The Mumbai – Abu Dhabi flight was quite uneventful. As usual, it was delayed. When I am traveling, something has to get delayed. The young Indian girl sitting next to me didn’t seem interested in small talk and I was a bit sleepy as well. But the Abu Dhabi – Sao Paulo flight is turning out to be awesome. As soon as I take my seat, the guy next to me asks me ‘Hind?’ From his accent, I can tell that he is from somewhere in the Middle East. Who else in the world calls Indians ‘Hind’ anymore?
But what ensues is a comedy of errors at first and an exhilarating experience as time goes by. This guy barely speaks English. When I say ‘Yes’ to Hind, I ask him where he is from. He says ‘Filistine.’ Alright! That is interesting. How often do you sit next to a Palestinian guy in a flight? And we are gonna be together for 15 hours. But wait, what about the language barrier? He solves it for me in no time. Without even asking for it, he tells me that he is flying to Sao Paulo and then going to Santa Catarina…in Portuguese! As soon as he says ‘Agora, Sao Paulo.’ I feel a little better. I can talk to this guy in Spanish.
Having spent three-four months in Latin America now, I can fake a lot of things. And Spanish is one of them. So, I immediately ask him ‘Por que?’ When an Arabic guy who speaks broken Portuguese is talking to an Indian guy who speaks broken Spanish, it has to be beyond ridiculous, but a lot of fun as well. He points to his ring finger, and says something like ‘Aana…Santa Catarina.’ My interpretation of that is that his fiancée or wife is a Brazilian girl named Aana and he is going there to visit her. Even before saying anything in return, I am jealous of this guy having a Brazilian fiancée! And then, he volunteers some more information. By writing numbers with his hand on the seat-back screen, he tells me that Abu Dhabi to Sao Paulo is 15 hours (‘horas’ in Portuguese and Spanish) and Santa Catarina is 1:30 hours from Sao Paulo. With a flying action by his hand, he also tells me that because of FIFA, ‘no possible.’ So, with a hand gesture of driving a car, he says it would be six hours instead of one and a half hours to go from Sao Paulo to Santa Catarina.
It is a good segway for me to tell him that I am going to Brazil for FIFA. He immediately launches into ‘Sao Paulo, Curitiba, Salvador…’ I get his drift. I tell him ‘Solo Sao Paulo, Brasilia, Belo Horizonte y Rio.’ Silence!
I have rarely met Palestinian travelers and I am now curious to know whether he is half Brazilian or something like that. But how do I ask that complicated question? I try to ask him whether he is going to Brazil for the first time. ‘Primera ves a Brazil?’ I try to use my basic Spanish, hoping that it would sound something similar in Portuguese and he would get it. But it falls flat. I even use my index finger to ask whether it is his first time. But he says ‘No’ and draws 15 again on the screen to indicate that it is going to take 15 hours. Hmmm…so I change my tack and ask him ‘Antes…visitaste Brazil?’ I discover that ‘Antes’ (or before) translates well from Spanish to Portuguese. He immediately gets it and says ‘No, no. Brazil…’ and makes the same gesture I made, indicating that it is his first time. It is followed by laughter from both sides. If someone sitting behind us is listening, he is probably wondering what is so funny about it. But we are just enjoying the fact that we can communicate to each other in a bizarre, twisted way!
However, his answer deepens the mystery. If he has never been to Brazil, he perhaps has no Brazilian roots. Is his mom or dad Brazilian and moved to Palestine? Are they activist types? Those questions are way too complicated. But when I ask him where in Palestine he is from, he says ‘Ramallah.’ I guess he understands ‘where.’ He keeps dropping the word ‘Aana’ all the time, which makes me think that he really loves this Brazilian girl. Once again, he volunteers more information about himself. He starts describing what he does. He does the car gesture again and I ask him ‘Mechanic?’ He says ‘No.’ He makes a headphone gesture for sound, makes some more gestures that indicate speakers on the roof and on the window of the flight. He also mentions other electronic systems in the car. I get it. He handles car electronics. Good going. So, I ask him ‘Brazil visa?’ ‘Ahhhh…..’ he says immediately and pulls out his passport. He flips to the page on which he has the Brazilian visa and makes me read the lines that say that the Brazilian girl is his wife (‘esposa’ on his visa) and that is how he got the visa. It is so much easier to pull out passports to describe things.
I want to tell him that I have been to his part of the world. So, I pull out my passport and flip to the pages that have stamps for Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan and Israel. I also mention to him that I have been to Burj al Barajna, one of the earliest Palestinian refugee camps in the heart of Beirut that was set up in 1948. He responds with a long ‘Ahhhhh,’ but still points to the Israeli stamp and asks ‘Why?’ I tell him ‘Old Jerusalem. Al-Aqsa.’ He understands it right away.
But by pulling out my passport, I have dug myself a grave. He points to the main page of the passport and asks me again ‘Hind?’ He is wondering why I have a US passport if I am from India. Holy cow! How am I going to explain that to him? Luckily, he gives me a start. He asks me ‘Baba Amriki? Mother Amriki?’ Negative, but it’s good to know that he understands Baba and mama. In fact, it is strange that the Marathi language has borrowed the word ‘baba’ directly from Arabic! But let us not dwell on that. I try hard to explain to him that I was born in the US, but my parents are Indian. I fail…miserably. So, I pull out my cellphone, start drafting an email and write down that in 1979, baba and mama were in the US. And blah blah blah. He gets it right away.
And then, he asks me what I do. Can it get any worse? Getting the term ‘neuroscience’ across when both are speaking their third – or fourth – languages is like your worst nightmare coming true. I have now drifted so far away from neuroscience that I should probably choose a profession that is simpler to explain. But neuroscience is still the first thing that comes to my mind when someone asks me what I do.
With a series of hand gestures pointing to my head, I once again fail spectacularly to convey that I study the brain. Then I use the word ‘doctor’ and he gets it. I immediately tell him that it is one level lower. He asks ‘nurse?’ and I am not sure whether to laugh or cry. How the hell do I explain research? I say x-ray, MRI machine and he asks ‘Macina?’ I just nod. I do something related to brain machines. That is good enough. Then he starts telling me how his brother, who is 34 years of age, has had a head injury and is not doing well. I ask him how old he is and he says he is only 23. With a big gap between my hands, I ask him 34? 23? Grande! (Big gap). He gets it right away. He says that his dad has two wives and he has six brothers. In Islam, he tells me, they are allowed to have four. To pull his leg, I ask him ‘So, what about you? Brazil, Argentina, Colombia, Venezuela?’ And he laughs out loud. He starts with ‘Aana’ again, points to his ring and says ‘Mi amore. Wahid (or one in Arabic).’
I do the customary one to ten in Arabic that I learned while traveling and that makes him happy. He then points to the passport and says ‘US passport…good’ and tells me that with the Palestinian passport, he is only allowed to enter Jordania or Jordan. He also says that he is going to Brazil now to get a Brazilian passport. With that passport, he is free to go anywhere in the world! USA, France, Switzerland, Hindustan.
He tries to explain how he met the Brazilian girl. If I understand it right, she visited Palestine a few years ago through an NGO. They then kept in touch through email for 5 years. She then came back to marry him and, in a way, gave him his ticket to freedom!
I want to know a lot more about him, but I am also exhausted and need to catch up on sleep. Trying to have a conversation in your fourth language is a ‘brain drain.’ As I close my eyes, it makes me wonder: This guy is on a one-way, 15 hour journey to Brazil and won’t be back until he gets his Brazilian citizenship. I am on this long flight just to go see how countries I have nothing to do with play football, a game I am not particularly good at. Two journeys that are beyond ridiculous lead to a twisted, humorous conversation that is beyond ridiculous. But we manage to talk. We manage to satisfy that innate human urge to communicate. To exchange information!
Toward the end of our conversation, I realize that ‘Aana’ cannot be his wife’s name. He has been using it for things totally unrelated to her. It means something like ‘me’ or ‘mine’ in Arabic. That means that for most of the time that I was talking to him, I was making some assumptions about his wife that were also beyond ridiculous!
To top it all, I am writing this article sitting right next to him, confident that he cannot read a word of what I am writing. This, my friends, is life on the road!
For the football fans, here is another article on Rediff.com: