Being Here, Leaving There (or "Just Standing There Makes You Wet in Jeddah")

At dusk our big 767 stuck its belly down into the thick layer of humidity hanging over the Red Sea shore. I twisted my neck to see my new city unfold below through the bands of water vapor in the sky. It could've been any city. At that height, it's just lines of lights, clusters of orange and blue and white, all crashing suddenly into the impenetrably dark sea. Jeddah looks like Miami or Sydney or Buenos Aires in the dark at 10,000 feet. And we spiraled downward, and the lights separated, and now there were taillights moving in straight lines like tame red sparks, mosques outlined in fluorescent green, flashing Times Square-esque jumbotrons at intersections where the traffic was snarled.

Nothing to do with Saudi Arabia. Grace and Ames, March 2011.
The darkness above and the bright city below folded together and my head bobbed as the wheels struck the runway. And it was like a return stroke of lightning. We came from the air and the ground rushed to meet us, and we were suddenly connected to this place, connected to now, through the sinew of cloth and steel and tire rubber rolling roughly over the Saudi Arabian runway pavement. The past was still up there hanging in the sky, somewhere where it doesn't matter anymore. And it's like that sometimes: one moment you're there, and the next you're here, and there is behind you and you stumble if you try too hard to crane to see it.

This is the Middle East. Damascus, Amman, Jeddah, Cairo, they're all as different as Halifax is from Houston. But enough is the same that I instantly felt at home. It was little things like the color of the curbs, the texture of the sidewalks, the smell of auto garages, gaudy storefronts with dazzling lights of every color that overpower the darkness and sting your eyes. I love the little things. If you stack up enough little things, suddenly you have the big things.

I stepped out onto our balcony. It was past eleven at night, but the air was stifling, heavy. It seemed to weigh down the fronds on the palm tree stooping just an arm's length from the railing. The sky was purple. Thick nighttime, pregnant with water vapor, lazily batted photons trying to escape into the sky back into the city, and the outlines of nearby buildings across the narrow cobblestone street below grew hazy though the humidity. And I closed my eyes and felt my feet root into the ground, anchoring me to here, to now, and everywhere else -- comfortable, familiar places -- disappeared behind the curves of the earth until they were gone. And so it ends; and so it begins.