I thought that my adventures in India would unceremoniously end before it could even barely begin.
No, I was not denied entry to this vast subcontinent. In fact, I did not experience any difficulty in clearing with immigration at the Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose International Airport. I already prepared my travel documents- backpacking itinerary, return ticket and even my annual income tax return. But except for a print-out of my Indian eTourist Visa, the officer on duty did not ask for any of these.
At that time, I could already envision what I will be doing for the next few days – see the Ganges River, endure the long overnight train ride to Agra, touch the intricate marble inlays at the Taj Mahal, see a famous stepwell in Rajasthan, among the many other items in my weekend bucket list.
“This India trip is finally happening after all,” I thought to myself as I walked towards our assigned baggage carousel. Well, I was supposed to travel with an old friend here, but he officially backed out 2 weeks before our scheduled departure. Even that or the thought of traveling solo, albeit by default, in a foreign land did not scare me at all.
What really scared me though happened hours after my otherwise uneventful touchdown in India. I was then groggily waiting for my flight out of Kolkata when I realized that I lost my passport. It was freaking 3 AM.
I did not panic at first because I thought that I may have just misplaced my precious maroon booklet somewhere in my backpack. I carefully spilled its messy contents on the empty seat beside me. I did this twice and unfortunately I did not see my passport in each attempt.
I then retraced my steps around the airport. I narrowed down my search to the last few places where I remember having my passport either in my hand or inside my clear envelope. When that did not also work, I finally asked for help from the first airport security that I saw.
“Sir, I need your help. I have lost my passport.”
“Are you sure?” he asked.
“Yes, I already searched for it in my backpack,” I answered.
“Where do you think you lost it?” I pointed to the last two rows of benches in the airport where I stayed.
“I will look for it again” I added and walked away from him.
I began to blame myself for unnecessarily transferring from one area in the airport to the other, when I could have sat content in one happy corner and maybe caught some form of sleep too. Aside from killing time, I was then looking for a story that I could use for a future blog entry. I certainly got what I wanted and it is one that’s becoming more horrifying by the second.
“Where are you headed?” one of the flight staffs from another airline asked. I approached them thinking that they could help me even if they are located at the farthest end.
“Varanasi,” I replied.
“You can ride a bus or train to get there. Or maybe IndiGo would allow you to get on board.”
They probably did not sense the desperation in my voice or that they did not fully understand my dire predicament. You see, without my passport, I basically don’t have a valid document that would allow me to leave the airport, let alone stay in India. I will be stuck or worse, be imprisoned here.
My last straw was to heed their latter advise and plead with Indigo to still allow me to take the flight. I could still proceed as planned and then reach Delhi, where the Philippine Embassy is located, in just four days. But if this would not work, I don’t have a Plan B or a Plan C or Plan D anymore. I’ll have to cancel all my reservations and call my sister who will endlessly reprimand me for my epic negligence.
With an almost defeated spirit, I walked back towards the IndiGo counter. Along the way, I could see the airport security from whom I have asked help earlier. As he was nearing me, he then flashed out what looked like a small maroon booklet.
“Is this yours?” he asked.
I was lost for words when I saw my passport in his hand. I think I was half-kneeling and on the verge of tears while I profusely thanked him. In my mind, I imagine him saying this: “You idiot. Don’t ever lose this again. You may not be as lucky next time.”
He didn’t of course. He quickly handed it to me and went on. I wasted no more time and quickly checked-in for my Varanasi flight.
I wanted to invite the kind airport personnel to join me for an early breakfast or a cup of coffee. He will most likely refuse the offer, but at the very least, I just would like to know his name or where he found my passport. But he was nowhere in sight.
Needless to say that I was able to continue my journey in India. While I experienced the scariest 30 minutes of my life here, I can’t imagine how my next 30 days (or even more) would look like if not for a now nameless gentleman who found my passport just in time.
This was then a preview of India that I did not expect at all. I may have done my homework about all the UNESCO sites that I will be visiting, the various cuisines I have to sample, but the universe decided to throw a curve ball right on my path, perhaps to remind me that I should see this country not just with my detailed itinerary but more importantly with empty hands that are ready to receive kindness from complete strangers, and an open heart that welcomes both order and chaos, beauty and madness.
It was indeed the most harrowing yet humbling 30 minutes of my life. But like this beautiful country, it was also an experience that was very, very incredible.