Transitions are the way I begin every journey; transitions between countries, between cultures, between ways of thinking and ways of being, and between air spaces. Sitting in the Dubai International airport, I am lost in transition. For 12 hours I cannot leave this space. For 12 hours I have to be nebulous, neither going forward or moving back, merely waiting until the journey can resume. As cumbersome as such a long layover may seem, I am grateful to have it. I am grateful to have the moment to rest and absorb. For as long as I have been preparing for this journey, it is still quite surreal to think that I am actually on my way to Bangladesh. And as I take a moment to breathe, I am filled with an immediate sense of panic.
The whole atmosphere of the Dubai airport is different than any of my other travel experiences to date. I have always experienced heavy scrutiny walking through airports. This has occurred without fail across America, Europe, and China. I’ve become so accustomed to the elaborate process of checks and rechecks of the rules and regulations of an airport that its never occurred to me how an airport might function without that system in place. I’ve grown up in an environment where airports have been added to the seemingly ever growing list of places where danger is likely to occur. Driving to the airport back in the States, I asked my parents if there was a time you could walk your loved one to the gate even if you yourself weren’t boarding the plane. They told me that, once, that was possible. But, for as long as I’ve been traveling, I’ve only ever seen something like that in films. I have inherited a world where the airport is equated with susceptibility and risk. My family has never been allowed to walk me to a gate. At the Dubai airport, because of the length of my layover, I had to wait in the main concourse. When I went to walk through the metal detectors there were two airport employees just standing there and having a chat. I walked through the metal detector rolling my carry on behind me and not one of them blinked when the detector went off, they just waved me forward. The exact same thing occurred when I passed through the metal detectors at the end of my layover. No fuss, no worry. More for show than for anything else. I couldn’t shake how weird and out of place the experience felt. Then I realized what threw me for such a loop; they weren’t afraid. I can’t remember the last time, if I ever had one, where I didn’t sense a slight undercurrent of fear and suspicion at an airport. But this was a place in the world where that thought wasn’t of a great concern to them. It was strange to realize the fear that has become such an ingrained part of my nomadic experience. I often fear airports more than I fear countries themselves. Airports are the gate-locks one has to open to step on the path. Yet they are often a crucial part of the journey.
So there I am, in the middle of the airport, unsure that I have the mental or emotional capacity to make it past this gate and onto the next level of this trip. “I don’t belong here,” is the vicious mantra that begins to repeat itself in my mind. “I’m too inexperienced, I’m too unprepared, I’m too different.” I’m too different. Difference is going to be the battle of this adventure in a way its never been before.
I have never felt so acutely aware of my difference.Not even during my time in China. I have come to a place in the world where I am the odd man out. The fact that I am undergoing this journey alone only seems to accentuate this sensation of separateness.
This is the first time in all my travels I feel incredibly self conscious. It feels as if there is a right way to be and a wrong way to be, the only trouble is I don’t know which is which. As I walk up and down the concourse I feel like I have absolutely no idea how to behave. Do I make eye contact with people or will that be rude? Should I have worn more conservative clothes? Oh god I’ve passed by this same man 5 times-he’s going to think I’m just some stupid American girl lost in the desert. And then I realize that’s what’s making me so nervous. It’s my Americanness. Before I’ve even been informed I’ve made a mistake or done something wrong, I have already begun to assume and project onto the world around an innate attitude towards myself and my entire country. And that’s simply something I cannot continue to do. The mistakes and the triumphs of one’s nation do not define one’s self. I am an American but I am not America. I am my own entity and it is up to me, not my origins, to define my current experiences. If I get lost or I trip and make a fool of myself, it is not a great sociopolitical commentary on American culture, it is just a girl who happens to be very new to a place.
It seems that I have forgotten the most basic travel rule: Different doesn’t mean bad. As much as that ought to apply to one’s perception of another culture, it’s also something we should remember about ourselves. Just because in this environment I’m different, it doesn’t mean my difference is looked upon with anything more than curiosity and interest. Difference can be, and very often is, a positive thing.
I am not a hot weather person. I’m not fond of desert regions and I struggle to even embrace the dry heat of Southern California. I like my chill to mild temperatures and environments quite a bit. But I’ve never seen a desert that drew me in so much as the portion of the Arabian desert around the airport. I could only experience it via the windows of my plane and the concourse but I was fascinated by the way the environment enticed rather than pushed me away. The way the sand moves and shapes itself, the whole landscape seems to be alive. There’s something tempting about this desert, it’s as if, despite the fact that it looks to be an unsurvivable place, if you only know where to look, you can discover something quite magical.
I left Dubai in the wee hours of the morning, with night still swirling about the city. And as we flew over the desert once more, it shifted its shape once again as well. The landscape transformed into a softly billowing pool of black ink, the only indication of the desert’s daylight form was the warm golden haze of sand being kicked up by the wind, as it covered the lights and borders of the city.
It is the incredibly array of diversity wrought by our individual differences that make this world such a rich and wondrous place to explore. Dubai was only a brief moment in my journey but I believe it is an important moment that I will return to over and over again over the course of my stay in Bangladesh. I know that there will be times, probably many more to come, when I will doubt not only myself but the ability of the world around me to accept me as I am. But it can happen. It won’t always but there is always that potential. And that potential for acceptance and understanding is what makes you push through those moments of doubt and fear to find something far more worthwhile on the other side.
Onto Bangladesh I go.
(The sun begins to rise as I leave Dubai for Dhaka)
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