Monday, October 23, 2006

The Wayback Vacation Machine, Day 1: A Last-Minute Scramble and a Drunken Duck

In which our heroine nearly misses her flight due to her unfortunate lack of foresight to remind her fiance to pack his college degree.

Our flight to Bangkok was scheduled to take off around 7 p.m., landing in Thailand 'round midnight. But first we had to check in and get our Air India boarding passes.

You don't realize the power of a U.S. passport until you travel with someone who doesn't have one.

S, being an Indian citizen, holds a passport that comes with a fistful of restrictions, which require a fair amount of kissing up to bureaucrats who will, if they feel generous, issue an essential (if somewhat incomprehensible) stamp or piece of paper or written permission.

I bring this all up because of an incident that nearly derailed the entire excursion. For all but six or seven countries, Indian citizens must have a certain stamp in their passport; I forget what it's called, but it's ostensibly to prevent human trafficking and other such badness, so I can't complain about its overall purpose or utility.

Anyhow, the travel agent told S that Thailand was one of the countries that didn't require the stamp, so we somewhat leisurely made our way over to Indira Gandhi International about three hours before our flight (better safe than sorry), expecting to quickly shuttle through airport security and lounge on badly upholstered seats sipping Nescafe and musing about our upcoming adventures.

It was not to be.

Instead, we (and by "we" I of course mean S) ended up in IGI's immigration office, begging unamused officials for help, for some way to escape the damning plague of too much time in Delhi. Our only hope, it turned out, was a copy of S's college degree, which struck me as a particularly strange sort of snobbery, the assumption being that if you're clever enough to pass through school, you won't get conned into being a sex slave or indentured servant or something. I panicked, because I imagined myself in S's place: I don't just keep my BSJ lying around, and while I might have a few copies somewhere, to try and find someone who could a) get into my apartment, b) sort through piles and piles of old magazines, newspaper clippings, tax returns, various receipts, and other detritus to locate the correct document, and c) find a shop from which to fax the degree to the airport -- all in less than two hours -- would be slim pickens.

But I digress. Unlike me, S is aware of the likelihood that someone may arbitrarily demand a copy of his educational qualifications, and he also has co-workers who apparently have nothing better to do on a Friday afternoon than go to their office and break into the file cabinet in which S keeps important documents. While this was happening, I distracted myself by scribbling in my travel notebook such astute observations as: "We have two hours. It's sort of like a reality TV show, only not. Sigh."

After that brief fiasco, everything went pretty much according to plan. Our flight featured a rather intoxicated man two rows in front of us demanding whisky from every passing air hostess; it also featured an obnoxious Hindi movie, as well as an undelicious, cold gulab jamun.

We touched down at the new airport (Suvarnabhumi) in Bangkok, which is sparkling clean, cosmopolitan, and a hint of artsy. Got ourselves some baht, delighted in the ease of visa formalities, quickly collected our baggage, and grabbed a taxi to our guesthouse -- all without once being harassed or propositioned or asked for small change.

The taxi was a sight in and of itself -- bright pink, small red LEDs spelling out something (I assume "hired" or "vacant") in the front window, and a prominent sticker in the passenger window proclaiming, "I love Farang! English spoken here" (an aside: farang has approximately the same meaning in Thai and Hindi, more or less meaning foreigner, with perhaps a connotation of whiteness -- hey, I never said I was a linguist). We hopped in, and S read out the name of our destination, then pointed to it on a Lonely Planet map.

S tried to make conversation, only to find that he couldn't understand a word of the English through our driver's Thai accent. I interpreted for him; I suppose I should have directly spoken to the our cabbie, but sometimes, even though I'm a feminist or whatever, I like to let the guy do the negotiating, mostly, I suppose, because I'm lazy. We saw a sign with the name of the neighborhood we wanted on it, and were pleased to see that the driver turned in that direction; perhaps he did know what we said.

Then we realized we were winding through rather dark, unpopulated lanes, and the driver was pointing at basically anything that resembled a hotel, and we just kept saying "Asha. Asha. Soi Intamara 3." He pulled over, gestured to our map again, and doffed some of the thickest glasses I've seen this side of the Ganges (comforting to know that he didn't see fit to wear them when we were zipping along at 100 km an hour). This exchange went on for about ten minutes, when, exhausted, he finally pulled out his cell phone and dialled the guesthouse number we somehow scrounged out of sheaves of hints and tips for the bootstrapper in exotic Asia.

A quick conversation, a minute's drive, and we were met at the guesthouse gate by a smiling man in a bright yellow shirt that was bordered with palm trees. Rob, our friendly guesthouse proprietor, pointed a few features out, but realized that we had probably been traveling for quite some time and wasted no time pulling up our reservation.

"So you wanted a double room, with a fan? No AC?"

I looked at S, thinking an AC would be nice with the humidity, but it was 50 baht (about $1.50) extra per night, so I forced a smile and said, "Just a fan."

Rob grabbed a key off the wall behind him and grinned. "Alright, then. We're out of fan rooms for the night, but since you had a reservation, and you said you wanted a fan room, we won't charge you extra for the AC." We shouldered our backpacks, headed up to the clean, spartan digs, switched the air conditioner on to a comfortable 24 degrees Celsius, fell into bed, and woke up around 8 a.m., primed for a day of wandering in a new place.

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