Monday, June 30, 2008

Day 1 Of 7 - Cairo, City Of The Living

Woke up early in the Colombian morning to catch a four hour flight from SLC to JFK in New York, and from there, a ten hour marathon to Cairo. The first leg was uneventful, but lemme tell you two words about the next leg; first class. How it works is that if there are any open seats in first class, they'll put employees there if we're traveling standby, I suppose in an effort to balance out the fact that, if there are no seats, we're stuck there at the airport.

First class on a 757 is large; not only does it have more seats than our turboprop plane, you could fit the whole turboprop plane inside it. The seats are less airplane seats and more recliners from The Sharper Image. There's a pop-up TV screen with free movies on it, and if you can figure out how to damn un-spring it from the armrest, the day is yours. I was a little apprehensive about being in an airplane for ten hours until I realized that I do that pretty much four days a week, and without sitting in a cool chair.
One of the things I will remember until I die is the sight of the continent on which I was born receding under me, giving way for the first time to strange new blue.
My embarrassing story about my first time in first class is this; when the FA came by to take my order for dinner, I picked the steak. Later she came by with a tray with shrimp on it. I'm a big believer that life sometimes gives you what you really wanted, so I shrugged and chowed down on the shrimp, and then folded up my tablecloth. The FA breezed by again and, seeing the folding, asked if I was not going to be joining them for dinner.
"Wasn't that it?" I asked.
Nope, she explained. Just the first course. Welcome to first class, ha ha (I'd probably be no good at the opera, either). This was a good steak, airplane or not. You're not allowed to drink while you're in uniform, which I was traveling in, but the funny thing about a uniform is that if you take off your epaulettes, you're no longer in uniform. Red wine, white wine... yeah, I had some of that.
After I made sure dinner had stopped arriving, I reclined the seat and slept fitfully over the Atlantic.
The sun rose way faster than I expected (since we were flying right at it), and we landed at Cairo International. A quick trip down the stairs and I stepped out onto Africa.

This is an entry visa for Egypt. As you can see, one can be yours for $15. After hearing the woes of people trying to get an American visa, I was unprepared to be able to just buy my way into a country.
My friend Lebowski was waiting at the airport. As is the way with old army buddies, we had previously hailed each other by last name, having lost our first names to our good Uncle. We recognized each other immediately, depite both of us having hair. He grabbed a cab and, on the way to his place (after more than a decade of knowing each other), we settled into first names.
Cabs are cars, and cars in Egypt are crazy. I'm sure you've heard stories about how they drive in other countries. Stories with words in them like unsafe, reckless, and deadly. I'm here to tell you those words are untrue. Alarming, maybe. In Egypt, there is no such thing as your driver's ed instructor's 'space cushion.' It just isn't there. They drive right up until they almost touch another car, and then stop. It's the only way to merge the way they do it. You see, there are no lanes, no stop signs, and no traffic lights. They drive by flocking. At different times, roads are two, three, four, or five cars across, depending on the collective intelligence of the drivers on the road. Traffic circles are one way and two way depending on who needs to go where. Horns are less an expression of anger and more echolocation. At times, our driver would mumble a request to merge to the driver to his left, who was five feet away from him through both their windows. It was amazing to watch.

Lebowski's place is awesome. It's a small furnished flat on the fifth floor of a building in downtown Cairo. As I discovered, certain words mean different things in different places, one of which is furnished. In America, it means having furniture placed in the apartment by the landlord. In Cairo, it means having the stuff the previous tenant left behind. None of this stuff was Lebowski's. In fact, there was a bench with a secret compartment under the seat, and inside, Lebowski and his girl discovered letters from the 70s detailing a romance between a former denizen and his lady. He's planning a book about that.
What I haven't told you so far is how you have to get to the fifth floor. There is an elevator. Lebowski called it the Elevator Of Death. You see, the door to get into it is not part of the elevator. It's a glass door that belongs to the floor it's on, and when the elevator starts moving, you can reach out and touch the door as it vanishes below you. You can touch the concrete floors as they go by. It would not be a stretch to lose your arm in this way, nor would it be a stretch to open the door on the seventh floor and fall to your death into the shaft. Just a week before I got there, Lebowski was present for a rescue mission involving a little girl who had gotten stuck in the EOD and had climbed out of a hole in the ceiling and was screaming from the roof.
Incidentally, the ground floor button read T, which we reasoned stood for The Ground Floor.

Lebowski and I caught each other up on our post-army lives on the balcony. From there, you can see a Coptic Church (that clock tower on the left), and any number of people milling about five stories below.

You can also see the smallest mosque in Egypt, which is right below his flat. This will be important later.
After I took a short and well-advised nap, we grabbed a cab and and headed out. First stop was Talat Harb square, home of one of those amusing traffic circles, and also where we picked up Lebowski's girl. Then we blasted over to a market called Khan al Khalili. Picture the French Quarter done up in Islam Onion Top and you've about got it. The trash must be mentioned here, because here's the first time I noticed it. Cairo is beset with trash. Besotted. There are piles of garbage hip-high in the streets. I was carrying an empty water bottle and looking for a garbage can, and as a ploy to get me into a shop, one of the merchants took it from me, saying, "Here, I throw away for you," and lobbed it over his shoulder. At first I thought typical American thoughts like, 'Why don't they clean up their trash?' But then it slowly dawned on me that that's just how they do over here. I'll clean up my USA streets, and you can do yours like you wanna. Live and let live. The cats must also be mentioned. No wonder the ancient Egyptians worshipped cats; every time they tried to worship something else, one of the sixty million cats got in the way of it and was accidentally worshipped. These are not fluffy American kittens... these are rode-hard-and-hung-up-wet killers done up in Canopic jar sleek. They'll let you pet them, but if they sense food (or fear), they'll have an artery open before your heart causes that to be a problem.
The merchants are hilarious. To get you into their booth, they'll say anything. "What you need? I have what you need. You don't think about payment. How much you want to pay?" I don't look remotely Egyptian, so inevitably the conversation turned to where I was from. "You Amriki?" they would ask, and when I nodded, they would welcome me to Egypt. A word about this welcome. I didn't know it then, but in the coming days I would come to understand that WELCOME TO EGYPT is sort of code for YOU'RE ABOUT TO BE TAKEN ADVANTAGE OF or HEADS UP, GUYS, WE GOT A SUCKER HERE. Most of them made sure I knew they were not Ali Baba. "I not rip you off, I no Ali Baba!" It was great fun to let them tell me a price and point at them slyly, saying, "You're Ali Baba, aren't you? You are!" and watch them shrug back with, "No! No Ali Baba!" Another thing they tended to do is assure me that I was going to get an 'Egyptian price.' "You no worry, you no pay a lot. I give you Egyptian price." For what that means, see WELCOME TO EGYPT.
Occasionally, they would for no reason I could discern, welcome me to Alaska.
After looking over a lot of small carvings of ancient Egyptian gods, tiny pyramids, lamps and shishas, we cabbed home and realized we were hungry. Lebowski mentioned a few options, and one of them, believe it or not, was McDonalds. I know, I know, I came halfway across the damn world to experience new things... but I felt that that one of those things was 'how the hell do they do McDonalds in Egypt?' and so I caved.

McDonalds damn delivers to your door in Egypt. Kofta is a meat food which contains lamb and goat, and the whole thing was wrapped in pita bread. This was my first inkling that every country in the world has Mexican food. Pretty good. We washed that all down with a couple of Bebsis. What are those, you ask? Factor in that Arabic has no P sound, and you'll get the picture.

Then it was time for bed. I stretched out on the couch next to the air conditioner, which in Cairo is an open balcony, and for the first time in my life, fell asleep under an Eastern sky.

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Egypt, Or Why I Went There In The First Place

Well, those of you who speculated in an African direction were correct; I went to Egypt. But why pick Egypt for a first trip outside North America, you ask? Well, I'll tell you. I caught up with an old army buddy by email recently, and he happened to be studying Arabic in Cairo, and as I happen to have a) not seen him in twelve years, and b) fly places very cheaply, I decided to see what sand tastes like over there. What follows is a slightly inaccurate and very long-winded account of my week in Egypt. Prepare yourselves.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Sprechen Sie Stupid

The other day I noticed that the passenger safety card reads "any passenger that does not speak or read English must not sit in an exit row" in three languages. The funny part is that one of the three languages in which it does so is English. That's not going to stop a Spanish speaker from letting me know he's in the wrong row. What it's going to do is confound me for hours each day as I try to figure out exactly who the target audience of that one English sentence is.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Much Ado About Buttons

There are a lot of buttons in the galley. Hardly any of them do anything. Turn the potable water on and off. Heater on and off (which doesn't actually work, necessitating the 'bag of coffee' trick). Light on and off. However, on the third or fourth leg when I start to get really bored, I start working the buttons like they really do do something as passengers are enplaning. I mean like I'm in a Navy jet. Like three buttons with one hand and two more with the opposite elbow, like I'm rebooting Windows. "Welcome aboard, sir... wait, hold on a sec... OK, got it. Welcome aboard." Behaving like this does three things. One, it amuses me. Two, it makes the passengers think I am way more technically proficient than I am. Three, it instantly identifies other flight attendants traveling out of uniform, because they're the ones looking at me funny for wrestling with the coffee machine drain valve.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Where The Hell Will Phil BE

Typhoid and tetanus, left arm. Hepatitis A and B, right arm. Two weeks from now, I'm finally leaving the continent for the first time in my life. Can anyone guess where I'm going? Those of you who know, keep everybody else in suspense.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

How Your Angels Get Down Like That?

Saw Cameron Diaz at an airport in the Northwest. She looked a lot like Cameron Diaz.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Music For A Space Train

WARNING: If you don't already think I'm a dork, you will after this entry.
Anyone who has ever seen a minute or two from Avatar: The Last Airbender or Naruto will know that Japanese animation has a distinct look. Those who go back far enough to have seen Voltron will know that a little better. If you remember Battle of the Planets or saw the first run of Speed Racer, you know that even more better. Japanese people and American comic book hounds call this stuff anime. But in 1977, a Japanese comic book artist named Leiji Matsumoto let loose with a movie version of the TV show he had spawned with a long-running comic book series called Galaxy Express 999, and it was the first anime I had ever seen while I was old enough to think, and I don't think it's too much poetry to say it changed me.
Again, my mother's fault. My dad had come across a betamax copy of Star Wars (this was before it was Star Wars Episode 4: A New Hope) and instantly regretted it because, from then on, I watched it seven times a day for several years. In what I suspect was an effort to wean me onto something anything else, my mother sat me down one day in front of Showcase (the forerunner to HBO for those of you who thought HBO was the forerunner), and said, "Here's a new cartoon, it looks interesting!"
It was. It's the story of an orphan named Joey Hannacannabobbakannana Smith, whose mother was killed for sport by the evil Count Mecha, who is (wait for it) a machine person. A mysterious woman named Maetel appears and gives him a ticket to the famed Galaxy Express (which is a steam train that travels through space, naturally) so he can get a machine body in order to better take on the Count. Along the way he meets up with a space Swede named Olaf, a potato-looking gunslinger named Sundown McMoon, and legendary space pirates Captain Warlock and Queen Emereldas. And he also sees that becoming a machine saps your humanity, much to the later chagrin (and eventual destruction) of the entire machine factory planet. This was animation, but not like ours; people got naked, bled, and died (not always in that order), and a twelve-year-old kid with a cosmo pistol was more than enough bodyguard for anyone. My mother instantly regretted sitting me down in front of this movie because, from then on, I alternated Galaxy Express and Star Wars seven times a day for several years.
I was in high school when Japanese animation finally hit our shores with enough force to stick. Suddenly Blockbuster had an anime section, and it was then that I learned that each English-dubbed version of an anime had an original Japanese counterpart, and that they were not always alike. For example, Joey's actual name was just Tetsuro, and they just used that long and silly name to cover up some vile things he said that they didn't want to translate. Olaf was definitely not Swedish (nor was his name Olaf), Sundown's name was Tochiro, and he didn't actually die of what the English version called "an incurable space disease," and Captain Harlock most definitely did not talk like John Wayne. Several characters changed the plot slightly by saying completely different things, a few characters got clipped unfairly, and what I think is the climax of the entire film got scrapped altogether.
One thing that was the same in both versions was the music. Composed by a guy named Nozomu Aoki, this was like no cartoon score I'd ever heard. Sure, with the benefit of 30 years of hindsight, some of it sounds like the Love Boat, but aside from the bongos and the jazzy trumpets, this stuff is fantastic. Tetsuro's lone cello motif is adventurous and tragic at the same time, Maetel's high violin hints at a past Tetsuro can never quite regain, and Harlock's battle march is cheesy enough for a pirate who steers his spaceship with an outboard boat wheel and still somehow you can't stop humming it. Most people know that John Williams uses something called leitmotif to describe movie characters with musical themes, but Aoki also uses it to describe places; several cues will pass in one location before you realize it's all been the same theme, but orchestrated differently; for example, in Count Mecha's Time Castle (ain't sci-fi great?) the same slow creepy music that underscores Tetsuro's infiltration later becomes the pizzicato rhythm during their shootout, and also the off-kilter violin background for a certain character's tremulous suicide march.
The music is the reason I'm bothering to bother you all with any of this. You see, I'm a big fan of film scores, and after searching for this one for most of my life (first on record, then on cassette, and now on CD), I have finally found it. I'm listening to it right now. I doubt that any of you have seen this movie (with the exception of L.M., who has seen it enough for all of you). And even if a few of you have, I doubt you remember the music. But if there's even one of you that does and wants to know where to get it, after decades, I can finally tell you where.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Flight Attendants Do It Faster

Also want to take a moment to say that I regularly go five hundred miles an hour. I think that's cool. It certainly does somehow make picking up mysteriously damp napkins up off the carpet while on my hands and knees a little easier to take.

Tempting Fate With Vegetables

Just wanted to let you all know that, for the first time since I was nearly destroyed in March, I drank a can of tomato juice. This is less bragging and more just so someone will know it wasn't drugs when I turn up dead in my LA hotel room tomorrow afternoon.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Don't Let The Door Hit You!

Again, I must tell you that I engage in hyperbole a lot. Most of the things I've posted about on this blog never happened, and of those, none of them happened anywhere near like I said they did. But today, I deftly avoided serious physical harm, and again it had to do with the aircraft door.
We pick up the aircraft in the morning, and there's a little yellow sticker on the door-closing button. The FAA is mad about little yellow stickers. That's what they put on anything that doesn't work. It's got a little number on it which doesn't mean anything to anyone, and the cryptic phrase INOP. We theorize that it means inoperative. But if you can put a seventeen-digit number with four hyphens on the sticker, can't you just spring for the whole word 'inoperative?' INOP has become an industry-wide joke. "Sorry if I can't count the passengers today, my brain's INOP." "We're not getting out of here today, one of the wings is INOP." And so on.
I digress. And now I'm going to digress further, to tell you how the door-closing button works. It's hydraulic, and the amount of power used to close the door is variable, based on how the pilots set it. So if the door isn't lifting all the way up to where I can grab it and shut it, I get to scream at the pilots, "IT'S NOT WORKING! I NEED MORE POWER!" I love it when I get to do that.
Anyway, the door is not lifting at all on this particular day. And when that happens, you need to get one of the rampers to close it for you when you're ready to close up. I had never actually done this before. When we were ready to go, I flag down a ramper who happens to be a nine-foot Samoan chick, who gives me a stoic nod when I ask her if she can close the door.
Like I said, what usually happens when I press the button is that the door lifts up to where I can grab it, and then I shut it by hand. That requires me to be right there in the doorway. However, when the rampers close the door (as I found out today), they lift it up until they can fit under it, and then dive at it like a cannonball, slamming it so hard that the entire plane rattles. It is important to note that at no time during this violent process can they see if a flight attendant is in the doorway.
The bottom step of the door is, when closed, forehead level. It's solid steel, with an edge as bluntly sharp as the devil's sense of humor.
You can see what's going to happen here.
I sure didn't. I saw the door come up, heard the servos whining way faster than I had ever heard before, and then a voice in my head screamed BE SOMEWHERE ELSE RIGHT NOW. It's that same voice cats hear, and I did the same thing they do when they hear it; I flung myself somewhere anywhere, which happened to be back across the galley, and the door crashed shut in my wake. It is with no hyperbole that I state that, had that thing hit me, it would have broken my skull. And had I survived that, I would have carried an awesome pirate scar for the rest of my can't-feed-myself life.
The other flight attendant had been on her way to the galley when this happened, and she actually had to dive out of my way when I dove out of the door's way. And she turned to the passengers in first class when everything stopped moving and asked, "Did you guys see that?"
And all of them said in unison, "Yes we did!"
Like I always tell people these days, it's nice to finally have a job where my agility counts.

Saturday, June 07, 2008

What Do I Have To Do To Get A Drink Around Here?

This is how my life works.
We get to LAX at around nine PM. What you have to know is that the van driver for the hotel in which we stay here is legally stupid. Instead of oh, I don't know, stopping at the hotel shuttle stop (which, by the way, is called a STOP), he just slows down and looks the wrong way to see when he can get back into traffic. This, while you're waving at him to pick you the hell up. I have had to chase this guy more than once. I love throwing a few rapid-fire right hooks at the glass van door while he's going fifteen MPHs, because he's never really expecting someone to knock on the door while he's moving. I guess we're not supposed to do anything other than just stand there confused while he drives off to smoke weed with all of his other van-driving buddies. You should really see the look on this jackhole's face when I do that. And then while he pushes us over trying to get to our suitcases, hoping for a tip so he can buy more weed, he explains (in an accent that derives from no country anywhere) that he's not supposed to stop wherever we happened to be standing that time.

DUMB: No you see, no you see, I canna stahp dah. I canna stahp dah. No leega.
ME: You mean, the Hotel Shuttle Stop?

It's always this game in LA. Call the hotel, they say they a van is already there. You call them on that, and they say, oh no, I'm sorry, Mr. McFly, I meant, I meant a shuttle will be there in fifteen minutes, and we're just starting on the second coat. An hour later, Jackhole the Van Driver blasts by ignoring you. And if you're new to this game, it can last all day. That's the fun, you see.
So you know what kind of mood I was already in at ten fifteen when I finally got to the hotel and my fifth floor room. All I wanted was a drink. That's all. Not even a real drink; a Sprite, for crying out loud. I gather some non-Canadian change and go out to the vending machine. I press the Sprite button to make sure it's not sold out, and it shows a price. Great. I toss some money in. SOLD OUT, it says after I've pumped in several hundred nickels. Holding back a roundhouse kick, I get my change back and head down to the fourth floor. This mother says SOLD OUT already. I hike up to the sixth floor. SOLD OUT.
Seventh floor, SOLD OUT.
Eight floor, SOLD OUT.

Ninth... floor... SOLD... OUT.

Tenth... floor...

And so the tour de hotel went, until the twelfth floor machine finally coughed up a Sprite. At this point, I was boiling mad, because my personal philosophy is that any machine that does not perform its function should be destroyed, publicly and immediately. Remote doesn't work? Burn it. Cell phone doesn't get reception? Shatter it. Printer doesn't work? Stomp it. I mean, you got one thing to do in life, and you don't do it. Like, say, a van driver that doesn't pick up people. So I let loose with that roundhouse kick. It makes an extremely satisfying THUCKA-thucka-thucka up and down the hall. And then... THEN... there's someone there to attend to the machine.

WELL MUSCLED HOTEL CLERK: Everything all right, sir?
ME: ..................

It was evident to me that no one had been to service these machines in a long while. And as soon as I kick one, there's a guy there to defend it. Never mind that I shouldn't be kicking things in public. ALSO never mind that this was the one machine that had actually worked. Actually, maybe it was just karma for being dumb in public. Never mind. Pretend I didn't write this.

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Product Placement

From the Phoenix Airport, where they know who likes what:

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

And While We're Calling Attention to Different Names For Things...

... back home it was the 'interstate,' but here in the West it's the 'freeway.' I forget if I've mentioned that. Makes no sense to me, because in Louisiana it doesn't cost anything to use them, and I know you can get into another state on them here. Boggles what little mind I have left.

Utah Department Of Unsubtlety

Back in Louisiana, they would always announce a 'traffic accident' on the radio traffic report. Here in Utah, they call it a 'crash.' That's why I love Utah; the Man is there to stop you from drinking real beer, but he's got no problem with anyone broadcasting a mental picture of fire and eyeballs for the young and traumatizable masses. Cheers!

Sunday, June 01, 2008

Aisle Racer GO!

When you see me in uniform, you might think I'm a professional with my mind rooted firmly in my job and my priorities in place. This is what you're supposed to think. What I'm actually doing, while you're inside the terminal thinking this, is running full tilt up and down the aisle in the empty plane. It's one of the more unexpectedly thrilling things I have access to these days. The armrests are damn two feet apart, and at full speed, if I make the slightest miscalculation, I end up upside-down in a window seat three rows back with a splintered tibia and my severed patella jammed into my ear.
The pilots hate this. Even though the plane weighs several tons, I'm enough to bounce it like a trailer you're not currently invited to.
Now if you ever board a plane and the flight attendant is breathing hard, you'll know what's up.