Sunday, 28 October 2012

Baby Moon

Glorious fall colours under a golden maple tree, near the whirpool look out on our Niagra Falls Tour

Haresh decided to treat me to a baby moon road trip and, we have just returned to Chicago after an exhilarating week - long adventure. We meandered to the east all the way to New York City with a detour in Niagra Falls. So, how did we come up with this plan? Well, all the credit goes to Haresh who planned the whole thing. He has in an earlier life driven from LA to NYC and back, has since then, fallen in love with the amazing highways, bridges and roads of this country. He was eager to show me, in his words, "what America and he were all about."

We hired a really comfortable vehicle - a Toyota - from Avis for $ 280 + taxes for a flat fee for 7 days the night before and then, set off on Saturday afternoon for our baby moon. The comfort of driving at one's own leisure and pace with lots of room to stretch my feet and take delicious naps made all the difference. 

Some of you may ask what the heck is a baby moon? Is this some more modern nonsense that parents now do to self indulge themselves and, shove it in everyone's face? "Lookit, we are pregnant and are going to celebrate it by giving ourselves a holiday." Yes, I suppose that is really what it is. I don't know where I read it but I like the concept and, that Haresh and I can spend some time together before the baby arrives and takes over our lives. So, yes, a baby moon is a self-pampering holiday expectant parents take before the bundle of joy arrives. 

So, what are America and Haresh all about? They are both opportunists. Just joking! 

America's road network is impressive to say the least and, especially coming from a place like Liberia, which suffers from a severe lack of good roads, Haresh and I can more than appreciate how important good roads are for a country's development. Liberia has a total land mass of 111,369 km2, roughly the size of the US state of Ohio. Since the country has very few paved roads and the road networks really consists of dirt roads, it can take up to 10 hours to cover a distance of 300 km. For example, it takes 10 to 12 hours to journey from Monrovia to Zwedru, a distance of 297km, in the dry season. Let's not even talk about how much longer it can take in the rainy weather. 

It has been fun driving on good roads - its like riding like the wind! It is so organised, too. There are signs everywhere. It would be virtually impossible to get lost. Then, there food and lodging exits practically every 20 minutes - it would be virtually impossible to  go hungry or roof-less. 

had been actually looking forward to pigging out in the US - McDonald's, Starbucks, pizza, cupcakes, muffins, brownies, frosting, fried chicken, steaks, burgers, diner food, tubs of Ben and Jerry's while watching TV or the movies - to my heart's content. Wishes strangely come a sick nightmare! 

I was appalled by the bombardment of fast food on the inter-state. It was difficult to find something wholesome to eat. Even more bizarre was that the hotels did not have their own restaurants but were attached to fast food-chains. At one hotel, the Red Roof Inn, we actually got coupons for breakfast for McDonald's next door along with free coupons for slot machines at the next door casino. At another hotel - a $ 280/night one - we ate packaged, sugary, salty breakfast on styrofoam plates with plastic cutlery! All along our journey, it was virtually impossible to even buy fresh fruit! 

Styrofoam plates and plastic cutlery at a $ 280/night hotel!
The one place where we got some good real food was an Indian Restaurant with the name of Ashoka in Canton, Michigan. The biryani was authentic and the gulab jaman were huge and served piping hot, as they should. All in all, though, the culinary experience on the interstate was very pathetic. By the end of it, I got sick and tired of seeing the mile-high signs of fast food chains, especially the yellow M. I would see overweight people struggling to get out of their cars and, clumsily staggering into the restaurants. One fellow could hardly walk but I guess he needed his burger and sugar milkshake fix. 

Almost all the hotels we stayed at were quite decent and reasonably priced. Well, with the exception of a very seedy motel where we got a cigarette-smelling room with a mirrored jacuzzi smack in the middle of the room. We decided to flee from the place and drove around for another 2 hours to find another place. 

What happened was that we didn't know about a major football (Michigan v. Michigan State) game in Detroit and, Hareshad somehow routed us to Niagra Falls via Detroit. So, not only could we not pass through Detroit because of a heavy traffic pile up but there weren't any hotels for miles around. We kept getting de-railed looking for a place to sleep, further and further away from our already funny route. So, there we were, driving late at night, listening to a hyperactive DJ on a radio station who was going on and on about the tracks she was playing for a "feel good Saturday" while our heads were swimming. That was the night we were confronted with the dodgy jacuzzi-in-the-middle motel room - sights and smells we will not forget for a long time to come! 

Haresh got so annoyed at one point that he actually started asking philosophical questions about American football. We were at a hotel with no rooms available and, the kind lady was trying to find us a room elsewhere. Haresh told the lady something like: "Foot ball has messed up my life. It's the game where they hold the ball and run around with it, right? Why do they call it football if they don't use their feet? Why don't they call it hand ball?" The lady just started laughing. Thank God, she didn't take these slights too seriously. 

What else was memorable about the trip? Well, the Falls were spectacular and we were lucky enough to ride the Maid of the Mist boat on the second to last day of the year. We were even more lucky in the way of weather since the sun was out and rain was forecasted for the next 2 days! 

We booked ourselves on a 4-hour tour that took us on the Maid of the Mist boat ride to the falls, the power plant museum, the whirlpool, and the night lights. We were regaled with lots of miscellaneous facts, daredevils who either wanted to go down the falls in barrels or brave the rapids, history of the power plant, and the fascinating Edison and Tesla rivalry. 

We were with a nice group that had come up from Texas. I was a little shocked when later in the evening, we asked where we could watch the Presidential Debate and no one seemed to have any idea about it. And why did they schedule it on the same time as Monday night football, was the big concern! 

The town itself was nothing to write home about and in some respects quite tacky! There was a big casino, a few hotels, an explosion of Indian restaurants, and a really kitsch international food court. The Canadian side looked like it had way more hotels and casinos and so on, but I couldn't tell whether it was any less or more tacky. The tour guide told us that the American philosophy was to keep all the focus on the natural wonders of the Falls and hence, less development on the American side. 

We hardly got to see New York City. In fact, we just saw a slice of Manhattan but I loved whatever I did get to soak up. The city was just as I had imagined it. I loved the buzz, I loved the look and feel of the buildings, and I loved the bombardment of all kinds of restaurants and cafe's. We mostly hung around Times Square, which by the way, makes Picadilly Circus look like a very poor cousin. I guess NYC is just "more" in every respect, if one has to compare it to London, the only other cultural and financial capital of the world. I got to meet some of my dear friends whom I had not seen in years, one including someone from high school in Athens, so almost 14 years ago was the last time I saw her. It made my time in NYC even sweeter. And, as we drove away at night, listening to a jazz station, I decided that it was the only way to experience NYC at night - listening to some classy jazz. 

I am so glad I went on this road trip witHaresh and got to see a little bit of the roads and a little bit of NYC. I can't wait to come back and really visit NYC to my heart's content. 

I am quite impressed witHaresh's driving and navigating skills. He would get frustrated with the GPS and often curse the Garmin lady for seemingly misdirecting him over and over again, but he took and brought us back safely!

This will be one of the most memorable holidays for us.  

Tuesday, 23 October 2012

Baby Goes to America

As you all know, I have had considerable anxiety over where to deliver the baby given our circumstances. Not only does Liberia not give citizenship on birth but it has no decent hospital.  Haresh and I hail from enemy combatant countries and to make life easier for the little bugger, we need a third neutral country. After a lot of consideration and consultation, we finally decided to head over to the USA, land of the immigrants, equal opportunity, and human rights.  

We have friends in the US who gave us all very different and seemingly-scary information about entering the US while pregnant, One of our friends -  Haresh's best friend - misled us and told us that a child birth at a hospital could cost as much as $ 20,000 or $ 25,000 for someone without insurance! I asked a few other friends whether this figure was correct and some of them either told me they had no clue or the figure was correct. 

I looked up hospitals online and tried to find costs of a basic delivery but I could not see any figures at all! This confused me even more. At some point, I thought I was going to the UK, and search online for fees and costs did not yield any results. I had a friend who happens to be a doctor in the UK, who told me the average cost of a delivery could be £ 10,000 but would be cheaper in a city outside of London.

All in all, we were prepared for very high maternity costs.

How and When to Get In

Besides financial worries, there was also the issue of timing - when should we come out to the US? The original plan was to come out to the US in the sixth month before the baby bump was going to be evident.  We couldn't leave until the end of the sixth month since we were waiting on various payments and things to fall into place. We finally had to tear ourselves away on the 10th of October even though some of our critical shipments had not arrived. Thankfully, our excellent bank give us more overdraft so we could have some cash with us. 

In anticipation of questions being asked about being pregnant, we planned the outfit I was going to wear and, what'd we would say in case someone asked us if I was pregnant. We were advised by a friend that although there was no law suggesting immigration officials could turn away pregnant women entering the US by law, it was still possible to be stopped from entering. Another friend told me wear lots of loose and baggy clothes. A relative told me delete all e-mails and Facebook messages regarding any correspondence about the pregnancy, to not carry my pre-natal vitamins and leave behind any doctor's reports. And another friend told me not to worry about it. Yet another friend told me my timing was fine and, she actually knew someone who'd been turn away in her 8th month. Furthermore, my own brother told me that first-time Pakistani visitors to the US were taken to a separate room and interrogated! All in all, I was quite anxious about getting in so much so that we started avoiding telling people where we actually going to deliver the baby!

There was a bit of uncertainty on my part regarding where to actually go for the delivery. The initial plan was to go stay with  Haresh's best friend in houston, Texas but around August he had to decline his offer. I was initially annoyed with him but since then I fully appreciate that his circumstances were out of his control. So, I started toying with the idea of going to stay with my brother in London, even though I wouldn't get immediate citizenship for the baby. Eventually though I decided to opt for the US by asking my friend in Chicago to host me. 

Just before leaving, I would tell people that I was still undecided about the US or the UK. And this was hardly a week before our flight! That is how paranoid we were.  We also decided to fly via Europe instead of taking the direct Delta Airlines because Haresh thought someone we knew on Delta would snitch on us! 

Our final plan was to be casual with the immigration officials once we landed  and in case anyone asked what we were doing in the US, we would say, we were on a holiday. And in case anyone did notice I was pregnant, we would actually just come out and be honest. 

Well, we breezed through immigration! No one noticed I was pregnant - thanks to my layered outfit and also, that no one was bodily checking women for being pregnant! I was asked some basic questions:

1) What are you going to be doing in the US? "Visiting friends on holiday. I have never been and always wanted to visit." 
2) Can I see the address you'll be staying at? "Sure!"
2) Where are you coming from? "Liberia, West Africa."
3) Liberia?? how is it there after Taylor? What do you do there? "I live and work in Liberia, in fact, I used to work in the UN and now I have my own IT company. Liberia is still trying to recover from war but doing pretty well." 
4) Can I see your return ticket? "Yes, my partner, Haresh, back there, has it. In fact, we are traveling together." [So,  Haresh comes over and starts chatting to the fellow who turns out to be of Pakistani origin and was delighted to know we were an Indian-Pakistani couple.]
5) Why do you have so many checked bags? "We were allowed 2 bags each and they are actually empty since we intend to fill it up with shopping."
6) Are there are food items in your bags? "Yes, we are bringing Liberian pepper and coffee as gifts." 

"Welcome to the USA," says Philip, the Pakistani-origin US immigration fellow, and gave us each a 6-month stay! 

Total time between landing, queuing up at immigration, getting our bags, going through customs and exiting was so short that I was delirious with relief! Yes, I had made it!

I had had no reason to be anxious because I am well traveled; I have a valid visa; and, am clearly not here to defect, indulge in nefarious activities, or pile on the US Government. 

Finding a Hospital  and Doctor and How Much Would it Cost?

It took  Haresh and I a few days to settle in before we started our hospital search. We made a list of hospitals around the area - Roger's Park -  where we were staying and decided to hit as many as we could on our first Monday. 

We walked to the main street and tried to hail a cab. It took longer than expected and instead decided to go into the pharmacy behind us. We asked the lady what the shortest route to Swedish Covenant hospital would be. We explained we were looking for a hospital to deliver our baby. She asked us well, where was our doctor and wouldn't the doctor  be able to advise us? So, we had to relate our fascinating circumstances. So, she told us to first look up St Francis hospital since it was a bit closer before checking at Swedish Covenant.  Her niece had delivered a baby there and, she strongly recommended it. We asked for directions since it seemed hailing a cab was proving to be too difficult. She gave us directions and in fact, another older gentleman patron also chipped in and tried to give us some good directions. We were wished good luck!

We walked on for a bit and did not have to look for the bus since we found a cab eventually. We asked the Pakistani cab driver to take us to St Francis. Since  Haresh is very social, he told our whole story to the fellow. The driver called up another friend who he felt could give good advice to us. The advice was not useful at all and went something like this: "Just don't pay the bills at the end and say you are poor!" 

We got dropped at St Francis and were asked to go to the Financial Office to check out costs by the lady at Emergency. We went to the office and were met with 2 very chirpy ladies who were so delighted to find out I was pregnant! "Congratulations, is this your first?" I smiled at the barrage of questions and reminded myself to be more excited about the baby in the midst of all the planning and sorting things out! 

The basic package for a vaginal birth was $ 2,000! A C-section was $ 3,000! What?! We couldn't believe our eyes. Did they forget to add an extra zero? Was this a crap hospital? As you can imagine we were  quite delighted and still a bit wary since we still had to register with a doctor. We were given an 1-800 number (what an American delight these are!) and, meant to go through a telephonic procedure to make an appointment with a doctor. 

While  Haresh was on the phone, I started chatting to a lady sitting next to me with a tiny baby in her arms and, a toddler running up and about  around her. We started talking and, it turns out she is from Nigeria, living in Senegal, and had specially come to the US to deliver her baby. In fact, she had just delivered the boy 2 weeks ago and, had had to undergo a C-section because the baby's heart rate had dropped. She had in fact delivered her older son also in the US.  Her husband also showed up and, we all started chatting excitedly. I explained that we did not have insurance either and, needed some advice on what to do. The lady told us she would take us upstairs to her doctor and, introduce us directly instead of making an appointment on the phone. I asked her whether she was happy with the hospital and her doctor. She was!  I asked haresh to get off the phone and, he chatted to the husband who smiled when he heard that  Haresh was born in Nigeria! I love to see the expressions of  Haresh's country mates when  Haresh tells them this and even gives his Nigerian name to them. What a sweet West African union this was for all of us! 

So, our good friends took us upstairs where they were asking for their complete billing. They wanted to make sure their paperwork was all in order when they left the US and ever needed to come back. 

We met with a few ladies in the office who again, were so excited to learn I was pregnant and even said, we were brave to come out all the way to seek a safe place for the baby's delivery. The head nurse asked me a few questions and I explained to her that I really had not much pre-natal care up until now. Moreover, I really had no reports with me (My sonogram report from Nairobi was sitting in my apartment in Monrovia). She first told us that I could be considered a high risk pregnancy since I was already in my 6th month and had had very little care. She needed to call up the doctor and confirm with her. I told her I had had a very smooth pregnancy thusfar. Well, anyway, after a few minutes, she came back and said it was OK and the doctor would see us.

The fees for the doctor - or should I say OB/GYN - were going to be $ 3,150.00 (a for 7 pre-natal visits and the delivery itself) and we needed to make half the payment for our first appointment. We also needed to take some basic blood tests before the first appointment which was 2 days away, situated in a mall in Skokie. 

The numbers started looking good! We profusely thanked our West African friends for their good advice and, planned to meet up to further exchange some experiences. 

We walked around the hospital to get a feel for it and, it was great. It looked like it was well maintained and even had a self-playing piano in one of the lobbies! Coming from Liberia and having seen the horrors of its post-war hospital horrors - no jokes here - we could not be fussy. 

We had lunch at the cafeteria and, I was rather surprised to see the amount of junk food available! Wasn't this a hospital?

Afterwards, we got some blood tests done at the lab and, had to cough up $ 600.00! We started wondering whether such tests along the way would amount to $ 20,000 in addition to the other bills but we were later to be proven wrong a few days later.

We thought about shopping around more. The wise thing would have been to visit a few more hospitals, done a tour, and meet more doctors (if we could) but, with the way things had fallen into place, we decided to just do it! Moreover, we even had an excellent reference by a family pretty much in the same situation as us.

Our first appointment with our doctor in Skokie went quite well! We paid half of our fees and the visit was OK. I finally had an internal examination done and all looked good. 

We were asked to go to Skokie at the doctor's clinic since we wanted an urgent appointment and get things going. The next visits will be at the hospital. Everything looks good! 

The doctor told us to do a few more blood tests and she also scheduled a sonogram since we wanted to re-confirm our due date and gender of the baby (from what we were told by the doctor in Nairobi earlier in July). 

We went back to the hospital a couple of days later and, put aside at least $ 700.00 for the sonogram and the tests. Thank goodness, we were finally pointed out by the Financial Office that almost all our blood tests and at least one sonogram was part of our $ 2,000.00 package! So, the $ 600.00 we spent already went against our account. 

It's a girl!

The sonogram went well and, it's a girl. My due date is 6th of January. Nairobi was re-confirmed. My dear  Haresh was a little crestfallen since he already has two girls and was looking forward to a boy.  He has since decided little Kavita will be a tomboy. 

Some of you know, I'm naming the baby Kavita after my late friend from university. "Kavita" means poem. 

So my dear friends, all is well that ends well. The lessons we learned were one should definitely talk and consult with friends and family. Listen to advice, take notes and use everything to be as prepared as possible. But, it's not a good idea to be paranoid and freaked out. If you are not breaking any rules or the law, you really do not have anything to be afraid of. Hold you head up high! And, I'm not just talking about being pregnant and going to the US to deliver your baby. 

Another lesson is make a decision! Do not think too much or worry too much - if it feels right, just do it. I am more than sure we chose a good hospital and doctor. 

We are so relieved everything worked out so well. We will also have made some good savings which can be used to do some baby shopping! 

Lastly, I am very grateful to my Chicago friend for opening up her home and herself to Haresh and I. Opening up to me is OK but opening up to Haresh can be a difficult proposition.

I look forward to spending time with her and experiencing her beautiful city. 

Sunday, 21 October 2012

Some photographic moments in Chicago

These are some of my favourite photos from our time in Chicago so far:

Here we are hanging out with some friends at Urban Vegan, thanks to a friend's friend who was in town to sample some vegetarian restaurants in the city.

Here is Haresh "de-skinning" apples - he's helping our host make an apple pie which she later took to a pie party and of course we tagged along too.

Enjoying fall while walking around in the neighbourhood.

Enjoying fall while walking around in the neighbourhood.

A magnificent church in the neighbourhood - it looks like a Roman temple. 

Down town Chicago - beautiful, spotless and trendy!

At my friend's colleague's trendy apartment in a high rise with a magnificent view! My friend pointing out to me the architectural highlights!

Haresh and my friend debating some important points! I love how this photo came out in black and white!

How about I come over and help you forget him and also help you gain 20 KGs? What a lousy advert!

Waiting for the train at the Loyola Train Station on a sunny day.

The optical illusionary stair case at the Museum of Contemporary Art

Strictly come dancing - desi style!

 I love the pointy houses!

Haresh tries on his new coat we got him from Macy's.

The beautiful Gene Siskel theatre where we watched "Now, Forager"

Wednesday, 17 October 2012

Coming to America

"My first time in the US was a year ago. It was familiar and completely alien at the same time! Very strange like entering the TV!"

A lot of my friends who know me so well are already asking me whether my first US visit is making me less anti-American. I suppose I really have become famous for my venmous anti-American rants on Facebook and at dinner parties. But, let me emphasise that I have nothing against Americans but I am critical of American Foreign Policy. 

So, what is it like being in the US? I haven't even made it to a week but so far, it has been a pleasant experience. 

Facebook is a great forum to collect comments and reactions. I posted my Monrovia to Chicago blog post and, received a lot of "Welcome to the Windy City" and "Yes, SN Brussels is a bit snooty to non-European passengers." 

My favourite comments was from one of my good friends from ACS (American Community Schools of Athens) who wrote a great line to describe the experience of visiting the US for the first time: "My first time in the US was a year ago. It was familiar and completely alien at the same time! Very strange like entering the TV!"

I couldn't have said it better even though one usually curses first-time visitors for comparing movies or the TV or sound bites to reality. But in defense of the strange experience of entering the TV, the US has this massive cultural and political sway over the rest of the world. American history, politics, music, films and general pop culture have captured everyone's imagination since they were kids. 

We grew up watching American cartoons and Star Wars. 

On top of it, I had the good fortune to practically have all of my schooling right up to high school in an American system in the various capitals of the world thanks to my father's diplomatic career. I had to memorise the US map in grade 4, read about the civil war in grade 9 and, read classic American literature all the way up to grade 12. I was taught by American teachers and had American friends growing up. 

I was even going to go to the US for college but ended up doing my under and post grad in London, UK. 

In many ways, I feel like I will be only re-united with America. 

Sure, since leaving high school, reading my first Chomsky at university and, witnessing the various American adventures in our own backyard (Afghanistan 2001 and Iraq 2003) have not made me a fan of the USA. In fact, my experiences with the UN which unwittingly endorsed American aggression in Afghanistan and Iraq only made me more disgusted with so-called US Foreign Policy. US Imperialism is a more accurate turn of phrase. 

In fact, I vowed never to visit the USA unless they got rid of George W. Bush. 

I followed the 2008 US Elections with great interest and passion and, like the rest of the world, was  overwhelmed with the grace and dignity of Barack Obama. 

US Foreign Policy - with which I am mainly concerned - seemingly remains much the same. 

I am here now and, will be staying for a few months. Who would have thought I would seek the USA as a place of refuge to secure the future of my progeny? But here I am and ready to see the country as a respectful and humbled visitor from a fresh and new perspective. 

As my friend said it so well, it was like entering the TV. Inadvertently, since I have been here I have been looking for references and trying to remember what I may have read or seen. 

Chicago, the city where I'll be, has a beautiful down town. I can't remember the last time I have seen such a spotless city of this size. 

I find people to be very friendly. Let me give you an example: we were coming back from central Chicago to Roger's Park. My host and friend was with us. She was sitting next to a very big guy who throughout the journey was just looking out the window. She and I were chatting and I saw an Aldi supermarket and remarked that I was pretty sure it was a German supermarket. My friend's neighbour, the gentle giant, suddenly awoke and started shooting factoids about Aldi. It was quite amusing and he went on talking about other supermarkets too. And then suddenly he was quiet. I don't ever remember people striking conversations like that on the London tube! 

Actually it also happened on the first night we got into Chicago. We were taken to the very fun Chicago Diner in Belmont by my friend's friend who was sampling the vegetarian restaurants in the city and, we were along for the ride. On the way back, we were chatting about the Diner and one of our neighbours chipped into our conversation and, then started giving us recommendations! 

I am also amazed at how good Americans are at making small talk about the most banal subjects such an art and, laughing very loudly at something very odd.

I look forward to exploring the city, making some friends and getting in touch with many friends and family who live in the US. 

Friday, 12 October 2012

Monrovia to Chicago

If you want to get a glimpse of cultural differences, travel between three continents and change airlines. 

Haresh and I arrived in Chicago yesterday around lunchtime after an exhilarating and enlightening journey that brought us from West Africa to midwest USA via Brussels.

After  having lived in Liberia for almost 10 grueling years, I took the SN Brussels flight for the first time and was pleasantly surprised by the first-class quality of service starting by the early morning check-in right on Randall Street. We had an allowance of 2 bags of 23 kg each and we eachad an empty bag to potentially fill up with lots of shopping. We checked in around 10 AM and were free to finish up some work before we headed to the airport around 3 PM, well in time for the 6 PM flight. 

The flight was slightly late but I was quite impressed with the plane since it seems 'they' only send the oldest aircraft to Africa. The seats were clean and in a good shape. The overall look was pretty good and, the crew was quite good-looking too. In the beginning I amusedly watched as two of the stewards chatted in total concentration with each other, smiling now and then at boarding passengers, and later one of them started flirting with one passenger. It was all quite charming. 

We got seats near the emergency exit and, thought ourselves to be quite fortunate. You know how there is a structure at the emergency exit that could serve as an excellent footrest or small coffee table? Well, I placed my novel there and settled myself into my seat. Hardly a second passed by and a very uppity-looking, ''dry-faced" stewardess immediately scooped it up and gave it back to me. I got really annoyed and told her, I would remove the magazines in the pocket in front of me, put them in my neighbour's magazine pocket, and put my book there instead. I proceeded to do it much to the shock of the red-faced stewardess. She said well, at least I need to keep the emergency card next to me. She took out one of those and stuck it behind my book. 

I forgot about it and soon, started engaging with the couple Haresh had befriended sitting at our back.  They were actually a Liberian middle-aged couple who had moved back to Liberia from the US but were "going back" to seek some medical attention. Somehow we started talking about the merits and demerits of Deepak Chopra. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw my friend, the not-so-friendly stewardess complaining about me in French to one of her colleagues. My French is elementary at best but even I could see who she was on about, gesturing quite excitedly. I wanted to go over there but I remembered my outburst at the Liberian Immigration Officials last time I was at RIA going to Kenya. I cringed remembering how I lost my temper over really nothing. I did tell Haresh and he was quite amused, so much  so that he told a passenger next to us that the lady was quite rude! 

She overheard it and as she passed by, she told our neighbour she wasn't rude! I started to feel embarrassed and thought it would be the end of it. 

Well, later during the flight, when everyone on the plane was trying to get some sleep, I stretched my tired legs on the exit only to have a steward come and tell me I couldn't do it! The fellow was so curt and I really do not understand what the big deal was. Haresh told me to just put my feet back up on it and, what could he do? I wanted to but felt too intimidated.

I did lose it in the end, though. We were about to land and I was gathering my things to put away in my bag. I put my book on the exit for a mere second only to have the stewardess swoop down from nowhere and tell me it was not allowed! I got so irritated. I told her they had a great airlines but they needed to learn how to smile and stop treating the passengers like school children. She just ignored me. 

I really started to loathe the flight and curse the emergency exit.  

We had a 6 hour stop over at Brussels Airport. We spent most of it trying to catch some sleep on the chairs. The Airport was pretty decent and, I suppose had enough of a shopping experience. There was an amazing wine and food shop: I was so impressed with the wide variety of cheeses, pate, sausages, teas, coffees, liqueurs and wines. There were chocolate stands with  mouth - watering, beautifully presented truffles and chocolates.  

After our naps, we proceeded through  a security check during which we were asked whether we had any Indian food in our handbags. I was bemused that the lady assumed we were both Indians and, only eat Indian food. 

There was apparently a problem with our e-tickets when we reached our gate but it was sorted out. 

I eagerly waited to get on the United Airlines, my first experience of an American airlines. I can't tell you how shocked and confused I was to see the plane! It was one of the oldest, crappiest I had ever been on! I couldn't believe my eyes: my seat was practically falling off; the TV screens were so small you needed a magnifying glass; the bathrooms had paint falling off; and, the seats were so badly cramped that it was a wonder I could squeeze into it. 

Was this the airlines of the most powerful, rich country? Sure, I'd heard American airlines were nothing to write home about, but really, could it be this bad? 

The food was just junk, junk I tell you. Alas, I started remembering the fancy shmanzy meals we had with the tight-assed Europeans on SN Brussels. We were given Doritos as snacks! And, everyone was asking for milk! What does that say about the national cuisine? 

One of the stewards was speaking in French to one of the passengers. It had such a heavy American accent though that someone could actually have a difficult time understanding what language it was.

As bad as the crummy plane and junky the food were, the service was so friendly and human. Sure, this crew was not the lean and handsome and pretty one we had with  SN Brussels. In fact, it was a couple of middle aged men and I think a transvestite. But they actually smiled and even joked around. 

Despite the flattering comparison with the other airline, it was a lousy flight since there was just no way to get comfortable on those cramped seats. I was exhausted by the time we got off. My head was swimming and we made our way to immigration and customs. 

I tried to absorb the fact that I was in the USA for the first time of my life and tried to remember the moment. 

The queues at immigration moved very fast. I got to the counter, got some bemused comments about all my passports, answered a random question about Charles Taylor and what I was doing in Liberia, and before I knew it, I was welcomed to the USA. Haresh also breezed through and, we got our bags in a jiffy. All the scary stories I had heard about first-time Pakistani visitors to the USA clearly were unfounded! 

So, here we are in Chicago and excited to see our friends. It's the first time in the USA for me and it's been a long time coming. I really look forward to my trip and, talking about it!