Taking Flight

I hurry towards the gate at JFK. This is a journey I have made many times, and I feel a rush of anticipation and excitement as I begin to hear more and more travelers speaking in Afrikaans as I approach the crowd waiting to board.

Afrikaans, of course, is the language of apartheid. As an anti-apartheid activist, it is a language I have generally despised. Yet now, as its harsh tones begin to envelop me, I am soothed by its sounds, knowing that I have moved into a liminal space between the U.S. and South Africa.

The hundreds of people eagerly gathered in the boarding area are mostly White, as am I. These direct flights from JFK to Johannesburg are new: during the height of apartheid, South African Airways was not allowed landing rights in the U.S. Now, in the early 90s, as apartheid begins to unwind, it is just 15 hours between JFK and Jan Smuts in Joburg.

My first flight was in December 1991. Overwhelmed by nervousness and exhaustion, I collapsed and slept most of the trip. Seated in coach, just a few rows ahead of the smoking section, I was lulled to sleep not by quiet, but by the raucous laughter and thick smoke of the White South Africans returning home.

Jan Smuts was the size of a small regional airport in the United States. I was greeted by worn linoleum floors, hard, tan plastic chairs bolted to the floor in a line, and a few dusty vending machines. Today, O.R. Tambo International Airport is a massive, sleek, international crossroads, with miles of designer boutiques and duty-free shopping. On a forgotten road in Brakpan, on the outskirts of Johannesburg, there was—and perhaps still is—a tiny green sign pointing the way to Jan Smuts. Every time I saw the sign through my many trips over the ensuing decades, I was transported back to my first arrival.

I returned to JFK and that flight continuously over the next few years. As I once again got closer to the boarding area, I felt a sense of calmness and being home. In my mid and late 20s, my life in the U.S. was scattered and directionless: the boarding area of the SAA flight from JFK to Jan Smuts was my anchor and my ground. Once I arrived there, I could relax and breathe. When I reached those hordes of people waiting on the worn red carpet, I could think, build forward, and renew. Hours after boarding, the plane would finally reach the edge of the Atlantic, begin the journey down the coast of Africa, and then inland to Joburg. That first glimpse of the African continent from 40,000 feet above was always thrilling: I was really there, again.

The flights continued as I explored paths for my future on the streets of Joburg. I watched as change came with democracy in 1994. Jan Smuts no more, I began to land in a larger, more contemporary Johannesburg International. The dusty vending machines were replaced by kiosks and food courts, the bolted lines of hard, tan chairs and worn linoleum floors were pulled up, to make way for upgraded floors, chairs, and lighting. I often flew out of Atlanta now, instead of JFK. The crowd at the unfamiliar gate at Hartsfield-Jackson was more racially diverse: I heard more English, Zulu, Xhosa, and Sotho, and less Afrikaans. South Africa was changing. The excitement at the boarding area, on the flights, in the airport, and then on the streets was intoxicating; after more than 400 years, a people’s democracy was finally emerging.

What was once a constant, fixed journey between JFK and Joburg slowly was no more. Instead, I traveled to Joburg, Cape Town, and Durban from points all over the U.S. and the globe. I spent a year in Durban on a Fulbright, doing my dissertation research. For two years, I traveled back and forth to South Africa from our (temporary) home in Australia. I endured a bomb threat and a very tense flight one night in March 2003 when the U.S. invaded Iraq. Countless delays and hours spent on airport floors around the world. Drunk passengers and medical emergencies on board. On the return flights to the U.S, the midflight stops at the tiny airport on Cape Verde. In the beginning, we were required to exit the plane, and I dozed in the harsh fluorescent light of a crowded arrival hall before we were allowed back on. A few years later, we stayed on the plane, now required to hold all of our carry-on items, while the cabin was inspected.

Dozens of departures and arrivals. Remembering the magic of those first flights: the absolute silence and peace of the upper deck of an SAA flight when it was still coach; sprawling across a row of empty seats and falling sound asleep until the light of the African continent woke me; the chunky and delicious chocolate chip cookie ice cream sandwiches that appeared every evening; and, the babble of Afrikaans, accompanied by laughter and thick smoke, gently giving me flight into my 30s, and a new life.


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