When I step out of Terminal C of the Kansas City International Airport, I am swaddled in muggy heat. I feel as if I have stepped into an immense sauna. Part of me wants to strip right there.
It’s almost July, and the weather is what one might expect. However, I am no longer in sync with what one might expect. For the past two and half weeks I have been far, far away, in the highlands of Kenya and Ethiopia, where the temperature was a mild 60 or 70 degrees Fahrenheit, dropping down into the 50’s at night. Even though I was near the equator, the high altitude and the occasional rains shifted me into a kind of tropical winter, wearing a jacket against the morning chill, drinking tea to warm my bones, shedding my outer layer as the sun climbed to its zenith.
The air was so thin and clear in Kenya and Ethiopia that sunlight fell directly onto my skin, doing a pleasant slow-burn. Instead of swaddling me, thick and wet, it settled on my arms like powder. It had a different tint as well—more diffused, not as densely white. Thin and transparent as water-color, it didn’t glare in a Midwestern lead-white way, causing my eyes to ache. It didn’t slant heavily either. Here, when I look around, everything has hard-edged shadows underneath—the airport shuttle and the passengers with pull-along suitcases—but those shadows seem a kilter. The sky needs to be re-aligned, it seems. Or maybe me?
My wife and I find our Honda and drive north toward home, headed up 1-35, but the sensory disorientation continues, as if I have been sucked out of my true body then injected into someone else’s.
Everything is so neatly organized here—the square lawns with their right-angle sidewalks, the criss-cross parking lots, the rectangular shop fronts, the boxed-in fields with their perfectly parallel croplines, even the endless electric lines in their aerial grid. It’s as if the scene is entirely machine-made, which (now that I think of it) is exactly the case, since machines laid down the concrete and built up the structures, and since machines processed all the poles and wires that got stretched in mathematical precision across the land.
East Africa was so organic by comparison—paths that wound every which way, braided over the top of each other; donkeys straying onto the highway; asymmetric vending stalls built of mismatched poles; little patchwork fields in crazy-quilt patterns. To look out at that landscape was to be constantly surprised. Nothing was predictable—unlike here, where one could almost tie the steering wheel in place and go to sleep, waking to find everything looking the same.
And where are the people? So much space to inhabit but so few faces. In Kenya and Ethiopia, one couldn’t drive a hundred yards without seeing someone, if not a crowd. In the towns, shop attendants threw pails of soapy water into the roadside ditches and construction workers hoisted planks on a pulley and mechanics leaned into the bowels of parked trucks. Farmwives carried burlap bags of greens to the market and lawn workers swung machetes at the receding grass and Arab truck drivers drank chai under awnings and schoolgirls giggled in red sweaters and legless beggars humped along, swinging their torsos on dirty hands.
In the countryside, the people would ebb. But even out on the open savannah, one could still see herders taking goats to pasture or farmers guiding heavy-laden donkeys. One could see locals hiking red-dirt paths along the edge of zig-zag fields, getting from point A to point B in the way they have always gotten from point A to point B. Or one could see a lone boy lying on the ground, face-up, staring into the sky.
Here, though, no one! Not even as we get to the first big city—Des Moines—and swoop past a commercial zone, where one is confronted by the glint of hundreds of glassed-in cars and whole blocks of air-conditioned glass. Nary a face, except a hitchhiker standing in the shade of an overpass, looking at his map. Passing by, I feel like he and I are the only outliers left in this post-modern ghost town. Though I have driven the same route dozens of times, I have been turned into a stranger.
North of Des Moines, I look to the fields again, and though I see a couple of cows in a pasture, I drive twenty minutes without sighting a human. Miles and miles of corn slide past, but no one switching a donkey or selling mangoes. No farmers pulling weeds. And certainly no boy lying on his back, staring at clouds.
This Midwestern landscape is “picture perfect” in a fertile, controlled way. It’s a well-kept, bucolic painting of the landscape-architecture genre. But it feels sterile to me now, the man who has returned from the other side of the globe.
When the sun sets and darkness settles over northern Iowa, I pass the town of Clear Lake with its intersecting lines of lights. I am almost home now—to the little burg of Forest City—and I am dead-tired, having jumped eight time zones in twenty hours. In Ethiopia it must be five or six a.m.—the time when the roosters begin to crow and the muezzin clears his throat for prayer. Over there, everything is beginning anew. But here I drive toward a cul-de-sac of old routines, taking the off-ramp and following hypnotic dashes toward a dark habitual house that will close around me predictably, saying “I knew you would come back. Sleep now.”
I unlock the door and fall into bed, returning to the cessation of movement, to the unconscious stasis of a life I used to live—a life that is simultaneously familiar and very strange.