A thoughtful child, I knew early on who I was and what I would do in life. I would find a small corner of the world and nestle down. Now, which of my three career picks would best serve this goal?
Nun. (This last came into play at age seven because my mother took me to see Fellini’s, La Strada. Giulietta Masina could have saved herself if she’d joined a convent. Instead she followed a man and died. Lesson learned.)
I tried to stand firm, but life being a comedy, instead of becoming a chocolate-stuffed, multi-pet-owning, cloistered nun, I surrendered to destiny and became a traveling fool.
It started with a childhood dunking into the sink or swim river of various cultures, continents and languages. My restless parents explored old and new worlds, deeply fascinated with life outside the “box”. It wasn’t uninteresting, but everything being relative, living outside the “box” meant to me, settling down and getting a parrot. Naively entering the movies to finance that dream, I learned that parrots live forever and like you to be with them while they do that. Movie star life is not lived at home. Goodbye parrot.
Eventually wearied by the life-eating demands of the limelight, I retired to work with horses. For reasons too complicated to explain in under 8,000 words, this had the startling effect of putting me on planes to places like Brunei, Kuching Sarawak, Kota Kinabalu….
Overwhelmed, I took a stance, stared down destiny and defiantly married a homebody-type of guy, who assured me he had no desire to visit places unknown.
In our second year of marriage, he took employment with an international airline.
Finally, just as Mr. Homebody says it’s time we stay put so I can have more than two cats, we informally adopt a boy who plays chess. Everywhere. More to the point, he does not like to be everywhere, alone.
The Boy and I are on the road in no uncertain terms. People ask me how he copes with so much travel. The truth is, as long as someone else does the packing and handles every single bit of the complex logistics, he doesn’t care if we arrive, return, or even depart. My husband is sure he is a genius. I am only sure he is a male.
Whatever cattle pen (waiting area) we are in, his antennae quickly zone in on the best length of seat. Once ensconced, feet on the armrest at one end, head on my coat at the other, this world disappears. On his stomach balances a chess board with armies arranged in what appear from his glazed eyes, to be satisfying patterns. His life is perfect.
Meanwhile, I am impatiently monitoring a clock which I swear must be broken. We are of course delayed—choose any one of a thousand reasons why—and my hope of getting out of transit and into hotel and hot shower appears well in the distant future.
Annoyed, I sulk and silently bet that if he had snacks he would be happy to stay here, wherever it is we are, forever. I glance over but he doesn’t register my irritation, so I remark testily that I’m going for a walk. He nods absently and calls to my departing back, “Get snacks”.
This is my destiny. To stand sighing throughout eternity beneath the automatic, shuffling travel schedules of airport, bus and train stations. Neck cranked up, I watch as the names of towns endlessly slip, slide, flip, rotate and turn. It’s, The Twilight Zone.
Silently I mouth names, experimenting with pronunciation. Hunghada Gassim Kahore Sharm El Sheik Tbui Sulemaniyah Djibouti Riyadh Erbil Tabriz Yekaterinburg Kathmandu Ashgabad Borg El Arab Soci Astrakhan Kermanshah Medina Tehranika Gassim…. Our flight appears but still has no departure time. Okay. Get snacks.
Catching my reflection in a window, I note my dishevelment. Considering how much I travel, I can’t understand why I don’t present a more sophisticated front. It’s not that I haven’t acquired skills…. I can quickly find the cleanest toilets, best seating, shops that give away food samples and those that let you test perfume. I also have an eagle’s eye for the location of electrical outlets. To the average traveler this may not sound like much, but in Istanbul for example, only an expert can find the two outlets awarded per concourse. And only a genius is carrying the peculiar connectors needed to use them.
Yet talented as I am, it’s clear I lack poise. My most common travel sensation is one of stickiness, and while others, upon arrival at exotic destination, seek out a bar or an art gallery, I head for the hamam to have my skin scrapped off.
Wandering, I burn calories tripping, while trying to sidestep, bodies. Despite catering to the nations, this airport lacks seating. Or perhaps the nations just have too many people. With every chair taken, they squat along the walls, lie prone on the floor, pace the corridors, or perch precariously on their mountains of carry-on luggage.
The bodies are interesting. Robed and capped tribal men sit cross-legged drinking tea. Saudi women pass in the usual black shrouds but these (special for travel?) are heavily hung with sparkling jewels. Thousands of Hajji are on pilgrimage, their traditional white cotton swaddling, without visible pins or buttons, often falling open most indelicately. There are Moroccan Berbers with dangling coin headscarves, village Turks in baggy trousers, ebony-skinned Nubians, colorful as exotic birds. The disciplined Japanese appear, obediently marching behind ramrod straight, flag bearing leaders. Russian women turn heads with their huge breasts, short skirts and high fashion boots. These carry shopping bags filled with Vodka bottles and regularly plunking these down on the cement floors, provoke some dangerously merry clinking.
Dotting the flow of exotic humanity are freckle faced white Western kids with huge backpacks and self-conscious expressions of worldliness. Many are barefoot, designer ragged and purposefully careless of their belongings. Observing these innocent attempts at with-it-ness, I cannot help but wonder if the next time I see these faces will be on Banged Up Abroad.
Suddenly startled by the vicious swearing directly behind me, I pull to a corner and watch two groups of tiny, sweet-faced Filipinos greeting each other. Their salutations are punctuated with a volley of horrific curses lead by the ever popular; “You son of a whore, how are you my brother?”
Their conversation in Tagalog is loudly and freely spoken, as most Filipinos imagine that outside the Philippines proper, no one can understand them. Compatriots. Please. Dare to be Aware.
I am surprised to see a bathroom without a line curling out of it, so I quickly enter. Wrong. There is a compact line inside and now I’m stuck because several women have followed in close behind. Resigned to waiting in the unpleasant odor, I idly watch a French girl fixing her hair.
She is wearing low slung sweat pants with a very short cropped top. The two combine to reveal an expanse of fatty stomach. As she raises her arms, we also get glimpses of territory above and below. In the mirror I note that the other women clearly do not appreciate this view. This is after all a predominantly conservative culture. Personally, although she is still in my eye line, my mind has left her as it drifts to a memory of my Aunt Monina, singing along with Bing Crosby. “Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate the Positive, eliminate the neg-ah-tive …” It is a fond memory and I laugh lightly. Oops.
The girl whirls around and curses me in French. The other women hiss at her and as she leaves she viciously kicks the bag on the floor next to me. This makes me laugh again as the bag is not mine. It belongs to the massive prison guard waiting in line behind me, who now verbally assaults the girl in a torrent of harsh Russian. I duck into a vacated stall and lock the door.
Rambling through the duty free stores I drench myself with expensive perfumes (several of them) and nibble on the pieces of free lokum piled on platters everywhere. Turkish delight with pomegranate, coconut, pistachio, chocolate, lemon, almond, orange blossom, walnuts, fig hazelnuts, saffron…. Wanting to be fair, I spend enough time testing them to make myself dizzy. I do not buy any though because The Boy and I have a handshake “deal”, that as serious addicts we will avoid sweets unless there is cause to celebrate. I pocket a secret few for myself and buy him a small bag of carrots.
Returning to our seats, I put on my martyr mask, sit down with an air of deep exhaustion, and triumphantly hand him the vegetables.
“I walked across the entire airport to find these for you. They cost a fortune.”
He glances at me, then back to his now decimated armies.
“Turkish delight!” he proclaims boldly to his remaining soldiers.
I am startled. How … what … who…? Is he really … a genius?
Trying not to flush, I call his bluff. “What Turkish delight?”
“Aha! Aha!” And he stretches out a long arm tipped with accusing finger and stabs it repeatedly at my black dress.
“Powdered sugar! Yes!” he shouts triumphantly. The entire room turns to look at the Chinese Sherlock.
Sighing, I dig into my pocket and hand them over.
Noisily and happily he quickly stuffs all the pieces into his mouth at once. Black eyes twinkling, cheeks dimpling, he smiles up at me ingratiatingly and mumbles through the sticky wad,
“You sthmell gut.