D is for departure. D is for Dulles. D is for Dull. Dulles is an incredibly boring airport. It has a very… Socialist State look on the outside. Utilitarian. Not ugly, but definitely no edifice to elegance. And inside, it is clean but pedestrian, almost sterile. None of the hustle and bustle of people excitedly, expectantly, moving from gate to gate. Most aggravating though, there are very few windows, and the few that are present are tall, skinny and mostly positioned so that one catches only slivers of the tarmac. No views of two- story aircraft with brightly painted logos advertising all the places one might possibly visit someday. No hustle and bustle of luggage carts and fuel trucks and ground crew. Where’s the joy in that?
Bathroom watching on the flight: Middle-aged, skinny, balding white man with scruffy beard, in a hoody, jeans jacket and sweat pants, with eye cover pasted to his forehead, a slight mince to his step and a loopy look. Coughing woman, young, holding a yoga pose while she waits for a free toilet. She goes into the toilet wearing only her socks. Tired-looking young mother with her child in tow and no, you can’t push on every door to see which one opens.
Terminal T is the terminal that most flights to/from Africa use in Brussels. It is a long, tubular tunnel, rather like a giant, rounded quonset hut with banks of windows on either side. There’s a definite African flavour in terms of the dress some travellers are sporting, but it otherwise has a generally cosmopolitan feel to it. It is full – most of the seats are taken – but is calm and there are surprisingly few people going up and down the main aisles or moving sidewalks. Over the two hours that I sat in Terminal T, flights to Dakar, Entebbe, Conakry and other places with exotic names emptied the seats until Freetown and Monrovia-bound passengers were the only ones left in the terminal. Our boarding was what I would consider a typically African experience. I had read that Brussels Airlines does a remarkably good job of boarding, lining people up by groups before letting people through, and then boarding from the rear of the plane forward. Perhaps that is what they tried to do today, but the gate agent made no announcement to that effect, or at least no announcement which was heard by anyone in the gate area. A few people in wheelchairs were taken to the ramp and then a slow-moving, amorphous throng of people began an inexorable push towards the gate agents. Only after the crowd had all surged towards the gate did word begin filtering back: Group 1, Group 1. Of course those of us not in Group 1 were stuck, roadblocks to those behind us who needed to move forward. Eventually we were all on board.
I know we were late leaving, but I’m not sure by how much – I fell asleep before we even left the gate, and woke perhaps an hour later to find the Alps on the eastern horizon, a huge snow-covered string of jagged peaks that stretched from one end of visible to the other. Hannibal did not get to see them from 35,000 feet. Would he have changed his mind if he had?
We crossed the middle of Spain (somehow I missed the Pyrenees) and I watched as zinfandel cliffs gave way to the Mediterranean. I dozed again, waking this time to what at first appeared to be clouds below us, but which I soon realised was as much dust as cloud cover. According to the flight map we are over Morocco, inland a bit though I’m on the wrong side of the plane to say how far. The dust is at times too thick to see through, but what can be seen is sand-coloured; darker cliffs with broad washes which fan out and disappear dot the land but it seems an inhospitable place down below.