Twice she asked us. Would you like to take your cases on board? No thanks we reply – Don because he’s concerned that we won’t be able to find enough space in the overhead bins, and me because we carry sharp kitchen knives with us and I think they’ll be confiscated, though neither of us communicates this to each other or to the woman at Air Canada who is checking us in.
Ahead of us is a flight from Vancouver to Delhi, a fourteen and a half hour marathon that arrives at 3.45am. It’s to be followed, several hours later by a one-hour flight to Jolly Grant Airport at Dehradun, and a forty-minute drive to our hotel in Rishikesh.
She proceeds with the check-in and asks again Are you sure you don’t want to take your cases on board? Again we decline. I’m sure you’ve all guessed by now where this is going.
In all the nearly six years that Don and I were nomadic we travelled over a million miles, and boarded hundreds of flights. Of all those flights only one was delayed a few hours due to weather, and our bags always arrived with us. We had good baggage karma. I suppose if you spin the wheel often enough though eventually the pointer will stop at you.
We are all waiting for our bags at the baggage carousel in Delhi airport. Then it evolves into a large group of people just waiting. And waiting. Then the carousel stops moving. And then it is chaos. Just know this for a start – there is not a culture in India of politely lining up. Indians just push in. It is the only way to be seen and heard amid the relentless crowds.
It turns out that Air Canada, presumably because there was simply not enough room on the fully booked flight, had opted to leave two hundred bags behind in Vancouver. Two hundred! So there are that many people trying to get answers from four smartly dressed and severely stressed gentlemen who have been designated to deal with the mess. I push and shove along with everyone else. Don’s case has arrived but not mine. I fill in a form. I keep asking about the other form that’s floating around in the chaos but can’t get a clear answer so approach one of the other men – yes we need to fill in both forms. One man said my bag would only be delivered to the nearest airport. Another said it would be delivered to our hotel. Finally we have done all we can. We are given a phone number to call the next morning to find out the status of my case.
You can track lost luggage online on Air Canada’s website if you have a tracking number. None of us has been given a tracking number.
We get the shuttle from the international terminal to the domestic terminal. We wait in a comfortable lounge. We fly to Dehradun where a driver from Red Chilli Adventure meets us and takes us to our hotel in Rishikesh. We are brain dead but do what’s needed – a tuk tuk to a restaurant for what now feels like lunchtime, and some grocery shopping.
I try to stop my head spinning. How will they get my bag to Jolly Grant? Do they have a deal with IndiGo, the Indian domestic airline? How will we know when it’s there? Will anyone at Delhi airport care enough? Does anyone at Air Canada care enough? I become aware that the first place I go in situations like this is anger. I want to be angry with everyone! I become aware that the anger arises from powerlessness. There is nothing I can do. I want to cry though I don’t. I let go and we while away the afternoon and evening reading and eating cold left-over-from-lunch pizza for dinner. I shower and borrow a shirt and undies from Don to wear to bed. At last we sleep.
My friend anger returns in the morning. Don has tried the phone number we were instructed to call and it doesn’t work. Their email address is extinct. We go out for breakfast and talk. Don doesn’t want to deal with my anger. His approach is very different. We agree that anger is not something to be simply dismissed as bad. Sometimes anger is exactly what’s needed, and indeed has saved us from missing a flight in the past. We agree that we need to focus on simply putting one foot in front of the other, not on the outcome.
Don tries multiple times over breakfast to call the airline without success mainly because we’re Skype phoning and the Internet keeps dropping out. Then I remember Red Chilli Adventure. They are close by, they speak good English, and they probably have good Wi-Fi. We go there and yes they can help. Don spends about half an hour waiting on the line to Air Canada. Eventually we get to speak to a person! She is helpful! We are given a tracking number! My bag will be delivered to the hotel later today or tomorrow. Success!
We hi-five with joy and relief. And we acknowledge that even after 21 years together we are still having to negotiate our way over the rocky ground of our different personalities. We also acknowledge how very far we have come.
From Red Chilli Adventure we make our way to the Shambala, one of our favourite cafes, and sip tea and coffee as we look out over the river. I rest my head on Don’s shoulder. Ma Ganga flows by, a deep wide green serpent that bubbles with laughter at she spills over some rocks. The river sings to us. Don whispers to me that he’s listening to Ma Ganga. What does she say? I ask. That everything is love. he replies.
We are so happy to be back in Rishikesh. We are in the same hotel though a different room, with the same view out over the river that is the heart and soul of this town, the river goddess that blesses everything. She is wide and deep here. There must have been a lot of rain recently although today is mild and sunny.
Everything is familiar. Having been here for four weeks last year we know where everything is – the good restaurants, the grocery store that caters to westerners, the interesting places. Leaving the Shambala we walk our favourite route down the narrow alley past the shops selling beautiful Indian crafts, past the restaurants and cafes, along the street, past the small temple and the huge statue of Lord Shiva, past the hole-in-the-wall barber where we go when we need to get our hair buzzed off.
Down and down and down until we come to Lakshman Jhula, the pedestrian bridge that crosses the river. We cross the bridge and walk back along the other side seeing all the same street vendors we’d seen the year before. They are all there hawking their wares in the same places they were in last year.
There are ten million street vendors in India, and the right to trade is written into Indian law. A permit is required though not always acquired, and whether or not one has a permit, in many places a daily “tip” of forty rupees or so to the local police is given without question. It’s just the way it is. Graft greases the wheels, or at least ensures you’re left alone.
I always think that street vendors claim real estate; this is my spot. An unspoken ownership arises, a kind of honour among thieves. Once you’ve established your ground it becomes yours. They are selling street food and clothing, knitted hats and jewellery, plastic containers for pilgrims to collect Ganga water, flower pujas to be floated with a prayer down the river, tourist trinkets, and fruit and vegetables. They are on every street corner, in every little crease and cranny of the crumbling paths and sidewalks and roads, as people, cows, and dogs wander and motor scooters zoom by.
So here then is my visual ode to the street vendors of Rishikesh:
Let me introduce you to bhelpuri, though I have not eaten it myself nor am likely to since I’m not a fan of raw onion or chillies:
This snack, originally from Western India but ubiquitous now throughout the country, is designed to mix sweet, salty, and spicy flavours. It’s usually served in a paper cone. The ingredients include puffed rice, deep-fried noodles made from chickpea flour paste, chaat masala, diced onions and tomatoes, plus green chillies and a cilantro garnish. Bhelpuri vendors are everywhere. At first I saw it like this:
Then like this:
And like this:
Maybe one day I’ll buy some and have a taste. But only if they leave off the chillies.
Back to the lost bag saga after two more days: there have been many phone calls resulting in little progress and much frustration. The Delhi agent for Air Canada that deals with delayed baggage simply cannot be contacted. After several tries I come to understand that my case is lost in some limbo in the madness and mayhem of Delhi International airport and there is no one at the end of the phone line who can help me find it. Somehow it is supposed to get from Delhi International to the domestic airport, on a flight to Dehradun with a local airline, and then in a taxi to Rishikesh. It all seems a tad beyond the realm of possibility, let alone probability.
I witnessed myself going into a mode of being that was modelled to me as a child. If you want something done that is beyond your control you become stern, and firm, and verbally stamp your foot and make it known that you’ll not brook any nonsense or disagreement. Just do what you’re required to do damn it! I also witnessed the internal suffering this causes me. In moving from being lost in it to witnessing it, to witnessing the mind catastrophizing, I was able to let go of it. The symbolism of lost baggage was not lost on me.
As I have moved through the journey of dealing with it over the past few days I have come to also understand that I was carrying an unconscious belief that no one at Air Canada or Delhi airport would care whether I got my case or not. Well if I’m approaching it with that energy then that’s what will likely be mirrored back to me.
It’s been a journey and it is not yet resolved though there is light at the end of the tunnel. Today I spoke to someone who actually cared. It was so lovely. And this is the news I got: From 9 to 12 February concerning Air Canada flights from Toronto and Vancouver to Delhi one thousand bags – one thousand! – were delayed, and arrived in Delhi after their owners, and now have to be sorted and distributed across India. What a colossal clusterfuck. Head Office is on the case (no pun intended) to get it sorted. Air Canada screwed up big time, but somehow I feel better that it’s not just my bag abandoned alone and discarded. I’m hopeful now that I’ll get it within the next few days as they gradually sort out the mess.
I’m not much into conspiracy theories but I have to think there is something behind one thousand bags being delayed only on Air Canada flights to Delhi. A little research led me to an article, from a year ago, headlined ‘We all got abandoned’: B.C. family among hundreds stranded without their luggage in India describing 300 people on an Air Canada flight arriving at Delhi airport without their bags: “Due to the on-going airspace closure over Pakistan, we fly a longer route, which requires more fuel, therefore restricting the weight the aircraft can safely carry,” the airline said. “On occasion, this has resulted in some bags being delayed as we then co-ordinate the transport of bags over alternate routings. Our teams in India are reuniting bags with customers.” But airspace over Pakistan has been reopened for some time now, so it’s still a mystery.
I’m wearing my one pair of filthy socks, and my pants are looking pretty dire too, especially since I spilt a little ketchup on them, and I’m still wearing the same t-shirt day after day though it really has come to the end of its clean-enough shelf-life. I’ll buy another tomorrow so I can wash the one I’m wearing. I’m alternating wearing then washing my undies with wearing a pair of Don’s. And it’s all okay. I look at the beggars and sadhus who live on the streets who never get to change their clothes let alone wash them and know how lucky I am.
Meanwhile we sit with Mooji every morning where letting go feels better than any alternative, though I resist until it gets hopeless and then finally surrender. We walk back from the ashram along by the river and head to Tapovan for lunch and a walk back along the other side of the river. There is something about Rishikesh that fills me with joy, just being out in the madness and pulsating teeming aliveness and pandemonium of the streets and pathways. And then sitting on the balcony watching the river and streams of people flowing by. Despite the saga of the lost case I’m so so happy to be back.
Edited to add: Five days and three hours after we landed at Delhi airport my case arrived at our hotel room. Yay! If Don’s case also hadn’t arrived the situation would have been much more difficult, but I learned a lot about how little I really need.
Next post: more stories from Rishikesh – chai wallahs, sadhus, pilgrims, the burning ghat, and temple ceremonies.
All words and images by Alison Louise Armstrong unless otherwise noted
© Alison Louise Armstrong and Adventures in Wonderland – a pilgrimage of the heart, 2010-2020.