On a cold October morning last year, some minutes before 7 A.M., I sat quietly in the Embraer E195-E2 as it slowly taxied its weight along the tarmac to the start of the runway, where it lined itself up for takeoff, just as I had seen it do many times in the past. That morning was like any other I have experienced on an airstrip: dissolving fogs, freezing winds, loud engine noises, and scores of travelers leaving town.
The E195-E2 is the largest aircraft in the Embraer E-Jet family (that includes the E175-E2 and E190-E2), with a higher passenger capacity of about 146. It is more fuel-efficient and less noisy, with an extended range when fully loaded. It was not just an engineering feat but also a much-needed and much-welcome aviation progress.
But that morning, most of the advantages the aircraft had over its siblings rarely mattered since it was light on passengers. That also meant a potential sinking loss for the airline operator that I sensed would have been expected since they had just taken stock of the larger E-Jet when they usually fly the Embraer RJ145 (an older and smaller aircraft that sits about 50 passengers and has been in operation since the late 90s), possibly due to an overflowing demand that for some reason was nonexistent that morning.
One of the flight attendants inspected and shut the overhead bins, then took rounds on passengers, who, after some minutes, she politely rearranged, perhaps to balance the aircraft. I was not asked to, but I took the opportunity to move from the unfavorable starboard aisle seat to the vantage port-side window seat, where I could look out at the left wing and watch the turbofan engine go brrr. Holding down the wing and engine in matrimony, completing the triad of the burdened shoulders of an aircraft is the oft-underrated pylon.
The sun was beginning to rise beyond the horizon, and my mind was as clear as a bell. Although I did not feel entirely convinced that this long-awaited journey was the particular escape I needed, I sensed the convincing prospect of a new life beyond the horizon of the vast tarmac of the airfield and the lush fields of green that bordered it.
“Please fasten your seat belt, sir,” the flight attendant keyed me in.
“Ah!,” I exclaimed, acutely aware of my oversight. “Thank you!”
She smiled at me and glided confidently up the aisle. I watched her run through with impeccable attention to detail and rhythmic flawlessness until the safety demonstration, where she became, like many of her confrères, typically inaudible. She’s just like us, I reckoned, taking a vain respite in her perceived imperfection.
The pilot picked up from where she left off. He PA'd us on the flight details and warned of slightly unpredictable weather. Regardless, everything else was set, and so was I. At 7:30 A.M., thirty minutes after boarding, the plane’s engine revved and began the takeoff roll. As it accelerated over the tarmac beneath us, I felt my weight drop underneath its speed. Then, in what felt like a brutal finality, I watched the wings spread for liftoff, leaving the past behind like it didn't matter.
The vista below was borderline beautiful and, in an oddly peculiar way, cruel. The networks of roads were hemorrhaged with people and vehicles, revealing the trademark traffic jam that best described the so-called center of excellence as the center of chaos, what a danfo passenger had once lectured everyone else was “normal and the sole reason the mega city continues to function.” But in the vibrant throes of that sunny afternoon, the driver, struggling to navigate the uncertainty of the traffic, his life, and his decision to remain in the metropolis, begged to differ. “This isn't a 'mega city,' he retorted. It's a 'mugu (fool) city'” as if to play on words.
In hindsight, the maddening drama that ensued afterward made being in the skies—above and away from the realities and opinions of the locals—a sanctuary. The higher and further we traveled, the far removed we were from the state's existence altogether. Everything below became less significant: the people, their struggles and beliefs, the state, its history, and its future, until the clouds became our shroud.
“Water, sir?” The imperfect flight attendant asked me. She was my reality check that morning.
“No, no,” I replied. “I'm OK.” She smiled that smile. She was perfect.
My first time flying was both a blessing and a curse. It was a one-hour flight, and I looked outside the window throughout because I just wanted to know what was going on out there. But it also marked the beginning of my fears. With nothing beneath but clouds of invisible gases, I submitted to the will of a potential catastrophe. If anything were to go wrong, I thought, I wouldn't fight it. Since then, out of the fear of “what doesn't kill you,” I've developed a penchant for aviation. The more I learned about the tiny details of what it takes to be suspended in the air, the more my fears worsened.
Knowing the cautionary tale of Icarus—the master craftsman and son of Daedalus, whose wax wings were melted by the sun after he flew too close—offers a reconciliation by continuously making flying a humbling experience.
The view above the clouds that morning was celestial. A lather of plain white clouds patched the otherwise vast blue skies, animated by the sunrise that reflected a portion of my face from the plexiglass. I saw the exhaustion on my face as much as I felt it in my bones, overlayed by an uncertainty begging to be erased.
Then, the view became monotonous for what felt like a long time. I looked inwards, away from the sun's radiance, and closed my eyes. The world around me warped slowly into a forgiving darkness whose allure was the triumphant memory of journeying to the airport that morning.
In the darkness of that morning were the embers of a dying dream of escape and the awakening of dawn. Something was waking—or, at least trying to wake—me up. I felt a cold wind caress my body into a shivering consciousness and a mystical whisper urging me to return to the land of the living: “Wake up,” it said. “It's time.”
At first sight was the slow flapping of the curtain straight ahead with its silhouette embroidered across the room. To my left was Nature’s painting on the blank, white canvas: the wall was covered with the scenic shadows of a slouching tree precisely reflected by moonlight beams that entered from the eastern balcony and streamed in across the aisle of the living room.
My alarm noised and upstaged the repose of predawn. Oh, shit, I thought I'm going to be late. The night before, I had spent a considerable and meaningless period thinking of a bird that was flown, a girl I once loved, setting myself up for an early morning hurtle to the airport. But it did not bother me. I prefer to arrive at the last minute to catch my flight than arrive early to wait at the gate area. It is a risk whose endgame is the reward of being finally admitted into the sanctuary of the fuselage.
I hurried myself in and out of the bathroom. In a matter of minutes, bags packed, I was clothed and ready to go. Save for the constant calls to the Uber driver, the apartment was as eerily silent as outer space. I stepped out into the dank corridor, acutely aware of the possibility that I was finally leaving everything behind. Many times in the past, I had temporarily left all that was familiar—my guard, my space, the comfort, the protection—and went out to see the world. But then, as I looked back at the front door and endured the barrage of memories that befell me, I could not help but feel like a deserter absconding from a compromised shelter.
After a few steps from home, I turned back. I pulled myself in towards the front door that had protected me so and ran my fingers over the deep cut of irregular shapes carved into it. The carves were the ironical tribal marks of beauty and identification. They were designed to disorient and serve as a deterrent to potential intruders. They were a mute but stark symbol of inhospitality—harsh but effective—that I had been shielded from as an insider. But standing outside there, I felt the psychological torture and mulled over the braveness or boldness of those who had passed through the gauntlet. I thought about their intentions, expectations, and disappointments. The resignation of everyone I had shut out over the years, how they all might have come that far and close, understood and turned back, never to return. I felt the weight of that burden on my shoulders and took respite in the fact that I was eventually doing something different, going out there. Jen Sincero's conviction became mine. Safety is an illusion.
Strangely, the gateman was awake that morning as if he knew I was leaving.
“Good morning, sir,” he greeted me and offered to help with my luggage.
“Good morning,” I replied and handed over my bags.
We shared the knowing smile of two individuals who quietly understood each other. He had seen me leave early enough to know I was headed to the airport, but for some reason, out of courtesy or just pure act, I suppose, he popped the question and asked if I was traveling. I told him I was but, this time didn't tell him when I'd return. I sensed his immediate withdrawal. He looked puzzled and unassuming as if he was responsible for my departure. It was a silent walk to the car with just about enough time for both of us to introspect.
He was the same person I had always known: humble, compliant, and conversational. “Don't worry,” I told him. “I'll let you know when I get back.” He smiled again. At 6:05 that morning, an hour and fifteen minutes before the commencement of boarding, I was en route to the airport.
At first, the car wiggled its way through the narrow streets onto the long stretch of service road that led to the express, where life was fluxed with the devious stillness of urbanism. The potholes were as awake as the vagrants that dotted the roadsides and under bridges, seemingly dormant, yes, but dangerously active on encounters.
The ambiance inside the car was tense. I watched the driver dial the radio frequency from one news channel to another with a deliberate precision rooted in consistency. The news was as you'd expect of this country, Nigeria. It spoke of one tragedy after another, so much so that one got lost in the grim details of another. It explained, I figured in that instant, why the driver looked gaunt and oddly cheerful. He looked like he had willfully personalized all the terrible news he'd heard of this country. You look at him, and you see Nigeria.
“Please, I'm running late,” I told the driver. “Are we able to move faster?”
“Yes sir,” he replied, smiling modestly.
Barely ten minutes into the journey, I almost wished I hadn't asked. The driver drove like a madman. But I let him be. Speeding seemed to be the one thing he enjoyed doing. And I couldn't wait to get away as fast as possible anyway.
The car surfed down the road, leaving behind a trail of vehicles. I mused at the getaway, perhaps too much, until time began to move gracefully like a docent, carefully guiding me through the cityscape's mesmerizing deluge of inelegance. I looked outside and was dazed by the harsh scenes. There were a dizzying number of impoverished child beggars glued to the side of cars at traffic intersections, of vehicles that veined the petrol stations, of well-dressed early risers going to earn a living and the halo of head and street lights—soon to be drowned by the realities of daylight—that kept the city awake and hopeful.
Somewhere along the line, we were flagged down at a police checkpoint. I heard the driver mutter something inaudible. But as a Nigerian at a police checkpoint, I knew it had to be obscenities. That's allowed, however presumptuous.
The driver shook hands with the inspecting officer, and we were sent on our way almost as soon as we'd arrived. Moments after, when I met with the driver's gaze through the rearview mirror, he looked infuriatingly jolly. I could tell he was dying to tell me about the incident, but I wasn’t interested in such a conversation. I looked away.
“When we get to the next junction, we can take the alternative route,” I told the driver, naively giving him a way to start a conversation. He began with a communal catastrophe, the worth of the Naira. Then he segued into the removal of subsidy by the president and the immediate and consequential rise in the expense of petrol. But what mattered and why he had told me all he had was because it'd be nice if I could pay him extra for the ride.
It didn't take too long, expectedly, for his superficial plea to turn into a rant of entitlement. He went on the offense with a single goal of talking my ears off. He told me how his life was imperfect, or indirectly, how mine was more perfect than his, and why I had to be considerate to him. After all, there I was, attempting to travel by air in a country slowly choking on its putrid atmosphere of good governance.
From his abridged life's story, he seemed to suffer the most. But, surprisingly, he also seemed to love, or at least enjoy it. His countenance wasn't of a man enduring the situation he's found himself in, but rather one who thinks he should be in a better one than everybody else. There was a telling arrogance to his complaints. I wondered how he balanced the dichotomy. How, from that one mind, the root of that duality outgrew its fundamental justification or rationale. Through it all, he sped like a man possessed, racing for infinity.
It was hard to keep up with the speed at which the driver did everything. From tuning the radio and driving dangerously fast to rambling. I vanished in his incessancy and lost all clarity until I plugged my ears in. The last word of his that I heard was “forgery.”
About five minutes to the airport, the traffic was expectedly mild. The bustle of chaos, lurking within the blood-redness of traffic, was reduced but latent. The triad of traffic before, lateness, and proximity to the airport underlay my increased anxiety, something I hadn't cared much for throughout the journey. I contributed my quota of national instinctive disorderliness to the congestion when I unpacked myself and my bags from the car. And with the lack of any forthcoming consequences, I became brazen. I stood there while everyone waited to pay for the ride. Then, with the lightning response of a criminal who can sense the wall closing in, I dashed away from the trailing shout of the driver. I think he was wishing me a safe flight.
After a one-hour interstate flight, I woke up to the pilot announcing our arrival and preparation for landing. We started a slow descent away from the morning skies into the outskirts of the countryside. It was there, many years ago, that the airport was controversially constructed. Life below was calm and noticeably arable, with squares of farmland that spread for miles. We landed safely and taxied to the gate for disembarkation. Here, there were no tarmacs. Only grids of concrete strewn together in coal tar that thickened and overflowed at the edges.
The airport—and my memories, or lack thereof—hadn't changed in the many years since I first saw it. It was of the same predictable consistency that defined this place. We disembarked northeast of the arrival terminal, where everyone had been waiting to help us into town. It felt like a homecoming.
As soon as we climbed down the airplane and stepped into the blinding brightness, the pier of the departure terminal was lined up with departees. My first inclination of what I was possibly walking into was their wrinkled faces of unhappiness. It seemed, I correctly guessed, they’d been waiting far more than expected. But I hoped whatever incident led to their anger was left at the airport where it could be loaded and flown outland, most likely and appropriately, to the mega city, where the commotion was a required recipe for effective statecraft.
Hopeful, I exited the airport in the typical mellow I had expected. Here, no one asked for bribes nor tried to hassle you. There were no noises in the baggage claim area, and no one attempted to sell you anything you wouldn't need or think of needing. The passage was simple: once cleared, you are sent on your way, most times with a welcoming smile. But it was also deceptive. After all, this was Nigeria, and no place, not even a graveyard, was allowed to be as settled, not in the unbearable conditions that forever make us hang in the balance.
Outside the airport was a constellation of cars waiting for pickup. Some drivers stood outside their vehicles with one hand to their ears while waving the other towards the airport's entrance. No one was waiting for me, and I had nowhere to go. I'd just assumed I'd figure it out when I left home that morning. So I stood for a long time watching life go by. I counted the cars that departed and made a mental list of the first three digits of their plate numbers for no apparent reason. Whenever anyone probed, I lied that I was expectant of my ride. Suddenly, a convoy of jeeps arrived at the airport in a hurry. The departees were just in time for the boarding announcement to Lagos. I immediately understood their need for speed: what I had escaped, they were rushing into.◼︎