Sky’s the Limit Excerpts
My concerns are calmed a few days later when I discover the scenic fishing village of Kalk Bay, a suburb of Cape Town. Wooden fishing boats covered in colorful peeling paint trawl in and out of the pea-sized harbor and, combined with the train tracks that run just between the beach and the town’s bookstores, a more scenic spot I have not seen. It sets my creativity a blaze. I fill my days walking up and down the docks snapping shots and my evenings gorging myself on the fish those very boats had brought in. After dinner, I listen to grizzled men in worn wool caps fill the air with sounds from their harmonicas, and watch little boys cast and catch their first fish off the end of the docks while beached seals soak up the last few seconds of sunlight.
Feeling encouraged, I make my way southeast along the coast by taking the Baz Bus, a hop-on/hop-off service designed for backpackers, though I still have to hitch a ride to reach Hermanus Bay. I find a trinket-filled town center that ends abruptly where a steep cliff drops off to the lip of ocean. My destination, the Shark Lab, is at the bottom of that cliff, carved into the rock wall just a few feet from where the ocean’s waves peter out. The South African Shark Conservancy (SASC) has agreed to provide room and board in exchange for a promotional film, and while SASC won’t be paying me, this is exactly the kind of work I want to be doing. Even if I had Steven Spielberg’s help, I couldn’t have scripted a better opportunity.
The inside of the Shark Lab looks like a secret headquarters fit for Aquaman. My contact, Lisa, the director and lead scientist, is nine months pregnant and seems about to burst. Right after we shake hands she lights a cigarette, letting it dangle from her lips. Sandy, who is second in command, appears just as tough as nails as she grips my outstretched hand like a vise. But isn’t that the case with anyone that works with the sea?
Sandy takes me on a quick tour and leads me into a room that has two small above-ground swimming pools. Inside them are baby sharks swimming in slow circles. The room just beyond that is the rest of the team’s workspace. There are all kinds of scientific charts on the walls and measuring devices strewn about—I can’t imagine the use of half of them. Eight industrial-style desks are lined up along the wall, and every chair but one is filled with a bright-eyed student. They’re an eclectic group, undoubtedly from all over the world.
Sandy introduces me to the group as a filmmaker, which sends a nervous shiver across my shoulders because it’s the first time anyone’s ever called me that. I glance around the room, hoping a real filmmaker doesn’t pop up to say, “He’s only pretending to be a filmmaker—get him out of here!” I have to clear my throat before I can explain why I’m here. “I’m excited to work with everyone. This is my thirteenth day in South Africa, and I’ve always been interested in great white sharks, so I reached out to Lisa last week and asked her if I could come and stay with you guys for a little while. In exchange, I’ll be making a short film for SASC. The film is going to cover all the research and cool things you do here.”
Sandy adds, “We’re going to put Eric’s film on the SASC website once it’s finished.”
Joseph jumps up and shakes my hand as soon as Sandy leaves the room. He’s the operations manager I’ve been coordinating with via email this past week. He’s almost as tall as me, with long, shaggy hair and a Tom Selleck mustache. It takes me a second to adjust to his Zambian accent, which is slightly murkier than the South African one my ears have just started getting used to. I’ll be staying with him and the seven SASC interns at the house they all share in Onrus Beach for the next two weeks.
I wheel Timberland over to the corner of the room and take a seat behind the only empty desk. The first thing that strikes me about the interns is how happy they are. As I’d guessed, they’re from all over the world—France, Canada, and the Netherlands, just to name a few. Studying sharks is their passion, and it shows on all their exuberant faces, which is such a difference from the drab and depressed looks I’d grown used to seeing from the teachers who were forced to show up for my training sessions.
Joseph asks me to stand and sizes me up before leaving the room. A few moments later, he’s back and tosses me a damp wet suit. “This is the biggest we have, mate.”
“No worries,” I say. “I’ll squeeze into it. But what do I need this for?”
“We’re gonna head to Gansbaai in a few minutes. Then we’ll take the boat out to Dyer Island, chum the water, and get you inside the cage so you can get some underwater video of a few great whites. Should be epic, mate.”
Holy shit! I think, but don’t say.
Two hours later and true to his word, Joseph is throwing bloody tuna heads into the ocean like they’re beanbags at a backyard barbeque. I’m distracting myself by stuffing my long limbs into the damp wetsuit. I can’t tell if the goosebumps going up and down my back are from the freezing foamed neoprene that just hit my skin or the gigantic fin that I just saw skim the horizon.
When the interns hoist a coffin-sized cage over the starboard side, that’s my cue. Joseph lifts the lid and I jump in with my GoPro before giving myself time to second guess things. The sea sways violently as I try to get my balance underwater. I steady myself against the bars and press record just as a school of silver fish swim by. It strikes me as odd when they scatter just seconds later. Camera shy, I think. Suddenly from the deepest shade of blue below me, a great white hurtles towards the cage. Its speed makes a bullet look slow and my heart stops. I let go of the cage and retreat to the center as the shark opens its massive mouth. Its barbwire teeth look like they’re coming right at me because they are. At the last second, Joseph yanks the tuna head, tied to a rope, back into the boat. The great white crashes into the cage with the power of a steam engine. We’re eye to eye for a split second before it flicks its tail and disappears.
Sometimes, happiness is something you feel in hindsight, after the joy has had time to settle and sink in, but this is not one of those times.
Right here, right now, I am as happy as I’ve ever been.
Nairobi’s streets at 2:30 in the morning are grim. Huge piles of garbage line the broken sidewalks, and the smell of raw sewage obliterates every other scent. Small piles of trash burn in the middle of each intersection and give the city’s eerie darkness a lawless, postapocalyptic feel.
Most of the dangling streetlamps don’t work; the dim headlights of the taxi I’m in barely illuminate the pitch blackness. I feel anything but safe. But much worse than the darkness is the statement that Al Shabaab released two days ago: Kenyan cities will run red with blood.
I’m in one of those cities—a poor suburb of Nairobi called Eastleigh. Its nickname is “Little Mogadishu” as it’s inhabited mostly by Somali immigrants. Since 2012, this neighborhood has experienced several attacks linked to Al Shabaab. Most of the buildings we pass are crumbling; some look bomb blasted. One actually is—a blast killed six people here last year. There are only a handful of people walking the streets at this hour. They look as tough as you’d expect.
The taxi driver I’ve hired, who assured me he knew where the bus station was, can’t find any of the streets he’s looking for.
He slows the car without looking at me and then pulls over and rolls the window down. A stranger emerges from the shadows. This is exactly how Western tourists end up on the news.
The driver asks him a question in Swahili—directions, I surmise. They both look confused.
This is the most dangerous thing I could be doing here. To my relief, the driver finally pushes the pedal down, and off we go again. A few minutes later, still no bus station, so my driver pulls over, and we repeat the same hair-raising process. It feels like just a matter of time before we’re carjacked.
A homeless man helps us out, pointing down the street and counting up from zero. He’s telling us it’s the tenth street on the left. Pulling away, the driver regains his confidence and tries his best to reassure me. “It’s very safe, nothing to worry about.”
We both know he is lying.
We count the streets out loud together as we pass. There are no street signs.
Tenth street. Left turn.
At the end of the block, I see a long white bus with “Moyale Liner” painted on the side. This isn’t so much of a bus station as it is a bus stop. My blood pressure spikes, and I fidget in my seat. This is it—we’ve arrived. I was almost hoping we wouldn’t. Our car creeps around crater-like potholes.
When I told the manager of Khweza Bed and Breakfast I would take this bus to Moyale last night, she stopped clicking through the photos I’d taken on my computer screen and started pleading with me not to go. I told her it was the only way.
After an eerie silence, she said, “The bus will most likely have two armed guards on it.”
“I’m not sure if that makes me feel better or worse,” I replied nervously.
The bus will pass through the part of northern Kenya that has recently become a hotbed for Al Shabaab activity. Their attacks are often aimed at buses just like this one.
As we pull closer, I notice that the bus appears to be riddled with bullet holes. My taxi driver pulls alongside it. I wish we were good friends. I wish he could tell me a funny story or reassure me that all this is routine, no sweat. The only thing he says is how much I owe him.
“I’ll be right back, wait here,” I say.
I leave my bags in the taxi so he won’t pull away while I inspect the bus. When I get up to the driver’s side, I find that the “bullet holes” are metallic stickers of oddly shaped stars. It’s an appalling choice of decal, considering where this bus is headed.
I circle the dilapidated vehicle, looking for someone in charge. There’s a group of Ethiopians wrapped in blankets drinking camel-milk tea. By their side, a homeless teenage boy sleeps on the sidewalk. He is using newspapers as blankets and his lone shoe as his pillow.
“Does anyone work here?”
No one blinks. No one responds. No one seems to care.
I run back to the taxi and ask the driver if he can wait for me or if I can wait inside the taxi with him. He points to his watch and says, “I have to be at the airport to pick someone up in a few minutes. I must leave right now.” I offer him more money to stay, but he has to go. He gets out and dumps Timberland and my camera bag onto the pavement.
As he pulls away, I watch his taillights disappear into the wasteland-like night.
Behind me, someone appears in the doorway of the bus. He’s a dark man with a long black beard. His once-white T-shirt and tan cargo pants are filthy. He waves over the group of Ethiopians and begins collecting their tickets. I walk over and ask in a panic, “Is this bus safe—do you think it will make it to Moyale without being attacked? I heard that the bus has two armed guards on it, is that true?”
He shrugs. He can’t understand a word I say, and neither can anyone else. Everyone here speaks Arabic. I see no armed guards anywhere.
Kenyan cities will run red with blood.
People push past me to board the bus. No one is smiling, no one is cheerful, and no one looks like they are going to enjoy the long road ahead—a nerve-jangling, fifteen-hour ride, a good portion of it likely on unpaved roads.
The man collecting tickets motions for mine. I pull it out of my pocket and look at it. It says boarding time, 3:00 a.m.—the same time that’s showing on my phone. This is literally the point of no return. If I step onto this bus, there’s no turning back.
Just how much am I willing to risk for my dreams?
I can just go back to the hotel, go back to bed, and then fly to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s capital, in the morning. No one will ever know!
The man collecting tickets officially loses his patience with me and angrily waves his hands for mine. There isn’t going to be some miraculous sign this time; I’m going to have to make my own feet move.
I have to finally find out what I’m made of, to stick with what I initially set out to do, just this once. I’ve quit too many times in my life. Who knows what kind of man I might become if I can summon the courage to push forward. This might be my only chance to ever truly test myself. With the flames at my feet, I take one last deep breath and tell myself, don’t quit, keep going.
I reach into my pocket and fish around for my ticket. After I pass it over, I rest my hand on the windshield and say a quiet prayer.
Dear God, please protect everyone on this bus. Please let us arrive in Moyale safely. Help get us there in one piece. And please don’t let my journey end like this.
And then I step on board.
By the next morning, I’m ready to move on. While Africa has taught me more about myself than anyone or anything ever has, it has beaten me to a pulp. I had to throw out all my T-shirts because no matter how many times I washed them, I just couldn’t get the sweat stains out of them.
I’ve managed to book seven free nights at the Marriott in Cairo by using most of the points I racked up while traveling across Florida and covering for coworkers at my old corporate job. One of the additional perks of my platinum status is full access to the beautiful Executive Lounge, which includes the most knowledgeable concierge service I’ve ever come across. Though Kamilah’s got to be tired of me by now. We’ve spent the past hour together, poring over ways for me to get out of Africa and into Europe without flying, but it actually seems impossible.
Ever since the Egyptian revolution in 2010, the tourism industry here has suffered. Cruise lines have either scaled back service or just stopped coming altogether. So taking a ship across the Mediterranean Sea, like I had assumed I would do, isn’t an option. Libya, Egypt’s neighbor to the west, is in the midst of a civil war. Although Israel, Egypt’s neighbor to the east, does have a border crossing at Taba, to get to there I would have to cross through the northern part of the Sinai Peninsula, which is ungoverned and one of the most dangerous strips of land in the world. It’s been the launch site for several terrorist attacks against tourists, which is one of the major reasons why cruise ships no longer sail to Egypt.
Once again, I find myself at a dead end. While I’ve suffered setbacks before, none have felt as impenetrable as this.
I lift my head up out of my hands and glance over Kamilah’s shoulder out the window at the Nile. We’re twenty-two stories up, and I can see the shimmering blue snake nose its way through Cairo’s Zamalek district. It’s a magnificent sight.
I simply cannot bear the idea of my dreams dying after having come so far, and it takes only my next breath to remind myself that I won’t be defeated. If I’ve learned one thing during this Impossible Idea, it’s that impossible situations are not here to stop me. They’re here to test my resilience and determination.
And I can assure you I want this more than I want my next breath.
Like a match has been scraped against my insides, I feel a spark in my belly, and I’m reminded that I can’t just mope around and hope that diplomatic relations in North Africa and the Middle East magically clear up overnight. I can’t expect the world to roll out a red carpet for my overland dream. The old me might have done that, but not the new me.
Knowing full well that this is my final African exam, I jump up and insist that we take one last look at the map Kamilah has pulled up on her computer screen.
“Can you think of any other way for me to go?”
As Kamilah hunts for a route, I try to manifest an idea into her mind. I’m concentrating so hard on her that if I redirected my thoughts toward the pencil on her desk, I know I could make it move.
A few seconds later, she interrupts the silence with a wonderful sound. “Ah!”
“What is it? Please tell me!” I say.
“No, never mind. That’s probably not a good idea.”
“What is it?”
“It’s probably too dangerous as well, and I don’t want to be responsible for sending you that way.”
I beg and beg until she finally relents. She zooms in on the map and moves her finger around the southern rim of the Sinai Peninsula, and then up and across to the middle of its eastern edge.
I squint and read the word just above her finger: “Nuweiba.”
“It’s a tiny Egyptian port, and I think that there might be a bus that goes from Cairo to Nuweiba. It’s still a risk, but the bus doesn’t travel through Northern Sinai, which is the most dangerous part of Egypt. Instead, this one travels across Central and Southern Sinai.”
“Okay, what happens once I get to Nuweiba?”
“A few months ago, two guys who were staying here travelled along this very route. The bus gets loaded onto a ferry, crosses the Gulf of Aqaba, and docks in Aqaba.”
Kamilah zooms in even further on the map and points to a small sliver of land no bigger than a matchstick between Israel and Saudi Arabia.
“Aqaba is on the southwestern coast of Jordan, and from Aqaba the bus continues on to Amman. That’s where those two guys came from. They did the reverse route you’d be doing and traveled from Amman to Cairo this way. But again, you would still have to cross through the Sinai Peninsula, and I wouldn’t recommend anyone try that, let alone a very large American like yourself. Plus, I believe that the bus ride itself takes about thirty hours.”
I dry my palms against my shorts. They’ve begun to sweat at the prospect of finding a way to continue.
“If you make it to Jordan, then you could cross into Israel. The Israeli-Jordanian border is much safer than the Israeli-Egyptian border, and I remember seeing on the news that one ship still sails from somewhere in Israel to . . . Turkey? Or was it Greece? Either way, I believe that’s the only ship in this part of the world that still sails to Europe.”
I stand up and begin pacing back and forth in front of her desk. Kamilah watches me with concern.
“I don’t want to get your hopes up, however, because I’m not sure if either the bus or ship are still running. Both might have been cancelled by now. Plus, you will need to get a travel visa to enter Jordan, and since you’re American, I’m not sure how quickly you can obtain one.”
But I do get my hopes up. My heart is about to beat out of my chest. I feel like a cat that’s found out he has a ninth life. “This is great! At least there is an option.”
“I will check on all of the things we’ve just discussed and call your room as soon as I find out more information.”
I thank Kamilah about five hundred times and head back to my room, where I try, and fail, to process all that’s just happened. Maybe one day I’ll be able to look back and see the shape of all of this, but not now.
I flip my computer screen open and study what the US Department of State has written about travel through Egypt, because I know that’s the first thing my parents will read if this new plan actually comes together. The advisory emphatically warns against any kind of overland travel outside of Cairo and specifically notes the dangers of the Sinai region and of Egypt’s borders zones—exactly where I might be heading. One of the lines even reads, “US Embassy personnel in Egypt are currently prohibited from traveling to the Sinai Peninsula.”
The room phone rings.
Before I can even get a hello out, Kamilah starts talking. “So I have some interesting news for you. The bus to Jordan is available, but it only runs once a week, and it takes thirty hours to get there, like I remembered.”
“Okay, that’s great news!”
“There is a Jordanian Embassy in Cairo, and you can get a travel visa in one day for eighty-five dollars.”
“Yes!” I scream into the receiver.
“Also, I was able to track down the ship I mentioned. It’s a cargo ship, not a cruise ship, and it sails from Israel to Greece, but it only has room for six passengers. It leaves from Haifa, Israel, and docks in Lavrio, Greece. That ship leaves once a week, and it takes four days to cross the Mediterranean Sea, but you’ll have to arrange your ticket directly with the shipping company.”
I listen to Kamilah take a sip of something before she continues. “Would you like me to book the bus to Jordan for you?”
The route will be as dangerous as any I’ve traveled so far. ISIS and Al Qaeda are both said to be in and around the Sinai Peninsula. It’s entirely possible that I might not make it out alive.
Before I reply, I take a second to think about who I’ve become thus far and who I might yet become at the end of this journey. As I stare out the window at the Nile, I can see my reflection in it. Having not cut my hair since I left America, it dangles just above my shoulders, and my beard is equally long. I look exactly as you’d expect someone to look after they have spent eight months crossing Africa overland, but beyond that I can almost see the outline of my future face in the reflection. Of the person I’m becoming. I know that if I fly once, I’m done. The core of my dream crumbles to dust, and so too does the man in me that I’m starting to see.
Kamilah interrupts my reverie. “Sir, the next bus for Jordan leaves on Thursday—would you like me to book a ticket for you?”
I take a deep breath and call upon all the struggles, setbacks, and obstacles I’ve gone through to get here. I think about all the times I’ve been knocked down and then about all the times I’ve gotten back up. At crossroads like this, I’ve always called upon Santiago’s story for strength, but now I’m ready to call upon my own.
“Hell, yes, book it!”
* * *
Even though the Sinai Peninsula is just about as dangerous as it gets, that hasn’t taken away from its beauty. The jutting rock formations and deep canyons we’re winding through are awe inspiring. The soft light from a slowly rising sun is hitting them at just the right angles, and it looks like we’re driving through one colorful kaleidoscope after another. It’s too bad that there aren’t more people here to see this, but since this is such a risky strip of land to cross, the bus is nearly empty. There are only five other passengers on it besides me.
We’re still fifteen hours from Amman, and the sun is just over my right shoulder, deep orange, big, and comforting. There must be something about the desert that draws it close. It feels like it’s within arm’s reach. Seeing it like this has pushed away my need for sleep and, as crazy as it may sound, I’m glad I’m here. I’m glad I had to take this dangerous detour.
I turn and smile at the Palestinian family I first met when the bus departed Cairo last night. Elham and her teenage daughter, Aram, are so sweet, always smiling and waving at me. They can tell that I’m nervous and out of place, and they’ve been looking out for me. They’re traveling home to Palestine after visiting Elham’s sister in Cairo, and they check on me every hour or so. They offer me crackers, and Aram translates for Elham so they can give updates on what to expect in terms of bathroom breaks and possible dangers. They are the very definition of “the kindness of strangers.”
Many hours later, as we near the edge of the African continent, tears begin to slide across my eyes.
I’m not exactly sure what’s making me so emotional. Maybe it’s because this is my final day in Africa, or maybe it’s because I didn’t quit all the times when I probably should have. I can’t help but feel a deep gratitude for each and every setback I’ve encountered thus far. The moment quickly becomes overwhelming. Tears stream down my cheeks, and as they fall onto my lap, Elham turns around and asks me if I’m okay. I blink, sniff, rub my eyes.
“It’s just allergies,” I say.
An hour later, after watching our bus get loaded onto the ferry at Nuweiba, I walk over to the edge of Africa. I look down past my sneakers; there’s a hole in the toe, the soles are peeling off, and the laces are frayed. I look past the rickety plywood pier I’m standing on and deep down into the Gulf of Aqaba. I’m instantly awed by its complexion. It’s the deepest shade of blue my eyes have ever seen, and yet at the same time it’s as transparent as the air around me. Fish with neon zebra stripes and lime leopard spots are swimming in synchronistic schools. It’s quite possibly the most mesmerizing thing I’ve ever seen, and as I let myself get lost in it, I can’t help but think of the old adage: Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime. Africa has been my rod and reel.
As I crossed the continent, I stumbled upon a side of myself I never knew existed. An inner strength that I never knew I had. I was willing to die for my dreams and now, with the roles reversed and Africa finally being the one that’s up against it, I’m able to feel the cumulative effects of tapping into that kind of courage.
Getting here has been the toughest, riskiest journey of my life, and as I bound into the boat to Jordan and take my last step on African soil, I can feel my soul strengthen.