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!

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