Jul/Aug 2011 Travel

Blue Hour

by Seth Siegel

Photo by Mike L. James

Photo by Mike L. James

When the police flee and the military has taken over, there is free parking. The taxi driver parks his car on the curb and walks ahead of us into the airport. He says that revolution in the streets will bring a change. I press him in my terrible French, good change or bad change? He nods and says yes, a change. He was told by the hotelier to ensure we get on an Air France flight today or tomorrow. But I know there will be no flights, so I prepare for another night in Houmt Souk, more broken windows, burning tires, curfews, and men holding baguettes angrily. At the Air France desk, which is a desk, a man with a mustache speaks to the taxi driver. He says no, there are no flights and that we should wait. I observe that the Air France Desk is also the Air Tunisian Desk. The taxi driver turns to us and tells us we should wait. Air France is closed. No flights in or out. Has been closed for days. Sit and wait. I see the taxi driver's stooped back as he leaves.

I leave Alicia next to a smudged granite column, reading The Corrections while I investigate the environs. I walk. There aren't as many people as I thought there would be in this time of complete political upheaval. There is a television screen above the check-in counter implausibly boasting Geneva. For fun, I ask the mustache if there are any flights for Switzerland. He says yes, for 500 Dinar, as the credit card machine is broken. I ask my wife, Geneva? And she dog-ears a page and says yes, Geneva.

An Australian with shorts and boots is running to ATMs behind us. It's hard to run with backpacks, awkward. One ATM is broken and two are out of money. The last one at the end of the terminal looks promising. A couple is at the machine already speaking something Eastern European. They can sense our stress behind them, envious of their Dinars. It works, they tell us in English. Alicia and I are a team, and while she is taking out money with our respective cards, I'm exchanging our remaining $91 dollars to Dinars. The man behind the glass gets up to staple something, wasting valuable time. We're yelling back and forth how much money we're pushing into our pockets. We're losing count, but we know we don't have enough for the tickets. 500 Dinars is 300-something dollars. When she's maxed out both our cards and I've got the money and the receipt, we run back to the Air Tunisia desk. We're ahead of the Australian still, but I can see him running toward us with his backpack bobbing above his head with every step.

The man with the mustache asks us if it goes well, and I tell him it does. We give him our passports, and we give him the Dinars we've just made with rectangles of plastic. Two one-ways to Geneva, please. As we're counting the money and giving it to the mustache, bills are falling on the ground, and when we pick them up, we lose count. I start to just hand him the bills without counting. Bills that have been ripped and taped together, bills that are not allowed to leave the country in times of crisis. Sweaty bills that don't care.

Alicia is counting bills into hundred Dinar stacks. The one with the satellite is ten and the one with a Carthaginian ruin is twenty. My BART card is falling out of my pocket, as are balled up receipts and pennies. The mustache is counting, and I trust him since I have no choice. The check-in counter is empty. The televisions are off. Everyone is gone. The flight is gone.

I know we're missing Dinars. We will be spending the night where we are standing. I will wonder if the water in the restroom faucet water is potable. We will go to sleep without lunch or dinner. The Aussie is counting bills, too, and his English is disturbingly close and comforting at the same time.

I ask a man who looks like he speaks English since he has a Quaker beard if he has any spare Dinars. He is leaning against the desk speaking to someone at Air Tunisia, and I ask him again after he's ignored me. I'm about to touch his shoulder because nothing is inappropriate when one is trying to flee a country, when he slams down a singe Dinar coin on the counter. I slide it off the desk and put it in my pocket.

People surround us, agitated like disturbed ants, speaking German, Arabic, English, French, and Dutch. Everyone is speaking extremely fast and everyone is speaking because there is no time. I am looking at the head of the mustache. The mustache is all that matters, and I concentrate on his thick eyebrows.

The mustache is suddenly printing out the receipt we are supposed to take to the check-in counter. I look over at the counter, but there is still no one. I am sure the flight has gone. No one has announced anything on the PA, but I wouldn't understand anything if they had. A woman is yelling at the mustache and yelling into a cell phone in German, and I hate her.

But our receipt is in my hand, and it has Alicia's name on it, and we're running to the check-in counter. Somehow the Australian is there at the same time. Every plane will be gone, and we'll be on this desert island for another night. My wife will hate me even more. We'll have poop-smelling couscous for dinner.

But I need to keep up appearances. My wife, the mustache, me, the Aussie, the German, and all the others need me to keep my forward motion to attempt to get out. This is what I have. This is all there is. I can't hear the Aussie talking about how he has a Wiki-leaks shirt.

There is a problem, I understand the baroness at the check-in counter to say. But we all have receipts. We have receipts that have our first and last names printed on cheap paper in DOS font. The woman behind the desk tells us that there is still a problem. Only two seats. But we and the Australian make three seats. No, two seats. We have receipts that have our names, and there are three names on two receipts. No, two seats. I'll fight her for more minutes we don't have, because the plane has left and I want a fight. Someone should be able to sit in the cockpit with headphones or in the lavatory or lay down in the aisle. The baroness hates our frantic scent and that we are frantic about leaving her home. The Aussie tells us to take the two seats, and I love him.

We run down the terminal and up the broken escalator. There are more white people now. They sit on luggage, smoke cigarettes, and hold souvenirs. They have bands on their wrists from resort hotels. They wear shorts and Capri pants. Their shoes show no identifiable brand. There are no police, and our tickets will not be refunded when we discover the plane has left. We have over drafted the limit on our ATM cards. I'm running, and things are falling out of my pocket, but I hold my passport.

At customs they're discussing our passports behind thick glass. Tourists from America are not normal, and they're discussing our documents while the plane to Geneva is leaving. In line behind us, an Arab man with Einstein hair and a pear-shaped white lady look on, unhurried and overall perfect.

The people behind the glass are speaking, and I use my Jedi mind tricks. Let us leave. Let us leave even though our perspiration smells like Cup o' Noodles. Let Alicia and I go. Now.

I look over to ask my wife if she is alright. She wants to cry and vomit and diarrhea. I want to die so I will have an excuse to stop trying.

The people behind the thick glass ask for their supervisor's assistance. The supervisor has stripes on his coat, and I am scared that I have done something illegal and will be discovered. Stripes man motions for them to stamp the damn passports. As we walk through metal detectors fully clothed, stripes asks us if we have any money from his country. From my pocket I put a handful of silver coins in his hand and tell him long live the revolution. Long live Tunisia, long live the revolution, and he says, Truly.

We get to the one gate with people, and Europeans turn to look at us. A man with a Panama hat nods when I ask him, Geneva? Alicia and I don't have seats together. Actually our seats can't be further apart, but all we can do is smile. I drink what remains of my bottled water, and I taste desert grit on my molars with relish. The man next to me is grandpa old, and he has a ring on his thumb.

The door is sealed. I've heard it because I was waiting for it. I close my eyes, but I can't sleep, and I don't know where we'll go in three hours, but it does not matter.


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