I lay in my bed. My eyes are on fire after a sleepless night. My whole being is bursting with a strange, incomprehensible feeling. How might it feel to ride the airplane for the first time? I ask myself. I imagine the sky turning upside down when the plane takes off and my stomach chills. I cannot think of anything beyond this conjecture and I wait for the dawn to break.
It is only three o’ clock in the morning. The dark Thimphu sky is looking in my windows and winking at me with its stars. I pull the blanket over my head and force myself to sleep. But the charming anticipation of strange lands and adventures won’t let me fall asleep. How many young men, I ask myself, are lucky enough to get a scholarship to study in the UK? An infinite supply of money, return home a rich man, buy a building, buy a car, and marry a beautiful woman. What more could one ask for in life? I fancy myself walking among white people under the towers and skyscrapers. After the flames of imagination have done its stuff, I finally close my eyes and fall asleep.
I wake up to a muted sound of pots and pans clanking in the kitchen. My sister is up and she is preparing breakfast. I remember staying awake through the night and look out the window. The sky is gray and it is now turning into a pale blue.
The taxi would arrive any moment. I get off my bed and dresses up. Then I walk to the bathroom and wash my face. The gums of my teeth feel salty. I have been doing excessive brushing since the day I obtained the scholarship a few months ago. I had used everything hard and bristly that came my way – toothpastes, salt, charcoal, steel wool. I laugh at myself, feeling both foolish and excited.
My sister calls me for breakfast and I eat my last homemade meal. When the taxi arrives my sister and her three children follows me outside.
“Do telephone us when you reach there,” my sister says. She has become tearful.
“I will,” I say, fighting back the strain in my voice.
I get inside the taxi. The driver starts the engine and pulls the van through Norzin Lam, Thimphu’s main street. Soon the valley drops behind and Thimphu is out of sight.
We reach the confluence at Chuzom, cross the high bridge and heads toward Paro. Thirty minutes later, we enter the vicinity of Paro International Airport.
The morning is cold and misty and passengers are waiting outside for the gate to open. I pull out a trolley and load my bag on it.
When the entrance-way opens, the passengers enter the bright hall. I am nervous. I push my trolley carefully so that it doesn’t drag me sideways. I follow behind the other passengers, go through the security check and enter the departure lounge. A small coffee shop on the corner has postcards, cloth bookmarks and Bhutanese books for sale. I walk to the phone area and make a last call to my family.
Soon the boarding announcement comes. I join the line; show my ticket and passes the gate to the open tarmac outside. Druk Air, white and resplendent with the national flag painted on its tail, stands against the backdrop of traditional houses at the far end of the airfield.
As I climb up the metal stairs of the plane, I thank the Buddha and make this wish: May my opportunities to board the Druk Air continue in the future.
Two heavily perfumed air hostesses in light gray uniform smiles and welcomes me. I smile back and steps in. The inside of the plane is warm, clean, and comfortable with a 2 by 2 configuration seating. My seat is right across the left wing of the plane. There are some flight magazines, safety manuals and Indian newspapers inside the seat pocket.
A bell dings softly– an electronic ping – and the No Smoking and seatbelt signs go off. A female voice welcomes us on board Airbus 319 to New Delhi. She asks us to take out the safety information card from the seat pocket and follow along as the air hostesses perform the safety demonstration.
I study the metal fitting of the seat belt and snap the buckles shut around my waist. The stewardesses move their hands elegantly, instructing the passengers how to strap down the oxygen mask in case of an emergency and so on.
Another ding and the engine of the plane begin to whine, a low moan at first, then rising in pitch. The flaps on the wings slide down and the plane rolls forward. My chest goes cold and my heart pounds faster. I pray in my mind and bite my lips. I can feel my face and ears getting hot and red. The plane accelerates and speeds-up, the engine growling into an ear-splitting roar. Before I know anything, the plane takes off. Mountains rise one above another. And patches of houses and fields appear and disappear in flashes of a second. I scream in my mind, close my eyes and grab my seat belt tight. I feel like my heart is going to explode.
When the flight gains stability, I open my eyes and look around at the other passengers. Except for the drone of the engine, everything is silent. Everybody looks calm and casual.
Relieved, I look out the window. White clouds hang in the space below me like huge masses of fleece.
The airplane hums and moves on.
A few minutes later, the flight attendants come pushing a trolley table laden with soft drinks, tea and mineral water bottles on it. I fold open the tray in front of me.
“Excuse me, sir. What’d you like to have?” one of them asks.
“Orange juice please,” I say, trying to sound like a professional traveler. But anybody can make out that I am a first time traveling wreck. The stewardess nods and places the drink on my tray. I sip the cold, pulpy sweetened juice and looks down at the fleecy masses of clouds below me.
After travelling a while, the stewardess appears again, this time with food. The smell spreads inside the airplane as the stewardess serves the meal to the passengers. When my turn comes, I ask for a non-veg food.
The stewardess places a tray containing a warm packet wrapped in aluminum foil. She also gives me tea kits, a sandwich, pickle and strawberry jam, and a small white packet of peanut with the Druk Air label on it. The egg fried rice tastes sweet – not the taste for my tongue.
The plane drones on with an occasional rise and drop in the air. Twenty minutes or so later, the captain tells the passengers to enjoy the view of Mt. Everest and Mt. Kanchenjunga. I steal a glance over to my right through the space between a couple and gets a glimpse of the snow blazed Mountains.
A few minutes later, the captain announces our landing at Kathmandu for a short transit. My chest goes cold as the plane descends lower and lower with an occasional shake and crashing sound.
Soon the landscape below comes into view. The plane tilts sideways and dangles down the air to make its landing. I grab my seat belt tight and hold my breath. A cold sensation crawls through my stomach like a thousand butterflies frolicking inside it. After what seems like ages, the wheels hit the runway with a loud thwack. The plane speeds along the runway and finally comes to a halt.
The air becomes warmer and some passengers move in and out of the plane. My ears are clogged. I press my nose with my fingers and blow it. My ears pop, giving me some relief, but cold blood tickles down my lips. One of the stewardesses sees me and she at once rushes forward with some cotton and helps me wipe the blood. Then she pushes a dab of cotton into my nostril and advises me to lay my head on the headrest to reverse the blood flow. I sit still with my head upturned on the headrest and looks outside, across to the tarmac, with the corner of my eyes. Two Nepali policemen with guns slung over their shoulders patrols the airport terminal. Nepal was in a great political turmoil. I think about how unsafe it would be for people to live in a dangerous situation like this.
After the transit is over, the plane takes off.
Thirty minutes later, the captain announces our descent to New Delhi. My stomach goes cold once again. As the plane descends the clouds separate and I see a river gleaming with light and snaking through the land. Cars trundle along the streets, flashing up winks of the afternoon sunlight. The plane swoops above a cluster of old buildings, hits the runway and finally comes to a stop. I look out the window. A huge signboard on the roof line of the airport building says: WELCOME TO THE INDIRA GANDHI INTERNATIONAL AIRPORT, NEW DELHI.
I take my bag from the overhead luggage bin and follow behind the passengers. We walk through an aerobridge and come out to a bright air-conditioned hall. I join the long line of passengers walking towards the immigration counter. The area is cordoned off with blue rope belts.
When my turn comes, I show my passport to the immigration officer. I expect him to be happy to know that I am from Bhutan. “Where is your visa?” the man says. His voice is cold.
“I came to collect it from our Embassy sir,” I tell him.
“What Embassy?” he says, fuming.
“Bhutan Embassy, sir,” I say. “Here in New Delhi.”
“Why didn’t you get it from your own country?”
“We-we get it from here, sir.” I say, not understanding why.
The man looks stressed out, perhaps from his tiring job. This is my first clue that things aren’t going to happen the way I imagined it. The angry man stamps my passport and finally let me pass. I collect my bag from the conveyor belt and make my way out.
Hundred of faces holding placard with names on it peer at me. Some are suspicious, some full of questions and some are amused. I walk through the maze like someone in a dream and come out of the airport terminal. Swarms of people are interacting in a blaze of colors. The air is sweltering. The road is filled with incessant honking with cars, rickshaws, buses and taxi-drivers jostling for my attention. I imagine pickpockets eyeing at me from every corner, ready to rob me at the first chance. So I avoid looking directly at anyone.
I book a prepaid taxi for a round trip and tell the driver to take me to the Bhutan Embassy. The ambassador taxi car pulls past murky streets that smell of garbage and urine. As we move deeper into the city, the traffic chokes up intermittently. I brace myself against the oncoming traffic that rage towards me like an angry flood of tsunami. Cars, buses and auto rickshaws weave all over the road, pushing and honking from all sides. My heart pounds hard and loud at every brake and stops. The ride through Delhi is definitely not for a faint heart like me. Accidents could happen anytime. I am frightened as a cat on hot coals and thinks that even hell would not be as scary as this. The taxi-driver takes me deeper into the city, into bigger crowds and thicker traffic.
Luckily the traffic thins as we approach the part of the city where the Bhutan Embassy is located. I am delighted to see a colorful Bhutanese building with well-maintained gardens. There are other international embassies around.
The taxi drops me near the gate and waits for me. I enter the Visa Section of the office and meet an elderly Bhutanese man. He stamps the visa seal on my passport. I thank him and returns to the airport, this time through a different route where the traffic is low.
When I reach the airport, I enter the terminal building. People are milling about the bright hall. I walk into a low-ceilinged hall filled with people and advances in to the passenger holding area. Dark skinned female flight attendants in smocks and high heels walk about the hallway with walkie-talkie sets in their hands.
The flight schedule on the Arrival-Departure information screen says: Flight 747 to London ¾ Depart Gate 17, 10:00 P.M.
I have more than three hours of layover time. I walk to a shop and treat myself with a coffee and a chicken burger.
The boarding announcement comes a few minutes later. I go through the security screening, pass the gate and emerge onto the steps of the massive British Airways. Two slim stewardesses who look like twin sisters welcome me and direct me to my seat.
The atmosphere inside is dim and diffused with passengers engaged in light conversations. A muffled thud and crash sounds of luggage being placed on-board comes from underneath the seat. To my left the kids of an Indian couple giggle and play with their parents. The seats are large and comfortable with a 3 by 3 configuration. There is a small flat LCD TV screen in front of the seat, with the remote control on the armrest. One of the stewardesses hands me a shawl, a pair of socks and a headset.
A bell dings and the stewardesses perform the safety demonstration. Soon the plane takes off into the dark night sky above the brilliantly lit city of Delhi.
When it becomes pitch dark with nothing to see outside, I close the window shutter. Then I put on the headset and switches on the remote control. The TV screen flashes with some English and Hindi movies. When I switch off the TV mode, the screen displays a route map showing Asia and Europe. A tiny wire-frame image of the plane that takes on the appearance of an actual plane in flight flies over Islamabad and edge towards Kabul. I gaze at the satellite images of the seas and countries: Caspian Sea, Mediterranean Sea, Baltic Sea, North Sea; Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Iran, Azerbaijan, Armenia, Georgia, Russia, Germany, Denmark, Belgium, France, England and Scotland to the far north.
Soon it becomes piercing cold. I pull the shawl over my body, cover my icy feet with it and continue gazing at the route map. I am neither asleep nor awake, but somewhere between. I wake up occasionally out of a satisfying drowse to see the route map on the TV screen again. The small white indicator plane moves slowly from Oslo to Helsinki to St Petersburg. I try hard not to fall asleep, but weariness grows upon me; numbness, an occasional stupor; until sleep at last supervenes and I doze off.
When I wake up to a voice, the stewardesses are serving us food. One of them asks me what I want. I say non-veg and she gives me a large sausage with other food items. The sausage tastes salty and appetizing and I ask for one more. The heavy meal soon lulls me into a deep sleep.
I open my eyes and realize that I have fallen asleep for hours after the meal.
“Ladies and gentlemen, we are about to land Heathrow International Airport,” a female voice say. “Please fasten your seat belts in preparation for the landing. The time at our destination is 6.45 am. Thank you.”
A mix of anxiety and excitement runs through my mind. I open the window shutter and look out. There is nothing but a white blanket of fog all around.
The plane sways rhythmically from side to side. It lowers the flaps, cut across the clouds and descends lower and lower. The TV screen flashes with instructions about how to navigate the terminal. I don’t understand it. The plane rattles and descend lower and lower. Soon a cluster of red buildings comes into my line of vision. Seconds later, the plane hits the runway, rumbles along it and comes to a stop with a low whining sound.
I am in London!
As the passengers deplane, a flight attendant hands us each a £2 breakfast token. Not knowing which way to proceed, I follow behind the other passengers. The metal floor of the hallway thunders with hundreds of beats under our feet. We stride through the long corridor and finally reach the immigration counter. A man with early morning red-rimmed eyes stamps our passports. He directs us to a pink bus that is waiting outside; its engine burping, ready to ferry us to the departure terminal.
The bus is half filled with people with serious looks on their faces. I have never seen so many white people together before so near at hand. I expect them to stare at me, but no one seems bothered by my presence. They all remain stolidly silent, submerged in their own thoughts. A mark of a civilized society, I tell myself, and feel happy that I am also considered to be like one of them.
The bus drives us past huge walls and steel crossbeams and drops us at Gate B of the airport terminal. I enter the pristine terminal building. There are many restaurants, banking services and shops with names like Starbucks, McDonalds, Mulberry and Harrods. I follow behind the passengers and steps inside one of the packed restaurants. People are sitting around small round tables and eating breakfast. A thin Indian-faced waiter with gelled, spiky hair hurries here and there with a tray of food and drinks in his hands shouting Chicken Panini! Cappuccino! Americano! in a loud British accent. I join the line to the counter and exchange my breakfast token for a cheese sandwich and a cup of coffee. The sandwich is cold and the extra dark coffee tastes bitter with no milk or sugar in it.
After the breakfast, I cross over to the passenger lounge. People are sitting on sofas. Some are watching the BBC news on a plasma TV, some are reading newspapers and some are busy on their laptops.
About an hour later, I walk into the boarding lounge. I ask a fat security guard for the direction to board my connecting flight to Aberdeen. The man shows me the way and I wait for the boarding announcement.
The gate agent takes my pass and runs it across the scanner. Error:BEEP! He examines the boarding pass and scans it again. Error: BEEP! He carefully looks at the boarding pass for a second time, looks at me, and we simultaneously shrug our shoulders to signify that neither of us knows why this is happening. He sends me on my way down the aerobridge. I put my bag and take my seat.
A few minutes later, the plane takes off. I am fatigued and disoriented by the jet lag, everything seems dreamlike and soon I fall asleep.
When I wake up, the plane is already landing. When it lands, I get out of it and follow behind the passengers. I am happy that I have finally reached my destination. I follow behind the passengers and reach the baggage collection area. I don’t see my bag anywhere on the conveyor belt. Then I approach the official at the immigration counter and produce my travel documents to him. The official looks at my air ticket. He looks surprised and says, “I am afraid you have boarded a wrong plane, sir.”
My mouth drops open.
“That’s impossible, sir!” I say. “Is there a place called Aberdeen here?”
“Yes, sir,” the man says. “It’s 38 miles from here.”
“Then I’ve come to the right place.” I say, relieved. “Scotland.”
“No, sir,” the man says, shaking his head. “You are in Maryland, USA”.
I remember the fat security guard, the gate agent and the BEEP sound at Heathrow airport and everything becomes clear to me.