I noticed my son, David, check his watch then look at the map.
He sat at the window, I occupied the middle seat, and Anna sat on the aisle. We represented about one per cent of the passengers aboard the South African Airlines jumbo out of New York, bound for Johannesburg. We had flown out in the morning, touched down at Sal Island for fuel where we had waited on board the plane until a Cubana IL 62 departed.
Back in the early 1980s, war raged in Angola with the Cubans and South Africans shooting at each other. The local authorities didn’t want passengers or crew members engaging in a punch-up in the terminal so they kept the two factions apart. We soon continued on, swung wide of the African coast to avoid unfriendly ground fire, and flew into late afternoon.
The three of us sat there occupied with our own thoughts; we had lived in Africa and our hearts and minds throbbed with emotion as the return neared. David had drawn the window blinds out of courtesy to our fellow passengers who preferred to watch the movie. We had earlier heard the excited talk of those in the row immediately behind, discussing this first visit to the African continent; but now they immersed themselves in the Hollywood nonsense on the screen.
Having completed his dead reckoning, David closed the map, pulled his binoculars from the seat pocket and said, "We should see it about now."
As he slid open the blind I caught sight of the African coast and sat speechless. A voice from the row behind broke into this fabulous moment: "Close that window. We can’t see the movie."
Stunned, I thought, You want to watch a movie when you will never again experience this view from six miles above the African coastline.
David didn’t take time to think. He rotated his considerable torso in the seat, pushed his beard over the seat back, and said, "I’ll close it when I’ve had a good look."
Two weeks later we stood on a dusty roadside in the Orange Free State looking at the dragon-back silhouette of the Drakensburg mountains. Apparently, something in this fabulous scene had carried David’s mind back to that incident on the plane, for he said, "Most people can’t accept reality unless they can touch it or break it. This makes it hard for them to tell reality from fantasy. When given the choice between a movie and a first glimpse of Africa they don’t know which is real so they choose that which requires less thinking; the film."
Although his binoculars swept the mountains, his mind remained elsewhere, "Think about it. The African coastline slowly slipping below some six miles away bored our fellow passengers. The only interaction between that coastline and them was superficial, unreal."
He lowered his glasses and sat on a rock. His eyes still fixed on the distant view, he continued, "Without immediate, continual, external stimulation people become bored. They can’t sit and think.
They can’t experience internally. That film was more real to those people than Africa. It reached out and hit them. It titillated them, involved them, and substituted for their own inadequate thoughts. Why would they want to stare at some coast when they can turn over their minds to the film maker? They don’t understand the power of symbols. For me, the African coastline stood for everything that had been and would be."
Right before my eyes my son had turned into a philosopher. But then, Africa can do that to just about anyone.