Saturday, September 8, 2012

Zen and the Art of Traveling

            I was drastically unprepared for my flight yesterday. Usually I have all the stuff I will need for the actual flight – toothbrush, books, eye mask, sleeping pills, mp3 player, etc. - in my purse while the rest of the stuff I'm carrying on – like a change of clothes, etc – is in the overhead bin.

            But for this flight, I had about 24 hours notice, and for most of those 24 hours, I was freaking out about the fact that my real name was not on the ticket . When I called the travel agent his response was – I kid you not - “but, does it really matter?” And this wasn't even the travel agent who bought the ticket in the first place, that guy was on the Umrah, or pilgrimage to Mecca. All I could think when I found that out was 'really? This weekend?'

            After hysterically emailing everyone and their mother in the Kingdom, I finally got an email saying they changed the name. I felt like this email was also saying 'would you chill?'

            On the plane I got my first taste of what being in the Kingdom would be like when the movies on the plane were weirdly censored. This includes blurring out necklines, and omitting a vast array of words such as 'pig', 'kiss', and 'tiller' as in, 'firm hand on the tiller'. No, I don't know why either. Also cut out were scenes where male and female characters were touching. This made even the most obvious plot line a little bit avant garde.

            I wasn't as stressed about this flight as I have been about others. There was a time when an overnight flight would cause me untold amounts of anxiety because I can't sleep on planes. It came to a point, in Turkey, where I made myself so sick I actually threw up because I hadn't slept and I was so anxious.

            Eventually, I realized that the anxiety was making it worse and that not sleeping wasn't the end of the world. So, this time around I had this kind of calm going on and I actually did manage to catch some shut-eye during the flight from D.C. (11 hrs). There was a kind of bliss spill-over when we landed in City1 and had to switch planes for reasons that I'm sure are clear to no one. I was still kind of zen about the whole thing where, in the past, I would be panicking.

            As I looked around, I could easily tell the difference between the people who had traveled a lot and the people who hadn't. The people who had traveled a lot seemed to have this resigned look about them. They knew they would eventually get there and there was no way to speed the process. One pair of travelers very much illustrated two different ways of handling the same problem. As one of them was serenely messing with his smart phone, the other was twitchy and asking a billion questions that no one could possibly have an answer to: 'how long will they make us wait?', 'why did we have to switch planes?', 'where are the other people on the plane? I don't see the other people that were with us!', etc. It was like watching former me badgering future me for information.

            By the time we got to the Capital, I was beyond caring. Even when there was no one there to pick me up (called it) I didn't panic as I usually would. Of course, I panicked a little. It always sucks when you are expecting to be met and no one is there. Usually, I feel like bursting into tears. This time I was a little frazzled because, due to the quick notice of the plane flight, I didn't really have a plan B other than calling people. And they had no payphones at the airport.

            I was about to accost some poor person and ask them to let me use their cell phone, when I saw a guy carrying a sign with the name of the institution I am working for on it. I hadn't seen this when I walked in, and there is a good chance he hadn't been there. He'd been waiting for me for about four hours at that point so I don't really blame him.

            He took me to a place that I first thought was a hotel due to it's opulent lobby. I was kind of annoyed because I was beyond ready to get to my apartment, but as I went up to the third floor, the oddly festive nature of the decorations started to tip me off. There was a whiteboard on one wall with a meaningful 'Who let the dogs out?' penned in the middle. Most telling were the little shiny banners everywhere that, for some reason, said 'Surprise!'

            I got to my apartment and it's pretty nice. The living room is spacious (but has no furniture other than some tables) and the kitchen is at least bigger than the one I had in Seoul. The bathroom smells to high heaven and I can only say that it must be sewer gases coming up from the pipes because it's all clean. I have two wall unit air conditioners which sound like they are going to give out any minute. But so far so good.

            The second I put my stuff down (the literal second) one of my neighbors, who is apparently my supervisor? Invited me over to her place for tea. A quick walk down the hall and I was sipping hibiscus tea with Susan and several other women who live in the building. It was really nice and they were all very sweet. They mostly seem to be British and most of them have just arrived here as well.

            I am currently waiting for my first day of work to start. Waiting being the key word here. More on that later.

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