Thursday, June 21, 2012

Africa Dreaming

Many nights I fall asleep dreaming of Africa. I squint my eyes as first light illuminates distant plateaus, reflecting glorious desert reds, oranges and yellows. The cool dune sand squeezes between my toes and I can see forever…there is no visible end to anything.

I guess I’ve been dreaming of Africa forever…it was always enchanting and mysterious to me growing up. I hardly knew anyone who had been, let alone anyone from there. Countries had funny names, pharaohs ruled ancient lands, the wildest animals dominated the Serengeti. The favorite animals of my entire family (giraffe, flamingo, hippo, rhino namely) were indigenous to Africa and all a kid could do is dream of their homeland.

In college I toyed with the idea of a safari or overland trip, but it wasn’t meant to be. Too far, too much, too something… I knew no one who would seriously considering going with me, and Africa solo seemed like a bad idea. The dream subsided but didn’t disappear; it would wait until it was too convenient.

Now was my chance, this would finally happen. (At least to the Maghreb – a different Africa – but Africa all the same)  I arranged for the four of us to fly VCE-FCO-CMN on Alitalia, and spend a four-day weekend in Casablanca. The price was right – unmemorable to me now, but at the time cheap enough to convince the guys it was pennies to fulfill Africa dreams. The Dark Continent loomed, and a particularly sketchy and overly romanticized locale would be our destination. “Sir, uh…I’m going to Casablanca with some of the cops” I cautiously told my Major. (farther than the rules really allowed but I was hoping I could smooth talk him) “Sounds great!” He boomed back, “Terry and I just love Spain!”

Just like the movie...

This IS happening…I pulled a fast one (lucky one, technically) at work, tickets were bought, decisions made. It would turn out NOTHING like I thought. (well maybe a little, as adventure was predicted after all)

Casablanca...JUST like the movie

The day we departed Northern Italy for Northern Africa, a 30,000 ft ash cloud departed the tip of an unknown, but soon to be famous volcano, Eyjafjallajökull. Busy with our preparations and hustle to depart work, we didn’t think much of it. By the next morning, we we’re laughing about how glad we were to not have planned a trip further north. What luck!

By Saturday the jubilation has morphed into that sinking feeling you get when you’re shanghaied in Africa. This is NOT good guys…Europe is more or less closed, to include parts of Italy, and the ash cloud frontline is seeping past that writhing boundary drew by the Alpini in WW1. Of all the things that could have gone wrong, a volcano didn’t make the list. Apparently, IATA and the EU were in the same boat. (though theirs captainless; the entire EU devoid of a decision maker. No replacement for a Churchill, or CDG)  And poor President Lech Kaczynski… killed by Russia, and can’t even get guests to his funeral.

France is out. Airports in Spain and Southern Italy were more wishy-washy than this (last…and realistically next) year’s debt crisis. Alitalia customer service is ENTIRELY (as per usual) worthless. 50 percent of flights in and out of CMN for Saturday were canx-ed. Roll the dice and wait till tomorrow, or press to the airport now to claim our refugee status and position in line for the first flight north?

For many months an ill-conceived plan to create our own Amazing Race was tossed amongst acquaintances. Teams of two would meet in the Canary Islands for a short vacay, then make their way back home, meeting at a specified bar upon returning. Cash would be put up as prize money, prior reservations and flights were verboten. Boat to Morocco. Train to Tangier, and Straight to Gibraltar. Or risk crossing Algeria to Tunisia, and hope for a fast ferry to Sicily. Get home quick, be crowned the master of travel, and take a decent sized purse.

As if a reason to travel was ever really needed. Had we become so bored with the mundanity of European adventure we should concoct our own voyage to test wit and skill?

Ego-measuring aside, today we have a real episode of the Amazing Race. The prize is being Back By Monday, and not being reported as AWOL. The contestants are all 6.8 MILLION displaced travelers. Incentives and motivation were never higher.
This crowd should be NBD...

…To be continued

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Fear, self-loathing in Morocco

Fear, self-loathing in Morocco

I didn’t go back for my jacket. I hesitated. Choked. Failed to act. By the time Laney turned back towards the van the idea hit me. I had a jacket we could have used. Happens to everyone…except me.  55 klicks west of Marrakesh and the boy in the middle of the road isn’t doing well. He’s screaming, bleeding, bone showing, and he’s going into shock.
These kids play in the dirt on the side of the road
As the sun sets, the desert cools quickly. He was playing soccer with friends when their ball made an unfortunate pass into a busy road. He probably didn’t even see the large and ubiquitous 1980s Mercedes taxi that creamed him across the pavement. Probably dressed for the pleasant afternoon weather, he was going into shock and the temperature dropping further was no help. He needed something to cover him, something like the sweater Laney brought back from the van. It wouldn’t be till later, on the silent ride home that the thoughts crept into my mind. Why didn’t you go get your unneeded jacket, neatly stashed in the van? Worried you’d get somebody’s blood on it?
A "Grand Taxi"

“Youssef!” we were shouting to our guide, over the agonizing screams of the boy, and the paralyzing screams of his mother on the other side of the road.  “What’s going on, why are they holding him like that?!” A crowd of men had gathered and were holding the boy while he writhed in pain.  Finally, after intense prodding of our guide, we realized no one knew what was going on – and our guide was the least bit interested in getting involved.

Of the eight of us, seven were trained as first responders, and never imagined we’d be the tenth, eleventh, twelfth…seventeenth first responders to a scene. At least ten people were already there, none of them with a clue. “YOUSSEF! Tell them to take the rock out from behind his head, let him lay flat as he’s comfortable. He’s obviously in great pain [we can see hip, shoulder and skull bone] don’t force him into a position.” We’re shouting orders and Youssef struggles to process it all and translate it into Moroccan/Berber/Arabic. He doesn’t seem thrilled, but eventually he’s getting through to the group. “When he’s comfortable prop up his feet. Cover him with something, he’s going into shock.” What to cover someone with when you’re in the desert…

The boy’s mother is far across the road, held back by other locals. Clearly, and wholly opposite from American culture, this is not a place for a mother, a woman. By the same token, I sense distrust from the men on scene, now taking directions from two guys and FIVE women via Youssef. Commotion erupts and they’re arguing. No understanding of the language, we understand every word. The man in control now is saying “blah blah blah blah….Americans,” and looking at us for reassurance. We stare vacantly back, but persist with our instructions to treat the boy. “Youssef, can someone call an ambulance? Can we take him to a hospital?” More importantly, do you have a hospital…

My buddies and I have a rule if someone gets hurt:
"Don't take me to the hopsital, take me to an airport"
The onsite commander is enforcing our directions, and apparently the caveat “___ ___ Americans” is grounds for them to actually carry out the orders. This may have been one of the oddest realizations of someone giving a shit about America. Here are people, most of which probably have never even met a foreigner, do not have TV, don’t know or care who the Kardashians are, but they’re listening to what we have to say. Because we’re American. Somehow they knew we knew what we were talking about, and wanted to help.
Karaoke in the van
Braced for quality roads in the van

Finally we hear sirens; some semblance of an ambulance is coming for this boy.  “Yellah guys, yellah.” Youssef is eager to leave, and point out that nothing else can be done. Smiles and handshakes are exchanged, even to the girls, and we grudgingly head back to the van. It’s a somber mood in our crew – the same crew who was previously singing karaoke thorough the van’s scratchy speakers. I hope he’s ok. I hope he’ll walk. Now we are the ones going into shock. The van is silent as we ride out the last bit of the journey in the dark. We drive. I think.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Odessa Odyssey

It started with a dance, the choreographed rhythmic movements of the three scorching blondes in the aisle. I don't always watch the safety briefs but the mid-cabin f/a had commanded my attention.  She did not keep your gaze, she took it. One excruciatingly tall heel on each side of the aisle, a stern smile, and perfectly in unison with her colleagues, emergency instructions were delivered. This must be the "way it used to be."  As we often say of the girls in Ukraine: "the only thing higher than her aspirations are her cheekbones."

Aerosvit flight 13 is climbing to a low cruise from Kiev Boryspil to Odessa, Ukraine and after taking a few moments to appreciate ummm... What I'll call the skillful distribution of drinks and snacks, I dove into my already-started Kyiv Post.
To demonstrate the veracity of this story, here are my qualifications: none. I'd tell you I've flown thousands of times, but the truth is; I haven't. I've sat in the back...and done nothing... (Usually F, but "the back," nonetheless) while someone else has flown me thousands of times. A certified ass-sitter. I'd offer the 60 some hours of single-engine piston time I have, though that's also irrelevant when you're sitting in 25C, and the "I'm a private pilot and I KNEW something was wrong" doesn't fly either, pun intended. Or worse yet, I recently heard someone feign importance with that disgusting sentence, but referred to himself as a "GA-VFR pilot."  Go ahead; tell the FAA you'd like "one general aviation-visual flight rules, to go please". Incredible.

So now you know I don't know what I'm talking about, I'll tell you about repeatedly clearing my ears. I became extremely uncomfortable and began all the tricks to equalize pressure. I was fruitlessly jawing so hard it was embarrassing and I turned in towards the window as to not show off my gaping grill and 7-day old road breath to my co-pax. After setting my newspaper on my lap, and jawing my gaping grill and 7-day old road breath at my good friend Jaro in 25B, the oxygen masks dropped. We exchanged looks thinking it was just another Ukrainian malfunction of life...but we were brought back by the shouts in Russian and my personal safety demonstrator diving from the aisle for dangling rubber.

After the "incident"
All of my training in ass-sitting has taught me to firmly pull the mask towards me to begin the flow of oxygen, first put on my mask, then help small children and those around me. Jaro, you'll have to wait. Trendsetter I am, I was the first in my row to firmly pull one of the four masks toward me (there are four in case of lap children or someone in the aisle.)  The video makes it sound like there's a chance you might not "start the flow of oxygen" but unless you're very tall this probably is not the case. The mask falls a few inches, and it's not the O2 line itself that needs a tug, that might even be dangerous. Rather, it's connected by a thin wire, holding the mask in place, and connected to the system, starting only the masks that have been firmly pulled.
Masks on, O2 is flowing. Or is it? A thousand safety briefs and videos are now bouncing in my slightly hypoxic head. Is it "even though oxygen is flowing the plastic bag WILL not inflate?" or "MAY not inflate." I think I settled on WILL not for some reason. Now we have a problem, my bag DID inflate, so much so it looked like packing material that would startled your cat if popped. What to bag's inflated…crowd sourcing shows Jaro’s bag is paper flat. He's sucking wind (presumably, at this point) a la Seabiscuit. I would later find out he had the same internal conundrum and figured HIS bag was the problem because it was different than mine. He later told me he was considering swapping his mask for the unused fourth in our row, an idea that crossed my mind as well.  Using my ravishing common sense, I assessed that not only was I still alive, but conscious as well. If it ain't broke... I would later learn that the whole reason for the "bag MAY not inflate" speech is because of a flight where pax tried to switch masks, as we were thinking, and passed out. While I don't know Jaro’s exact reason for not swapping out, and would love to tout my continued smartness, as a decorated combat veteran with more time in Iraq than you spent in jr high, and the bronze star to prove it, he makes good calls.
Tingly toes, fingers and some passed out neighbors, I am remembering: "breathe normally."  Got that, I'm keeping myself calm and taking normal breaths. I'd also learn later the bag holds oxygen you're not breathing in, as well as while exhaling -- hence my punching bag, and Jaro's sad sack. Next time somebody needs a "wasting oxygen" joke, it won't be about me. Jaro is rustling in his pocket for his camera, my chemistry prowess (a C- in Mr. Listort’s 10th grade chemistry class, which would have been a D except that he never wanted to see me again…) thinks this might be a bad idea: static, oxygen, etc. At the very least I must have given him a look that said “poor form” and the camera went down, for now. In retrospect I’m sure there is much more static and electrical activity taking place than a digital camera…and if we had gone down like Helios 522, all I did was deny investigators images of the almost dead.  We were now on our “emergency descent” from FL240, and while not exactly the most lethal altitude, somewhere between Kilimanjaro and Everest, I appreciate a good sense-of-urgency, and it seemed I could have walked down faster.  Nothing to do but trust in Boeing, I’ll calmly wait it out, happy to be flying American and not Tupolev.

The flight attendants are walking down the aisle, speaking in Russian two or three rows at a time, inciting a cascade of yellow masks up, over, and off dizzy heads. I reached my hand towards the aisle, “In English, please.” Commanding the kind of attention Air New Zealand would hire Richard Simmons or body paint for she curtly mentioned we were “below safety level.”

I noticed we never turned around, and I hear a PA regarding “Odessa” and “apologize for en-kon-veen-yance.”  In some twisted way I’m relieved we continued on, what a hassle getting on a new and functional airplane would have been.  Thank you to a culture of instant gratification for making me so impatient. Turning to investigate some raucous Russian conversation behind me, two rows back some guys are passing around a bottle of wine. A gift from Aerosvit? Where’s ours? A smuggled 750ml bottle and wine key? Who cares. Applause erupts as the mains touch tarmac again in what was not a smooth or straight landing. Idiots…we’re still in one of the most dangerous phases of flight…
Rounding out the experience we board a dilapidated bus, bottoming out over every bump on tarmac that could be a huge tile floor, with grass for grout. Kicked off near the fence line I found a new meaning for gate; literally, an open gate to the sea of gypsy cab drivers not allowed in the terminal that we were also not permitted to enter. A local article would claim passengers were offered precautionary medical checks. Any US or major European carrier would have offered this, refunds, skymiles, you name it. The cold former-soviet reality: “Ve delivered jou alive, vould jou like something else?”

The "gate"

Dog days at the Odessa airport

Greedy Westerners we are, we did want more. A short stay in the near-Turkish quarter of Odessa, then a harrowing, yet pressurized short seven hours on an overcrowded Moldavian minibus to Chisinau.  On Sunday after doing battle at the Chisinau bus station, fighting to avoid not only Transnistria, but also the smugglers route that goes much further west, near Romania, on our way back to Odessa.

I saw a few hundred Romanian music videos on that little much for IFE

A quick bite at a favorite fish restaurant, not only serving seafood favorites, but allowing you the full goldfish effect of everyone staring at your westerness, and we’re on our way back to the airport progress forgot. The analog arrivals and departures board would have you believe you’re in the train station.  A repeat performance of the same shaky bus, delivered us to the same parking spot, to the very same aircraft, UR-AAK.
No idea what they were advertising but the food was great!

Excuse me, is this my flight?

Poetically sitting in nearly the same seats, reading the same Kyiv Post, there’s no better way to get back on the horse.  The best part of the character building experiences this weekend – both in the air and with 27 people on a bus designed with 19 seats, while dodging livestock and frequently stopping to sell auto parts brought across the border – was not as my obnoxious friend (we’ll call Brian, because that’s his name), shouted, “You had no choice, you couldn’t get away!” True, but not only could we not get away, we asked for this. We bought and paid for those tickets on a Ukrainian carrier, and spend about $6 on that bus ride, where the lone Americans were shoved in the back.

Unable to come to a consensus on why we love traveling the back roads of Eastern Europe, we often use the adage; travel expands your boundaries, tests your limits. I believe it’s safe to say this weekend we crashed headfirst through those boundaries.  One of our favorite comedians, Nick Swardson, frequently jokes he wants to start a game show with terrible prizes, such as; live wolves, trips to Iraq, etc. The prize leading the victorious contestant to question; “did I lose?” So why the hell are we in Moldova…did we lose?

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Country Confusion

Orginally Posted at: GoingGigler

Are we where yet?
It’s easy in a place like this, to get confused; the former country consisted of six republics, five peoples, four languages, three religions, and two alphabets.  The borders drawn by cartographers have since been redrawn by several militaries.  We stopped for lunch in south eastern Croatia, halfway between Split and Dubrovnik, far enough to forget where we were.  Understandable, in the past this town may have been on the other side of the border.  It felt like Bosnia, at the roadside café that served us cevapcici, while young men smoked cigarettes and bleakly played video slots, though I’ve never had this uneasy feeling in Bosnia.  Head on a swivel as we ate, I wrote it off as standard third world no-man’s land jitters.  We were the only ones here who knew where we were going.

If you’re not nervous at border crossings, you haven’t crossed enough and I don’t trust you.  Hundreds of crossings have taught me this is not the time to sleep.  I try to bilingually negotiate my way out of the instant 20 Euro extortion taking place but lose.  My car insurance is NOT expired and I do NOT need to buy temporary insurance.  Usually acting confused and speaking Italian from my Italian-plated vehicle is enough to get an eye roll and a wave on. Confusion, the second most common Italian expression, after passion, is something I feign well after three years in country. No dice, guido.

No kidding this is really a resturaunt in Medjugorje

Google maps refuses to accept BiH as having roads, and GPS units are near useless so we’re hitting the bombed out roads with our map, compass and best Cyrillic reading skills.  Fortunately coming in the Herzegovinian side we deal with less Cyrillic than expected…it’s another story coming from Belgrade through the Republika Srpska.  The uneasiness is still there, and I can’t help but channel Abbottabad through the shab prefab houses along our way.  These are friendly people, why suburban Pakistan is on my mind is a question without an answer, but I swear I’m looking at the architectural fraternal twin of the Bin Laden compound.  The Passat’s busted turbo hisses us through the religious freak-show that is Medjugorje and on to Mostar just before sunset.

Coasting my injured vehicle into the Neretva river valley that cradles downtown, it was eerily calm meeting the gutted, hollow, bullet-riddled buildings for the first time.  Eighteen years ago this town was under siege for eighteen months.  Some of these void structures stand aside beautiful houses, schools, churches, mosques.  Some of these vacant structures were beautiful houses, schools, churches and mosques.  Constructed to nurture, they aren’t wholly unrequited, though where people and children should have grown, only plants rise up between the walls.  Eighteen years ago there were kids here my age, eighteen years ago, and for eighteen months, they didn’t care what they got on their birthday.

Istanbul serves as the theoretical capital of East meets West.  Straddling two continents and bridging culture, trade, empires and the fall thereof, that’s fair.  Seeing both sides reveals Istanbul is the capital of a forgotten thoroughfare that spans past the Turkish borders.  If it was the imaginary capital, then what of the imaginary country, smeared between two worlds?  In 2011 trade unquestionably happens in IST Kemal Ataturk Intl Airport, Haydarpaşa port, but before the Orient Express, in all its forms, it spilled through the Balkans, as it must’ve to the East as well.

Spiraling gently above squat café tables, nargile waft bends with the scent of Bosanska kavha into a pleasantly acrid haze; immediately firing the synapses of Anatolian connection.  Tipping the hand further, the glossy, spherical cobblestones in the souk, the undeniable water stink, copper tooling, beaded lanterns and prized rugs for sale have me mentally rooted 500 miles south east.  Eating my feelings, I found similar favorites –meat in a leaf! – on the menu.  Slaked like sultans, we downed some local firewater, rakija, and crossed the Stari Most to call it a night. 

Fittingly enough, the city which was a major connection and trade route, takes its name from its bridge and her keepers, Mostari.  What better way to destroy the psyche and livelihood of a city reliant on its bridge than to take it out?  During the war this was quick to go, and only recently resurrected to its original state, a mastery of engineering, well before its time.  Proud as we are of ourselves today, this bridge and her ancestry were sheer technological marvels, eighteen years before Columbus sailed the ocean blue.

The iconic, hand-drawn sign near the bridge tells us: “Don’t Forget.” Collectively we have answered the bridge: it’s impossible to forget what we never remembered, and now, as it was then; it’s altogether easier to ignore 63 international war criminals, 100,000 dead and 2,000,000 people displaced, than to remember eighteen years ago a bridge that had stood for 427 years was dropped into the river by tank fire.