For the moment, he was content with that thought, and with everything around him. The only slightly troubling thing was the absence of French in the cabin. He knew for a fact-he'd been taught it was so since elementary school-that French was the universal language, and universal because it was the best of all languages. He knew Russians owned this plane. Only Aeroflot, he'd been told, was still offering commercial flights from Bujumbura. So it wasn't strange that all the signs in the cabin were in a foreign script. But he couldn't find a single word written in French, even on the various cards in the seat pocket.
The plane landed in Entebbe, in Uganda. As he waited in the terminal for his next flight, Deo watched what looked like a big family make a fuss over a young man about his age, a fellow passenger as it turned out. When the flight started to board, the whole bunch around this boy began weeping and wailing. The young man was wiping tears from his eyes as he walked toward the plane. Probably he was just going away on a trip. Probably he would be coming back soon. In his mind, Deo spoke to the young man: "You are in tears. For what? Here you have this huge crowd of family." He felt surprised, as if by a distant memory, that there were, after all, many small reasons for people to cry. His own mind kept moving from one extreme to another. Everything was a crisis, and nothing that wasn't a crisis mattered. He thought that if he were as lucky as that boy and still had that much family left, he wouldn't be crying. For that matter, be wouldn't be boarding airplanes, leaving his country behind.
Deo had grown up barefoot in Burundi, but for a peasant boy he had done well. He was twenty-four. Until recently he had been a medical student, for three years at or near the top of his class. In his old faux-leather suitcase, which he had reluctantly turned over to the baggage handler in the airport in Bujumbura, he had packed some of the evidence of his success: the French dictionary that elementary school teachers gave only to prized students, and the general clinical text and one of the stethoscopes that he had saved up to buy. But he had spent the past six months on the run, first from the eruption of violence in Burundi, then from the slaughter in Rwanda.
In geography class in school, Deo had learned that the most important parts of the world were France and Burundi's colonial master, Belgium. When someone he knew, usually a priest, was going abroad, that person was said to be going to "Iburaya." And while this usually meant Belgium or France, it could also mean any place that was far away and hard to imagine. Deo was heading for Iburaya. In this case, that meant New York City.
He had one wealthy friend who had seen more of the world than East Central Africa, a fellow medical student named Jean. And it was Jean who had decided that New York was where he should go. Deo was traveling on a commercial visa. Jean's French father had written a letter identifying Deo as an employee on a mission to America. He was supposed to be going to New York to sell coffee. Deo had read up on coffee beans in case he was questioned, but he wasn't selling anything. Jean's father had also paid for the plane tickets. A fat booklet of tickets.
From Entebbe, Deo flew to Cairo, then to Moscow. He slept a lot. He would wake with a start and look around the cabin. When he realized that no one resembled anyone he knew, he would relax again. During his medical training and in his country's history, pigmentation had certainly mattered, but he wasn't troubled by the near total whiteness of the faces around him on the plane that he boarded in Moscow. White skin hadn't been a marker of danger these past months. He had heard of French soldiers behaving badly in Rwanda, and had even caught glimpses of them training militiamen in the camps, but waking up and seeing a white person in the next seat wasn't alarming. No one called him a cockroach. No one held a machete. You learned what to look out for, and after a while you learned to ignore the irrelevant. He did wonder again from time to time why he wasn't hearing people speak French.
Excerpted from Strength in What Remains by Tracy Kidder Copyright © 2009 by Tracy Kidder. Excerpted by permission of Random House, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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