A Journey through Hell…

Shradha and I were entering Delhi’s T3 terminal, excited and looking forward to a long delayed vacation. It had taken a lot of last minute scrambling to make our vacation a reality for reasons I wont go into, suffice to say all preparations had been done in the last week itself. However, our tickets were booked, our hotel had our reservations and our visas had been received a day earlier. All said, we were already imagining ourselves in Vietnam.

All seemed to be going well… until disaster struck. Vietnam allows you to have a letter of introduction issued from the local consulate which assures you a Visa on Arrival. The dude at the Thai Airways counter took a look at our Visas and tickets, printed Shradha’s boarding pass, then started frowning. Soon he had dialed some higher up and was gesticulating animatedly at my ticket and visa.

Turns out my Visa had been issued on my previous passport. Thankfully, I was carrying my old passport as well, and so was able to furnish it to prove my credentials. You would think that should be enough, right? Wrong.

Their worry was that if they let me go with the documents I have, and then I am denied a Visa, they will be on the hook for letting a passenger travel with less than ideal documents. I asked them to confirm with their head office if they could, so that they would have some clarity. They called up Bangkok to confirm whether someone in my situation would be given a Vietnam Visa on landing there. They didn’t pick up for 20 minutes. When they finally did, they said they had no idea and to call to Ho Chi Minh desk. They called up Ho Chi Minh, and those heroes didn’t pick up the phone at all. Welcome to the work ethic of a communist country.

I requested them to let me go, and that there wouldn’t be a problem as I would use my unlimited charm and my innocent looking face (Its a God given gift, really) to worm my way into receiving a Visa once I land in Vietnam. Perhaps my charm might have worked in Vietnam, but it didn’t work in Delhi. They apologized profusely but didn’t give me a boarding ticket. The best they could do, they told me, was give me a ticket for a later date without any extra charges. After a quick chat with my travel agent, I ended up getting my ticket reissued for the 7th of October, 2 days after we were originally scheduled to fly.

On 6th morning, I applied for an emergency visa to Vietnam. I further discussed the accommodation situation and resolved it satisfactorily. On 7th morning, I had the Visa in my hand, this time with the correct passport number printed. Check in was smooth that night, and soon we were on our way to Bangkok, where we had a short transit. All smooth sailing from here on out, right? Wrong.

By the time we landed in Bangkok, Shradha had started to feel a little under the weather. However, it wasn’t anything major, and so we soldiered on, still in a pretty good mood. By the time our flight landed in Ho Chi Minh, however, she had taken a turn for the worse and was feeling quite ill. There were two options in front of us – 1. Take the Visa and head onwards, or 2. Go back to Kolkata. After about half an hour, Shradha gave the go ahead, and we got in line for the Visa.

We were scheduled to fly domestic from Ho Chi Minh to Nha Trang, and there was another couple who was in the same flight as us. Eric and Kathy were from Norway and were on a backpacking tour of South East Asia. They had already covered Japan, Hong Kong and Thailand, and were going onwards after Vietnam to Indonesia and the Philippines. Their trip would take them 3 months and ours was only for a week, and yet they had 2 backpacks and we had 2 pieces of luggage of similar if not larger size, along with 2 smaller hand carry suitcases, and Shradha’s purse. Talk about feeling like a luxury-loving, privileged, spoilt Marwari brat.

Being of a similar age, we hit it off pretty well and walked out. Eric had to buy some Duty Free stuff and we were also feeling a little hungry, so we took our time. As it is, our flight was at 3 in the afternoon and we had landed at 10 in the morning, so we had plenty of time. However I, being the eternal worrier, hurried everyone along saying that lets just check in, and we’ll chill after getting all the formalities sorted. Shouldn’t have been much a problem, right? Wrong.

We walked into the Domestic Terminal and approached the JetStar counter. A woman was sitting there, nonchalantly clanking on her keyboard while ignoring customers. I asked her about checking in to our flight to Nha Trang, and she replied with the dreaded words – “Sorry sir, that flight is cancelled.” Nonplussed, I asked her when the next flight was so that she could put us into it, and she replied there’s only one flight per day, and the earliest flight we could catch would be tomorrow. After I explained to her that it was impossible for me to stay a day in Ho Chi Minh, she pointed us towards the VietJet ticket counters. It was 11.50.

A 55 kg lump of incompetence greeted me at the VietJet counter. I have no idea whether she did it on purpose or was genuinely terrible at her job, but she had trouble understanding simple words like Nha Trang and Tickets. After two minutes of playing Dumb Charades with her, another rep took over our counter and finally we got some answers. Yes, they had a flight to Nha Trang. Yes, they had tickets available. You’d think it was time to start singing Hallelujah, right? Wrong.

She told us the cost of each ticket was $100. Vietnam might be a communist country, but this lady knew how capitalism works, and she used it quite ruthlessly against us. With no other option, I forked out $200, and so did Eric. It was 12.05.

We rushed to the check-in counters and were met with a lady who must have been a direct descendant of Stalin. I don’t think she smiled for the 10 minutes we were forced to spend looking at her face. She didn’t talk much either, except telling us our luggage was overweight. I tried telling her that we were on an International transit, and hence we should be allowed the additional weight. After all, JetStar had allowed it! She only replied with “Different Airlines, Different Policy.” Back to the ticket counter we went. The lady greeted us with a smile, but by this time her teeth looked like a Shark’s jaw to me, waiting to crush any hope I had of a smooth flight. Oh, how sad that we were overweight.No, International Transit wouldn’t work, as “Different Airlines, Different Policy.” Of course, we could purchase additional weight for the rock bottom price of $42. She grinned. I grimaced and paid up. She took her own sweet time printing out the receipt, while the VietJet counters had pretty much emptied, all passengers already near the boarding gate. I rushed to the check-in counter and produced the receipt, upon which finally my luggage was taken in. Eric and Kathy had no such issues with their luggage, of course, and were waiting for us to go through security. I was a little pissed at their ‘travel-light’ ways, but also grateful that they didn’t leave me alone as the only passenger still left for that flight. Oh well, onwards to paradise, right? Wrong.

Eric had bought a bottle of whiskey from the Duty Free shop in the international terminal. Upon going through security, he was stopped by Comrade I-know-no-English, soon joined by Comrade You-no-go-through-with-bottle. Eric didn’t know what the hell was going on, and neither did I. Finally we figured out that the security personnel wouldn’t let the bottle through as it didn’t have a seal. Eric told them that he had no idea a seal was required, and that he had just taken the bag as given to him by the people at the Duty Free shop. Shouldn’t it be their responsibility to pack it up properly? Comrade I-know-no-English wouldn’t budge, and took Eric back to the check-in counters, presumably to deposit the bottle in his checked-in luggage. No dice, all luggage was already gone. Eric asked the Security Personnel whether they would give the packet to the airline crew, and they could give it to him once he lands? Comrade You-no-go-through-with-bottle wouldn’t even entertain the thought. Finally, poor Eric had to leave his precious bottle of Whiskey on the Security Counter. I assumed it must have been an expensive purchase as Eric seemed livid and crushed in equal measure. The Comrades waved us goodbye with smiles on their faces. I guess their night’s libations had been arranged. In any case, we finally boarded the flight to Nha Trang. Our travel agent had already intimated the resort that we will be coming much earlier than planned, and they had done the needful rescheduling. Finally, all was well, right? Wrong.

You see, if Shradha was Superwoman (that ‘if’ is pretty unnecessary, isn’t it?), her kryptonite would be not eating at her designated time for meals. Shradha’s stomach had decided to play nice for a while, but now she wanted to eat something so that her stomach would settle down. Due to the transformation of our 5 hour relaxed and stress-free transit into a 2 hour run around like a headless chicken transit, we had not gotten the opportunity to have some lunch. No worries, I told Shradha, we’ll get some snacks on the flight to tide us over till we reach the resort. Looking over their in-flight menu, my heart and Shradha’s stomach sank. There were barely two items that could be termed vegetarian. As soon as possible after take off, I called the steward and asked him to bring two each of both items. Comrade Why-are-you-a-vegetarian smiled and politely informed us that both the items were not available. I asked him if there was anything, anything at all, that was vegetarian in what he had in the galley, and he nodded his head no, more vigorously than was needed, as if to rub salt on my wounds. I looked over with dread to Shradha, who had fallen asleep after telling me to rouse her when the food came, and decided not to wake her up after all. A sleeping person can’t feel hunger, right? Wrong.

By the time we landed in Nha Trang and Shradha woke up, she was in desperate need for sustenance. Her vomiting had died out, but something, anything, was required to make sure it remained dead. We got out after taking our luggage, said bye to Eric and Kathy, and were immediately greeted by a butler from the Six Senses resort. He helped me exchange Dollars into Vietnamese Dong (what an unfortunate name for their currency. As funny as the Canadian Loonie.) and also helped Shradha buy some fruits. After all, the car ride from the Airport to the private jetty of Six Senses would be an hour, and then there was a 30 minute speedboat ride to the resort itself. Shradha’s mood had brightened up considerably as she started to feel better, and I was just happy the needlessly stressful traveling part was over. I was in the hands of Six Senses now.

Nothing else could go wrong, right?

Right.

For Part 2 of this account, go here.

The ‘Exquisite Beauty Of Last Adventure’

I havent updated in a while because:

1. I was traveling, and
2. I got a weird idea from a newsletter I read, and I wanted to see where it went, which took a while.

I ended up writing in a stream of consciousness and the result is the following short story. I am sure there are tons of errors, both factual and grammatical. I hope you will disregard them as cavalierly as I did. I also did not want this to be so long as to not take more than 5 minutes, so my apologies if the pacing seems too hurried. I could probably work more on this idea if you all like it.

With all that preamble out of the way… here we go!

*********

The ‘Exquisite Beauty Of Last Adventure’

Hamid got off the plane early on a cold winter morning. It was a bitter Monday morning in New York and Hamid had some trouble comprehending the sheer wall of cold that hit him as soon as he got off. Having lived all his life in Iran, he could be forgiven for letting the cold catch him unawares. It was the 6th of October.

He collected his luggage, a new Samsonite purchased specially for this trip, and walked out to join the line of people waiting for a cab. He finally got one after waiting for 10 minutes. He gave his driver the address of the budget hostel he was staying in. After all, the cost of this trip was too high as it is. He didn’t want to spend any more than necessary.

He looked at the nick on his finger. While putting the luggage in the trunk of the cab, he’d got himself a cut on his little finger. He saw a small pool of blood forming on the seat and grimaced. He pinched his finger to shut the flow of blood and then, glancing surreptitiously at the cabbie, rubbed the blood all over the seat, so that the driver wouldn’t notice. He grinned at his own actions and continued pinching his finger.

He paid off the cabbie and looked at the hostel he had been recommended before he left. It wasn’t luxurious, but it wasn’t shabby either. It had 4 large rooms, 2 on each floor, and each room had 24 beds. The bathroom facilities were clean enough, and there were two bathrooms for each room. The bed sheets were changed every day and the morning breakfast was decent enough. He was shown up to his room by an orderly. Around a dozen people were inside, most of them getting ready to go out. He chose a bed in the middle of the room and plunked his stuff down on the bed. Then he went and introduced himself to his roommates, shaking hands and exchanging pleasantries.

Formalities over, he went over to his bed and took out a clean pair of underwear, a jeans and a Woolen shirt. Then, looking out of the window and seeing the slick roads and the snow falling slowly to the ground, he took out a hoodie as well. With all his stuff in hand, he went over to one of the bathrooms to take his shower. While showering, he saw that his nick had been bleeding again. He determined to buy some band-aids when he was out.

15 minutes later, he was out on the street. In front of his hostel was a vacant parking lot. It was dirty as hell and completely overgrown with weeds, and that is where a large number of homeless people had congregated to ride out the winter. He looked at them disdainfully and walked towards the corner to hail a cab. Once he found one, he took it straight to the subway station and then onwards to Times Square.

He’d seen photos of the place, sure, but nothing could have prepared him for the mass of humanity he saw there. Everyone seemed busy, everyone was hurrying along to do whatever the hell they were doing, and the only people who seemed to stand and quietly take in the madness of the place seemed to be tourists like him. He ended up taking tons of photos to send to his friends back home. After having a quick bite at an overcrowded falafel cart, he returned to his hostel.

A few of his roommates were planning on going to a bar for happy hour, and they asked Hamid to join in to be polite. Hamid wasn’t a big drinker, but he wanted to see what the New York nightlife was all about, so he gladly accepted. He also wanted to make a few friends while he was in New York, and what better way then to get drunk?

They reached a crowded bar early in the evening. His friends told him that Happy Hour was the right time to drink, as they would head out to a club later on, and drinking there would be extremely expensive. Hamid took their advice to heart and kept ordering beer after beer to keep up with his new found friends. His tolerance was over far before the Happy Hour was, and he ended up depositing the contents of his stomach all over the walls of a bathroom stall.

Undeterred, he kept up his drinking till the time his friends decided to go to a club. He had never been to one, and though it seemed to be in a seedy part of town, it was an eye opening experience. He had a couple of shots, checked his wallet, declined any more drinks, and went on to the dance floor. There were tons of women dancing; most of them seemed to be college students. He hit it off with a chubby white girl named Sandra. She seemed very interested, especially once she found out he was a foreigner, showing him off to her friends (You know, he’s from Iran! How exotic!). Soon things got hot and heavy, but his friends decided to leave before he could proceed beyond making out. He wasn’t too worried. After all, this was America, and there were plenty of fish in the sea.

Walking out of the club, he could see some ladies of the night working the corners. Picking up his courage, he approached one, bargained, and went on to her place. After an hour, with both fluids and money transferred, he walked out, embarrassed, exhilarated and slightly feverish, all at the same time. He ended up walking to his hostel (it wasn’t far) and peed into the newspaper boxes on the way, trying his best to aim in the slot. He felt a little woozy and walked into a Deli to buy a bagel, hoping the bread and cheese will make him feel better. He bought a coke while leaving and sauntered along to his hostel. In front of his hostel, he was approached by a homeless man from the empty lot across. He gave his half drunk coke to him, and saw him share it with his family members. Feeling good about himself, he went to sleep.

******************

The same process repeated itself for the next week. He moved from hostel to hostel, making new friends, hanging out at all the touristy spots, enjoying the sights and sounds of New York. He would give his clothes to whichever local (and cheap) Laundromat he could find, and thus would go out every night with newly washed and pressed clothes, looking at his presentable best. He had a lot of fun at a lot of clubs with a lot of reputable ladies, and at the end of the night, a lot of exertion with a lot of disreputable ones as well. He would come back and cover himself with a comforter, soaking his bed with his sweat every night. In the morning, a wave of guilt would wash over him and, perhaps ashamed of himself, he would switch hostels so that his roommates wouldn’t notice the pattern. To relieve his conscience and possibly to assure himself of his innate goodness, he would donate a part of his uneaten dinner to the homeless.

By the end of the week, his fevers seemed to be growing stronger. Perhaps it was due to the cold he was suffering from. The constant sneezes were giving him a headache by now. He went to an ER room in the poorest part of town, simply because he couldn’t afford going to a proper hospital. When his turn came after about three dozen others, and the doctor asked him what he thought was wrong with him based on the symptoms he was feeling, he replied “Malaria”. The doctor wrote him a couple of blood tests to ascertain whether it really was Malaria or just a Viral fever, and gave him some pills in the meantime. Not wanting to spend his money on tests instead of booze, Hamid decided to ride it out for a couple of days and then go back if he didn’t feel better. It was the 14th of October.

Three days later, he still felt like shit, more so since he got diarrhea. He’d been intermittently hit with waves of nausea and his body ached all over, but he’d not wanted to ruin his trip by going to the hospital unless absolutely necessary. After his fourth trip to the bathroom in 6 hours, though, he couldn’t hold off going to the hospital any longer. He sent a text, packed his Samsonite and started for the hospital. He was sweating all over, so much so that the cab driver asked him if he was all right. He appreciated the cabbie’s concern but said there was nothing wrong with him, just a slight fever. He got out, leaving a sweaty spot in the back seat.

Upon reaching his destination, he took out a packet from his bag and left it on an empty bench in the park next to the clinic before going inside. Within a minute, the bench was empty once again.

This time around, there was a different doctor attending to the patients. It seemed that all this clinic (and its patients) could afford were doctors who were volunteering their time. Having ascertained that Hamid was a repeat patient, the doctor looked him up on his system and noted his previous diagnosis. He asked for the results of the prescribed tests, and Hamid profusely apologized for not getting them done, but he was ready now in case they were still required. He was getting weaker every day, and he asked if he could be admitted. The clinic was small, but seeing Hamid’s condition, the doctor arranged a bed for him. He willingly gave his blood sample to the nurse who came in later that evening.

The next morning, Hamid saw the doctor rushing towards his room through the glass partition of the wall. He started chanting something under his breath. The doctor entered his room and Hamid, upon seeing him clearly, noted that he was wearing a protective mask. Hearing him chanting, and seeing the deranged look in his eyes, the doctor felt a shiver go down his spine.

“You knew?” he asked, horrified.

Hamid grinned.

18th of October had started well for him.

******************

22nd of October in Iraq began like any other day, moderately hot and extremely dusty. Inside the backroom of a small out of the way restaurant in the town of Qaraqosh, sat a heavily bearded man poring over a map of America mounted on a soft board. There was a swoosh of the beaded curtain as a younger man entered.

“Did we get a count yet?” the older man enquired.

“Yes. 12 taxis, 8 subway rides, 4 hostels with potentially 38 contacts, 8 bars and 8 clubs, 6 women in the clubs, 5 working women, a few janitors, 3 laundromats, 4 different homeless people, a few of the medical staff at his Hospital, hopefully some patients as well, and visits to public places with large crowds like Times Square, Central Park, Lincoln Center, Washington Square Park etc. Must have been thousands of potential contacts. He also gave himself a cold and sneezed whenever he could, wherever he could. All things considered, he did very well.”

“Are we sure of these figures?”

“Yes. He kept a diary and noted his number of contacts established meticulously. He passed it to us before entering the Hospital.”

“Good.” Said the older man. He pushed a pin into New York. Pins had already been placed over Los Angeles, Washington, Boston, Miami, Chicago and Houston. By the end of the night, new pins had been placed over Philadelphia and Las Vegas as well. He expected San Francisco, Phoenix and San Diego to join the list within 24 hours, rounding out the dozen cities of his plan.

Before leaving for the night, the old man cast one last look at the American map, by now covered in pins.

“America,” whispered the head of ISIS under his breath, “say hello to Ebola.”