Every once in a while, well every few years really, there used to be a small fire in or around the building we lived in Abu Dhabi. Nothing major. Nothing glamourous. Just a little short circuit in an apartment nearby or one of those old white and silver, heavy as hell, National brand irons with the striped cord abandoned on an old ironing board. Something unremarkable like that.
(One of the universal truths about residential buildings in Abu Dhabi, maybe all of the UAE, was that the freaking fire alarms were always broken when you moved in. I have NEVER seen a building in those parts which had that "Break glass in case of fire!" devices intact. My dad always thought those pesky arab kids did it.)
Touch wood, no drastic fire type things happened while I was there but we had a routine drilled into us by my dad for just the occasion: "Ditch everything, pick up the bag with the passports and RUN! Okay fine. Walk briskly!"
My dad, like most veteran NRI's, is paranoid about passports. And it doesn't even have to be his or his family's passports. The moment he walked into an airport he'd spot somebody with their passport in their backpocket or some firang just leaving it out there on the duty free restaurant table or something like that. (This was a rather disconcerting habit with citizens of countries where replacement passports did not mean calling James (agent) in Worli who would talk to a 'friend' (Patil) in the passport office, who would then do his duty, as a Govt. servant, to take only Rs. 2000 (Assistance fee) and give you the contact of someone else (Khobragade) in the office who would come and collect all your papers and then within just three days, exactly as may be expected from the Tatkal service, disappear forever from your life taking with him the LAST attested copy of your leave and licence agreement.)
Dad, on spotting such lax passport maintenance, would then hyperventilate. He'd start mumbling to himself and telling us how we must never leave our passports out like that and always inside a bag. If not somehow surgically within our bodies itself.
Dad kept our's within an inside zipper pouch which itself was hidden inside the central compartment of a chunky Samsonite travel bag that was then secured to the body of my father by a stout leather strap, which was wound around at least three limbs and one neck (sometimes all his) at any given time.
The sad thing was a little bit of all this paranoia rubbed off on me as well.
So if you see a slightly perturbed looking portly man, handsome in a George Clooney sort of way, at the airport, palming his pockets frantically every fifteen minutes or so, you should walk up and say hi. It's probably me. Or my dad.
So imagine my panic when, last month, I was impatiently waiting for someone from our party to turn up at the airport with my papers for the flight to Malaysia which would leave in two hours.
And by papers I mean everything. Tickets. Passports. Visa. Spending money. Hotel bookings. Tour plans. Contact numbers. Everything except my PAN Card. Which I had lost during the honeymoon in Rajasthan. (Don't ask how or why.)
Inside, mentally, I was in utter disarray. My mind created various scenarios whereby I would forever be cleaved from my passport. Had the travel agency guy scooted off with it? What if the member of our tour party, who had everyone's papers, got looted by a rogue taxi driver? Had he been bragging about the trip in public drawing unsavoury elements towards him?
Outside, in order to not alarm the missus, I appeared perfectly calm. Composed.
"Stop that sobbing and sniffing my man! The guy will be here soon enough!" the missus said handing me a paper napkin.
Thankfully, an hour or so just before the flight, MQ landed with the package. And for the first time the group congregated as one. We looked around and nodded. Eight intrepid travelers. So this was the merry bunch I would spend four days in Malaysia with.
It was pretty much the kind of company I was expecting. Except that it was completely not.
Three weeks before that tense night at the airport Rashmi passed on the email from the Tourism Malaysia people with a stern warning.
R: "These press junkets are loaded with old fogey freeloaders who are there only to enjoy the freebies, drink free booze and wind down away their twilight years as unpleasant gruff news hacks. You will loathe their company the moment you set eyes on them."
S: "Free booze you say?"
R: "You are missing the point Sidin. If you are on one of those package type tours made by those Raj Travels type people then you will have to spend all your time with these old men. And get none on your own..."
S: "Free booze you say?"
So when I was suddenly faced with an array of lively, bubbly youths fresh from the campuses of assorted Mumbai colleges I was taken aback.
Of course there was one other press person. The initially enigmatic but later lively PD who wielded her pen for the venerable Time Out Mumbai magazine. She was the first one I met at the airport. I shook hands with her in a lively fashion and then went on to crack a dozen or so lively jokes in order to break the ice. PD seemed to enjoy them if one interpreted, liberally, her cold stare and later aloofness.
Perhaps when I said youths I was not clear enough. The six youngsters had their parents all at the airport to drop them off. There was the usual last morsels of advice: "Zyaada non-veg mat khaana! Late night party sharty mat karo. Phone card se call karna. Hamesha saat rehna... Arrey! Is uncle bhi aapke saat hai kya?!!!"
I made a futile attempt to blend into airport scenery. The wife was nowhere to be seen.
I was told, firmly, to take care of all the kids and make sure they came back in one piece. (Each one of them individually I mean. Not all of them in one huge piece. Though any more uncle references and I could arrange that.) I nodded and quickly entered the airport after bidding the wife a hasty goodbye by sms.
Inside the terminal MQ quickly handed out our packets which contained return tickets, passports (phew!), photos and some tour schedules and information. It all came in a dull blue folder with the words "Raj Travels" emblazoned on it.
Hmm. This trip was getting interestinger and interestinger.
To be continued...