Once in Hong Kong, I witnessed a man consume five McDonald’s double sausage and egg McMuffins in one grotesque sitting. I was friends with the guy. Three weeks later in Shanghai, he bit into a cheeseburger of the same brand and proclaimed
“Goddamn de-li-cious. That’s a real taste of home, right there. This here. This beautiful thing right here. That’s why they’re famous!”
To glorify fast food to that level seemed mentally unhinged. Out of touch with reality. The cold, harsh reality that you’re holding a shrivelled beef patty between bread, not a Nobel Prize-winning petri dish. Don’t get me wrong, I’ll occasionally duck beneath golden arches to gorge secretly on lukewarm McNuggets, but when I do, I find an empty corner and act more like a selfish Goblin eating a raw fish than like my friend, deeply inhaling, exhaling and closing his eyes as if experiencing intense nostalgic flashbacks. Our friendship was under strain from then on.
With this previous experience of the sexual relationship some folk from the States – and other countries for that matter – have with fried meat and potatoes, I’m now intrigued to be watching two old Americans munch down their cutlets and fries with such little pleasure. Their faces are pale and drained of enjoyment. Can the food really be that dreadful? My god, they’re old. Time to converse.
“Do you recommend the cutlet option?”
“To be honest with you, no. But would you take a look at the menu for a second. Don’t fancy me no deep fried Turkish cheese cigars! Bill here was just cursing us for not packing more supplies”.
“Don’t worry, I’m in the same boat. Train, even. I’ve got to check something. You’re both Americans travelling to Iran?”
The short, stocky one is Frank; spectacles, polo shirt and a light sweat on his brow as he forces himself to finish his food. He is eighty years old. His sidekick William, Bill for short, is the tall one of the pair. I tell Bill I lived in Korea for a year. He tells me he served in Korea during the war. Bill is the kind of person who has probably always looked the same; the same strong frame, height and facial expressions unchanged by time. Only his hair has turned to white. He looks awfully strong for an eighty-two year old.
They’re in this for the long run, all the way to Tehran. It may be a surprise to hear that they can go at all, but the only restriction placed upon them is that they must have a local tour guide meet them off the train and show them around. This isn’t North Korea where the guides are watching your every move and the hotel rooms are bugged. They are both quick to assure me they will be free to explore and dine in the evenings without their guide.
After the Korean war, Bill stayed in the army and met his best buddy Frank. The two served in Vietnam together as officers. Through their stories shines a lust for life, perhaps born out of having survived two brutal wars. After coming close to death many times, one thing they didn’t do was make a promise to live life in comfort and safety. Instead, they promised each other that they would never take life for granted. They were going to try to see as much of the world as possible. A trip to Iran has been on the drawing board for a long time. So here they are. I remember how I felt listening to Bruno, the seventy-four year old German scientist’s story. At seventy-four, I still promise to cycle through Turkey and Iran. At eighty-two, who knows what I’ll do? A friend and I always joked that we’d get ‘Mogadishu on Tour’ t-shirts printed. Perhaps at eighty-two we’ll go.
“It’s kind of a last trip for us.”
Bill says this without a hint of irony. I feel my throat tighten up. I don’t think I can take another breath. I’m stunned by the finality of it. I’ve never considered a last trip. I want to confirm what I’ve heard with a naïve ‘But whatever do you mean, Bill?’ It’s obvious though as the pair fall silent, stop chewing their food and turn to gaze at the sun slowly setting over the black mountains in the distance.
Are they sick? Do they feel as though they will be too overcome by aches and tiredness to travel a year from now? Have they resigned themselves to pottering about in gardens for the rest of their days? I can’t ask these questions, nor do I need to. A last trip. What will mine be like? Will I even have the forethought to realise that my last trip is indeed that? Would I want to know?
A last trip. This is theirs. Savour those beers, boys.