I am so dejected that I almost can’t blog. That’s a first! But I will proceed nonetheless because part of any real adventure is the chance that it will go horribly awry.
Yesterday morning at 6 a.m., I arrived at Abu Dhabi’s airport ready for my 8 a.m. flight to Jaipur, India. The flight had been scheduled for 11 p.m. the evening before, but was delayed by weather in Jaipur. I didn’t care, as long as I got there. The main attraction being the Jaipur Literary Festival, including a reunion with my friend/agent Priya and dear pal Maruta. Not to mention the chance to meet two writers who inspired my writing life: VS Naipaul and Paul Theroux.
I was bumped up to business class; the skies were clear. On takeoff, I clenched the smokey topaz stone-necklace that my father had brought me from India some 25 years ago.
During the ascent, a flight attendant announced the need to spray the cabin with non-toxic pesticide. Then he did, little spray cans aimed at the ceiling. Odd, I thought, having never experienced that in hundreds of flights all around the world — even the most bug-infested ports of call.
Up at 33,000 feet, the plane enjoyed a substantial tailwind and our speed neared 700 miles an hour. (The speed of sound being just 68 mph more.) I looked down in awe at the harsh desert-mountain landscapes of Iran, and then Pakistan, passing quickly below. The flight map showed we’d shave 30 minutes off our 3.5-hour flying time.
About 15 minutes before beginning our descent into Jaipur, the captain said that visibility was the bare minimum for landing. Indeed, the clear skies had given way to rain and dense fog. We circled for a while, and I wondered if we’d be able to land.
Soon enough, though, Etihad Flight 208’s wheels were on the ground and I was in Jaipur. I’d visited the Pink City in 1989, after leaving Seoul, and I was beyond excited to revisit what I could only vaguely remember: City Palace; the Amber Fort. Perhaps an elephant ride would be in order, too. Oh, and the shopping! Silver bangles, colorful fabrics! They were all running through my mind as we deplaned. Three days would barely be enough time for everything I wanted to accomplish and the people with whom I wanted to converse at length.
I was second or third in line for immigration. I could see the cabs lined up in front of the small airport building. I handed over my passport, along with the print out of the visa-on-arrival I procured online.
“No online visa allowed in Jaipur,” said the agent. “Stand over there.”
I was sure it was a mistake, and figured it would be sorted out quickly. After letting all the other passengers through, the agent finally shifted his attention to my situation. He escorted me to a chair, and seized my passport. I watched as he spoke with two separate agents before returning to speak with me.
“No online visa allowed,” he repeated. “This is only good for Delhi or Mumbai or Hyderabad.” He listed several other cities as well.
“Can you just put me on a plane to Delhi?” I asked. “Surely there is something we can do?”
“You cannot leave this area, you can not enter Jaipur. You must go back.”
“On the plane you arrived on.”
Then he left me alone in complete shock, as he proceeded with paperwork with the assistance of five other men. I watched as they paced, as they stamped lots of forms, paced some more, stamped more photocopies of more forms. All that effort, I mused, could be used to GET ME INTO INDIA. Instead, maximum energy was being spent on getting me out ASAP.
I tried to email Allan to tell him I was coming back to Abu Dhabi. But there was no internet. I tried to make a phone call, but my Etisalat service didn’t work in India. I was in absolute No Man’s Land. Not in India. Not in touch with anyone. Completely outside any jurisdiction. I teared up, then I laughed out loud. I took turns being scared, humiliated, outraged, weepy, giggly, enraged, and worried.
Every few minutes, an agent would come over ask me to sign a stamped form and then rush off for more processing. I kept thinking one of them would say, “Oh never mind, you can enter Jaipur. Sorry for the trouble. Here’s the visa we just stamped right into your passport because we can!”
That never happened. In fact, the situation continued to deteriorate.
Two agents returned to me, one with a boarding pass for the flight back to Abu Dhabi which was fully boarded and waiting for me. Another held a piece of a paper that said, “DEPORTED.”
An armed guard escorted our preposterous group through the inner airport. We had to take an elevator up to the gate. People who were on that elevator were forced out so the “criminal” and her escorts were on the only ones inside. When we stopped at other floors, people were not allowed to enter. Truth is, no one even tried: the situation in the elevator was clearly serious, off-putting and even foreboding. They stepped back instead of forward.
Leaving the elevator, my escorts took me through the gate area. EVERYONE stared at the tall blond with an armed guard, who occasionally stuck out his arm to prevent me from walking ahead of him. I decided to walk tall and proudly — they cannot humiliate me without my consent. I assumed the air of a VIP, thereby refusing the stigma of illegal alien.
The guard and the agents walked me right on to the plane and to my seat. One hundred and 27 pairs of Indian eyes looking at me. I’d held up the departure. The flight attendants, who remembered me from the trip over, asked me if I was okay. The main immigration official gave my passport to the head flight attendant.
Flying back to Abu Dhabi — a trip absolutely juxtaposed to the one had I just flown to Jaipur (no business class, no bug spray and tons of turbulence) — I worried that my family had no idea of my status. Although the plane was being tracked by air traffic, I was pretty much off the radar. I asked the head flight attendant for my passport. Sympathetically, he said, “I can’t give it to you. I have to hand it over to the ground agent in Abu Dhabi.”
I bristled. The nightmare wasn’t over. Actually, I wondered if I were dreaming. I have a very vivid dream life. Maybe I hadn’t even woken up yet, and I hadn’t even gone to Abu Dhabi airport. YES! I could still go to Jaipur once the alarm went off. I pinched myself. I banged my head on the window. Nada. I was wide awake.
I decided to make a video of myself for the record in case the plane went down (as if, my iPad would be intact after an impact). The good news is that the Arabian Gulf is relatively shallow — 50 meters deep on average — so investigators would stand a chance of finding the fuselage. I was completely in touch with the absurdity of the situation and my thoughts when I made this video.
I landed back in Abu Dhabi at 4:16 p.m. Seven hours in the air. Forty minutes in Jaipur. Everyone deplaned while the head flight attendant and I waited for the official to escort me off. Once he arrived, I was taken to another holding area where more people wanted more papers from me. It comforted me to know that I am an official resident of the UAE, with a big official stamp in my passport to prove it. Still, not having my passport in my hands was getting more worrisome by the minute.
I noticed a man holding my passport and talking loudly into his cell phone. He hung up and walked over to me.
“Let me see that paper visa you got online for India.”
I retrieved it from my bag. He reviewed it.
“Says nothing about not being valid in Jaipur.”
“I know. This thing is so crazy. I just want to go home.”
He handed over my passport. “Go home,” he said, kindly. “Go home.”
I finally was able to call Allan, who was shocked and horrified and freaked out. He came to the airport to retrieve me. I was numb. And I had to stop myself from blaming India. I had to stop my thoughts from running away with me — from taking me to hateful places in my head.
The incident was just that — an incident. A moment in time when circumstances went haywire, and I went momentarily awol as a result. Was there any big metaphysical lesson? Some quantum mechanics or physics or leap?
Nope. It’s just a thing that happened to me on January 22, 2015.