Random landings

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We're about to land, but I don't know where in the world I'm going. The landscape spread below me is a tableau of muddy waters and tin-roofed houses poking out from palm groves. As we sink earthwards I see dark-skinned men picking through fallow fields, planting new seeds perhaps, though the soil's bone dry.

Bhutan seen from the planeSuch contrast from a few hours earlier, when I'd taken off from Bangkok: the sun was rising over the Gulf of Thailand, turning the sodden rice paddies stitched along its shoreline to glass. I thought I'd be flying direct to Paro, in Bhutan, but discovered once airborne that this Royal Bhutan Airways flight would be landing first at a place I'd never heard of.

I can't see it spelled anywhere — neither in the airline magazine, nor on my ticket — so I'm relying on the flight attendant's pronunciation for clues. 'Gawati,' she says, and I strain to hear the syllables and decipher this unfamiliar destination. 

I conjure the world map in my mind's eye: are we landing in an eastern corner of Bhutan? A city in Myanmar's northwest? Somewhere in northern Bangladesh, perhaps? My geographical aptitude fails me.

We touch down and pull up to a small, flaking terminal with the words 'LGB International Airport, Guwahati' helpfully spelled out for me. A row of IndiGo aircraft lines up alongside us, and a tanker sails past bearing another clue: India Oil Corporation, it reads. And then it comes to me: we're in Assam, that part of India cut adrift from the motherland during partition. Bangladesh lies to the south and, beyond it, the subcontinent. This state's disjointedness mirrors my own.

People disembark, others climb aboard. The plane takes off. We arrive in Paro, via a circuitous and world-enlarging route. On the way back to Bangkok I know exactly where we are when we stop to offload passengers at once-mysterious Guwahati.

Soon I'm on my way to Africa's tiny, ravaged heart, Rwanda. But to get there I must first land in another unfamiliar city, Entebbe. I've requested a window seat so that I can see where I'm going; a house-speckled swatch of greenery rises up to meet me, and then the vast bowl of Lake Victoria, glorious in the late afternoon glow. I've seen this lake once before, from its eastern shore near the border between Kenya and Tanzania. But up here I'm afforded a fresh perspective, one which helps to reorganise the map — incomplete as an ancient explorer's — stored in my brain.

 

"When I was a child, I thought it was a fictional place; if I disembarked now I could jump on a bus and be there by morning."

 

We land. People get off, people get on. The plane takes off again, glides above the earth and descends into Kigali with its just-swept streets and harrowing history. Soon I'm back in the air, chasing the sun towards the Republic of Congo. Its capital city, Brazzaville, speckles the shoreline of the fat-as-a-slug Congo River. On the opposite bank I can make out the smudged skyline of Kinshasa in the Democratic Republic of Congo. How odd to have seen a country but to never have been there.

A month later I'm back on another unscheduled tour of Africa. The plane lands in Addis Ababa, a jumble of city streets flying past my window. I spend hours in the airport, take off again, land in Bamako, capital of Mali. I imagine the fabled city of Timbuktu, northeast of here. When I was a child, I thought it was a fictional place; if I disembarked now I could jump on a bus and be there by morning.

But I stay put. People get off; others get on. They are Africans, mostly, dressed in bright wax-cloth dresses and head-ties, kaftans and kufi caps. French tumbles effortlessly yet incongruously from their mouths. I feel foreign and bland beside them.

The plane takes off. Bamako shrinks beneath us and disappears. Later, Dakar materialises from the anonymous landscape scrolling out below. It's a place that has stamped itself into my consciousness by the time I set off for home a week later: I can locate Dakar's port and Djifer in the Saloum Delta; I have stood on the tiny island capital of Banjul in The Gambia, and have sailed upriver to islands where slaves were corralled before being shipped to the Americas.

I'm headed in the opposite direction myself, to Nairobi in East Africa via Abidjan on the continent's Ivory Coast, to Abu Dhabi in the Middle East and Australia at the very ends of the earth. The world is arranging itself below me as I sail over it, slotting itself into place, locating new cities, redrawing borders on the imperfect map I carry around in my head.

 

 

Catherine MarshallCatherine Marshall is a Sydney-based journalist and travel writer.

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Catherine - next time you land at Guwahati, I hope you are getting off the plane to do a trip travelling up to the India/Bhutan border and then across Bhutan from east to west (Thimphu, Paro). Wonderful experience!
Mary Joy Gleeson Gleeson | 26 April 2018


Journeys are often fragmented and the intrepid traveller, as you are Catherine, relishes this. Rather than being an adventurous traveller I appreciate the 'usual'. I have seen three of the great rivers of the world though. The Nile, the incomparable Yangtze and the Yellow River. I was transfixed with all three.
Pam | 26 April 2018