I arrived at my destination (name undisclosed) by transport plane disguised as a commercial airline, feeling like a colorful Belgian mercenary about to set himself up as dictator of a puppet nation. All the other passengers, wolfing down the gourmet airplane food (Salisbury steak) and stuffing little bottles called aperitifs (alcohol) in their carry-ons, had been whooping it up as if this would be their last flight on earth. Instead of being afraid and sporadically vomiting, they blew up the paper bags and popped them, kept joking to their more fragile seatmates, “We’re going to crash!” and changed the words to “Auld Lang Syne.”
Even the pilot came out, glass extended, to apologize sheepishly for the turbulence and praise the quality of the passengers’ duty-free Veuve-Cliquot. From the amount of illegal cigar smoke in the air, imitations of big-wiggers (“Buy, Sell, Buy, Sell! Edwards, you’re fired!), and the head-thrown-back-in-laughter, ceremonial ripping up of the official entry forms (yellow), one would have thought that the No Smoking laws on long-haul flights was a made-up story.
The only problem with the New Year's vacation we would be taking was that our destination was smack dab in the middle of a war zone! What separated me from my fellow passengers was that they had paid for a cheap package holiday, everything included, while I was being remunerated handsomely (umpteen millions in the local currency of a small faraway nation) to let people pretend I was some kind of journalist – meet the friendly people, explore endless beaches, imperfectly point out the flora and fauna, try restaurants serving food I’d never heard of before, haggle in the marketplace to buy trinkets and call them “art", and just kick back and ignore all the bombs going off around me.
It didn’t hurt that I had the same name as a presidential candidate and large armies protecting me; UN connections and friends who were rock stars and bestselling writers; financial, business and political clout; reputed to be an all-around nice guy. Out of the airport and jogging energetically to the taxi stand, I bought a pack of cigarettes with a lighter, for a Franklin, and shot into the city center with a ludicrously tan driver who hadn’t yet mastered the international lingua franca, which, I’m afraid, isn’t “Esperanto”, but is indeed the tongue of Shakespeare’s “Sceptr’d Isle".
At a restaurant stall, I pointed, like a character out of Things To Come, at an unfamiliar food item, and reached my hand out a mile towards my pocket to indicate I would pay for it. The chef, overjoyed at the prospect of actually being paid, busily set to work. I watched in fascination as he cooked the otherworldly item, covered it in a strange grassy substance called relish (pickled cabbage) and ketchup (tomato paste), and as the coup de grace, delivered it inside some bread-like substance he called a “bun". This was too good to be true: what this exotic offering was called: “Hot Dog".
Apparently, in this unstable, absurdly greedy country, mankind’s best friend was both a form of companion, as well as the perfect alternative to a light snack. Ignoring the unexploded land mines scattered all over the street – “Don’t worry, they won’t go off,” – I was briefed by my advisors, who informed me these scattered coins of the sky gods were called “manhole covers”. I decided to try “public transport” (if you can call a train, bus, cab, boat, or metro Transportation!), to flee this archaically quaint jumble of skyscrapers for the countryside, reputed to be out of this world.
So disillusioned by how dangerously beautiful my fake assignment was turning out to be (I had been hired as a “stringer” for a magazine, without knowing what that means), I thought I would have to travel overland to reach the right consulate to Medevac me out.
Surprisingly, while I was negotiating over the price of the ticket, the brown-haired woman startled me by saying, “That’s the price listed on the sign".
“Where I come from that price would equal the yearly salary of one of my domestic servants,” I declaimed, standing stock still and pointing a finger, as if to say, “J’accuse!”
This seemed to amuse the woman. “Where are you from? I thought by the way you look, your clothing, your accent, that you were from somewhere around here!”
“What, do you think that’s funny?” I said, eyes supernovas, pulling out my Platinum Card.
“Can I see your license, please?”
I checked furiously behind the feminine leather flap of my exotic alligator-skin wallet, looking for additional identification, and realized the nightmare was starting all over again.
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