“Travel can be a powerful force in changing our world into one where there is more understanding and less problems.”
- scribbled on a washroom wall at a hostel
“Only man with small penis pees in cubicle.”
- also scribbled on the wall
BRUTHA FROM ANOTHER MUTHA
Ammon was my ‘brutha from another mutha’ in every sense. He was a ‘brutha’ in the sense that he was a black man, he was my ‘brutha’ in the sense that we were best friends, and he was legally my brother, since my parents adopted him. And that pretty much explains the ‘another mutha’ part, if only in the strict biological sense.
My parents adopted him before I was born. They had tried for many years to get pregnant, and when they eventually consulted with a doctor they learned that they would likely never conceive a child naturally. Faced with this news, my parents considered the options. There were medical procedures they could undergo, but in the end they decided if they couldn’t get pregnant without the help of medical science then they simply weren’t meant to conceive and they decided to adopt. Instead of adopting locally – they would have to wait several years to get a baby in Canada – they decided to adopt a baby that really needed the help. They travelled to Africa, and in Malawi, one of the poorest countries in the world, they met and fell in love with baby orphan Ammon, my big bro.
Three years later when I came along, they called me their ‘miracle baby.’ According to the doctors, my father had ‘low motility’ and my mother ‘poor egg quality,’ which basically meant I was the product of lazy sperm and shitty eggs, so I never really understood how that made me a miracle. It seemed a more likely explanation as to why I was always the smallest kid in my class and bad at sports.
With my straw hair and rosy cheeks, my parents called me their “little toy soldier.” Ammon was my opposite in every way. Besides the obvious black-white thing, he was tall, muscular, good looking, charismatic, and brave. Growing up, we were inseparable. If Ammon had an idea, I was sure to think it was a good one, and since I was smaller and younger than Ammon, I was the one who always got hurt. Whether it was tobogganing down a big hill and jumping over a frozen creek or racing our bikes down a big hill, I would be the one to crash through the ice or swallow a mouthful of dirt. I could never say no to Ammon, which was why when he suggested we go backpacking in Africa, I agreed, even though the thought of it scared me witless.
Having lived my whole life in a small town in northern Ontario, to me backpacking meant strapping on a backpack, hiking into the bush, and sleeping in a tent. I figured that was what Ammon wanted to do, only in Africa. I didn’t much like camping, mostly because of the bears and the black flies, but lions and mosquitoes with malaria frightened me even more. I envisioned us huddled inside a flimsy tent on the African savannah as lions circled, patiently waiting for one of us to venture outside for a pee – and I have a very small bladder. But Ammon explained to me that ‘backpacking’ was just a term to describe a certain type of vacation, which didn’t sound much like a vacation at all.
“This isn’t going to be an ordinary vacation, Will,” he said. “We’re not going to be tourists. We’re going to be travelers.” He pronounced ‘tourist’ like it was a bad word.
“What’s the difference?” I asked.
“Little bro, you have so much to learn.”
What I learned is this:
“Backpackers” call themselves “Travelers” precisely because they don’t want to be confused with tourists. Although, the distinction seemed blurry to me, Ammon claimed there was a difference. Tourists see a place. Travelers meet it. Tourists are clean. Travelers get dirty. Tourists expect safety, comfort, and service. Travelers expect little, sometimes risking their safety, and often their comfort. Tourists have little time, but ample budgets. Travelers have little budgets, but ample time. Tourists travel on package tours or arrange everything before they leave. Travelers fly air-only and arrange little in advance. Tourists simply visit places, whereas Travelers, well, travel.
He said Africa was a place where a person could make a little money last a long time if they didn’t mind a little hardship. I didn’t much like hardship. I got picked on and beat up a lot in school. It happens when you’re the smallest kid in the class, but Ammon said it would be a grand adventure and a life changing experience, and that sounded pretty awesome.
The turn of the millennium had just come and gone, and the world didn’t end, as some religions predicted, nor, as almost everyone predicted, did all the computers stop working and send us back to the dark ages. Ammon had just turned thirty. I don’t know if it was surviving the millennium or surviving his thirtieth birthday, but Ammon suddenly became very fixated on doing something with his life.
Ammon suggested we quit our jobs and travel for a full year. He’d always wanted to see where he was born, and he said we could raise the money by selling all our stuff. I hated my job as a junior computer programmer and my boss was a jerk, so that part I liked, but I didn’t like the part about selling all my stuff.
I had a lot of stuff. I owned furniture, clothing, a nice home theater system, and even a car. I’d spent a lot of time saving up the money to buy that stuff, especially the home theater, which I’d meticulously researched to get the best rated brand for the money. My car was nothing special, but I couldn’t tell you how many used car lots I visited before finding one I both liked and could afford.
“I can’t sell all my stuff,” I told Ammon.
“It’s only stuff,” he said. “It can all be replaced.”
“But it’s my stuff,” I said.
“You only think it’s your stuff because you bought and paid for it, but if you can’t get rid of it, then it owns you.”
In the end I decided he was right. He was always right. I couldn’t let my attachment to my stuff hold me back from going on this grand adventure.
I didn’t have anything else holding me back. Ammon had a girlfriend to break up with, or “take a break from” as he put it, and friends to say goodbye to. Ammon always had a girlfriend, he seemed to get a new one every year or two, and lots of friends. That was just another one of the ways we were opposites, I suppose.
I did have a girlfriend once. We even slept together. She broke up with me soon afterward. I was pretty sure I knew why:
I don’t look good naked.
I make a good clothes hanger. I once tried on an expensive Armani suit and was surprised by how good it looked on me, and then I realized it was because I’m built like a coat hanger – two pointy shoulders tapering to bony legs. I’d tried to change this. In high school, I tagged along with Ammon to the gym a few times, but it didn’t take me long to realize the gym was going to kill me.
The final straw was the incident with the bench-press machine. I chose the machine because it was supposed to be safe. There was no risk of the bar crashing down on my neck and crushing my windpipe – something I had envisioned with great clarity. How I managed to get my hair caught in the machine’s weight plates, I’ll never know. I realized my hair was caught when I felt the tug on my scalp after a couple of ‘reps.’ I tried to yell for help, but all my strength was focused on keeping the bar elevated, and I only managed a gaspy “heeeelp.”
A few seconds later my wobbly arms gave out and the plates crashed together with a resounding CLANG that rattled the fillings in my teeth and caused everyone to stop what they were doing and stare at me as I hopped off the bench, patting the newly formed bald spot on my head like I was trying to put out a fire, and yelling, “Fuck! Fuck! Fuck! Fuck!”
There was a shock of hair – it looked like a bundle of dried grass – sticking out from between the forty and fifty pound plates. Ammon came over, lifted the bar with one hand, grabbed my clump of hair with the other and grinned at me. “Do you want this back?”
I swooned a little when I saw the hundreds of dewy roots still clinging to the ends of my hair. My hair never grew back properly after that and I still have a quarter-sized bald patch on the top of my head. Worse still, for the rest of my high school days, I become known as “Little-Willy.”
Let me explain. Mr. Willy, or Mr. Willard as he was properly called, was the least popular teacher in our school. He wore thick glasses and had lush hair ringing the back and sides of his head, but was completely bald on top. Behind his back, the kids all called him Mr. Willy. It wasn’t just a shorter, cuter, version of his name, it was a reference to the fact that everyone thought he was a dick.
Upon noticing my bald spot, one kid compared it to Mr. Willard’s considerably larger bald spot and nicknamed me “Little-Willy.” The inevitable double-entendre didn’t help my situation with girls any.
I decided to avoid gyms after that, but it wasn’t like I’d had any success in bulking up. Instead of developing bigger muscles, I’d simply tightened and knotted the muscles I already had. Instead of being just slim, now I was wiry and my elbows and knees looked even knobbier.
While I didn’t have a girlfriend, I did have a few acquaintances to say goodbye to. They couldn’t understand why I wasn’t going backpacking in Europe like everyone else, and they all said more or less the same thing, “Africa, why on earth would you want to go there?” They could understand why Ammon wanted to go, but they couldn’t understand why I’d want to go with him. Some thought I was brave, but most thought I was foolish. A few thought I was crazy.
“Ammon is not just my brother, he’s my friend.” I told one of them. “He wants me to go with him.”
“Whatever! I got lots of friends.”
I thought for a moment before I replied. “I don’t.”
We had lots of preparations to make, but of all the things we needed to do to prepare for our trip, the part I was dreading the most was getting the necessary vaccinations. I hated needles.
“A lot of needles?” The words squeaked out at such an unnatural pitch I hardly recognized my own voice. My mouth went dry. Needles were the reason I avoided doctors.
“Yes. You’re going to need multiple vaccinations.”
I took a gulp of air. “How many is a lot of needles?”
“Hmmm, let’s see…” the doctor continued, oblivious to the fact I was now feeling faint. Her face was buried in the form I had just completed in the reception area. It was several pages long and asked about my medical history, my family’s medical history, what type of accommodation I planned to use (from bush camping to 5-star hotel), if I would be visiting rural areas, and finally to list every country I planned to visit. As her eyes moved down the list I saw them widen and low guttural sounds escaped her lips. “Hmmm, uh-hmmm, hmmm, oh! Mm-hmmm!” She finished with a loud “hmmph!” and looked up at me with raised eyebrows. “That’s a lot of countries.”
“Uh-hmmm,” I said. I wasn’t sure I would visit all of them, or any of them even, aside from South Africa where we planned to start, and Malawi – Ammon’s birth country, but we were considering traveling the entire “Cape to Cairo” route to Egypt, so Ammon insisted we list every country in between, just to be safe. I had no idea where we might end up. “We’re going backpacking.” I said. “We’re not going on an organized tour. We’re going to make it up as we go. That’s what backpackers do.” I realized I was parroting the very words Ammon had said to me in the waiting room just moments before. An organized tour would make us tourists, and that was the last thing Ammon wanted to be.
The doctor wasn’t the first person who made me feel like I was crazy to be considering such a trip. The travel agent we’d visited earlier in the week to buy our flight tickets had tried to convince us to go on an organized “African safari.”
“You can’t just hop on a jet and fly there,” she said.
“Why not?” I asked.
She rolled her eyes. “Well, I suppose you could, but you probably wouldn’t come back.”
“Wouldn’t come baaack?” I asked, my voice rising in octave so that “back” came out as more of a squeal.
“The potential health risks scare away even the most hardened travelers.” She leaned closer. “Didn’t you say this would be your first trip overseas?”
“I was born there,” Ammon said, “but I was only a baby when I left.”
“What health risks?” I asked.
She leaned back in her chair and whistled out her breath. “Just everything from diarrhea to several horrible and possibly fatal diseases.” She paused a moment to allow her words to sink in before leaning closer again. “Some don’t even have vaccines. Are you sure I can’t interest you in an African safari? It’s much safer. Isn’t that worth the extra expense? Can you really put a cost on your safety?”
Ammon crossed his arms. “We’re going backpacking. We’re not tourists.” Ammon always pronounced ‘tourist’ like it was a bad word.
“Of course you’re not, but how are you going to get around? Public transportation is limited. When it’s available, it’s usually uncomfortable, inconvenient, unpredictable – and often dangerous. You have to be prepared for the possibility of becoming stranded, separated from your possessions, or worse. Are you prepared for that?”
“No!” I said.
“Yes!” Ammon said. “We’ll be fine.”
She shook her head in resignation. “OK, but you’re going to need multiple immunizations. I shouldn’t even sell you a ticket until you’ve had them. Some countries will not even allow you entry without proof of vaccination. You’ll need to visit a travel clinic before you go.”
That’s why we were here. Ammon had already seen the doctor. He’d emerged with both arms bandaged. Now it was my turn.
The doctor began scribbling on a yellow card. “You’ll need a Yellow Fever vaccination. You’ll have to come back for that, we only do them on Wednesdays.”
“Yellow Fever?” That didn’t sound good. I gazed around the room. I was sitting on a squishy nylon examining table that made my bum sweat. The room was windowless and white – the only decoration a cheap watercolor print hanging lopsided on a wall. There were shelves filled with various medical-looking things, and a counter with a sink. My eyes narrowed on the lone container sitting there. It was labeled “Sharps Disposal.” Next to it were several shiny new needles. I looked at the doctor hopefully. “Isn’t there a pill for Yellow Fever?”
“No, I’m afraid it’s a needle, and you’ll also need a polio, diphtheria and tetanus booster. I can give you those today. We’ll also have to vaccinate you against meningitis and hepatitis, both A and B. Those require multiple shots, so we’ll have to schedule a series of follow up visits.”
My skin was now clammy. The stale air of the windowless room smelled of rubbing alcohol and disinfectants, which only contributed to my growing nausea. I tried to stay positive. “You’ll give me pills for those?”
She looked at me blankly.
I realized only dogs could have heard that last question. I cleared my throat and tried to sound breezy. “I mean to say, um, you’ll administer those vaccines with pills?”
“No, I’m afraid those require shots too. Unfortunately, there’s no vaccine for C, D, E or W, so you’ll just have to hope for the best. And we’d better vaccinate you against Japanese encephalitis, Chinese chowmein, and purple plague as well, just in case.”
I had no idea what she was saying anymore.
“And while we’re at it we might as well give you a flu shot.” She dotted her pen on the card with an air of finality.
“Um.” I took a deep breath and struggled to regain some manly composure. “Just how many needles will that be?”
“Well, let’s see…” She began silently counting. My eyes grew wider with every count. “Shouldn’t be more than a couple…”
I sighed. I guess I could endure a couple.
I felt like I was sinking into the examination table, but then I had a brilliant idea. My voice perked up. “Couldn’t you give me the vaccines with a hypo-spray like they have in Star Trek?”
She smiled at me. “I’m afraid I’m all out of hypo-sprays, but I do have some lovely needles – how about a nice red one?” She held the needle out like she was offering me a lollipop.
“I’ll also have to prescribe an anti-malarial prophylactic.” She handed me a fact sheet that described the effectiveness and possible side effects of each drug. “I recommend either doxycycline or mefloquine, which is more commonly known by its brand name, Lariam.”
“A propha – what?” That didn’t sound good at all.
“It’s just a pill. Lariam is considered more effective, but it has more side effects.”
I sighed and felt a small measure of relief wash over me. Finally, a pill. Then I realized what she had said. My voice croaked as I tried to speak. “Side effects?”
“Doxycycline’s main side effect is photosensitivity. Lariam’s possible side effects include headaches, nausea, dizziness, difficulty sleeping, anxiety, vivid dreams, hair loss – ”
“I’ll take the doxy… thing,” I said. I didn’t need to hear the rest of the list, which I later learned included seizures, depression, and psychosis.
Lariam’s side effects have become the stuff of urban legend, I later learned. Stories abound about people going mad, running down streets naked, freaking out on airplanes, or jumping out of hotel room windows. I even heard conspiracy theories—like it was secretly developed by the US military for reasons unknown. (I found out it was developed by the Walter Reed Army Institute of Medical Research in the US to protect the Peace Corps volunteers.) I was told no one is really sure how Lariam works (which I found out is somewhat true) and no long-term tests have been done on the drug (which I found out is not so true).
She wrote me a prescription for doxycycline and another for an antibiotic for diarrhea. Then she handed me an armload of brochures with various titles like, “Bon Voyage But... Information for the Traveler” and “Son of Scam: How to avoid being Robbed, Beaten, Imprisoned, Sentenced to Death, and other Travel Nuisances.”
“And we should talk about sex.”
This got my attention. She wasn’t bad looking, a little older, but it wasn’t like I often got propositioned, or ever propositioned. Women liked guys like Ammon, tall and muscular, not short and gangly like me.
“Here?” I asked.
She gave me a puzzled look and continued in a strangely businesslike tone. “AIDs is rampant in Africa. As many as one in four people are infected with HIV, so you’ll want to exercise extreme caution where sexual matters are concerned.”
She turned her back to me.
“Just so you’re aware…” She faced me, now armed with a needle. My eyes fixated on the long piercing steel shaft. “…your visit is covered by your medical insurance, but not the vaccinations.”
“And how much will the vaccines cost?”
She placed a sheet of paper in front of me itemizing the cost of each vaccine. “It shouldn’t come to more than five hundred – ”
It was an effective distraction. I hardly noticed the cold chill of the steel entering my body. Only the faintest “mommy” escaped my lips.
“That was just the alcohol swab,” she said. “Are you ready?”
Bravely, I squeezed my eyes shut. “No.”
I don’t think she heard me, because I felt the nerves in my arm spasm, sending a lightning bolt of pain through me, and then I remember looking up at the doctor’s brown eyes. All I could see were those eyes. Everything around them was fuzzy.
Her eyes were smiling. “Well, that’s one.”
I heard a voice from somewhere in the fuzzy space. “Here’s your juice doctor.”
“Yes thank you,” the doctor said to the voice, then turned her eyes back to me. “Here, drink this.”
I sat up. The room was coming back into focus. I drank the juice and immediately felt better.
I got through the rest. Somehow. Each time the needle pierced my arm it sent a bolt of pain through me, but I numbed my mind to what was happening and tried to think of happier times. After several jabs, in each arm, she walked me outside to the waiting room where Ammon sat with a big grin on his face.
“You did it bro!”
I felt cold and clammy, and noticed I wore the same bandages on both arms that my brother did. Just looking at them made me feel quivery and nauseous all over again.
“Sit here for ten minutes before leaving,” the doctor said, “just in case of any adverse reactions.”
She didn’t specify what these adverse reactions might be. She preferred to allow my imagination to supply the images of bubbling skin, festering growths, and crippling deformities.
“Help yourself.” She pointed to a basket of lollipops.
I plopped a lollipop into my mouth with a sweaty hand and sat down next to Ammon, who was still grinning at me from ear to ear. I shuddered to think how many more jabs I would have to endure.
“Enjoy your trip,” she said with a smile. She began to walk away, then stopped and turned to me.
“I was just curious. Africa? Of all places for your first overseas trip, why on earth would you want to go there?”
“We’re going to go see where I was born,” Ammon answered. “We’re going to have a grand adventure, me and my brother.” He put his arm around me in camaraderie. His hand landed right on my bandage.
He jerked his hand away. “Sorry.”
Over the next several months, we returned multiple times to get the rest of our vaccines. I’d like to say it got easier, but it never did.
Our flights were booked for January of the coming year. It would give us time to make all the necessary preparations and Ammon said it was a good idea to start fresh in a new year.
With only a week to go before we were scheduled to leave, Ammon said he needed to see me. He said it was urgent.
“Good news?” I asked. I couldn’t see how this news was good.
“Will, it’s not just any job offer. It’s a dream job! It’s a government job. Good pay, great benefits, and best of all – I’ll be stationed in New York City. New York! I’m going to get paid to travel.”
“But what about Africa?”
“Africa will still be there. This job won’t. I have to take it – if I don’t someone else will jump at it.”
I felt the world swoon around me. I’d sold or given away all my stuff. I’d quit my job and given up my apartment. My arms had been pin-cushioned with vaccination needles. I was homeless, unemployed and my bags were packed.
Then it hit me, I could move to New York. “I’ll come with you! We’ll get a place together. We can be roommates in the Big Apple!”
Ammon shook his head. “It’s not that easy, Will. You need a work permit. They’re not that easy to get. You’d need a job offer before you could even apply for one. Of course you could always visit anytime.”
I hung my head. “I guess I could ask for my old job back.” Just saying the words made my stomach clench.
“I think you should go to Africa without me. You’ll have the adventure of your life. There’s no reason you shouldn’t go just because I can’t.”
“I can’t go to Africa by myself.” There was no way I was going to Africa by myself.
“Yes, you can. Listen, I didn’t tell you this part before, but I actually arranged our accommodation for the first week. It’s a girl I used to know, and she agreed to let us stay with her. I figured it would help ease us into the trip.”
I raised my eyebrows. “A girl you used to know?”
“Date, whatever, anyway, she said it’s OK if you come without me. She’s willing to show you around and you can still stay with her. You’ve got nothing to worry about, Will. She’s even agreed to pick you up at the airport in Johannesburg. You’ll like her. She’s cute.”
Of course she was cute. Ammon only dated pretty girls. “Did you tell her I was your brother?”
“Yeah, but did you tell her I was… you know… not really your brother?”
“What do you mean? You are really my brother.”
“Ammon, I’m nothing like you! She probably thinks I’m tall and good looking like you.”
“No, I’m sure she doesn’t think that – I’m sorry – I don’t mean that – I mean – she knows I’m adopted. Here, I brought a picture.” He held a photo out for me. “That’s her. Her name’s Almerie”
She was cute, early twenties, olive skinned, dark hair, hazel eyes. I had to admit the thought of spending a week with her held some allure, but she wouldn’t find me attractive, not if she liked Ammon’s type. I shook my head. “I can’t go without you.”
“You can. You will. There’s nothing holding you back. Go for me little bro. Send me lots and lots of emails and tell me everything, everything, and no making stuff up. I know how you like to spin things. Haven’t you always liked writing stories? Think of the stories you’ll have to tell!”
“I don’t think anyone is going to be interested in reading about my vacation.”
“Sure, but you’ll be the only one.”
“Go! You’ll have the trip of a lifetime. Do it for both of us. It’s like it was destined to be.”
I rolled my eyes. “Ammon, there is no such thing as destiny.”
“Then how do you explain it?”
“I don’t know why you insist on thinking everything happens for a reason. It doesn’t.”
“You and I are just going to have to agree to disagree on that. As far as I’m concerned, this is destiny.”
I put my head in my hands and shook it. This couldn’t be happening. I knew I wouldn’t be able to change his mind. He could be very stubborn when he put his mind to something. Despite being best friends, Ammon and I were very different. I realized at a young age that I’m not like most people. I’m not prone to “magical thinking” - that’s what I call the tendency most people have to believe in things for which there is no evidence. You know like, God, the soul, afterlife, destiny, yada, yada. The list goes on.
“It’s not about agreeing to disagree,” I said. “What if I said two plus two equals four and someone else said it equals five – wouldn’t you agree that I was right about that?”
“Why do you always have to be right about everything, Will?”
“It’s not about me being right. Some things are just true, and some things are not.”
“You say tomato, I say tomahto.”
I sighed. “That’s not even an appropriate analogy.”
“You don’t know there’s no such thing as destiny. I say there is. You say there isn’t. There’s no way to know who’s right. I believe there is. You can’t prove I’m wrong.” Ammon folded his arms and grinned at me like he’d won the argument.
He was right, in a way. I knew I couldn’t win this argument, but sometimes I can’t stop myself from trying. “That doesn’t mean both arguments are equally valid. I also don’t believe in leprechauns. I can’t prove they don’t exist – maybe they’re really good at hiding? – but the fact that I can’t prove they don’t exist doesn’t make it equally probable that they do. There isn’t a shred of evidence for their existence, so it’s silly to believe in them until there is. As soon as someone catches one, I’ll believe in them. It’s the same with destiny. There’s just no evidence to suggest that things are destined to happen.”
“What about that time I was chasing a ball into the street and that bird hit me in the head? If that bird hadn’t hit me I’d have been hit by that car! I might have been killed.”
“That was just dumb luck.”
“You expect me to believe that a bird just happened to fly into my head and save my life.”
I nodded. “Yes.”
Ammon gave me a look of pity. “Like I said, Will, we’re just going to have to agree to disagree.”
I shook my head in defeat. I knew I couldn’t change his mind. In truth, I’ve come to realize that I can’t change anyone’s mind. There’s nothing harder than to change someone’s mind about something once they’ve made it up.
“Go to Africa, Will, for me,” he said.
“Because if you don’t go, I can’t go to New York.”
“Are you saying that you’d give up this job opportunity if I won’t go to Africa without you?”
“And then what?”
“We’ll go to Africa, together, as planned.”
A feeling of elation swept over me, but it left me almost as quickly, and then my stomach sank. I couldn’t make Ammon give up his dream job.
“Damn you!” I said.
He chuckled at me. “Go to Africa Will. Go for both of us. Have the adventure of a lifetime.”
I knew then I had to go, even though the thought of it frightened me to death. I didn’t really have a choice. I could never say no to my big bro.
In the days leading up to my flight, I had a really bad feeling. I kept telling myself it was just my nerves, but I wasn’t just afraid for myself. Something told me Ammon was making the wrong decision. I knew this was “magical thinking,” but I just couldn’t shake the feeling for all the logic in the world.
“I’ll have a window seat please,” I said to the check-in agent, trying to sound perky and confident, when I was really terrified to be boarding an aircraft and flying to Africa alone.
She took my passport with barely a glance in my direction. “Sorry, only middle seats left.”
“Oh,” I said and probably pouted a little.
She looked up at me through thick-rimmed glassed. She was chewing gum. “Shoulda got here earlier, honey.”
Never mind, I thought to myself, I’ll probably be seated between a slender brunette and a busty blonde on their way to a Nymphomaniacs Anonymous meeting I fantasized was being held in Johannesburg this week.
Thirty-three…thirty-four…thirty-five… I silently counted off the rows as I wobbled down the aisle…thirty-six – B… that’s me. I looked down to see an elderly woman in a felt suit sitting in the aisle seat, her belly fat overflowing both armrests, and a young guy with a shiny face in the window seat. He had an unfortunate case of acne, and even from this distance I could see that some of his spots oozed a little. He was shaped like an egg and I couldn’t see my armrest on his side either. It looked like I was going to spend the flight in the neck of an hourglass.
“Um, I think this is my seat.” I said to the elderly lady, who was doing her best to ignore me as I stood there looking at her.
She looked askance at me and with a sigh began gathering her things from my seat, on which she had already placed her purse, which was larger than my carry-on daypack, and a number of other old-person items I couldn’t identify if I tried.
It took her about ten minutes to stand, which was accompanied by a lot of grunting and derisive looks in my direction. There wasn’t anything grandmotherly about this lady and I realized I was going to have to time my washrooms breaks to coincide with hers. I hoped she had a small bladder like me.
The young guy was constantly sniffling and wiping his reddened nose, and when I squeezed into my seat I noticed a sharp tang of iodine.
“Have you found Jesus?” he asked.
I stared at him, wondering what I should say.
I don’t believe in gods, although I was baptized a Christian, went to Sunday school, and was taught to believe as a child. I stopped believing because of Santa Claus… well… that and what I learned in school about Greek mythology, but mostly because of Santa. I was about seven or eight, I think. It’s one of my earlier childhood memories.
I was walking home from school one day with my best friend when he just blurted, “Santa’s not real, you know.”
“Is to!” I said.
“Is not!” he said. “I found the toys I asked Santa for hidden in my basement.”
“What? You expect me to believe, it’s our parents giving us them presents?”
“Uh huh. When I asked my parents about the toys in the basement they didn’t even try to fool me anymore. They said I was old enough now to know there’s no such thing as Santa Claus,” he said, with a smug air of superiority, as if he had known it all along.
“Don’t be stupid,” I said, “my parents couldn’t afford all them presents.”
I can’t tell you how much of a shock this was. I didn’t believe him. I couldn’t believe him. It went against everything I knew about the world. The idea that it could be our parents giving us those presents just seemed preposterous and I thought it was pretty slimy of his parents to take credit for Santa’s hard work. Seriously, the evidence for Santa was overwhelming: the milk always got drunk, the cookies always got eaten (all but a few crumbs), and the presents always appeared, but I asked my parents that evening anyway. They assured me Santa was very real.
That was a relief, but I did a little snooping anyway. I knew I was being bad, but my curiosity got the better of me. I found a toy truck hidden at the back of my parent’s closet. It was the same toy truck I had asked Santa for in my letter.
My heart sank, but this still wasn’t proof. Maybe my parents were going to give this to me? After all, my parents did give me toys sometimes, but I couldn’t help wondering why they had hidden it. I had to wait until Christmas to find out.
When Christmas came, the toy truck appeared, “from Santa.” I was heartbroken, not so much at my parents for having lied to me, but because I was sure then that Santa wasn’t real. I wanted him to be real. When you believe in something as much as I believed in Santa, it’s not easy to just let go of that belief. The world seemed a lot less amazing that day.
The next time I went to Sunday school, I was in a bad mood. I never liked Sunday school anyway, mostly because I didn’t like getting up early on Sunday, but now I was beginning to suspect I was being duped again.
At the time, I was learning about Greek mythology in regular school. My teacher told me that the ancient Greeks believed in gods that weren’t real. She said all the stories written about them were “myths.”
“What about God?” I asked.
She looked at me with shock. “Whatever do you mean?”
“Well,” I said, feeling a little intimidated by her reaction, “how do we know that God is real.”
She didn’t answer for minute. It looked like she wanted to say something, but was holding back. “You’ll have to ask your parents about that.”
That was all she would say, and wouldn’t allow any more questions about God. That made me suspicious. She was willing to talk about everything else. Why couldn’t we talk about God? It seemed to me, even at that age, that if a belief had any validity, then it shouldn’t be above questioning.
“Well then how do we know them Greek gods ain’t real?” I asked. That wasn’t a question about God, I reasoned, it was a question about the Greek gods.
“We don’t say ‘ain’t’ in this classroom.” She gave me a stern look, but she didn’t fall for it. “Ask your parents.” That was all she would say.
So I did.
My mother said, “Ask your father,” and my father said, “You’re not old enough to understand.”
That answer sucked. I kept wondering how we know some things are real, and others are not, so I kept asking the same question in different ways. I asked my aunts, my uncles, my grandparents, but I never got an answer that made sense to me. Sometime they would get very upset or ridicule me for even asking such a question. I figured maybe I wasn’t smart enough to understand, but I couldn’t quench my curiosity and so I pelted my parents with questions after every Sunday school class about all the things I’d learned. Pretty soon, they told me I didn’t have to go to Sunday school anymore.
“Well, have you found Jesus?” my pimply faced seatmate asked again.
I was tempted to look around, maybe check under the seat and say, “no, I haven’t seen him anywhere” but decided against it. “No, I don’t believe in gods,” I said.
He reacted as if I’d slapped him in the face. “Are you… an atheist?”
This is why I don’t call myself an atheist. The problem with the word ‘atheist’ is that you’re never certain what it means to the other person.
“Do you eat babies?” he asked.
He didn’t actually say that, but from the way he was looking at me, I’m sure that’s what he was thinking.
“What made you turn away from God?” he asked.
I shrugged. “Lack of evidence.”
“There’s lots of evidence.” He crossed his arms with an air of superiority and gave me a smug look. “You just have to have an open mind.”
I’ve heard this so many times. In university I had a crush on a girl who said this to me all the time. She was a born-again Christian. I considered becoming one, mainly because I wanted to date her and she wouldn’t date anyone who wasn’t, but I just couldn’t get my head around the things she believed.
“You just have to have an open mind,” she told me constantly, but I don’t think she knew what it meant to have an open mind. While I approached our discussions with an honest willingness to have my mind changed, which is my definition of an open mind, it became clear to me that she was not willing to change hers. It felt like the only way to “open” my mind was to close my mind to everything but her way of thinking. I honestly tried, and not just because I kept imaging how terrific she would look naked. She seemed so sure of her beliefs I began to believe she really did know something that I did not, but eventually I realized that when she was telling me to have an open mind, what she was really saying was: “be gullible and believe whatever ridiculous things I tell you. Stop your skeptical thinking — just believe without question.” Soon, every conversation made me feel like I was being repeatedly tapped on the head with a teaspoon, so I started spending less time with her. As beautiful as she was, I just couldn’t make myself believe.
I’ve also noticed it’s usually the people who tell me to have an open mind who are the most unwilling to have their own minds changed, and so did not want to have this conversation with my pimply faced friend, so I said nothing. He took my silence as an invitation to tell me all about how he had been saved by Jesus.
I tried using “minimal encouragers” to dissuade him from talking to me. A girl I once knew told me about minimal encouragers. They were things like avoiding eye contact, blatantly looking away and staring off into space, or answering every question with a “yes” or a “no” so as not to invite further conversation. She used them to discourage men from making unwelcome romantic advances.
It didn’t work, he just kept on talking. I think he mistook my “minimal encouragers” for interest.
“I’m going to pray for you,” he said at last.
I hate when people say this to me. Not always, occasionally it’s a sincere gesture, but usually it’s said in the way he was saying it. Like he knows some great truth that I don’t know and he’s praying that I’ll see the error of my way before I burn in hell forever. That pisses me off. Or when people say they are going to pray for earthquake victims, or what have you, and I feel like saying ‘so you’re not actually going to do anything but talk to yourself, and then feel good about yourself because you think that’s the same as actually doing something.’ That pisses me off too.
I used to pray – every night. When I first learned that God answered prayers I immediately prayed for a girl in my class to fall in love with me. She was my first crush and I was hopelessly in love with her. The next day, I found out from my friend that he overheard her say that she liked me. My prayer was answered! I thanked God and began praying for all kinds of things after that: a new bike, to win the lottery – you name it, I prayed for it.
Not one prayer was answered after that. Not one! I didn’t understand. Had I done something terrible? Why was God ignoring me?
I kept praying, but my enthusiasm gradually waned, and eventually I gave up. I figured I should save my prayers for when I really needed something, and not squander them on every little thing.
When I was thirteen, my dad got sick. They said it was cancer and he was going to die. I prayed hard then, harder than I’d ever prayed for anything, and several times every day. I prayed until my face hurt from squeezing my eyes shut and my fingers turned purple from clasping so tight. It didn’t work. He died.
I was told my dad “was in a better place” and that “God needed him in heaven.”
God needed my dad? The creator of the entire freaking universe needed my dad. “Bullshit,” I said (and got slapped). I was only thirteen - I needed my dad. My mom needed my dad – how else were we supposed to “make ends meets” as I overhead my mom say on numerous occasions, often while in tears.
I hated God that day, but when I admitted this the adults sat me down and explained that “God works in mysterious ways.” I nearly said “bullshit” again, but my cheeks still burned from the last slap. That explanation seemed like a get-out-of-jail-free card for God. When God did good we thanked Him, but when God did evil He “worked in mysterious ways” and so was still good, and we still thanked Him. I didn’t buy this. If God was real, he had a lot to answer for.
I stopped praying after that. If God wasn’t willing to answer that prayer, then there was nothing worth praying for.
I suddenly started thinking about the starving kids in Africa. My mom used to remind me about them every time I didn’t want to eat my peas. “Finish your peas,” she would say, “there are starving children in Africa.” I hated peas. I hated most vegetables but peas were the worst. I never understood how eating my peas would help those starving kids – wouldn’t it be better to give them my peas? The one time I suggested this I got slapped, so I never suggested it again. I wondered if they were praying for food so they didn’t have to starve. Why didn’t God help them out?
“Don’t pray for me,” I said to my pimply-faced friend. “Pray for the starving kids in Africa.”
“Oh, I do,” he said, “and I’m going to help them find Jesus. Why are you going to Africa?”
I didn’t have a quick answer. It wasn’t as if I’d never been asked this question before, but it was the first time I’d been asked it by a complete stranger. All my friends and family knew about Ammon and the fact that he was adopted from Malawi, and so had some preconceptions about why I was going, but this guy didn’t know any of that. Why was I going to Africa? Of course the usual thoughts swirled around my head about how Ammon had talked me into it, how I had sold all my stuff, quite my job, yada, yada, but was that really true? No matter what had led up to this moment, no one had forced me to get on this airplane.
“I’m going on an adventure,” I said.
The seatback in front of me came flinging towards me, and for a moment I thought it was going to hit me, but it stopped inches from my face. I now had a close up view of a tuft of dandruff-speckled blue hair that reminded me of dirty steel wool. The sting of perfumed hairspray filled my nostrils. Hairspray is one of many things I’m allergic to. It was like a million ants began crawling on my nose and eyeballs. Tears began to run down my cheeks, and I began to sneeze, but at least it discouraged my pimply friend from continuing his evangelizing, since he had to interrupt himself to say “God bless you” after every sneeze.
I reclined my chair to get a little breathing room, but a second later, the prickly hair was back in my face. I reclined my seat again, but it immediately returned to the upright position, as if of its own accord. I tried again – same result. I felt like I was on a see-saw. At first I was baffled, but then I suspected it was the person behind me pushing my seat forward.
Peeking behind, I spied a fifty-something guy with a salt and pepper beard and brown skin. His fingernails were long and dirty and his hair was sparse and combed over his mostly bald head. His face had the texture of fine sandpaper and his eyes were battleship grey. They looked startling against the brownness of his skin. He was eating a bagel with cream cheese and the cheese frosted his lips and clumped in the corners of his mouth. He noticed me looking at him and glared at me with one eye – his other eye was looking out the window, I think. I snapped my head back. He didn’t look like someone to be trifled with.
I closed my eyes and tried to sleep. I fidgeted in my seat but just couldn’t find a comfortable upright position. I thought maybe he wouldn’t notice if I slowly eased the chair back. I squeezed the button and ever so gently pressed my back into my chair. It was a tedious and laborious process and soon my finger hurt from holding the button, but slowly I was winning ground.
My seat flung forward. I wanted to spin around and demand, “Do you mind?” but I didn’t. I carefully peaked around the seatback again.
He gave me an angry look and made a slashing motion across his legs. “Knees,” was all he said.
I could interpret this to mean he needed more room for his knees, or he was going to cut off mine if I reclined my chair again. I decided not to chance it.
“I’m sorry,” I said, and snapped my head back. With my seat in the fully upright position and a tuft of perfumed blue hair in my face, I knew there was no chance of sleeping, so I grabbed the in-flight magazine and began leafing through it, hoping my proselytizing friend would leave me in peace.
It didn’t mince words when it came to warnings about the city locals called Jo’burg or Janiceburg. It proudly bestowed the city the title: Murder Capital of the World, and warned that under no circumstances should I wander outside the airport with my backpack to hail a cab, unless I planned to donate it to the local thugs.
I stopped reading, and stared at the page wide-eyed. How could they put this magazine on an aircraft flying to Johannesburg? Wasn’t that like showing a film about an airplane crash?
I worked up my nerve and kept reading. The city was also known as E’goli (the “city of gold”) because unlike other cities that had grown up along waterways or trade routes, gold was Johannesburg’s reason for existence. Apparently an Australian miner stumbled upon a patch of gold there in 1886 and inadvertently discovered the world’s richest gold reef. Now it was the largest city in sub-Saharan Africa.
I put the magazine away and tried again to sleep, but with the upright seat and the constant sneezing I spent the next dozen hours twitching in and out of consciousness until the seatbelt light pinged and the captain welcomed us to South Africa.
I could hardly sit still as the jet banked for its final approach to Johannesburg International Airport. In minutes, I would be in Africa and I realized I didn’t want to get off the plane. Despite my discomfort, I was safe inside. I had no idea what awaited me outside.