I begin my journey to the land of Shams with a hundred butterflies in my tummy. Again. Because it involves flying, again, and indeed a little more. Soon after Sayad drops me at Mehrabad domestic airport in Tehran, I realize not a single sign here is in English. Every announcement is being made in Farsi. I can’t read anything. Fairly well known letters are melting and getting mixed-up with one another. I must first locate my boarding gate number.
I pull out the boarding pass. Cherry on the cake: the pass doesn’t have a gate number! I approach a security officer and from a surrealistic dialogue with questions in two-third English and one-third wrong Farsi and answers in two-third Farsi and one-third wrong English, I decipher the probable gate number.
It’s a small airport, and doesn’t have a separate lobby for each gate. People are constantly coming and leaving, following announcements. It is difficult for those who have never been in such a situation to imagine my anxiety. I gather the last drop of my Farsi knowledge in my hearing and concentrate like a tiger on a hunt. Khoy is the word I must hunt down from all that is constantly blaring out of the public address system.
In the meantime two young ladies come and sit beside me on the same bench. Quick glances at me followed by giggles tell me, I am their point of conversation. But mythology and literature are replete with examples of female beauty destroying men. So I ignore them and redouble my concentration: Khoy. Khoy is the word… At one point after an announcement the two ladies leave. After a few paces, one of them, with a round heavily made-up face and a gush of vine-bunch curly hair, clearly dyed blond, stops, turns, looks at me, returns, bends down in front of me and blurts out between giggles, “Musafir, are you flying to Khoy?”
Divine light. English. “Yes, yes. I am indeed. I guess this is the gate from which…” In my excitement I could have continued for the next several minutes. She cuts me short with another burst of giggles: “They have just changed our gate. Come with us.” We chat for the next half an hour. She is from Turkey. She is employed in Tehran. From Khoy she will take a bus to cross over to Turkey.
In the flight I have to sit beside a grim looking elderly man with a pair of fierce moustaches. Thank god it’s a window-side.
We reach Khoy in an hour. Tiny airport. Only twice before have I had occasions to fly in or out of such miniscule airports. Both were memorable journeys.
The first time was around 1996-97. I flew out of Bhadrapur airport, near Siliguri, to Kathmandu. On reaching the terminal building, a single hall floating in a vast canvas of bright yellow mustard flowers, I realized I had misplaced my ticket. I took out everything from my bag and suitcase. Looked inside every pocket of every shirt and pant. Forcing myself to be oblivious of the fact that I was in full public view, I pulled out, unfolded and shook out every piece of underwear. Not a sign of it. What now? Luckily the guy at the enquiry counter, with a totally-bored-with-life look, on hearing about my predicament, allowed me make a call to my travel agent. After three attempts I caught him at his home. It might be difficult to gulp today, but thanks to a few phone calls to right quarters from my travel agent, I actually flew without a ticket! But that’s not why I shall remember the trip. Among the three or four other co-passengers, I had noticed with a sense of ‘what-the-fuck-are-you-looking-at’, that a young Nepali lady was watching the commotion in my life with a hint of smile on her face. As the God of space would have it, when a policeman in blue shouted that the plane would be arriving in a few minutes and we should form a queue to go on the other side of a door and wait, this lady stood right in front of me and asked, “What happened?”
For a moment I searched for the juiciest of expletives in my vast repertoire, but finally discretion prevailed over me.
“Lost my ticket,” I muttered, looking as stern as I could.
“Hmm. Everything’s fine now?”
“Flying on this sector for the first time?”
“Yes,” I said, and then realizing that my monosyllables were being a little too rude I added, “And you?”
She was an English teacher in a school in Darjeeling and was a routine flier between Bhadrapur and Kathmandu. As we heard the drone of the approaching 22-seater carrier, she flashed a bright smile and said, “Take a window-side on the right flank. You will never forget in your life.”
Indeed I will not. Within 10 minutes of take-off our little bird was flying literally between the peaks. Dark and gray naked gigantic menacing rocks jutting out of a sea of dazzling white, as far as the eyes could see, out of which it would not have been difficult to make out Mt. Everest, even if my teacher co-passenger hadn’t pointed it out from her seat just behind me. There was such a sense of ruthlessness in the whole landscape that despite its breathtaking beauty my heart froze. The time-dimension had collapsed. It was nature at its wildest, fiercest nudity. I felt as if I was face to face with Kali. I desperately wanted to turn my eyes away, I couldn’t. It continued for some time, until we slowly approached the dense emerald valley.
The second time I flew out of such a tiny airport, it was my body rather than my heart that was freezing. It was one of those heart-warming experiences that restore faith in humanity obliterating all the borders. April, 2010. My flight was from Santa Fe airport around 7:00 in the morning. Although it was a domestic flight, and although I knew it wouldn’t take more than half an hour from Hilton Old Town Santa Fe, the hotel where I was staying, to the airport, given the inseparable association between my tummy, butterflies and catching flights, I had asked a taxi to report at the hotel at 5:00. All my packing was done the night before. And only while getting into the cab I saw the sky was overcast and the wind was sharp. I knew I would be flying for the next 15-16 hours, hopping in between, so I had a loose Hawaiian half-sleeve shirt and jeans on me.
The chill didn’t bother me because I knew I would always be inside heated facilities at airports or flights. I reached the airport in fifteen minutes and alighted in a very light drizzle. In front of me was a tiny adobe building in the middle of a vast field that merged into rolling blue hills. The taxi left. I ran into the building’s corridor. There was not a soul around. Amid that vast field the wind had raised to a razor-sharp gust. I quickly located the entrance and to my horror realized it was securely locked. And there I was stranded in the verandah in a half-sleeve shirt with the wind cutting through my bones. I just didn’t know what to do. Soon it started snowing. I did have a summer jacket (I had not realized it could become so cold in Santa Fe in April, and was not carrying any warm clothing. The summer coat was only for formal meetings.), but it was at the bottom of my large suitcase. At any rate wearing it wouldn’t change anything.
This is the only time in my life I had found an airport totally shut! For a moment I felt like crying, it was so unbearably cold. Then I had this hilarious thought that perhaps I should start doing some push-ups to keep myself warm. At this point arrived a huge SUV, and from it alighted a very old white woman packed in woolens from top to bottom. Unlike me she was not at all surprised at the entrance being locked and quietly stood beside the door with her hands tucked in the pockets of her thick overcoat. The very sight of her increased my bitter sense of cold by several times. For the first few minutes she cast a few glances at me, then visibly shivering. Soon I heard a shaky female voice, “Son, you will catch a severe cold. It might take a little time before they come. Don’t you have any warm clothing?”
I briefly told her my situation. “Gosh! Wait, lemme call my husband. He must have gone quite a distance by now.”
With her shaking hand she pulled out a cell phone. Within a few minutes I saw the huge SUV reappearing. The old lady literally dragged me into it. I don’t remember exactly how long, but some 20 minutes I guess, we sat inside the car with the heater full on. The hubby offered me a cup of steaming coffee from the flask he was carrying. The warmth in the car was no less warm than mother’s embrace in moments of deep crisis. In a stunning display of unpardonable callousness I never asked their names or exchanged contacts, so that I could send the old couple some small gift from India.
In Khoy, however, nothing so memorable happened. Locating six feet plus Mortaza was easy. And soon we started off for his home in his car.
Photo Credit : Nilanjan Hajra