‘Sir, any particular reason why you are travelling with an empty laptop bag?’
A and I look at each other in despair. The last 3 hours play out in flashback in front of our eyes.
We are at Heathrow Airport – one of the most ill organized airports in the world, if you ask me, next only to Charles De Gaulle in Paris. We are on our way back from a nice, if a bit hectic, 3 weeks holiday. In the last 3 weeks, after A has finished his work in the London office while I have enjoyed the autumn leaves of London, we have crossed the Abbey Road several times, paid tribute to the Mojo at Père-Lachaise, drunk beer by gallons at the OktoberFest and been overwhelmed by the splendours that are called “The Lion King” and “Moulin Rogue”. We have also had an overload of fish and chips, schnitzel and baguettes and simple home cooked meal of rice and dal is gently calling us back.
We have patiently gone through the torture that is called security checking. Did our strip act without any complaints. Then we had excitedly spent the 2 and half odd hours browsing through the Duty Free shops. We also spent all the loose change of pence and pounds on coffee. Remembered the ugly looking fridge magnet gifted by a colleague on her trip abroad and picked up some chocolates from the Duty Free as a return gift. Checked out the toilets and paid a visit to the smoking lounge. In short, we have done everything that one would usually do when one has 2 hours to while away.
The flight is at 12.05 pm and we dutifully present ourselves for boarding at 11.25 am. The last round of security check happens. And it is precisely here that the ‘penny is dropped’. My dear husband, the seasoned traveller and the perfectionist, either in a hurry to get into the plane that would take him to his rice and dal or enthralled by some blonde in uniform giving him a smile – has left his laptop miles and miles away at the first security check. And then has roamed around the next 2 and half hours with an empty laptop bag.
Now if you know Heathrow, you can sympathize with me. We have traversed through several terminals, walked through labyrinths of passageways to finally be where we are standing now. Going back there – at the initial security check in counter – seems an impossible task. We start reasoning with the attendant; ask him to provide us with a buggy ride or something. Seriously, had this been India, they would have already established an auto rickshaw route, with trade union and everything – the distance is such.
A: I have left my laptop at the security check.
Airport Attendant: My condolences, sir.
A: I need to get it back.
AA: Not possible, sir.
A: Give me one of those carts you use to move around in the airport – I can make it back in time.
AA: I am sorry sir – those are only for invalid passengers.
Me: (Under my breath) And A will fit right in that category in another two seconds.
Me: (Aloud) Just go… don’t waste time arguing with them – we have only 15 minutes left to board the flight.
A: (To me) But I don’t know where to go! (And I believe him because if you know him, you will know that “Men can read maps” is yet another myth perpetrated by men)
A: (To AA making one last effort) Please, I have left my laptop at the security check.
AA: My condolences, sir.
The stiff upper Brit lips don’t move. After more precious minutes lost, when it is finally clear that the conversation is not taking anyone anywhere, they agree to spare a trainee to guide A back to the point of disaster. I am left behind to wait for my husband to make a heroic return.
And I wait. The scheduled departure time arrives and departs. A man approaches me and asks if I am willing to fly without my husband, since it is quite obvious that he has deserted me. I remember my wedding vows of ‘till death do us part’ and refuse him. Also, I think if he gets to miss the flight and stays back in London for one more day, why should I miss out on the fun? My mind starts planning – if I call my brother now, who is halfway to Sussex after dropping us off, I might just be disowned by him. Not a good idea. My friend is in London – but did she not mention that she’d be holidaying in Dover this weekend? I might have a pound or so tucked away somewhere in my pockets – but will that be enough to see us through till the next flight? All kinds of questions cloud my mind as I try to reason with the Airport Attendants as to why they must wait for us.
A senior and serious looking guy comes up to me and asks me if I can identify my luggage which will be unloaded in the next 5 minutes if my dear hubby does not show up. The flight is already 25 minutes behind schedule, thanks to us. The Sardarji, who, while checking my passport when we had entered the departure gate, proudly cooed to me “East or West, India is the best”, is giving me dirty “these Indians” looks. I have no option but to put up a worried face, though deep inside, I am, in a perverse way, very thrilled. I am all geared to ridicule A for the rest of his life for this mess – something which is highly expected of me but definitely not of him. I am also more alarmed at the prospect of losing all my holiday photos that were downloaded to the laptop the night before rather than feeling sorry for A for maybe having lost all his work data.
And then, my brave hero arrives. I am all set to blast him but actually burst out laughing – seeing him, limping his way back, with a proud smile of having accomplished the mission. Apparently he had performed some heroic stunts like jumping over racks of luggage and running through crowds, while knocking a few unsuspecting people down – the scenes we watch over and over in the last 15 minutes of most Hindi movies – where the climax ensues in the airport with the hero trying to stop his lady love from flying away forever. Here, of course, A’s aerobatics were for his beloved laptop and in the process, he had twisted his ankle. And he is drawing solace from the fact that there are at least 10000 odd feather brains like him, with hearts large enough to donate their laptops to the security people. So he gets into a tale of how he had to rummage through several similar looking models, before he finally found the one that belongs to him.
We enter the aircraft– which is well over an hour behind the schedule now. I can feel the dirty looks from all around – similar to the ones I have given a number of times – to that last couple that enters through the door. We find our seats and my tired hero promptly goes off to sleep, leaving me to handle all the glares. The flight finally takes off – 3 hours behind schedule – all thanks to one man and his precious laptop.
Since I am talking about airport horror stories and mentioned CDG somewhere, let me also add another story to this piece. This one happened while we were flying home from the worst airport in the world – Charles de Gaulle. I am not sure when CDG came into being but over the years; it has grown like an un-pruned tree – branches added here and there, without any rhyme or reason or plan. If Heathrow is a nightmare, CDG is hell.
We are again on our way back. We have braved the overcrowded Airport RER from the city and arrived at the airport well before the stipulated time. You see, if you are travelling from CDG, you might as well arrive before time, you never know where and how you might get lost in that mess. So, we dutifully get lost and eventually find our way to the check in counter. The check in counter in question looks like a queue to buy tickets for the first day first show of an Amitabh Bachchan starrer. There is only one counter functional for the flight we are taking and the queue winds and rewinds to a few kilometers. Not to worry – we have 3 hours at our disposal before the scheduled flight. So far, so good.
While we are waiting at the queue, wondering why is it taking more than 30 minutes to issue boarding tickets to each passenger, we hear some ruckus. We look up to see a group of people, all with red flags, chanting some slogan in French. Reminds me of my good old Calcutta, where such scenes are very familiar. People protest at the drop of the hat, go on strike whenever they don’t feel like working. We ask around and find out that there is a similar situation happening here – the ground staff is on strike and hence the delay. Ah well, we take solace from the fact that after all, we Indians, and especially Bengalis, are not the only ones with a penchant to protest.
After almost an hour and half, we are privileged enough to present ourselves at the check in counter. The girl at the counter inspects our tickets and passports and asks us to put our luggage on the conveyer belt. Our luggage travels 10 meters and the conveyer belt stops. The girl makes some frantic phone calls and informs us that the protestors have firmly lodged themselves on the conveyer belts and hence this situation. As she takes out our belongings from the belt and keeps it aside, assuring us that they will be loaded on the flight eventually, I take one last look at my baggage. I make a mental note of all the things that are there inside and do a rough calculation of the value all the things that just might get lost. I can live without that pair of shorts, though it’s my favourite, but how can I replace my sapphire blue strappy sandals for which I had paid a fortune, unknown to A? So far, not so good.
We forgo the opportunity to browse through the Duty free shops and go through security check and board the flight – without any major incident. The flight is scheduled to take off at 12.30 pm. It is 12.45 now and I fix my eyes at the gate so that I can give nasty looks to that last passenger who walks past it. There is a bit of commotion going around that area and we see a few uniformed workers getting in and out of the aircraft. At 1.30 pm, we ask the air hostess what is happening and are informed that because of the strike, it is taking a while to load the luggage. My sapphire blue shoes flash in front of my eyes and I decide to forgive them for the delay.
2 hours have passed since we have entered the air craft and it has not moved an inch. People are getting restless but, like the well behaved Europeans, are bearing it with a smile. Had this been India, a riot would have ensued by now, with some crew members assaulted. We again summon an air hostess and are told that there is some problem with one of the drainage pipes in the lavatory which is being fixed, pouring water to all the stories I have been conjuring up in my head all this while - about bombs being found on the aircraft or secret information of terrorists being hidden on board or such!
1 more hour hence, A has lost it. The air hostess is summoned again and we ask her if they can at least be kind enough to put on the entertainment system so that we can at least do something other than staring blankly at each other. We are told that it cannot be done. Some refreshments perhaps? A starts his patented "You are in a service industry" speech - and those who know him knows that this particular speech never fails to arouse emotions. Most of the speech is however, lost in translation to our French air hostess. But by now, our fellow passengers, encouraged by A’s initiatives, join the protest. Trust a Bengali to organize a demonstration, given the slightest opportunity. The air hostess relents and after a while, we are given some beverages and tidbits to keep our mouth shut.
7 hours wasted on an air craft, while you are in Paris, of all places – time spent staring vacantly at the air conditioner duct while you would rather roam aimlessly on the streets – it is announced that despite all their efforts, the drainage pipe could not be salvaged and the passengers are advised not to use Toilet no A. With that, the air craft finally takes off. I did contemplate suing Malaysian Airlines for those 7 precious hours wasted in an aircraft in Paris – but decided to forgive them when I got back my luggage intact – with both my favourite pair of shorts and the sapphire blue shoes.
The last story in the series of Airport woes. We are on our way back from Saigon. It is an office trip and since both A and me are working at the same office at that time, it is a paid vacation for both of us. The holiday is as it should be – like any other office sponsored holiday, where copious amounts of alcohol have been consumed and every one has a bad hangover. We check in, go through immigration control and are on our way to look for a pub to have the last drop of beer before boarding, when we hear A’s passport number being called on the PA.
I give A one of my famous “I-told-you-so” looks. You see, while in Saigon, we had gone a bit overboard with shopping. But if you are a movie buff as much as we are, you will understand. How can one resist the temptation of picking up the entire work of Kubrick, Woody Allen or Truffaut or the entire collection of Oscars from 1929 to 2000 – for only $1 per DVD? We could not and we ended up buying some 150 DVDs. When A’s name was called, we are sure that all those DVDs will now be confiscated, since it is illegal after all.
We make our way through the crowd again (by now, A has become quite a pro) and we present ourselves to the security officers.
Security Officer: Callying fiel alms.
A: Sorry, alms for what?
SA: Gun? Bang bang. Fiel alms.
A: Sorry, alms for what?
I, with my experience, am wise enough to see this conversation going nowhere. They also figure that out after a while and put A’s luggage through the X-ray machine. And point out 4 spots and repeat the words “Fiel Alms”. Oh…fire arms! Our first instinct is to laugh – but there it is, in front of our eyes – 4 bullet like silhouettes and again, the last 4 days flash in front of our eyes – in rewind mode.
From Saigon, we were taken to Củ Chi tunnel – which was the Viet Cong’s base of operation during the infamous Vietnam War. Apart from the usual touristic activities of actually going underground and crawling through the tunnels, A also got lucky to accomplish his lifelong desire to be in Rambo’s shoes – by getting to fire an AK47. A real AK47, none the less, with real bullets – 4 shots for $5. Having been there and done that, my man proudly retracted the empty cartridges as souvenirs and threw them aimlessly into his bag before leaving for a night of wild partying.
The next scene is as embarrassing as you can imagine. The two of us, in the middle of a crowded airport, throwing soiled under wears everywhere, so that we can retrieve those bullets. After 15 minutes, the bullets are found, hiding in 4 remote corners of the bag and handed over to the security. We are warned that it is an offence to carry even empty cartridges while flying and let off with a warning.
We are not even 5 minutes away from the scene of crime when we hear A’s passport number being announced again. While we enact the climax scene from Hindi movies again, we are sure this time that the DVDs have been discovered. We are told again that A’s bag contains more firearms, this time, a hand grenade. Now imagine our predicament. Two law abiding people, whose only tryst with anything illegal is to buy pirated DVDs and download songs for free from the internet, are being accused of concealing weapons in their luggage. We again deny vehemently – though now I start to doubt if it has indeed been planted to put us in a quandary. I also visualize a scene with A behind the prison bar, in those zebra striped prison garbs and find it quite funny. But this is not a time to laugh; we are in a pickle, all right.
We again rewind the last 4 days – this time we stop at day 3, the day we visited the ill fated Củ Chi tunnel. And realize that the grenade in question is actually a souvenir we had picked up from there – a lamp that looks like a hand grenade. We find it from the corner of the bag and hand it over to them with much protest. We had paid $5 for it, after all. Now we are told that it is illegal to carry anything that might even bear any resemblance to any kind of weapon. And again let off – this time with words spoken in a very stern voice, half of which we could not make out.
We conclude that the souvenir shop at Củ Chi tunnel has stopped producing the lamps long time back – our confiscated lamp will find its way back to the shop window to be sold to some other unsuspecting tourist. But we can’t complain. We walk away with a sigh of relief – our 150 pirated DVDs intact.
I have another story where A's luggage failed to arrive from Paris to Nice and we had to wait for over 3 hours at the airport, for the next flight to bring his stuff. But that story ended with free beers and free lunch, courtesy Air France - so I will not include it in this list.