Caught by the River

Shadows & Reflections – Hannah Hamilton

17th December 2008

In which, as the year comes to it’s end, our friends and collaborators look back and share their moments;

2008 has mostly seen me learning about people, not least myself. But in tandem with that learning has come an understanding of both the gentle art of tolerance (something that, prior to this, I had never had much time for) and the wonders that find you when you stop forcing the world to be just as you want it.

Here is an example of that learning in action.

“Looking back, it was the most Indian of exits, encapsulating the full spectrum of futility, frustration and fantastic-ness that makes India such a uniquely loveable challenge. I loaded my bags onto a trolley and barged through the throng of families who couldn’t afford to pay the 40 rupees to get to the greeting barrier inside the building. The man on the door asked for my ticket and passport, and I showed him. He let me through. I got to the second barrier inside, and was asked for my ticket and passport again. I obliged, and was told that my flight wasn’t checking in for an hour so I’d have to wait. Fifteen minutes later, my flight was called. I went back to the same man and he asked me for my ticket and passport again. I got through the barrier and was approached by a BA rep. Could he see my ticket? Sure. Could I scan my bags through the third scanning machine (there being no discernible difference, no barriers and no queue at any of them)? Sure. The bags go through. Mr Bag Scanning Machine Man wants to see my ticket. Sure. I can proceed to check in. I’m traversing the ten yards between the scanner and the check in desk, and another BA rep would like to see my ticket. Sure. This queue please. Thanks, I know.

The check in girl takes my ticket and informs me I have £50 + 500 rupees to pay in order to board the flight. She doesn’t know why. I have no cash (“You have no cash?!”). I have no credit card (“You have no credit card?!!”). I have a debit card…? (“Oh ok.”) I hand it to her. “We don’t accept cards, only cash.” So how can I pay you? “You have to go to the ATM.” Where is the ATM? Back out the front of the airport, down the far end, beside domestic arrivals (a good half a kilometre away).” Right.

Ten minutes of confused radio messages later, a BA escort arrives. Can he see my ticket? Sure. He walks me back through the two barriers and outside, stopping to ask every white face he passes for its ticket too. He leaves me there. I half walk half run to the other end of the airport. The ATM won’t accept my card. I spend 15 minutes looking for another ATM that will, get the money, negotiate the scrum of pushy rickshaw drivers who assume I’m fresh off the plane, and peg it back to the main door for International departures, where the same guard I’d passed twice in the last half hour asks for my ticket again. So does the guard at the second barrier.

Back at check in, the BA girl takes my money, gives me my window seat, and sends my backpack off down the conveyor belt. I make my way over to customs and sail through the barrier, into the queue for passport control. “Miss!!! Miss!!! Miss!!!” I hear, and turn around with a scowl, spitting a venomous “W.h.a.t.” at the BA rep straining for my attention. “You’ve been upgraded.”

The venom melts, and I go back out through customs, past the sign that says you can’t go back out, and pluck my World Traveller Plus (baby) ticket from her manicured hand. Window seat. Yes. I’m about to sail back through customs for the second time when I’m stopped. “Where’s your form?” What form? “The form.” Erm… “It is necessary to be filling the form.” I find the form, fill it out, and go back through for the third time.

Up the escalators is duty free. I’m scoping the shelves for a bottle of decent whiskey to blow my last rupees on. I clock a bloke clutching an Irish passport and assume he’s on the same mission, and breathe a sigh of relief when I spot the lone bottle of Jameson’s on the shelf seconds before he does. I snatch it quick. His face visibly flattens. At the till, I ask how much it is. “12 dollars.” How much in rupees? “We don’t accept rupees.” What? “We only accept rupees for tobacco purchases.” Jesus. H. Christ. “You need to go to the Bureau de Change.” Where is it? “Out the front of the airport.” Motherfucker, I think, at the top of my voice, and proceed to plan B.

“Pleeeeeeeeease? Pleeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeaaase??? Pretty pretty pleeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee
eease?!” The clock ticks. She looks at me sternly. “Oh, alright.”

I pay, and go to take the bag with the bottle in. “Oh no no no. You can’t take it now.” Huh? “Someone will give it to you before you board.” Huh?! “Yes.” How will they find me?! “No problem, no problem. Here is receipt.” Are you sure?! This shit is precious. “Yes yes no problemthankyou. Next?”

Give in, I think. Just give in. This is India. You can’t fight it. You will never win.

A whiskey-less Hannah files through security, ticket at the ready, and slumps down in the smoking room (which exists despite the proliferation of signs stating that smoking is banned everywhere in the airport) with a copy of The Mother On Desire – Auroville’s spiritual guru’s thoughts on why we want things and what happens when we stop.

After a couple of hours, the flight starts to board. Ticket again. No sign of the whiskey at the gate. No sign of the whiskey in the queue. We get to the little tunnel thing that connects the terminal to the plane. No sign of the whiskey. I’m dangerously close to the front of the queue when man in a uniform strolls straight up to me and hands me the whiskey. He doesn’t ask for the receipt.

Whiskey in hand, and still a little spellbound, I notice two queues forming a metre or so away from the entrance to the plane. Bearing in mind that we’ve already been through security, we’re ushered behind a screen and one by one, instructed to drop our bags, remove our coats, then casually patted down by two women. Right.

I put my coat back on, redistribute my bags about my person, and make my way baby step by baby step to the front of the queue. Standing at the door of the plane are two BA air-hostesses with practical faces, an accurate command of the present simple tense and perfume that doesn’t smell like mouldy talcum powder. I collapse into my seat and scour the movie selection for the most predictable American shoot ’em up I can find. Thank you, Mark Wahlberg. Thank you.

Ten air-conditioned, micro-waved hours and 5,500 miles later, I’m sitting in Heathrow arrivals lounge nursing a long-craved cup of peppermint tea that cost me the equivalent of a slap up meal in India and make a call to my mum that’s more expensive than a night in a bamboo hut on Arambol beach.

It’s good to be home…”