By lex, October 10, 2006
For clarification’s sake, this is not “The Trip.” This is merely “a trip.” Whether or not I end up going on The Trip is being decided by my betters at the Commander, Fleet Forces Command headquarters, my name having been offered up with several others as belonging to someone who could be Potentially Useful and almost certainly a living, breathing person, capable of your higher forms of mirror fogging.
The Trip, if I end up taking it (while it’s true that your odds are twice as good in Russian roulette, the stakes are far higher) would start in late December. This trip returns to my own, my native land, in the course of about 11 days.
In case that wasn’t clear.
How can you have three and a half hours of time to prepare for a trip and still find yourself dashing out of the house five minutes late? The cabbie had to wait a bit – just the five minutes, no more – as I mentally reviewed my checklist and shovelled my last pair of what-have-yous into the bag of stuff I needed but could afford to be separated from, as opposed to the much smaller bag of stuff that was absolutely critical in order to ensure that I did not discredit the naval service, to wit: One uniform. With shoes. And belt. Commando. They sell the rest of that stuff on the ship. Offered the patiently waiting cabbie a cuppa too, on account of I’m that sort of guy. He politely refused, begged off, declined: “I’m fasting, man.”
“Ramadan?” asked your correspondent, no babe in the international theocratic woods, he.
“Ramadan,” answered my man. Good, thought I: An opportunity for cultural exchange.
We hadn’t gone so very far when he asked if I fasted, and I had to admit gentle reader, that it had been rather too long a time since I had missed a meal. “We used to fast, some of us,” said I. “Or at least, we forewent meat on a Friday. But that’s become sort of old fashioned.”
“So what’s the new fashion?” asked Ibrahim (for that was his name, and he was a Somali).
“Oh, we give up certain vices during Lent,” I replied, adding, “If we haven’t any vices we take something new on as a responsibility. Charity work, and so on.”
We chatted a bit about raising children, and the state the world was in, and wasn’t it all regrettable?
Going great guns, thought I, and it was wonderful: Different classes, different faiths, different cultural traditions, different nationalities and there we were, getting along famously. World peace breaking out right there in front of God and everybody.
Right up until the point where he dropped me off. I gave him a generous tip, just for the hardship that was in it for him, wished him a hearty “As salaam aleikum,” and he shook my hand and drove off with my credit card.
A mistake, surely. Called the company, asked them, “Send him back around, won’t you?” and wasn’t I grateful that I’d gotten to the airport early enough to check in and then walk back out and stand around a bit?
The company called me back. Didn’t I see him?
Explained the exact where I was, which was exactly where I was when he had dropped me off not 20 minutes past. Waited a bit. There he was: Good fellow.
But wait, he remarked before handing me my card – It didn’t go through the first time. He’d need to run it again.
It was just this point, gentle reader, where your humble scribe became the teensiest bit suspicious. Ramadan fasting or no. Call it a personality flaw.
“Run it through,” said I, “and I’ll call the credit card company as soon as you’re gone. And I swear to you that if I’ve been charged twice for this same fare then it’ll be your job I’m having.”
He smiled and simpered and allowed as maybe it had gone through after all. The thieving bastard.
I don’t care who you pray to, or how. God hates a thief.
The rest of it so far is the usual 21st century indignities. The hasty, agitated moments in the security lane, emptying pockets, opening laptops, kicking off shoes. The TSA rep shaking her head sadly at your bottle of shampoo. No going through with that, sir. No way. Into the trash it goes.
Does it matter that I’m a naval officer traveling on official orders?
It doesn’t. Y’eejit.
Going through the metal detector, setting it off, the eyes of the world alighting upon you. The knowing that you’ve got just one more try before you’re hauled off to participate in a sort of existentialist one-act drama, behind the curtain over there with the nice man wearing the rubber gloves. Could’ve been written by Camus.
The belt. It had to be the belt. Didn’t it?
Gratified at making the cut, I pushed on through, push aboard, move to my veal calf stall, strap in. The US airlines must be recovering nicely now, because they’ve got that Wal-Mart stack-‘em high thing down to a science. I can’t recall the last time I saw an empty seat on a domestic airliner, flown at prime time. Thrust into close proximity with people you do not know and whose names you will not learn, you preserve whatever privacy you can by pretending for the most part that they don’t exist, a favor graciously returned, at least until someone has to go. You know: Go.
It’s a long flight from Sandy Eggo to Dulles, but that’s only a warm-up for the flight from Dulles to Frankfurt. Beer costs five bucks or 4,50 euro and you don’t get it free anymore do you?
You don’t. Not aboard US carriers anyway. Not on United. Not in coach.
You close the window shade because they ask you to, because the sun rising at nine in the evening might bake your already overcooked noodle. Food is thrust in front of you at random moments, moments disconnected to any sense of time or physiological need. Mostly you eat it because you don’t know when you might eat again and hunger is a terrible thing.
In Frankfurt, it’s the little things that make you stop and stare. People are smoking. Actually smoking. Outside of the cancer rooms. A green sign says “Notausgang Freihalten,” and you wonder what it means because you know that an “ausgang” is an exit, and you’re pretty sure that “not” means the same thing in German as it does in English, and you’re also morally convinced that “halten” is a derivative of the word “halt,” while you’re absolutely certain that “frei” means “free,” or “freedom” and none of it makes sense when you string it all together. Not an exit, free to stop. In green. You look for the man in the white lab coat, standing in front of the men with the automatic weapons and flat, dead eyes. You don’t see him, or them. Perhaps he’s behind the ubiquitous security monitors. Bet that’s it.
They’re rather fond of concertina wire at the Frankfurt Am Mein flughaven, and it’s a little bit disconcerting to see, especially when conjoined with the polite Bundes Polizei with their peaked caps, starched uniforms and submachine guns. You wonder how much the world really has moved on. At a counter you see a large group of Orthodox Jews, black outer-clothes, white shirts, bowler hats, exuberant sideburns and think that, yes, the world has moved on. Then you think about where you’re going, and realize that these people probably wouldn’t be welcome there and think that, well: Most of it has anyway.
You’re never quite sure whether or not this whole “duty free” thing is a scam, or whether it’s merely an anachronism – no one ever seems to buy anything. And does anyone really smoke “Lucky Strikes” any more?
The flight from Frankfurt to Bahrain is less than half full. I get a full row of my own to make into an almost serviceable rack. There’s “high speed” internet service aboard, courtesy of the Boeing Company. Who’s decided that they’re getting out of the business at the end of the year, and giving it away for free in the interim. There’s also a US Navy seaman recruit, dressed in his crackerjack blues, which is a definite no-no, these days, traveling to that part of the world. He’s 19 years old, and the furthest he’d ever been from North Carolina was Great Lakes until today, when someone put him on an airplane to Bahrain during Ramadan with no money in his pocket, wearing his uniform, and nobody to pick him up at the airport, no one who even knew he was coming and yes, you can bet that the someone who did those things is going to get an earful from me when I get back. Kid was terrified but too inner-city proud to show it. I had a master chief and chief petty officer traveling with me, and they’re taking him to the US Navy base and squaring him away. In a couple of days he’ll be aboard the ship, where life will be both better and worse, but in any case the uncertainty of it all will be gone. He’ll know exactly what he’s supposed to do and when to do it and the next time he comes ashore in Bahrain he’ll be with a group of people who will give him a hard time because he’s the new guy, but they’ll damn sure make certain that he gets back to the ship on time.
The beach det wasn’t there to pick us up at the airport, which, whatever, I’m a grown man and know how to haggle over a taxi fare. It’s a small but well-lit airport, but you are at once reminded as you join the stream of shuffling humanity that 36 hours on a plane or no, other parts of the world have very different notions as to what constitutes an acceptable level of personal hygiene. Made my way to the place where I will make my lodgings for a day or two, in order to get the internal clock more or less habituated, like. Had an iftar buffet for what I take to be the Ramadan fast-breaker here in Bahrain, many little sumptuous but largely unidentifiable morsels served by a lovely Filipina waitress who charged me for two meals when I’d only eaten one. I tipped her anyway. Anyone can make a mistake.
Saw a strikingly beautiful woman walk out of the hotel lobby, dressed throat to ankle in one of the long, flowing black robes you see everywhere in this part of the world, but which was only set off by the fact that, quite unusually, her hair fell freely in waves, dark and luxuriant and totally uncovered as was her achingly lovely face, and as she headed out of the place with a confident, almost leonine stride and I thought to myself that I’ll never really understand this part of the world, no matter how many times I visit it.
So here it is, a day and half after I left San Diego, and what ought to be about 1300 my time is just after 2300 here and it being Ramadan, the hotel bars aren’t open, are they?
They are not. So much for a nightcap to help one into the land of nod when he’s off his clock.
Or at least, it would be, except for these two words: Mini bar.
Yeah, I know it’s expensive. I’m worth it.