Chapter 36: Back on the Chain Gang – Tide Powder, Cincinnati, & Uzbek Line Cutters

Once at the Milan airport, a group of armed soldiers waved Jamey and me over as we were about to exit the immigration area. They spent a minute rifling through our bags until one of them pulled a Ziploc full of white powder from my roller bag and held it high, maybe like Tony Montana did in Scarface.

“It’s Tide-Plus-A-Touch-of-Downy-Powder-Laundry-Detergent!” I blurted out.

But they didn’t speak English, so I resorted to using my extensive mime skills–pouring imaginary detergent into a washer, turning the dial, mimicking an agitator, reenacting the spin cycle, and so on.

By then the soldier had opened the Ziploc and smelled the distinctive April fresh scent.

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I don’t think Tony Montana is surrounded by Tide laundry detergent. Image: Still from movie “Scarface”

Since no one had yet invented cocaine laced with the smell of springtime, I’m guessing he realized I was simply a traveler with good hygiene practices, and he sent us on our way. But I’ve used Tide liquid ever since.

Encountering authorities is bad enough in my own home country, but it’s super scary having to deal with this in another country with another language and often some wonky laws (or absence thereof). I’m no dummy—I watch “Locked Up Abroad” on the National Geographic Channel, and know for certain I don’t ever want to be in a Pakistani prison. That’s why I don’t even jaywalk or litter or sneeze without covering my mouth when I’m in foreign locales. But I have had my moments…

One afternoon when I was a high school exchange student in Peru, I set off my own to do a little souvenir shopping at the central market. This was one of those noisy, colorful, odiferous, maze-like markets full of exotic produce and dried beans and unrefrigerated meat and live guinea pigs (don’t ask) and clothes and knickknacks galore. I bought a few things, including a bouquet of flowers to take back to my host mother.

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In Peru, when I finally learned to avoid crowds.

On my walk back home I cut through the main plaza which seemed unusually busy with crowds of people. “Another festival?” I wondered to myself. They held a lot of festivals in this country. But unless there was a festival that involved protesting students throwing stones through the windows of the university, and military helicopters hovering overhead, and swarms of soldiers surrounding the plaza (all which happened within seconds of my arrival), I was most definitely in the wrong place at the wrong time. One of the soldiers eyed me suspiciously as I made my way out of the main square, but I think in his estimation, a skinny, 16-year-old gringo holding a spray of powder pink carnations and lemon yellow Gerbera daisies didn’t pose much of a threat to the safety and security of Trujillo, Peru. He let me pass and I sprinted all the way home, thrilled that I wasn’t put in the clinker with the stone throwers.

Another time, during a backpacking trip through Europe in college, my friends and I arrived in the Athens airport and saw a poster advertising cheap flights to Egypt. We didn’t hesitate a minute, immediately dashing over to the EgyptAir ticket counter. Three hours later we were landing at the Cairo airport, where I envisioned us deplaning and seeing the pyramids in the distance and camels carrying turbaned riders and a King Tut impersonator (I had an active imagination).

pyramid

I owe my presence here to Cincinnati.

Instead, we walked down the plane stairs into a Soul Train-style line of soldiers holding rifles with very long bayonets attached. Next, we were herded into the immigration room to show our Egyptian visas which, oops, we forgot to get before we left Greece. So we were hauled off to a room where an official looking immigration guy with a distractingly large mustache eyed our passports, page by page, without saying a word.

After a few moments, he looked up and said, “Do you know Cincinnati?” Now this was probably the last sentence in the world I expected an immigration official to mutter at this point. I was expecting more like, “Do you mind trying on this prison uniform to check your size?” or “Have you ever heard of waterboarding?” So the Cincinnati question was good.

“Yes, of course!” we answered enthusiastically. “Great city!”

“My brother lives there,” he explained proudly. Fortunately I had been to Cincinnati on a quick weekend trip a year before to see a Reds game, so I tried to recall everything possible about this city. I told him that it was the chili capital of the world, but their chili was weird because it was poured over spaghetti. I think he actually smiled for the first time (I think, because his massive moustache hid the lower portion of his face), so I kept the Cincinnati trivia flowing (e.g. Doris Day was born there, it was called the Paris of America in the 1800s, etc.).

It seemed to do the trick because he began to joke with us, waived the mandatory rule about changing $150 into Egyptian pounds, and gave us a visa stamp on the spot. Whew! Now on to find that Tut impersonator!

On another occasion, we were at the airport departing Dakar, Senegal in West Africa after an adventurous trip to the nearby Cape Verde islands. My three travel mates, including Jamey, zipped through the immigration line ahead of me and were out of my sight. I slipped my passport into the opening of the glass window of the immigration officer. He tried scanning my passport numerous times and, for whatever reason, the chip was not scanning.

I could tell he was growing frustrated with each swipe. Now, instead of swiping

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Feeling great in Senegal (before the airport incident).

continuously with the same negative results, he could have simply typed in the nine digits and been done with it. But no, this very high strung, on edge immigration officer in army fatigues kept swiping, over and over, his blood pressure rising by the second.

“YOU NO GO! YOU NO GO!” he screamed at me with eyes bulging, as everyone around took a step back from me.

Of course my travel companions were probably already at the gate, and everyone around me now was Senegalese and thinking I was a member of a drug cartel. My minimal French was not going to get me out of this one.

So, as I learned years earlier, when facing a crime, use theatrical mime. So I pointed to

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The master of mime (Marcel Marceau, not me). Image: Creative Commons

his computer, then my passport, then mimicked someone typing. However, this seemed to enrage him even more, although I wasn’t sure if it was because (1) he understood my professional level performance and didn’t like people telling him what to do, or (2) he just didn’t understand it and was angry at himself for not taking that mime class at school, or (3) he just wasn’t a mime fan (many people aren’t, I hear).

Finally, the immigration officer in the next booth intervened, took my passport, and scanned it at his window—where it worked just fine. As I hightailed it out of there, angry officer was still seething and saying many loud things in French that I know weren’t happy thoughts.

More recently, we traveled to Uzbekistan to journey along the old Silk Road route. On one in-country flight we were dropped off by a driver at the local airport at 4:30 AM. First, we waited in a slow moving line outside of the airport where the police checked our passports. Then we trudged through a parking lot to the front of the airport where another line slowly snaked inside where they were screening bags just inside the door. As we waited, groups of locals kept butting in front of us, so the line barely budged.

Once inside, we waited in another “line” (it was actually what we commonly refer to in America as a “mob”) to get our tickets. Again, many local folks were weaving in front of us, so I finally waded through the crowd and got to the counter where I secured our tickets. I was a little sweaty at this point, and nervous that we would miss our flight.

Lo and behold there was yet another “line” to get into the security area. There were no officials herding this crowd, no rope barriers, no stanchions—just a mass of people trying to enter a single door. As Westerners commonly do, we went to the end of the mob and patiently waited while local after local cut to the front and elbowed their way into the door. We were going nowhere fast, and our flight time was getting closer.

I felt my anger growing, much like that Senegalese immigration officer (he would have handled this crowd, I’m sure, but his head would have probably exploded). So I took action. I formed a human barrier using my body and roller bag, and a German guy joined in. This temporarily stooped the line cutters, though they were none too happy. They stood three inches from my face, staring right at me, then began laughing and saying (most likely) nasty things about me in Uzbek (it’s not the most attractive-sounding language anyway, and it sounded worse coming from these bullies.

We finally made it through the door. As we were waiting in line for the single x-ray screening machine to scan our bags, I told my friend to pose while I took her photo with my iPhone, carefully making sure I got the line cutters in the background so I had visuals for what I knew would make a good travel story. But they caught me red-handed, and knew they had been in the shot. And they started yelling.

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Uzbekistan, without a line cutter in sight.

We hurried through the scanning area and just as I was looking for a spot to hide, an airport official (also with a huge mustache) grabbed my shoulder. The line cutters were screaming and yelling at him while pointing at me, and he looked none too thrilled. I checked his hands to see if he had a taser or billy club, but so far, so good.

He explained in broken English that the line cutters were upset I took their picture. I tried to explain I was just taking a picture of my friend, but he wasn’t buying it. He asked me to show the pictures on my phone, and then said sternly, “DELETE THEM.” He made me delete them as he watched, and I tried to do so very cooly so he wouldn’t notice my hands shaking.

After that, the line cutters were smirking and laughing as we walked away to our gate.

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Image: Wikipedia Commons, Book illustration of prison life. Griffiths, Arthur. “Secrets of the Prison-House” subtitled “Gaol Studies and Sketches”. Chapman & Hall, 1894.

So maybe I pressed “restore deleted photos” a short time after that. But for sure I didn’t have to join a Uzbek chain gang.

 

 

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Chapter 35: Hear No Evil, Smell No Evil

When my family added HBO to our cable line-up, I was one satisfied kid. I liked nothing more than sitting in our shag-carpeted rec room in the basement, watching movie after movie after movie, until my eyes were glossed over. I was a premium cable channel zombie, and proud of it.

But there was one thing that brought me out of that TV stupor, and that’s when one of my sisters came down to the basement, plopped on the couch, opened a bag of Fritos, and started crunching away. One, that crunching sound—like someone chewing river gravel—penetrated my brain like a dentist drill. And two, that aroma that came from eating Fritos was horrifying to me–a mixture of dirty socks crossed with bad breath and burnt popcorn. Even if I was watching Boy in the Plastic Bubble, right at the part where Tod is about to risk death by leaving his bubble for the girl next door, I’d run from the rec room to escape that smell.

I’ve always been acutely aware of scents and sounds, which as a kid concerned me. None of my friends ever seemed to be bothered by these things. Was I part beagle? Alien? Cyborg? Why was I the only one so affected by these two senses? I mean, I can hardly follow the story line of a movie in a theatre because of the open-mouth-crunching popcorn eaters (who seemingly go unnoticed by everyone else). If I’m a half block downwind of a person with body odor or halitosis, I’ll hold my breath until I pass out. If someone within a mile radius of me is doing that thing where they pop 80 bubbles in rapid machine-gun-succession every time they chew down on a piece of Juicy Fruit, I pray for a piano to fall on them from above. I don’t think I’d mind the sound of the piano crashing even one tiny bit.

It’s something I’ve dealt with for as long as I can remember. When I was a high school

At 7972.4 feet up in the Andes at Machu Picchu, I finally discovered fresh air in Peru.

exchange student, I was overwhelmed with the general stinkiness of my host country, Peru—so much so that I applied cologne under my nose every time I went outside. It was a tough decision every day: Do I reek of Hai Karate or Aqua Velva, or do I allow the scent of human urine and poo and diesel fumes and rotting garbage to enter my nostrils freely? Now granted, I’m sure New York and Chicago have similar odors, but I was a Midwestern boy from a small town who was used to smelling fresh cut grass, Herbal Essence shampoo, and ham and cheese casseroles in the oven. Aside from the cabbage field by our house that smelled like farts near harvest time, my town smelled pretty good. Even the boy’s bathroom at my school didn’t smell bad, although I did have an aversion to the scent of that sawdust-looking stuff the janitor sprinkled when a kid vomited in the classroom. And that sound of vomiting would make me want to…well, you know.

This sensory affliction does make traveling and living abroad a tricky proposition. When I

Italy…I can’t smell any B.O. up here.

backpacked through Europe during a college summer, I remember a 10-hour overnight train ride down the length of Italy in which I shared a small unairconditioned compartment with several very ripe-smelling, older gentlemen. By hour two I had rubbed a full tube of cherry Chapstick under my nose (the only pleasantly scented substance I could find), but I was still inhaling that musty, vaguely chicken soupish, sour-wash-cloth odor. Finally, I chose to surrender my paid compartment seat, and squatted on the floor in the narrow train corridor where every person on the entire train bumped into me at some point. I didn’t get much sleep, but my nostrils were pleased.

No burning suitcase smell up here!

When we lived in Mali a few years ago, I recall sitting on the couch in our house one day with the windows wide open, a fresh, spring breeze drifting through the windows. Then before I knew it, an acrid, chemically smell invaded. As I slammed the windows shut I saw a trash pile burning across the road where an old vinyl suitcase had been tossed right on top. I can still conjure up that smell in my head today. We also lived a couple kilometers from the abattoir, which is a beautiful sounding French word for slaughterhouse. Sometimes if the wind blew just the right way, the scent of butchered sheep and cows resting in the warm Malian sun would make its way to our windows. I’m still deciding if that aroma was worse than the blazing Samsonite.

Entrance into the chamber of horrors (aka, the wet market)

We now live in Shanghai, the world’s most populous city, where my nose and ears get a workout every day. For example, the wet market, a place where vendors sell fresh meat, seafood, and produce, is a stone’s throw from our apartment building. When we first moved to this neighborhood, we thought this would be a real plus—inexpensive, fresh food straight from the farmers and fisherman, right at our doorstep. But on our first visit inside I was sure I’d entered a recently unsealed crypt full of mouldering bodies. The stench was overwhelming. Plus, there were mounds of guts from fish and eels and other bizarre water creatures that were still wriggling. I fled, dry heaving into my shirt that I had pulled over my face. The only thing that would have been worse is if everyone was eating Fritos in there.

Unfortunately, we must pass the wet market daily on the way to the morning bus stop at 5:25

Wet Market, 5:30 AM, already in the red zone on the stink-o-meter

AM. And I can tell you with confidence that the very last smell you want to encounter in the pre-dawn hours is rotting seafood. But fish markets always smell bad, you might argue. But trust me, this isn’t a fresh-fish-sitting-in-crunchy-ice kind of smell one would encounter at, say, Pike Place Fish Market in Seattle. That smell is almost pleasant, with a vibe that reminds you of a sleepy fishing village with colorful boats bobbing in the harbor.

But this wet market has no such vibe. Nope, this vibe is more of a “you slipped and fell into the carcass of a decomposing sperm whale that had eaten a tanker ship full of vomit.” It’s a place where the juice from those underwater creatures has run into cracks and seeped into the concrete to fester in the humid Shanghai air, day after day, turning into something that I believe could be used in warfare instead of nuclear bombs. Seriously, this odor would bring anyone to their knees–and yet, the wet market it is crowded with shoppers all day long who are certainly not dry heaving into their shirts.

It’s more than just scents here in ol’ Shanghai, though. For me, the sound that is synonymous with this city is that awful noise people make when trying to clear their throat to gather phlegm for spitting (seriously, just hearing someone say the word “phlegm” is an assault on my eardrums). But hearing the actual expulsion sound is cringe inducing for me. And trust me, I cringe a lot, because I hear it all day long, even through the closed windows of our third-floor apartment. Even when I’m wearing Bose Noise Canceling headphones. Even when we’re inside a restaurant and someone does it outside on the street. And probably even when I’m inside a submarine in the Mariana Trench 35,814 miles below sea level.

It’s horrific, like someone is hurking up a chunk of lung. And everyone does it—young people, elderly ladies, probably famous Chinese movie stars. And as with the wet market experience, this sound causes me to dry heave. Of course, there is the foul aftermath of this sound to contend with as well, which is why the sidewalks here are always dotted with wet spots and why I look down when I walk on the sidewalks here, and why our shoes have never, ever touched the floor inside of our apartment. No lung matter on my shiny wood floors, please.

Regarding this spitting thing, I’ve actually heard people say that it’s “cultural.” Yeah, no. I fully honor and embrace the many cultural differences I’ve encountered here, like how Chinese people avoid confrontation, or have no sense of personal space, or how they talk so loudly that I think they are arguing when they’re just chatting about buying eels at the wet market. But hocking up a big loogie is not a part of any culture—it’s just a terrible habit, like picking your nose or making those loud sounds when you yawn. It’s a habit that one could kick by simply drinking some hot tea, or maybe by not eating slimy, wet market sea creatures that look like they belong in a horror movie.

In the meantime, for the morning walk to the bus stop I’ll be dabbing under my nose a generous amount of Gucci Guilty Black Pour Homme cologne, a scent highlighted by notes of coriander and lavender but also with base notes of patchouli–a combination that creates a scent that’s bold and noticeable without being overpowering (or so the reviews say). As long as it’s powerful enough to mask rotten shrimp and Fritos, I’m good.