Officers of the Law

I grew up in South Africa during the pre-”end of Apartheid”. That’s not the current ANC version, it’s the previous one. Police officers were downright scary and were respected, even feared.

I now live in the US, where police officers are downright scary and are respected, even feared.

This is very different from the current South African ANC Apartheid police officers who, when I see them (which is very infrequently), are an object of mirth. To explain to people not familiar with the breed: normally an individual with a godzillian butt (100m dash in infinity time because no one can run 100m with a butt like that), wrapped in some form of cotton cling-wrap, with a bright reflective vest, sunglasses that have a gold frame that is so enormous it obscures the entire mid half of the face (like welding goggles, only bigger), and eyes constantly on the prowl for someone to elicit a bribe from, or for a fellow police officer of the opposite sex with whom to have sex. Honestly a pathetic bunch of losers.

Anyway, the point is that I’ve experienced both sides of the police officer respect thing – none and full.

So, when I travel around, I am always befuddled when I see a police officer. Do I bow my head and sneak-a-peak, to make sure they’re not eyeing me? Do I look bold and confident, stare them in the eye with a “I’ve got nothing to hide. Buddy” look? Or do I just turn and walk the other way? Perhaps even the South African “you fucking immoral, incompetent, loser” look?

I think the world has become so paranoid that one is paranoid about not becoming an object of attention. People who get noticed end up on military aircraft on the way to a quiz-show where the prize is retention of testicles.

In China it is easy. One basically falls to the ground and grovels. That’s easy.

In Germany, I just glance. I’m sure somewhere there is a specification for the duration a South African, with American residency, is allowed to stare at a police officer. I have better things to read, so I just give a cursory glance.

In the US, one uses the “I’ve got nothing to hide” but without the “Buddy” look. One then looks away and continues on one’s path. But don’t stare at tall buildings while the officer can still see you.

So in Brazil this morning, I’m standing outside having a smoke and two police officers come around the corner on their motorbikes. These are the first two specimens I’ve seen. I’m curious. I think the safe way to stare is to first look at the motorbike (what brand, engine size, colour, etc) and then move up to look at the officer. This should be respectful enough to be classed as a thumbs-up type of stare. Well, when I finally got to the officer’s head, he was glowering at me as if he was Arnold Schwarzenegger and I was some male hairdresser with a high pitched voice asking him for a date. He was so focused on giving me the “I see you. Arsehole” look that his head had rotated through more than ninety degrees as he drove past and his colleague on the other bike had to tap his shoulder for him to see that he had to brake before becoming lodged in the back of a car that had stopped in front of him.

I guess in Brazil I’ll try the supplication strategy next.

Double Translators = Zero Understanding

One of the great things about American Hotels is that everything one needs for business travel is always available. There is, for example, always ice available, day or night.

In the rest of the world, this is not so.

This is not good for me. I like to have cold water available during the night. Normally the mini-bar provides for my nightly needs, but on a couple of occasions, the single bottle provided has not been enough. I therefore, always, make sure of the availability of ice before going to my room for the night.

This almost led to an incident the other night.

I believe it is a common courtesy (and not to mention a necessity) to learn a couple of words of the language of the country one finds oneself in. The most important word in any traveller’s infantile vocabulary should be “beer”. One should be able to pronounce the word without accent and spontaneously, which usually requires a lot of practice. The best way, I’ve found, is to find some waiter and use the word frequently. One knows one is successful when the waiter doesn’t give the wide-eyed stare, restating the word with different accents, and just rushes off to the bar. In Brazil this is “cerveja”.

The second most important words are numbers – like 1, 2, 3 etc. In Brazil, one of the first words I learnt was 20 (vinte: pronounced like Vinci – like Leonardo da). This is pretty handy because phrases like “vinte cerveja” save so much ordering trouble.

But there can be problems.

Another thing one should be extremely careful of is hand signals. We (should) all know that nodding is not universally accepted to mean “yes”; sometimes it means “no”. I scuba dive. It is a common courtesy, if not downright safety critical, to frequently ask one’s “buddy” if they’re “ok” – the hand gesture for this is thumb and forefinger closed in a circle and the other three fingers splayed like feathers on a wing – mimicking the letter O. I use this symbol frequently. I also use it to indicate “zero”. In Brazil this hand gesture means, to be precise, “fuck you”. Or, depending on the context, “I want to fuck you”.

On my way out of the hotel the other evening I asked the waiter if he could please arrange some ice for my room. The waiter asked me for my room number, and not having mastered the number 7 yet, I thought that I would just use finger gestures for my room number, 207. I should have realised there was trouble brewing when he started using words that were beyond my Brazilian vocabulary and the raised eyebrows that had dropped and become like a funnel between his now almost closed, scowling, eyes. At this point my host appeared and calmed the waiter down. He kindly listened to the waiter and then correctly explained my order.

When I got outside, I asked what the reason was for the aggression. Well, the waiter had “heard” me say “eyes”, which he thought to mean that whatever he’d seen me drink, I wanted more in my room. When he asked my room number, he “saw” me say “2?, no fuck you, 7″. At this point my host arrived and listened to the waiter. He then kindly explained that I did not know the “fuck you” meaning and that I really only wanted 7 beers in my room when I got back from dinner.

So that evening when I got back from dinner: I had seven beers in the mini-bar. And no ice.

Boudoirs (Toilets)

This is one of those posts that Ma and Pa might not approve of.

I simply hate the toilets on airplanes. Usually I need to go just before the pilot needs to turn on the seat-belt sign. Generally I ignore the air-hostesses when they reprimand me (after all, I’m not going there on a sight seeing jaunt, I really have something that needs doing). But once I’m in, I know that there is probably a good chance that the pilot was not playing a practical joke on me and that there was a good reason to turn the sign on in the first place. Like my personal toilet nightmare, turbulence.

I am fairly tall, which means that using the toilet on any aircraft for a pee means cocking my head to the side, bracing my shoulders against the door, aiming carefully, peeing, and then spending 20 minutes cleaning up my misguided aim. I refuse to sit on the seat for masculine, and territory marking reasons. I realise I am not alone in this situation because the floor of the toilet is usually speckled with other people’s mis-aiming. I am sorry, but I hate to walk into a toilet with my dry flight socks on and leave with them wet, so I try to clean up after myself. My aiming is not from lack of practice, it is an error brought on by so called parallax, and clearly most of the male (hopefully not female) flying population suffers the same problem.

But peeing is only the beginning. No matter how desperate the situation, I do not use the bathroom to defecate (or shit, for the less refined reader). If I need the bathroom for that, even if it’s 15 minutes into a 16 hour flight, I know that there is 15 and 3/4′s hours of mental will-power ahead of me.

This is in part due to the fact that I have come to know that there are some really perverse little enzymes in my gut. A normal meal results in a normal smell for most people – processed in my gut it generates paint stripper. And paint-stripper that lasts for a long, long time. My children have consigned me to the outside bathroom for this very reason. The other part of the reason is that I am usually, first seat behind, nose-in-the-door close, to the bathroom – and I try to do unto others as I want done unto myself. (My seat allocation is a fact of life, like the fact of life that my bag is NEVER first off).

The result of this is that when I finally get to my hotel room after a flight, the first (desperate) order of business is the bathroom. I don’t know what they intentionally place in airline food, but the result, in my experience, is similar to an unhealthy dietary combination of beans and the hottest chili dish on the planet, all simultaneously trying to exit my body in one unearthly blast. It is quite unnerving, even to me.

As a consequence, I have become acutely aware of toilet design. I can, with a level of confidence derived from many desperate uses of these devices, compliment the US on the best toilet design in the world. No matter how desperate the situation, no matter how explosive the decompression, no matter how gut-crampingly bad the airline food, US hotel toilets flush it all away without the slightest sign of use.

So, to hotels the world over: stop putting those signs about using a face-towel instead of a body towel after a shower to conserve water – invest in US toilets and your staff won’t need to flush the toilet 20 times to get rid of traveler’s desperate relief (me included).