Sunday, 29 December 2013

Slum Tourism & Snow

I fear how long it's been since I've last typed or stepped outside my self-sustained bubble of life. Why does every post inevitably start this way? I have to learn to accept that I'm lazy at writing down my rushing thoughts.

Anyway, every year brings a shock at the reunion, the faces get more weathered, the city gets more colourful. This year being no exception. On the plane I am miraculously spared my usual insensitive side-kicks, and instead end up next to a wrinkled lady. I feel more than a little pity for her, as I spy her nervously curling and unfurling her golden cross around her neck. She's come to finalise matters, sell up loose ends and settle down. In a country more quiet and suited to her ailing health, she tells me sadly.

'Can you tell I'm only half Iraqi?'. She asks me so earnestly that I'm about to reply before she interrupts,her father is Palestinian. She laments the destruction of Bethlehem and of Baghdad, then proceeds to proudly tell me of her grandchildren. Come visit she nods, giving me an address and phone number in London.

I wonder how her life is like briefly, and then concentrate on the constant turning round of the passenger in front.
On landing, the officers greet me like an old friend. A few changed faces, a few the same, staring as if they remember me from before, but unsure.
The oldest amongst them, incidentally also the chattiest, signals to me. I walk over smiling.

'You never listen.'

'Does any woman?' I reply jokingly, the echoing laughter ringing in my ears.

Day after arrival I am already itching to breathe in the dusty air. I choose to go to the not so nice quarters, and my grandma purses her lips, small signs of disapproval not voiced out. I grin.
Walking around I notice my grandmother's eyes glare at the sights all around. She clutches at my hands and whispers, her eyes still darting around,
 'What is this place? Why did you bring us here? let's us go Touta'.

I can't help but explain. Whenever I tell them storms pass, they all lament, their voices always drowning my calm.  Unable to see past petty problems. Unable to realise there is so much much worse.

She smiles so sadly, its heart-breaking. She recites 'Thank God' over and over as her eyes scan the depressing scenery in front of us.  I know my practical lesson will only last a day or two, but I'm ever the optimist that perhaps it stretches out to a week.

Just like the click of a button, the snap of switch, the situation turns into a comedy.
A battered car bumbles past, coming to a shaky stop ahead of us.

'Grandma!' yells the tired looking driver 'Grandma please!'

My grandmother turns around smiling, only to start shaking in shock as the driver continues his whispered shouts
' How much grandma, please' he pleads.
It takes longer than it should for the man's words to register in my grandmother's mind. I had already started laughing by the time she reacts.
She uses my full name, scolding me for laughing and starts tugging on my sleeve. We're leaving she decides, shaking her head with fear.

The driver persists, tailing our speedy walking speed with his bruised car. He can't seem to understand my calm reasoning of ' Stop embarrassing yourself, no', and my grandmother's angry 'how dare you, we are respectable people!'.

I don't mind the comic misunderstanding, but I feel a pang of guilt at my grandmother's eyes on the verge of tears (I am sure this is the first time something of this sort has happened to her), I whirl around to confront the trailing car.

'I've tried telling you I'm not for sale, but you don't seem to understand. I'll put it to you in a way you can understand. You don't have enough for what I would charge'.

'I do!!' he replies outraged

'You don't' I say shaking my head.

He insists he does, reaching for his glove compartment (My steady heart rate suddenly shoots up).
Thankfully his hand only retrieves an envelope bursting with green bills.

I smile. I don't charge cheap paper, I tell him sweetly. I only charge gold, I say circling my ring finger.

He looks at me, the epitome of confused, and slowly drives away, looking back occasionally.

I'm scared to turn around in case I'm the cause of my grandmother having a heart attack.
Thankfully, she is still standing, her mouth gaping, and her eyes trying to process what just happened.

I continue laughing all the way to the car.

The fun doesn't end there however. On arriving to the mall, and sitting in one of those pretentious café slash restaurant places, whispers from the table next to ours makes my head turn.

'Its her!' comes various hisses from two ladies, directed at her husband who keeps trying to see my face. I smile politely at the young couple, the mother cradling a new-born and not looking very happy with me.

'Its you, isn't it?' she questions.
I apologise for not understanding her question, and continue staring, hoping for an explanation.
Will this day not end, I muse, as the young lady snorts at me. A minute later she repeats the question.

I continue staring confused. The other young lady begins to explain.

'We were driving, when a young lady, who looks very like you -if not you- decides she would race my husband for a good hour or more on the roads. She nearly drove us off the roads, and we have a baby in the car!' She points outraged at the yawning baby.

My grandmother shakes her head and interrupts. How she's so sure of my innocence is a little humbling. Its not my grand daughter, she says confidently.
   I'm not so sure of myself, whenever there's no male in the car with me, I have to deal with quite a few hormonal escapades of being cornered and bullied on the road. Its a little difficult to explain to my father where all the scratches on the back of the car come from, but even the truth doesn't convince him its not me badly parking.
My innocence is proven when they ask for the colour of the car. On asserting the car is nowhere near the colour white (there is no chance it could be mistaken for white either), the company on the other table apologise to my grandmother for mistaking my identity.
The young man is glowing red, and I feel a little sorry for them all.

I maintain that I am undoubtedly blameless in all of this. Perhaps I just shouldn't step outside for a few days, my grandmother muses. I laugh as she warns me not to breathe a word of what happened to anyone.

Wishing everyone a happy Christmas and a better new year.