Sunday, December 18, 2011

Travel Advisory

Last week held probably the last day we will see above 50 degrees for quite a while, but then who knows these days?  We are likely to be having a green Christmas hereabouts, which will be very disappointing to my niece Graciela (George's daughter) and her 4-year-old, the latter of whom is hoping to experience snow for the very first time this year; they are flying up from Houston.  Going from Houston to anywhere else on Earth, including Darfur or Helmand province, is a step up.  In fact, young Miranda's father Hector does work in Afghanistan and, if he doesn't exactly love the place, he sure does love the enormous loads of cash deposited in his account monthly.  

Speaking of parts foreign, a funny thing happened to me in Bahrain when George and I were staying there, waiting for Papa's vacation to begin so that we could all fly together to India.  On my last day (of five) in Manama, the capital of Bahrain, I was sitting at an outside table with George at a Starbucks.  I tended to go to this particular place for coffee each day, because I had really hit it off with the guys who work there: Omar and Amal from Bangladesh, Zoros from Nepal, Othman from India and Marco from the Philippines.  I would drop in each day at times they didn't seem to be busy and joke around with them.  The Starbucks in Manama - the only one I know of, anyway -is on a very westernized street in Bahrain (although most of the streets are pretty westernized) - lined with all the usual suspects: DQ, Seattle's Best, Chili's, McDonald's, Burger King and slew of others.  There are also some chains from other places such as Nando's from South Africa.  Sitting in any of the outdoors areas, one sees as many Americans passing as Arabs, because the U.S. Navy has a large base nearby and this street is one of the popular venues during their off hours.   Of the Arabs one does see, both men and women are doing their best to look American, men riding motorcycles and women in tight jeans and so forth.

Normally, I avoid areas frequented by Americans and Europeans in Third World countries, because these areas are so westernized I might as well stay home and go to a mall.  In addition, in countries with a Muslim population or a population hostile to the U.S. government, places like this street and these restaurants are the most likely to attract the attention of suicide bombers.  No one appreciates excitement on a vacation more than I do, but one must draw the line somewhere.  I actually felt a tiny bit of discomfort when I would sit at Starbucks for any length of time, wondering if I would attract just such attention.  Bahrain is one of the countries experiencing the current Arab spring-cleaning and there had been a bit of a dust-up the week before George and I arrived.  The insurrection in Bahrain failed largely because King Hamid called in his Saudi allies, who rumbled across the causeway that joins the two countries in full force.  The area where the action centered, the historic Pearl Square, was demolished and that area, when I was there, was blocked at all points of entry by the Saudi - not Bahraini - military, and was fully occupied by Saudi forces.  

Like many of the Middle Eastern countries - pre-war iraq or Syria,  for instance - Bahrain has a large majority of one Muslim sect (in this case Shi'a), but is ruled by a government entirely composed of people from a different, small minority sect (Sunni).  I am not sure why this occurs so often in the Middle East - whether the disadvantaged are drawn to different religious practices from the advantaged and thus become different from the rulers, or whether a minority somehow imposes its government on the existing majority.  In any case, the Bahraini majority, besides being Shi'a, looks to Iran as it natural ally, which is a fact of even more import to the Sunni majority in Saudi Arabia, than the heretical beliefs are.  

So to continue, I was relaxing at an outdoor table with Ted at Starbucks, when a youngish Arab man and I struck up a conversation.  He spoke fair English, but was impressed by my Arabic - and it is odd, but as soon as my feet hit the ground in Bahrain, a great deal of Arabic which I thought I had forgotten came flooding back - and soon he joined us at our table.  He was a Saudi and very much a Bedouin by nature; he lacked some of the modern overlay that one often finds among younger Saudis.  He brushed his leg against mine a few times, but Arabs, like most Asians, are far less jumpy about touching between men so I thought little of it.  But when we went inside for refills, he suddenly threw his arms around me and said a couple of things, addressing me as 'habibi'.  Habibi means literally, 'my love', but Saudi friends sometimes use it in a kind of ironic way - something like an American man calling his friend 'buddy'.  But the hug was too tight and too long to be entirely innocent.  Here was sad, saggy old me being hit on by a 34-year-old!  I can tell you that bucked up the sadly eroded ego something fierce.  

I have often said that "if a gay man can't get laid in Saudi, he can't get laid anywhere".  Because Saudi had, in the days when i was there at least, virtually no way for men to date women, and in addition the cost for a young man to marry was so high, a huge number of Saudis are single and desperately horny.  The result is much like the result of a similar deprivation in American jails, men turn to men for relief.  Since there is an enormous population of foreign workers (I have heard that one out of two people in the Kingdom is foreign) and since word of this state of affairs has gotten around, as such things will do, causing foreigners who prefer men to take jobs there, it is common for amorous Saudis to turn to willing foreigners - less risk to the Saudi of shame or legal trouble, and something to do for fun for the foreigner. (This is an answer, of sorts, to Laoch's query about what there is to do for fun in Saudi).  The odd thing (to my mind) is that these men seem to find anyone from eight to eighty worth their attention, unlike the more enlightened westerners who rarely want to date anyone over 25.  However, as is the case with American prisoners, most Saudi men prefer women and once the opportunity arises, they will return to the straight and narrow, or straight and female, at least.  So my assumption is that when in Bahrain, a relatively open country where one can find female companionship safely and fairly openly, a Saudi man would be looking for girls, if he was looking at all, and if he were truly interested in men, he'd be looking for the young good-looking ones.  

George left us soon after this hug (which he did not witness, having remained outside at our table) to grab a nap before our flight later that day and Khalid, for such was his name, invited me to see his room, which was "in walking distance".  In fact, he actually had to rent a room after we arrived at the hotel, but I do not strain at gnats, as the saying is.  We spent a lovely day together, and by the time I actually returned to the Desert Pearl, Papa had arrived and he and George were entirely panicked, thinking I had been abducted and would not make the flight for which we were due to leave at that very instant.   Khalid insisted on driving me to the airport, and he was eager to help all of us with our luggage and so forth.  Any time he and I were alone, he vowed his undying love, and his hope to be together at some future point.  I took this all with a grain of salt, but he has been in constant contact with me ever since by Facebook, Skype and telephone.  In fact, his messages in the public ares of Facebook have been so indiscreet as to pretty much blow open any remnants of my comfortable closet.  The thing is, his Facebook page (which is under a pseudonym) has entries, including pictures of men, from prior to our meeting which indicate that his preferences are for men who exactly match me.  

Naturally, I condered that he could be some young guy hoping for worldly gain from a besotted old man or a would-be immigrant looking for help in coming to the U.S.  But he has actually offered to pay for me to fly back to Bahrain soon, and he cannot come to the U.S. at least for two years, because his elder brother took his passport and told him that he will not get it back until he finishes school.  Khalid had been out of the Kingdom a number of times to New Zealand before this happened, and has even been married, so the school he is to finish is actually high school.  He is taking physics and chemistry (among other things) so it seems he is really buckling down; even more indicative of some degree of seriousness is that he has told me that he can't call on certain nights because he is studying.  Since he is open about other amorous adventures since my return, I don't think it is an excuse to cover a boy's night out.  He also holds a job, though nothing lofty, so he does seem to have some sense that the future really will happen, an understanding I often found lacking in young Saudi men.  

Khalid and I are not soul mates; above and beyond the language and cultural differences, we have different interests.  i have met people who hardly spoke a word of my language or me theirs with whom I had a certain mental connection, people of whom I could say we got  each other.  This is not fully true of Khalid, but I like him and he likes me.  Better, he likes the way I look, and the way I look pretty much has ME eyeing the arsenic in the morning.  I cannot tell you how much this has bucked me up.  I'll see how it goes, but I wouldn't be the least bit surprised to find a vacation in Bahrain (the ticket for which I will pay) in my not-too-distant future.  Khalid has all the virtues and faults of the Bedouin - he is generous, impulsive, bigoted, demanding, fails to see obstacles and is quick to judge.  I am mostly the same (omitting 'generous' and hopefully less blatantly bigoted - honestly I think I am way less bigoted).  By bigoted, I don't refer to racial bias so much as culturally, nationality-based and religiously biased.  It is bias, in itself, to assume that other people's biases are based on the same factors (i. e. skin-color) as our own.  I am making no big plans, but I must say that life is just a tad more full of possibility than I thought a couple of months ago.  You can't ask more of a vacation than that.  Travel is, indeed, broadening.  

Saturday, December 10, 2011

It's a Good Sign!

The Bahrain hotel suite in which my brother George and I stayed for a few days en route to India contained two appliances which even here in America remain largely unknown quantities to me, given my slipshod lifestyle: a clothes washer and a dryer.  George, however, is a far more tidy and orderly soul than I am, so he decided we must make use of this largesse on the part of the Desert Pearl hotel.  And, in truth, even I could tell that, after a series of interminable flights, my clothing could do with a bit of cleaning.  We set forth for the Megamart, a large supermarket nearby, which also sold clothing and various other useful items, to buy some laundry soap.  There we found Tide which, when I lived in Saudi, was the brand everyone used, and next to it was a laundry soap called Omo.  I vaguely recall seeing products from this brand when I lived in Saudi where I assumed it was some brand used in European countries, like Fa or Fairy.  I do know that Tide was so popular that I literally never saw any other product used by Saudis or Westerners or anyone else from the highest paid to the lowest paid groups in Saudi.  I commented at the time, more than once, that I wished I got a penny for each box of Tide sold in the Kingdom.  

George and i were feeling bohemian and adventurous and we decided to try Omo laundry soap, and I think we may have discovered a source of Omo's difficulty in competing with Tide.  Right under every display, on each box, of the brandname 'Omo' was the company's slogan: "Dirt is Good".  I do not kid; that is the slogan, printed proudly and repeatedly on every box.  I have a box here with me to prove it.  

One of the joys of travel in third world countries is the English signage.  It is easy to make fun of these, although who among us can be at all certain that he could correctly advertise any product in a foreign language.  When in Saudi, I saw "Big Sails" advertised and a shop that sold "grosseries".  What is even more enjoyable for me is where signs are correct, but the usage is a little different that that which we might find here in the US of A.  Whose heart would not be warmed seeing the Sincere Saloon, which is located right next to the Nice Bakery in one Indian village?  And does amputation have to be a dreary affair; why not shop at the breezy Prosthetics 'n' Splints shop which we saw in one Indian village?  

Our purpose in visiting India was, of course, to attend the wedding of Gopu and Sreeja.  Gopu is the brother-in-law of Papa, my former room mate from the Saudi days, and my long-time friend.  In order to dress properly for the big event, Papa, his wife, George and I went to Kochi (formerly  called Cochin) to one of the finest clothing stores where Mrs Papa purchased a number of glorious saris while the three of us men bought kurtas, which are long overshirts with the old Nehru style collars, and lunggis, white sarongs with a decorative gold band along the hemlines.  The hem band need not be gold - it can be another color - but ours were gold-banded, though the lunggi George chose had a second narrow band of silver thread inside the gold band.  The remarkable feature for George and me in this elegant multi-floored establishment called Jayalakshmi was to be found on the third floor where we waited drinking excellent coffee supplied gratis  by the staff while Mrs Papa was selecting her saris.  We sat on chairs near the elevator doors and on the wall above us was a huge decorative ad poster which looked very much like an ad from GQ or one of the upscale fashion magazines.  Depicted in it was a sultry-eyed man in a white suit staring in that smoky fashion found only among fashion models, who was leaning against a white piano.  The whole picture was printed primarily in a pale blue-green color and in white; the man looked like an Indian version of Johnny Depp with long dark locks fashionably rumpled.  Clearly this was no locally produced poster; no clerk had been asked to run up a sign for the wall in his or her spare time; the whole presentation reeked of the highest degree of professionalism.  What drew our gaze most was the title of the sheet music displayed clearly on the piano: Prelude to Fornication.  (The piece was, if you are interested, in the key of D flat.)  

We all know that that title is probably the best possible description of a wedding in such a traditional culture as that of India, but couldn't Jayalakshmi be just a little more reticent here?    Or couldn't they, instead, focus on the true purpose of weddings everywhere, which is to display a family's wealth and (lack of) good taste?