There was this time I was fortunate enough to be swallowed – as my county people say – by a karwīgī. With me and many other strangers of all shades and colours in its belly, it hopped to the county of the sultan, he of the D grade and a manicured beard fame. It swallowed some more strangers there and proceeded to hop again all the way to the rainy and hilly land of the Nyarwanda where it vomited us. But that wasn’t the end of our journey. We were then swallowed by a much larger karwīgī which was to take us to our final destination. Unlike Jonah, he who was swallowed by a whale as he tried to run away from God’s will, myself and many of the strangers with me in this karwīgī’s belly had actually prayed for many days and many nights to be swallowed. We had prayed for this to be God’s will. I am pretty sure some had even fasted for it. I am certain many of us would not have minded even if it had taken a real whale to get us to our destination. A whale would have been fine provided we didn’t cross the path of a Japanese fishing vessel, I hear those Japanese got a thing for whales, and no, Japan wasn’t our destination. In the language of my noble parents and our kinsmen, karwīgī is a predatory bird that preys on our beloved chicken. I think it’s a hawk. It is also the codeword for the other mechanical bird that has always awed my people since they first sighted it around the era of the white people’s first world war. There is infact a cultural age given to folks who underwent their adulthood rite of circumcision around those years when these mechanical karwīgīs were first sighted by our great grandparents and their children. My grandfather was of that age.
It’s always an interesting time inside a karwīgī. They have made numerous movies on the subject, ranging from reptiles on a karwīgī to love brewed on tūrwīgī. Thats the plural form. And other disturbing experiences on planes that don’t end so well unless you are the lead character in the story. It was my first experience of many or so I hoped. It had to count. This was material that would form part of the tales I would tell my grandchildren and their children. I was seated pretty much at the front. Window seat. No, not business class. But not so far from there. Yet so far. Why do they have to make the common folks pass through the first class though? It reminds you that even though you’ve managed to join the club of people who have been swallowed by a karwīgī, there’s still another level still out of reach. You haven’t made it until you have joined the premier class club. But back in the village, that doesn’t matter. All they know is that you have made it to the flying club. So there I was seated at the front, scrutinizing my fellow travelers as they boarded. I like studying people and trying to create their profiles. So if you ever come across me and I am staring at you kind of weird before we are formally acquainted, you know what’s up. But in all honesty, I was trying to spot possible hijackers. I had waited for many days and sleepless nights for this journey and I was very wary of the devil and all his evil plans. After a while, I gave up on trying to identify any possible hijackers, it wasn’t as easy as they make it look in the movies. My seatmates were two gentlemen from the bananaful land of Kaguta, he who doesn’t like wine, especially Bobi Wine. What if Bobi had called himself Bobi Waragi though? Would that have made a difference? But I digress. My seatmates were father and son. The son looked like my agemate. He told me he was Elijah or was it Elisha? Either way, it was a prophet’s name. It was their first time on a karwīgī too. They were on a business trip or that’s what the prophet told me. They looked and sounded more excited than I was. You would not expect that from a guy bearing the name of a man who took to the skies on a chariot of fire, right?
Finally we were air bound. The in-flight meal served by some pretty Nyarwanda ladies wasn’t that appealing but my neighbours seemed to relish it, and they requested for second and third pairs of cans of those tiny sodas they serve on planes. They were definitely using up their fare to the last cent. That is what the prophet explained to me. He told me the ticket costed a lot. You got to make it count. He made me guiltily feel wasteful. I was tempted to request for wine or whiskey but those bottles looked so tiny, almost insulting. They should just serve water, coffee or tea instead of being so mean with their alcohol while smiling at you. It is not African. In any case, I prefer coffee to a tiny bottle of alcohol any day. I tried some small talk with the younger man whose accent kept reminding me of Kansiime but his dad kept interjecting in Luganda or something and I had to give up on a meaningful chat. I took out a book and immersed myself in it. I had bought it for this auspicious occasion from those book hawkers on the streets of Nairobi for fifty shillings. I wasn’t so wasteful afterall. But it was hard to focus on the book. My eyes kept drifting to a screen displaying our trip’s proceedings. Current location, covered distance, distance to go, remaining time of flight and other details. I couldn’t help but notice that we were flying over the sea, at a very high altitude, at a very high speed. It was dark outside. It wasn’t so comforting. I am not very good with heights and sometimes my imagination doesn’t do me favours. It didn’t help matters when we hit some bumps at very high speed. I have seen enough movies to know that’s how things always start. Too much movies aren’t so good afterall. You see the problem with air bumps is that the pilots can’t see them and if in any case they saw them, the speed is always too high to brake in time. Or maybe swerve like we swerve to avoid potholes on our great roads. That is the villager in me analyzing turbulence. Thinking back now, it was probably some minor turbulence, but that’s not how it felt to me then. I remembered the instructions some lady had given us before take off in case of emergency. Something about oxygen masks, an emergency door and lifesaver inflated jackets somewhere below my seat and being calm in all that – fat chance of staying calm and orderly during such an emergency. I wondered why not parachutes. It gave me some consolation to see my neighbours were at at the edge of their seats too, all nervous and mute. We got over the turbulence after what felt like a nail biting eternity. Finally I surrendered to the comfort of an uneasy slumber. I dreamt of my daughter and I think it made it better. My first time to sleep on a plane. It was a day of firsts. I did a lot of firsts on a plane that day. An hour or so to dawn, the plane started the descent to our destination. It was still dark. The view of the lighted city below was breathtaking. It was unlike a sight I had ever beheld. I fancy myself as a person who has seen a lot and not easily moved but I have to confess, the sight, especially the first sight of Dubai in the night from the air is bound to awe anyone. Some things are hard to explain with words. It looked out of this world in a very beautiful way to put it simply.
So there I was finally landing in the land of oil, sun, sand dunes, camels and architectural marvels in the desert. The land where dreams are made, and many also broken. The land where they say you can be whatever you want to be. Of course there’s a limit to what you can choose to be. It doesn’t mean you can get there and choose to be a doctor while the closest you have ever been to medicine is as a patient at your local dispensary. But you can be lots of things there without needing any connections. Your beer loving uncle’s wife’s second cousin’s high school deskmate’s girlfriend’s neighbour need not work in a company for you to get a chance there. You just need an updated CV, embellished and all, confidence, impress the interviewer and with luck on your side, you land your first job maybe as a sales representative. Even though your résumé claims you have had four years experience in that field, deep in your heart you know that you have never even sold candy at your highschool’s canteen. More interesting is the fact that you have in your possession three or more résumés stating your experience in three or more different career fields. You can be anything. We said our goodbyes with my neighbours from the land of waragi. Hoped we would meet again. We disembarked and boarded a shuttle that took us to the heart of the biggest airport my humbled soul had ever seen or set foot in. It was bewildering.
With the scent of shisha wafting in the air, we went through immigration processing in the hands of immaculately dressed Emiratis. All sparkling in their meticulous white robes. They tended to make loud conversation in Arabic amongst themselves as they processed tired looking travelers. Just another bunch of immigrants and business people to them. Just another shift for them. To me and possibly many others, it was the start of a dream experience in the land of dirhams. We made our way to the lounge. The Dubai international airport is one massive and very busy place. It was easy to point out my fellow first timers to this land. We looked lost in a way. It was still very early in the morning. There were folks catching up on their sleep on the lounge seats. I looked around and figured out where the washrooms were. I needed to wash my face. After taking a leak, I proceeded to the sinks. It was my first encounter with motion sensor taps. I was dumbfounded for some long several seconds as I tried to figure out how to get running water off the damned taps. Then this Asian came and just put his hands under the tap and voilà! He gave me that look you give your kid when they try to guess the unlock pattern of your smartphone. I replied with my nobody was born knowing look.
I had a friend I was to contact upon arrival but obviously my sim card was foreign. So my first task was to approach a counter of one of the leading telcos over there. After registering and purchasing a Du line, I was informed it would take around an hour or so to be activated. I figured that an hour was too long and being used to my country’s way of doing things, to me that could also mean a couple of hours. I needed to inform my host of my arrival asap. I scanned the crowd for someone who looked at home in this place and seemed friendly at the same time. I settled on a middle aged African with a bulging belly. Turned out that he was Cameroonian. His English was elementary. And he was in the same predicament as mine and so I directed him to the telco counter. He came back some minutes later shrugging and mumbling something to the effect that it was too expensive. He definitely needed more help than I did. I tried with another man who looked straight out of a nollywood movie with an accent to match. After a very lengthy and humble explanation of my situation, he gave me some excuse as to why he couldn’t help but I have lived enough years to recognise an ill disguised blatant refusal. I felt like those tired looking sales people who approach you and proceed to introduce themselves by their full names, then try to convince you that they have a once in a lifetime offer on a set of kitchen knives or some kitchenware. You let them talk their mouths dry and just when they are feeling so hopeful that they are about to make a sale, you inform them that things are hard. That if only they had found you the day before, you would have bought whatever it is they are selling. Then you suggest to them that they try the following week. Even after their having spent five minutes saying the offer was only for that particular day. That is what that oga did to me. And with that, my not so trusting relationship with the natives of Naija deteriorated further.
I went back to sitting and waiting for my sim card to be activated. Some fifty or so minutes later, I was able to put a call through. And so my host informed me that he was already off to work. He would send me another contact who could pick me up. The other contact informed me that he was just finalizing his shift and would call me shortly. I woke up my loved ones back home and informed them of my safe arrival. By now I was terribly missing my unfinished meal during my flight. There were all these enticing international franchise restaurants around the place but I was alive to the fact that I wasn’t a tourist swimming in cash. I had been swallowed by a karwīgī to come here in search of money, not waste the little I had. I was of the opinion that they were definitely beyond my financial ability. Like my people say, I had to struggle like a man. Afterall, I wasn’t known to be a regular in such establishments back home. So I ignored the rumblings in my tummy and hoped for a quick reprieve once my new contact arrived. Almost an hour later with daylight all over, my contact called. He informed me that being Friday, the holy day, the public transport system wouldn’t be operating until hours later in the day. Things were getting hard now. So the easiest thing was for him to give me the name of his residence and then I take a cab. That he did. The cabs operating at that hour on a holy day were not the official cabs but rather owned by some enterprising and streetwise characters who I would later learn are Pakistanis. Upon stepping out of the lounge area, I was approached by one who even offered to help me with my suitcase. All I could make out from his very bad english was the word taxi. I repeated to him the location my contact had told me. Either he was hard of hearing or I was saying something unintelligible to him. He didn’t seem to understand me and so I once again called my contact and asked him to explain to this shifty looking character where I was going. After what seemed like ages, that involved him enlisting the help of another shiftier looking character friend of his whose english was just as bad, they finally got it. I asked how much and through his friend he told me seventy dirhams. That sounded fair if not cheap to me. I expected the cab to be within a few metres, but how wrong I was. I followed him as he crossed the road tugging my suitcase, then we got into this tunnel that led us to another side of another road where we took a bridge that led us to another building. Then we went down some couple of basement levels to an underground parking. By then I was completely disoriented. I wasn’t even sure anymore if this man wasn’t about to kidnap me and go sell me somewhere where they would harvest my body organs. I couldn’t even tell in which direction was the airport anymore. I was on high alert just incase he tried something funny. I would have found the airport in a flash. I would have overtaken planes on the runway. We finally got to his car which clearly had seen better days. Probably that’s why he had to hide it so far away. It reminded me of a certain taxi that had carried me one rainy night some years back, the driver was an old man, it had reeked of petrol and I almost had a heart attack when the old man stopped somewhere along the road and lifted his seat to reveal some pipes through which he added petrol to the jalopy. He had assured me not to worry, that it was perfectly safe. I had prayed for the rest of the journey. At least this one was clean enough and there was no smell of petrol anywhere. We set off and he turned on the radio which was playing some catchy sounding Arabic music. He drummed his fingers on the steering wheel in rhythm with the tune and generally seemed to be in high spirits. He didn’t feel like a human trafficker anymore and so I relaxed and turned my eyes to all the awe inspiring buildings flashing by. This was going to be a beautiful experience. After negotiating what seemed like some complex road system and a considerable distance, I finally arrived at my destination. Tired, sleepy, stuffy and hungry but thankful to the Almighty for journey mercies. I found some hot coffee and some funny looking bread waiting for me and I gratefully gave them my whole and undivided attention.
Hours later after a hot shower, a long nap and my first encounter with a bedbug, I was informed that the airport was not more than ten minutes away from the residence and that I had actually paid a very high amount for that ride. The old Pakistani had surely looked shifty to me and I wasn’t wrong. No wonder the old geezer had seemed in such high spirits during the ride. We had a good laugh about it with my new friends as we exchanged stories of their first day experiences. Some had far worse debuts than mine. They got into advising me on what to expect in this land and generally how to make it. It was a great and warm welcome after my eventful journey. We sat at the rooftop of the building in the cool evening. Everything felt at peace. I looked up to the skies and silently prayed that the journey ahead be blessed and favourable. Up in the sky, another plane was making its descent towards the airport. I wondered how many souls aboard were like me, dreaming of a beautiful future in that land.