I could begin this post with some florid prose replete with the superlative degree of comparison – e.g., It was the best of flights, it was the worst of flights – but won’t. Not because I lack the talent of my favorite novelist, but because my tale is not as lofty as his. It is about two bags that traveled from Mumbai to Los Angeles recently. Since neither bag is as handsome as Carton and Darnay, and neither city as romantic as London and Paris, my opening paragraph must be less orotund.
When I checked the titular bags at Mumbai airport on the last day of February, I didn’t know that I wouldn’t see them at LAX on the first day of March. But I was so happy to get rid of them that I didn’t give their onward journey a second thought. They were the airline’s responsibility now. (Actually, that should be airlines’, since one leg was on Delta and the other on KLM.) All I had to do was to get myself and my three carry-ons through the security rigmarole and on board. And of the four of us, I cared most for myself.
Yes, dear reader, you may call me selfish. But I’d advise you against it because I’m about to make a confession in your interest. I am generally averse to making confessions, but if it will help you in your travels then the ignominy is worth it.
My confession is that in my carry-on I always carry one empty bag so that once I am past the check-in counter, I can make my hand luggage lighter by making it more numerous. The security folks don’t care how many carry-ons you have. They only care that your carry-ons don’t have bombs, weapons (actual or potential), liquids in excess of 3 fl. oz. per bottle, and water in excess of one drop of saliva.
I only had the saliva, and in vast quantities, but I kept swallowing it down. I’m glad no one searched my insides (though they searched my outside thoroughly). Otherwise, with all that saliva, I’d be inside by now, if you will pardon the pun. (I hope you will, because it’s the first time I’ve asked you to pardon a pun this year.)
I’ll spare you the details of the two legs straddling the layover in Amsterdam, during which my legs got their exercise running from gates E to F (which aren’t as close as they sound). That exercise kept me from contracting deep vein thrombosis on the LA leg, so I thank the Amsterdam Schiphol authorities for keeping my planes as far apart as possible.
Eleven hours later I entered Tom Bradley International for the first time since its renovation. Instead of the usual lines, I was shocked that I was the only one. In the entire terminal! An attendant directed me to the self-service kiosks at which I could go through the entry process. I answered every question honestly, except the last. But it was an honest mistake. Being jet-lagged, I selected “No” in response to the final question (“Is all the information correct?”), which resulted in my having to exchange pleasantries with an Immigration officer.
Don’t get me wrong. I don’t mind exchanging pleasantries with Immigration officers, but they want you to be chirpy, and it’s hard to be chirpy after a sleepless day-long journey from the other side of the globe. And perhaps I haven’t yet got over what I went through the first time I entered LAX sixteen years ago. I remember each detail vividly, down to the names of the three officers who grilled me. And although I’m generally bad with faces, I remember theirs clearly.
Naturalization has erased the sting of that initial welcome (such as it was), and having “Los Angeles” on the cover of my book has been redemptive, but I’ll never forget the events of that evening in March 1999. Sometimes I wish my memory were worser.
I reached Baggage Claim hoping that someone had mistakenly taken my bags off the carousel (so I wouldn’t have to), but the carousel was empty. It wasn’t even revolving, which meant that all the bags that had to come had come. (And gone.) The truth was just sinking in when an airline rep approached me. My name was on the list in his hand and, the rep said cheerily, my bags would be delivered to my door the next day. He made it sound like the airline was doing me a favor.
I tend to be gullible when I am tired, so I smiled gratefully and let him tell me about his one-eighth-Indian heritage. As I was writing my address on his list, another passenger appeared to claim his baggage. I don’t think my fellow passenger can expect the same favor from the airline, and not on the basis of our looks. He was by far the handsomer. It’s just that he said he was on his way to Guatemala but didn’t have an address or phone number to offer. And he didn’t know the name of the friend he was to visit.
He was either one of the few who travel through the US knowing nothing about their final destination, or one of the many who travel through the US with every intention of making it their final destination. I’ve said this on my Facebook page (facebook.com/consonantbooks) so I can do so here: I can’t help wondering whether my fellow passenger made it to Guatemala, or if he ended up wherever they take “undocumented persons.”
Since returning from India, I have decided to limit my posts to 1,000 words or less. This, dear reader, is for the sake of your eyes. (That would be “for your eyes only” in Indian English.) The word counter is giving me dirty looks by way of warning, so I’ll stop here and resume my tale next time. As you know, A Tale of Two Cities was also first published in serial form.