Africa from the Air: scrawlings from my 2014 flight from Belgium to Cameroon

I see a big family of snakes, slithering south and another swimming east. And here is a field of electrical burn scars, all of which break into tiny reptile scales at their edges and–oh my god! Humans!

Disclaimer: Not only is this writing five years old as of this posting, it was also scribbled in a notebook while I was sleep-deprived, over-excited and sick to my stomach with nerves. Please excuse all repetition, errors, and attempts at poetry.

Context: In 2014 (my senior year of college), my study abroad program was moved from Mali to Guinea due to civil unrest, and subsequently from Guinea to Cameroon (over 2,000 miles from the part of Africa I actually wanted to study) due to Ebola. After this, travel plans changed three more times due to last minute scrambles for Cameroonian visas and a French airline workers’ strike.

I was so distraught at not getting to study in Mande country and so nervous about missing a connecting flight that I didn’t sleep for the three days it took to get from my American hometown to Douala, Cameroon. Instead of sleeping (or crying), I wrote. This yielded several pieces of writing, including a rant about one of my fellow students, a truly troubling sci-fi story about alien-on-alien genocide that will never see the light of day, and the hand-written ramble I have transcribed below.

The relevant subtext here is that, in flying from Brussels to Douala, we were passing over the part of Africa I had been wanting to study since high school. Focusing on visual details was my way of coping with the fact that we were not going to land there.


Since our flight from Brussels will fly over parts of Africa I won’t get to see in person, I am going to keep track of our progress on the monitor and try to stay awake as long as it is light out to write about what I see out the window–if anything. So far, I’m just enjoying listening to the French all around me and looking forward to learning enough to actually eavesdrop.

Germany (which I realize is not Africa, but that’s okay)

For starters, Germany is so much more beautiful from the air than I thought it would be. In the rural areas, it’s a patchwork of not-quite-rectangular fields, a bit like our own midwestern America, but with a wider variety of tans, beiges, and reddish-browns to break up the patches of green (we just grow too much corn, I guess?) and more trees. The trees in the midwest were mostly woven in between fields, but here, they make big patches of their own. Right now, I’m looking down at a forest I could probably get lost in for days. Across the earth tones, there are sprinklings of white wind turbines and, when we were flying lower, flocks of birds and sheep around sparsely-distributed farm houses.

In urban areas, the houses–like the trees all over–are largely uniform and laid out in long, straight lines like beads on a string. The siding is white and the rooftops are just redder than the soil.

It has been a cloudy day over Western Europe today–so cloudy I couldn’t even see London–big pillowing, bubbling, sweeping layers of clouds of all different consistencies forming floating fortresses above and below us wherever we flew. I’m just glad they thinned to a light popcorn long enough for me to get a good look at this much of Germany. [margins note: on the same latitude as Stuttgart but west of it]

We’re quite high up now, over what looks like a hillier region, and the trees and houses are just tiny specks on a giant motherboard. The clouds are now tall-growing cauliflower of all different sizes. I hope it is this clear and still bright out when we reach the northern edge of Africa. I don’t know what African clouds look like.

Mountains!

I see the biggest mountains I’ve ever looked down on from the air, I think, the edge of Italy. [Good sentence, Miracle, good job] Long, pointed folds of Earth, with powdered sugar snow on the tips, trees creeping up the bases in sprawling green shadows and gray wrinkles of rock running in between. They’re so tall that misty gray clouds are pooling in between them like a picture of the sea in a storm, all full of waves and spray. The lines at the tops and valleys are all so abrupt, they cut out shadows like scissors.

Water!

And here is the edge of the Mediterranean! Full of ports and little white boats that are probably not little at all. Oh, Mediterranean! Hello, Mediterranean! I’ve sailed across you, and met monsters in your depths, and crashed galleon hulls at your coastlines from the time I was little and now you’re right there! And you’re real! And you are the same perfect blue as the sky! You are as clear as the sky too, but not empty; I could look down at you and see Charybdis and Poseidon, the crashing boulders and Circe’s island, the Sirens and the Cyclopes, and Moorish ships, and slave ships, and U-boats all the way to the far shore. Blood and blueness. Never change, Mediterranean.

And now we are on the same latitude as Athens. How lovely!

And now we’re over an ice cream scoop tundra of clouds all the way to the horizon. So, I guess I’ll have to check the monitor to see when the sea ends.

Tunisia

At least, I think it’s Tunisia. It could also be Algeria; I’m just estimating based on the placement of the cities, but it’s Africa! We’ve made it to Africa! I see strips of golden-tan beach along the sea and the tiny white dots of development (we are so high up), fairly dense–like Germany’s–near the coastline and sparser farther inland. It’s greener than I pictured it, with tree-filled mounds sloping down to meet the beaches. From the little I can see through the clouds and at such a distance, the trees grow thinner with the houses and it becomes a tan-brown expanse veined with either roads or rivers or both.

And now the clouds have obscured everything. The clouds here are like melting ice cream–rounded mounds slowly sinking into textured rivers.

Desert

I still can’t see much, but it got sandier as we went and, for a while, it was wrinkled with mountains, or rivers, or roads, or ravines? Some of each? I couldn’t tell, but now we are over honest desert. Desert! I’ve never seen real desert before. Parts of it are smooth, like the ocean, broken only by thin snaking things that, again, might be rivers, might be roads. Now, we are over ripples and ripples of sand dune that vaguely resemble the top of this bread I was just served. Also, like the sand in the shallows at a beach. cool how wind and water seem to make the same shapes in sand.

Earlier, there were dark patches that fit into each other like giraffe spots around a winding road/river. Were they groves? Water holes? Settlements? It was much too far away to tell.

The ripples have gotten less uniform and more interesting. I see the shapes of eels and jellyfish sprawling their tendrily bodies all over the tan canvas. I see a big family of snakes, slithering south and another swimming east. And here is a field of electrical burn scars, all of which break into tiny reptile scales at their edges and–oh my god! Humans! Human settlement! They have a couple dark rectangles of little buildings, two bigger white buildings, and one tiny thread of a road cutting off into the distance. What are they doing out there in the middle of nowhere? How do they get out there without dying? This isn’t the bush, there hasn’t been a speck of water or plant life that I’ve seen for hundreds of miles. Just these synaptic sand patterns.

Update: I saw another tiny little road, and now shapeless, mist-like cloud has swallowed us, and I can’t see anymore.

Cloud break. Another road. Okay, maybe people can get around out here. There are tracks. I think two big vehicles cut through the sand down there. They broke some snakes.

Update: a few hundred miles later–I think–the synapses have mostly changed into long, lonely snakes.

Update: not all sand anymore. There is a powdering of whiteness, and now shades of something else–scrubland? Mud? It’s all spilled and seeping together in what looks like a big tangle of riverbeds. More white/light brown. Water??? And now more shapeless, engulfing clouds.

Update: Desert has gotten browner and flatter, but it is still definitely the desert.

Ooh–and now it is red. Very red. From the sun? Or did the sand change?

I’ve seen some more dark places and pale patches that might be water.

Halfway there…

And it [the monitor] just showed me the map. I was wrong; we’ve been over Algeria this whole time. Although, in my defense, we passed very close to Tunisia. It wasn’t a bad guess.

More tan-veined darkness below. Still don’t know what it is. The map on the screen indicates a dark stretch here, distinct from the desert, but it doesn’t look like rock or forest or–Hey! A lake! A definite dark lake in all this sand! And mountains! Brown, densely-packed mountains like a family of cuddling turtles!

And now, maybe not quite mountains, but hills, grooved, wrinkled, and flowing hills with narrow and wide river shapes wending in between them. Still a swath of rippling, red sand here and there, but the hills/mountains seem to have brought with them a blanket of thin green.

[Note in margins: Tamanrasset 194 mi, Tataouine 500 some mi]

Oh–no? Spoke too soon? On the other side of a sharp, straight line of mountain, like the Great Wall, is a basin of red sand, and then crumpled valleys/riverbeds running down into a huge lakebed. It is all dry, but I can see where there was recently a stream running through it. There were little pale shapes in the lakebed. Houses? Animals. Then more desert, but with chunks of mountain stuck in it, then the most beautiful Final Fantasy-esque, sunset-stained clouds I have ever seen hanging low over another snake’s nest of hills and dry riverbed, now brown, mountain-studded desert–and I give up! It keeps changing too fast.

[Note in margins: Tassili n’ Ajjer]

Note: Apparently, the stretch we just passed was west of a place called Tassili n’Ajjer. Soon, we will pass a little east of Tamanrasset.

Now, hundreds of miles of variations on the same.

I see little dark things in a big riverbed. Big rocks? Abandoned boats? Dead hippos? So many of them.

I’m far from home–any of my homes. This is not my continent. It’s amazing.

Oh… beautiful, cooling sunset. Soon I won’t be able to see anything. Just formless, periwinkle cloudness, edged in purple. I saw some shapes that looked like big, dark rivers, but I can’t see anything anymore.

It is dark.

Some closing thoughts:

• If anyone who knows about Africa and/or topography wants to tell me what the heck I was looking at for most of the flight, please tell me! To this day, all I’ve got is this jumble of guesses and metaphors.

• Did you know there was a real Tatooine? Out in the real desert? With real half-underground cave/houses? Yeah, it’s a Berber city in southern Tunisia. Very creative, George.

• Fun fact: the Ancient Berber Alphabet is one of the West African writing systems that I put into the Yammaninke Alphabet of Theonite. More on that in this guest post.

• It’s hilarious that I thought I was going to get good at French (especially while also studying Maninka). To this day, my French is just the worst.

• It’s also hilarious to read this knowing that two weeks from writing it, I will be sharing a bed with literal jungle rats. You don’t know stress yet, you dumb summer child.

Subscribe to my Newsletter for a free copy of my first book, entry into signed book giveaways & updates on ongoing projects!

Leave a Reply