Journal 61: Touchdown in Malaysia Part One

FlightPhoto (12)

Saudi Arabia doesn’t need suicide bombers or crazed, Jihadist pilots.  They’d do better to pleat a militia of baggage handlers to do their destructive deeds for them.

After seeing the warzone of luggage pieces and baggage parts, I realized that this throng of thoughtless throwers were well equipped to lead multitudes of extremists into victory.  After a while I started to wonder why the handlers even decided to put all the broken wheels, ripped handles and crushed boxes onto the conveyor belt in the first place.

But as I saw more and more of them appear on the belt, I began to fear that my precious camera gear might have befallen the same fate.

As I waited in nervous anticipation to see my crates arrive from the bowels of this tote-grinding contraption, I thought about the horrendous landing that I and my neighboring passengers had just endured.

Honestly, I think that it must have been the worst landing on record for me.  About five years ago, I was on a plane from Mexico City to Lima, Peru, and the in-flight drama was the scary part.  The plane must have hit pockets of extreme pressure changes.  We felt the entire aircraft drop repeatedly to what felt like 10 feet at a time.  And when it was all over and we landed, I recall thinking back to the thoughts that passed during the flight.  I had basically started looking back over my life with thanks to the universe for a fun but short life and prepared myself for the wave of emotions that would hit me as that plane dropped from the sky.

The landing of this particular flight brought me back to thinking of how thankful I was for my experiences.  And the irony was profound, since touching down in Malaysia would represent the very last time I’d need to be in a plane for my next year of exploits in this amazing country.  But as overhead bins and luggage dropped down all over the plane, and the wings rocked back and forth so far that I thought they might scrape the tarmac, I began to realize that going out in a giant fireball might just be the ironic end I’d likely prefer.

Nevertheless, I made it.  I am writing this blog, so it’s obvious that the irony was at least appreciable and I will live to write another day.

But when things started dropping down out of the overhead compartments, I was actually more worried about my very heavy, very valuable camera bag falling out and crashing onto the deck.  In fact, I actually ran through the action in my head a couple times.  And I kept preferring the option where the camera bag’s fall was broken by some poor bastard’s noggin in the next row over.  I didn’t wish any ill on anyone.  But we’re talking about $12,000 worth of optics and bodies.

Thankfully, my bin was among the lucky few that remained closed until we exited the plane.  And upon satisfactory preliminary assessment of my crates, it was off to meet my limo and start a new chapter of my life back in Southeast Asia.


Journal 60: The 30-Hour Antizonal Flight Part Four: Jeddah to Riyadh

I met Sam, the guitar-picking Peace Corps alumni, on his way to Malaysia for similar reasons as me.  In fact, I saw him at the D.C. airport terminal lounge, bushy beard and all, pacing around the entrance and generally keeping to himself.

He’s a pretty cool guy: English grad, just spent the last few years in Morocco as an educator and multi-party assistant to other Peace Corps efforts in the region.  He knew a lot about the country and it was nice to talk to him about a nation that is such a coveted destination for me.  But I will get there someday.  Perhaps before then he will use the email address I gave him and I will be able to pick his brain a little bit about where to go and what to see.

He was taking the exact same flights as me.  And once we were in Saudi Arabia, I thought to sit down and introduce myself.  He was pretty quiet up until he got a guitar in his hands.  But after that, it was Tom Petty, Ray LaMontagne and everyone in between.  He pelted it, too.  Unashamed, he was singing at a level that I would probably be questioning in a country that enjoys American rock-and-roll about as much as they do the feminist movement.  But off he went nevertheless.

While sitting and listening to him, I also spoke to an Indian fellow named Johnson, who was on his way to India to spend time tracking down the patent to this new chemical that he and a friend had invented which helps clean out pollutants from bodies of water around large plants and laboratories.  That seems like it will take off like disco if he ever gets the patent and some good marketing.

He was also into making films and had recently finished the Computer Graphics portion of a $15 million film set to release sometime soon.  He was pretty interested in talking to me about what to do to get the film released and marketed.  But I wasn’t sure what advice I could give to someone dealing with that kind of capital.  I would assume that kind of cheddar could buy a lot of airspace in Hollywood if that was his ultimate goal.  But I still told him what I knew of the indie film circuit throughout the states.

His other upcoming movie, Heart of a Soldier, which was filmed in India and which stars a famous Indian actor who charges a handsome $3 million per film, was supposed to be a hit and I was invited to check out his Vimeo presentation of that title.  So hopefully being on this blog, it will get a few more views.  [put link here]

One interesting thing that he did say once he found out that I was into making documentary films was that there is a group (or more likely a tribe) of people living in the Himalayas that would be a great subject for a doc.  And after listening to him talk, I agreed.  He indicated that the people there lived to be 300-years-old and that they wear no clothing even in the sub-freezing temperatures.  So if this place and those people exist, I am sure they would make me my millions as a documentary filmmaker.  Let’s just hope this is a well-kept secret rather than one of he may Indian myths that circulate in an effort to give sway to mysticism and lore.

Prayer time on the PA system throughout the airport interrupt my thoughts as all the men line up and face Mecca to commence their groveling to a tribal god.  Allah uh Ahkbad, Allah uh Ahkbad.  The chant continued.  I leaned over to ask the young boys sitting in their seats just down the aisle from me what the man was saying.  And they said, after the whole “God is great” thing, that he was praying for a safe journey for all of Allah’s followers.

It is really weird to have someone so religiously extreme as would pray over the intercom.  But as religious people go, this still struck me less weird than the irony behind not praying for everyone aboard.

‘What about the Jews, Catholics, Hindus and Buddhists that are apparently on this flight with me,’ I thought.  Wouldn’t everyone die if Allah was not looking over them with the same contingent of care as his faithful followers?  If it was their day to die because Mohammed would not approve of the beliefs inside their heads, wouldn’t then everyone else have a visit with the same fate?  And wouldn’t this idea have come across someone’s mind at the pulpit of this many-times-a-day prayer?  At some point, wouldn’t it become a bit suspicious as to why so many flights made it safely and the greater population of the passengers be Hindu?  Or a regimen of Daoist Chinese on their way to Dubai?  Could it be possible that the Buddha was visiting more protection on the Buddhists onboard than Allah to his Muslims?

And what of the people of these other religions that must listen to this ballast of Arabic praises?  Are they not worried that this might offend these people?  What about the embracement of diversity?  What about using that intercom to do a recite a passage from the Hindu Mahabarata?  Maybe a chant for the Buddhist monks in the crowd?  Or perhaps holding Mass for the Catholics?

The religious questions never seem to stop.

Nevertheless, I really enjoyed looking around and seeing all the different styles of dress, meeting new people and talking about the random airport lounge topics.  And thankfully the obviously religious people that I did get to talk to, were very nice, welcoming and engaging.

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Journal 59: The 30-Hour Anti-Zonal Flight Part Three: Saudi Arabia

I slept for about four hours between the muddled cried of Saudi tots.  I tried to watch the newest release of Total Recall with Colin Ferrell, but I was reminded of the extreme right-wing, police-state, surveillance-state, censoring mentality that comes with extreme religious governments.

Mild violence was never shown.  No blood was allowed to be seen.  Even women’s low-cut shirts were pixilated at the breasts.  So by the time I’d finished the first half hour of the film, I’d had enough bleated, fuzzed out and muted scenes to realize that I wasn’t even getting the full story to keep a decent understanding of the plot line.  And for a movie like Total Recall, that’s cutting out a lot.

The thought occurred to me that they do to their movies the same thing they do to their women.  Cover them up.  If you think it’s indecent, cover it up.  If it’s a little embarrassing, cover it up.  If it is a bad word, a bad sight or could lead to a bad thought, cover it up.  Pretend it doesn’t exist and hide it away.  That’s the way it works.

I guess I should feel good that I was born with a penis.  I am perfectly okay walking around in public wearing whatever I want.  But dare I show even a little skin, no matter what blistering temperature the sun is cooking this arid land at, if you’ve got breasts, you’d better be draped head to toe in the darkest, least revealing, hottest attire we men can think to force upon you.  At least that is one man’s impression.

Perhaps I am wrong.  But covering up is a very foreign concept for me – and I am assuming it is for most westerners as well.  We automatically feel like maybe there’s something to be ashamed of or that we’re ugly if we’re asked to hide away.  And perhaps that is going to be one of the greater challenges to Islam taking hold in western countries.

That thought passes as we land and taxi into the terminal.  I am reminded of just how religion finds its way into all facets of life here, not just in the burka which must be donned by all women.  As the pilot begins to speak into the PA system, he praises Allah for a safe flight and successful landing.

Personally, I’d rather him be thankful for his gauges functioning properly and that the laws of physics didn’t suddenly shift during our time in the air.  I’d even be happy if he was prideful of his skill in putting down plane with a dry weight of 84,100 lbs. and more than 300 bodies on board.

Islam is not just a religion here.  It’s a way of life.  The uniform dress on the streets is as important for men as it is for women.  But not for the same reasons.  For the men, who are generally found sitting and smoking or talking on a mobile phone with one hand and shaping every syllable they utter with the other, it seems more of a uniform of status.  And they hold that status dear.

I’s a simple form of honor that is paid from one man to another when they see they’re part of the “club.”  And while it’s a bit archaic, it’s probably more than the tradition than it is the significance that will fuel this trend to the last breath of the last Muslim in this land.

Nevertheless, we’re here in what’s got to be the creepiest airport on earth.  Jeddah is a very “short” city with all the buildings being under three stories.  And while its infrastructure is constructed chiefly of mud-brick and earthen supports, it’s home to three million people and is said to be one of Saudi’s premier resort areas.

Journal 58: The 30-Hour Anti-Zonal Flight Part Two: D.C. to Jeddah

Muslim Tea: Pinky Out

Muslim Tea: Pinky Out

I have never been to the desert.  So all that I knew to assume about what it looked like was limited to Clint Eastwood movies and the slides from my geology classes.  In flying over this dry and desolate place, I am simply amazed at what is actually here.

I originally thought that it might be just some endless expanse of brown dunes.  But I’ve found that it has a lot of diversity.  There are varied geological structures, evidence of ancient volcanoes or asteroid strikes and sunken lakes with protruding, mountainous islands that more resemble colossal mushrooms with the understory having been eroded away by the continuous lapping of currents underneath.

There was also an amazing spectrum of colors, considering that there seemed only to be limited geological sediments.  And in between the mountainous, darkly color-crested heaps of earth, the valleys revealed the remnants of those ancient massive bodies of water where once-rich soils and minerals were replaced by gradually descending banks.  And ancient rivers, once having chiseled through these mountains, left only their discolored, winding channels behind.

What I knew of the desert was simply destroyed by what I saw flying over this grand and inescapably beautiful place.

And this is all in addition to the amazement that I felt the first time that I saw the Nile River.  By the time we were over eastern Egypt, the plane had descended down below its normal 35,000 feet and I was able to make out quite a lot of detail.  It was really impressive from above.  Its banks were rich and peppered with towns and layers of green life.  And as it writhed and wriggled along the opposing bodies of beige sands, oxbow lakes could be detected from some 10,000 years of meandering along a different course.

The entire region, really, was not what I expected.  There was so much more to what I saw in these famous deserts than what I had originally assumed.

Journal 57: The 30-Hour Anti-Zonal Flight Part One

The Makkah Region Desert, Saudi Arabia

The Makkah Region Desert, Saudi Arabia

The benefits to sitting in the exit row are few but valuable.  The most important for me, a man of 190 centimeters and 114 kilograms (6’4” 260lbs), is that I can stretch my legs without too much worry as to whether or not I will be abruptly awoken by the infrequent settling back of the chair ahead of me.  This is key, since the reason that the person in front of me would need to slide the seat back in the first place is because they’re going to be preparing to sleep for the next few hours – assuring that I won’t be doing so for at least that long.

The second benefit, of course, is that the restrooms are 10 feet away.  Convenience when needing to use the restroom is always a comfort.  It also helps in the event that there is a long line.  One can rest easy and simply wait for the line to be an amicable length before committing to the bladder dance that will ensue once in line and looking forward to the relief that will be arriving soon.

The drawbacks to being in the exit row, however, are more numerous and far outweigh the benefits.  For starters, while you’re 10 feet away from the bathrooms, you’re also 10 feet away from the bathrooms.  So while the wait might be less and the access convenient, one finds that they have leveraged these accommodations with the continuous odor that emanates just a short distance away.  And on a flight from a Middle East country and continuing onto one with a high concentration of Indian descendants  that particular aroma carries with it a continuum of reminders of the kind of digestion problems which are inherent to the colons of nations with such a long dietary history of curry and spice inclusion.

Of course, the hidden gem of advantages to being seated so close to this nocuous location is that one can fart without worry of being suspected as the culprit.  It goes without saying, however, that one can’t make a terribly audible reverberation whilst breaking wind.  Because, though the engine and wind against the hull may lull one to sleep along the day-and-a-half trip, the infrequent rumble from the seat next door might well become questionable when followed by an aromatic differentiation with the common scents abound – especially when no one is using the lavatory in a pressurized vacuum.  But, well timed, the internal release of the kind of pressure that airplane food can concoct in the average bowel system is a welcomed respite in an otherwise nerve-wracking situation.

The second most profound detriment to winding up in the exit row is that this is the row where the airline places the families with very young children.  And, while I think kids are great and cute and interesting, I don’t necessarily find the percussion of noises, the incessant and hyperactive activity and the sensory-debilitating stench quite so adorable.

Even being extremely tired, wearing a headband over my eyes and with earplugs crammed into my ear canals, I remained sleepless for the 12-hour flight from Washington D.C. to Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.

The third, yet no less disappointing item that stands in the way of a pleasing experience on the aircraft’s exit section is that on the bigger aircraft, there is no window in this isle.

Needless to say with all the inopportune elements to the start of this long journey to Malaysia, I was not pleased by the time I arrived in the Kingdom of Saud.  But nevertheless, I was in good spirits as I was still looking forward to a great time in my new life.

So in my many long hours aboard Saudia Air Flight 036 I had a lot of time to think about the goals that I wanted to set for myself in the coming year and to look forward to the new insights that I will behold in my new position in Malaysia.

I utilized my time on that leg concentrating on the positive attribute of the flight and found creative ways to get around the crying babies, nasal assaults and lack of good views of the passing earth below.  I was able to find a row in the back of the aircraft that had a window seat free and snapped a few shots and captured some footage of the long, empty desert below.  But we were lucky because most of the flight was during the nighttime hours.  So by the time we were flying over Egypt, we’d reached the part of the world where the sun was up.  And I wound up getting some great shots of the Nile River, the Persian Gulf and of the geologically impressive Makkah Province desert (pictured above).

Once in Saudi Arabia, I realized that I was only one of very few white faces in the crowd.  So, while I was able to figure out quite quickly that I wasn’t going to blend in, I also realized just as fast that those who stand out in Arab cities seem to be categorically selected to be most scrutinized.

If I’d thought that people in the U.S. profile travelers at airports, I was in for quite a shock here in the most extreme of right wing, conservative Muslim countries.  I, as well as basically every other westerner, found myself the victim of not one, but two trips back to the same searching station in order for guards of varying paygrades to quite thoroughly rummage through my belongings and wrinkle up the shirts that I painstakingly folded and placed so that I would not look like a hobo for my first day at work.

I was asked several times what I did for a living and if I was a journalist.  I didn’t have the heart to tell them ‘yes.’  So in an effort to be honest, I simply told them that I was not staying in their wonderful country, but that Jeddah was just a through-flight for me to land in Riyadh, where I would then be off to my final destination in Malaysia.

But while the guards were less than welcoming, the locals seemed very nice.  I sat and talked with several people that were awaiting flights.  I didn’t approach any women, but the men were very welcoming and informative.  They spoke with very good English and seemed very formal and respectful.

One man, Dr. Sharif, talked with me for about ten minutes and spoke about all my inquiries with enthusiasm and pride in his country.  I asked about the type of dress that people wear, the interesting things to do in the Middle East and about what people from the Kingdom thought about Americans and westerners.

The audio clip from that conversation will be loaded soon.