Travel writing sample: Airport arrivals are hell

08th September 2011
Nothing is worse than arriving at a strange airport in a foreign country after a lengthy flight. I seem to always make a complete hash of it, and subsequently get off to a holiday start that is very much less than memorable.

My latest fiasco was in Kolkata, India, earlier this year.

Prior to leaving for India, I had booked all accommodation on the internet and organised airport pick-ups - with the exception of Kolkata, where we were staying a 200-year-old hotel called The Fairlawn operated by an elderly English woman, Mrs Violet Smith. Previous Fairlawn guests had been Sting, and actors Julie Christie, Patrick Swayze and Felicity Kendal, as well as a number of noteworthy poets and writers.

When I emailed Violet and asked for an airport pick-up she replied with a brief four word email: “Get a prepaid taxi.”

So, after arriving at Kolkata Airport at 11.30 pm after an long flight from Adelaide and going through immigration and customs formalities, we found the prepaid taxi desk, and told the man behind the counter we needed a taxi to the Fairlawn Hotel.

We paid our money and he handed us a voucher, saying: “Give this to a yellow taxi out there.” He pointed lazily through the main doors.

With that, we wearily made our way out into the midnight heat with our luggage trolly and were immediately pounced on by about six young men, as I spluttered: “we need a yellow taxi.”

“Yes sir, yes sir, we have a yellow taxi,” they chorused excitedly, grabbing our bags and making off towards a darkened section of the airport car park about 100 metres away where I could vaguely make out a lonely yellow taxi.

“This is wrong, darling,” my wife said gently…”the real yellow ones are over there.” She pointed to a group of about a dozen yellow cabs clearly visible under flood lighting.

“No,” I said, pointing to the taxi we were heading for about 100 yards away. “See? That one is yellow.”

I was right, in a sense. It was indeed yellow but, sadly, I didn’t fully realise my error until our luggage was in the boot and we were seated in the back of a very grimy and rundown hand-painted yellow heap of motorised junk.

When I handed the driver the taxi voucher, he stared blankly at me and screeched: “No! No good! Only take money!”

Thus begun a brief but ferociously heated argument that quickly ended when we were unceremoniously bundled out of the cab and our luggage was hurled to the ground as the group of young men swore at us in Hindi. He revved the heap of junk’s engine, threw the taxi voucher at me and disappeared into the darkness.

My wife simply glared at me and walked haughtily towards the bank of floodlit genuine yellow taxis muttering that I was a fool. I followed gloomily, and under my breath cursed my stupidity.

The prepaid cab was not much better, but at least the driver accepted the voucher and we arrived safely at the Fairlawn after a hair-raising drive at breakneck speed through the darkened back streets of Kolkata at 12.30 am.

The incident reminded me of when I had arrived at London’s Heathrow in 35 years earlier as a bright eyed and bushy tailed young Australian fresh from the safety and sanctuary of Adelaide.

No-one had told me about the green and red doors in the customs hall, and I blithely made the mistake of wandering through the red door.

I must have been the first idiot to deliberately or accidentally go through the red door for weeks, as I was leapt upon more than enthusiastically by an over zealous customs man.

“What do you have to declare,” he rasped authoritatively.

Well hell, I’d never flown internationally before, was exceedingly ‘green’ and had no idea what I had to declare.

“That I’m from Australia?” I declared hopefully.

He stared icily at me and told me not to be funny - then proceeded to spend almost an hour going through all my bags with all the fervor and enthusiasm of a latter day Sherlock Holmes about to crack open a big crime. This was followed by numerous suspiciously asked questions about why I was visiting and whether I intended working.

By the time I wandered into the arrival lounge, my girl friend who was living in London (she subsequently became my wife a month later) had given up all hope of seeing me. She was about to leave, figuring because the date was April 1, it was all a joke, and I was not coming after all.

As I recalled the London incident, I realised nothing had really changed since Heathrow. I remained a walking disaster in airports, where my middle names become “Dazed and Confused”.

My 1990 my arrival at Bali’s Denpasar Airport was a nightmare.

Not having read my travel documents properly (typical of me) I handed the taxi driver the first voucher I located in my travel wallet. Unfortunately the driver read no English and happily took the hotel accommodation voucher in place of the airport transfer voucher which I should have given him.

Luckily, the people at the hotel desk were more astute when I innocently handed them what I thought was the accommodation voucher.

“This is your airport transfer voucher, sir,” one explained diligently, as another raced out to the taxi see if I had accidentally given him the hotel voucher – which of course I had.

Everything sorted itself out in the end, although the rest of the family stared at me as if I was totally mad.

Things never really improved during three additional trips to Bali.

In Kuala Lumpur in 2006 I was travelling solo – so at least I had no-one to embarrass apart than myself. After exiting immigration and customs I made my way a desk marked “Transport” and handed across my transfer voucher for the overnight stopover hotel (I was continuing my journey to Saigon early the next morning).

He scanned the voucher and said. “Downstairs on the ground level sir, take the elevator.”

He pointed to a bank of about half a dozen elevators.

I followed his advice. But how was I to know that some elevators had back and front doors, and that when the one I chose stopped, only the back doors opened and I found myself in a darkened corridor with no sign of any transport.

It took me two trips before I managed to get into an elevator with only front doors – and which opened on the right side where I discovered my minibus.

But my discomfort continued. I handed my transport voucher to the driver and chatted with the only other passenger – another Australian.

When we arrived at his hotel he got out and I remain seated – but the driver looked confused.

“This is your hotel, sir,” he announced. “Please get out.” But I didn’t. The hotel name on my accommodation voucher was totally different to that on the hideous neon sign where we had stopped.

“This is not my hotel,” I protested, and confidently handed the driver my voucher.

“This is your hotel, sir,” he said, as he read the voucher. “It changed names last week.”

My arrival in Saigon the following morning is best left unsaid.

Small wonder my wife sometimes jokes: “We’ll travel separately - and I’ll meet you at the hotel if you manage to arrive.”

I am forced to agree with her.

Sometimes my departures are equally as bad. Once I boarded the plane to Port Lincoln instead of Whyalla – and discovered my mistake moments after the plane had started taxiing to the runway.

Still, I’m not as silly as former South Australian Premier, the Late Don Dunstan, for whom I was once press secretary.

When he and I were flying to Sydney in 1970 he became obsessed with talking to a Canadian cephologist in the VIP lounge, and despite my protestations we missed our connection.

In those days flights between Melbourne and Sydney were very infrequent, and we only made our Sydney meeting – it was with an exclusive club of leading Australian businessmen - with 5 minutes to spare as opposed to the 3 hours we had planned on.

It was indeed a close shave. Don wasn’t one to swear, but he did utter a single word when he discovered we had missed the plane.

“Bugger.”

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