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Stuck In A Moment

Stuck In A Moment
Stuck In A Moment

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.

In 2001, I was work­ing in Hong Kong for a crazy boss. But early Octo­ber, I decided to quit and to go back to France to plan a trip to Latin America.

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.

 

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