The Intrepid Starling
Chapter 6: In Transit
In a world where minutes are worth their weight in gold, Sam’s most plentiful commodity is time. Just as she is grateful to travel for turning her perspectives topsy-turvy, so too does she find comfort in the inversion of the old adage time is money. If she has anything to spend, it’s hours in the day.
Layovers are no longer an annoyance, but a bargaining chip in her search for the best fare. Long stopovers are a gift—the chance to dip a toe into the refreshing waters of a new place. On her way from Cameroon to Jamaica, she has six hours in Casablanca and an overnight stop in New York.
Landing back in Morocco after Cameroon feels akin to coming home. The accent is familiar and the exchange rate easy to calculate. How remarkable we are as humans, she thinks. Only a month prior this country felt as foreign as Mars and now it’s old hat. Does any other species adapt so easily?
The train from the airport to downtown is full. She will only stay a few hours to see the Hassan II Mosque, but most of her fellow passengers will remain in the city to follow their midday prayer with a hot meal and familiar bed. Sam will take her afternoon nap in 14A.
As the train approaches the port station, it rounds a corner and a view of the sea fills the windows. Like so many compass needles pointing north, all heads turn to gaze at the glittering blue. It is more comforting than an oasis. They are home.
A short taxi ride through the city brings her to the famous site’s plaza. To say it is big falls several letters short in capturing the magnitude of the space. It is gigantic—a plain of stone and marble leading to Africa’s largest mosque. Sam crosses it while gazing upward at the world’s tallest minaret. Its blue-tiled top is so high it blends with the sky. Next to the main doors, a mother and her daughters are posing for a family portrait. The five of them could stand on each other’s shoulders and still have no hope of touching the doorway’s arch. They’d need the father and brothers as well.
After taking a short tour and dozens of photos—with the camera never really able to take in the scope of it all—she returns to the taxi station and turns back for one final shot. The space is lively now with shouting and laughter filling it as children cross it on their way home from school.
Three young boys pass in front of her and, upon seeing her camera, the littlest one stops. He smiles, says something to his comrades and then balls his left hand into a fist. First with hesitation, and then with lip-biting concentration, he uses his other hand to raise up his ring finger. Then, as if holding a trophy, he lifts his fist to show Sam. For a quick beat she is puzzled by the gesture and then fights hard to keep from laughing. He’s attempting to flip her off. The trouble is, he’s mixed up the finger that would make the gesture an offensive one.
There’s no malice in this little trio, though. His friends giggle as he continues the sequence by gyrating his hips to imitate a scene from some music video. Sam can’t hold her laughter any longer and when she finally lets it go, the boy blushes and runs away, pulling his friends by their sleeves along with him.
Sam lifts her eyes back across the plaza toward the mosque. What a majestic backdrop for the little performance. What would the late king have thought of this miniature entertainer? Still smiling, she hails a cab to the airport. She doubts there will be anything as entertaining on her small screen in the plane, but it’s time to catch the flight nonetheless.
Just as hours are her stock to trade, airports have become Sam’s makeshift office. She uses time spent in stiff armchairs to update her website, edit photographs and compose descriptions of spaces behind generously-opened doors. So many have been so kind to allow the portal of her lens into their homes as she continues to explore the question of how people make home around the world.
There is also time in the waiting area to reflect on her question’s more philosophical tones. As she lines up to board the aircraft that will take her across the Atlantic, she watches a short video emailed by a friend. In it, Iwan Baan—one of the world’s greatest architecture photographers—documents ingenious living arrangements in unexpected places. Sam is transfixed by stories of families creating lavish apartments in an unfinished 45-story tower in Venezuela and a floating community in Nigeria constructing a 3-story primary school on a massive raft. How remarkably adaptable this species, indeed.
The photographer is animated as he marvels humans’ ability to make life beautiful in the world’s unexpected corners. Next to an apartment-turned-cow-shed in Egypt, he shows a space decked out in enough crystal and brocade to rival Versailles. His images celebrate each family’s quest to make a space their own. On top of garbage heaps or inches above a lagoon, these individuals transform their environments into places for celebration, relaxation and connection.
From China, he shows an entire community built of inverted houses. These dwellings are built by subtracting the ground rather than adding a house upon it. The courtyard is subterranean, with trees and benches filling the place where a basement might otherwise be poured. Tunnels lead off to form domed, cave-like rooms. These builders are led only by intuition and the human spirit of ingenuity, he explains.
As Baan closes the talk, he cautions against cookie-cutter housing solutions taking the place of these makeshift creations. “There is a plague of sameness which is killing human joy,” he warns, quoting his friend Zita Cobb.
As Sam settles into her seat, she considers his lessons. The generic is no match for human ingenuity. Self-expression need not come at great expense.
These thoughts are still buzzing in her mind as she lands in the world’s most expressive of cities. New York’s subway is like a gallery showcasing individualism.
Exhibit A—tattoos. The bottom edges of a girl’s feet are outlined in vines and flowers as though she’s walking through a field. Birds flock across a man’s arm encircling a heart so freshly broken it drips like a cracked egg. “This is what they call wearing your heart as your sleeve,” he jokes when Sam asks to take a photo.
Exhibit B—fashion. Along a bench of commuters clad in gray and black, a woman with an electric blue Afro sits in front of a stroller. She’s stroking her baby’s cherub cheeks and smoothing his own shock of curly hair. When the train pulls to a stop, a man in a pageboy cap, red suspenders and pressed gray slacks with the cuffs rolled to mid-calf taps her shoulder. “You’re mad fly,” he tells her before exiting onto the platform.
After a ride in this living gallery, Sam gets off the train in Inwood to follow the map on her phone to the apartment of a friend of a friend.
“Gus?” she asks when the intercom crackles to answer her call.
“Sam! Come on u—,” the door clicks unlocked to finish the greeting.
The smell of spices guides Sam upward to an open apartment door. “Come on in,” calls a voice inside where she finds a girl straining a creamy amber liquid into mugs. “Tea?” Gus’s eyes smile behind her fogged-up glasses. “Welcome to New York.” She sets down the pot to hug Sam. “It’s so nice to finally meet you.”
“So wonderful to meet you. A million thanks for letting me stay here the night.”
“It’s the only way,” Gus insists. “I’d never let a friend’s friend—or even a friend’s enemy—pay for a hotel on this island. Come. Sit down.”
As they exit the kitchen, Sam notices a painting on the fridge. Against a charcoal background, the white outline of New York’s skyline glows like a neon sign. A splatter of stars fills the sky in Christmas-light colors. Swirling script across the bottom reads: It is better to have loved and left than to never have loved at all.
My friend Lenny painted that before she moved away last year,” Gus explains when Sam asks about it. “She loved this town.”
Sam understands why. Like the dozens of unique stars in this painted sky, the city is filled with so many people each sparkling in their own way to light it up.
The next morning, Sam shuts the apartment door behind her with a soft click. Along with long layovers, these pre-dawn flights have become the norm. Little matter. It only means she’ll be climbing Jamaica’s mountains by noon.
She boards and takes her seat next to a wide-eyed boy of ten or eleven who’s gripping the armrests.
“Good morning,” she greets him softly.
“This is my first flight,” he whispers, staring straight ahead.
“That’s wonderful.” Sam animates her voice to counter his nervousness. “You’re going to love it.”
“For real?” He looks over at her for the first time.
“Yes. So much. You just have to be careful of one thing.”
“What?” he tightens his grip again.
“You might love flying so much you’ll never want to stop. Someday you might want to fly around the entire world.”
“I don’t believe you.”
“Have you ever been to Disneyland?”
“Once,” he nods. “We drove there a few years ago.”
“Well, flying is at least as cool as Splash Mountain.”
“Really? You promise me?”
“Just wait and see.”
When the plane takes off and the force of it pushes them into the seats, the boy looks up and smiles at Sam. Mid-flight, when a storm bumps and jostles them about, he whispers, “This is cooler than Indiana Jones.”
“Totally.” Sam high fives him.
As the plane descends, he cranes his head out the window. “There’s the beach! It’s the beach. We’re here, we’re here!” He grabs Sam’s hand and she squeezes back. “Oh, thank you, Lord. I’m so happy we’re finally here. I wonder if I can see my grandma down there.” He presses his face against the glass and Sam laughs.
If her most readily available currency is time, Sam feels she has spent it well. Her forty-hour trip has been filled with the kind of entertainment one often pays for on a vacation. She’s been to a show, visited a gallery and enjoyed a theme park.
Some believe arrival at a destination is the point at which to begin enjoying the journey. But here, in the in-between spaces, travel can be just as lovely, she thinks. In the same way home can be built in unexpected places, so too can the joys of exploration catch us in the unlikeliest of moments.