Memories of Day One in America

CHICAGO, IL – MAR 31: Chicago O’Hare Airport

At Heathrow, I almost missed the flight because it was my first time connecting one, and my first time flying alone. I tried calling my family (read: my mum)—to say I had finished my first of three legs of the trip—to no avail. On my Nokia 5000, I only saw a text (Vodafone welcomes you to England…blah blah blah) but when I tried calling, Vodafone was no more hospitable than those villagers I hear who hide food under the table when visitors are around. At least these hosts—if we may call them that—let the visitors feast on the aroma.

The Trans-Atlantic flight is smooth. On the contrary, when I make it to O’Hare Airport in Chicago, I am as disoriented as a bat flying at day-time. First, immigration. The non-American citizens queue winds and winds and winds. And because I am slow to notice it, it’s no wonder I hang from the tail of its winding. The immigration officers have nothing against me. They’re stamping my passport while asking questions, creating conversation! Wonderful, and surprising; I’ve heard not-so-good tales about these fellows.

Second, I don’t know if to pick my luggage here or at the airport in Syracuse—where my itinerary ends. I am shy to ask but I do all the same. A blue-black uniform lady points me to the conveyor belts and after a few minutes I secure my two bags. Soon, square-jawed officers have to make me open everything. They proceed to screen it like I could have sneaked into the luggage compartment in the plane and stuffed my bag with weed and bombs as the BA vessel glided on the air above icy islands en-route to America.

Every particle in my bags inspected, now to finding the connecting gate. Confused, I go right when I am supposed to go left. I leave the airport instead of heading to the boarding gates. I thoughtlessly board a train that takes me out of the airport. Now I have to stay on it so it takes me back in. Thankfully it does.

In search for a Delta check-in desk, I find myself dragging my coming-to-America suitcases up a fast-moving escalator. The last time I tried this stunt at Oliver Tambo in Johannesburg, I almost lost my teeth to the escalator. Someone watching must think this black boy mad, for sure.

All this struggling only for the blonde lady in the blue Delta blazer to tell me, “I am sorry we can’t check you in here.”

I go back down. You guessed it, I have to pass through security, again! I don’t mind notwithstanding the long line; I have a lot of lay-over time.

This time I make concerted efforts to relax and follow the overheard directions like Scripture tablets that were hitherto inscrutable. And it does me some good because I end up at the right gate about an hour before departure. I have a few dollars my aunt gave me at the airport as a pared down version of my village saw me off. I get some food. Can’t remember what but I remember it being so damn expensive.

It hits me that I am really in America.

I don’t know what to feel. I am neither ecstatic nor am I incredibly sad. But I know I am fatigued, jet-lagged, worn-out, exhausted—just out of it. Whatever it is. So when the lady at the departure gate desk picks up her mic and shamelessly announces that the flight will be delayed for hours, I am spoiling for a fight. But I have no energy to fight. Neither is my Nokia 5000 functioning; so I can’t call my school to relay the news. Naturally, I feel lost—and alone. I just sit there, maybe catch some sleep, maybe people-watch. It’s summer and Americans are talking advantage of it—at least so screams their dressing.

Delta delays the flight again. And again, and again—the fourth time. Then pushes it to the next day.

What?? That’s even a thing now! Isn’t this supposed to be the most efficient economy? 

Sasa, are they planning to give me a phone to call my mum so I can tell her all this? She must be worried about me. I don’t think she’d converted the times on the itinerary to Kenyan time but clearly the hours are way too many to not have communicated.

As I prepare to make the airport my home for the night, I hear a monotone intercom voice saying that Delta is offering hotel and food vouchers for our flight. I have made friends with an older white American woman with short, golden hair and an athletic build who was meant to be on the flight to Syracuse too. She gives me her phone to call Colgate, my new school, and let them in on my situation. She tells me what the vouchers are about and invites me to go with her to a Hotel Inn after I grab mine. Of course I agree, anywhere to lie my head that’s not an airport or the stomach of a plane would be great. She’s really friendly and we have dinner together. She jets out on an earlier flight in the morning but she left me her business card. Four years later, she comes to my graduation—and so does my mother.

(Note: This piece was originally published on Imported from Africa: a record of African experiences from around the world and a source of knowledge for Africans seeking to learn more about different pockets of the globe through the lens of an African.)



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