So, on the second leg of the trip, I got to experience this (travel assistance phenomenon) first-hand. I was seated next to a gentle-looking couple travelling from Kathmandu to Denver. Adjoining my seat was the woman, who started chatting instantly, breaking into brisk Nepali (which I didn’t understand of course) with a few words of Hindi thrown in for good measure. I gathered that this was their first flight out of Kathmandu where they had raised their three children, two daughters and a son. After exchanging some information and pictures about kids, I realised that my knowledge of Nepali wasn’t going to prove any impediment to her desire to chat. When required, I would look to her husband (a man of few words but a genial smile and better knowledge of Hindi) to translate for me. I missed most of what she was saying, but managed to grasp that she was a child care worker at the SOS villages programme (see notes) in Kathmandu and asked if I had been to Pashupatinath (Yes, I responded, beautiful temple, beautiful city and country, making gestures to indicate mountain ranges. The ‘roof of the world’ poster I had bought in Nepal so many years ago still sits above a bookshelf at home). They were travelling to visit her daughter in Denver with her husband and four year old. I could tell from the pictures, that her grandchild had inherited her grandmother’s fine bone structure and untouched beauty.
What struck me most was the ease of approaching others, even asking for assistance. It was disarming to experience someone reach out with such spontaneity and charm, without worrying about what the other person would think or how she would be seen. She didn’t even think about those issues, it appeared. For instance, she managed to get a smile (and a glass of water) out of a co-passenger when she waved at her asking for “pani”, with an accompanying gesture. The woman (a rather tall, graceful but restless middle-aged Indian), understood and complied, remarking that she “wasn’t an air-hostess” but got her the water anyway!
Meanwhile let’s give her a name. This is a longish story at the innocuous pronoun is beginning to sound inadequate. Krishna seems quite appropriate, I guess.
Soon after the first meal, Krishna said “Toilet!”, and I swear she would have leapt over me, if I had delayed a bit longer. When she passed, she grabbed onto my arm pulling me in the indicated direction. I complied more out of shock than anything else. Once there, she mumbled several questions and I responded with instructions. When I gestured to the latch on the inside, she again grabbed my arm, indicating I should stay. A co-passenger looked at us quizzically and I felt the need to explain. “Her first flight” I said. The lady smiled and added “Sure, it can be quite a challenge”. Yet again, I felt that it was Krishna who evoked this reaction: affectionate concern rather than cynicism or worse, contempt. Anyway Krishna waited to ensure that I was guarding the door for fear of being locked in, I assumed, smiling widely at me when she emerged, rubbing her dry hands. “The soap”, I pointed to the foam oozing out of a bottle and she giggled, reaching out for it to complete the job.
Through the 14 hour flight, her husband maintained his quiet, indulgent demeanour towards her. She on the other hand was bubbly and forthcoming. Another encounter that had me (and others around us) in giggles was her reaction to the drinks being served. When asked what they wanted to drink, she would look at me to interpret for her. After that the steward asked, she would just look at me…”orange juice for the lady, and……” looking at Krishna’s husband for a response I added “and red wine for the gentleman”. “Hah!” She intervened, trying to push the wine away, muttering disapprovingly at her husband. The grumbling persisted till the meal was over, and if she had her way, she would have tipped the glass over. Her husband reacted with a mild persistence, but didn’t order any more drinks after that!
Over the North Pole
Somewhere over the North Pole, she raised concerns about the transfer at Seattle. Reaching into her purse she took out a folded notebook paper (attached) and asked a few questions about baggage and transfer. By now I had started to catch on better to her questions. The note was simple, they both had “bad knees”, the son had scribbled on their behalf. Perhaps this needed to be written down with numbers and addresses. I remembered how she was ready to leap over me and smiled at the realisation, I had just posted the peripatetic senior citizen comment on facebook, and here was an example sitting next to me. They requested me to fill out the immigration form and sought an assurance that I would be available to assist on the ground, I also agreed to call their daughter to update her about their safe arrival.
It was when I saw them zip past me in the immigration line, he in the wheelchair and she cheerfully following, that I realised they would be fine without my intervention. The “knee surgery” trick had worked. At 49 and 50 years of age (I had filled their forms), they wouldn’t have been able to seek assistance without an excuse. I wished that they didn’t need to resort to the false claim, but I guess they’re working with a system that isn’t friendly towards the uninitiated. Somewhat later, safely in the company of my loved ones, I sent a message to Denver and received an instant response communicating gratitude and relief.
A magnet? Maybe
I have have some contact details of co-passengers on old boarding cards that will eventually be discarded, but the memories remain, especially of train journeys in the past. I am sure these encounters happen with everyone, I remember chats with friends about their experiences, pleasant and otherwise, but my family believes that I am a magnet for such situations. Perhaps they are right. From a troubled husband seeking advice about divorce, to maternal concerns about friendships and immigration issues, I’ve had more than my share. The last time I was travelling to the US, this tall and impressive Tamilian woman spent long hours telling me her life’s story about how she’d taken care of her dad and mum in Charlotte, NC, after her dad developed Alzheimer’s. She wept with the memory of how hard it had been to see him (he was a tower of strength till he began to fade) and how their bond, as an only child, was something she always cherished. The Dad who had been indomitable and impressive railway engineer in India, slowly wasted away in the end, till he could no longer recognise her, she said, tearfully. And then there was this one time that I travelled across the aisle with a botanist specialising in Christmas tree cultivation who was returning from a conference and became nauseous. Perhaps the sea-food at the last banquet. Although there were other colleagues in the cabin, they left her mostly by herself to deal with the discomfort. I think she was quite overwhelmed with the fact that I reached out to ask if she was okay, and even try to distract her with conversation. I just couldn’t watch her and do nothing.
The early morning
As I pass these wee hours of morning wakefulness, listening to nightbirds sing themselves probably to sleep, I try to imagine Krishna and her husband in Denver, stumbling through life in America with innocence and awe. I pray that their purity remains inviolate, and that they are respected for who they are, not scorned at for what they may be assumed to be lacking. Honestly, it’s not that they have something missing, but that we have lost so much with everything we know. I’m not sure I have to desire to be like that, but I certainly hope I never lose my appreciation for other and older ways of living. The childlike wonder of first encounters with novelty, the eagerness to learn, the comfort with asking for help, I sincerely hope these stay safe somewhere inside our minds, so fraught with pride and position. What I found so endearing in Krishna was her lack of inhibition to seek help and the absence of any feelings of inferiority about what she didn’t know. At least that’s how it appeared to me, maybe I’m wrong,, but she seemed confident, spontaneous and direct, without a care about how her actions would be perceived.
Happy times ahead, Krishna, I hope you have a great trip and lots of stories to tell the children once you return to your job in Kathmandu.
SOS children’s homes: https://www.sos-usa.org/where-we-are/asia
Pashupatinath image from: https://www.google.com/search?q=pashupatinath&rlz=1C1JZAP_enIN690IN691&source=lnms&tbm=isch&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwin-4H74s3iAhU6HzQIHUNtAX0Q_AUIESgC&biw=1352&bih=734#imgrc=0RUuTsjc65fdEM: