The last time I took a plane was the first time I took a plane. That was also the first time I was leaving my parents, my birth country, and the family I’d known for 28 years. I was leaving home.
On my way out of Cameroon, I met seven people whose stories stayed with me. Seven people I may never meet them again.
The first was a young footballer. He’d met Samuel Eto’o at some point in Sports School. Born in the Central African Republic(C.A.R.), raised in Douala, he spoke to me about family and life. He was happy to find out I was going to meet my wife and advised I take the familial bond seriously. He was going back to his home. He hardly sat still. On the connecting flight at C.A.R., my footballer left with a smile.
An older male replaced him. Early forties. Neat shirt. Pressed pants and jacket. He seemed particularly reserved at the start. After takeoff, started talking about his family. I asked his advice about the future, my future. He was very keen to reiterate how important it was to work hard, and for me to focus on what brought me to America. He warned me about distractions and how easy it is to get carried away.
I didn’t get his businesscard. I lost him in Morocco. He’d wanted to give it to me.
We got down the airplane and into the bus. I was on the phone with my mother, and I was more worried about getting lost.
I didn’t get the time to miss my sisters. Or my brother. The flurry of movement and the sea of humans felt like a trick from Morpheus.
My next flight was in 8 hours. I worried about everything — food, internet, phone battery running down, missing the flight.
The kind old Moroccan fellow with the uniform pointed me up, towards where my terminal would be. I looked at the moving stairs.
No one saw me almost fall. I said a little prayer when I got to the top.
It was huge. Larger than any amphitheater I had ever seen. People lining up, sitting down, drinking coffee, buying memorabilia. The voice on loudspeaker moving from English, French to Arabic, and Spanish.
Till this day, I am sure I heard my father’s tribal language — Bafang — from those speakers.
My wife had warned me about paying attention to the announcements. My heart screamed, my face seemed great. My phone battery, not so much.
There was a tall metal thing with — white cables streamed from the thing. Young people around, in veneration of the electric god. I wondered who was providing who with power.
Of course, I plugged in. Took the ceremonial Snapchat picture with the sticker and shared. I also shared on my Whatsapp status for good measure.
I started uploading all my applications on my Samsung Note 5 in a flurry of excitement. I had never had more than 1 Gigabyte of internet per day for free in my life!
30 minutes later, I would realize that there was a quota to the internet here. It was the third person who informed me with a knowing smile.
He was Cameroonian. Or rather, he had been born in Cameroon. Now, French, he had been in the army and trained in Isreal. With his dual Nationality, he told me about the issues he had faced. His current office job, and his experience with the army in Cameroon. He took off his face cap to show me the scar where the gun butt had left a mark. He had a yarmulke under his marine blue baseball hat. He narrated the drive to Limbe, the arrival of the army at the beach and his ordeal at the hands of the soldiers. He told of his worried aunt and the lawyer who came to make things clear to the soldiers. The same things he would have told them if they’d let him speak. Instead, they beat him to a pulp and had him sleep on the bare concrete floor. That he was an Israeli citizen and any harm done to him would cost a job or jail time.
He told me of the final verdict and the fate of the leader of the unit with a cold, content snicker.
My human needs returned. He showed me the way to the bathroom. I remember his confident run to the smoking area behind the large wall. That was the last I saw of my ex-military French-Israeli.
I read my book — Falling Leaves by Adeline Yen Mah— and waited. 8 hours to go.
The food on Royal Air Maroc was a rainbow of tastes in the strangest packs I’d ever seen. Stranger even, that I enjoyed it. All except the brown bean-like mix I, later on, found to be unbean like.
I don’t know how long my flight was, but it was long enough for me to watch The Greatest Showman. Long enough to clock a vertebra shrinking sleep. I observed the miracle of toilets miles above the ground with vacuum technology. It made me shiver.
What would happen to my ass if something went wrong?
I had breakfast, lunch, and supper. Three meals, not in that order.
At some point, we crossed the Meridian. I was either asleep or trying hard to not express my nervousness.
JFK was phenomenal. JFK is phenomenal. The airport is twice as large ( if not 10X) as that in Morocco. After the port of entry, I needed the metro, then an elevator, then a 10-minute walk.
My next flight which would take place 7 hours later.
I met my fifth messenger at JFK. She was visiting her children. Somewhere in Chicago. The men at the gate asked me to take care of her. She reminded me so much of my mother. I pulled her luggage. We went through the elevator and metro. She needed a money change. Her luggage had to be paid. She didn’t have enough. The money my wife had told me to keep close finally had some use. I had been too scared to buy anything.
Not even the Starbucks beckoning since Morocco.
We had our luggage registered, walked through a few queues together. She was at 18 and I was at 13. We hugged each other and she continued to her terminal. She was Nigerian. She reminded me so much of my mother.
I looked at the watch. 6 hours to go.
This time, I would not update my apps, I told myself. I found a charging hub and got some juice. Shared the ceremonial Snapchat picture with the sticker. Shared on Whatsapp for good measure.
This is JFK, for crying out loud. Gary Vaynerchuk has walked these isles!
It was almost morning when the seventh person asked me where I was from.
He was a caucasian male. In his early fifties. Very happy to talk to me. I think he could see how nervous and cold I was. Colorado is a beautiful place to live, he said. He’d been to the mountains. Try skiing, he said.
Of course, I agreed.
He saw the fear in my eyes so he switched the topic. He congratulated me on my engagement. He was heading to provide relief somewhere with his group. It was a Christian group. Kids, adults. He seemed like a nice person. He made me feel okay. By the time he said goodbye, it was morning and my plane was boarding.
This last plane ride, had me being the only black person on the plane. At least, that’s how I felt. There was no food here. But, there was the internet. My phone was dying so I couldn’t waste it for fear that I won’t be able to tell my wife I had arrived.
I tried to watch a documentary. Failed. Tried to watch TV. Failed. Music. Failed.
3 hours. New York to Denver. I would see my wife in 3 hours.
How could anything work when I had that thought?
By the time I landed in Denver, I assumed I’d need to get my stuff before meeting my wife and my new family. I was a pro at the moving stairs and my denim jacket and jeans allowed me to meld in the crowd. Phone at 5 %, confident of my impending reunion.
The last thing I heard was “He’s here!”.
The last thing I felt was her warmth.
I’d left home. Yet, I was home.
End of part one.
About Those First Few Months As An Immigrant
If you don’t understand how it is, it’s just because you can’t. And that’s okay too.