We started our trek by driving several hours and eating dinner with a cousin Kbhai who lives in Chicago (whose 9 year old son asked me if I was “full American” and was very worried that I would not like India because of the cow poop). Kbhai warned me not to take off my bangle, a wedding gift from Ba (A’s grandmother), in security. He said to just pretend it doesn’t come off (it has a screw that is somewhat hidden in the elaborate scrollwork; we later learned that it has an antique style).
Our flight itinerary was 14 hours from Chicago to Abu Dhabi, 3 hours from Abu Dhabi to Mumbai, and then another hour from Mumbai to Ahmedabad. I had to be patted down at every single stop. I felt quite violated during my search in Chicago, out in the middle of everything. I was most angry that I had automatically said “thank you” as my violator waved me along. In Abu Dhabi, I set off the metal detector again and was asked to remove my bangle. I shoved it against my hand, saying that it doesn’t come off, and was waved toward the only uniformed woman in sight to be patted down again. This time I got the privacy of a curtain, and the woman had a much more gentle demeanor. It made a big difference in an always-unpleasant experience.
As we walked through the Mumbai airport, I was struck by the number of employees standing around doing nothing. A and I snickered as we passed group after group of employees staring out the window at the planes. Mmasa and Dbhai met us at the international airport to drive us to the domestic airport. Mmasa had come to our wedding, so his face was familiar though I had not spoken to him much. I was meeting Dbhai for the first time, but A had spoken of him so often and so fondly that he felt familiar. We drove through Mumbai at 3am; the city was subdued, but far from dead. I thought of it as a soft opening to the crazy traffic and crowds.
I was nervous about our domestic flight. Another cousin had booked it for us, and he mistakenly used my maiden name. His sister didn’t change her name at marriage, so perhaps he thought that surely all Western women would keep their names? He even mispelled it on the ticket for our return flight. We noticed this the day before we left and called the Daddy in a panic. He said not to worry, just to take documents and pictures to establish my identity. We carried my birth certificate, SS card, and marriage license, along with what pictures I could grab from our wedding (none of which have both us face-forward, because our photographer was better at catching things than people). Used to US standards of security, we had both carried knots of anxiety during our long international flights. We wanted plenty of time to fight with security and, if necessary, buy a second ticket.
Mmasa left after he dropped us off, but Dbhai stayed to talk. A and Dbhai walked off to get a sandwich, and I got out a package that Kbhai sent for Dbhai. As I rearranged the luggage, I admired my luggage tag. Sara Maiden, in my mother’s handwriting. She wrote that for my eighth grade trip to Washington, DC. The suitcase was my grandmother’s before that. Even though the name isn’t technically right anymore, I love this tag, one of the few simple, normal touches of my mother I have left in my everyday life. Who knows, maybe it will help me get through security. I started covering up as I saw mosquitos out, until I finally suggested we go inside. Dbhai then stood talking to us just outside the front doors of the airport. My nerves were raw from anxiety about the domestic ticket and travel exhaustion, and I blurted out that I couldn’t just keep standing there where everyone was honking in the drop-off lane. A and Dbhai both looked surprised, as if they weren’t aware of any noise at all. Dbhai finally made us understand that he could not accompany us inside the airport at all; guess security is different here.
Indeed, we had to show the print-out of our flight information and our passports just to enter the airport. Luckily, they only asked for one passport, and A gave them his. One barrier down. We checked in uneventfully, then headed for security nervously. We keep our travel documents in A’s bag because it has a more convenient zipper, but we switched bags so that I would have all my extra documents handy if needed. All the airports in India had separate lines for men and women, so he would not be handy if I needed him. Passport and boarding pass in hand, I sent my bags through and stepped through the metal detector. I showed how tight the bangle was, then was waved into a small cubicle for being pat down. Not as private as Abu Dhabi, but still better than Chicago. I tried not to hold my breath as she looked at my boarding pass. Then she opened the cover of my passport; on American passports, you have to turn the page to see the picture and information, but she just glanced at the inside cover and waved me along.
A looked at me expectantly from the other side of the men’s security line, and I waited until we were out of earshot to say that everything was ok. The airport was small and our gate was less than 100 yards away. We collapsed into chairs, and only then did I open my passport and realize it wasn’t even mine. A and I had accidentally switched passports to go through security, and neither of our security personnel had noticed. Gee, I feel safe now. A claimed that most of the security personnel can’t read well anyway. Dbhai later agreed that literacy is likely about 50% among them.
I still worry slightly that they will check my passport at boarding, but A tries to reassure me. We have a few hours left and explore the airport. My exhaustion is setting in more, and my nerves are getting raw. As we sit down by the gate and wonder why our plane isn’t there yet, I start to unload on A. All the what-ifs, the fears, the anxiety starts coming out, and I’m just barely holding myself together. A well-dressed woman with an expensive purse and shoes sits across from us and asks me if it’s my first time in India. Her accent is American, and she tells of growing up in NJ but moving to Mumbai for love. She is clearly not thrilled to be going to Ahmedabad for a family obligation, but says she loves Mumbai and does her best to reassure me. It’s enough to hold me over, hold my emotions in.
The boarding announcement is made in English and in two more languages. We get in line, but are told that it is not yet our turn to board when we hand in our tickets. My stomach churns again, A tries to argue and is told in an annoyed voice that it was announced three times and we must stand to the side. We are both completely confused; neither of us heard anything about certain rows boarding on the announcement. The well-dressed woman comes up and is told that it is not her turn to board, either; she responds that she is diabetic and will be boarding now, and the attendant backs down. We are duly impressed.
He calls the next rows, which are actually higher than ours. If he did announce the rows in English last time, our rows were probably included. A shows him our tickets and says our row number, and we’re allowed to board. He later says he didn’t fight it the first time to avoid drawing undue attention to my ticket. I dislike the woman next to me on the plan, but I’m also so, so tired and nervous, so perhaps she was fine and I was just irritable.
I’m relieved when we get off the plane. No more flying, for a few days at least. As we went to the luggage claim, A saw a sign for RO water and said it should be safe for me to drink. I refilled my favorite water bottle, leaning awkwardly as the painfully slow dribbles fill it up. Then I looked at it — all sorts of things are floating in it. I showed it to A, and he agreed that I should dump it out. And like that, my favorite water bottle can no longer be trusted until I can clean it to my standards in my home, and I am officially reliant on purchased bottled water for the duration of the trip.
A finds his bag, but mine seems like the very last to come out. I almost don’t recognize it, it’s so dirty, and he seems unsure about it also. I almost call out to him to check the luggage tag, and then I see it: The handle is empty. My luggage tag has been lost. The airline (Indigo, in case you wondered) has mistreated our bags so badly that mine is filthy with dust and dirt, and my precious luggage tag is lost.
I lose my shit.
I am so angry and hurt and wanting everyone to know it, I quickly stop trying to hold it in. I am outright sobbing in the middle of baggage claim. I had noticed a small counter for complaints, but I’ve heard enough about Indian customer service to believe it’s not worth the effort. Still, I feel frozen, not knowing what to do. Not willing to leave my luggage tag, with my mother’s precious handwriting — do I even have my name in her handwriting anywhere else? — behind. I occasionally whimpered, “They took my mother!” A is sympathetic but impotent; he repeatedly asks me what I want to do, when what I want is for him to storm the customer service desk, yell and scream at them for their incompetence, and demand my luggage tag be found and returned. I keep looking to the exit, which is guarded by four men with rifles (why use one person when four would do?), but they don’t seem to be taking any notice of one White girl sobbing hysterically. I could be being kidnapped right now, and they wouldn’t care. Finally I tell A that if he leaves, I’ll follow him, but I swear to God I will never fly Indigo again.
We walk outside and don’t see Ma anywhere. I’m still cycling between wanting to complain to someone and wanting to just move on. We approach a window to ask where to complain, but it looks completely closed (it’s around 9:30 in the morning). Ma still isn’t here. I wasn’t thirsty until A told me to fill my bottle with that disgusting water, but now my throat feels raw and scratchy. I’m still not holding back my tears, and I know a terrible headache will come on soon. The sun is blinding. I say to A, “The worst part is that when they find it, they’re just going to throw it in the trash, like it doesn’t matter at all.” “Yes, they will.” I know he’s doing his best, but I feel so, so tired. I didn’t know I could feel this tired, through my whole body.
I mutter under my breath, “I hate this fucking country.” I can only hope he didn’t hear me, but I’m sure he did, and I’m sure he would’ve preferred that I punched him in the gut.
I couldn’t know it then, but this was actually the worst moment of the entire trip. I fidgeted, wishing I could hop a plane and go home. A started going off about his mom not giving him a phone number to reach her at; it was something safer to be mad about than the luggage tag, I think. Finally, we saw her, and he met her with a big hug. I gave a little hug, and asked A to explain what had happened. She tried to be sympathetic, but I don’t know if she really got it. “You should have had it somewhere safe, instead of on your suitcase.” A immediately jumped to my defense, saying it wasn’t fair to say that. After some thought, I understand why I never put the luggage tag somewhere safe. It was one of the few things left that were casual touches of my mother’s life on mine.
In a way, I’m glad my arrival happened like this. Although I’m still heartbroken about the luggage tag, this emotional release seemed to hit my reset button. I was no longer nervous or keyed up; I had let all of that out in the airport. I knew I was fragile and was worried I would have a breakdown at something Ma or someone else did, which would clearly not be a good first impression. Later that day, I decided that after I got home I would make an electronic copy of my mother’s hand-written cookbook. That will be the good that comes out of this. I will protect that precious cookbook from loss, even if I didn’t protect this luggage tag. We later realized that my bag had a large rip in it, and A’s bag had the corner falling apart and a handle barely hanging on. A says we could have claimed the damage if we had booked through American Express, but since a cousin booked the flight in rupees (at a lower price), we really have no recourse. I’m just glad that I resisted my urge to flee the country after it took so much from me on just arriving.