travel

Wolves in Pig’s Clothing

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Sometimes our dark side shows up in in public dressed like an ordinary thing, able to blend into the crowd, absolutely unmemorable.

I much prefer evil to reveal itself. The bland, expressionless version of it often obfuscates one’s vision, and the fight tilts to the other’s favor.

In an airport lounge in Colombo, I remember being woken up unceremoniously by a blond guy, late 30s, herding two toddlers. In a gray haze, I heard him saying loudly at me, “There are people that need these seats, you know.”

Half-awake, I scramble to sit up, thereby freeing two seats for this irascible man and his toddlers. I vaguely register people sitting near me look on, startled by his loud voice. I see his wife sitting on the floor, cradling a baby. A moment passes, and the pair begin to argue. I tune them out, thinking what bad luck to wake up to such negativity.

When my wits have fully returned, I look around and notice that three feet or so away there were maybe thirty, no, probably 40+ empty seats all around us. I didn’t need to be summarily jolted out of my sleep.

I stand up, walk over to the man with the toddlers and say to him, “Look over there. Look. Look real hard. Those are empty seats, all what, 40 of them. You didn’t have to wake me up. You’re an asshole.”

I walked away from the sight of his gaping mouth. The lounge was quiet. The wife didn’t say a word.

 

 

 

 

What Am I?

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Touchdown: 3 July in Sri Lanka. I arrive near midnight in Colombo, and get into a Kangaroo taxi to go to my hotel. Not even 5 minutes on the road, the driver looks back at me and says:

Driver: Madam, ah… what are you?

Me: (goes into immediate existentialist crisis) Uh, um… what am I?

Driver: (smiling indulgently) I mean, you are Japanese? Malaysian? Chinese? What are you?

Me: (relieved, whew!) Oh no no no to all that. I’m Filipino.

Driver: I see, from Philippines.

Me: Yes. Don’t I look Filipino?

Driver: Look Japanese.

Me: Hhhmmmm.

 

 

What Matters Probably

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what does it matter who we sleep with
the tangle of limbs do not discriminate
arms elbows thighs neck back spine
skin on skin is always so sublime

what does it matter
the membrane doesn’t even remember
the blood that escapes the cut
memory is at best, temporary
at worst, untrustworthy

the fragment i choose is the imprint
of your hand on my skin
the bits of hair freckles nails scars
more real than anything by far

that day you drove five hours
so that I could see the Atlantic
grit of sand in every pore
the water cold the sun low the ocean’s roar

what does it matter if we slept together
what matters probably is that we do not do that

anymore

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this is the price you pay for time traveling

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(I told you so)

stop flitting about like a stupid moth
blind despite the etched eye open and
unblinking on its downy wing

(What did I say)

choose a year or two — even ten –
to inhabit, unravel the silk of it, weave
sense into story as you sit.

(What did you do)

you flew. you flew! you cut through countries,
histories, whole decades like it was legal
to navigate between worlds.

(I warned you)

And now everywhere the air is foul
replete with turmoil. you turn hostile
a ghost trapped in the portal

(What did I say)

your dark velvet mouth spewing out
curdled black bile meant to hurt,
but inutile as strange fruit

(I warned you)

you’ve become a thing whose only threat is
the flesh that promises sourness
the pit filled with the intent to choke.

(I told you so)

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.

Dubai Night Drive with Little Omar

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Yesterday evening, I shared a hotel limo with a Palestinian woman and her 7 year old son, Omar. There were no taxis available at the hotel that night because it was Iftar, when the Muslims break the day long fast, and everyone was busy feasting.

The lady said she and her son were passing thru Dubai from a trip to Palestine, on their way back home to California. She was dressed in an abaya, but her face was not covered, only her hair. Her son was dressed in western clothes, and spoke only English, as far as I could tell. We got to talking in the hotel lobby after she asked me if it was my first time to come to Dubai. I told her I was passing thru as well, and that Dubai is my hub for travel coming from Afghanistan. She couldn’t quite believe that I worked there.

She and her son had an easy, loving banter — Omar was very well behaved, not once did she have to scold or raise her voice at him. He shook my hand graciously when I introduced myself to him and asked his name. He had very beautiful brown eyes, with long, sooty lashes.

I asked them to share the limo with me as we were all going to the mall anyway. The lady was glad to have company and readily accepted. They wanted to see the Aquarium, so I decided to go to Dubai Mall as well. On the drive over the lady would point out landmarks and buildings to her son. At night, the Burj Khalifa was lit up, a silver sword rising from the vast, twinkling desert. Omar said, “It looks awesome, mom!”

As we sped by the traffic-less streets, Omar looked out the window, mouth open at the sights. It gave me a new appreciation for this city that I would pass by so often, seeing it now through this boy’s eyes. It made me miss my sons, made me instantly fond of this dark eyed little boy.

Passing by yet another skyscraper, Omar pointed to it and said, “Mom, I wanna go up there, can I go up there?

His mom laughed and said, “Oh sweetie, you can go wherever you want.” She turned to me and gave me a smile, her dark eyes sparkling. I knew exactly what she meant, and I smiled back.

The Getaway Bag

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When I signed up for this gig, one of the things the powers that be asked of us was to keep a small backpack ready to go in case of an emergency evacuation. They instructed us that the backpack should contain a change of clothes, your passport and IDs, important papers, toiletries, prescription medicines, and some basic rations.

For the longest time (over two years, if I am to confess), I ignored this directive. Too lazy to put together a bag, probably. Or more closer to the truth, I didn’t do it because it seemed to me that to prepare for this kind of event will invariably make it come into being. Superstitious, I know. But lately I have been thinking about packing a small bag for weeks. I don’t know what it is, but now I want to be able to pick up this bag and get out of here, in case I have to.

So I packed. Choosing the bag was easy–I had a camera bag that was roomy and light enough to lug around. It was styled like a sling bag and wraps across the body, the contents made easily accessible, making it more convenient than a backpack that you had to strap to your back.

Into this emergency bag went:

– my two passports, in a ziploc bag

– about $75 in small bills

– cargo pants

– three shirts (sleeveless, regular, quarter sleeves)

– 1 pair of socks

– pashmina

– good underwear in a ziploc bag

– toiletries (mini bottles)

– toothbrush + toothpaste + mouthwash

– spare pair of contact lenses

– small bottle of contact lens solution

– packet of M&Ms peanut

– small folding scalpel

– Gerber multi-tool set

– ballpen + Post It pad

– tissue paper

– Shure flashlight

– roll of mints

I thought, hmm… a book? No, really no time for introspective reading when you need to be on full alert. Maybe one bottle of perfume, less than 100ml? But then I thought that was just giving in to vanity, not crucial to survival. Instead, I added a small bottle of lotion, much more practical. No sense having to suffer dry skin just because I’m a fugitive.

I’ve placed the bag near the door, within grabbing reach. If need be I can get to my room, hoist the bag over my head, grab a bottle of water and a light jacket, then slip quickly out the building.  Hopefully, into a waiting Huey/plane and out of harm’s way.

Sounds like a plan, doesn’t it?