June 17, 2016

I sometimes share travel stories, not about the coffee, but about the stuff in-between.

I told this story before. And then I did it again. And when I had bad flights I seemed to rehash this story again and again. It makes in harder, since each time I represent the story, I tell it better and remember it worse.

There's this bad conscience that comes with story telling, especially a story with a small degree of despair or tragedy in it. Do I repeat it to acknowledge something meaningful to me? Do I repeat it to say something about issues in the world, about how women are treated? Is it to valorize the rigors of travel? Is it the kind of hard-luck travel narrative that people pull out in a chat in the airport lounge?

I guess it could be any of those things, except heroic, because it's not. The memory is a little humiliating.

Travel narratives are not neutral, and they are often not simply one thing or another. But they are certainly way more about us than about "them" so if my swerve toward introspection seems narcissistic, it comes from my sense that the traveler carries the metaphoric baggage, and rarely "knows" much about what happens right in front of them. Anyway, travel stories are myths of action and mystery, even the self-conscious ones.

This was quite a few years ago, but I don’t remember exactly when. I was leaving Addis Ababa on Ethiopia Airlines, but for some reason I had chosen a flight that departed at around 1 or 2 am. They usually leave about 11 or so, but maybe it was just late. No ... I remember, it was a weird flight because I was going to make a connection in Lebanon, and I had never done that before, or since.

What I noticed was many young, rather giggly girls waiting for the flight. At first I saw them lined up and being instructed by some sort of "handler", the only male among them. It seemed strange, and a little oppressive. Was it a class, or a tour? I wondered if it was something ugly, maybe because of the way the handler had them organized, or maybe the way he spoke. But what was the language?

They seemed moderately islamic, lightly covered, Later they were gathered in little groups, with no handler in sight and it was so different: They were appropriately young and silly. Ominous thoughts faded.

Did I actually speak to them? Yes, I must have, because one told me she was a hairdresser or beautician. So that’s when I must have found they were from Madagascar, no Mozambique, and they were traveling to Lebanon.

And I also found they weren’t a school class, and they definitely weren’t hairdressers. They were domestics, very young domestic housemaids. It was some sort of employment racket, but, yes I remember the way the man had all their passports. Was that for their benefit, or for control? It made my conversation with them, and the whole hairdresser thing, a bit sad. This could not be her ideal, not what she wanted to do, that much I knew, even as a passing stranger.

The other passengers were not the usual mix either. There were only a few westerners, meaning pale people like me I guess. I remember one British woman and a young guy from Austria or something. But I definitely noticed this other group, young dudes, remarkable because their fashions were really distinctive, like tight shirts and gold chains and chest hair and complex jeans with many extra pockets, engineered rips and bleach marks and lots of extra stitches. It’s like male chintz you can wear. Yeah, I know, Im making a judgement on their taste, because it was lowbrow. But when guys gang up like that, their taste dominates.

They were flirting with the girls a bit, but the ladies seemed into it. For a while at least. Some of these guys seemed to be traveling with parents and family, some with wives too, who were wearing a fuller orthodox coverage of black cloth.

It was on the plane that things got ugly, even before we took off. The dudes were acting bad, The Ethiopian Airlines flight attendants, all women, could not get them too sit down. They were insulting everyone. Parents and wives of the dudes did nothing, or laughed, or pretended not to see. I scowled impotently. The attendants threatened, that we wouldn’t take off, that the flight would return to the gate. But the dudes weren’t going to be told what to do by a women. They were drunk on something other than alcohol, like being drunk on masculinity. The OTT fashion made so much sense.

I remember how i looked for others that were “us”, us tasteful well-behaved white westerners. Together all 3 of us scowled, muttered, turned around, glared. What could we do, so few of us disapprovers. We did take off, but when a snack was served, I saw the dudes start throwing food at (possibly) their future housemaids. I was so mad and so unable to think of what to do. And so exhausted. I remember the parents and wives enjoying it all, but awkwardly, sadly. There were really very few dudes, maybe 6 or 8 real aggressive ones. But they had the power.

I don’t know what ended it. Maybe they just dimmed the lights, and people dropped off.

We landed in Lebanon at 3;30 am or so. The police were there at the gate. But somehow I had a strong sense that nothing was going to happen, that their presence was a symbolic gesture to acknowledge something had happened, not something bad specifically. Like it was more an inconvenience, boys being boys, a prank, something that demanded some strong words because it was inconvenient. Yes, something inconvenient had happened.

Outside the gate I found my pale westerner friends and we commiserated, mostly for the humiliated domestics, and probably a bit for ourselves. But we shared that intractable sense that the Mozambique girls would show up for their jobs no matter what. And the sense that, if this is how they can be insulted in public, with parents and wives chucking shyly as it happens, what would happen in private? Who would stand up for them? How could they leave if things were bad? And where would they be safe?

And was the despair I felt for them, or was I humiliated that something awful happened in front of me, and I didn’t know what to do? Was it both? Is it the force impelling you to act, yet thwarted by the fear of the power someone else has? Is it the mythic heroic act that you, in the moment, fail to accomplish? Is it that the sense of being “right” morally which you bring with you from your own life and culture, where you have some power or sense of agency, does little for you when you are overcome by the events unfolding in front of you?

No, there was no violent crime here. But have you ever seen men throwing their airplane meals at other passengers? Ones they targeted because they are of a lower class, of another ethnicity, and mostly, because they are women? It's obscene.

But on that plane there seemed to be an air an immoral world turned, in the face of helplessness, it turned myself on myself, and fucking hell, this wasn't about me. Not when it happened. But, stuck with the images burned in my mind, I guess it became that way.

I don't think I retold the story quite like this before. It ended without all the despair and self loathing. It ended with that head shaking nod that says "life's tough".

Maybe travel stories are just how we can place something into a neater narrative package, whether heroic or not. I don't know. For me, when I write this, I think I am trying to remind myself that, even though I felt so small and weak when this happened, maybe there's hope I won't next time. Maybe it can be different. Maybe the story gives me hope that, while I can't edit myself to be a better person in this plot, maybe I can get a rewrite next time around.

-by T.O. June 2016

PS: I'm sure this is all messed up because I wrote it on a phone, in a "restobar," in Rwanda. But that's another story.