Travel: Travel Travails
Who wants my passport?
Put simply, something not-so-good happens on every trip I take abroad, which quickly turns the vacation into a not-so-good trip. It took a while for me to see the pattern; now I brace myself for the jinx.
Circa Singapore. The travel agency got across my passport to me one hour before I was due to leave for the airport. I grabbed the blue-jacketed little book with much relief, did a cursory check, and found that my passport number differed from the perforated numbers on the top of each page. By one digit.
It was my first time abroad and I am not the calmest person at the best of times; moreover, the alert scrutiny of passports at Changi was already a by-word. But luck or something was on my side; the immigration officer manning the counter shot me a keen look and I was waved through.
In the U.S., I was hit by a tummy bug that nagged at my insides all through the visit, and the long, multi-flight journey back to India was done in the most miserable state ever; me doubled over, the American Airlines staff ignoring me, the Singapore Airlines staff giving me impersonal looks.
England and France came next. The English leg was smooth as Devonshire cream. In France, we took a train to Chartres to visit the famous cathedral. En route, my wallet was picked and I didn’t get wind of it till we sat down for lunch at a small bistro. I was banker for the day and reached into my bag to find the wallet missing. “That’s okay,” my travel companions (TCs) said. “We’ll get your Travellers Cheques blocked and write off the cash as a lost cause.” Then they looked at my pale face. “What?” they chorused. “My passport was in the wallet,” I choked.
Cleaned up wallet
Not one person spoke English at the local police station. Summoning up our schoolgirl French, we explained the situation, the cop in charge made some calls, then told us to return at 5 p.m. when the train would be back at Chartres station. The intervening hours are a blur till the train attendant handed me my passport and wallet, the latter picked clean, of course.
Exactly three days before the Italy trip, I heard that I’d have to make a personal appearance at the Mumbai consulate to get my visa cleared. The customary attack of nerves set in but I was there on the appointed date. A four-hour wait later, I was ushered in front of the elderly Indian lady manning the visa counter. She gave my papers a cursory look, then asked, “Tell me, how come your husband is letting you travel without him?” I said weakly, “I take some holidays alone. He has no problem with that.”
I got my visa, flew home to Bengaluru and rushed off to Rome. “Customary hurdle over,” I told my TCs confidently. “Now the trip will be smooth.”
And it was. Right till the last day. Our flight home was in the wee hours of the next day, and we decided to spend the night in Fiumicino airport. It was a night of nightmarish quality because the airport shut down, the airport eateries shuttered and a motley clump of unsavoury characters, running the gamut of East European hookers, drug pushers, a bag lady, two tramps, a man who sat opposite and stared at me lasciviously for hours on end, all entered the act. I was a wreck when I finally boarded the flight home.
In what was now a customary rite of passage, I got my Spain visas one day before travel. Everything went swimmingly till I reached Barcelona and realised I’d left my camera battery behind in Seville; it was the time travellers carried cameras instead of reaching for their mobile phones. We had an hour or so before a trip to the Sagrada Familia. I asked if there was a store where I could get a camera battery, was given directions, and set off. I got my new battery and set off back to the hotel, only to realise after a while that I’d lost my way… and that I couldn’t recall the numbers of the hotel we were staying at; it had numbers but no name. It then became an interlude straight out of Run Lola Run, with me asking (mainly non-English speakers) if there was any hotel-with-numbers (1234? 4321? 0007? Aaaargh!) in the vicinity. Luckily, I struck luck with the zillionth person I asked.
The jinx was back in full force for the China trip. There was this long-standing dichotomy between my given name and the name I go by in life. Since the former (Shylaja, since you ask) is the one in my passport, I use it only when I travel abroad. My TC booked our tickets to Beijing, and she did it for Sheila Kumar and herself. A hurried call to Lufthansa revealed the whole alteration process was going to take more time than we had. So I decided to change my name once and for all to ‘Sheila’. That took some scrambling to find an agent and quite a bit of money, but I finally went to China as Sheila Kumar.
New Zealand. That old foe of mine, the tummy bug, hit again, before the trip this time. Should I bail? Should I steer clear of all foods on the trip? “No need,” my doctor assured me. “You’ll be okay once you are there, the meat, the fish, the air is all fresh, pure and good.”
Duly armed with the doctor’s confidence, I flew off to Kiwiland and tucked merrily into some superb lamb and some even more superb salmon on the night of our welcome dinner. Then I spent the night in extremis. The next morning, exhausted and scared, I resolved to turn vegetarian for the duration of the trip, to stave off further trouble. My memories of NZ are mainly of watching others tuck into meat, fish and poultry at barbecues, hangis and other forms of culinary revels, while I fiddled around with pieces of squash, cucumber and peppers.
And now, as I gear up for my next trip (East Europe, since you ask), you no doubt want to know why on earth I travel at all. I travel to break my travel jinx. Because break it must. Someday or the other.
This ran in THE HINDU of 5 JAN 2019.