Friday, December 30, 2011
THE WILDEST RIDES OF 2011: OF POWER OUTAGES, BATS, BETTY BOOP AND PORN STARS
I spent most of 2011 on the road, which wasn’t much of a change from the previous few years. Though I could definitely live without the scary airport food and the hassle of condensing my cosmetics in a TSA-approved quart baggie, I love most aspects of traveling. To this day, I feel blessed grateful that I am not only doing something I love- performing and teaching dance- but that I get to travel all over the world to do it!
But life on the road isn’t always glamourous as you might think… I often joke that every year, I lose at least fifty IQ points to jetlag!
Traveling seems to generate unusual incidents, at least for me it does. I’ve been through four separate hotel fires: Vancouver, BC, Memphis Tennessee, on board the Queen Mary in Long Beach, California, and at the Mena House in Cairo. I’ve missed countless planes and had my suitcase handle break off on an English train platform… while the train departed... and my suitcase remained at the station! I’ve been delayed and searched at international borders, spent the night in a Cairo police station, and bump into all sorts of random people at airports, including rock stars. Ron Wood from The Stones helped me get my bags off the carousel once, and I walked right into Alice Cooper at the airport in Athens, Greece. I see people I know in foreign places, too. On a flight from Heathrow to Cairo, the only two people that were in First Class were Jillina and I…and on the return flight, which transferred through Paris, I was coincidentally booked on the same plane to LAX as my ex-husband!
Beyond that, once in a while, it gets even wackier. Sometimes it’s just a matter of not understanding the language or confusion over local customs, but other times things get so totally out of hand and downright bizarre that I actually start to think:
“There’s the signpost up ahead… The Twilight Zone!”
In 2011, I was in five different countries before Valentine's Day, and wasn’t home longer than a week and a half until just before this past Christmas. As per usual, I spent a lot of that travel time on a bullet train to Crazy Town… so I’m gonna share with you my year’s re-cap, The Wildest Rides Of 2011.
In February 2011, I went on a solo European dance tour. Not only did my luggage get lost three times on flights to three different countries, but also the two and a half hour ferryboat ride from Helsinki, Finland to Tallinn, Estonia was completely surreal.
To begin with, Finland and Estonia are so far north that in February, it doesn’t get light til about 10:00am, and darkness sets in again a little after 3:00pm. That alone is disorienting to a California Sunshine Gal like me. The median temperature while I was there was 28 degrees BELOW zero. My nostrils literally froze and my eyes ached every time I went outside. I don’t know how those gals look glamourous in winters like that, but they all do!
The morning I was leaving Helsinki to go to Tallinn, I had to be up super early, check out of the hotel, and get to the ferry dock two hours before the ship departed at 9:00 am…. or, as I took to calling it, “dawn”. I was meeting my Estonian sponsor Berit and the other gals from her belly dance studio Mustika, at the Helsinki dock, because they’d come to Finland for my workshops.
In my haste, I didn’t have time for breakfast, so I grabbed a hard-boiled egg from the buffet and shoved it into my purse.
The dock looked like Ellis Island- I didn’t know the ferry was going to be so big, it was the size of a cruise ship. The embarkation line stretched outside, into the darkness and falling snow. Also, the ocean was completely frozen. The boats all had ice cutters on the prow and as they pulled in and out of the harbor huge chunks of ice flew up like a gigantic blender!
I finally found the Estonian girls, and we got on the ferry. It was three stories high, there was a duty free shop, a huge casino, restaurants, and a bar lounge that had karaoke, where we settled. Beiritt said it was the best place to spend the journey, and asked if I wanted breakfast or coffee from the bar.
I dug in my purse and pulled out my egg, confessing I’d had no idea there’d be food onboard.
All the Estonian dancers laughed in disbelief.
“You look like an old Russian grandma!”, said Daisi, a burlesque artist from Tallinn, as Berit took off her scarf and wrapped it around my head like a babushka. “What else do you have in your purse?”
The ship started sailing and the moment we had our coffee, a lounge singer came on, singing Beatles and Johnny Cash songs in Finnish, Estonian and Russian.
“Oh shit,” Daisi groaned, “This is not helping my hangover!”
Soon the karaoke began. As Daisi winced in pain and the other girls kept joking about my egg, we were treated to hideous versions in various languages of ABBA’s “Dancing Queen”, Aqua’s “Barbie Girl” and the enduring all-time Euro-trash hit, “Don’t Worry, Be Happy”.
Soon, a young, wholesome looking guy dressed all in white, with a tousled blonde bowl-cut took the microphone, and before he started singing, everyone burst into applause.
As he launched into a terrifyingly off-key rendition A-Ha’s “Take On Me”, the Estonian dancers started laughing hysterically and whispering amongst themselves.
“What’s so funny?” I asked, utterly confused since they were speaking Estonian.
“Oh, this man singing is the biggest porn star in Estonia!” Yahna exclaimed.
“No way!” I said, convinced they were making fun of me in all my jet lag.
“No, really, he is!” Daisi assured me, “ Everyone knows him in Estonia, and he is very, very famous for his bondage and latex videos!”
As I sat dumbfounded, Berit added,
“ His name is Arnold, but we call him “Second Arnold” because “First Arnold” is our president, Arnold Ruutel!”
Just before “Second Arnold” launched into Culture Club’s “Do You Really Want to Hurt Me”, I started to believe them, because a few audience members went up to him and had him sign autographs on napkins.
“ I can’t take this any more,” Berit, declared, “I’m going to Duty Free.”
When she returned, Second Arnold was still hogging the mic. He was on his sixth song, much to the delight of the crowd. A few matronly older women stormed the stage, giggling like schoolgirls, taking pictures.
“ I got you something to go with your egg!” Berit cried, handing me a foot-long plastic sperm, with big googley cartoon eyes.
As Second Arnold began to croon Duran Duran’s “Hungry Like The Wolf”, I held the giant sperm in my hand, regarding it mutely, quite unsure of reality at this point.
“Some cream for your coffee!” Yahna laughed, as Berit unscrewed the sperm’s head and poured a whitish-yellow substance out of its body and into my cup.
As I stared in shock, Berit assured me it was Bailey’s Irish Crème… and, thankfully it really was!
Arnold didn’t stop singing for the rest of the voyage.
* * *
It’s June 2011, and I’m in Cairo, which is curiously quiet and sedate due to the social unrest that has plagued Egypt for most of the spring. There are practically no tourists anywhere, and the Ahlan Wa Sahlan Belly Dance Festival has only about 200 attendees, as opposed to about 1,500 the year before.
My jet lag has grown to new proportions, as it always does by mid-year. I am no longer sure what time it is anywhere. The jetlag to Egypt is always really bad, but this year, it seems worse. I literally haven’t slept in three days.
So, I’m talking to a really nice lady about buying some traditional Egyptian galibayyas. She has a beautiful, friendly looking face, and her hijab perfectly matches the pink bowling shirt – embroidered with a huge Betty Boop- that she is wearing over her own galibayya.
She speaks very good English, and I’m trying to stay focused on the conversation, but I’m so spun out from lack of sleep, my eyes keep drifting from her face to her shirt. There’s English writing on it, but as she moves around, unfolding garments for me to look at, I can’t see exactly what it says. Eventually, I sort of make out the slogan…and it seems to me like something a crack whore would be wearing in a Laughlin, Nevada trailer park.
I remind myself that I am, in fact, In Cairo, and there’s no way in hell this gracious Egyptian woman would be wearing a shirt with an obscene joke on it.
Finally, after I’ve paid for the galibayyas, she stands still for a second, and I realize that her shirt indeed says exactly what I think it says:
IF YOUR GONNA RIDE MY ASS, AT LEAST PULL MY HAIR
I can’t stop staring in utter amazement, it’s as though I’m hypnotized… and then she notices me looking.
“Uh…. I like your shirt,” I manage lamely.
“Oh yes!” she says enthusiastically, pointing to Betty Boop,
“ I AM SO LOVE CARTOON!”
Suddenly, I realize she has absolutely no idea what her shirt says…and apparently nobody else does, either…. otherwise she wouldn’t be wearing it!
I tell her that her English is very good, and ask her if she reads English as well as speaking it. She shakes her head no.
“What it says?” she asks me, as if on cue, “Read shirt to me!”
Since her hair is covered, I know she is religious. If I tell her what the shirt really says, she will be absolutely humiliated. Beyond humiliated. I think there’s a good chance she will run to the bathroom, crying hysterically, and I don’t to embarrass her in any way. I can’t think of anything to substitute for what is written on she shirt, and I’m panicking.
Finally, I come up with a solution. I ask if she’s married. When the answer is affirmative, I know it’s safe to say to her,
“I can’t tell you exactly what your shirt says, but in America, this shirt is very funny…and…” I let my voice drop to a confidential whisper, “ Well…it’s also a little bit sexy!”
“Oooh!” She gasps in delight, her eyes widen and her hand flies up to her mouth as she chortles conspiratorially,
“I like very much sexy!”
Since she has made a good sale, we’ve had a nice glass of tea together and now, we are both laughing out loud she insists that we take a picture together…so, of course I oblige!
* * *
It’s September 2011 and I’m furiously preparing for The Las Vegas Belly Dance Intensive. Not only am I performing and teaching at the event, my brand new line of Egyptian costumes- Princess Farhana For King Of The Nile- will be making it’s debut at there, in three fashion shows. I’ve spent the past two and a half months on Skype to Cairo with my partner Yaz Taleb for hours every day, approving designs and seeing finished products. I’m also going crazy trying via email to corral the fourteen belly dancers models- from seven different states- to pin down their availability for the fashion shows.
Yaz emails that he’s sent the costume boxes from Egypt, but when I try to track them, all that comes up is a notice saying:
ALL DELIVERIES DELAYED INDEFINATELY DUE TO HURRICANE IRENE
I try to breathe evenly and ignore my impending sense of doom, but I can’t help it.
A few days later, as Yaz arrives in America and the tracking shows that the boxes arrived…. Thank God!
All is going well until the Friday of Labor Day weekend, when I somehow re-injure my neck. Two years ago I was in my car at a full stop when an SUV plowed into my vehicle, resulting in my suffering severe whiplash and six- yes, six- herniated discs. During my extensive treatment and healing process, my doctors had warned me that my spine would " never be the same", and that sometimes, the “jelly” inside the disc would bulge out and create discomfort.
Well, I’m here to tell you that I have never, ever experienced pain like this before, not even when the accident had first occurred!
I called every doctor I could, but because it was a holiday weekend, nobody was in. I began icing immediately, swallowed insane amounts of ibuprophen and paced constantly like a lunatic because the pain was so intense. It felt like there were electric screwdrivers in my neck and blowtorches on my shoulder, it was nuts. I can't sit or sleep, and I'm moaning and keening out loud like a wild animal that's just been shot. This goes on all weekend.
Monday is Labor Day, and it’s Tuesday morning before my doctor calls me back.
The doctor diagnoses me with a cervical disc that is bulging onto my nerve channels and sets me up with steroids and a new pain medication that I’d never had before. I take it and feel sweet relief…. finally! After taking the second dose a few hours later, I feel almost normal, and decide I to pack for Vegas, since I was leaving the very next day.
I don’t realize how high I am, because I’m literally “feeling no pain”. Halfway through packing, I trip over my suitcase, fly across the room and land spread-eagle on my floor. Laughing like a crazed junkie, I just continue to pack.
Two hours later, I wonder why my foot still hurts. Looking down, I realize I’ve broken the last two toes on my right foot! Now, I’ve broken toes before, and the most a doctor can do is tape them up, and I certainly wasn’t going to a doctor again!
I stare in amazement at their shiny purple hue, all fat and swollen. I eat another pill, and, gritting my teeth, yank both toes back into their regular positions, post about it on Twitter (!) tape up the toes, and continue packing.
The next morning I leave for Vegas, and from the moment I’m there, it’s crackers, just non-stop. The fashion shows go great, and my show with House Of Tarab goes pretty well too, considering I was hardly putting any weight on my right foot!
I don’t know what I would’ve done without my dear friend DeVilla, who came to model for me, but winds up being my personal assistant all weekend.
My workshop was another story entirely. I knew I could teach with my neck jacked up - I'd done it when I was healing from the accident, after all- so that wasn’t a problem. But the broken toes kind of threw a wrench in the matter of doing floor work, which was one of the advertised aspects of the workshop… and since I broke my toes the day before I left, and I was going to be at the Intensive anyway, I thought it would be idiotic to cancel the class.
I explain this turn of events to the students, hoping they’ll understand, and have DeVilla come up on stage to be my demo-model. As soon as I start warming up, breathing in and out, all the lights in the ballroom begin dimming and coming up, in rhythm with breathing and the way my arms rise and fall.
At first, I don’t think anything of this because I often have weird experiences with electricity- until all the lights go completely off and come up a few times, strobing like disco lights. This goes on non-stop for a few minutes…. like, ten minutes! By now I’m completely distracted, and the whole class is murmuring and making jokes about it, too.
My “electrical disturbance” as I call it, has been with me since childhood. Cell phones and computers fail regularly, I can make my television turn on and off with a wave of my hand, I cause streetlights go out when I walk beneath them, and light bulbs sometimes actually explode as I go past. This usually happens in times of stress…and I guess my stress has reached a head by now.
“What’s up with the lights?” I yell across the room to one of the festival volunteers.
“I don’t know,” she hollers back, they’ve been fine all day and there were four classes in here!”
DeVilla pushes me out of the way, steps up to the mic and regales the workshop attendees with stories of my "super powers", and how many crazy electrical incidents she’s seen during the numerous times we've traveled together. She’s telling so many stories from so many places I’m beginning to get really embarrassed… it’s not like I can control this “talent” I have.
The lights ultimately settle down, and we get on with the class. For the rest of the trip, DeVilla received her “punishment” for blabbing about my electrical secrets. Poor girl, she’d anticipated a weekend of modeling, gambling, and laying poolside with a margarita in hand, but instead has to play Nurse Maid. She makes sure I take my pills, she brings me ice, tapes up my toes daily and changes the lidocaine pain patches on the back of my left shoulder every few hours.
I couldn’t have done that weekend without her- I owe her big time!
And if you happened to be in my class at The Intensive, now you know why it was so insane!
* * *
It’s November 2011 and I’m doing a couple of dates in the Midwest - Kansas and Missouri, to be exact. I love the Midwest, and I’ve been there a lot. America’s heartland is beautiful, and so laid back and calm compared to Los Angeles, and a lot of the other places I go. The dancers are always a lot of fun, and I look forward to my workshops there, because I can always be assured of a calm, peaceful trip.
Not this time!
The Manhattan, Kansas-based belly dance troupe Eyes Of Bastet are sponsoring me for my second-to-last trip of the year. Cathia, Nashid and I had a long, laughter-filled ride from the airport, a great barbecue dinner where I met the rest of their lovely troupe, and I’m now ensconced in my really plush hotel room, more modern and higher-end than most places I’ve stayed at in major cities. I sink gratefully into my Tempur-pedic hotel bed and I’m on the brink of sleep when I feel an all-too-familiar rolling sensation.
Bolting upright, I panic, thinking it's an earthquake…then I realize I’m in Kansas, not Los Angeles, and it’s probably just a mind-trick being played by my perpetually fried jet lag brain.
The next morning, I walk into the large gymnasium for my workshop and thirty-five women yell simultaneously,
“DID YOU FEEL IT?”
It turns out what was I felt the night before really was a rather large earthquake; the epicenter was in Oklahoma, but everyone in Manhattan, Kansas could feel it!
After a great full day of workshops, I am in my hotel room preparing for the show with Maharet, my Missouri sponsor who'd arrived in Kansas that afternoon. Maharet is taking me back to Missouri after this event, for more workshops and another show the next weekend.
Suddenly, there’s another earthquake. This time, since I am wide-awake, I know it’s real.
“You brought that with you from LA!”, Maharet declares, as we leave for the show.
As I take the stage for my entrance, I spy something out of the corner of my eye, swirling around in the air. I think it’s my veil flying from my spins, until I notice many concerned audience members whispering to each other pointing animatedly to the stage.
I look up, and notice there is a large bat flying around the stage… and he's upstaging me!
The show grinds to a halt while bat is captured in a trashcan, and removed during intermission by helpful belly dance husbands. I accompany them outside to watch it’s safe release; as they let it go, I realize that without the full wingspan, the bat is much smaller than I initially thought.
Back at the hotel, Maharet and I laugh about the earthquakes and the bat. We set our phones for 7:30 am, confirming to each other that the clocks are being turned back that night. On the dot at 6:30am, her phone rings loudly. She mumbles that we still have another hour, we go back to sleep. At 7:30 both our phones go off and Maharet is surprised that hers had rang at 6:30. I wonder aloud if it’s the time change, and check the clock on the bed stand, but it’s not on.
“Our clock’s broken”, I announce sleepily, and try turning on the lights, which also doesn’t go on. The bathroom light isn't working, either.
"Is this your electrical disturbance?" Maharet asks.
Peering out into the hallway, all I see are the EXIT signs. Finally, my eyes make out two teenage girls in pajamas shambling down the hallway like zombies.
“ Are the lights out in the whole hotel?” I inquired.
They answered yes, and I ask, “ Do you know why?”
“ No,” shrugged one, “We just accepted it.” With that, they shambled off into the darkness.
I feel my way through packing my class materials like Helen Keller as Maharet gets us the last two cups of lukewarm coffee from the lobby.
We arrive in class and luckily, the lights have been restored. Apparently, a huge apartment complex that was under construction has burned to the ground, causing a power outage in most of the city.
The next day, as we prepare to leave for Missouri, Maharet discovers she suddenly has no brakes in her car; it turns out there’s a huge leak. We buy a large container of break fluid, dreading the fact that we’ll have to pull over every few miles on the long drive to Missouri to replenish the supply for safety’s sake.
We hear a loud, odd sizzle and look up towards the noise, watching in horror as a poor little squirrel gets fried to death on the electrical lines above us. He hangs limp, his tail sadly blowing in the wind.
The moment we get on the highway, it begins pouring rain. A few exits later, it becomes worse, the rain is torrential, it’s going sideways. After about an hour, it’s so bad that we pull over for coffee, hoping for the storm to pass. It doesn’t, so we decide to drive again.
As Maharet puts the key in the ignition, the burglar alarm goes off. It’s a relentless, rhythmic honking of the car’s horn. She removes the key, and somehow, the alarm continues to wail. After about five minutes of chaos, Maharet calls her husband, and yells above the noise, trying to get him to figure out what’s wrong. He can’t, so we sit in the car, until a middle aged, mustachioed trucker tries to come to our aid. “Tries” is the key word here, because he can’t figure out what’s wrong, either!
Finally, the noise dies down and we take off, thinking the car alarm’s battery has died. No such luck: as we push forward through the driving rain, every time Maharet even taps the breaks, the alarm sounds wildly. We steel ourselves to the din, turn up the radio and scream to each other over the music, gossiping and telling stories.
An hour later, approaching Kansas City, it’s now completely dark. The rain hasn’t let up one iota… and neither has the alarm! It’s rush hour, and the beltway around the city is crowded. Since the weather is so bad and the highway is backed up with cars, Maharet is on the brakes constantly, and the horn is sounding non-stop. Truckers are flipping us off; people are flashing their lights –as well as really dirty looks- at us.
An hour after that, we’re driving through the hilly, unlit roads of rural Missouri. It’s so dark and deserted, I almost expect a UFO to appear right above us…but the sound of the alarm, which is still going off, probably prevents our abduction.
Somehow we make it home. Her husband Bill comes to the door before the car is even parked, saying he heard us approaching from very far away. Once in the house, Maharet heads directly to the liquor cabinet, pulling out a two glasses and a bottle of Wild Turkey, which we down immediately before staggering into bed.
The next day, Bill starts the car, and there is absolutely nothing wrong with it, the alarm seems to have magically fixed itself!
Happy New Year my dear readers, and May your 2012 be filled with adventure… because I’m relatively sure mine will be!
ALL PHOTOS BY PRINCESS FARHANA
Excerpt from the book, " Good Girls Go To Heaven, Bad Girls Go Everywhere: My Life Onstage, Backstage, And On The Road", scheduled for publication in early 2013.