Taking our final Song Thaew ride to the Chiang Mai airport, all our bags in tow, we were overcome by a wave of sadness washing over us, and we realized how much we were already beginning to miss Thailand. Of all the places we had been, nowhere had touched us the way Thailand had. The smiles of the people. The beauty of the temples. The simple way everything felt Ok.
As we shed a collective tear, and discussed what we were feeling, the kids both expressed to us that they were done traveling. I can’t begin to describe how hard it was to hear that, knowing we were committed to our next destination. Our only hope was that Goa would be nice enough to make them okay with a few more months of travel.
Our flight to Bangkok was a short one, and we didn’t leave for India until the next morning. Luckily, the hotel far exceeded our expectations. The Novotel at the Bangkok airport is a piece of art, a jewel of hotels, with lots of open space and pizzazz, and at a decent price. Early the next morning, (after a breakfast that cost almost as much as the room,) we were back in the airport, and with minutes to spare, we found our gate and boarded the plane to our rendezvous with India.
The first stop of our three-legged journey was in Kolkata (aka Calcutta). As we started our descent, I could see the flooded delta of Bangladesh; almost the entire country was under water, and I wondered if Kolkata shared the same fate. We came to a low altitude over the city and the plane started to weave its way through the clouds. We seemed to swerve around a number of storm systems and rise and fall as though dodging some unknown horror. Before long, people all over the plane were making good use of their vomit bags. I for one had never seen anyone use a vomit bag, let alone witnessed half of the plane heaving into theirs in unison.
As we came in for the landing, the plane still seemed to swerve and bob as though some giant child were playing with us, and making plane sounds to boot. “Shoooww! Rrrrrnnnngh Shewww shewww oh no! coming in for a crash landing! Riiiiigghhhhh Rrrrrnnnngh…” Maybe the pilot was having fun, imagining that he was navigating some maze through the air, or just testing the structural integrity of the plane. In either case, we were not happy.
Just to make things a little more disconcerting, all the Muslims around us were praying fervently. Theresa gave me a worried look as she nodded towards them. I whispered “Yeah, they do that for every landing.” I later confided to her that I had no clue whether that is normal behaviour for the followers of Islam, and that I was just trying to make both of us feel better. I have since come to suspect that they were actually afraid for their lives, and we probably should have been too, despite the lack of anything productive coming from such an endeavor. As they say, worrying will never change the outcome.
As we touched down, there was a moment where I swore we were going to skid sideways, but our pilot managed to hold it together and straight on course. There was a collective sigh of relief as we started to slow down, and sheepish looks from all the people trying to figure out what to do with their vomit bags. I can’t say I have ever had a landing quite like that, and I was glad to be safely on the ground. The subsequent spraying of the interior of the plane with some unnamed pest control seemed a little odd, as Thailand was less than a thousand kilometers away by land, but rules are rules, and we were thankful enough to be alive so as to not care about a little bit of slightly toxic insecticide.
After disembarking the plane via the stairs (and kissing the dirty ground like a pope,) a bus picked us up and whisked us away to the terminal. For a major international airport, I thought that less dirt, less garbage, less bare concrete, and more, um, anything nice, would be in order, but I hadn’t really expected much more. People in Thailand had been telling us that we were going to miss it once we got to India. I was already beginning to see why.
Passport control was quick and simple, and our bags found us all right, although they had all picked up a fair bit of dirt somewhere along the way and were being watched over by guards armed with machine guns. This was one of the first wakeup calls I had that we were not in Kansas anymore. The nonchalance with which they swung about their instruments of death made me realize that life in India might not have the same value we were used to in the West, and that personal safety might be more of a concern than we were comfortable with.
Our airline was well organized, with porters checking all the passengers in the baggage claim to make sure they got to any connecting flights. Once we were collected, we were taken by van to the domestic terminal next door, noticing the dirty brown air and general haze that hung over everything.. Once again, a most unimpressive airport. I’ve been in Greyhound terminals that were nicer.
After checking in to our flight, we still had 2 ½ hours to wait, and we were told that we couldn’t go through security until one hour before the flight. Finding the least torn and filthy seats we could, we settled down for the painful duration. Being among the only non-Indian’s present, we felt strangely conspicuous, but a long history of colonization had rendered the presence of Caucasians as a somewhat trivial sight in the eyes of the average Indian.
Although I wouldn’t have been bold enough to eat at one of the three food stalls available, the thought crossed my mind that having some Indian Rupees might be a good idea, in case we wanted to buy some chips or something. All I had was 2000 Thai Baht, useless in India. One traveler’s tidbit I had gleaned before our journey was that ATM’s were sprinkled so liberally around the globe and that the exchange rates were good enough to make that the best choice to access cash on the road. Simple and safe, no need to worry about where to change travelers cheques, etc, just use the plastic. With this wisdom in mind, I set out in search of one.
The thing is, the domestic terminal in Kolkata has no ATM’s. Not even a money changer. I was kicking myself at this, because Theresa had suggested using a money changer back at the international terminal, but we had been ushered on hurriedly by our Jet Airlines porter, and I didn’t want to lose sight of the guy and be ‘lost’ in India. So my choice was to walk back to the other terminal to get money I didn’t really need, or to sit and wait patiently for our flight. I opted to wait, figuring that we didn’t need rupees that badly, as there was nothing that we felt comfortable enough to buy anyways.
Violet fell asleep, which made the wait somewhat easier, and soon I also felt a strange lethargy creep over me as well. The time somehow passed, as it does, and soon enough our flight number came up at the security gate. We woke Violet, gathered our stuff, and proceeded through the queue, placing our carry-on bags on the screening conveyer, and were ushered through. For once, they didn’t want to see our passports, just our boarding passes, and we were soon deemed fit for travel and found ourselves waiting in yet another filthy (but smaller) room.
I had been noticing for some time that my breathing felt strange, and that I felt slightly off kilter, but wrote it off to being in the hubbub of an Indian airport, breathing plenty of fumes and smog, being in culture shock, and just having had a seemingly near fatal landing. My lethargy was hanging around, and if sleep had been an option, I would have taken it. It later dawned on me that the decontaminant spray on the plane might have been affecting me too, but at that moment, I was focused on the wait and staying awake. I hung on to consciousness, but just barely.
As our departure time neared, I began to feel better, although not exactly excited about taking yet another flight. Another bus took us out to our plane, which we boarded via the stairs, and we once again settled into our metal home for the next 2 ½ hours. As I was organizing my various bags, pouches, etc, I noticed something was amiss. It’s funny how when disaster strikes, one of the first things to cross your mind is ‘gee, I thought this kind of thing only happened in stories…’
My panic started to climb as I searched every nook and cranny of all my bags, but my fears were realized. I could not find our passports. Not even the shiny new one we had just picked up for Cyrus. Ironically, I had his old (now useless) one, but that was not going to help any of us at this point.
I started searching my bags again while trying to think of what to do, and how to tell Theresa. She noticed my fervor and asked what I was doing. In my best nonchalant voice, I muttered, “I, uh, can’t seem to find the passports. Did I give them to you?” I think this last statement could have been grounds for divorce, but our immediate concern was to search all the bags again. The kids were oblivious to what was going on, and were chatting away. We did our best impression at appearing calm, and explained to them that our passports were missing, that it was very serious, and that we needed their help by being very quiet and still.
It is times like that where children seem to intuitively grasp the nature of what you are saying, and either decide to go off the rails and pull out every imaginable misbehavior in their bag of tricks, or they suddenly become the most helpful little beings around. As a testament to how wonderful they both are, they went quiet and became very interested in their books. I started to think that we needed to get off the plane, that we couldn’t leave without our passports, that we had a hotel in Mumbai to check into which would require our passports, and that we had another flight the next day. Visions floated through my mind of being stuck in Kolkata with no money, no passports, sleeping on the street with the other 3 million poor homeless people of this desperate city.
Times like that call for clear headed, positive action. One thing I had learned in Vipassanna meditation in Australia was of my tendency to create huge dramas in my head about situations. If I was a writer for Hollywood, this would serve me well, but I am not, so it doesn’t. Another thing I had learned was how to ignore those dramas, and to furthermore substitute them for a positive vision of what outcome I would like to see, and put the course of events into action which would be most likely to lead to this outcome.
I fought my way against the tide of people still boarding the plane and found the head stewardess at the front. After explaining our problem, she smiled, and said ‘Don’t worry sir, your passports will be found. Everything will be OK.’ Everything will be ok. Was she in possession of some psychic power of which I was unaware? Was she in on some gag, in which cameras would be revealed to us at any moment, the entire plane breaking out in guffaws of laughter? “Smile and bobble. You are on candid camera!” I let her know that the last place I had seen the passports was going through the security check, and she radioed the terminal right away.
One part of me was greatly reassured by this (the part that wanted it to all be Ok), and another part of me was annoyed by the thought that it could be that easy. I had been picturing some criminal syndicate conspiring with the security personnel to steal our passports, swiftly ushering them off to Hyderabad to the vast identity theft mills in the heart of India, guaranteeing that we would find our credit rating slashed and warrants out for our arrest. Again, I had to dismiss this vision, and trust that worrying was not going to make the outcome any better.
As they started to prepare the plane for departure, I found the stewardess again and asked her if there was any news. She checked again with the ground crew, but informed me that they had found nothing. She said the best thing to do would be to relax and wait until we got to Mumbai to receive any news. Easy for her to say. We were at the point of commitment, and I found myself having to give my trust to a woman I didn’t know, but who’s smile and presence were reassuring enough for me to make my way back to my seat and hope for the best.
Let me express to you how hard it was to be newly arrived in India, in a jet flying from one side of the country to the other, no passports, no idea of what to do, (other than call our embassy,) and leaving the one place where our passports might be. Any doubts we had about whether coming to India was a good idea were being brought to the surface. Had we made the right choice? Was our Karma being tested? Were we being put through the ringer by one of the most amazing and challenging countries on the planet? Would we become just another homeless beggar family on the streets of Mumbai? Would praying to Ganesh, the elephant headed god actually save us in this situation?
Well, I won’t keep you in suspense for any longer. Less than fifteen minutes into our flight, the stewardess came and informed us that our passports had been found, and that they would be on the next flight to Mumbai, arriving 1 hour after us. It seems that when the security officer told me to put my passports away, I had put them in my travel pouch. Then when told to put the pouch through the x-ray, I did. The passports, it seems, fell out of the pouch while going through the x-ray, and the security people didn’t find them until we had prompted a search.
Lesson learned. Never EVER let your passports out of your sight. And always remember to thank Ganesh for his help. Jai Ganesha!
And so we flew off into the sunset, to live happily ever after… we hoped.