'Around the World' was the first out of the so far 10 travel projects. It was the journey that started it all.
Stay tuned for the next chapters.
Around the World
10. Ancient Scriptures
11. Sultan Ahmet
12. The Scars of Sarajevo
13. Let it Rain
We are a couple of thousands of feet above the ground. In awe, I witness an intimidating but beautiful thunderstorm, and I repeatedly wait for the next lightning to strike to briefly illuminate the dark sky, so I can catch a glimpse of the Himalaya Mountains. The turbulences are much heavier than I have ever experienced them before, and as I hear the voice of the pilot through the speakers, I already expect to hear some bad news. The clouds are obstructing his view, and due to the bad weather conditions we cannot land, he says, subsequently letting us know that there will be a delay. At least I can continue watching nature tell its dramatic story in the sky on this special night, the night in which I seek to return to my country of origin.
So far, in various destinations of this around the world trip I was confronted with different chapters of my past life, be it the night when I reunited with Chris and his mom in Alexandria who used to be my neighbours when I was seven years old, meeting my former band mate Daniel in Hollywood, who was part of our band when I was twenty years old, or seeing several of my relatives again in the United States, in Australia and in UAE, all of whom I had seen the last time in Pakistan, when I was eleven years old. However, nowhere will the feeling of nostalgia be stronger than in Pakistan.
Approximately half an hour passes until the pilot gives us an update. If the stormy weather won't allow us to land, he explains, we will run out of fuel. Therefore, we may have to land in Lahore first. Wherever we land, as long as we land, that would be great, I begin to think. At least he has not told us to say our final prayers. What a bad timing it would be to die, moments before reaching the most important destination of the biggest journey in my life. There are literally hundreds of relatives in Pakistan that I am looking forward to meet, many of which I haven't seen since 1996, and many of which I yet have to meet, be it in Lahore or in Islamabad, and no matter where this plane will land in the end, I will have relatives waiting for me. Nevertheless I hope to land in Islamabad, because my aunt and cousins are waiting for me at the airport. At least the storm seems to be over, I notice moments before the pilot makes one final announcement. We are about to land in Islamabad.
The days in China, which I had expected to be the most challenging ones on this around the world trip, are now behind me. Everything should be so much easier here, in the United Arabic Emirates. Not only am I back in the Islamic world and hence in a culture that is much more familiar to me, not only are there many fellow Pakistani people who live here, but this is again one of those destinations, where I have relatives waiting for me. Getting to my relatives' place should be easy, I conclude once I check the metro map, which is a big relief after trying to deal with an ultra complicated looking metro map of Beijing. Here, you only have one line, and I know exactly where to get off and where to go to find my cousin's place. All I need to do before entering the metro is to withdraw some money. Easy!
"Transaction failed" - What? Why? I insert the card again, try it a second time, and again it does not work. It is impossible that I spent all my money. The guys who work here do not seem really enthusiastic about helping me with my problem, and don't even seem to know what to do about it, so apparently I have to figure this out by myself. The maestro card that I use has worked in every country so far, no problems in the US, in Australia, Malaysia and not even in China. So, why is it not working here in Dubai? I look at the card, and I am shaking my head thinking about the fact that my entire trip around the world depends on a small, red-coloured piece of plastic with a chip.
"I'm sorry, do you speak English?". It must be the tenth time that I ask a local passerby this question, with the same result: Nobody understands me. All the confidence that has been growing, especially after the last few days in Malaysia, when I was all by myself, is now gone. Even the people who work at the Beijing Capital Airport did not understand me, but at least in airports you usually find other foreigners who speak English, like that Canadian couple that helped me to get to a station called Xidan. From there, the couple had to go another direction. "Yes, I will be fine from here", I said, not wanting to disturb them. And now here I am, by myself, lost somewhere in China's capital, in the midst of the journey of my life, where I am supposed to find myself, and I cannot even find a damn hostel!
Although Asian blood is running through my veins and I have been to the Islamic World before when I was a kid, as a man who was born and grew up in the West, I do expect to experience a little bit of a cultural shock in the upcoming destination. There is another reason why I am excited, because in the third country on the third continent of this journey it is the first time that I am all by myself, no relatives who are waiting for me at the airport, and no friends who conveniently drive me around to show me the best spots. The adventures in Asia begin in Malaysia.
Upon my arrival I understand very quickly, just why Kuala Lumpur's airport has been called the best airport in the world so many times. It's clean, modern, convenient and even gives you a small taste of Malaysia's natural assets in form of an artificial Jungle that has been prepared in the main hall. The airport seems professional enough to me to leave my luggage here until I return for the next flight, since I will only stay here for a short time.
The KLIA Express that takes me to the city center also leaves a good impression on me, being fast, comfortable and reliable. From a distance I see the two huge, illuminated towers that I have seen on pictures in the last couple of months while anticipating the beginning of my journey. Since this is only the second time that I see huge twin towers in my life, it reminds me of the World Trade Center. But, of course, even in the dark and from a distance I can see the most obvious differences, most notably the pinnacle design as well as a bridge that connects the two towers.
On sunday, the night after partying excessively in Hollywood's Whisky a Go Go and other clubs, I prepare for the next flight, the longest flight of them all, taking me to the second country of the around-the-world trip. Between Melbourne and Los Angeles there is a time difference of 17 hours, and the duration of the flight is sixteen hours, which is why I arrive only two days later and feel like the 12th of April, 2010 never really existed in my life, as if I just travelled to the future. At the airport of Australia's cultural capital I meet my cousin, whom - much like all my relatives in Pakistan - I haven't seen for 14 years. She introduces me to her husband Saleem and their children. We get to know each other better once we reach their apartment. Too jet-lagged and excited to fall asleep, I soon decide to explore Melbourne.
April, 2010 - A new day begins. Finally I have had some sleep. As I check what time it is, I realize that I need to hurry up, because there are still some places I want to explore here in Hollywood before meeting Daniel, an friend whom I haven't seen for years. As I change my clothes, something falls out of my pocket. It is a black guitar pick with a Scorpio sign on it. My fellow guitar player Sebastian gave it to me the last time when we met in Germany. The pick reminds me of what a special day today is. It is quite ironical that today I will meet the man who used to be the drummer of my band "Love Turns Hate", the very same band that will play in the Batschkapp tonight, one of the most famous concert halls of Germany's Rhein-Main region, the arena where we used to witness several of our favourite bands performing live, when we were younger and didn't even know how to compose songs or how to play any instrument. This concert tonight is not just any concert. Tonight is the night that will decide everything for the band, it is the most important concert in our band's history, and it feels so weird thinking about the band playing this concert without me.
A shuttle bus takes me to the LAX metro station, where I enter the green line to get off in Willowbrook. In order to reach Hollywood, I need to take the blue line next. But in which direction? I forgot. Long Beach? For a moment it makes sense to me. But once I enter the train and the doors close, I remember that Hollywood is in the opposite direction. Well, that's what happens when you haven't slept properly for over thirty hours. No problem. That's not a big deal. I can simply get off the next station. Hopefully the train to the other direction is still running. As the train begins to slow down, I look out of the window, trying to spot some signs on the dark streets. Okay, this is definitely not Hollywood. Where the hell am I? The train stops, and it seems like I am the only person that gets off this station. Exhausted I drop my luggage on the ground, where I spot a dark millipede. In front of me I see the sign of the station, and shake my head in disbelief.
In a calm and peaceful neighbourhood in Springfield, I am sitting with my uncle and my aunt, who drove me from New York to their place. It doesn't take long until other relatives of mine who live here join us. Among them are two of my cousins, Billu and Ali, the latter being my partner in crime when we were kids and tried to implement a rescue operation to save a sheep’s life, something I will elaborate on if I make it to Pakistan. Tonight, we decide, Ali and I will spend the night at Billu’s place. "As I hear Billu uttering the word ‘Alexandria’, I begin to smile, because he lives exactly in the city where I need to be. One of my biggest personal missions on this world trip is about to begin. The people that I hope to meet in Alexandria are my former neighbours, my best friend in my early childhood and his mother. The last time I saw them was in 1993.
What a stupid idea it was to go back to the bar, I think on my way to the Frankfurt International Airport the next morning. Luckily, I manage to reach the airport on time, only hoping that there is nothing important that I forgot at home. With tremendous excitement I head to the check-in counter. But even before I can get the first boarding card of the around-the-world trip, a man in a suit walks over to me and begins to ask several questions. Since the terrorist attacks in the United States on September 11th, 2001, I kept hearing about so many incidents where passengers who have a Muslim background, especially those who originate from Afghanistan and Pakistan, were interrogated more frequently, and sometimes even denied boarding. A little bit nervously I begin to answer the man's questions, hoping that he won't believe that I have any reason to be nervous other than being denied boarding before my my around-the-world trip even starts. His questions are straightforward but friendly, from time to time repetitive, apparently just one of several verbal interrogation techniques to see if there are any contradictions in my words. Concomitantly he is analyzing my facial expression, until he concludes that I have nothing to hide.
Inside the airplane, before departure, I decide to read some of the Quranic verses in the book that my brother gave me. In this moment I recall some recent news over a Muslim passenger, who got into some troubles inside of an airplane because another passenger was scared of the Arabic signs of a book that he was reading. Especially in recent years, a one-sided media depiction on Islam has largely caused fear and in certain situations even paranoia among a significant amount of people who live in the West, generating arbitrary connotations that lead to a strong misperception. It has therefore become an unfortunate reality that many common aspects of everyday life in the Muslim world, be it their clothes, general appearance or the words they say, are among many people in the West predominantly perceived in the media context of radicalism in the Islamic world only. This reminds me of one of my German friends, who - while sitting inside a metro with me - confessed to me: "I get scared when I see them", referring to an older Muslim man sitting near us, traditionally dressed, having a long beard. At least she was not as scared as the old German man in a hospital, who shared the room with the father of one my close friends. One day, my brother and I came to visit him. He had recently suffered a heart attack. "How are you feeling now?", we asked him, and the father of my friend said "Allah hu Akbar, Allah hu Akbar", or "God is greater", a phrase that is prevalent in the Muslim community, used for instance as an expression of gratitude. In the Western world, however, these days, this phrase is by many people only known from the news on TV in moments when terrorists are about to blow themselves and other humans up, which is why the German man lying next to the friend of my father who repeatedly uttered the words "Allah hu Akbar" suddenly looked as if he was about to suffer a heart attack. We really live in weird times.
The closer we get to our destination, the more my thoughts begin to revolve around the first time in New York, and I also recall my first flight itself. Next to me sat a friendly New Yorker local in a suit called Michael, who kept chatting with me, at that time a little kid that couldn't hide his excitement visiting the city he had dreamed of visiting for years. When I arrived at the airport, I was received with smiles from the officials. However, I am not a 14-year-old kid anymore, and certain things have changed, I am being reminded again shortly after reaching the JFK Airport. An official looks at my unusual booking confirmation, then he looks at me, then he looks at the booking confirmation again. Two minutes later I sit in the police office to answer further questions. At least it didn't take too long and I was interrogated in a respectful and professional manner. So far, so good. Moments later, I meet my uncle at the Arrival hall. As we look for a taxi, I notice that nearly every taxi driver is Indian or Pakistani, which is so unlike the perception that I had watching Hollywood movies. “You are lucky. It’s been raining the last days. But now it has stopped.”, my uncle says while we head to Astoria. On my first day, after meeting my cousin and her daughter at my uncle’s place as well, I get ready to go explore the Big Apple.
It is the night before everything will change. While I am waiting for my order in a Polish bar in Offenbach, a German city fifteen kilometers away from Frankfurt, I think about the questions that I have been asking myself since January 2009: “How far would you go? How far would you go for love? How far would you go to live, not just to live, but to really feel alive? And how far would you go to finally overcome this forever seeming, depressing chapter of your life?’.
On the surface, in early 2009 life seemed to be great. I was getting closer and closer to the goal that I once thought was unachievable for me, to graduate from the Goethe University in Frankfurt. Moreover, at the market research institute where I was working, I was offered a higher position to monitor and to coach other interviewers. And my family seemed glad to see the progress in my life after all the troubles that I had gotten myself into in the previous years. It seemed like I had once and for all left behind my sometimes rather self-destructive lifestyle that had been developing since my adolescent years. It only seemed like that.
Not only was the unbearable routine and the uncertainty in terms of future perspectives still a source of tension for me. As all of us have felt at some point in our lives, deep inside I was dealing with a rollercoaster ride of emotions, and that rollercoaster was driving me insane, driving so uncontrollably that it was about to derail, as the screws continued getting loose. And the driving force of that rollercoaster was love.