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Notes from the Road

Notes from the road

I love markets. The one place I always take visitors to in Accra is Makola market. The high point of last year’s trip to Japan was the early morning fish market. My Flickr stream is filled with blurry gllimpses of tables piled with produce. So with an hour or two to kill in London, I walked up and down through Shepherd’s Bush Market.

For all I know, there are dozens of open air markets in London, selling Halal meat, fresh fish, gleaming piles of hot peppers, wax-print fabric and baby clothes. For all I know, they’ve got the same elegant intersection of cultures – West African, West Indian and Arabic, so that every time I feel like I’m in a market in Ghana, I turn a corner and think I’m in Jordan.

What struck me this particular Saturday morning is the politeness that characterizes the dance of the market. An Indian man greeting a West African vendor asks, “How are you, Uncle?” A West Indian thanks an Arab vendor repeating, “Respect. Respect.” I buy six pairs of socks for four pound sterling. The market dances by, smiling.

Flying from JFK to Heathrow, the beverage police are in full force. They confiscated my can of Diet Coke before clearing security, and while they’d sell me bottled water, they won’t sell the cap. “I’m sorry sir, regulations mean I must keep the cap.” (Imagine saying this five hundred times a day, working at Hudson News in JFK.) My travel kit may expand to include plastic caps, allowing me a full bottle of water on the plane instead of a stream of four ounce cups. Don’t tell anyone.

Flying from Heathrow to Johannesburg, however, you can carry whatever you want onboard. Behind me in the very narrow coach rows on BA, an elderly Scot has brought a fifth of whiskey with him. He drains a good bit of the bottle as we climb over the English Channel and head south over France. By the time my seatmates are closing their eyes to sleep through some of the 11 hour trip, the man is draped over the passenger in the middle seat, and is reaching through the seat back to grope the young woman in the window seat of my aisle.

The flight attendents are consulted and in very polite, British fashion, they chastize the man, who falls soundly asleep, but don’t move him from the seat – the plane is overbooked and there’s not another empty seat on board. I switch to the window seat, giving the poor girl the aisle. I sleep for about 90 minutes, when the drunk man begins punching and kicking the back of my seat. By the time I’ve called the stewards, he’s slipped from his seat and is laying on the floor beneath my seat, kicking my shins from underneath me.

I insist the gentleman be removed, and he is, in a process that requires me to hold three seats forward while two stewards haul him out from under the seats and belt him into a flight attendant seat in the galley. By the end of the flight, when he’s returned to our cabin, he looks dazed, confused and thanks the bemused man next to him for finding his hat. “I’m always losing that thing.” You don’t say.

BA is apologetic. They hand us apology form letters, which give us space to rant on the back in the hopes that BA will be suitably chastized and will either give us more salted peanuts on the next flight or send us a marketing survey so we can tell them how truly unhappy we are. But in a classy gesture, they give bottles of champagne to the three sets of travellers most inconvenienced. I plan on using mine to anesthetize myself on the flight back from Jo’burg to London, which promises to be as crowded and uncomfortable, if possibly more sober.

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