Obstacle course

10 August 2009 | Permalink

It was night when we landed in New Delhi, and a huge gray-brown moon hung over the tarmac. We stood in the aisle of the plane for a long time before they opened the doors, while I fretted about making my connection. Eventually, they opened the door and I was able to exchange standing in a plane for standing in a bus, while the driver blew his horn to summon the dispatcher. When we finally moved off, he stalled the engine. “Come on, man.” I thought. “You must do this every day.”.

The bus followed a circuitous route to the arrival gate, tucking itself in behind convoys of baggage trolleys that didn't appear to be in any particular hurry to get anywhere. I mentally counted off the minutes since landing and told myself that it would all work out.

At the gate, I was greeted by a short, business-like woman with a clipboard, who checked my name on her list. “We wait to see if any other transfer passengers come.” she said. I thought of telling her that there were no more buses coming, or that everyone else had gone to the beach, but she looked as if she'd see through the lie. At last, she seemed satisfied that no one else was coming, beckoned to us, and set off up the stairs at a brisk clip.

We paused at a security check long enough to allow the other transfer passenger, a middle-aged Indian woman, to catch up. “She goes too fast.” the woman complained to me, rather out of breath. I nodded sympathetically as I studied a piece of paper pinned to the wall by the checkpoint. The paper listed all the airport employees who had lost their photo IDs, and warned of the possibility that they might be used by someone with ‘malafide intentions’. I couldn't decide whether ‘malafide’ was a survival from some earlier English, or the invention of a particularly creative bureaucrat, but I liked the sound of it anyway.

A little later, our guide reappeared with a short man who looked like a student. “He is Malaysian Airlines. He will take care of you.” she told us, and steamed away again. The new arrival had a trim, brisk air about him, but the briskness was strictly illusory. He collected our passports and stood with them in his hand for a while, then began a lengthy conversation about excess baggage with the other passenger. When he had exhausted the time-wasting possibilities of enumerating the precise weight allowances of each airline, he moved over to a desk and stood beside a stack of blank forms, musing over them like a poet rapt in contemplation of a pile of fallen leaves.

“What are we waiting for?” I asked him. “Clearance from transit officer.” he said. “I will go speak with him now.” He drifted off, holding our passports in hand. The minutes passed.

He never returned, but in the interim our former guide had reappeared. She also wanted to talk about excess baggage, but she dispatched the topic with much greater speed, then rushed off to look for the man with our passports. I was beginning to suspect that if anyone could cut through the red tape, she would be the one. She did not disappoint me.

Grabbing my passport and new boarding card, I raced over to the security checkpoint and threw my bags on the conveyor, behind a long line of other bags that were being scrutinized by a turbaned Sikh. Something about my bag apparently caught his attention, and it was pulled out of line for further study.

“Please remove your laptop from the bag.” said the other security man.

“I don't have a laptop.” I told him. He turned to his colleague as if to ask what exactly he had seen, then turned back to me.

“Electric razor?” he hazarded. “Hole-punch machine?” I shook my head dumbly. Had he seen something that looked like a hole-punch machine? Did he assume that scruffy Americans routinely stuffed a hole-punch into their backpacks before heading for vacation in Asia? Or, a more sinister possibility, had a new security directive come down, warning against the risk of hole-punch wielding terrorists trying to storm the cockpit in-flight?

He began a slow inspection of my bag, pulling things out with the air of a man participating in a particularly unappealing lucky dip for reasons of duty rather than enjoyment. At last, he unearthed my snorkel mask and held it up in languid triumph. If it wasn't a hole-punch machine, apparently it was close enough for government work. The man at the scanner nodded, and he began the slow business of repacking the bag. He lingered over my paperbacks, studying the title and author of each one with great thoroughness. He seemed to be wondering quite why I had packed so many books. To be honest, I was wondering the same thing.

I helped him zip the bag, then snatched it from his hands and galloped towards the gate. When I got there, the flight was still boarding, and there was even time for the woman with the excess baggage to catch up. She must have had an easier time at security: evidently, she'd been smart enough to put her hole-punch machine in her checked baggage.

The bulkhead behind my seat held a little rack of Muslim prayer cards for travelers. I picked one up and read “In the name of Allah when taking off and landing, verily my God is most forgiving and merciful.” It sounded vaguely reproving to me, as if the faithful had noticed that Allah wasn't quite as forgiving and merciful during the climb to cruising altitude, meal service and turbulence.

The only other prayer on the card was a longer prayer for those “traveling in a vehicle”. There didn't seem to be one for those wrongly suspected of carrying hole-punch machines.