Travelogue: Status: Unknowable

By R. Benedito Ferrão

“And how do you say your name?”

I am prepared for this question. “Feh-AO,” I over-enunciate with great geniality. The official attempts to mimic the sound I’ve just made. “Fer-OH?”

My name provides the finest bait-and-switch. In this moment, I am secretly grateful to the Portuguese for happening upon my people’s shores some five hundred years ago and bestowing upon us their multi-syllabic monikers. (Never mind that de Albuquerque himself likely had the Moors to thank for his Arabic-sounding name and that he dethroned the Muslim king of our coast.) And they say colonialism gave us nothing!

“Don’t worry,” I commiserate. “I don’t think I say it quite right myself.” He smiles and waves me through.

Self-deprecation is a lost art. I sail through the checkpoint, name mangled, but passport restored.

I always check in online the day before the flight. Even if it’s a domestic flight, I still take my American passport with me – all other forms of governmental identification are too whimsical for these endeavours. I must always resist the urge, nonetheless, to place said passport in a frame of gold that I would hold up like a monstrance on the Highest of High Holy days. The car service has been ordered to arrive a full fifteen minutes before I actually have to leave my home to get to the airport a full two hours before the time at which I’d have to board the flight (which is a full half-hour before the flight is actually scheduled to depart).

That same night, I will have packed all the things I will take on my trip in clear re-sealable bags. On Monday, I will have gone to the supermarket to replenish my store of these containment apparatus. I need them in small, medium, large, and pillow-case. Don’t worry – I recycle. I reuse the bags as often as I can. I always take the same things and so I’ve learned to pack efficiently. At first, I place all the items that are to be sequestered upon the bed in a grid by degree of size. The socks can go into the smallest size bags if I fold them just right. The underwear in the medium. The shirts are stacked in pairs and fit neatly into the larger bags. The trousers will have to go into the largest. When these bags are close to disintegration, I will use them to hold the snacks I take to work. And when they truly cannot be used anymore, I’ll place them in the blue recycling bin.

                                                                   A deconstruction of R. Benedito Ferrao's packed suitcase.

                                                                   A deconstruction of R. Benedito Ferrao's packed suitcase.

I know the TSA agent who will check my suitcase would appreciate my efforts to reduce, reuse, and renew, were I able to let him know how Earth-conscious I am. I don’t want him to worry about the multitudinous amounts of plastic he will see when he opens my suitcase. He will kindly let me know that he has randomly checked my luggage, by placing an advisory note lovingly on top of all these see-through packages. He will appreciate that I’ve made his job so much easier by letting him survey at one glance all that my valise holds, and that there is nothing suspicious about my possessions, even if he thinks that the person who has organized and contained these items must seek help for their neurosis. I shall add the informative note he will leave me about how these luggage checks are about my safety to the pile I have collected at home. They remind me of how secure I should feel after the completely routine and random check of my zip-locked underwear.

Also on Monday, I will have acquired new razor blades from the store. I need this to complete my pre-travel toilette. On the night preceding my departure, I will scan YouTube for the latest advice on how to shave so closely that my face will take on its once pre-pubescent mien. This is a challenge, you see, given that every pore on my face sprouts four hairs from each root. Warm wet towels, shave cream, brushes, razors, balms, aftershaves, and unguents will be laid out on my vanity alongside my laptop. From this gadget, the media star I have chosen to counsel me on the occasion will expertly deliver step-by-step instructions on how to relieve myself of the hirsuteness of my face. But, just to be certain, I’ll also shave against the grain. In the morning, I’ll wake up an extra half hour before I normally would to repeat the process. The shaving industry loves my facially hairy race, no doubt. But let it be known that they, too, are doing their bit for national security with the inability of their razor blades to last beyond a few uses.

As an added precaution, I trim my eyebrows. They have betrayed me at the best of times, adding punctuation to my unvoiced thoughts on an otherwise expressionless (and hairless face). It’s like they function independently of all my other facial features, operating heedlessly to reveal my otherwise so well repressed feelings. These damned arches will rise higher than Greek pillars of yore, and rival the sweep of the Arc de Triomphe. One simply cannot have this. Taming these shrewish brows will ensure some measure of control over their wantonness when my travel documents are requested and carefully pored over as if they are written in a language so long dead, it would take a doctorate-holding scholar to decipher their authenticity. But as I tell myself (and my querulous eye-framing pelts), this is indubitably in the service of making everyone’s experience at the airport (and the nation at large) just that little bit better. Down, eyebrows, down!

At the gate, as I count down the time to my flight, I shall pull out the book that I always carry with me when I fly. Its title is innocuous, its cover non-descript, its content never actually consumed. The book is just a prop – it might as well be part of the carefully curated costume I always wear when flying. Let’s start with my shoes. Non-marking soles, dark uppers, no metal parts. My slacks, also dark, comfortable, but most importantly button-flied. This is a necessary detail. Getting in and out of airplane bathrooms rapidly helps keep one’s bodily functions from being misconstrued for other activities. For this reason, I will also not have consumed any liquids up to three hours prior to my flight. And certainly no diuretics. Coffee, tea, and alcohol will not know my insides for several hours. I absolutely appreciate that the cabin pressure and unusually cold air in the aircraft will drain any remaining moisture from my skin, so that upon arrival I shall bear the appearance of an unbandaged mummy. The premature aging this will result in is unfortunate, but the dehydration is tantamount to one less visit to the cloistered space of the bathroom in the sky. Indeed, those obscuring doors, that fold like origami to conceal one’s whereabouts for a few minutes are evidently cause for concern. It is best to limit one’s forays into these alcoves’ mysterious depths.

But I digress. My travel trousers have never known the constriction of a belt. The metal buckles of such bondage devices are tricksters waiting to set off the scanners. It is true that I am often to be seen shimmying in airports as I try to pull my trousers back upon my buttocks. For this reason, I stay seated for as long as one can before the boarding process ensues.

Upon my torso will be seen no letters or patterns, for my t-shirt and its encasing jacket will be devoid of any such visual encumbrance. I don’t want anyone to be of the impression that Nike might be the holy deity to which I profess my devotion and loyalty to such an unfettered extent that I would be willing to lay down my life for them.

This tried and tested ensemble is as practical as it is elegant while being, at the same time, completely inconspicuous. That I look like someone from an Old Navy commercial, circa 2003, 1999, and 2017, is a compliment I will take for my sartorial ability to be the very definition of a yawn-inducing surburbanite.

Occasionally, a fellow-passenger will attempt to engage me in conversation as we both await entry into the hallowed space of the metal bird. I am prepared. “You on this flight?” they’ll ask. I’ll look up from the book I am not reading, push back the glasses I do not need to read (but such a useful travel prop, I must say!), and smile. “Uh huh!” In those two syllables I will have successfully made known my friendliness, while also politely demonstrating that my communication skills are those of someone more given to rumination that utterance. The spectacles work well, too, to affect just that slight bit of nerdiness which everyone knows to be a sure sign of lovably excusable social ineptitude. 

“Flight’s late again!” someone else will proclaim within earshot and obviously with the intention of bringing me into a collective rant about the general nature of air travel today and how it no longer bears the charms and glamour of the golden era when one dressed up in their Sunday best to travel and were served martinis while discussing how the good ol’ boys were doing in the playoffs. In response, I will let my eye catch theirs for the briefest of seconds, sigh, shoulders raised and lowered just so, smile, and then go back to not reading my book. I love being a friendly part of the community at the airport.

It is now that moment we have all been waiting for. We are about to board the flight. The bag I carry is the perfect size so that – you guessed it! – I can occupy my seat quickly after having stowed my luggage efficaciously and without incident. But then, alas! Disaster strikes. “Ladies and gentlemen,” the flight attendant’s garbled voice says over the PA. “I must ask you to deplane.”

For this I am not prepared.

As I retrieve my bag and share unplanned eye contact with the other passengers who slowly make their way to the exit, I feel the sweat seep through my t-shirt, creating a pattern around my speedily beating heart and spelling out tell-tale words across my heaving chest. My trousers start a mutinous descent down my flanks. My decoy book looks even to me like a manual for mayhem. My heretofore empty bladder threatens to betray me at any moment, its contents brimming alarmingly.

Back at the holding pen after we make our egress, I feel the itch of someone staring at me. I pretend to pay rapt attention to the airline staff who are about to make an announcement. “We’re really sorry, folks. We’ll have you back on the plane momentarily. Slight maintenance issue – one of the toilets needed to be unclogged.”

Don’t look at me, dude. I didn’t need to go to the bathroom until just now!

We are allowed back onto the plane. I take my seat by the window and anticipate the arrival of the person who will make the journey alongside me. When they show up, I am given not more than a look and am said nothing to, which suits me just fine. My practiced smile turns up the corners of my lips for a millisecond and I return to the ardent non-study of the tome in my hands. Only a few hours before this journey is done. It’s so close at this point that I can taste it!

Closely shaven to within tasting distance of my circulatory system, properly packed with methods to unimpede security’s optics, meticulously dehydrated to the point of being shrivelled up into a raisin, what I want more than anything is to have a drink. But I cannot afford such a luxury while the mission still remains unfulfilled! Exhaustion looms, but I am wired. I look like I am devouring every last letter in this well-thumbed book…

Not until I am off the plane, have retrieved my suitcase (I cannot wait to read the love-letter the TSA have left me this time), and departed the sanctum of the airport that I allow myself the pleasure of declaring victory. I have made it through without raising suspicion of my birth in the Middle East!

But I cannot let this triumph soften me. I must begin plotting for my return in a few days hence. Do I have enough re-sealable bags?


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R. Benedito Ferrão is a writer and academic who has lived and worked in Kuwait, India, the United States, England and Australia. He currently teaches English and Asian & Pacific Islander American Studies at the College of William and Mary in Virginia, USA. An internationally published writer of fiction, non-fiction, op-eds and academic essays, his work appears in Outlook India, Media Diversified, India Currents, Minza, AwaaZ and The Goan, among other publications. He is a member of Goa's Al-Zulaij Collective, with whom he will be curating an exhibition of the works of artist Vamona Navelcar at year's end. To read more of Ferrão's writing, visit thenightchild.blogspot.com, or @nightchildnexus on Facebook.