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APPROACHING KUWAIT – I have been shoehorned into airplanes or airports for something like 24 hours now.

Rochester is on the other side of the world. It is late Thursday afternoon in Kuwait. I haven’t had any sleep to speak of since Tuesday and there is some slack-jawed, dead-to-the world gomer behind me snoring like a rutting buffalo.

The guy next to me is as big as any Indianapolis Colts lineman I ever saw. He needs both of these seats.

Perhaps that’s why he’s not very talkative. He has a book about Desert Storm. Maybe he’s a security consultant, I don’t know. His baseball cap says something about camel races.

I left Rochester at noon Wednesday, flew from South Bend to Chicago, waited three hours, took a 11-hour flight to Frankfurt, Germany, waited two hours, then took this seven-hour flight to Kuwait. I feel like I’ve gone a few rounds with the big guy next to me.

Last night, on the flight from Chicago, I sat next to a 60-something woman named Judy. She is en route to meet her husband in Bahrain. He is some kind of civilian cop for the U.S. Navy. Judy is quite outgoing. She likes Greek cooking and looks forward to spending some time on the island of Crete when her husband, Jim, retires.

Everyone within earshot learned a lot more about Judy and her swell family. She had three glasses of wine. It was late when she finished the third one. We were somewhere over the North Atlantic on a flight that began at 7 p.m. I sort of lost track of the time, but it was late. Many of the people on the plane were falling asleep.

“Can I borrow your shoulder?” she asked. I nodded. “I’m a nestler,” she said and she put her head on my shoulder, snuggled and conked out as if she had been hit upside the head with a shiny new Louisville Slugger. She stayed there.

I slept, too - for about 11 minutes.

She was very appreciative. “It really helps me,” she said. She asked me if she drooled. She hadn’t, at least on me. When we parted ways, she said she had never slept with a journalist before. Pretty lame joke, huh?

To make matters worse, I left my glasses in the car and have been reduced to wearing prescription bifocal sunglasses for the last 25 hours or so. I look like a middle-aged heroin addict. I can’t see very well in the dark with my sunglasses on. I’m hoping that the back-up pair of glasses I stuck in my bag make it to Kuwait in one piece. I’m hoping my bags make it to Kuwait.

Perhaps it is my provincial imagination, but it seems like each leg of the trip has been a little less friendly.

On the flight from South Bend to Chicago everyone was chummy. The stewardess, who seemed to get a big kick out of talking to the passengers over the loudspeaker called for a big round of applause for two preschoolers on the plane. Weren’t they great little travelers?

Stewardesses on the flight from Chicago to Frankfurt called for no applause, but were fluent in German.

This flight, the one from Frankfurt to Kuwait, has a few soldiers, a few business types, some middle-eastern families and a lot of men who sound like they are from the southern United States. Steward-esses are fluent in German, Arabic and English. I asked the behemoth next to me if he knew what time it would be in Chicago. “I didn’t come from Chicago,” he said. That was all he said the entire trip.

– – –

KUWAIT – I creaked and groaned off the plane into 100-degree heat. It was 7:30 p.m. I walked past a McDonald’s to the baggage claim, only to be stopped by security for lack of an entry visa. The man directed me up the stairs to the visa office, where I stood like a foolish tourist for a while before I figured out that the reason other people were getting service was that they had taken a number. I took a number.

A flustered American came up to his buddy next to me. “They don’t take American money. I just found out the hard way.”

I went to a commercial bank nearby. The guy behind the window had a big drawer full of money that didn’t appear to be sorted in any way.

I gave him $40. He gave me a bunch of Kuwaiti bills and a receipt. Someone behind me said in what I took to be a Pakistani accent that the exchange rate was lousy. I returned to the visa office, was jostled by a couple of big ugly Americans and finally got my visa. It was free.

The hotel sent a car for me and two other working travelers, a California computer man and a British horse woman. The computer guy asked me where I was going. When I told him I was going to be embedded with the 113th Engineers in Mosul, he snorted: “Mosul! You’ll like that. Nothin’ nice up there.”

To get into the hotel compound, the driver had to circumvent a series of those concrete pilings designed to stymie car bombers. A swarm of security guards checked each car as it entered. They looked under the hood and in the trunk. They did not open any bags. There could have been something really nasty in there.

A guard had a mirror on the end of a pole for checking the bottom of the car. I thought he seemed a bit cavalier about the whole thing. He walked around with the mirror under the chassis all right, but he was looking me in the eye, not at the mirror, the whole time he was on my side of the car. There could have been something really nasty under there, too.

When I got to my room, I tore into my luggage and found my spare glasses.

To contact W.S. Wilson: wsw@rochsent.com.

Published May 20, 2005