Thursday, October 16, 2008

Stuck inside of Abu Dhabi with the NYC Blues Again

Well, the news got worse (as it often does...) rather than better during the night. Instead of the 2-3 hour delay due to the fog here in the United Arab Emirates, at some point early this morning the fight was cancelled. I guess the crew had waited long enough and couldn't fly to the States w/o breaking the regulations, alas.

So, instead of a five hour wait b/n flights in Abu Dhabi, I've been here for about 12hours with another 4 more to go. I could have gotten a residency permit in that time...

Fortunately, as I said earlier, I went to the airport hotel lounge and paid to stay here when I arrived, so I've had the sanctuary of their relative comfort, food and drinks, not to mention the internet. A little pricey at $23 for a few hours, an absolute steal for most of the night and day...

Now, instead of flying directly to NYC on Eithad, they've rebooked us via London (Heathrow) on Eithad and then to NYC on American Airlines. Unfortunately, I won't get to NYC until 11 pm tonight (Thursday). Since I need to be in the boys' NMH classroom for Parents Weekend at 8 am tomorrow (Friday), the revised schedule leaves a bit to be desired.

What I'm thinking now is that unless there is a midnight flight to Boston that I can catch (dubious...), I'll just rent a car at JFK and drive up to western Massachusetts tonight. It's definitely not my preferred option (at this point, there is no preferred option...), but it's the only way I can get to the boys' school in time for classes first thing Friday morning.

Ahhh, the mixed blessings of modern travel... (It's now 9:30 am, a full 12 hours after arriving here, with very little sleep, so I feel like I could slip off this seat and simply sleep.) It's, no doubt, better than the steerage journeys that many of our ancestors took from the shipyards or cities along the Baltic coast in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Quicker, too -- even with these delays...

I wonder at how attractive or pleasant the accomodations or food were on those week-long sea voyages. The massive immigration at the turn of the century, 108 years ago, when the shetel was fleeing the czar's wrath, cossack greed and religious intolerance. So many families who constitue our modern American world came at that time. The Irish, the Italians, the Jews, the Germans and rag muffin European peasantry and urban overlow.

In the spring, when I came to visit Mom & Dad, I started on their memoirs, and the stories of their families. I wondered while trying to get stories out of them, about the passage from the olde world to the new one. My father's parents actually came when they were young from Russian to America, while my mother's family came a generation earlier.

Yet, alas, there's no one alive to tell me the stories or relate the 'sights & sounds' of those maiden voyages. How did they feel crossing between worlds? What were their fears? Their hopes? What did they carry? Who did they come with? Who was there to receive them? What did they leave behind? Where did they think they were going? What did it feel like when they go there? (more, more...)

These thoughts came to me earlier today when I was still at the Kathmandu airport early yesterday evening. There were huddles of Bhutanese (Nepali) refugee families being transited by IOM (Int'l Organization for Migration) to the United States. Like our relatives of olde, these families appeared to have little idea of where they were going, seemed not to speak much English and were in the proces of having their lives changed forver.

As I sat near them, they seemed like they had just come out of a Bhutanese or Nepali village. I could easily imagine them in Zhemgang or Gorkha district. Rugged, simple, hard-working, innocent villagers who mostly took one day at a time and thought of wealth in terms of enough food to eat and children to help them.

They were dressed like the villagers I have known for a quarter of a century (wow!) while living & working in Nepal. Married daughters carrying for their aged parents. Handicapped (physically and mentally) children being taken care of by siblings. Basnets, Gurungs, Subedis and Magars all leaving the forced regime of refugee camps to the unknown and vast world of America.

I wondered if our past generations left with the same trepidation and anticipation? Yet there was no int'l agency there to help prepare and guide our grand and great-grand parents across that cultural, economic and social divide.

After so long in Nepal, I'm biased -- but I have a hard time seeing these older folks finding a better life in the isolated suburbs or dense urban environments of America. Maybe it's my limitation after so many years in Nepal, but I worried that the older parents and grandparents would find more unhappiness than fulfillment in the States; all for the sake of their younger generations who would much more quickly fit in, become American and leave the old world behind.

Didn't our grandparents do the same for us?

So many of the centuries-old historical traditions collapsed and withered in the open, free, safe & vivaciously new space of America. The great secular manifest destiny of our modern republic absorbing language, history and religion in a cultural maelstrom of new pop icons like Mae West (perfect name for a new continent...), Bing Crosby, Marilyn Monroe, Nat King Cole, Elizabeth Taylor, Bruce Springsteen, Woody Allen, Tupac Shakur and Morgan Freeman...

Will these dear Himalayan souls, in their Chinese sneakers, Thai t-shirts, towels still wrapped around their heads, find solace and opportunity in America? Is the dream still on the horizon for the latest immigrants? Will they find the reserves w/in themselves to adjust to the radically different world that awaits them? Will the grandparents retreat to the privacy of their new homes while the younger children begin their individual paths to the American life through school, friends and the relative receptivity of a proudly multi-cultural society?

Ahh, dear great grandmother, unknown, unknowable. I see you in the grainy, B&W sepia-toned photos, stern, tidy and proud. You are surrounded by a score of children, grandchildren, cousins, nephews and nieces dressed in their Sunday finery. I imagine you making the sea voyage as a young woman, carrying tightly your most valuable possessions, firmly holding the hand of your father, as you bid adieu to the grey shores of Prussia, villages and towns receding from view. A favorite cat or puppy left behind. Childhood friends who you know you will never see again...

Now, I have crossed part of that boundary myself. After 25 years in Nepal, I find my Janus face looking both ways. Tonight, I am caught in the river Styx, Charon's lost his oar and we wait, almost patiently, for the airlines staff to bring us new boarding passes to permit us to leave, finally, this middle world, neither East nor West, a connecting point, a passage in the night.

Yet, my concerns and complaints last only a few hours, half a day, I know not the long and final passage that you made from the old world to the new. These days, we flit between these categories almost with ease (airport lounges offering us snacks, drinks & the ubiquitous internet...).

Only these 'gaonly' Bhutanese (Nepali) refugees accompanying me to remind me that once, too, my family left a traditional world, huddling, like refugees, between greater and more expansionist empires, seeking a home, a refuge, a sanctuary. Like these passing villagers traveling with hope and fear through the night with me, they found it in America, over a hundred years ago.

While I, a generation removed, went searching for some qualities of the world they'd left behind and found Nepal, dear Nepal, and a pilgrim's progress...

Now, distant, long passed, Great Grandmothers, I cross these distances by air, not sea, and find my own children on both sides of this aching planet, struggling themselves to find their feet in a world of categories, identities and biases.

May some of your courage carry them, as well, over the personal and physical seas that they must perforce traverse.

When they, too, look at your enduring photographs, may your strength be theirs, as well.

I think they're calling my flight tonight...

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