flying

Wander on: Airport Secrets

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picture-pretty window, Siem Reap airport, Cambodia
Picture-pretty window at Siem Reap airport, Cambodia

Every three months or so, it never fails, I end up in an airport somewhere with hours to kill until the next flight. I have mastered the many rituals of the plane passenger, for instance, how to get to your gate at just the right moment so you don’t have to wait too long to board. I’ve killed time at bars, coffee shops, souvenir stalls, bookshops, massage spas. There is a little secret to it, you need to remember your alcohol and credit card limit, else there will be missed flights and a whole mess of trouble ahead.

From traveling so often, I have collected quite a few insider tips. These little airport secrets are good things to keep in mind. I’ve learned firsthand to avoid the cheaper route through Delhi because I know how they detain passengers in that dead end side of the airport until it’s closer to their departure time, no matter how long the layover is. You’re stuck in an empty hallway for hours, no shops, no bars, just a broken vendo machine in the corner. In Singapore, I’ve found a corner where they have these ergonomic lounge chairs that you can lie down in and sleep undisturbed, amid lush greenery.  In Cambodia, the prettiest spot at the airport to do a selfie are any of those picture windows that look out the gardens. My frequent hub, expensive Dubai airport harbors a twilight zone where you can get free wi-fi, it’s near gate C17. Liquids, gels, and waxes are frowned upon at London Heathrow, and anything that overflows a little baggie will have to go into the trash. They don’t care if it’s your special $300 face cream, into the bin it goes. Also, most of the security personnel at this airport are notoriously rude, for no fathomable reason. At Chicago’s Midway I learned that if you rub your fingers on your forehead you will have an easier time getting your fingerprints scanned. The oil makes your prints more visible to the machine, or so the immigration officer tells me, smiling at my horrified expression upon realizing that my face is oily.

Guys, avoid being profiled at LAX in Los Angeles by shaving off, or at least neatly trimming, your beard. A friend and I arrived at this conclusion after he was detained and interviewed for close to an hour in a small room, his suitcases turned upside down, his credentials scrutinized to the last detail. Next time he passes thru clean-shaven, nothing happens. At Kathmandu airport, any and all knives found in your carry on (why would you have a knife there to begin with) will be confiscated and dumped into a little wicker basket. They let lighters go through, but the knives, they take. In Kuala Lumpur, there’s a roast duck that tastes as fantastic as it looks, and if you eat only one thing at this airport, that duck is it. In Manila, walk briskly past the old guys in shirt jacks who smile sweetly and ask if you need help with your luggage. Yes, they may look like everyone’s favorite uncle, but ten times out of ten, they will rip you off. At Japan’s Narita airport, identical looking women in knee socks will direct you to your gate, whisk you briskly through scanners and go through your carry on with ruthless efficiency. You will look on quietly and let them.

And lastly, at Kabul airport — should you have the misfortune of finding yourself there — if you are a woman, X-ray scans are easier when you ‘accidentally’ show the female security person photos of your children. She will blabber at you in rapid Pashto or Dari and nod and smile endlessly, but no matter. Suddenly, the scan will be forgotten, and you will be waved through as though you paid dearly for secret passage.

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What I Am Is Brave

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“I’m not funny. What I am is brave.”  ~ Lucille Ball

It feels as though I braved a lot of airports just to get back here. I barely made it through two airports in the Philippines (oh the horror!), slept on stiff chairs in Singapore, suffered disorientation in Chennai, then rushed madly out of Dubai into crazy Kabul, and finally, this last sunrise ride to Kandahar. After 6 plane rides in 5 days, I am back in my little dust bowl. That long break already seems like a vague memory.

In Kabul, I woke up early to catch this 6th flight, and I was glad to find out that there would only be two of us on board the B1900. I’m so over the rock star feeling of being one of the few on board our B1900, I was just happy because it meant I could get some sleep. The guy on the same flight as me, blond and blue eyed with one of those painful-looking Caucasian tans, chats amiably for a few minutes, and then turns away to read a book when the plane is at cruise speed. Good man, I think, as I slump my head to the side, adjust my headphones, and drift off to much-needed sleep.

It was a smooth ride for most of the hour, until the pilots decide to swoop the plane’s nose sharply down as we make the descent into Kandahar Air Field (KAF). I think they do it on purpose, have a little fun in a day’s work, why not? I wake up to the sight of jagged mountains glinting in the sunlight. I still find it all strangely beautiful, the sharp edges and the deeply carved valleys of this Afghan landscape. Eventually, the horizon levels out and morphs into row upon row of military planes, helicopters, trucks, hummers, and other war transport arranged precisely on the ramps. Soon enough, our little corner of the flight line comes into view–I see the Logistics warehouse, a few of our helos, the little fuel truck. My sleepy heart skips, a little thump of excitement to see home and all that it holds for me.

This is a happy return, in more ways than one. I would be coming back to a life that I have developed a liking for, despite the unusual circumstances. I would be coming back to something other than just my self.

Kandahar is a place I want to come back to, imagine that. A year ago I wouldn’t have dreamed of writing that line, and now I am amazed by the simple truth in it. We make our home in the strangest places, when we carry home in our hearts. And God help me, I do put my battered heart out there on the line–again and again. My heart has found a home here, in a place of grays and browns, amid the swirl of dust, desperation, and death.

Dark thoughts to begin another year, yes. But I am not being pessimistic, I just see things more clearly now. With one year under my belt, I think I understand life here better than I did when I first arrived. It has been a most interesting year, to say the least.

Marking the end of this year, I understand that bravery is defined as beyond being able to endure the sound of blasts day or night, when you’ve never heard that awful sound before in your life. It is keeping calm in the midst of unfolding turmoil, even as the men around you arm themselves and get that tight-eyed look to their faces, their minds clicking back to terrible memories of combat you know nothing about, but can sense from the gleam in their eyes. It is bravery to befriend solitude, to embrace the bleakness that permeates everywhere, to be able to live with the terrible stillness that descends at the end of certain days. It is also bravery to be able to withstand the endless loop of days that seem exactly like the ones before, the sameness that can slowly but surely drive you mad.

I know another kind of bravery now–the kind that goes beyond facing one’s mortality. This year found me in a place where shedding all sorts of baggage was necessary. It spurred me to leave behind the wounds of the past and turn to face a new possibility. It required a measure of bravery I always knew I had, but have not quite put to the test. It was scarier than IEDs, ground attacks, rocket blasts, even the threat of Taliban invasion. But I am nothing if not brave, I always tell myself, and so I plunged in head first.

Do I get rewarded for this act of bravery? I’m not sure. I don’t know if there is a prize for falling head first into something, but I think the little bursts of happiness I get is more than enough reward for bravery. Whatever the outcome, whether or not I win this battle (or the entire war), the feat alone of going into it the way I did–open-faced, heart in hand–is an exhilarating experience, a powerful rush not soon to be forgotten.

And so I am back.

Girl, Up In The Air

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I’ve never spent so many hours in the sky until I got here. Early this year, I began working for a company that flies US government missions–oftentimes people, sometimes just cargo, sometimes I don’t care to know what–all over Afghanistan.  I did expect to do my fair share of flying, but not as often as I have been doing lately.

There was that hectic week where I flew in to Kandahar in the morning, dumped my clothes and what-not in a gorilla box, and was rushed to the waiting plane less than 20 minutes later via a Gator, to fly back to Kabul. I flew back and forth, Kabul to Kandahar twice in a week! I saw the mountains change from bare to snow-capped. I flew on four different types of planes, most often the only female in a planeload of men. I have gotten used to all the curious glances and the bug-eyed stares.

Kabul to Kandahar by plane takes at the most, two hours. On the B1900, it’s close to an hour and a half, on the AN-26, probably 1 hour and forty-five minutes, the DC-3: two hours, practically. I love the Dash-8 best, since it takes less than an hour. I have flown on all our aircraft, and was among the first passengers to go on the maiden mission of the Dash-8, our newest plane. I didn’t know my job would entail this much flying, but I’m certainly not complaining. I’ve flown so many times the load masters working our flights tease that I must be accumulating a lot of reward miles.

All flight durations depend on the weather, of course. You would think that in this place, which is mostly plains, desert, and mountains, weather would be a constant thing—but no, the strong winds and resulting dust storms play havoc with flight schedules. A plane set to take off on a bright, sunshiny morning can get grounded by a sudden dust storm. Or one that’s already up in the air will need to turn back, unable to land in the zero visibility of swirling, brown-orange dust.

Flying has always been a thrill for me. I actually enjoy the sensation of getting off the ground, and I’m never anxious during take offs. My excitement would rise as the plane taxies down the runway. I would watch, smiling unabashedly from the window and get a palpable rush the exact moment when the plane makes that breakaway push from the tarmac. I love that feeling of sudden lightness, of being free from the earth. I think it is so heroic, that act of defying gravity to surge up the skies in one thrust.  My rational mind scoffs, it’s all just physics. I know that, of course, and yet for me, there remains a certain romance to flying, how one’s feet are finally unfettered, how we all become just bodies floating in the air.

When I am on a plane, I am neither here nor there. Not yet in the destination, and yet no longer in the place of origin—suspended in the sky with reality and all its travails left far, far below. From this vantage point, I am free to imagine what lives the miniaturized world continues to live down there. Flying over Afghanistan, I see the lay of the land, the expansive plains and valleys that unfold in the cradle of jagged mountains. It is a terrain that will never be conquered, I think, and looking down, one can see why. The logic of it is simple; this place’s defense is rooted in terra firma. Even if you bomb everything–for instance, the vast expanse of plain populated by civilians–the mountains on the fringe of all that space will remain a steadfast refuge. Good luck finding the Taliban or any other declared enemy in the myriad nooks and crevices of the Hindu Kush. I keep this opinion to myself, though, since this is not my war.

When I look down at villages (cities, perhaps), the series of walled compounds and concrete barriers that define the maze-like spread of Afghan civilization makes me wonder how, for centuries life in this place has gone on, mostly unchanged. Various legions of invaders have plowed through these cities time and time again, and yet they spring back up to reclaim the same kind of life, even as the last war-weary soldier leaves.

The dreamer in me imagines how, as we fly overhead, we pass over houses that sit peacefully on meandering streets that echo with the noise of children running and playing. We arc over backyards a-bloom with pomegranate trees, see women flinging colorful bed sheets and clothes on the line. The plane drifts by and I glimpse open doorways where bearded men squat, a few of them talking, their hands making emphatic gestures. It is a sleepy world filtered through the window of the plane, a world that appears complete in itself, oblivious to the drone of the beast in the sky.

As we glide from up high, I imagine that for the world down there, there is only the blue sky above, the endless horizon as far as the eye can see, and the ever-present dust, descending softly everywhere.