Monday, January 30, 2012

Seeing Stars for the First Time

My first time traveling alone via airplanes, and I decided to take myself to East Africa.  I would begin my Spring semester of college studying wildlife in Tanzania and Kenya for about 14 weeks, leaving behind most luxuries of my apartment in Chapel Hill, NC, while attending UNC Chapel Hill, to spend my days and nights in the wilds of Africa.  
Trading drunken frat-boy calls for the laugh of a hyena.  No more cars’ horns blaring, but the stillness of the African night, filled with creatures and critters of kinds I’ve only seen on National Geographic.
The transit was long.  Over 48hrs of travel-time, beginning in Charlotte-Douglas airport on Saturday, Jan 28, and ending on Monday in Kilimanjaro Airport of Tanzania.  Layovers were never less than 5 hours at least, and the flights were extensive. 
Arriving at JFK International in New York, I found myself the first to arrive before our “group flight,” where many of us would begin to travel together through to London, Nairobi, and finally into Tanzania.  I found my gate in New York, bought the necessary bag of pepperoni-pizza Combos, filled my water bottle, and settled in. 
Phone calls were made. 
Items were checked and rechecked again, as I’m always worrying I’ll have missed something vital.  If I have, it has not yet been recognized personally, and I’m hoping this is a good sign.  I’m still keeping my fingers crossed.
I was constantly working to distract myself, and not think too hard about missing my family and friends.  Home would be far away for a while, and I wasn’t about to start contemplating how my dog was going to cope with no interaction from me for three months straight.
Our first flight out of New York was at 9 in the evening.  My new colleagues were quickly reaching friend status, and we were smiling as we boarded the plane out of the country.  There was some ticket trouble (don’t worry, Mom, I handled it with style, class, and the threatening countenance of a true Partin), but I found myself with a window seat, and a row all to myself.  If you knew me personally, you knew the window seat was a treasure I craved, and sought like any good pirate would for those gleaming gold doubloons.  Stroking my imaginary beard in pure delight, I plunked down into the seat that had two windows, buckled my belt, and made several texts and one final phone call before departure. 
We flew, and the city’s lights fell away quickly.  We flew north, and then east over the Atlantic.  It was over the vast ocean’s nighttime waves, with no lights flickering beneath us, listening to some soft nostalgic music, that I looked up and saw the stars. 
White dots were bright and staring inexplicably back at me.  While their faces shimmered and shone bright white, mine was surely one of awe and excitement.  I grew up in the country, a small town where there are hardly any lights at night.  But out here, where there were absolutely none, those millions and billions of burning fireballs were shining at their best.  It was stunning, and I just about froze my face against the chilly glass of the window to watch them until I fell asleep.
I was smiling, and happy to know that I was truly ready for this study, when in my head I heard the voice of Mufasa (James Earl Jones), of Disney’s The Lion King, reciting his theory of the stars in the skies.  I liked to think that the souls of past kings were watching me just as intently as I was most assuredly watching them. 
And, hey, I think Alexander the Great would be pretty happy to know I was off to parts unknown, to conquer the cultural mind-invasion that was surely to happen.

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