those people who can sleep in the air. Neither the rhythmic pitching of the airplane nor the monotonous drone of the engines can in any way lull me into somnolence.
And so I am always the one left staring about the dark cabin—exhausted, cramped, and tense—while the still forms of the other travellers snore or sigh around me. How slowly time drags then. Nothing but the stuck-record of your thoughts and the insatiable appetite of memory. It’s like being in a hospital ward late at night after the sister has switched off all the lights, and because of your surgery you are unable to fall asleep or to get out of bed and distract yourself with a walk through the long empty corridors.
On that particular, seemingly interminable, flight to Canada I discovered the music of Rykarda Parasol on the Country & Western onboard channel. Alone inside a small pair of headphones in the dark, there was something about the low growl of her voice and the heavy deliberate drumming that stirred me deeply. (I cannot even remember what song she sang, but I listened to that channel for so long that night I eventually heard all the songs repeated three times.)
I was far away from home, and getting further with each slowly passing hour. I was going to be away for two months; amongst absolute strangers. And I remember wondering what lay in store for me on the other side of that dark sky. What would I find in Canada? I knew that I was not engaged in a trip. The idea of a trip is too light, too flippant. It is too closely aligned to the idea of family holidays and the back seat of one’s parents’ car and squabbles over who would sit in the middle (there were three of us children) and packed sandwiches (usually egg, which stank the car out).
No, I knew then that what I was involved in, what I was just setting out upon, was a journey. And a journey is not just about travel and distance, about passports and overweight luggage and passengers packed like fish into a stale and stuffy cylinder. A journey is essentially about searching and discovery. It is about newness. Or, more accurately, the potential for newness. What newness would find me in that cold continent, I wondered? (Mercifully, I was going just as winter was ending.) But, of course, what distinguishes a trip from a journey cannot be determined either before or during the experience. It is only in retrospect that one is able to make the distinction, once one has returned to one’s point of departure and been able to understand one’s home anew. As the poet T.S. Eliot wrote in Four Quartets: “The end of all our exploring / Will be to arrive where we started / And know the place for the first time.”
Dawn brought warmed face towels and stiffened limbs. Surreptitious glances and mental calculations: Is the man with the floral shirt back from the bathroom yet? Does that woman with her hair in a bun and the strained expression have the same intention as me? Will I be able to get there before her? There is something demeaning about standing and waiting outside an occupied bathroom in full view of the rest of the passengers, like a naughty school kid hauled out to the front of the class and made to stand there for the duration of the lesson.
And slowly the bright glare of the sky softened. Thousands of miles below us the white expanse of Greenland rocked by. The air we all breathed was stale and dry and hot. I felt myself drying out. An orange or lemon forgotten in the fruit-bowl. Few people talked anymore. Cramped and sweaty, everyone tried as hard as possible to keep some kind of space from each other.
When eventually we landed around midday in Calgary, I felt like some strange naked moth crawling out of its cocoon, struggling to unfurl its stiffened limbs and wings. The world around me was slowly emerging too, from the freeze of winter. Banks of snow lay in the fields beyond the airport, and along the roadsides. My journey lay ahead of me, waiting for me to walk it and make it.
Kobus Moolman is a South African poet and playwright, and senior lecturer in Creative Writing at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in Durban.