Finally, he headed back to the half-domed structures of the airport. While it seemed like he had just arrived, in ways much deeper and more personal, it felt like he had experienced years of living.
Dr. Tom sent him back down to the capital with a hired driver. A ‘taxi’ is what he called it, but when it arrived, it was just a seemingly random guy who owned, or at least had access to, a car. A white, right-hand drive Toyota model clearly only ever sold in the Japanese market. He didn’t notice as he got into the left seat of the car as he was so tired. But, since cars drove on the right side of the road, he felt like he was literally in the driver seat, as he sat next to the centerline would have been if one existed. The smiley, thin man kept asking him if he could see past the trucks ahead of them on the windy mountain roads for them to ‘safely’ pass. He could only communicate this request by an “OK?” and a thumbs-up and awaited Seth’s reply.
Even a few days ago he would have seen this as yet another insult, but after spending just days with Dr. Tom, he could see that he was a simple and practical man. Seth needed to get to the airport, so the most efficient thing was to find someone with a car. Not send for the university president’s driver, not have the hospital driver take him, certainly not take Dr. Tom away from his bloc opératoire for the better part of a day. Merely find some way to make it happen, preferably the least expensive. So, no formal send off. Nobody of standing or importance to take him down. Just this hired driver with a steering wheel on the wrong side of a 1995 Toyota Bluebird, with Dr. Tom standing on the rough-rock driveway as he pulled out. Dr. Tom heading up, yet again, to the hospital for who-knows-what procedures for who-knows-how-many hours.
Just before he got into the car, Dr. Tom reached into the back pocket of his scrub pants.
“I want you to take this – and read it. I don’t know if you’ve ever read it before, but I’d recommend starting with…”
“I have,” he said “I have read the Bible before” not knowing what to say next. At the same time the words made him feel connected to Dr. Tom and his life of simple but powerful faith, yet also revealing a sense that he had little excuse for what his own life had become.
“I know you can get the Bible on your phone, and whatnot, but I figured since yours didn’t look like it was in much shape to be reading on…. that you might appreciate this.
“I do,” Seth replied, “I do appreciate it. All of it. Everything.”
“Sorry that it’s in French, but it’s what…”
“No” Seth interrupted, “it’s perfect”
“Tuzosubira,” he said, “It’s: ‘until the next time we are together,’” he explained. The door closed, and that was it.
He sat in a near-daze as the car skipped over the holes in the dirt road that led back out to the highway. Nowhere else would this be considered a highway, but now Seth was too overcome to even have his natural reactive judgement. He barely noticed anything until a policeman tapped on the back window with the muzzle of his weapon. Startled, he realized they had stopped where the police dragged a rusty coil of barbed-wire across the road. “Uh… smile” the driver told him. He did, and the policeman’s face changed, and flashed him a thumbs-up. Seth returned the gesture, and they continued down the mountain.
As he approached the domes, the logistics of departing from this airport re-emphasized to him how utterly alone he was. Even if anyone wanted to see him off, it wasn’t possible. Two national police stood at the door to the second largest dome marked ‘departures.’ Only after showing them his passport and flight information (which they seemed more surprised that it was possible to be on his phone than the fact that it was almost illegible on his shattered screen) could he enter. There were a few people by the door, waiting to get in. A few days ago he would have noticed nothing other than their dated sense of fashion. After just a few days up at the rural hospital, his attention shifted. Now he noticed the women were wearing actual clothes instead of a Goodwill rejected T-shirt and a faded piece of cloth, that they all had shoes and weren’t standing there with calloused, dirty bare feet.
He realized when he picked up the grey plastic bin from the conveyor belt on the other side of the x-ray he forgot to take his watch off. It wasn’t a huge watch, but it was solid, looked expensive without looking like it was trying to look expensive. Definitely it should have triggered the metal detector. He looked back and noticed that neither the green lights nor the red lights were flashing. The machine was not even turned on.
As he stood in line, he noticed several people paying for the extra service of having their luggage shrink-wrapped. While some bags weren’t made for actual travel, he wondered if the people in line with decent looking bags knew something he didn’t.
The woman behind the desk in an ill-fitting Kenya Airways blazer informed him there was a problem with ‘the machine’ as she pointed to the aged IBM laptop in front of her. She handed back his passport with a boarding pass on which she had handwritten his seat number. He was about to point out she failed to indicate a gate when he remembered that it would be extraneous information in this situation.
“What a perfectly typical way to leave this country,” he thought.
There was no business lounge to allow him to be even somewhat alone with his thoughts. His normal routine would be to grab a quick tumbler of whatever drinkable scotch they stocked, grab a bottle of sparkling water, and head for a shower. But here he sat, in a terminal with only one waiting area for all passengers. He didn’t realize it but the group of people he sat with (those capable of paying for air travel) was a more exclusive subset of the 1% in this country than the lounges he normally frequented.
The plane taxied away from the cluster of half-domes, and onto the single runway. It rumbled up to the end by a canvas army tent where it swung a U-turn. With no taxiway, the aircraft had to drive one direction, then take-off the other on the same surface. Since the next flight at the airport wasn’t scheduled until tomorrow, this was not a problem for air traffic control. The plane lifted off the uneven runway and ascended over the massive lake that stretched to the south as far as the horizon. Now, with the mountains of Congo out the window to one side, and the Burundian capital to the other, he felt a strange fusion of relief and sadness, of accomplishment and regret.
He looked down at the worn brown leather Bible in his hand. Old but sturdy, well used but still solid, only grown more beautiful with age. In his other hand was his phone. The screen shattered, the brown leather case only a facade, machine-shaped and treated with chemicals to look aged and solid. One wrong move and the phone had become useless. Yet the book in his other hand had been through years of hard life and was more beautiful than when it was new. He pulled off the elastic band which had been holding it closed, and read a passage at the same time so completely new and foreign, and yet unimaginably familiar. He ran his finger over words so simple and clear and yet complex and profound. The same words he had been forced to commit to memory decades earlier now held meaning he never imagined.
The plane spiraled up into the clouds holding that day’s quota of rain. He looked down at the lush green hills, the networks of footpaths linking houses and small villages creating a spiderweb of red where the soil stood out from the surrounding green blanket of plants producing bananas, coffee, and rice.
Thinking back to his arrival here just several days before and the question he kept angrily asking. He smiled to himself as he realized perhaps he had an answer to the question. ‘What in the world he was doing here,’ turned out to be something he never imagined. As the clouds streaking past the window got closer to each other until they blocked all view of the ground below, he sank back into his seat. He rested in a sensation that while he had no idea what had been going on, there was something, someone who had, all along. Comfort wrapped him in a way he had never known was possible.
Seth did not know what would come next. Yet for the first time in his life that didn’t bother him. For once he didn’t have a plan for how everything would play out in his favor. He wasn’t scheming how to play everything and everyone to benefit himself. Seth sat with an awareness he was definitely at the end of something, but more importantly at the beginning of something else. He had only a vague sense of what it may be, and that was enough. For the first time, he had a sense of peace about the future. Right then he realized that for the very first time, he was starting to understand what faith may be. He wasn’t sure what he’d tell them, but he would call his parents from his layover in Brussels, convinced by the time he got there he’d have a better idea what to say. Now he saw a glimpse of what they had been praying for him for decades. The future, his parents, faith. These things that had caused turmoil and anxiety for as long as he could remember, now covered him in comfort. He shook his head to himself as he departed, thinking about what he had in mind when he arrived. He did not have any idea what he was doing here, and that was just fine.