Flying is generally messy. It’s like ordering a burger on a first date. Because then you have to open your mouth so wide there is a danger of your date seeing your epiglottis, which would be showing too much too soon. Flying is messy because you never know who you will sit next to; it’s not like in church where you can always move. In the plane you might sit next to someone who drinks throughout, which means you have to stand up and let him pass each time he has to go empty his bladder. Or (the worst), a person who hogs the armrest. Or a man who wants to hold your hand during take-off. Or an attractive woman who makes no sign, at all, of having acknowledged your presence as a living thing. Or someone who wants to talk and not stop until you either nod off or you start bleeding in the ears. If you are careless, like I am, you also have to know where your passport is at all times. And you have to remember to disembark with your Kindle, the loss of which, in my opinion, is almost as bad as losing your passport.
Food doesn’t taste good at 40,000 feet because your taste buds change at that altitude. I sleep fitfully during flights and during those intermittent periods I have short, snappy and bizarre dreams that I’m a drying plant. Or I’m enslaved in a small house in an open field in Athi River. Or I got a job in City Hall.
Flights are messy because you can never look out the window at passing trees and the landscape or wave back at a naked child holding a cob of roasted maize or stop to pee on a shrub and connect with mother earth. I also hate being confined in one space for more than an hour, knowing that I can’t leave until someone says on an intercom that I am ready to disembark.
So what was it like to be in a 15-hour non-stop flight to New York?
The beginning was great. There was a buzz. It felt like we were the chosen ones and we were going to heaven. It really did. It felt like all our sins were forgiven, every last one of them, everything we said on Twitter that the Lord wasn’t pleased with was forgiven and once we landed we would start afresh by avoiding apples. There had been traditional drummers and women dancing at the boarding gate to send us off to Kingdom Come. I had a window seat in economy towards the very end of the plane but then I looked at the middle second last row and saw it was empty so I changed seats because I planned to turn the two remaining seats into by own Business Class and stretch my legs out. That is until some Indian guy joined me and I was so pissed I wanted to pull the hair off his arms one by one. I had run the Stanchart half-marathon that morning and had planned to sleep through the flight. Nonetheless, there was great feeling of bonhomie in the plane. A rising hubbub of chatter and laughter as people looked at the gift hampers and fiddled with the inflight entertainment and removed their shoes and drank juice.
Jeff Koinange’s voice came on the intercom to welcome everybody onboard in his dramatic fashion (“….direct from JKIA to JFK. I repeat, direct from JKIA to JFK. Ooooh my.”) Then Jeff’s Hair came on the intercom and said we had the pleasure of having Kenya’s second president on the inaugural flight after which the voice of Baba Moi (Nyambane) came on and made a few jokes to cheers and a smattering of claps, which illustrated many things to different people; nostalgia, patriotism, love or delayed Stockholm syndrome.
We were told the president and his VP were outside flagging the flight off. I didn’t see them because I was in the middle row devising violent ways in which I could reclaim my Business Class from the Indian guy. When the plane’s wheels left the runway there were cheers and I sat there thinking; wow, man has devised a way to keep this 227,000kg machine with over 220 people on board up in the air for 15 whole hours, yet this same man still gets killed by a mosquito!
The first few hours were great. We were headed towards West Africa. It was almost 11pm. Food was served. It was a new menu by Chef Kiran Jethwa (owner of Seven Seafood and Grill at ABC Place) who was seated across the aisle from me in the last seat, which he would turn into his own Business Class later on, much to my envy. The real Business Class had VIPs; CSs, ambassadors, CEOs etc. The Indian guy was in an animated conversation with Susan Wong, who was seated in front of me. He was talking about taking some time off to visit his friends who own a house up in Long Island or something. Talking of Long, I wondered why Wong – my friend – would even be engaging him – the enemy. After dinner, guys started ordering drinks. Okay, some had already started ordering drinks before dinner but now it seemed like a good time to order more drinks. While up in the air, flying over Central Africa Republic or just getting into Cameroon airspace, it didn’t matter that it was early Monday morning. When you are up there, there is no day of the month, or time of day, for that matter. It’s just an open space that seems expunged of time or season. It’s just you in this formidable Dreamliner hurtling through a void of blackness.
Shoes off, I settled in to continue reading “Ali: A Life” By Jonathan Eig, Muhammad Ali’s biography. It’s top-notch sportswriting. You will learn that contrary to what you know, Ali never threw away his Olympic Gold Medal in Ohio River after he was refused service in a “Whites-Only” restaurant because he was black. You will also learn that his grandfather was a slave. The book laid Ali bare, made him human, faulty. He was the greatest, as the world knew him, a good father but also one who was there intermittently, one who played with his children but got bored with the tedium of raising them and so left that task to his wives. He had a harem of women and never hid it from any of his wives. He made tons of money and lost tons of money. Then he made more. He was a great fighter but greatness outside the ring mostly came to him, it was thrust at him by his talent, obviously, but mostly by the time he lived in, that zeitgeist and by what he represented – a famous, cocky, outspoken, rich black man at a time when black men were not supposed to be famous, cocky, outspoken or rich. Above all he was a generous man, a big-hearted man, a man full of laughter, a man everybody loved; even the white men who at first hated him for being an “ungrateful nigga draft dodger” as I think president Reagan called him. Read it. You will learn something from it, be it on finances, fame, fatherhood, passion, ego or the downside of shagging girls and making many children with them across the countryside.
After midnight I wore my neck-pillow and nodded off.
I don’t know what time it was, but I must have stirred briefly to see the cabin crew serving mini burgers. I mentioned that I’m prone to weird dreams during flights, right? So I thought I was dreaming. Burgers in a plane? Have you ever woken up pressed and you stumble in darkness in the direction of the loo afraid to open your eyes should you completely lose your sleep? That’s what I felt, seeing them serving burgers, I wanted to be sure that I wasn’t dreaming but I also didn’t want to lose my sleep over burgers. So I slept. I was later told that the burgers were to die for and I hoped they would serve them in Business Class when I flew back but they didn’t. So maybe I was dreaming.
Speaking of which, I have a friend who keeps saying that he has to save to fly Business Class one day. I told him not to bother because Business Class is a curse. I have been extremely lucky to have often flown Business Class for work. I could never afford it on my own. For my personal trips I fly Economy and I’m always miserable for it. KQ upgraded me on the flight back and the Dreamliner’s Business Class is luxury. They take your coat to hang. They call you by your name. In Business Class you are an individual, your are Mr Biko. In economy, on the other hand, you are Seat 33D. There are hot towels in Business Class. Champagne. Whisky list. Assorted wines. A longer menu. Silver cutlery. Down the aisle they push a trolley full of newspapers, both local and foreign like New York Times, The FT, Time Magazine. The TV screens are bigger. You have your own armrest, so no need to start a fight with a stranger, which means the people in Business Class have a stable resting heart rate. But most importantly they have flat beds. I mean your seat goes all the way down – as flat as an envelope – and it turns into a bed. You sleep like you would at home. You sleep like it’s end month. On your seat is a vanity kit with a toothbrush, toothpaste, combs, floss and other such tools of vanity.
And so Business Class will completely ruin you for Economy Class. I told my friend, “Once you fly Business you will never be happy in Economy because you will know what you are missing. But if you have never flown Business you will be at peace in Economy because ignorance is bliss. In fact, you will be happy to just be called sir, and not by your name. You will never know that somewhere in the plane someone is having a warm bun. So unless you have run into a big inheritance that will see you flying Business all the time, take it from me, stay in Economy, you will be grateful for it.” I have this analogy – do you know what the game rangers do to a lion that has tasted human flesh?
I woke up when we hit a small pocket of turbulence and the seatbelt sign came on. We were half way through the Atlantic Ocean according to the plane locator on the screen. I asked for water and ice. I asked the chap behind me if I could switch with him and stretch out because he was alone. He said we would take turns. So I went on the in-flight entertainment to pick a movie. If there were two things I could change in that KQ flight they would be (1) The in-flight entertainment. It wasn’t expansive enough for a long flight like that. For instance, I wanted to watch Empire but there were only two episodes so I didn’t because that’s like starting something that you won’t finish. Literally. I would have been excited to find something surprising, like the latest season of Atlanta. (2) The Indian guy. I’d make him evaporate and claim my throne in my Business Class and rule that kingdom until New York.
So I went back to my book. At this time most people were asleep. The lights were off. A few people used overhead lights to read. The plane hummed in silence. It felt like what it might feel like being in a submarine, but a submarine in the sky. Back in Nairobi it was getting to 8am while we were losing time by crossing time zones, our bodies trying to figure this change like a fish would try to chew gum and failing.
After an hour the gentleman behind me woke up, tapped me on the shoulder and we swapped seats. I stretched out on the three seats and seduced sleep. I slept on and off, balancing on the edge, avoiding having my feet extend on the aisle on the other side, dreaming that my face had completely disappeared under my beard and nobody could recognise me, dreaming that I had forgotten my name.
I woke up to find most people awake and the lights bright in the plane. We had three hours to get to New York. There were groups of guys hanging around the gurney, glasses of alcohol in hand, chatting and laughing. The cabin crew were very friendly and helpful and engaging. They didn’t drink though, imagine if they had? They would even be more friendly and helpful and engaging.
Fifteen hours is a long time. In 15 hours people make friends. In 15 hours you are confined in the same space with these other people you start feeling like you are related. You start feeling like you are a family because you are all suspended above the earth’s surface. In 15 hours it doesn’t matter if you are Luo or Kikuyu or Kalenjin or Pokomo, you are people in a plane. You think a lot in 15 hours. You finish books in 15 hours. In 15 hours you can start a relationship, have one fight and even decide you are going to get married. There are relationships that don’t last the time it takes the KQ flight to get to New York.
I went into the bathroom and brushed my teeth and freshened up then came back and started reading. Then I did interviews called Vox Pop. This is where you speak to people “randomly” about a particular issue.
So for example, a vox pop would go something like this.
“Sir, if you found yourself on a seat without any seatmates and you planned to stretch and sleep throughout the flight but some guy came and sat at the end of the seat, what would be the appropriate punishment for him?”
“Which media house did you say you represent again?”
“Uhm…I have a YouTube channel.”
“A Youtube channel?”
“What do you channel?”
“I’ve never heard of it.”
“Never heard of what, sir?”
“Youtube? It’s a new thing.”
“New like Instagram?”
“Instagram is not new, sir.”
“Well, I don’t know if I’m the right person for you or this channel.”
“You are, sir. You have a strong square jaw, great for Youtube.”
“And where will you run this?”
[Sigh] “On my Youtube channel!”
“Will I at least read it before it runs?”
(Isn’t it strange that this is how some young people speak nowadays? I was speaking with a lady not long ago, a face to face conversation like humans used to interact in the stone age, and I said something to which she said, “Lol”, to mean she was laughing, or rather she decided to abbreviate her laughter. I found that disturbing as hell. That now they are too busy to laugh, that they have to laugh in abbreviations. What is next, instead of shaking our heads will we instead say “SMH”?)
The whole plane erupted in applause when the wheels of the KQ bird touched down on the JFK runway, New York, on the cold October morning. It’s like how people clap in the movie when the hero (always American) saves the whole wide world (from bad terrorists with beards) and gets the girl (blonde) and together they walk, his hand draped around her shoulder, limping into the sunset to live a life of laughter and crepes every morning. If we had been asked to stand and sing the national anthem I’m pretty sure we would have, with our hearts both strong and true and firmly stand to defend in common bond united, like our anthem says. It was a special moment. A sense of pride, of achievement, even though one might have missed the famous burger.
As Kenyans we don’t get many chances to feel proud. Hang on, let me strike that and speak for myself. As a Kenyan I never get many instances where I’m mighty proud of being Kenyan. I can count the instances on one hand. Mostly they involve athletics, our marathoners, and how when they win they all stand on the podium, position one, two and three, and they glisten with blackness and triumph and the anthem is played and everybody cheers them. That feeling is better than eating a pawpaw. The other is seeing a KQ plane in a foreign airport amongst other airlines, looking sexy with a white, black, green and red tail. It’s nostalgic. It feels safe. Familiar. It’s like seeing a family member on foreign soil. You feel nothing can go wrong. You know they can never turn their backs on you should shit hit the fan, because they are Kenyan and you are Kenyan.
The other time I felt patriotic was in 2014 when we went to receive the Dreamliner for the first time and I was part of the media group that were driven all the way into the runway, the parts where nobody goes and the cameramen set up their forest of cameras on long tripods on the grass patch. We had downloaded this aviation app that had been monitoring the plane’s progress by the second and we sat there and waited in the sun without complaining.
It was one of those days that the blue sky was bruised in areas with big, fluffy white clouds. We milled around and five minutes to touch down we stood and waited, the cameramen powering their cameras. Suddenly we saw a glimmer in the sun and we saw her; our first ever Dreamliner; Boeing 787-8.
Never mind that we weren’t the first African airline to own one, because Ethiopian airline had beaten us to it two years earlier. Never mind that KQ was the punching bag we liked to sucker punch (often deservedly), the one we give grief, online. Never mind that it was costing them Sh 11 billion, even at a time when they were on the ropes. Never mind all that. Nobody at that airport did. What mattered was that it was here and we were there and we were swelling with pride as Kenyans and this gorgeous plane was a part of our family and in our family we might fight and not even like each other often but sometimes we sit down and remember that we are family.
We watched her glide slowly towards us, the cameramen peering at her through their camera lenses. She was like a big bird that could take instructions. A bird everybody wanted to have perched on their shoulder. And she was our bird. I don’t care for planes but when it got closer I marveled at how new it was. How it shone like a new shilling. How sexily her nose was shaped. A nose you playfully wanted to rub your own nose against. Its wings bent slightly towards the tip in a show of engineering magnificence. It’s body streamlined and curved, built as a show of modern aeronautics, yes, but also built for seduction. It’s underbelly was a pristine white, the underbelly of a newborn sulphur-crested cockatoo. Thunderously but elegantly it lowered itself towards the runaway, it’s wheels ready to kiss its new home in a squealing screech. It was the most grace I had seen on a plane. It seemed to know that and also seemed to know that we had been waiting hours on that tarmac for her. It seemed to know that even the president was waiting for her. And when it touched down after 15 hours in the air, the traditional dancers leaping and beating drums and swirling their sisal skirts and finally the doors opened and out came a man – I don’t remember who now – carrying a long pole with the Kenyan flag attached, the whole place erupted in song and dance and pomp and cheer and ululation. What a spectacle. Boy, you had to be there to feel it.
Everybody was happy to finally be in the Big Apple. I thought I’d suffer through that long flight but I didn’t. It was a decent and fun flight.
KQ put us up in one of the best hotels in the city, The Marriot Marqui right in the heart of New York. My room, on the 28th floor, directly overlooked Times Square. At night I had to shut the curtains tight to lock out the bright lights of consumerism flashing on the massive billboards right outside my window. America, New York to be precise, always seemed to want you to buy something from her; a gadget, a holiday, an airline ticket, a drink, a shoe, a dream. New York wants to take and take and take. It wants your attention, your money, your time, your imagination, your passion, your heart. It’s a hungry city with hungry people. In return it leaves you with an impression that you want more, that you deserve more.
There are two apps that I found very useful while in New York that can be useful for folk who are travelling abroad and for guys in diaspora.
HERE WeGo App
Very cool app. Unless you are Uhuru Kenyatta, nobody roams abroad. Which means once you leave your hotel you fall off the grid. Google Maps don’t work. Which means you get on wrong trains and you get lost. Then you have to ask a Syrian who sells mushkakis on the streets and speaks a smattering of English where Penn Station is. With this app you simply input your destination and it gives you directions that you can use offline. This was my most trusted companion in New York. It was precise in time and distance and location. If you have this app you never have to ask for directions.
Rapidtransfer App>> http://bit.ly/2JPoatC
Someone in diaspora introduced me to this app. Mpesa obviously doesn’t work abroad, but you can send money back home through Rapidtransfer. You can send it as Mpesa or Airtel Money. Great for sending money for cement when you are building back home or money for school fees and such like things.
It’s from my room on the 28th floor that I waited for my message. I would leave the hotel and when I get back I’d call the reception and ask, “Hi, any messages for me?”
“No, sir. Not yet.”
“Are you certain?”
“Yes, Mr Beeku.”
“Sorry, sir. I see from our system that you have asked for the urgent message to be communicated to you immediately. We will when it comes in.”
“Of course, of course. It’s just that it should have come by now. I just want to make sure that it’s not mixed up with other messages or it’s forgotten or sent to the wrong room.”
“No, nothing like that will happen. It shall be delivered to you as soon as it comes in. May I ask the nature of this message or from whom you expect it from?”
“Well, uhm, Toni.”
“Oh okay, is there a second name?”
“Might this be Toni Braxton the singer?”
“There can only be one Toni.”
“Oh. Well all right, sir. Does she know you are staying with us?”
“She should. She does.”
“Toni Braxton, you said.”
“Is she not married, sir?”
“Who told you that?”
“No, I meant – “
“It’s an open relationship. She’s been waiting for real love. Besides now that I’m here she might -”
“I don’t think Birdman will be happy, sir. He looks like -”
“He looks like a bird and where I come from we eat birds.”
“Well. Uhm, anything else you would like, sir?”
“No. Just Toni.”
The registration for the writing masterclass is still on. Please email to firstname.lastname@example.org to lock down a slot.