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Long haul travel: the good, the bad and the ugly

Saturday, October 20, 2007 by Marianne Elliott

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About 30 hours ago I left the house in Kabul where I'd been staying since arriving in from Ghor last week. I was on my way to the airport, but I still didn't have my passport. I did however have an excellent plan. My passport had arrived the day before on a UN flight from Herat and was supposedly out at the UN terminal. So I was driving to the UN terminal, picking up my passport (maybe grabbing a cappuccino at the cafe there since there is no such thing at the main terminal in Kabul) and then heading over to Kabul International Airport to catch my Air India flight to Delhi.

I found my passport, and a few friends, at the UN terminal so I enjoyed not only an early morning coffee but also a hug and a chat with a good friend from Herat who was waiting to fly out to Dubai. Then I pulled on my hijab and headed over to the main airport. Outside the terminal were a couple of tables manned by Afghan soldiers who were manually searching all the bags.

I have a confession to make. For all my fearless adventuring all over the world I have a serious and longstanding problem with having my bags searched. It dates back to my years in the Gaza Strip and the incredibly politically and emotionally charged experience of crossing from the Palestinian Occupied Territories into Israel on a regular basis. During those years I had some particularly unpleasant experiences and to this day, when someone tells me that they are going to have to manually search my luggage I feel my whole body begin to tense.

In Kabul I made a great performance out of insisting that these men should not be inspecting my bags, and although the secuirty chief assured me that it was not haram (apparently police are considered maharam) I still made the men all look away when I removed my bras and underwear from the bag and would let them touch them. On one level I made light of it all – but just beneath the surface I know very well that panic is lurking.

The first major hurdle of my journey over I checked in and went upstairs to find that many of my Indian, Nepalese and Bhutanese colleagues from across the country were waiting to catch the same flight. Hindus are about to celebrate two of the major festivals of their calendar – culminating in Diwali. I love Diwali and enjoyed the festive atmosphere of travelling to Delhi with colleagues who were making their way home for the equivalent of the Christian Christmas.

In Delhi my journey went from good to truely amazing. I had booked myself in for a half-day treatment at an Ayuvedic spa and after a colleague dropped me off at the spa I found myself enveloped in an underground world of goodness. The design of the spa is exceptional. Water flows along the floor and you make your way from treatment room to treatment room via stepping stones scattered along this magical waterway. My treat started in the meditation room where I sat in meditation for the first time in weeks. I was immediately reminded of why I had made meditation a part of my daily life for so long and committed myself to returning to this particular habit.

I continued on with a series of traditional ayuvedic treatments for balancing including "Shirodhara". This is a very special treatment in ayuvedic medicine and some ayuvedic centres will not allow clients to undertake the treatment unless as part of a longer retreat. The treatment involves having warm oil dripped onto your forehead for between 20-60 minutes, in my case for almost an hour and is supposed to pacify vata, calm and nourish the nervous system and open the vital energy channels in the head.

The experience I had later in the evening made me wonder whether the more traditional ayuvedic centres are right to insist that his treatment not be given to short-term clients and not without careful consultation. Perhaps the treatment had nothing to do with the emotional outpouring I was to experience at Delhi airport a few hours later, but I can't help at least wondering about the association.

After finishing up the treatments with a full body salt scrub and vichy shower to wash away to filth of Kabul, I headed back to Delhi International Airport. At this point my journey was about to go a bit haywire. As soon as the American Airline security staff saw my Afghan visa they took me aside and told me they would have to put me through a full manual search. Initially I thought I was going to be fine. But as the search continued I felt a kind of rising panic. This was incredibly unsettling, not least because the last time I had really felt this kind of "out-of-control" was last winter during the dark and chaotic days of the PTSD.

Before I could stop myself I was in tears, apologising to the woman searching my bag and acting like someone with an obsessive compulsive disorder, insisting on refolding each garment after she folded it and removing everything she packed into my case to repack it. I even unrolled the yoga mat she had just finished carefully rolling and re-rolled it. She was incredibly understanding but I felt like a total mess. As soon as the whole ordeal was over I bought two large bottles of water, gulped them down, took one of the "sleep aid" pills I had been given by the local phamasist in Ghor and found a quiet place to sit and listen to my Boho-girl playlist.

By the time the flight was boarding I was feeling quite calm. We all had to stop on the way onto the plane and have our handbags manually searched as well. Initially I thought this was no big deal at all, and then I suddely found myself saying to the security officer as she repacked my bag – "just let me touch that as you put it in". What? Just let me touch that? What the hell is happening here? I suddenly found my self on the verge of tears again and asked if I could be allowed to just sit in a quiet spot and breath quietly for a while. Five minutes of yoga breathing and I was ready again to board – but thinking to myself – "girl, you need to see a shrink about this!".

So it seems the fearless world traveller has developed a strange phobia about security searches. It has nothing to do with being caught out with illicit goods, and everything to do with control. So much for learning to let go.

Well – my flight to Los Angeles is boarding (I'm writing this from Chicago Airport) and in just over three hours I'll be meeting Christine for the beginning of an amazing weekend with Christine, Denise and Susannah – three women who i am fairly confident can handle (and cuddle) me whether I'm turning out to be crazier than I thought or not. All will be well. Much, much better than well. All will be amazing girly goodness for the next few weeks. Security search phobias can wait…


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17 Responses to "Long haul travel: the good, the bad and the ugly"

  1. melanie says:

    yes I would further delve into the security search issues… but in the meantime, enjoy your time with friends. Relax and breath.
    safe travels.

  2. ceanandjen says:

    I am SO glad to see an update from you! I read this post practically holding my breath in nervousness for you. I have to tell you that there is no way on this green earth that I could travel solo like you do. Anxious or not, you did an amazing job of getting yourself through all of this, and I am literally breathing a sigh of relief to know that you are safe and sound in the states and on your way to LA to see your beautiful girls.
    Have a wonderful wonderful time!!!! xoxoxo

  3. HiK says:

    I hate security searches also, I don’t think it’s weird at all (or we’re both weird together!). It’s intrusive and there are strange people touching your stuff. I don’t think so.

  4. HiK says:

    Umm, wait, cappuccinos in Herat? Seriously?

  5. megg says:

    I don’t know what to say about all of that yuckiness, but now you are THERE!!! Have a wonderful WONDERFUL time – I will be looking forward to a report!!
    Will email soon now that I am home too!!

  6. susanna says:

    Oh, what an emotional trip! I can certainly understand your anxiety. I used to feel stressed out crossing the Canada/US border after I moved to the States, just after 9/11. And we’re talking Canada and the US – I mean, really, that’s nothing (utterly wimpy!) compared to your trip from Afghanistan to the States.
    I hope that you are now surrounded by good friends, lots of laughter and deep conversation, and a bottle of red wine or two. All the women you are meeting with right now on the West Coast are beautiful, interesting and uplifting. After reading Susannah’ last experience visiting the West Coast girls, I have no doubt that you are going to be feeling alive and rejuvenated within days. And I bet they are equally excited to meet YOU! Have a fabulous time!

  7. Becca says:

    So many fabulous highs (the salon in Delhi sounds amazing) and such terrible lows … I am truly sorry that you have to go through such difficult security searches. It’s really invasive. Have a marvelous time while you are home.

  8. Jeni says:

    Wow, I was almost in tears for you. I could feel that travel-weary, worn-out, state-of-mind when the littlest things can push you “over the edge”. I understand that feeling of “violation” of having your things gone through and touched. Wish I could give you a hug!
    The spa sounds amazing and I’m so glad that you got that dose of therapy in for yourself.
    Now, enjoy your time with your girlfriends! (Next time you have a free minute in LA, I would love to meet for a capuccino or glass of wine.)

  9. cath says:

    the spa sounds amazing… it’s funny, in a strangely freakish way, what can make us “lose it” sometimes isn’t it?? i once had a massage in which the woman massaging me touched my shoulders briefly then drew her hads away. she asked me a question that made me feel like she had looked right into my soul with that single touch, and i burst into tears. i was so upset anyone would have thought i’d just consumed a half a bottle of gin all to myself… i will never forget that moment. a strange blend of nakedness and release.
    have a wonderful time with your girlfriends!

  10. Paris Parfait says:

    I hope you have a fantastic trip. And I understand about those West Bank security searches – maddening, infuriating, upsetting! I think your experiences en route were probably less about being searched and more about control – and probably a little release of the tension that’s been building up in Ghor. Take care of YOU and just relax and have fun. And yes, would love to see you in NZ for the next Rugby World Cup! xo

  11. Peter says:

    How lucky are we? Ghor, Kabul, New Delhi, Chicago to San Francisco… We have the option in life to buy a ticket and go… Enjoy your time off. You earned it.
    PS: when i get upset at security checks, I am actually upset about something else. Other than the check itself…

  12. i have no doubt you will be in the most loving and tenderest of care…let them lavish you with it…

  13. maddie says:

    I felt so tense reading this about those searches myself! I can
    understand completely – as I was separated from my son in India
    -separate lines for women and men due to the searches –
    and I also completely panicked – and burst into tears –
    I couldn’t see my little guy and I felt such a loss of control!
    Your spa treatment sounded so delicious and may have opened up
    energy pathways that made you more raw – emotions coming up to
    the surface – much like that dreaded camel pose that makes
    me feel like crying every time in yoga…
    you are going to be pampered in the most lovely way with those
    beautiful women you are spending time with –
    please let me know if you ever come through/by Vancouver as
    I would love to meet you:)
    Have a wonderful vacation!
    (warmest hugs)

  14. Diana says:

    So glad that you are here in States for a while and hope the love of your friends gives you peace in your soul.
    I too have airline security phobia and cry when I go through those check lanes – its from having my underwires (in my bra – while it is on) patted down, my private things turned upside down with gloves that have touched everyone else’s private things, missing things, and a big hassle at one airport (they accused me of having a concealed weapon – they took my film cannister opener out of my camera bag and decided it was a concealed weapon). When I asked that the police be called, the TSA refused to call the police. I was really frightened. They mocked me, waving my ticket in front of me while the airline called to board. It was nothing like what you went through but it was traumatic anyway. So I don’t think you are crazy at all, not at all.
    A woman in the U.S. at one airport was jumped and knocked to the floor by three TSA agents, handcuffed and placed in a room where she “strangled herself to death trying to get out of the handcuffs.” It is a wise person who is on the alert during check procedures, even in the USA.

  15. Mardougrrl says:

    Yes, the searches are definitely a bit nerve wracking…even if you know you don’t have anything strange, because you don’t know WHAT they will choose to make an issue of. 🙁
    I hope you are having a wonderfu trip (and that you are safe from the wildfires ravishing my beloved California). xoxo, M

  16. AnnieElf says:

    So emotional and such ups and downs. I found myself trying to breathe FOR you. I wish you all the best. What fun times you will have. Were you in SoCal with the fires, Frida?

  17. ren.kat says:

    Just wanted to thank you again for keeping this blog. For sharing the details that make it all more than big, vague descriptions.

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