Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Some Kind of Sayonara

It was freezing cold and the December winds failed to diminish the air pollution that draped Tokyo with an acrid cloud. My English teaching connections had foundered; I had had months of frustrations speaking broken Japanese; and I was tired of wedging through crowds of commuters no matter when or where I went. So I found a Dutch travel agency near the Ginza and asked the well-scrubbed clerk in his gray muffler if he could find me a bargain flight in any direction. I told him, "I want off the rock."

He said I'd get the biggest bang for my travel dollar by taking a Pakistani Airlines flight to Athens. I asked if it would be warm, and he lied. I imagined myself baking away on the Mediterranean, seated at a cafe with a glass of brandy in my hand, my eyes sheltered against the blazing sun. The ticket, in 1979 dollars, cost $280. Not bad for a trip halfway around the world.

What the travel agent neglected to tell me--along with his false promises of sunshine and souvlaki--was that the flight would take 26 hours from gate to gate, with plenty of stops along the way. I took my ticket, gathered up my backpack from the apartment in western Tokyo, and hopped an express train to the airport.

Once airborne, I discovered that I was the only Caucasian aboard a flight of Japanese businessmen, Chinese nationals, and a handful of Pakistanis. The announcements were made in Japanese, English, and Punjabi. I snapped a few pictures of Mt. Fuji through the window and settled back. It was an old-generation Boeing 707 and it looked it. At one point, the overhead cases swung open and the oxygen masks dropped out. They swung like jellyfish all the way to Beijing.

In 1979, we had yet to formalize relations with China, so when we landed in Beijing, I was told to remain seated until escorted down the ramp. The terminal looked like an old railroad depot with richly polished hardwood beams and rows of wooden benches. The locals all wore blue or green quilted jackets and matching Mao caps. You had to look carefully to make out the gender. One couple necked surreptitiously beneath a stairwell. I tried to escape out into the countryside a few times and was brought back to the terminal under escort of armed guards who were astonishingly kind and courteous.

I converted Yen into Chinese Yuan, not knowing that it would not be accepted anywhere else I might be flying, and bought tins analgesic balm and cigars as gifts. When my flight was announced, I attempted to cash the Yuan into dollars and was told it was impossible. They actually held the jet on the runway while I pleaded unsuccessfully with the teller in his cage.

The second stop was in Rawalpindi--known today as Islamabad. At three in the morning, the runway was a dark strip between dusty fields, with a small concrete terminal at one end. The only thing you heard was the stirring of the wind and barking Pakistani dogs in the distance. If I had wanted warmer temperatures, I got what I asked for. It was stifling and muggy.

I would have four hours to wait and was forbidden to leave the building. You could only buy some kind of pickled vegetable, Coca Cola (which seemed to have four times the sugar content as the American brand), and small cakes dipped in honey. I pressed through a crowd of beggars to find a seat in the dark recesses of the hall, clutching my backpack in my arms as I lay back and tried to nap. That was impossible. Within minutes, dozens of beggars surrounded me, pawing at my pack, murmuring with an insistent rhythm which kept up unceasingly for four hours.

When we finally took off in the last dark hour before dawn, I was seated beside a Japanese businessman who had boarded in Rawalpindi. He was going to Athens and we traded precious little across the language barrier. The last fuel stop was in Damascus, where the flight attendant advised me to stay on the plane. An American Jew, I had nightmares of what would happen to me had I wandered off. An hour later, you could make out the whitecaps on the waves as we sped into the clouds.

Below, in the seas where Paris, Marcus Antonius, and Odysseus had sailed, tiny islands caught bright shards of morning light. When I finally walked out on the tarmac in Athens, I found that I needed a jacket. I didn't really mind. I was a gravely inexperienced globetrotter and only 25. I would share a cab with the Japanese businessman to Democracy Square and later that evening under the Mediterranean moon, I would sit in a cafe and sob with relief.

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