We arrived in paradise early on a Sunday morning after a long and exhausting flight. There was not much of an airport, we stepped down right onto the tarmac as the thick moist air took my breath away and sweat started to trickle down my back. The heat seemed to go right through to my core, my joints loosened up, my muscles relaxed and for the next three years I felt languidly alive throughout all of my pores right down to my fingertips and hair-ends.
In the first cold and damp winter back in Europe, I would often lower my arms into the bathtub where S was messing about before bed time and close my eyes and try to think myself back to this hot comforting feeling. In the mornings waiting on the platform at Seapoint sheltering from the heavy cold wind blowing in from the bay listening to Paul Simon through my headphones singing about effortless music from the Cameroons I asked myself why we came back to this place where pale people dressed in shoddy black and hurried through windy city streets catching smelly busses with dirty windows.
That first Sunday morning was a shock to my system. We had read about paradise, its history and politics, traditions, food, tourism, etc. poured over all the pictures and maps we could find, met people who had been there and who told us about it. But nothing could prepare me for the intense light, the contrasts of thick greenery, shiny rocks, deep blue sky, the shimmering turquoise ocean, the frangipani and jacaranda smells, the Sunday morning noises and - black people everywhere.
There I was, self-proclaimed feminist, unionist, anti-apartheid activist with an overblown and pompous agenda surprised by the fact that – yes indeed – all people in paradise appeared to be black. At first it was hard to recognise individuals, to see beyond the sea of black faces. Many weeks later I found myself staring at this white hand holding onto the handrail in a packed bus veering around a bend thinking what a strange skin colour and realising with a jolt that I was staring at my own hand.
Arriving at Heathrow shivering and cold almost three years later confronted by a mass of pale unhealthy looking faces, I was equally surprised and for a while unable to distinguish individual features.