Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Traveler's Tales

 For James

We were told that our flight would be delayed for another hour. As we sat there I watched my fellow travelers who gathered at the gate. Some were quite angry, others seemed to have given up completely. We were stranded and there was nothing much we could do.

First, it was the engine, then the weather. I wondered what the excuse would be an hour from now. But at this point it did not matter anymore. I would never be able to make my connection in DC. So why get mad? 

I opened my book and begun reading when a guy sitting next to me woke up. He must have been very tired. Or sick. To be true, he looked like crap and you couldn't even tell how old he was. He must have been in an accident or something. Bruises everywhere.

"Traveler's Tales" - he read the title aloud and asked me if the book was any good. I just started reading it and had not yet formed any opinion about it. It was an anthology of some obscure stories told by people who traveled to strange places. I love traveling, but I am not brave enough to hitch hike in Yemen or Cambodia. Besides, I was always curious to find out what motivated people to chose a thousands' stars "hotel" over a warm bath and a king size bed at the Ritz. 

He looked at me with his blood shot eyes and said that he used to love adventures, but his current experience changed him forever. It would be a while before he leaves the country again. I could empathize. I never forgot the nightmare of arriving in Turkey without my luggage...

I wanted to go back to my reading, but he asked me if I wanted to hear a real traveler's story. I hesitated. Oh, actually why not, I thought, and let him tell me his tale. 

He was a student from Berkley, CA. When the Arab Spring begun last year he decided to go to Somalia and help the protesters organize against those in power, just like his father did in California when they protested against the Vietnam war in the 60s. 

Oh my God! - I thought, but let him go on. He joined the Marxist outfit "United We Stand" and just like his father was ashamed of America and regarded himself as a proud citizen of the world. He despised the military, hated the rich, and wanted to abolish the Republican party. He hated the American way of life and hoped that the change would come as promised by the president. A new era of social justice and equality. A real new world order!

I was quite appalled at what I heard and wanted to confront him. I knew that not all was right in the country, but most Americans could really be proud of being American. But before I could say a word, he continued. 

Short after his arrival in Mogadishu he was snatched from the street by some masked men. He was beaten up and thrown into a dark cave-like cell. The stench was unbearable. 

There were two other Americans in the cell and they had the same story to tell. One of them was businessman from Ohio. He could speak some Arabic. His mother was a second generation Lebanese who married his Irish father. Somalia was supposed to be a paradise. But before he could even meet his business partners, he was snatched from the street. Just around the corner from his hotel! 

The other guy was a Boston doctor who joined the Doctors Without Borders organization. He made great money as a plastic surgeon in a private clinic, but decided that his life had no meaning. He was disgusted by the vanity of Boston socialites who were unhappy with their noses or droopy eyelids. He wanted to follow two friends who came here last year, but just like the other man, he was snatched from the street before he could even meet the others. 

What followed was a story of pain and fear. The cell was dark and dirty. There was no toilet and they had to sleep on a cold, dirty floor. They were hardly given any food. And all of them were tortured. 

Their captors would vanish for days and return only to abuse them even more. One day, however, each of them was taken upstairs, given a copy of a Herald Tribune to hold in front of the chest. They were told that they would be free if the ransom was paid. Each of them was put in front of a video camera and had to read a text. Name, nationality, and a plea for a quick payment. They also had to read out what would happen to them if money wasn't paid on time.

This was a story you usually read about in the papers. But here, next to me, was a man who actually went through an unimaginable hell. 

He took a sip of water and continued. Two days later his cell mates were released and he never saw them again. It must have been a week when he saw his captors again. He was beaten again and thrown back to another cell. In the darkness he made out a silhouette of a Chinese man sitting in the corner. That man spent almost a month in captivity and gave up any hope of returning to his family. He was expandable. Besides, no one knew where he was...

An announcement was made at the gate. Our airplane was in approach. Everyone was relieved! The boarding would begin within the next forty five minutes or so. 

There wasn't much time left and I wanted to call home, but the young man resumed his story. His captors told him that the American Consulate could not do anything for him because they claimed he wasn't an American citizen. But if ransom wasn't paid, he would have to pay with his life for this "insult". 

This was more than horrible. He was Robert C. Johnson of Berkley, California. His parents could confirm his identity at any time. The Consulate must have been able to access some record of his existence. His passport was issued only weeks before he came to Somalia. But instead, they claimed that no one, not even his parents ever heard of him. He should stop pretending that he was an American citizen.

Never before in his entire life he would insist on being an American, but there, in that hopeless black hole things looked much different. If only someone could confirm his citizenship, he would be free. He not only felt like a character copied from Kafka, he felt like Doctor Faustus! When he was a freshman, he seriously considered giving up his nationality, so insisting that he was indeed an American felt like selling his soul to the devil.

As days went on, he gave up his hope just like that Chinese man in the corner, although in his delirium he would sometimes imagine a US Marine squad raiding the compound and liberating him from the fangs of these savages. But to be true, on most days he thought of ending his own life. And yet, here he was. Free and grateful. On his way back to the United States. Proudly holding his American passport. Never happier to return home. To freedom.

"So, what happened? How did you get out?" I asked. "Oh. That's another long story," he said.

By Dominique Allmon

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Traveler's Tales by Dominique Allmon is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.