Wednesday, 18 April 2007

Joburg, London, Houston.

Everyone here’s from somewhere else, somewhere smaller. A big city means more round slots for BA degree-shaped pegs. Career arcs are shorter though. Your gmail address will likely last longer than this crummy job. Longer than a Cape Town number plate in Joburg. Longer than your old London bank account. Longer than most relationships.

Aeroplanes take cherished faces away, to cooler places, more money and less crime. No one writes letters anymore - and email’s like reading a fucking TV screen - so you visit. Visiting unfortunately means climbing into a glorified bus with wings, and nine hours of terror. Hanging onto an armrest’s about as pointless as jumping up in a plummeting lift.

Heathrow still smells like burnt coffee creamer. Passport always seems to get stamped by the same smiling turbaned Sikh with an alarmingly not Durban Chatsworth accent. Thrilled reunion with luggage, which is now clumsy and heavy as a trussed corpse. Manhandle it onto a train and slump into a journey long enough to bore the air terror out of you. Delusions of a Famous Five England of hedgerows, lashings of ginger beer and cardies get amputated by the rolling vistas of grim council tower blocks that slide by like slabs of broken teeth.

24 hour travel honeymoon phase. Everything, no matter what, is new and wonderful: Tube adverts for products you don’t know; the thrill of making change with different coloured money; strange accents being used to say ordinary things. Gawping at chalk marks overhead as 747 vapour trails play noughts and crosses games over and over. Same songs as home but different music videos in your head. Lurching jet lag every now and then, like a lift stopping too fast. Get lost and snakes and ladder around London transport like a pinball.

Keys behind the door jangle, bolts thunk. Hugs and ‘how was your flight?’. Dump luggage corpse in lounge. Ear-popping centrally heated silence and all-fours-steep steps to the bathroom. Shuddering pipes and a drizzling, spiteful shower that wets you long enough to gets soap in your eyes. Sleep.

Restaurant/pub/club. Three pints and you stop converting into Rands. Catch up with friend after friend in a loud small space. Group gets slowly culled as friends leave for unfathomably long train rides to homes a moon trip away. The knot of late-stayers walk, walk, and walk to somewhere still open in Soho. Honeymoon phase gets lost in umpteen pints, walking under dizzying sodium lamp lights and cold that takes your voice away. Warm stuffy inside places with long bar queues and new strange beers. Miss your train and follow the stragglers like a lost stray to a take-out place. Clumsy fumble with the ex, who kisses the same, but now has a boyfriend with English teeth and an endearing accent. Wake up with your clothes on, in a strange lounge with grinningly brain-dead radio ads chirruping from somewhere. Light a cigarette on the toaster and let yourself out.

9 more hours of terror. Cling onto the hope that a working in-flight TV means the plane’s staying up. Little aeroplane icon on the TV map inches slow as lichen across screen-fulls of blue ocean. Nowhere to land. Hope the pilot knows that too. George H Bush airport of smells of syrup waffles and cut grass. It’s 3 post codes big. 8 in the morning and it’s already umpteen degrees whatever in Fahrenheit. Air feels syrupy and hard to breathe, even in the goose-bump-cold everywhere air-conditioning. Slack-jawed, newly (poorly) minted Americans stamp your passport so loud you jump. Another reunion with now even lumpier luggage. Brother arrives in his minivan, the vehicular sexual white flag of the married man.

Traffic. Texas radio is ZZ Top on a 24 hour loop. The music video is miles and miles of flashing by strip malls, concrete and American flags. Buildings seem moulded from the same one lego brick. One design fits all, be it: fast food, nail salons, bail bondsmen. All just massive slabs of brick bland as rice cakes and gum-wrapper-bright signs. Houston makes Bloemfontein look quaint as the Lake District.

The 24 hour travel honeymoon kicks again, but shorter and more brutish. Speak slowly to be understood. Green money all looks the same, and trying to make change makes annoyed queues silt up behind you. Rather just pile notes on the counter and point mutely at the product. Units jump from metric to quarts of milk, miles per gallon and gallon tequila bottles, which equate to reducing (give or take) eight adults to all fours. Weather report in Fahrenheit gibberish that doesn’t tell you how hot or cold it should be outside the ever-present air conditioning. Cars the size of London flats glide by, piloted by dwarfed little heads poking out of tinted windscreens.

Jetlagged sleep. Wake up to London time, in the middle of the night. In the dark the house is alive is alive with the light blips, ticks, and hums of countless electrical things. The house sleeps, watched over by machines of loving grace.

Camping in New Mexico. Long flat drive. Scores of nodding donkey oil pumps, like wind farms of metronomes. Swamps, alligators and Texas-sized mosquitoes. Brother and wife put up tents and make dinner while the kids watch Simpsons reruns on a toaster-sized portable TV. Beach picnic on the Gulf of New Mexico. New flowers in strange shapes and hues, crabgrass with sharp little thorns underneath. Naff waves with a slightly oily pallor. Oilrigs dot the sea line. Time to go home.