By Pier Nirandara
Grand Prize Bronze Winner in the Seventeenth Annual Solas Awards
Fourteen hours, five passengers, three seats, two longed-for countries, one memorial.
You shuffle down the aisle, toddler in tow, before plopping down in the middle seat beside me. Already flustered from the delayed flight and whatever connection you had to make, strands of hair escape down the sides of your face, framing brows downturned at the corners. Your expression crumples ruefully as you apologize profusely in advance: it was to be a long 14 hours, especially with your child in your lap. I smile politely—but the gesture quickly drops when your husband closes the aisle seat, armed with another child, a newborn.
Four passengers in two seats? It must be the new direct route from New York to Cape Town. The flight was almost full, the airline unable to accommodate. You make an incredulous comment, noting my undeniable discomfort at being trapped beside the small window. “If this was Qatar or Emirates, they would have given us the whole row!” you exclaim sheepishly.
Before I can respond, your toddler climbs over me, tumbling into my lap. I start, momentarily frozen. She glances up with big brown eyes and long lashes, taking in the strange face inches from her own. Then she reaches out, pulling at my straight, Asian hair with a handful of stubby fingers. The texture must have felt foreign because she seems fascinated. Then her wide-eyed wonder breaks into a smile—laughing, bubbly. My defenses are instantly eroded, my heart immediately charmed.
“She’s adorable,” I can’t help but remark, and you chuckle, warning me that I may not feel the same in a few hours.
“First time to South Africa?” you ask.
“No,” I reply simply. What else can I say? How else to describe the feelings I have towards the country at the continent’s end—at the convergence of the Atlantic and Indian Oceans, the melting pot of cultures, the origin of so many people, and the terminus of just as many histories? I couldn’t tell you, a stranger, that I was heading back for my friend’s memorial, who had passed away just days prior; that Calvin had taken his own life; that the last time I’d seen him, he had thanked me for our friendship, and that I had done the same Thai thing I did whenever I was nervous—smile politely, not knowing it would be our last.
Instead, I make small talk. I ask how old your daughter is (eighteen months), if she can speak (just a few words), and if this is her first time flying (no, though this will be the longest).
As the flight wears on, the conversation evolves. You are South African, your husband is African American. You met at university in Vancouver, before moving to Texas. Your toddler has been to South Africa; your newborn has not. Your answers paint a picture, filling in the blank spaces in my mind that turn a stranger into someone not so strange—transforming an extra in a scene into a character with a face, name, and story. You remind me of sonder, the realization that each random passerby is living a life as vivid and complex as your own, and that I’m the extra in your story. Except something about me reminds you of a friend of yours. I mentally bet that she is also Asian.
You tell me your family is in Cape Town, your mother in an area near Muizenberg that I recognize as a township—an area formerly designated for non-whites during the apartheid regime. Your child understands two languages, English and Afrikaans, which makes me believe you are Cape Coloured, a thought I muse but do not voice aloud. I share that my own mother also lives on the other side of the world in Bangkok, and I only see her once or twice a year at most. You nod, relating, then joke that the first thing you’ll do upon landing is hand your mother the baby, then shove off to sleep.
I play the role of the naïve traveler, the Cape Town tourist. I don’t want to come off a certain way—like the know-it-all foreigner who boasts about being a “traveler, not a tourist” and throws in local slang to prove their authenticity. And perhaps because the story is far more complex than I can adequately put into words.
I leave out how an odd diving trip to a remote part of the Wild Coast changed my life years ago, propelling me from the safety net of ordinary existence into a solo backpacking trip across the continent, the countless places and faces woven into the tapestry of my memory. How a part of your country so fraught with emotion and deeply entrenched in history altered the course of my own story. How the Transkei, a historical Bantustan—a black homeland where people were forcibly settled during the infamous apartheid years—made me feel a deep longing for my own home, a fleeting place I had left a decade ago to chase the American Dream. Or perhaps, as an international, third-culture kid—for a place I had never truly known. But you don’t need me to tell you your own history.
Redacting my lexicon, I scrub free from conversation anything outside of Cape Town. No Transkei, Ciskei, or KwaZulu-Natal. No Eskom or loadshedding, bakkies, braais, or brus. I make sure not to describe everything as a mission or react with an empathetic hectic. A jol is now a party, lekker and kiff become cool. I allow myself a brief mention of Cyril, and a discussion of the ongoing pandemic, but steer clear from Zuma, from the ANC, from politics. I only know of Nelson Mandela and his Long Walk To Freedom.
I don’t mention how my heart aches for South Africa’s past, how my soul unraveled alongside each layer peeled back for a country that is not even my own. That my last book is set there, and that I spent the past several years and trips back trying to put it all into words. But that I’ll never stop writing about it.
At some point when you are busy trying to quiet your daughter and baby, I pull out my phone and scroll through old photographs—the ones from my first backpacking trip to South Africa. I’m enveloped by a strange feeling, like a tugging, bittersweet sense of the forlorn, and of nostalgia.
My photography has come a long way since then. I’ve learnt how to frame a subject to tell a better story, how to play with color and depth of field, and how to balance that ever-shifting light in Africa—the light so bright, it can be blinding. But there’s a purity to the archive of memories, an innocence almost tangible in the simplicity of serendipity captured, of profundity and what would grow to become an epoch in my lifetime, though the moment had not quite matured into meaning. It’s been over four years since the trip that changed everything. And yet, a part of me yearns to go back. To wild days on the open road, where my heart was unbroken, my self still unformed.
Then, a cry from your newborn pulls me back to the present. I realize that it mustn’t have been all that easy for you, considering you no longer live there. You emigrated, like a lot of other young saffas seeking a better life, the brain drain from Africa. I am privileged enough to go as a tourist—to enjoy a post-apartheid Rainbow Nation—free from the shackles of being South African.
I stay quiet, nod kindly, keep an eye on your kid as you and your husband take turns changing your baby. Sometime later, I offer my window seat so that you can get some rest and go to find one of the few remaining middle seats to sleep through the rest of the flight. It’s what Calvin would’ve done.
Half a day later, the view outside the descending plane reveals the Mother City in all her glory. Sandwiched between the mountains and the sea, the landscape radiates transcendence, like the physical manifestation of a feeling I’ve always struggled to put into words. A life on the edge of experience. It feels closer to the Great Perhaps. That somewhere over the rainbow.
In a moment of surprise, I feel the sting of tears behind my eyes. Maybe it’s the sound of elated South Africans clapping and cheering to be home after the Omicron surge split families. Maybe it’s the memory of countless mornings waking with a deep, pounding sense of longing for this country, and the drives I’d take to the South African deli in Los Angeles just to satiate the hunger for the taste of biltong and boerewors on my tongue. Or maybe it’s the bittersweet realization that Calvin never got to see his beautiful home one last time before he died.
Then your child interrupts my thoughts. She has waddled up, gazing up at me with doe-like eyes. You rush forward, apologize again, before thanking me for moving and giving your family a brief reprieve. You and your husband weren’t able to sleep, but your kids were, thanks to that extra seat.
“Have a good trip,” you say. “This place is special, hey?”
There it was, that dropped hey at the end of a sentence that was so distinctly South African, the one that always sent a pang through my chest. That despite everything wrong, there was something about the country that tugged at your heartstrings, that kept you coming back. The same reason why I had to leave Thailand to write about it, to become an outsider in my own homeland to see it from different eyes. To learn that home is not a place, but a feeling, and that feelings are fleeting, and homes can be ephemeral too.
I nod and smile politely. After all, even a 14-hour flight isn’t enough to say everything I’d like to say about SA.
Pier Nirandara is an author, film producer, and underwater photographer. She began her career as Thailand’s youngest English-writing author of three #1 national bestselling novels, multiple graphic novels, and short stories with more than 200,000 copies sold in multiple languages. Since then, she has represented literary clients at ICM Partners, served as director of development for international content at Sony’s Columbia Pictures, and most recently as VP of Film & TV at A-Major Media, Hollywood’s first Asian-American-driven production company. As literary ambassador for the Bangkok Metropolitan/UNESCO, she has spoken at TEDx events and international book fairs, was shortlisted for the S.E.A. Write’s ASEAN Young Writers Award, and judges for film and writing competitions at USC, UCLA, and the Neilson Hays Library. An advocate for solo female travel, she has visited over 90 countries across seven continents. She can be found in Los Angeles and @piersgreatperhaps.