So I am standing outside of the indian embassy in Bangkok with Chris, crushing cigarettes to pieces with my bare hands. Perhaps that is where the story should begin.
If you have been following this, and not the war, or both this and the war, you will know that a broken toe I got in Chaing Mai and a vomitous illness were hard on our spirits in the North and forced us to cancel our motorcycle trip to Pai.
You will also know that after several hundreds of bhats of phone cards, the number to Air Canada's office in Thailand (needed so that Chris could plan his trip to India) was incorrect with everyone except a lovely Thai-born Sikh travel agent (K&K business centre, Chaing Mai) who was able extend Chris' trip and could understand the concept "standby" and get him on my flight the next day to Calcutta via Bangkok. (other travel agents had treated our questions with the most thinly veiled contempt I have ever encountered in travel agents).
An all-night train Bangkok, we arrived at 6am, got our bags from the New Siam II guesthouse where we had stored them during our trip up north, stuck around for long enough to be told that we could not shower for less than $150 bhat but that we could eat breakfast for a price and catch up on our appetite for current events (have they actually started killing each other yet?).
We breakfasted, changed our clothes, and high-tailed it to the airport where we were turned back because Chris does not have a visa for India, despite being told clearly by the Indian embassy in Canada that he does not NEED a visa for a short stay in India. And there is a 4-day wait to get one. But we could try appealing in person. The next day.
We got a taxi Rush hour in Bangkok and 2 hours in a taxi cab later (400 bhat -- to give you perspective, that is the price of a nice room in a guesthouse) to find a hotle that would be nowhere near Khao San road where travellers sweatily lug around packs like tumours on their pained backs while leafing through t-shirt stands that are always the same.
There is something about beign in limbo that makes you crave fast food and Hollywood.
We checked into a hotel in a seedy district and ordered hamburgers (my stomach is still rejecting Thai food) and watched the news in Thai and gave up, went for a frustrated walk, despite our crushign fatigue and my still-pained toe, and ended up in an unfathomably large yet run-down mall with an iceskating rink and a Ben Afflek blockbuster which was not all that bad.
This morning we got up at 6:30 am to aviod rush hour and get to the embassy in time. Which we did,filled in the form, had the photos on hand, paid for Chris' application, only to be told that inspite of our tickets (now booked for that day at 4:20pm) we had to wait until the 25th for a visa. Now I knoo I thing or two about Asian bureaucracy at this point. No is seldom "no", per se. Often it means give me a good story. Could we see someone please? I have...er...a wedding to attend in Delhi.
We wait for 2 hours to talk to the officer. Finally we are told to wait in line to speak with him. The line is, judging by what I have watched unfold, easly 1.5 hours long. I am dying to eat something and watch the news (I had only seen some disheveled Iraqi soldiers on horses doing a march in Bagdhad that morning with the thai anchor). What was happening? Is Lisa ok in Tel Aviv? Is the world ok? Have they stopped air travel yet? Is Saddaam still alive?
Why do we need to wait in the application line to see the visa officer when his office is down the hall? I ask the clerk, trying not to sound irritated. You have to keep your cool in this situation or they will stop dealing with you. Customer service it is not.
30 minutes later, we are being told by the aptly-named officer, Mr. Panicker, that we are going to have to wait 4 business days for Chris' visa. "But I have a wedding in Delhi on saturday," i lie. I am so lame. "And I have been volunteering in India for 3 months." His eyes flicker. Aha. A trump card. "With whom?" Through a program sponsored by the Canadian Government, working with literacy organizations. His face softens. Good lord, i am shameless. I name the orgs, and he tells me that if they can verify that worked with them that if they can verify that i had planned to bring my boyfriend for a visit, he can process Chris' visa it in time for our flight that day. Really? I will run. And get a phone card. But first I need bhats. Bank machine. they don't recognize my code. I try again. oh geez. Why do these things happen at only when you are in a rush.I get take cash out on my visa, which works with the same code for some odd reason. Now, If i get in touch with BGVS or Nirantar within one hour and get them to send the fax, we will make our plane. Forget the 35 degree heat, my broken toe, and rumbling stomach.
After 3 misdirections, we find a place that sells phone cards and then we find an international phone. We are both dripping with sweat, cranky with hunger and exhaustion, and pumping with adrenalin. We are burning through cigarettes and phone cards as i call both Nirantar and BGVS. i explain what I need as best as i can, and hope that no one balks at the presumption of the request and the cost of a prime-time international fax.
We slurp down a bowl of soup at a street stand and run (well, I can't exactly run at this piont) back to the embassy where the officer is on lunch. It is 14:30. He gets back. the flight is at 16:20. We can still make it, right? But there is no fax. I go back into the searing heat, find a phone booth. I have 120 bhat left on the card and make the call.
Nirantar folks have discussed my request and they do not feel comfortable endorsing chris when they don't know him. I explain they do not have to pretend to know him, the embassy just wants them to confirm that *I* know him and had mentioned him, and that they know me. As the card runs out, a weary Malini sighs:"You really should have thought of this before, you know. There is a war going on." Ouch. If hemmoraging money in Bangkok would help stop the war, I would stay here indefinitely, I think. The phone card runs out.
There is still a chance we can make the flight when a type-golf businessman comes in with chinos and an izod shirt and a 7pm flight to Mumbai with no visa. Great, he is going to push ahead of us in line because he is a businessman. We will never catch our flight. And you know what? We don't. But here I am near Khao San Road with a ticket to Calcutta for 4:20 pm and it is 8pm and I could care less.
"Are you American?" I ask. "No, I am German. but I did an exchange when I was younger." His accent is flawless. I take the opportunity of waiting for the absent Mr. Panicker to spell out the many disappointments of the past couple of days, down to the broken baby toe and the expensive taxi rides and phone cards, the pain of wasting time on a finite vacation. "What are you here for? Business?" "No, I am here for treatment. There is a homeopathic clinic in Mumbai." "What for?" I ask before I can stop myself. "Lung cancer. I got tired of the chemotherapy. This is my last chance to try something different.My treatment is scheduled to start tomorrow." He is perfectly composed and graceful with the prospect of being stranded in Bangkok. Missing his life-and-death appointment. Am I telling instead of showing here?
Now I don't think of signs being this thing involving God sending down angels to deliver you messages or something like that. Because as i said in the last entry, there are people in the Persian Gulf right now that need whatever benevolent, omniscient Powers-That-Be's full attention.
But Chris said that signs are like unarticulated wishes that compose themselves in the light of certain facts. Or something like that. But when I said I thought it was a sign that we both stop smoking, he looked at me straight on, and agreed. We stood outside the embassy and crushed the pack of smokes into the ashtray, huge grins, breaking each individual cigarette.