Monday, September 28, 2009

Of Border Crossings

Location: Syrian Border Immigration Authority Station - September 23, 2009

Reading: The Namesake, Jhumpa Lahiri
Listening: The Police and the Private, Metric

Ex-pat and traveler clichés met so far:

The Luggage Sob Story
The Taxi Driver Who Ripped You Off
Photographing "Exotic" Food
The Bedbugs/Ants/Critters Paranoia

And now the latest: The Overland Border Crossing.

5.30 AM: Wake up to scratch a mosquito bite on my face. Find something crawling on me. Promptly think it is bedbugs. It is, of course, not.

6.30 AM: Arrive at Beirut bus station to catch a bus to Syria only to be told that there is a change in the schedule and no bus to Damascus will leave today. Completely forget/ignore the fact that Lonely Planet and just about everyone tells me that this is a scam along the lines of "the restaurant at which you wanted to eat has sadly burned down, but lucky for you, I have a restaurant and you can eat there." Board shared taxi to Damascus. Monumentally Questionable Decision Numero Uno.

6.45 AM – 8 AM: Recurrent flashes of realization: Need to learn Arabic.
Surrounded by rapid-fire exchanges between the Really Aggressive Taxi-driver (RAT) and Nadine, my godsend of an Egyptian-American roommate, which essentially boil down to "How are we getting ripped off? Oh let me count the ways."

8.10 AM: RAT stops to buy himself 200 duty free cigarettes. Approaching Lebanese exit border. There is a Dunkin' Donuts on it [!] Lebanon runs on Dunkin too?

8.15 AM: Stop to buy coffee at local chain. Also buy a tray full of basbousas (syrupy sugary goodness). Momentously Bad Decision Numero Dos.

8.20 AM: Arrive at the Lebanese exit border. Attempt to put basbousas down to search for passport, only to get stuck by a bee on my rear end.

8.25 AM: Dash into the bathroom of the Lebanese exit border to remove bee stinger from my behind. Angry Little Old Lady starts screaming at me because she wants a tip. While I am used to tipping for the privilege of relieving myself in public bathrooms, it usually happens after the fact – and certainly not while I still have an insect part stuck in myself. Angry Little Old Lady proceeds to call me a little slut at least three times in a minute. It is time to get out of Lebanon.

8.40 AM: Driving above the clouds in the zone between the Lebanese exit border and Syrian entrance border. Eerily and ominously calm and content. Still rubbing sore behind.

8.50 AM: Arrive at Syrian border to find that Venezuela and Greece are significantly more loved than the two U.S. passports of friends traveling with us. My Venezuelan roommate Geraldine and I make our way to the counter, where we somehow manage to buy the right visa through a combination of smiling, gesturing and repeating "Venezuela, Venezuela!" emphatically.

9.30 AM: Venezuelan and Greek passports are stamped. The wait for the U.S. passports begins. We are repeatedly told that Syrians wait 20 hours to enter the U.S., so we will also have to wait.

9.40 AM: Begin to realize differences between U.S. border protocol and Syrian border rituals. Cameras, laptops and cell phones are all welcome at the latter. People smoke freely. Beer is sold (but no food). Playing peekaboo with leftover basbousas while still blaming their honey for the bee sting. Searching for ways to scratch one's rear end elegantly at an international border.

10 AM: Five-year-old chubby boy approaches me and starts garbling in Arabic. While ordinarily squeamish around children, I smile. Boy gets closer to me and his talking gets louder. Starts pounding chest to the sound of "King! Kong! King! Kong!," which we decipher to mean he thinks he is King Kong. Fast forward ten minutes and the boy is screaming his lungs out in my face, hitting my legs and has cornered me into a wall, while his grandmother looks on and laughs. No idea why I was the lucky stranger he chose to assault or where his mother was or what one is supposed to do with Little Terrors. Resolve not to have children.

10.40 AM: RAT begins to get very impatient at the wait for the American passports. Asks Nadine what she studies in university. She decides "communication sciences/anthropology/pre-med" is a mouthful and opts for "Medicine." RAT promptly begins to narrate his medical condition to her while gesturing towards his foot. Proceeds to remove shoe and sock to reveal a giant horn on his toe. Nadine looks on horrified and helpless. RAT asks Nadine if he should attempt to chop off toe horn on his own. Nadine attempts to dissuade him. The rest of us hope he at least waits until he drives us across the border.

11 AM: Following the RAT's suggestion, Nadine and I sashay into the office of the Head of Immigration. Realize he has piercing blue eyes and fully prepare myself to fall in love with him. He speaks English and promises to help us. He is drinking tea, which we desperately need to stay awake. Begin looking at the tea intently, as if we have Matilda powers and can will it to come to us.

11.20 AM: Walk back into the Immigration Main Lobby only to spot Little Terror. Proceed to wait by the car to avoid him. Realize we are getting bullied by a five-year-old. Eat more basbousas to allay hunger. Take photos because when is this ever going to happen again?

11.25 AM: Little Terror spots us outside. Want to crawl into the trunk of the car.

Hiding from Little Terror by the taxi at the Syrian border, eating basbousas

11.30 AM: Little Terror marches toward us, picks up glass bottle and attempts to throw it at us. Grandma stops him at the last minute. Remind self not to have children.

12.30 PM: Nadine and I walk back into the office of the Head of Immigration, who suggests that we wait in his office, as opposed to outside in the crowded lobby. We perch ourselves on armchairs as he and his vice-captain go about their day, read the paper, watch TV and drink tea. Unsure of what we are supposed to be doing, but they seem happy to just have us there. Hm.

12.45 PM: RAT begins to complain to Head of Immigration that we are not paying him enough (ha!) and that the wait is too long. RAT speaks as if we do not understand Arabic – true enough of me, considering the only phrases I can master are "strawberry juice, please", "straight and then to the left" and "good morning, Sunshine" (still an improvement over just "thank you"). Head of Immigration points out that Nadine is Egyptian, that we understand everything and that he should honor the agreement he made. Faith in humanity further reinforced.

1 PM: Head of Immigration begins to tell us his love sob story, involving a Syrian girl who moved to America. He has not seen her in four years. Begin entertaining the possibility of becoming a Syrian bride.

1.15 PM: Nadine realizes Tyler and her passports are at the very bottom of the American passport pile given that they were the first to get to the border. Mild despair. Head of Immigration makes a call to ask them to "speed things up, they have been waiting since 9 AM!" Informs us there is only one (!) person processing all American passport requests into Syria today because it is a holiday. We make ourselves comfortable on his armchairs, realizing we may just have to live there.

1.30 PM: Head of Immigration hands us scrap of paper with his phone number. "If anybody bothers you, call me, I will throw them in prison."

Absurdities: Syrian visa overlapping with U.S. Homeland Security stamp - and the scrap of paper with the Head of Immigration's phone number

2 PM: Nadine and Tyler finally have visas and are waiting in line to get them stamped. Geraldine and I wait in front of a glass door, making faces and terrible puns on Syria. Syriasly. Start rowing my boat from sanity towards insanity and singing related tune. Realize the glass door in front of which we are standing is, in fact, a window and there are three men in uniform watching us sing and make faces. Want to crawl back into the car trunk with mortification.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Nostalgia in Fall Foliage

They travel with a constant companion, autumn. -Goethe
This was the time I experienced rain for the first time since the Indian monsoon. Lebanese rain came down in buckets, flooding the streets and rendering our car a canoe.. I am still processing everything I encountered on this whirlwind through 9 cities and across 3 Middle Eastern borders, but for now, I can admit that my most cherished memories were formed in the rain, usually in the passenger seat of a tightly packed Kia Picanto. 

Seeing a rainbow over Tyr, an embattled town very close to the Israeli border and home to a U.N. refugee camp. Helping my friend Tyler navigate a car full of sleeping friends in the middle of a torrential downpour while on a scarcely lit road in the mountains of Lebanon, only to find “I got a feeling” by the Black Eyed Peas on the radio - which sounds a lot better when ex-pat nostalgia kicks in (if, however, I start waxing nostalgic about listening to “Sweet Caroline” in the Sudanese desert, please slap me). Feeling cold for the first time since walking through the cherry blossoms in the D.C. spring. Taking a deep breath without tasting Cairo pollution. Forgetting where exactly the car is parked and riding up and down a Very Long Street while water in the streets is accumulating so quickly that the taxi splashes drops on its own roof. Waking up at 5 AM to a clap of thunder louder than the explosion of a bomb… and going back to sleep to the sound of hard rain. Burning sunset clouds on the Beirut Corniche, aggressively blue sky in Baalbek, standing outside a restaurant to smell the gathering storm.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

The Self-Involved Humanitarian?

He saw a cottage with a double coach-house, 
A cottage of gentility! 
And the Devil did grin, for his darling sin Is
pride that apes humility.
-Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Field work in conflict resolution tends to attract what my friend Holly calls 'doe-eyed people.' As projects differ from person to person, so do motivations. Some are in post-conflict communities to research them in the framework of academic study, others are teaching, yet others are providing an emergency response to disaster, and still others are affiliated with a non-profit or international organization. What the appeal is, what the initial draw was, and what the focus of the work will be may run a wide gamut, but a fairly consistent motif among such individuals is their curiosity and a sense of conviction about the cause to which they are devoting themselves. Intensities also vary – the spectrum runs from bleeding heart activists to skeptical researchers, from 'resume-padders' to those who have a life revelation and abandon proximity to mum, their dwindling relationship back home, and that Masters degree on the backburner to start their life anew in their post-conflict community of choice.

 A recurrent inner conflict as of late relates to how these individuals, myself included, think of themselves vis-à-vis their work. In addition to my own experiences with observer's guilt and the challenge of witnessing a perceived injustice and being unsure what, if anything one can do to rectify it, there is the added difficulty of striking a balance when talking to others about what you do and how you do it. How do you convey your passion and communicate your intrigue with facets of your work without condescending to others or assuming a 'holier-than-thou' tone I have come to resent in many ex-pats and fellow service workers? How do you fairly talk about the findings of your work and their impact without becoming self-involved? How do you personally navigate the balance between the satisfaction you derive from your work, be that the joy of giving or the thrill of learning, and a sense of duty to prioritize the community you are serving over your personal benefits?

In his musings on the duty of beneficence in Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, Immanuel Kant suggested that charity and the provision of assistance to others lose their moral worth if performed out of self-interest, in order to make the person serving others feel happier or more charitable. This point resonates with me, as I have found that hearing others talk about their work in this field with a noticeable degree of self-indulgence virtually vacates the work of its meaning in my eyes. However, there is also very salient dissent, in that whatever one's personal motivations may be, one's service still ultimately benefits others who need it. As I meet more people, all of whom are impressive in their own right and driven by passion and dedication that I admire and at times envy, I am still working on navigating how to tell my own story with a balance of humility and enthusiasm and finding my own answer in the dilemma of where the self stands among the stories, plights and small victories of a post-conflict community.

An Alexandria dawn

Last weekend a group of near strangers boarded a train to Alexandria on the Mediterranean coast of Egypt. In addition to the beauty of standing at the fort where the Pharos of Alexandria once stood and having saltwater sprayed on my face from the nearby stream, these are the moments of laughter, indignation, and surprise by which I will remember my first experience of Egypt outside Cairo.

Our names in Arabic in the sand

"How many elephants fit in a Fiat Punto?"
I will always remember Alexandria, Egypt as the place at which I lived the popular fantasy of being in one of those Guinness Book of World Records trials/car commercial sequences that answer the question "how many elephants fit in a Fiat Punto?" Specifically, how many 20something almost strangers fit in a six-person van? Answer: twelve. Two of them will ride in the driver's seat while one holds the driver's door open for his behind to flail out in the wind, two people who just met will sit atop each other in the passenger seat and make awkward chit chat as they combine their sweat, one person will be squeezed on the floor of the van by people's feet, like a traveling family pet, another will be contemplating the need to eat less dessert if she is planning on riding around Egypt in unfamiliar men's laps, while the rest will offer plenty of insightful, helpful questions like "are we there yeeeeet?"

Before Sunrise
I saw a breathtakingly beautiful sunrise after a night of conversation with aforementioned almost strangers. The evening would not be complete without a 2 AM run for kofta, a meatball-meatloaf type of dish typically made of beef or lamb--although our vendor insisted that ours was made of cow liver. Cringe factor aside, the delicacy brought back memories of the fantastic midnight food from a Delhi stand and made me realize I am quickly forming a whole category of "unprecedented, surprising, delicious street food eaten in questionable corners worldwide."

The Other Side of the Mediterranean
I swam in the Mediterranean for the first time this summer to find that its crystal clear blue waters are a constant, regardless of the side from which you are accustomed to seeing them. I thought this would be the summer I did not dip my toes in its waters and I will always treasure Alexandria for falsifying that statement just as the leaves are beginning to turn in New England.

Memory to Treasure
My most poignant memory of Alexandria was formed shortly after I grumpily peeled myself off my hostel bed on Friday morning. Watching the sun rise and harboring a desire to swim in the Mediterranean are not conducive to sleep, so after checking for bedbug bites (you can take the girl out of her neurotic environments, but you cannot take the neuroses out of the girl), I dragged myself to one of the few local establishments serving food and doused myself in coffee. The streets were absolutely empty at 10 AM. The occasional tram would pass us, but no locals, no tourists, no market buzz in sight. In itself, this was not an unusual sight; by this time, I was already acquainted with the perhaps surprisingly celebratory tone of Ramadan, which kept people out with their friends, eating, drinking tea and juice and smoking shisha until the break of day. Even as a non-Muslim observer, I had heard the first call to prayer echoing through the 4 AM darkness on a disproportionate number of nights in Egypt, most notably with a view of Fort Qaitbey and the 'other side of the Mediterranean' on the evening that preceding the coffee dousing.

I sat down at the cafe with my traveling companions, as we all tried to figure out the cultural sensitivity of our eating during Ramadan. Non-Muslims are not obliged to observe the daytime fast, but it is a courtesy to the fasting population to not eat or drink in public. As we discussed the topic, the Friday noon call to prayer bellowed from mosques across town. For the next twenty minutes, a sea of people converged in the same direction, as they came out of houses, most women in hijabs and some in full body covering, heading solemnly to pray. Watching the pattern of this movement and witnessing people bound in such a visible way by religion and tradition was novel, thought-provoking and a little moving for me, prompting me to think about the place my own faith occupies in my life and to perhaps research the tenets of my belief in a more thoughtful, systematic way.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Sights of a New Home

The three new roommates during a full moon felucca ride on the Nile

Reflections of feluccas on the Nile

Nadine photographs Geraldine and me during our cherished pastime: nighttime chatting and Nutella.

At Work with UNIFEM: The Female Parliamentarians Project

Last Sunday I began working with the United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM) in Cairo. I will be a Fellow with the organization until the end of November and during this placement, I will be working with local partners and international organizations to devise a comprehensive plan for the training and assimilation of newly elected female politicians into the Egyptian National Parliament.

 Background and the role of UNIFEM
Earlier in 2009, the government of Egypt approved an increase in the size of the parliament, effective in the 2010 elections, from 454 to 518 delegates and dedicated the 64 new seats to women. Critics of affirmative action have spoken against this measure, while other minority groups, particularly of religious affiliation, are now lobbying for similar quotas for their constituencies. However, the increase in parliamentary representation in itself is only a step towards improving the position of women in Egyptian society. 

Politicians, NGOs, international organizations and the public have all identified a need for ‘capacity building’ of female parliamentarians to ensure they are maximally effective in their new positions. UNIFEM, in partnership with the National Council for WOMEN (NCW) and local NGOs, is now responsible for a two-fold project: First, creating the framework within which these women will best adapt to the demands of politics and the public sphere, ranging from offering training to establishing support systems and, second, conducting an outreach program to better publicize opportunities for involvement in the public realm to women across the country in order to facilitate a mindset shift in this arena.

Project Paper on Training and Integration of Female Parliamentarians
By the end of November 2009, when my first placement comes to an end and I am likely on my way to sub-Saharan Africa, I need to have completed a Project Paper detailing the implementation of this kind of training/assimilation/support program for female parliamentarians. This involves understanding the particular need, assembling materials, from public speaking modules to negotiation training and multimedia integration, and coordinating partner organizations. My role is focused on creating the program, assembling the materials, and defining the parameters; sadly, I will likely not be here to contribute to the conduct of the trainings myself or to see it into fruition. This is not uncommon for this kind of fellowship and I am already very pleased to have a narrow, precise project with a very specific deliverable, but it is personally challenging to not be able to see the project through its completion and make adjustments as it unfolds.

Phase I: Needs Assessment (or: Questions, Questions, Questions)
My plan for the first stage of the project is to focus on devising a needs assessment. As Martha Nussbaum discusses in Women and Human Development: The Capabilities Approach, a common misstep of such undertakings is the transplantation of a Western curriculum, syllabus, or methodology to a culture that does not necessarily operate under the same norms. My task for now is to ask questions, understand, listen, and learn from everyone I can identify – from female journalists, politicians, academics, and activists to the staunchest critiques of affirmative action, female parliamentarians, or even female empowerment. Questions boil down to seeking an understanding of how women imagine themselves within the public realm in politics and society. What are their role models (both male and female) in the public sphere? Whom do Egyptians consider an effective politician/public speaker/diplomat, both within the country and abroad, and what features do these individuals share? Which boundaries—cultural, religious, traditional, family, otherwise—do they consider immovable and which are sensitive yet malleable? What skills do women, especially politicians and other public personas, wish they had to be more effective? What do they identify as their greatest obstacle? How do they sense their portrayal in the media, in their neighborhoods, and respective communities? Suggestions of more questions to ask, as well as individuals/organizations/literature with which I should familiarize myself, are most welcome at this point.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

In Cairo, At Home: Food and Feluccas

Current Location: Cairo, Egypt
Currently Listening:
Un Dernier Verre, Beirut
Currently Eating: Basbousa

I have always associated September with warm light, and warm light with a sense of congruence. Warm light diffuses all over Cairo; in my new roommate Nadine's words, it is as if "everything around us is in sepia tone." In the past 24 hours alone, I rode a felucca on the Nile under a full moon, heard a new friend's story about his falling off a horse and being dragged in the sand during a nighttime ride by the Pyramids, had a taxi driver switch his Arabic music to blasting "Show Me the Meaning of Being Lonely" by the Backstreet Boys the minute I stepped in the car, met two young American men who are enrolling in a program that requires a language pledge to only speak Arabic for the next four months, and was awake to hear each of the five 'calls to prayer' during Ramadan, the earliest of which bellowed from the nearby mosque a little after 4 AM.

Solemnity and Exuberance
Witnessing Egyptians observe Ramadan has dispelled my prior conception of this month of fasting, prayer and reflection as just a somber period of reservation and solemnity. Reflection and prayer are indeed everpresent, from the bahwabs who read the Quran in the mid-afternoon to the marked decrease in the instances of verbal harassment of women in the streets for which Cairo can be notorious at all other times. Yet, the reflection is coupled by a liveliness and celebratory ambience I had not expected. On my first night here, I inadvertently ended up on Egyptian TV while having my first fresh-squeezed strawberry juice at a Cairo coffeehouse with straw chairs set on a sidewalk built in the 1400s. TV crews were filming local celebrities attending an outdoor concert, into which I stumbled while coming out of a Sufi dance performance in the middle of Islamic Cairo, complete with men spinning around in circles for over 45 minutes while painting beautifully dizzying imagery on the stage with their colourful costumes. [Even recounting it is causing me the spins - a glimpse into the performance is in the inevitably blurry photo accompanying this entry.] Once the concert was over, the celebrities left and my 15 minutes of fame (or, more accurately, cameo of silently sipping strawberry juice) were over, groups of friends lingered to smoke sheesha, eat, and laugh into the daybreak, at which point the squares and parks started clearing out and people made their way to mosques for the first prayer of the day.

From Sunrise to Sunset

In a passage of White Noise, Don DeLillo's narrator remarks on how sunsets at times and places of high pollution can be breathtakingly, inappropriately stunning. A series of such sunsets has defined the first week in Cairo, immediately succeeded by the call to prayer that ends that day's fast. For the three hours that follow, Cairo streets are virtually deserted, as Cairenes gather for iftar, a shared meal during which they break their fast. Nadine, one of my new roommates, invited my other roommate Geraldine and me to iftar at a family friend's home. The entire affair, which was yet another reminder of the capacity of strangers to be astoundingly kind, constantly reminded me of Greece.

The familiar food, ranging from stuffed grape leaves to a nuts pilaf, roast beef and baba ghanoush to a meat and potatoes casserole, was hardly surprising, given the shared tastes across the Mediterranean. Yet, the smells and tastes with which I associate celebratory dinners with my Greek family during my childhood, coupled with Nadine's family asking if we want more food and expressing concern when we clarified that we have reached the absolute limit of what we could ingest for the day, created an uncanny impression of intimate familiarity that did not give away that all of us had met a mere hour ago and some of us did not speak a word of Arabic to communicate our gratitude. I now know how to say "shukran" and given that it is the only Arabic term I have mastered, I will just be very polite and say "thank you" to everything until I diversify my vocabulary. Q: "What is your name?", A: "Shukran", Q: "Do you speak Arabic?" A: "Shukran" (coupled with violent shaking of the head), Q: "Marry me!" A: "Shukran" (more head shaking).

The occasionally frustrating lack of Arabic language skills on my part meant conversation fluctuated between appearing like a Colgate commercial on the evokative power of smiling and a Coke "community transcends language barriers" movie preview and yet, the evening managed to me more sincere than cheesy, more meaningful than superficial. The warmth with which Geraldine and I were received into a foreign home and treated like family, and the almost relentless care with which these people fed us and asked about our lives created my first sense of belonging in Egypt. We topped off the meal by sitting on the balcony stretched out like boa constrictors trying to digest their enormous prey, hearing the neighborhood's six-hour prayer at the nearby mosque, and indulging ourselves in one more honey-syruped dessert.

I long, as does every human being, to be at home wherever I find myself. -Maya Angelou

The lingering smell of smoke from cigarettes and sheeshas, unyielding insistence of our elders on feeding us, familiar tastes, vivid gesturing and loud talking, reliance on community and family, and zooming traffic (although cows and mules do not have right of way here a la Northern India, you still think every time you cross the street may be your last) make Cairo feel like home, both in relation to the home in which I grew up and in its own right. I arrived here with not a single friend, no command over Arabic, and no house in which to live. I now have my own bedroom, pre-fitted with pink Barbie sheets and a "dollhouse" sticker on the door, in an apartment I share with two young American women of Egyptian and Venezuelan descent respectively, whose warm spirit, unbridled sweetness, and gregariousness has been disarming since our very first dinner together, during which we devoured yet another platter of Ramadan desserts as we made plans for the months ahead. I am sleep-deprived, constantly surprised, on a perpetual sugar high, eternally lost in the maze of downtown Cairo and ready to begin work (in three hours. eek.), to make this city a home, albeit a temporary one, to experience all it has to teach.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

The Luggage Conspiracy

Everyone has a sob story about the absurdity of the excess baggage charges and everyone believes their story trumps all other injustices of the Luggage Conspiracy. This is mine.

The following events transpired at Indira Gandhi International Airport between 1 and 3 AM [cue “24” soundtrack].

Entering the Airport
Unsuspecting Passenger approaches the entrance of the airport to figure out, to her bewilderment, that she cannot enter. Why, you ask? Because nobody is allowed into the main airport terminal more than 3 hours before their flight. At 3 hours and 20 minutes before her flight, Unsuspecting Passenger accepts this punishment for obsessive-compulsive punctuality with some degree of understanding and pushes her luggage cart to the waiting lounge. [If you are wondering “who goes to the airport 3 hours and 20 minutes before their flight,” the answer is someone whose travel book said to allow at least four hours to navigate this maze and whose host in Delhi reiterated that with her amount of itinerary explaining and baggage weighing to do, she should have likely camped out at the airport for good measure.]

Unsuspecting Passenger spends twenty minutes in the waiting lounge recalling all past instances of obsessive-compulsion and making resolutions on how she just needs to let some old habits go. Positively minded and resolution filled, she makes her way to the door yet again… this time, ten minutes later than the guard suggested, just for good measure.

Guard: Madam, can I see your ticket?
Unsuspecting Passenger: I purchased an electronic ticket, Sir. Here is a print-out of the receipt though.
G: looks skeptically at other guard, strokes his rifle (rifles are the new shotguns?) No, no, no, that won’t do, Madam. You need to go get a ticket.
UP: sweetly. ish. I understand. Is that still the case if my receipt says “no ticket necessary” and “no other ticket will be issued in addition to this document?”
G: Incomprehensible rapid-fire exchange with other guard in a language UP does not understand. “Madam, you do not have a ticket. You need a ticket.”

Unsuspecting Passenger, who has by this point begun to suspect, makes her way to the airline offices, past the familiar waiting lounge. A bulletin board informs her that airline offices are down Corridors 1, 2, and 3 but after she has squeezed her cart down the intestinally long and narrow corridors, she does not find her airline office.

UP: Excuse me? Sir? Would you mind pointing me to the Etihad Airways office, please?
New Guard: Etihad Airways? We have no Etihad Airways here.
UP: It is my understanding that an Etihad flight departs Terminal 2 at 05.10 today, is that not right? Am I at the wrong place perhaps?
NG: Humphmmm.
UP: … ?
NG: There are some more offices under the terminal. You will need to take the stairs across the street.
UP: Is there an elevator that will get my luggage cart and me there?
NG: Sorry, Madam. It broke earlier today.

Unsuspecting Passenger crosses the street without getting run over and drags her suitcases down the stairs – or they drag her, depending on where you were standing. She finds the blessed Etihad office. The individual informs her that she does not, in fact, need a ticket and she should proceed straight to the security guard outside the terminal. Because the Unsuspecting Passenger learned her lesson (or so she thought), she asked if the individual could scribble a note to that effect. The individual obliges. Said individual is the Unsuspecting Passenger’s favourite airport employee for today.

Outside the Terminal – 2 hours and 20 minutes before flight. After another memorable exchange, the Unsuspecting Passenger and Terminal Guard seem to agree on the necessity of letting her into the building. [Cue hallelujah’s.]

The 25,000 Rupees Fiasco
At the Etihad check-in counter, Employee and Semi-Suspicious Passenger trade sweet nothings on how lovely Semi-Suspicious Passenger’s trip to India was, how much she loves Employee’s country, and how much he does not like working at the crack of dawn. Semi-Suspicious Passenger nods empathetically.

Employee: Place your bags on the belt, please.
Semi-Suspicious Passenger: Gladly.

Semi-Suspicious Passenger places bags on the belt, totaling exactly 39 kilos, which is exactly one kilo below the normal allowed weight for international travel.

Employee: Wowza.
Semi-Suspicious Passenger: Bats eyelashes preventatively.
E: Madam, I regret to inform you (here comes the “you did not get the job” speak) that Etihad Airways only allows 20 kgs. on international flights.
SSP: I see. I was under the impression that the international norm is 40 kgs for flights abroad, especially flights with connections?
E: No, Madam. I am sorry, Madam. That will be 25,000 Rupees Madam.
Crestfallen Passenger: Loses all color from previously fire-engine red cheeks (thank you, heat wave).

In the next ten minutes, haggling, emotional blackmail, and even crocodile tears are all summoned to no avail. 25,000 Rupees is promptly charged on a Fellowship credit card, meaning that Crestfallen Passenger will likely not eat in Egypt during my first placement. This is one of those times when Crestfallen Passenger is very thankful her mother is not computer literate.

A Back Room with a Long Bed
Crestfallen Passenger makes her way to Customs and Immigration. The employee takes one look at her boarding pass, points to a little room on the side, and gestures for Crestfallen Passenger to take a seat. Though she has been given ominously little explanation, Crestfallen Passenger is familiar with the little room – U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services love to clarify your immigration status in the little room after you have just crossed the pond. This little room though is filled with exciting reading fare such as “What are drugs?” and posters of massive animal teeth, indicating you cannot attempt to sneak them out of the country in your clutch.

Customs Official emerges – this time a man, mid 50s. He gestures towards an even littler room.

Crestfallen Passenger notices the only furnishings are a long bed along a wall and filing cabinets. She briefly entertains the thought that she is living in a Houellebecq novel and thinks she may be unfazed if she is asked to demonstrate her exotic dancing skills any minute.

Customs Official: So we did a lot of shopping in India, huh?
Crestfallen Passenger: No, sir. Barely any, actually.
CO: 39 kilos! With no shopping!
CP: I am on a traveling fellowship, sir, so I have to carry my belongings for the year with me.
Employee: A traveling what?
Crestfallen Passenger sighs at the thought that she has to explain what she is doing with her life yet again. Then smiles and obliges.
CO: What is in those bags?
CP: Clothes for one year, my books, a light blanket. And a baby panda. Stuffed. Not live baby panda.
CO: Clothes! New clothes!
CP: No, old clothes. I came into India with these bags. You are welcome to find them and open them if you wish.

Customs Official calls in more employees and they gesture vividly towards Crestfallen Passenger as they discuss her “situation.” Not in English, duh. Miraculously, they let her go.

Empire Waists
Crestfallen Passenger walks to security, only to find a handwritten sign that reads “please remove your mobile phone from your clothes before being frisked” that makes her smile.

Crestfallen Passenger activates the metal detector (what else is new). Security Guard finds something beeping near Crestfallen Passenger’s bosom.

New Security Guard: What is that?
Crestfallen Passenger: Likely the underwire lining of my dress.
Crestfallen Passenger proceeds to give a 5’ spiel on how underwire lining works on empire waist dresses.
Security Guard, whose eyes are the only part not covered by her flu mask, cannot help rolling them.
Crestafllen Passenger would too in her place.

Crestfallen Passenger is frisked. Crestfallen Passenger makes it past security, but does not dare breathe or be less crestfallen yet.

Crestfallen Passenger would love a cup of coffee, so she makes her way. Upon handing her card to the cashier, she is informed that it was rejected. Crestfallen Passenger realizes the bank probably placed a hold on it, given that she—thankfully—does not make a habit out of donating her money to airlines that profit off little girls who carry their lives on their back (symptoms of grief: anger. Check.)

The Credit Crunch
With no coffee, Crestfallen Passenger calls her bank’s Travel Services collect, as her favourite bank teller had suggested that she do if in credit card need. The man monitoring the phone booth does not understand that this is a collect call and will not let Crestfallen Passenger out of the phone booth if she does not hand over 175 Rupees. What is 175 Rupees in the face of 25,000? Oh, and the bank could not help because they need to talk to the Fellowship Director of Operations. Crestfallen Passenger is at this point half a step away from selling her baby panda for a cup of coffee.

With no coffee or credit card access, but with her 39 kilos worth of baggage and a boarding pass, the Passenger set off to the kitschy Abu Dhabi airport to wait for the connection that will finally bring her to Egypt.

The best part about this? While she made it to Egypt and is happily taking in Cairo, the 25,000 Rupee bags got lost somewhere along the way and have not made it with her to Egypt.