Africa, Russia, Mongolia and China
Saying Goodbye to Africa, Hello to Europe
"You are six kilos over the limit with your large backpack, Mr. Jacobs,” says the airline counter worker at the Cairo airport. “Please place your carry-on bag onto the scale.”
I say to myself, “Ah, man, this is going to be ugly.”
I had placed as much weight as I could into my carry-on bag; my thinking was they would never weigh it.
“You’re carry-on bag is 14 kilos over the limit. This makes you 20 kilos over the weight limit, sir.”
“Whoops,” I say, trying to smile and calculate kilos to pounds in my head at the same time. Forty-two pounds over weight isn’t just a little past the limit.
After a brief conversation with a manager, the woman tells me with a smile to check on my second bag and they would not charge me for the excessive weight.
“Thank you,” I say with a large beaming smile. What a fitting way to say goodbye to Africa; it has been one surprise after another.
Landing in Belgium was like going through some type of time machine. Europe is so clean, orderly and predictable.
Catching the last train from Brussels for Amsterdam, I squeeze through the door to find a open seat. People stare at me like I am from some other world. I suppose I do look a little different walking around a European train in my safari hat, tan skin, huge blue backpack and half-shaven face.
It’s impossible for me to tell them what is going on inside my heart at the moment. It’s a type of reverse culture shock, combined with a sense that something profound happened over the last six months. Flowing within me is a sense of gratitude that something special has been accomplished.
As people blankly stare at me, I find myself longing for the less orderly train rides of Africa, where the passenger doors often remain open, allowing one to watch the scenes of life drift by just beyond reach. Or the stream of hot wind blowing my hair and earthy smells of farms filling my lungs, all those crazy things that make Africa such a rich experience.
For a couple of weeks I visit friends in Holland and Germany as I make a transition from Africa to Europe.
In the countryside not far from Heinsberg, Germany, my friends, the Volkners, live in a warm and inviting home. I step out one afternoon to enjoy the warm fall air and to take photos.
Walking down a country road, I notice an elderly man riding his bicycle down the brown dirt lane worn by tires of farmers who use it to work the surrounding fields. Summer greens stubbornly hang on as the hint of fall begins to reveal itself in a few brown leaves of various trees.
I snap some photos as the bicycle slowly approaches where I am standing.
When the man reaches me, I smile and say hello. He stops and speaks in German. I apologize, saying I can only understand English.
“Sorry my English is no good,” and then says, “where are you from?”
“America,” I reply.
“Where in America?”
“Oh, I’ve been to Nebraska.”
“You have?” I say with a surprise in my voice.
“Yes, I once spent two years of my life there. It was during the big war. After being captured I was sent to a prison camp in Nebraska. My name is Hoebin, and last week was my birthday; I just turned 82,” he says with a smile.
My attempts to ask him where in Nebraska he spent those two years are always followed by the same response: “My English is not so good, sorry.”
I wish Hoebin happy birthday, and tell him he is always welcome to come back to Nebraska as a friend.
Standing there, I ponder what the chances are of meeting a man in the middle of the countryside who spent two years of his life in a Nebraska prisoner of war camp. I take it as a sign that I’m in the right place. It is time to prepare for Russia.
I wave goodbye, as he smiles and slowly pedals his bike back toward home.