19th February, Friday 2010 onwards......
I heaved a sigh of relief as the announcement on the PA system confirmed the end of a long journey. The LAN Airlines plane was going to land at A Merino Benitez Terminal Intl. I was in Santiago, Chile. I looked out of the window at the sparkling lights; it was better than a naulakha haar; it was a whole naulakha saree. I took a deep breath, closed my eyes and ‘click’, the image was captured in my mind forever. And yes the relief too! But relief isn’t a long-term friend here in Chile. It prefers to hop in and hop out. My first encounter with it was waiting to happen. As I switched on my cell and selected my service provider, I was greeted with a definite message that I wasn’t registered with the only one name that popped up on my screen. I swore, oh yes I did, at Airtel India as ardently as I had blessed them till Sao Paulo, Brazil. I couldn’t communicate with Tintin and Manu, and the rest of India. Okay, don’t panic I whispered to myself. Get through the formalities and then start the dumb-charades.
I was registered for wheel-chair assistance, thank god for that, so I was usually the last person in and the last person out. This was a small price to pay considering the great deal of help all that assistance was. Not too late I was in the chair and being wheeled through immigration. It was as quickly seen to as it had been with all formalities at all the airports, from IGI Delhi to Chatrapati Shivaji Mumbai, and O.R. Tambo Intl Johannesburg to Guarulhos Intl Sao Paulo.
At Santiago, there'd be a small delay as my declaration of carrying condimentos required a quick look at the relatively small packet of masalas I had packed. I say small because given our Indian penchant for carrying our food and spices wherever we go, it’s needless to elaborate on the shapes, sizes and contents of a Desi’s spice-bags. So the surprised look on the face of the man inspecting the goods was justified. I thought he was a bit suspicious as he looked at me with a crooked smile. Just when I thought he was unnecessarily going to waste time opening up the other bag too, he decided that I was too pathetic a sight and waved me along. I must have been a very sad sight to behold in all that beauty; especially considering I put on a hang-dog expression and sank into the wheel-chair, to beg sympathy if not empathy from the hardest of hearts. Don’t get me wrong, the chair was necessary...the expression wasn’t.
So here I was, cleared by immigration and ready to be picked up. I was wondering whether it was time to start waving my hands and contorting my face and concocting a language very much like English except for the vowel ‘o’ appended to each word. I decided to put off the act for a while and check if familiar faces were at the door. To pump up the positive energy I even conjured up images of two happy Indians smiling broadly and rushing to me with their arms spread wide to embrace me.
“No... No,” I reiterated, “it’s mama in Spanish too.”
“Non Espanol?” an unfamiliar voice fell on my ears and very non-Indian face materialised before my eyes. It was the attendant and we had been in front of the exit door for a couple of minutes I think.
“Non Espanol, only English,”
“Ahh,” he stretches the word dramatically.
“Non Eenglish, only Espanol,” he smiled pointing to himself.
So how do you know how to use “only?” I didn’t enunciate that but conveyed it through my vacant stare.
He rattled off something, punctuated with looks at the door. I understood that he wanted to know if any of the name cards that were being waved in front of me by travel agents, had my name on it. The agents themselves were keen to know that. God knows how exasperating it must be for them too. I glanced at the names, none resembled mine so I craned my neck to look around the bearers of the placards and behind them, but no familiar face came into the periphery of my view. I shook my head and launched into my game of dumb-charades. It wasn’t so difficult to convey I needed to phone. He grabbed the chair and rolled me down to the public phone. He stretched out his hand for the coins. I nodded my head, took out a few dollars and showed him I needed to get change. He understood the situation quickly and well and was getting bugged. But I was his charge and he couldn’t abandon me. So he rolled me back to where we had entered the exit lounge. There was a small counter there selling knick-knacks. Things travellers would need. He explained to the sales-girl that we needed change in pesos to phone. She told him that I’d have to buy something first. I went for water, as I realised I was thirsty. We got the change and whizzed back to the phone booth. I had become quite a familiar figure in the lounge already. Two tries and he got the number. The kids were just entering the airport. They had driven down from Vina Delmar, after work. They told me to park myself outside the door. A bit of sign language and the attendant got it. He seemed relieved. I hated to tell him his duty wasn’t over yet. So I let him take all the extra change that was left from the phone money. As he pocketed it quickly I noticed the change of expression on his face. He didn’t think I was such a big nuisance after all. But relief is nobody’s bosom pal. And he was without it in seconds.
While we waited, his body spoke. Body language is wonderful, it tells you what the person won’t. His body language conveyed that he was quite fed-up of me. He didn’t have anything against me but why out of all the attendants, did he have to get stuck with me. And how come no one was there to take the invalid off his hands. Why should I come to Chile if I needed a wheel-chair and that too with no knowledge of Spanish. Yes, his body was doing a lot of talking. It kept me amused.
“How long,” he finally spoke directly to me.
I didn’t understand the words but made a guess it had to be about time. I lifted my right hand and showed him my five spayed fingers and said “minutes,” hoping his knowledge of English had one more word along with ‘only.’ He shrugged his shoulders, raised his eyebrows and pursed his lips. The body had taken over. This was better. I imitated him ditto, in an effort to show him that I understood how he felt. Then a voice, familiar voice, called out “mama” and Manu came running with a broad smile and hugged me. The vision was half true...there was only one Indian! My attendant beamed, I felt sorry for him again. He didn’t know how the appearance of one Indian was going to bomb his happiness. His relief died a premature death. See I told you it isn’t a long-term friend in Chile. Manu asked him to stay till Tintin brought the car to the entrance and I could get up from the chair and into the car. He looked so miserable. I took out a dollar and quietly slipped it into his hand. It worked like a temporary pain-killer.
Some minutes later a car drew up and Tintin’s big frame alighted. The happiness was almost communal in its proportions. Attendant happy, wheel-chair occupant happy, daughter-in-law happy, son happy and standing a couple of yards away two policemen were also happy; temporarily as it turned out, by God’s grace. I couldn’t walk straight as my back hurt and my knees weren’t doing too well either. Finally I was settled in the front seat, the attendant had a decent tip in pesos added to final relief, and we were set to start. The two happy cops waved us down.
“S***,” exclaims my son. “Challan katenge!”
“Kyun, galat park kiya kya?” I ask.
“Nahin, bas waise hi.”
“They’re the same here too!” I exclaim.
By then the burly one was at the door. He began speaking in Spanish. Tintin answered in Spanish. Then the cop took off in Spanish at a speed that could be challaned. Tintin didn’t get it at all. He asked the man if he spoke English. “Non,” came the quick retort. So using whatever little he knew of the local lingo, Tintin explained that he worked here. They asked him for identification and license, which he provided. Burly cop took it to not so burly cop and he checked it out pronto. “Clear” was the report. The collective sigh of relief was audible. Later I learnt that the cops here were incorruptible, not what one can say about our Indian force. Truth is not only bitter, it is sad too.
Now we were on our way to our hotel, Holiday Inn Express. My theory about relief was gaining confirmation quite fast. We took a few wrong turns too many. If it hadn’t been so late in the night I could have counted it as a sight-seeing tour. But it wasn’t that bad. I was happy to be off the plane and with people I knew and better still who understood my tongue. The room was very comfortable; Big and with all the amenities in place and functioning. I was so glad to be able to stretch out on a bed. We would be here till Sunday noon.
Naulakha haar...............a necklace sparkling with diamonds
Challan katenge.............They'll fine me for something
"Kyun, galat park kiya kya?"...............Why, did you park in the wrong place?
"Nahin, bas waise hi".....................No, just like that ( for no apparent reason)