I was supposed to tell you about motorbiking all over the hilly interior of Siquijor Island in the Philippines, clacking through volcano gears on a quest. How that after much effort, I located one of the famous “witch doctors” there. And how I negotiated for an herbal love potion and protection amulet — both may come in handy one day.
But my annual ritual of getting home for Christmas was far more interesting.
At the Gate
I sat alone at an adjacent gate, clammy hands fondling the silk sheet in my lap, while I watched more and more passengers file into the waiting area.
In only minutes there would be enough fuel squirted into my plane to carry us all the ten or so hours to Saudi Arabia — the first leg of my more than 28 hours in the air to get home this year. Oh, how I wanted to simply present my boarding pass and join my fellow passengers where I should have been. But there was just one, tiny problem:
I was preparing to put on a dress.
I certainly didn’t leave the guesthouse that morning with aspirations of donning feminine garments. No, in fact, I had put on my manly cammo shorts and an equally manly typhoon survivor t-shirt. But the problem, which Saudi Arabian Airlines had failed to mention in their tiny reservation email — half of which was in Arabic — is that they maintain a strict dress code.
Yes, seriously. Western women would cover their heads. Men would cover their legs and ankles. No sandals.
I’ve flown with plenty of Muslim-operated airlines in the world, but this was a first. Strangely, when I was first denied boarding, a black-and-white photograph I had seen of Frank Sinatra wearing a suit while laughing and smoking on a plane flashed to mind.
But there would certainly be no Singapore slings on this international flight.
I can just hear Shanghai Ken, an experienced vagabond with whom I was stuck in Shanghai for a night, admonishing me. His sage advice was that I should carry one shirt-and-tie outfit and use it when I fly to receive better treatment. He was right.
But I have my excuses. Maybe if the magic machine generating flight-reservation emails had mentioned that no one wanted to see my hairy man legs, I would have planned accordingly. Wouldn’t anyone who cared be sitting in first class anyway? Weren’t there more important matters to discuss, such as where to drill for oil next or how to keep those pesky women off the human rights bandwagon?
Earlier that Day
I naively floated up to the check-in queue, passport in hand, with going-home tears clouding my eyes. My “good afternoon” was interrupted by a growl before I could even deliver it.
They descended upon me like starving cheetahs.
Without warning, I found myself being scolded like a schoolgirl while standing in front of the check-in counter. A very cross — and covered — woman staffed the counter, which strangely was elevated much higher than it should have been. I felt like I was approaching the bench at the United Nations World Court or something.
“What do you mean you don’t have trousers with you? Or real shoes?”
I explained that I simply didn’t. The woman’s head jerked robotically; her eye twitched. My words just did not compute. I apparently triggered some sort of underlying vitamin deficiency.
“All good men wear trousers,” she told me. No, I’m not making that up.
Managers’ managers were called in. The entire scene was now a gaggle of underpaid idiots with whom I was engaged in an epic warfare of wits. I held my ground. Veins snapped. Rising blood pressures blurred vision. With a clenched jaw, I explained that I was getting on the plane, one way or another. I made claims that would have gotten me gunned down on the spot within TSA jurisdiction.
The airline explained that even if they let me on board that I would be seized in Riyadh. Seized? Seized. A man tackled and locked away because of his fashion or lack thereof. We live in a very strange world indeed.
Our debate began to make all parties grow weary. Two unstoppable forces had clashed head on. Onlookers were treated to the equivalent of the ending to any given Transformers movie. Or possibly worse, one of the Matrix sequels. It was like grinding through Neo battling Agent Smith for 45 minutes, minus the flying concrete and shattering of office buildings.
Could my fragile intentions of coming home for Christmas actually be smeared like an interstate insect? Could one irate, bureaucrat bulldog behind the wheel make such a deadly impact in my life? Stretching rules can be fun sport, but not when expensive tickets and family are on the line.
It was finally decreed by one of top management (I’m quite sure the board of directors were present at this point) that socks would be cut into tubes then pinned end to end to make me a pair of trousers. That’s how these guys make the big bucks. Phone calls were made. Just as I contemplated the repercussions of wearing socks around my thighs for 11 squeezing hours, one of the underlings reported back that no socks could be found.
The Real Solution
Sensing that this was developing into a full-blown crisis, I decided to solve it. Laura was kind enough to loan me her bright blue silk sleep sheet — essentially, a sleeping bag liner. A giant piece of fabric, it wrapped around me many times and would make any Indian sadhu or Thai monk proud, had it been a different color.
I put it around my waist and argued that technically I met all of the requirements because my ankles were covered. The sleep sheet was bigger than most standard wedding dresses but no bumbling children would carry the train of this wreck. I was brighter than a blue Christmas ornament.
Representing Saudi Arabian Airlines
After receiving a reluctant approval of my new silk attire, a member of management told me that I had to continue wearing the sheet around the main airport hall. Meanwhile, behind me, people were milling around in shorts, miniskirts, and whatever else they felt inclined to wear. Flesh was on cheap display. After all, this was Southeast Asia; it was around 90 degrees Fahrenheit outside.
No way. I asked why I had to wear the sheet for hours before getting on my flight.
“Because now that you hold a boarding pass, you represent our airline.”
I’m not sure how many times this guy’s mother smoked crack while she was pregnant, but I asserted that even in the event of the apocalypse, I would only wear my shiny new dress when boarding. In one last concession and to save the manager a morsel of face, I promised to keep my boarding passes hidden so that no one would know I was on his airline.
Sweat was dabbed from a stressed brow. A relieved staff pointed me toward the security checkpoint. I was in…or so I thought.
Meeting Sean Connery
Well, not the Sean Connery.
I was looking forward to circumnavigating the earth in the wrong direction. Why not fly west to get home from the Philippines? I would pass over the Middle East, Europe, and the Atlantic for a change. The ticket was way cheaper and SkyMiles would come in a torrential downpour. Besides, everyone flies over the Pacific these days…
I soon found myself outnumbered. All of my nervous pacing around had already gathered the attention of airport security. Multiplying goons with badges whispered strange codes into radios. I became jittery. They were just doing their jobs. After all, I was acting like a man with a bum full of explosives.
But this was worse. I was about to board a plane while wearing a sleeping bag. Virtually, a dress. One that would have made any 16-year-old beam on prom night.
Just a short distance away, my gate was full of waiting passengers. A virtual sea of black and drab colors. Heads were covered. Men in black suits chatted angrily about world events. Even the airline staff were in finely tailored suits with ominous, sparkling cuff links and shiny red handkerchiefs.
My hands began to shake.
I used my time wisely, trying to figure out an alibi for just why I would be boarding this particular flight in such a manner. I also realized that this was serious business, and that the check-in staff may have just pushed me through into a bigger ambush at the gate.
I took a deep breath and got to work. Perhaps I could talk my way through. How could I have encountered grizzly bears, bamboo vipers, Komodo dragons, and every other creature imaginable with less dread?
Social hacking is highly underrated. The weakest links in any system are usually the humans involved. Machines only follow rules. Humans, unlike machines and Vulcans, are subject to emotions and therefore can be manipulated. Maybe this would be easier than I thought. My pulse began to even out.
My pants could have been stolen at knifepoint just outside the airport. Or maybe a deranged taxi driver took off with my luggage. Could one of Manila’s stray dogs somehow have put me into this situation?
Wearing a silk sheet would have never been an issue in Thailand. Or India. Enough backpackers on spiritual quests dressed like total idiots there; the staff wouldn’t have even batted an eye at me. Maybe I could tell them that my ashram mandated that I wear blue silk. I could have claimed to be some kind of monk. Maybe feign blindness and get wheeled aboard the flight in style?
My one Ace in the hole, perhaps my only hope, was my Bangon Tacloban t-shirt I bought to support the devastated areas hit by Typhoon Yolanda. Actually, it was less of an Ace and more of a five of spades, but I had already received two compliments from airport staff on my way to the gate. Maybe they would think I had lost my pants in the typhoon weeks ago. I tried to look grim. Surviving super typhoons does do strange things to a man. Maybe they would even upgrade me out of pity. I could then ask the first-classers why gas prices always inexplicably increase around major holidays.
Just as I had put together a murky alibi somehow involving the typhoon, a dog, and complex particle theory, the hard-lining staff from the check-in counter walked up. They already knew that I was simply an underdressed dirt bag.
With only 10 minutes left to board, it was now or never if I was to maintain a buffer for more arguing. My backpack was already waiting on the plane, no doubt. I stood up, mustered what dignity I could, and started wrapping my silk garb. It took a few tries to get the length right. The janitor stopped sweeping to watch intently; one wink sent him scurrying, broom at the ready. The sheet had to cover my man ankles, but unpracticed at wearing dresses, I didn’t want to drag it and trip. Now I know what Miss World feels like trying to walk in an evening gown while being molested by millions of eyeballs.
I presented my passport and averted my eyes. Incredibly, the check-in staff didn’t say a single word. In fact, they acted like they had never seen me before. There were no bold strides in this skirt. I waddled like a deranged, blue penguin into the waiting area. Could it really be this easy?
And then I saw him.
The second line of defense — and the reason why the gate staff had not flinched — was my absolute worst-case scenario. Between me and my precious plane home, the Freedom Bird, stood the most handsome, sharply dressed Arab man that I’ve ever seen. Obviously a senior member of the airline staff, this guy exuded calm, ice-cold authority. A force with which to be reckoned. This man was the Obi Wan of Saudi Arabian Airlines. Wielding his two-way radio like a lightsaber, Obi Wan commanded presence in his tailored suit. His salt-and-pepper beard lent him unquestioned wisdom. Actually, forget Obi Wan: This guy was an Arab Sean Connery.
An audible oh no escaped my lips.
Mr. Connery was, no doubt, accustomed to maintaining complete control on his aircraft. And I represented a speck of chaos, a cancer cell threatening the inner workings of his happy flight. There was no need for the check-in staff to radio him; he had already seen me from across the room and was running my direction. I stood out like a bright, blue bulb in the dark gate.
He approached me, dark eyes flashing with questions that I couldn’t answer. I began stammering out excuses before he could even hear them. It was time to blow the claymores. Unexpectedly, just a few meters away, he received a call on his radio then barked something in Arabic that made me jump out of my skin, not to mention my dress. It sounded like a juggernaut’s gears engaging. But he wasn’t barking at me. Quickly, he diverted the opposite direction and I never saw him again.
The room was spinning. I had to sit down.
The sound of my boarding pass getting ripped into two pieces is one of the most beautiful that I’ve ever heard.
The first thing I did was change seats. My flight wasn’t full, so I went to the back, literally the very back of the plane, where I could hide like an outcast. I also swapped my silk robes for a much smaller and more neutral airline blanket. I settled into my little three-seat abode and began crunching through handfuls of Valium like in-flight peanuts. If they were to throw me off the flight at this point, they would have to put my limp body into a squeaky wheelchair.
Already exhausted from all the emotions of heading home, saying goodbyes, and fighting for the right to show my ankles, I dreaded the first wave of flight attendants. I could already see that I was sat in the section belonging to the one single female attendant on the flight. Fear of her somehow catching a tiny glimpse of one ankle began to take hold.
But then a strange thing happened. Just as I had mustered all of the bitterness that I could focus toward one particular ethnic group, I was saved from internalizing it. The flight attendant did indeed approach me, but rather than giving me grief as I was expecting, she began a friendly conversation.
She was incredibly intelligent and strikingly beautiful. Her hypnotic eyes contained galaxies. Her smile told of desert hearts willing to fight under the stars for her love. Undoubtedly, somewhere, a man would be willing to give everything for this woman. Her energy was warm, and with softness, power simply radiated from her like sunrise. This woman was alive. And she had seen my dire situation and came to the rescue with kindness.
I should have been shaking when confronted by the sheer, exotic presence of this woman. With softness, women have been toppling powerful men like drunken Jenga games for millennia. Just ask King David, Solomon, Samson, Alexander of Troy, Clinton — you get the idea. But instead, she led me back into the light and created a positive current that cut right through my icy heart.
I guessed the capital of Saudi Arabia might be conservative; I was right. And having been relieved of my airline blanket, I was back in the blue silk. It takes courage to parade around in front of scores of young Arab men dressed like that. Their guttural snickering still gives me nightmares.
On the plus side, it was easy to get a seat in the crowded gates. Nervous people scurried and disappeared like trilobites at my blue approach.
After six hours of trying to stay as hidden as possible, it was time to board my next 13.5-hour flight to New York. I sweated through the male queue for an extra security check. The stout, beret-clad officer gave me a single raised eyebrow to indicate his disapproval. I shrugged. And winked.
As I handed my boarding pass over, a hairy, Arab arm came down in front of me. “Hassim!” the airline staff member hissed in the direction of his immediate supervisor, wondering what he should do with me. My heart froze. After so many hours, were they actually going to hold me in Saudi Arabia? What then? The American embassy would not enjoy my early-morning phone call.
With a nonchalant wave of his hand, Hassim — the supervisor — waved me through and I was allowed to board. Now that’s why this man is in charge. Why would you want to keep trouble — additional stress — close at hand when you can just as easily ship it directly to New York where it belongs?
Thank you, Mr. Hassim.
Interesting enough, after all of the fuss about my attire, I realized that every single movie I had watched on both flights featured people wearing sexy clothing and even drinking alcohol. So what was the point?
The sound of tires squeaking down in New York sent shivers up my spine. So did the temperature. But who cares. The frigid wind bit my legs — my free legs, and suddenly I was overwhelmed with gratitude to live in a place where people don’t tell me how to dress. Or what religion to choose. Sure, 15 minutes of casually flipping through any of the 300+ television channels will remind you that America is nuttier than a cashew tree, but not a single New Yorker ever told me to cover my head or legs. Half a year had passed since I stood on North America — and I missed it.
Unlike in prior homecomings, immigration didn’t even bat an eye when they stamped me through. Entrance-stamp ink smells like a sweet elixir as it dries.
An additional two-hour flight to Charlotte then two more hours up to Lexington, and I found myself walking down those same stairs at the Bluegrass International Airport. After 40+ hours under duress to get here, the icy Kentucky air never tasted better.
My family emerged. Long overdue, typhoon-worry hugs were passed around. And suddenly I find myself whirled back into a vortex of a different kind: my other life.
In conclusion, I would like to extend a very merry Christmas to upper management at Saudi Arabian Airlines with this card and happy holidays to all the readers who stuck with me through 2013.
After Thailand, Borneo, Laos, Vietnam, and the Philippines this year, I’ve got quite some stories and pictures to share now that Wi-Fi flows with ease. Don’t worry — vagabonding continues.
- Here are my Philippines photos.