We headed from our home in Nepal to our home in Belgium (sometimes the blessings of life overwhelm me) and had a layover in Bahrain.
As I said, we found the Bahrain airport a somewhat unnerving place on the way over, with that febrile Middle Eastern tension, dramatic white robes and scowling faces, burqa’s and subservient women’s positions, and not a smile to be seen, all mixed with the exhausted exhilaration of travellers en route to and from adventures, plus the nervous and maybe homesick faces of workers or migrants on their way to new jobs and lives, all in a setting made rather surreal by the presence of a Starbucks and a Chili’s restaurant. Looking out the window at the Middle East, and hearing someone order a grande nonfat latte, all after spending two months hearing only broken English, makes for a weird afternoon.
There’s a massive US military presence in tiny Bahrain, so a noticeable percentage of the people there have the beefy solidity, scouring eyes, and short haircuts of servicemen (though I though the military had its own planes, so can’t but wonder if these guys were “contractors.” I almost asked one guy, but he looked like he would kill me with his stir-stick if I spoke to him.). I suspect the Starbucks and Chili’s make for the closest thing to home for American troops, and indeed I felt like I had flown from Kathmandu to Bahrain with a layover in Kansas. It’s like a redneck’s private nightmare: a strip mall in the Heartland where most of the passerby are Muslims in full desert regalia, and there is a picture of Sheikh Hamad ibn Isa Al Kalifah smiling in his keffiye hung on top of the chili pepper logo.
Ramadan had ended the previous day, and I sat in a mix of amusement, guilt, and pity as men with bellies the size of Texas (or a Texan’s) stuffed home fries into their faces, guzzled soda from those oversized plastic faux-steins with jug handles, and tapped at Iphones with greasy fingers. It was like America, only the customers were extra demanding and condescending to the staff.
I ate only natural foods all summer: rice, vegetables, and little pieces of chicken or buffalo (or goat lung at the barbecue) a couple times, all of which were most likely grown within the valley. Now I was faced with an American-sized Ranch Chicken Sandwich with “tangy wing sauce” and a slab of meat larger, whiter, and more texturally consistent than anything you will ever find on a Nepali (i.e. natural) chicken. It was awesome. For the first third. The second third was fine and dandy, and the final third was…challenging. I was glad K was there to try the home fries… Please honey, “try” all of them?
There I am, still wearing the kata scarf that I was given in the Nepali/Hindu farewell ceremony with Rajesh’s family, the red tika dot on the forehead recently worn/washed off, and a monster food-thing in hand. Given my mental state at the time, it is appropriate that I am blurry, while my delightful destroyer is solid. The three meals before leaving Kathmandu, plus the airplane “food,” meant this was my fifth meal that day (or day-ish unit of time). That may have been part of why I couldn’t sleep very well on the flight to London. Oy, the belly rats were discontent, lemme tell ya.
With the lack of sleep and culinary irresponsibility weighing down my mind and body, we landed at Heathrow. As we approached I marvelled at the giant office/apartment/university buildings, which looked like oversized batteries, a dozen storeys tall. Surely they don’t need so many? And the double decker buses looked almost realistic as we approached terra firma. The British mastered uniformity (see: row houses) and exported it around the world for mixed results, an arguably benevolent disease.
We were in row 46, and it took awhile before our turn for the long walk through the 45 preceding rows, which looked like they had been the setting for a three day rockstar binge. I am always amazed by how much mess humans make. More garbage than I can account for, socks draped over armrests and is that a pair of underwear stuffed in the seatback pocket?
We both needed a bathroom visit, Heathrow is massive, and Italians are histrionic to the point of the ridiculous, so it took longer than we expected to make it to the Brussels Airlines desk for our boarding pass. Once we got there we encountered some local fauna. The British Grumpy Desk Beast is similar to its counterparts in other nations, but is characterized by a bulging gut that springs open a crucial button on the shirt front to leave a peaking zone of pasty belly. Apparently undershirts are not part of the Heathrow dress code. If it had been a video game monster, that would be the weakpoint you have to shoot/hit with a pineapple.
This Grumpy Desk Beast was fully mature, so it had some measure of influence over the lives of others which combined with the characteristic cantankerousness of the breed to make it bark at us “what time’s ya flight?…Na, ye won’t make it now, will you.” (It was not phrased as a question.) Our flight was scheduled to take off in 27 minutes.
This particular desk habitat was shared by a female Helpful Employee, a lovely species that unfortunately is seriously threatened by climate change. Helpful Employee asked “which gate is it leaving from?” and scooped a phone up from under the desk, but Grumpy Beast swatted that idea with “if I knew that I wouldn’t be doing this, would I? No.” I asked if they could tell us the gate and we could try to run for it, the Beast pressed its lips together and its tightened eyes shouted “Run, eh? Cuz it’s just that easy for you spring chickens, isn’t it? No!” And continued aloud “you’ll have to lad yourselves and try again.”
I put my backpack loaded with a stolen airplane blanket and 32 hours awake on my back and asked with, I must say, an impressive level of politeness “I’m sorry, what does ‘lad yourself’ mean?”
The Desk Beast looked at me with beady eyes barely restrained by thick glasses and said “yes, lad yourself. (pause and scowl) Gate 16.” Feeling the likelihood of physical violence from one party or the other increasing, we opted to go see what Gate 16 was like. Luckily it was staffed by another Helpful Employee, this one male. I plan to go back and see if I can introduce the two Helpfuls to each other in the hope that they will form a breeding pair and continue the species.
Turns out we didn’t need to “lad” ourselves, but “land” ourselves, which meant we had to exit the airport, going through customs and border control and all that crap, reach the sidewalk outside Heathrow (hello bonny old England!) and then turn around and come back in the front door to reach the ticket desk for Brussels Airlines. Apparently there was no way to transmit our need to be rescheduled outside of the security screened portion of the airport. (When I go back for my Helpful Breeding Program, remind me to bring them a pair of telephones as a breeding present.)
I don’t know if it was the small Ganesh figurines we were carrying in our pockets (the elephant-headed Hindu god of fortune) or if England’s population of Helpful Employees is in fact robust, but the rest of the people we dealt with were delightful. Shy Christopher at the check-in desk with his slightly oversized suit jacket and quiet voice deserved a hug. The ticket desk guy wanted to hear about trekking possibilities in Nepal and to be honest I would love to go back and hike the Annapurna’s with the guy. Even the grandfatherly customs official is invited to my birthday party.
We had just enough time to grab a bite to eat before our rescheduled flight, during which we saw some additional fauna, including the Ridiculously Attractive Scruffy Young Irish Lad With A Guitar, As If He Wasn’t Going To Get Laid As Easily As Breathe Already. (I have observed that an acoustic guitar is the second most powerful tool in the human arsenal for procuring the attentions of the human female, only exceeded in power by a good Irish/Scottish accent, so this strumming Irish sonuvabeach with a scruffy beard and soulful blue eyes was just overkill.)
We landed in Brussels just about 24 hours after leaving Rajesh’s place, and it was good and peculiar to be back. I saw my first car in months pass us on the lefthand side when it was legal to do so (just as lanes are something of a western concept, so are sides of the road). Our baggage never popped out onto the conveyer belt but filling out the claim form was easy and they dropped the bags off the next day. On the train we met a pair of gentlemen from Burkina Faso who wanted us to take their picture and then take one of us, and whose smiles shone brightly enough to blot out the reflected glare off the Desk Beast’s exposed paunch in my tender bruised memory.
So now I’m back in Belgium. Still not sure exactly how that feels. I flush the toilet with water cleaner than what I’ve been drinking all summer. I walk down the street and no one looks at me; after all, no reason to stare at the white person in Belgium. Eventually I know this anonymity and impersonality will grate on me a bit, but for now it is blessedly peaceful; I no longer feel like a diplomat onstage, representing The West. I have a stunning variety of clothes to choose from, and best of all: none of them stink. I don’t think I’ve heard a single car horn yet…and I may erupt into a hymn of gratitude for it.
But there are no little voices calling out questions or answers. And there are no scents of cardamom ghosting around. The only Buddhist chants around are the ones we brought with us (turns out that CD should have been titled “Hippies with a guitar sing Buddhism” but it’s still good). I assume I have begun the inevitable process of forgetting. I am supposed to start a new job in a couple weeks, though suddenly my prospective employer is not returning my emails.
Life goes on, for me, Nepal, and Grumpy Desk Beasts around the globe.