Lucy Ferriss

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I've called this blog "Travelin' Thoughts" in the past, because I kept it mostly as a journal to record impressions of new places and cultures. But in a way, it's still a place for traveling thoughts--ideas that move through and past me, and out into the world. Some of these are literary, some just about life. It's a good place to open up the conversation, and I welcome your thoughts and comments.

Heading Out

June 01, 2015

Peshawar airport is not Airport Land.

Goodbye, painted trucks and
black anti-American flags.

We arrive around 2:30 a.m. - the driver, Sohrab who has been kind enough to wake at this ungodly hour to be sure I get through all the military checkpoints without grief, and me. We've passed through the Cantonment, the only time I have seen the streets untrafficked, and slick with rain, and have passed through a special gate courtesy of Aslam's nephew at the airport who has managed to waive much of the massive security for me. Then Sohrab waits while two very polite men completely unpack my luggage and question everything I've packed, all the while apologizing. They seem truly alarmed at the notion that I am traveling alone, and I point to Sohrab waiting just outside the door (the whole place looks more like a run-down shipping facility than an airport), and that relieves them somewhat.

The bodhissatvas, now "home" in CT.

They particularly question the souvenir I picked up at Taxila. They think it's a real artifact, and obviously I should not take such a thing out of the country. I assure them that it was from a street urchin, and that we paid very little money for it, and eventually they are convinced it’s a copy ... But now I'm not so sure. I couldn't understand Aslam's conversation with the seller, and for all I know the fellow was insisting that the thing was real. It certainly looks real. But now it's too late; they've returned it to me, and I blow Sohrab a good-bye kiss (undoubtedly a no-no) and go off to have the luggage X-rayed and myself felt up by the female attendant behind the curtain. Then another line to deposit the bags while they photocopy my passport and another line for "immigration," where a guy in black shalwar kameez, in line, suddenly asks to see my passport. I show it to him thinking he's curious, and he takes it and starts walking away. I follow, saying "Are you an official?" "Yes." "Papers?" No answer. "Please don't take my passport." Loud though I shout, no one pays any attention to us. He steps behind an unmanned mobile desk and spends about 5 minutes fiddling with the passport, writing things down. Asks me who I stayed with in Peshawar and why. Finally returns the passport to me and instructs me to wait in "woman line." I get through that, and another passport and boarding pass check and another feeling-up by an identical woman ("What your name?" "Lucy." "Loosy. Who you visit?" "My friend." "Friend, what your friend?" "Professor at Peshawar University. I am also a professor." "Loosy, you work here?" "No, just visit my friend." "Sank you, Loosy.") Another bag x-ray, but no shoes off, no toiletries out. I've returned a couple of heavy items to my carry-on, but they've already weighed it, and I make sure to pick it up as if it weighs a feather.

The departure lounge looks exactly, and I mean exactly, like a bus terminal. For a split second I thought I'd gone through the wrong door and that's what it was. Faded plastic chairs, chipped plastic coffee tables at all angles, chunks missing from the wall, fluorescent lighting, a small snack stand with packaged goods.  There's one gate, which says simply "Gate." I've covered by now, as I’d been getting quite a few stares, and the crowd seems quite conservative, maybe many of them going on the hajj, I don't know. People start shuffling toward the gate, and I ask one guy if they are boarding for Doha and he says yes. There may have been an announcement in Pashto. We exit down a set of stairs onto the tarmac and there sits the supersonic jet, and I realize I have always boarded these babies via jetway. It's weird to climb the long steep flight of stairs and suddenly find uniformed, professional flight attendants and the usual high tech. I'd picked an aisle seat in the center section where the other aisle seat was occupied, hoping that no one would want the center seats, but it's a full flight, and my seat companions are tribal men, fierce in their size and facial hair and Astrakhan hats and vests. They don't seem to like sitting next to me any more than I do them. They take up plenty of room and hawk and spit into the vomit bag, and when they want to use the loo they sort of hiss and cluck at me, the way you would to a farm animal you wanted to scat out of the way. I guess they're not supposed to touch me. No one follows instructions to turn off cell phones; people are still making calls as we take off, and the same when we land. When I motion to my tribal neighbor that he's supposed to shut the thing down, he kind of elbows me. The flight attendant assures me we'll land fine; maybe it's just lemming-like Westerners who follow such rules. Throughout the flight other tribal people gather by our row and talk loudly, plus there are screaming babies, so no chance of sleep. This sort of departure extinguishes all risk of being sorry to be leaving Pakistan.

Doha airport is not quite Airport land. You arrive in a haze of sand particles, the low-slung morning sun exactly like the full moon but without a face.  White Arabic-looking buildings, very elegant, like little mosques or harems, front the tarmac; in the distance, the skyscrapers oil has bought. You descend from the airplane as you boarded, from a very long, steep flight of stairs, and board a bus that take you about 2 miles to the transfer terminal. There, you enter a low hall filled with perhaps two thousand people transferring from and to everywhere. A seething mass of costumes, hues, and languages - miniskirts, burqas, tribal hats, designer sunglasses, African prints, polyester pantsuits - gradually divides into thick snaking lines around the serpentine ropes. An efficient young man enters and leaves the hall every few minutes, calling out flights that are boarding to pull people from the mass and hustle them through: "Singapore! QR 071 for Singapore. Any passengers for Mali, Johannesburg, QR 59 for London, Dubai." After an hour I make it through what turns out to be incredibly lax security - no pulling out of liquids, no taking off of shoes, one fellow looking at the screen dully, as if he's watching a movie rerun.

Paris from the Pont Neuf.

Then to the enormous duty-free, where the layover time seems designed to encourage very expensive shopping, and up to the gate for Paris. Hearing French makes me feel amazingly at home. People here start to obey directions. Women wear revealing clothing. It occurs to me that one (dis)advantage of the shalwar kameez is that you never know if your clothes are getting tight on you, and no one can tell if you've put on 10 pounds or so. I've given up on sleep and line up instead for a flat white coffee, a bit of ordinary bliss. Again the bus, the tarmac, and the long climb to the supersonic. To Paris.

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