You smell it before you really see it. You step off the plane and it hits you, a mix of diesel fuel and sweat and burning wood fires, bubbles of smell suspended in the thick, humid night air.
The first moments at the airport are always tense. Skinny, silent policemen are everywhere– I’ve never seen a fat cop– bouncing ancient, wooden-handled rifles on their knees. Everyone has the same worries, I guess– will the customs officers just wave me through, or will they ask to see every document– and if that’s the case, what have I done with my yellow fever card and my attestation de mission? Does my phone work? Where are my friends? Luckily this time the customs officer has a quick look at my visa and waves me through. My bags take so long to come onto the carousel that I worry that they’ve gone on the “continuing service to Nairobi” part of the flight without me. But finally there they are– my fat black backpack which has been on every overnight trip I’ve taken for years, and my extremely overstuffed brown suitcase full of deliveries which only escaped paying overweight fees because of a calculation error by the counter attendant in Brussels. I wrestle them off and go through the green channel toward the waiting crowd. It takes about ten seconds for Emilie to appear, wearing a smile visible from 100 feet away, with Félicie, and Pierre who hugs me tight and looks at me in that shy way he has, not wanting to make a scene in the airport. Emilie has found a neighbour of hers with a car, and recruited him to ferry us around all evening for the equivalent of twelve dollars plus a beer and a skewer of grilled goat. “I’m sorry it’s so much, I thought I had haggled him down but then he called me back and insisted on this price or nothing.” How to explain that hiring a driver for the night in North America costs so much that people usually only do it once or twice in their lives, and then in a big group?
The air is like a warm bath. The overstuffed car zips down the paved roads and, at a turnoff, on a wide boulevard near where I used to work, starts to rock like a boat on a rough sea. Félicie has recommended us a new café in her neighbourhood– but almost all cafés are the same. We order beers. Feli asks where the vétérinaire is- in Burundi, grillmasters are called veterinarians. The grilled goat skewers arrive, accompanied by cooked plantains that taste more like potato than banana, and squirts of spicy pili-pili sauce. Féli takes mine. Someone calls Dieudonné, who walks over, and hugs all the girls for a long time, flashing those striking cat-eyes of his that are visible from a distance. Hey you! It’s been a long time, pull up a chair.
I’m back home.