Common Womb Reentered
On my last day in Windhoek, my Indian landlord drove me to the airport. Though he had been extremely kind and helpful to me during my +3 month stay at his guesthouse, our conversations could only go so far. A non-drinker, Pradeep was very dry, you see, and he was also a vegetarian, mostly, so there was hardly any animal blood, tendons and gristles in his system to trigger unguardedness in speech.
South of Windhoek is mostly desert. To its west, there are trees and hundreds of termite mounds, most taller than a man, with some, centuries old, rising to 20 feet. Cone based with a thin spire, they’re like witches’ hats, all leaning in the same direction. Each one a cosmos, they may outlast Milan Cathedral.
Five centuries from now, an alien visitor will undoubtedly remark, “On this most pathetic of planets, the only architecture of note are beaver dams and termite mounds. Although there are signs of life everywhere, these creatures, some quite large, have built almost nothing. Most disgusting are hairless bipeds with cancerous growths sprouting all over. Though laughably weak and cowardly, they’re very aggressive verbally. Whenever they saw us, they’d bark, spit, howl and make farting noises, we’re not sure from which end, but if we just glared at them, they’d scatter. Earth was such a joke, we couldn’t wait to escape, so don’t bother visiting. It was my worst vacation ever.”
Now going east, I noticed the land was fertile enough for wild trees and shrubs, though left uncultivated, a shameful waste, really, considering the food shortages now threatening much of the world. We passed a baboon, the first I saw during my five months in Namibia. He was also the largest non-human mammal I encountered during my eight months in Sub-Saharan Africa.
Named after a Herero hero, Hosea Kutato Airport was small but neat and pleasant. Checking in, I had to present a negative Covid test, but not my required health insurance or proof I had filled out a Vietnamese health declaration form. Taking the PCR test the day before, I had forgotten to spray my nose with colloidal silver, a trick recommended by a South African friend to avoid a false positive, so before the result came back hours later, I wasn’t 100% sure I was leaving.
Flying during Covid is not exactly fun. Flights can suddenly be canceled for lack of passengers. Rules may abruptly change at point of departure or arrival. With the war in Ukraine, there’s also the possibility of a cyber attack or, hell, even nuclear tipped missiles zooming across continents. In Swakopmund, I had run into some Russians enjoying the sea and sun. With Mother Russia isolated and her airspace closed, they may be stuck in Namibia indefinitely.
From 1:25PM onward, there were only five departures, to Johannesburg, Cape Town, Luanda, Johannesburg again, then Frankfurt. At the security check, the lady confiscated my body lotion because “this has more than 100ml of liquid.” American terror laws have made travel everywhere a joke, if not an ordeal. Noticing lots of loose coins in my duffel bag, the lady smilingly asked, “Are these for souvenirs?”
“No, I was going to put them in the charity box, you know, before I leave.”
“What charity box?”
Pointing to the departure area just beyond security, I answered, “You know, over there. Every airport has these charity boxes.”
“We don’t have any.”
“Really? That’s weird. Every airport has them.”
“There’s none here.”
Suddenly, I suspected she wanted these coins for herself, but there were so many other people around, security employees and passengers, I couldn’t just hand them to her. If that wasn’t what she wanted, it would have been particularly offensive. Fine, I’ll just give them to some airport employee later, I thought, for these coins were useless to me outside Namibia.
Soon as I left security, I saw, sure enough, a charity box! Belonging to the Red Cross, it was painted red. Seeing me in front of it, another airport security lady walked over, “You can’t put money in there!”
“No? There’s a slot.”
“No, no, don’t put your coins in there. You can put them in a plastic bag. I’ll give you one.”
Understanding perfectly what she wanted, I didn’t just follow her into a little store, but walked to the very back, to be more discreet.
“Just anything, Sir. Five, ten cents.”
Having much more than that, I dumped them all into her plastic bag, “I have so many coins!”
“Thank you, Sir,” she said as I walked out. Paying all those salaries, the Red Cross would have taken its cut.
At a gift store, there was a taxidermied lion and a leopard. Feeling relieved at having no glitches, at least not yet, I sat at a table and drank a Windhoek, that much hyped ale. Shrieking with happiness, two blonde German kids ran around or even crawled under the seats. At the next table was a middle-aged white man in a leather bush hat. Like Francis Macomber, he had paid to encounter his atavistic fear. At the counter stood a young French couple. The barmaid was very cheerful, elegant and beautiful. I would miss that physiognomy, certainly. Thank you, Namibians, for introducing me to your composure. With layovers in Johannesburg and Dubai, it would be 26 hours before I landed in Saigon.
Opened in 1952, O.R. Tambo International Airport was originally named after Jan Smuts (1870-1950). Besides being South Africa’s Prime Minister and Defense Minister, Smuts fought in the Boer War, WWI and WWII. Oliver Tambo was a guerrilla leader against apartheid, then President of the African National Congress from 1967 to 1991. In 2022, Nelson Mandela dominates this airport, for I ran into two statues of him, standing and sitting, plus a large photo in a bar, and I was only in one section of a terminal. At Cape Town’s airport, Mandela’s jailcell is reproduced.
Just before I boarded for Dubai, an Emirates employee demanded to see my health declaration. When I explained I had filed it online, she said, “Without that, you’re not going anywhere.” After a minute, I finally found the code for its completion on my phone, so she let me pass. I hadn’t even known I needed this proof.
With their luxury shops, mostly privileged clientele and function as the ostentatious gateways to nations, airports tend to be much more glamorous, futuristic and clean than the rest of their societies. Sparkling, Dubai’s ranks with those of Tokyo, Seoul, Singapore, Amsterdam and London, etc., and it leaves aging dumps like JFK and Dulles far behind. Wandering around it, though, I couldn’t help but think I was admiring a fading mirage. The epoch when so many men could fly so freely and cheaply was over.
In India, 64-year-old Bahadur Chand Gupta operates his “flight to nowhere.” For just $1, you get to board a real aircraft, be seated, receive safety instructions, served a snack, visit the cockpit then exit through the evacuation slide, onto dry land.
Less than a year into the Covid hysteria, Australian, Japanese and Taiwanese airlines sold brief flights that took off and landed at the same airport, to slake people’s need to be high above the clouds. Aluminum tubed and buckled up, these faux angels could see how tiny all the world’s problems were, way down below.
Going to my gate, I noticed a jivey diner, Tranzeet, but with a photo booth even. At a table, a sari wrapped matron sat, looking glum next to her glass of Coke. From Tranzeet website, we find that is “is all about comfort food, served quickly. We have adopted a philosophy of evolved nostalgia in our menu approach. From the diner tradition of offering bacon and eggs all day, Tranzeet serves specialty items that are unique, like awesome mac and cheese, healthy options and daily blueplate specials, to name a few.”
Evolved nostalgia sounds oxymoronic, since you can’t move backward and forward at the same time, but perhaps I’m wrong. In any case, there’s definitely a nostalgia for an America that barely was, and is definitely no more, so we have Tranzeet in Dubai, Roadster in Beirut, Jonathan’s in Japan, Intergalactic in Belgrade and Taxi Bar in Kiev, etc., all riffs on an impossibly wholesome USA as briefly purveyed by Hollywood. When America is gone for good, which is soon, these diners will serve as shrines in memoriam, with jukeboxes that play innocent songs of love, from when Americans still knew how to love innocently, or at least pretended to.
At the gate for Saigon, there were at least a hundred Vietnamese, but one stood out, for he was dressed in a hazmat suit, plastic goggles, nylon face mask and rubber gloves, a real freak, but later I found out many people have bought such an outfit, mostly made in China, for their fearful plane ride during Covid.
Mind you, no one was allowed to get past check-in without a negative Covid test, yet this trembling wuss was clearly terrified. To even reach the plane, he had to reveal his face at several points, however, and he had to take his suit off to use the bathroom, no? Of course, a public toilet would be the last place such a paranoiac would enter. The only solution, then, was to wear an adult diaper, for he still had +7 hours in the air, plus a couple more on the ground, at least, before he could reach the safety of his sundrily diseased mama. Any food or drink onboard was strictly out of the question.
At the gate, I talked to a Vietnamese fisherman who had flown in from Mexico. On the plane, I sat next to a very young Vietnamese who had been in Dubai for seven months. With a tourist visa which he kept extending, he worked for a Chinese importer. When I asked if he could cook Vietnamese food in Dubai, he laughed, “We didn’t have enough money to go to grocery stores. We ate what our boss fed us, three times a day.”
When meal was served, he couldn’t even say “chicken” or “beef,” for he had zero English, and, of course, no Arabic either, but it didn’t matter. Having lived and worked in Dubai, he was going home with cash, to his wife and their second baby, due in two weeks. He had seen more of the world than nearly all his neighbors.
On my left sat a black South African, Frank. He was returning to Vietnam to buy hair, clothing and shoes to resell, then he would relax for a month in Paris. Just in Asia, Frank had visited Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, China, Japan and South Korea. When I said I was going to Vung Tau, Frank said he would sometimes head that way for a relaxing swim. He had seen more of Vietnam than most Vietnamese.
After we passed over the lights of Phnom Penh, I started to glance at the flight tracker on my screen more often. With just 30 minutes left, I said to Frank, “Man, I’m counting every minute.” Then, “I won’t believe I’m in Saigon until I’m out of the airport.”
“I’m anxious to get off this plane, too,” Frank said.
Together, we watched the highrises and streets of Saigon come into view until, finally, we could read a few signs, on hotels and such, then, just like that, I was miraculously home.
[In Đồng Nai 16 hours after leaving Saigon’s airport. From Left to right: photographer Trà Cù Lủ, Nymph, poet Bùi Chát, me, painter Trần Thế Vĩnh, poet Huỳnh Lê Nhật Tấn and scholar Hà Vũ Trọng]