Auckland International Airport, Saturday 6 October. A few stomach butterflies already airborne. As in past flights alone, I was comforted by the words of my namesake three millennia ago, “If I rise on the wings of the dawn, if I settle on the far side of the sea, even there your hand will guide me, your right hand will hold me fast.” (Psalm 139). Withdrew US$300 against credit card failure, chomped a last beef Big Mac, hugged my parents at the departure gate, and followed the butterflies aloft.
11 hours to Bangkok with Thai air, “smooth as silk”. Videos on the Thai king and Buddhist history, key phrases from the Thai language game. A tip for visitors to Bangkok airport: don’t drop your tickets on the floor while heaving luggage off the carousel. The guard won’t let you back in. You’ll spend the next near-midnight hour chasing round the facilities, chatting up the staff, chafing at their English, till the dozenth grasps your plight, so you can re-enter the luggage area, scour the naked lino with growing disappointment, flag down a friendly taxi salesperson to translate for the cleaning lady, who reaches deeply into her bin and – better than any rabbit from a seedy conjurer’s hat – draws out your creased tickets. I tried to keep smiling and practising “thank you” from that in-flight Thai game. Though in principle, as one official said, it shouldn’t be necessary as it’s all electronic…
A night of luxury in the Bangkok Novotel, with the grandest hotel foyer I’ve seen – outclassing my usual backpackers’ digs. Three books in the bedside drawer: a Gideon’s Bible, “What the Buddha taught” and “A Constitution for Living: Buddhist principles for a fruitful and harmonious life”. Through my window a highway flanked with billboards beckoned towards the city. But I’d been warned of travellers who taxied quickly into town, to rush hour-crawl back – with un-harmonious and unfruitful sentiments – as their plane taxied for take-off.
So a day of countdown in the airport, that no man’s land between worlds. Breakfast was instant noodles from my room’s “minibar”. Lunch with the Bangkok Post over spicy mushroom and crab soup. Vietnamese vege wraps for tea. Boarded the flight, and spent two hours on the ground for repairs. Next to me sat a young Bangalorean, visiting home from his IT job in Taiwan – one of India’s new global tech successes. After a 3 ½ hour flight, we touched down about 11:30pm in Bangalore, India!
Less light and advertising from the sky than more Easterly Asian cities I’ve seen. Airport signs in three scripts: curly circly Kannada, straighter-lined washing-on-a-clothesline Hindi, and English. After Bangkok’s airport (completed last year), you’d hardly call this an international airport (to be fair, it’s to be retired next year). No air bridge to the terminal, but steep stairs to an old bus. Flashing Christmas-tree-like lights framed the elephant god Ganesh above the driver’s head as the bus coughed and bumped along to the terminal building. Stained walls, loose wiring. A slight scrum at the baggage claim. Passport check at a bulky cathode ray computer screen, less high-tech than high time for retirement, certainly not the cutting edge IT I’d expected in India’s IT capital. A short queue past customs, and it was time to face India.
After the two-hour delay I feared I might be stranded at midnight. I ventured into the foyer and saw only eager transport and accommodation touts. No ATM in sight, so squeezed back through a row of plastic chairs to change US$50 to Rupees, officially unobtainable outside India. Later realised I’d been too flustered to count them. My plane seat-mate lent his cell phone to ring my course director, who told me to go out further. Slipped back through the seats, and an official told me off – that line of chairs demarked pre- and post-customs areas. The official (or not – too dazed to tell) insisted I go through customs. I protested – I already had! He changed tack, grabbed my trolley. I held on. We push-pulled it out together as he wheedled for a tip. Seldom have I felt more grateful than when I spotted a slim man with a big ECC sign. The pseudo-official chappie vanished.
Jabaraj chaperoned me through the chaotic parking-lot, into the jeep, and we were off. No seatbelt for the front passenger (me). The driver tooted and flashed headlights before swerving to overtake. Excitement and exhaustion anaesthetised my fear. Streets were dark, many lights dead. We wove past hopeful hitchhikers, shadowy pedestrians, clusters of stray dogs, small temples or shrines through the gloom. 15 minutes later we reached the suburb of Whitefield, turned and bumped down a dirt road and the iron gates of the Ecumenical Christian Centre (ECC) loomed out of the dark. The guard emerged from his gatehouse, swung them open, and we entered the compound. Walked for ever down a corridor of empty bedrooms, shadows receding as Jabaraj flicked on cold fluorescent lights, past two open courtyards, and arrived at my room. Jabaraj opened the heavy door, assured me it was boltable and guards were on duty, promised to return at 8 in the morning to take me to breakfast, and left me alone in the building.
I shot the bolt and turned to inspect my room. Spacious and tidy, walls painted cream. On two walls (a corner room) were windows with bars and insect mesh, frames painted blue and turquoise. I drew the burgundy curtains to shut out the foreign night. White mosquito nets shrouded the twin beds. Two cane chairs and a desk, with reading lamp, vase of artificial flowers and carafe of water. Rummaged in my bag, found the pot of medicaments, dropped in a Puritab. Watched it slowly fizz through the amber glass. Paint was peeling on concrete shelves; their deep recesses reminded me of Roman catacomb graves. Empty except for a candle, matches, and cake of Medimix Ayurvedic soap, with “a unique formulation of 18 herbs”, recalling KFC’s secret herbs and spices. Tiled concrete floor, swept clean. In the corner, two towels and a few coat hangers dangled from a wooden frame. The bathroom had big plastic buckets and a cold shower. Washed my feet under the tap labelled “hot” – it wasn’t. Cleaned my teeth, rinsing mouth and brush in a cup of the purified water – my tablet didn’t leave much taste.
It was 23°C on landing, down from the 28°C night in Bangkok, and there was an overhead fan, so I had a cool night and even put one blanket on, but didn’t sleep much. Fluttering with adrenaline, my butterflies hadn’t all landed yet, and like Prospero’s enchanted isle the air was full of noises, sounds, and strange sweet airs: dogs whining and barking outside the compound, chanting or singing – perhaps a distant temple or wedding music, a train horn, airplanes; nearby were loud crickets and the calls of unknown birds.