Crumbs From the Corner: Adventures in Woolgathering

Friday, February 27, 2009

Eyes On Us

"Never write about a place until you're away from it, because that gives you perspective."
-Ernest Hemingway

Eyes, so many eyes turned on us wherever we walked. We were in India, and I, wholly conscious of being a beacon in the crowd, attempted to dismiss the matter as an ordinary fact of life.
Sometimes, as we strolled around with our hefty backpacks, Spouse would discreetly point out a pair of eyes that seemed not to blink at all, so stunned was the owner at my presence in a remote village or on a crowded footpath in Calcutta.
And then one day, a significant span of time after we had arrived in India, Spouse stumbled upon something of note.
"No wonder they were all staring. I think we should take the tags off our backpacks," he said sagely.
Unbeknown to us we had been jaunting about the place with enormous, fluttering blue tags that said BRITISH AIRWAYS in bold, imposing, look-at-me-I'm-a-tourist letters.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Holding On

"At the height of laughter, the universe is flung into a kaleidoscope of new possibilities."
-Jean Houston

Appropriately, Spouse found a map of the world when we browsed for books in India: brightly illustrated, roughly three feet in width when rolled up, depicting all our favourite places and destinations yet unexplored. It would be a suitable memento of our visit to another continent.
Due to the awkward size we were forced to carry it as hand luggage when we passed through the airport on our return journey. Security officials stiffened slightly whenever they caught sight of our burden, and, perhaps a first for world maps, it earned its very own luggage tag.
Heathrow Airport, being the centre of all chaos, is enormously difficult to navigate and one must take a series of crowded shuttle trains to get to the gate of departure on time.
We did just that, squeezing onto a carriage, grasping a pole with our free hands and struggling to stay upright despite the weight of our backpacks and the motion of the train threatening to send us both toppling.
An elderly couple stepped between the automatic doors. Searching desperately for seats, they found none, and searching for a body-sized bit of space, they found a corner next to us.
The fellow reached out his hand as the shuttle gave a fierce jolt, and he made a grasp for the safety of a pole.
Inches from it his arm seized up, his face turned the colour of beetroot and he turned to his wife, muttering something which caused her to turn the same shade.
I silently hoped, because I was unable to contain my own hysterical laughter for a moment longer, that he would find the lighter side of the matter. How dreadful if I were the only one laughing.
Mercifully his nature was that of a man who appreciates a joke.
"I am sorry," he turned to Spouse, his German accent thick and heavy, his words careful and slow and humble, his throat filled with the music of laughter.
He said, with surprising honesty, "I was trying to reach for you, I was going to hold your map!"
That action would have done nobody the least bit of good: I was clutching Spouse, who was in possession of the rolled-up map, and if the fellow had indeed grabbed the map, his own wife having firm hold of him, we would all have tumbled to the floor, the world map jutting gaily out of the heap of arms and legs and backpacks.
Minutes later Spouse and I were out of the train and on a moving stairway, the figures of the little German couple dwindling behind us. Despite the increasing distance their amusement was still in evidence, for they beamed at us whenever we turned around, a hint of bashfulness underneath the gentleman's high spirits.
At last we and our troublesome, duplicitous map faded out of their sight; but I would wager that the curious matter of the map-pole left an indelible mark on the remainder of their journey.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Your Wife

"We wander for distraction, but we travel for fulfillment."
-Hilaire Belloc

After an unplanned night in Hyderabad we determined that a flight would leave for Calcutta after breakfast. We packed our belongings with a curious combination of care and haste and were soon setting off to the airport on a bus.
Along the way, Spouse later whispered to me, another passenger had made a comment that he thought worth repeating.
"Your wife is so kind and soft spoken, and gentle," the lady had said to him.
I was left astonished at such accolades when Spouse had finished telling of his encounter with the friendly soul to whom our travelling companion A had first introduced us.
Truth be told, I did not recognise myself in that description; moreover, I had barely exchanged words, perhaps a smile, with the person in question.
"It doesn't sound like me," I said to Spouse in jest. Then reality dawned and the joke paled and all was clear.
"As a matter of fact, I don't think it was me!"
We soon drew the conclusion that it was not I at all she had been referring to, but A, who was perpetually dressed in Indian garb as a result of not being in possession of the remainder of her luggage; and the poor woman had all along assumed that I was the friend and A the wife dressed appropriately for visiting her husband's birth country.
It is a testimony of A's good nature that I was able to tell the tale and elicit a barrel of laughter into the bargain.
It emerged that A had earlier witnessed the lady struggling with a heavy bag and had suggested that Spouse would come along and help her. When we gave it some consideration, that certainly seemed to be the catalyst for the error.
We said our farewells to A in Calcutta, she to go on her journey and Spouse and I to go on ours.
We had been three, then we were two.
There was more than a hint of sadness, a strange and unexpected sentiment given the fleeting and chance circumstances of our meeting.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

First, and Last Time (7)

"All doors open to courtesy."
-Thomas Fuller

I envision a scenario in which, before my next visit to India, I am faced with certain choices.
Would I prefer to arrive at my destination within, say, one day of the original promised time, during which period I would not be verbally attacked by the razor teeth of the ill-tempered stewards? Or would I fly with British Airways again?
Would I take my chances next time with Malaria, with the possibility of fever and stomach trouble and misery and discomfort and hazard to my health? Or would I agree to swallow daily a pill that, on paper, protects against the dreaded illness but in truth leads one to wonder from one's sick corner how much worse Malaria could possibly be?
In each case I would gladly choose the former: at times it seemed that anti-Malaria tablets and British Airways conspired to turn my trip to dust, and I vowed to consign both of those entities to a distant shelf, never to be utilised again.
During our evening in Hyderabad, when it seemed as though nobody would come to tell us anything at all, a British Airways representative arrived with a smug smirk and the notion that he would soon pacify the crowd of travellers.
Soon forty of us had gathered around his desk as he explained that there would be no flight to Calcutta that evening due to infrequent service to that destination; that British Airways had been gracious enough to set us all up in hotels; that we ought to make the best of it.
Those who were devastated by the turn of events- in particular I recall one half of an intended wedding party- including business people who had little time to spare, grew more outraged as the representative continued to deliver his well-rehearsed speech.
"Some of us are losing money!" somebody cried out. "We have companies, we can't afford this time loss!"
Heads bobbed furiously.
Somebody else asked if we could pay for a flight by ourselves and later be reimbursed by British Airways. Suddenly the representative's shirt collar seemed too tight and he realised his would not be such an easy task.
"No, no, British Airways couldn't promise that."
Questions flew forth; it seemed that British Airways could not promise anything, rendering his presence little more than a thinly veiled distraction.
Spouse began to direct legal questions at the fellow, who soon looked as though he might melt in his suit.
The representative had made an appearance but could tell us nothing, assure us of nothing and inform us of nothing, not even the likelihood of the next flight to Calcutta.
All the while voices were being raised ever so gradually as frustration increased. For my part, I suggested loudly that the money British Airways was spending on our hotel stay was nothing compared to the amount they would part with if we all got together and sued the airline.
I was unable to offer much in the way of such bold comments, however: my anti-Malaria tablets, which had first stirred trouble during the six hour delay on the plane, were causing painful knots and cramps inside my stomach that forced me to slip out of the crowd and locate a seat for myself as the representative, no longer grinning, was being assailed by an impatient group that no longer tolerated being treated like collective fools.
"Are you all right, Madam?" Through rushing eardrums I heard a concerned voice nearby. I glanced up to see the hotel manager bending over me. His face bore a worried expression.
Being overwhelmed for a long moment by his astute observation and thoughtfulness, which I had not expected, and my natural instinct leading me to insist that I was perfectly fine, I decided to be truthful and suggested that perhaps I did indeed need a doctor or some sort of medical adviser.
In ten minutes I was gratefully clutching an array of medicines designed to aid my well-being, and my appreciation of the hotel and its staff rose to unprecedented levels.
The near-riot was still in progress, although it was clear to all present that nothing had changed and nothing had been gained, and slowly people were trickling away to their rooms.
I was struck by this: for every slick mouthpiece and empty-suited representative one meets in the world, there is a professional, courteous employee who goes above and beyond the call of duty to ease the distress of a stranger.

Monday, February 23, 2009

First, and Last Time (6)

"Adventure is not outside man; it is within."
-David Grayson

Spouse, A and I, having revived ourselves on an enormous breakfast buffet, made enquiries about the next flight to Calcutta, a subject which remained shrouded in mystery.
We were advised by the hotel staff to take an excursion into the nearest town, see the sights and return by a certain time, at which point a proper plan of action ought to be in position.
I was mesmerised by my first experience in an Indian taxi, feeling as I did that the vehicle might fall asunder in an instant, and at once terrified and elated by the chaos and the apparent danger that darted toward me in the form of cows, rickshaws and bicycles.
At Charminar, Hyderabad's most significant monument, we ventured up the narrow stone staircase. Unable to reject the pleas and offers of a tour guide we soon found ourselves listening to the notes of history that rattled easily off his tongue. He was a friendly enough fellow, and his exuberant hand gestures indicated his pride and deep knowledge of Hyderabad.
Overlooking Hyderabad from a lofty structure built in 1591, rather dizzy from the tremendous height, I felt the first faint glow of appreciation for the diversion that blew us off our course and enabled us for a brief time to be in the very fine company of A.
On returning to our hotel by noon we were aggrieved to find that no word had yet been officially announced regarding our flight save for the rumbling rumour that it was not likely to take place that day.
We were advised to rouse up an appetite for lunch and dinner and tomorrow's breakfast: we might be enjoying them in Hyderabad.

Friday, February 20, 2009

First, and Last Time (5)

"A man's errors are his portals of discovery."
-James Joyce

Two hundred and seventy miserable travellers filed into the airport, through the Immigration checkpoint and over to a line of representatives that found themselves dealing with an unexpected boatload of work.
To their credit they worked with precision and politeness to appease disgruntled natures.
It was morning by then. Another day was beginning and, as sometimes happens with adventures and journeys, we were all quite far from where we wished to be.
There was high tension, and rumours that British Airways had kept us on the plane overnight in order to save the expense of a night's lodging, which, in truth, nobody was wholly able to contradict.
Spouse and I and our new friend A had been assigned rooms in Novotel Hyderabad, although we greatly hoped and expected to depart for Calcutta after breakfast and a chance to freshen up.
We stood with a growing group of men and women who would go to the same hotel; a series of buses had been organised to dispatch us to our respective places.
I watched as one little old man was given a piece of paper and told that he must get on the bus when it arrived and proceed to Novotel with- she pointed to our group.
All he heard, poor fellow, was the bad news, and his remaining spirit and supply of patience seemed to crumble there and then.
"No hotel?"
After hours of trauma he was unable to withstand any more grief.
"Novotel," the confused assistant repeated, but she pronounced it "no hotel," and set the old man into brief hysterics of anguish.
He looked around at the rest of us and threw his hands up. I suspect a tear or two might have been caught in his eye.
"No hotel!"
Cruel visions streamed through his head of being marched back to the plane to await the captain's next word, or being forced to curl up on the floor of the bus.
Relief and laughter flooded his tired face when at last it was understood: Novotel was a four-star accommodation where he would find a comfortable bed and some food.
After the matter was thus clarified, he shook his head in bafflement once again at the absurdity of the scene in which we found ourselves.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

First, and Last Time (4)

"Surprises are foolish things. The pleasure is not enhanced, and the inconvenience is often considerable."
-Jane Austen

"Welcome to Hyderabad," the captain said without a trace of irony.
Seatbelts were unbuckled with a synchronised snap because, deluded and exhausted, we thought we would imminently exit the plane.
"We're just waiting for the word from the authorities inside, and we'll be getting you all into the airport as soon as possible," came the increasingly familiar voice and message.
After he echoed it for the eighteenth time people grew weary of standing in the aisles and returned, grunting, to their seats.
Shortly thereafter the stewards made an appearance with water and little packages of pretzels- an ominous sign that we might hear the message a nineteenth time.
Some indeterminate amount of time later all available snacks had been consumed, the toilets were in disrepair, the stewards' tempers had reached an alarming scale and we all watched in mute horror as a passenger was removed by paramedics.
Her fate is yet unknown to me.
"Any minute now," said the captain; and true to his word, six hours after landing in Hyderabad we were given freedom.
We shuffled into the terminal to gather further instructions which were, as it turned out, to serve us for the next thirty hours.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

First, and Last Time (3)

"Uncertainty and mystery are energies of life. Don't let them scare you unduly, for they keep boredom at bay and spark creativity."
-R. I. Fitzhenry

The pilot had offered an explanation for the alteration of our plans. To anyone awake and paying the slightest bit of attention, the reason was flimsy at best; at worst, we were deep in the middle of an inexplicable mystery.
"We are unable to land due to thick fog," he chirped, and fell silent for the next five hundred miles.
We three looked at one another; our friend, with the image of Calcutta's cars and trees burned into her mind, did not know what to say. Nor, as it turned out, did Spouse's family, who had been waiting patiently and had noted the brilliant stars in a clear sky.
I looked all about the plane for a single disconcerted soul who might be disputing the notion of fog, but all complaints were regarding an unexpected visit to Hyderabad.
The Fog Effect: blindly accepting without question a scenario which, with a little rumination, would soon be found to be an impossible one.

First, and Last Time (2)

"Make voyages! Attempt them... there's nothing else."
-Tennessee Williams

Following an announcement that we were about to make our descent into Calcutta, passengers began scooping up luggage and jackets, setting their seats upright, folding tray tables and sighing loud relief that the long flight was drawing to an end.
The stewards had retired to their respective corners for landing and we were moments from reaching Indian soil.
Spouse and I and our seat neighbour watched miniature screens in front of us: they offered a map and details about altitude, the time and distance left until we reached our destination, and the current local time.
I would wager that we were three of a small handful of people bothering to watch the screen at such a late stage in the journey but it was captivating to watch the number of miles run from 200 to 100, to 50, and to see the altitude numbers as they plummeted.
Our travelling companion- let us simplify matters and call her 'A'- sat beside the window and commented on the cars and trees that she could identify.
After a time Spouse nudged me.
"Look," he said. "We must be circling." He indicated the screen, and both A and I noted that the miles did not appear to be tumbling as they had been.
It happens on occasion that a jet might arrive too early and is forced to complete a few laps of the sky while waiting for the path to be clear.
The figures soon stated that we had in fact flown ten miles from the airport. Spouse shifted a little in his seat at the temporary suspension of our landing. He was thinking of his family, waiting to greet us at the airport at one hour after midnight.
Frequently, in that instant before touching down, I find that the moment seems painfully protracted as though the flight might never end.
When we were twenty miles from the airport I wearily began to wonder if that sentiment was becoming justified. Thirty miles outside Calcutta Spouse, A and I sat bolt upright in our seats, unable to suppress the alarm that had been quietly growing inside us.
Then we were fifty miles away and not a single word from the pilot; nor at seventy, nor at ninety, nor at one hundred miles. Notably, neither was there a whisper of alarm from our fellow passengers who were perhaps not so fully engrossed in the information screens as we three were, perhaps not so aware that we had been on the verge of landing when we flew away again without a hint of explanation.
"This is your captain speaking," the voice finally broke the eerie silence one hundred and twenty miles from Calcutta. I was glad to hear any news at all.
"I'm afraid that we won't be able to land in Calcutta as planned. We're going to land instead in Hyderabad."
"Hyderabad?" Spouse was visibly shocked.
"Hyderabad?" A could only repeat the captain's and Spouse's words.
I, poor thing, did not know where Hyderabad was, but Spouse knew, and A knew. Hyderabad was, as I soon learned, almost one thousand miles away from Calcutta. There were a good number of airports in between that might have served us, but it seemed destined to be Hyderabad. Passengers were grumbling about the matter, but something far more troubling seemed to go unnoticed.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

First, and Last Time (1)

"A man's manners are a mirror in which he shows his portrait."
-Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Spouse and I flew to India with British Airways. For both of us it was the first experience with that airline and I add without a shred of reservation that it will also be the last.
Having suffered an intolerably rude crew on a momentous flight, we were ready to land in Calcutta and part with the staff.
It was most unfortunate, but numerous bouts of spiteful lip curling and eye-rolling at the passengers were routinely followed by rude asides to colleagues, comments of the most juvenile and unnecessary nature.
A stewardess strode by balancing a tray of drinks, whereupon I and the lady next to me made our requests. Spouse asked for some water but alas, the tray was empty.
"One tray, one me," she stunned Spouse with a snarl, behaving as though she had been interrupted in the midst of some serious business, and not withstanding the fact that she had come along of her own accord, that Spouse had merely been answering the question of what he might wish to drink, and that nothing in Spouse's tone had indicated she had to make haste in fetching his beverage.
"This is my worst nightmare," I overheard one stewardess mutter to another when numerous passengers suddenly began clamouring for various drinks and snacks.
Nor was it the journey of our dreams.

Monday, February 16, 2009

One Small Spark

"Plunge boldly into the thick of life, and seize it where you will, it is always interesting."
-Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe

I was humbled to recently attend Asia's largest book fair, a most significant element of Calcutta's past and present. The Calcutta Book Fair, when Spouse and I arrived on the scene, was seething with avaricious readers on the hunt for a rare paperback, a comic from their distant childhood or the latest bestseller.
It was a chaotic, complex gathering, worthy of the vast space it occupied, and a genuine haven both of literature and of food: the familiar scent of crisp paper wafted from one direction while the aroma of the latter threatened to veer me off the path of words and into a world of perpetual eating.
"Let's begin with the books," I said to Spouse, but I said it with an uncertain quiver in my voice because I also longed to examine the edible sustenance as soon as possible.
I would have been content to remain at that tantalising juncture for any number of weeks, or at least until the much-anticipated festival drew to a close.
Over our indecisive heads a loudspeaker was dispensing thundering information about the event but offered no sage advice on whether the books or the food ought to be delved into first.
"Please be careful when lighting cigarettes," the speaker suggested in an emphatic, sincere voice that cemented the gravity of the warning, "because one small spark can usher in terrible danger."
There and then, wedged awkwardly between thousands of people, thoroughly absorbing the adventuresome scene I found myself in- a moment which was bordering on the surreal- I knew I was in a place like no other.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Have a Nice Day, and Much More

"If a man be gracious and courteous to strangers, it shows he is a citizen of the world."
-Francis Bacon, Sr.

During the early segment of our stay in India a curious chain of circumstances caused an extra, but most welcome, travelling companion to one day be seated at the breakfast table with Spouse and I.
Our friend ordered a hearty meal of eggs from one of the waiters who hovered gently over everything- attentive fellows who poured steaming tea into delicate cups for thirsty patrons and who hurried over if a diner lifted a finger to an eyebrow to dissolve an itch.
Shortly after, a waiter materialised with an enormous plate and slid the breakfast onto the table in front of its hungry owner.
Then he said, so softly and sincerely we three took a moment to believe our ears, "have a nice omelette," and he slipped away to attend to other chores.
His comment, uttered entirely without embellishment or awareness of its grace, was both extraordinary and appropriate for a trio about to embark on an excursion into an unusual, exotic land.
It takes one sort of character to wish somebody a nice day, or even a nice stay in India; and quite another sort to begin with the slightest, most infinitesimal detail.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Wise Bird

"Down in their hearts, wise men know this truth: the only way to help yourself is to help others."
-Elbert Hubbard

Promptly each morning in Calcutta the same feathered fellow would appear on the windowsill, peer in at Spouse and I through the thick glass, and cry furiously for us to hurry and begin the day's adventures.
"What are you waiting for?" he quite seemed to be questioning us as he hopped about impatiently.
We trusted that the old crow must possess valuable insight, given that he flew over a labyrinth of twisted streets all his life long. With his brittle call still ringing in our ears we would make haste and set out for some hours of exploration.
If the old crow was indeed familiar with the territory then he would know about the people of the city. He would know about their consistent, forthright willingness to help others, to guide lost strangers onto the appropriate path, and to do so with politeness and graciousness.
The crow would understand that gatherings of such obliging souls are a rarity and that in order to discover them one must walk a good deal, and prepare for extended moments of being lost.
On foot, and sorely lacking a map, Spouse and I encountered many individuals from whom we had to request help: not one appeared to resent the intrusion.
If Spouse and I should ask one passer-by about how to get to such a place, and if that passer-by should hesitate briefly, three or four more stragglers would rapidly convene, form a group and have a healthy discussion about the most efficient route, at the end of which Spouse and I would turn in the direction of the most steady pointed finger and soon be on our way.
Spouse, on one occasion, paused to ask a traffic policeman for his expertise on finding a particular building. The latter gave it, with much pride in his city and a courteous note in his voice, only for us to find the way barred by a surge of cars and rickshaws and hurtling trucks.
Seeing our trouble, the policeman stepped out of his little cubicle, raised a hand of authority and proceeded to halt the traffic so that the pair of us could cross the road in safety.
The crow, firm in his insistence that the precious day begin sooner rather than later, might have witnessed our experiences unfolding from his high perch on a building, and tossed his head in that assured 'I-told-you-so' manner of wise birds who know the streets and the hidden humanity of the people living and working upon them.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Mater Missed Me

"A man travels the world in search of what he needs and returns home to find it."
-George Moore

During my recent absence Mater wondered with increasing frequency how I was faring on my adventure, and she looked forward to each sporadic, fleeting moment of contact.
I suspect now that I underestimated the rarity of that communication. After two weeks of attempting to visualise the journey, Mater experienced a singular, noteworthy dream in which I, while remaining otherwise familiar, was suddenly endowed with a strong Indian accent.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Ode To a String On a Bus in India

A little knot
That Time forgot,
A frayed and forlorn twine:
To be exact
It held, intact,
This humble life of mine.
A rusty bus
Was kept, thus,
And I preserved inside:
Jostled about
I'd have fallen out
If the string weren't tied.

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