I had an interesting discussion with Hasan, one of Kamran’s housemates. He is a skinny fellow who wears low-hanging, fitted jeans, greasy spiked hair, and a days old stubble. He works part time as a salesman for British Gas. Apparently his style of dress and living is very much the standard in East London. He adopted it soon after moving here from Pakistan, much to the chagrine of his cousin in West London. It comes with a care-free attitude and seems to pose a limit on bathing as well. In between his chain-smoking, Hasan related an incident when he had met the British-Indian girlfriend of a friend in West London. After sizing him up — camouflage pants, “I’m a Suicide Bomber” T-shirt, black & white checkered scarf, and generally disheveled look — she turned up her nose and asked with scorn, “Are you a fuckin’ East Londoner mela?” Mela as in dirty one. To my bemusement, I’ve noticed a similar reaction when I’ve told people here that I’m staying in East London.
My arrival in London, thankfully, was not as eventful as I had dreaded it would be. I arrived at Heathrow Airport on the morning of Friday the 13th and contrary to what one might have expected given the unlucky date, I had no problems whatsoever in immigration. In fact, I had forgotten to take down my cousin’s address where I planned to stay, so I didn’t know it to include it on the landing card. Fortunately, I sat next to a backpacker on my flight, and I took his youth hostel’s address from him and wrote that in instead. Even still, I didn’t raise any suspicion.
Kamran, my cousin, just moved to London about nine months ago. He is studying at the East London University. He resides in East Ham in East London. He shares an apartment with six or seven other guys, all students from Pakistan. The guys turned out to be a friendly bunch, and we had some interesting conversations.
London has an impressive public transportation network, comprised mainly of the Underground or Tube as they refer to it (subway, as we Americans call it) and buses. It is a sophisticated, highly developed system. Given the cost and energy required to maintain our own MTA network in New York, I can only imagine the generous taxpayer support it must require to manage this behemoth.
As impressive as its transportation network, what’s most striking about London is CCTV – Closed Circuit TV. There are cameras everywhere! They protrude from street corners, jut from ceilings, and peek from behind pillars. There were cameras even in a Starbucks on Oxford Street. It’s a weird feeling, knowing that you’re under observation at all times. That camera hanging so unassumingly from the ceiling, is it focused on me right now? Zooming in perhaps to get a closer look at my face? Catching me pluck my nose hair or pull out wedged underwear? I’m reminded of the Orwellian “Big Brother” — ever-alert, omnipresent, and presumably benevolent. I’ve often wondered in America how we get people to obey laws. Is it simply because everyone agrees to them and fully understands the mutual benefit derived from adhering to the law? It seems hardly likely. I think it’s more likely due to the threat of an enforcer, of the cop waiting to pull you over if you run the red light on a deserted road. Then again, there might be no cop, and you can take the risk of running the light. In London, however, the enforcer is always watching. And if Mayor Bloomberg gets his way, we will see a similar network of cameras crop up in lower Manhattan as well. Does the government have the right to monitor public space in such a manner?
One month shy of my 26th birthday I have left New York to backpack through Western Europe, Turkey, and India for the next two to three months. I intend to end up in Pakistan where I’m not sure yet how long I will stay.
What made me take this seemingly abrupt and dramatic step? I resigned from Pepsi, sold most of my belongings, and moved out of my beautiful apartment on City Island. I have no job for when and if I return to the US, and I am eating into my paltry savings. I believe the key driver of my decision was the mere fact that I can. I can take off to travel the world because I have very little to tie me down or to hold me back. I can afford to leave my job because it’s still very early in my career. I can rely on my savings to hold up because I need very little to survive right now. I can traverse through Europe because I carry an American passport, which means I don’t need a visa for any of the European countries I plan to visit. I can, therefore, I am.
For the first time in my life I have taken a major step without knowing what the next step will be. Where will I end up after my trip? What will I do? This is not like school where each year is a step towards the next and the next until high school ends and soon comes graduation from college. Then you join the work force, get married, have kids, rinse, then repeat. This time for your own kids. But I find myself running astray, off this beaten path, and as scary as it is, it’s also thrilling.
My timing, however, could have been better, at least in regards to current world affairs. This is a very tumultuous time. The American-led “War on Terror” rages on. Al-Qaeda persists as a dangerous enemy, ever-evolving new, deadly tactics to fight back. Just recently, there was an attempted dual car bomb attack in London, followed by an attack at Glasgow Airport. Many of the apprehended suspects are Pakistani men (or of Pakistani origin) between the ages of 17 and 35. In Pakistan, radical Muslim clerics have declared jihad on President Musharraf and his government due to the recent skirmish at the Red Mosque in Islamabad. All this has grave implications for me. As a 25-year-old Muslim male of Pakistani origin, I can’t help but feel like a prime suspect for counterterrorist operations around the world, especially in London, my first destination. To exacerbate matters, I am traveling on a one-way ticket. I expect the immigration officers at Heathrow Airport in London will wonder how – if ever – I intend to return home to the US. It gives them more reason to suspect my intentions. On the other hand, I am just as much a target of any potential terror attacks as any non-Muslim. Terrorists kill indiscriminately, and a part of me does fear that I could find myself at the wrong place at the worst time. I feel like I’m caught between the two sides, smack-dab in the middle of the crossfire.
The fear, however, has not succeeded in quelling my excitement. I am looking forward to seeing the world (or a bit of it, at least). My current planned itinerary is as follows:
London, England – July 13 to July 17
Paris, France – July 18 to July 20
Brugge, Belgium – July 21 to July 22
Geneva, Switzerland – July 25 to July 27
Barcelona, Spain – July 29 to August 2
Madrid, Spain – August 3 to August 5
Granada, Spain – August 6 to August 8
Malaga, Spain – August 9 to August 11
Venice, Italy – August 12 to August 15
Cinque Terre, Italy – August 16 to August 18
Florence, Italy – August 19 to August 22
Rome, Italy – August 23 to August 24
Athens, Greece – August 25 to August 27
Sofia, Bulgaria – August 28 to August 31
Istanbul, Turkey – September 1 to September 7
Ephesus, Turkey – September 8 to September 10
Ankara, Turkey – September 11 to September 13
Hyderabad, India – September 15 to September 25
Karachi, Pakistan – September 26 —
The world awaits, and I intend to embrace it. To see it for what it is and wrap my mind around it. To partake in its variety, its technology, its rhythm. To ultimately make it a part of me.