I have a history of being at the wrong place at the wrong time.
Take Argentina for example. After several months on the road in Central and South America, we had arrived Chile in January 2002. We had heard of problems in Argentina but we hadn’t paid much attention: we felt invincible after Salvador, Bolivia and other not-so-safe countries. As we crossed the border at Mendoza, we were told the peso, which was pegged to the U.S. dollar on a one-to-one basis, was floated and was suffering a major devaluation. The economy had broken down. By the time we got to Buenos Aires, there were demonstrations everywhere, the peso had lost 75% of its value and people were left out with nothing. However, we got by just fine, minus daily riots.
Remember early 2003, the SARS epidemic? We were in Australia during the outbreak, but I flew back to France… with a stop-over in Hong Kong, in the middle of the crisis. The Sydney-Hong Kong flight was eventless, but as soon as we touched ground, a special team escorted us, the passengers, distributing face masks and small antiseptic bottles. On my way to Paris, all passengers were looking at each other suspiciously and everyone would jolt upon hearing the dreaded chesty cough. Not to mention we were welcomed by the police and a medical team in Charles-De-Gaulle!
But my most memorable “wrong place / wrong time” experience took place in 2001. Most people remember 9/11 very clearly. I remember October 7, when the war started.
I had bought a one way flight to Hong Kong and to find a ticket back to France was more difficult than planned. In the end, I booked a one-way flight with Gulf Air, one stopover in Abu-Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. Given the recent turmoil in Middle-East and the post-9/11 craziness, let’s just say it wasn’t my first choice.
On October 5th, I boarded a plane to the UAE. Bye bye Hong Kong, crazy island. As we took off, I felt free yet lost. I wanted to live in China. I had left with the idea of not coming back. Innocent, as I said. I was a bit less naive but yet full of dream. And I was concentrating hard on my book to avoid thinking too much.
The plane was almost empty and I had a whole row to myself. A few businessmen were laughing behind me. One of the flight attendant was French and when I asked her if she were scared to fly, she replied: “if we have to die, we will. No point worrying about that.” Right.
We arrived at Abu-Dhabi in the evening and all got off the plane. It was cold inside the airport. I still had my “Hong Kong clothes”, a long skirt and a tee-shirt and I felt uneasy. Most women were wearing a veil and I was the only foreigner around. I hurried to the nearest bathroom and grabbed a sweater from my carry-on.
My flight to Paris would leave very late at night and I had a few hours ahead of me. The airport’s main floor was circular, organized around a small café. The few sits were taken by rather large families, feeding kids and entertaining them. I sat on the floor by a window and started drawing. I was pretty much the only Westerner here and definitely the only woman by myself. Come to think of it. Probably the youngest traveler too, not including kids.
An hour before the planned departure, I started eying the information board, looking for my flight. And I saw it: “Abu-Dhabi-Paris: cancelled”. What? I ran to the information desk and was told to wait for me info. People were gathering around the desk, visibly as surprised and lost as I was.
“For reasons beyond our control, the flight itinerary will be slightly modified. A stopover in Peshawar, Pakistan, has been added. The stopover will be only a couple of hours long, then we will fly non-stop to Paris. We expect a total delay of less than ten hours”.
I was trying to process the information. Somewhat relieved that I would somehow end up in Paris, Pakistan was the last place I wanted to be right now. What the hell? Peshawar? I didn’t even know where the fucking city was!
I took a sit and was trying to think straight when a man approached me. “Are you okay?”, he asked, “if you want we have some extra food voucher the airline gave us, my wife thought you might want to have something to eat before the flight”. I looked behind his shoulder and saw a woman holding a toddler in her arms, smiling at me. I asked them where they were from. Iran, in the Gulf for holidays. And why did they think the direct flight was cancelled? “Because the Americans are attacking.” Right. The Americans are attacking. What the hell was I doing here?
By the time I boarded the plane, I had learned a bit more. Apparently, a US aerial bombing campaign was imminent in Afghanistan and commercial flights wouldn’t be allowed over the area for a while. And this was the last flight, the last chance for people to make it by home, bombs or no bombs. I still wasn’t sure where I fitted in the picture though.
I slept through the whole flight and only woke up when we touched ground in Peshawar. We all got off the plane and entered the chaotic airport. We were miles away from Abu Dhabi and its spotlessly clean floor. I walked around the packed terminal. The whole scene was pretty chaotic. It didn’t take long for people to approach me: “where are you from?” When I replied “France”, it made them laugh. No wonder. I asked a couple of guys where they were going. Back home, Kabul. “Are you afraid to go back home?” Yes they were. They nodded, smiling. Yes they were scared. Scared for their family, scared of their country since most of them were long-time expats, working in the Gulf, scared of politics, scared of not knowing what would happen. Yet they wanted to be home. That’s where they belonged, they said.
From time to time, people would go to the Mosque on the first level. Women fed babies. Life goes on but we are all glued to CNN. Operation Infinite Justice, later called Operation Enduring Freedom, would start any moment. It didn’t make any sense. Nothing made sense.
I finally boarded my plane to Paris. The war started. I arrived fine, just tired and confused. I had left these people and their lives behind. I was born on the “good” side of the world. It didn’t make sense. It still doesn’t, to me.