Journeying to Ecuador

Our baggage did not arrive in Quito. One suitcase did, the other was orphaned in Houston. The United Airlines agent who traced the missing piece said their policy offers no compensation for delays shorter than 48 hours. The suitcase would arrive exactly a day later, on the same flight from Houston to Quito. And United would deliver it anywhere in Ecuador.

We were leaving for the Amazon rainforest next morning. The agent, a short woman with a soft voice and reassuring manner, took down details of our lodge. Then she handed us two complimentary packets, each containing a toothbrush, toothpaste, a shaving kit, and a sachet of laundry granules.

Missing baggage isn’t much cause for worry these days. Airlines trace the items with ease, and a formal process oversees such incidents. (I can imagine a meeting of United employees, sitting around a table in a room, defining such a process. One of them proposes a complimentary toiletries pack in lieu of compensation. Another one adds: with laundry granules.) It can be inconvenient of course, but P had packed some of her clothes into my suitcase. She coped, without the granules.

Earlier, on the five-hour flight from Houston, I sat next to a young Japanese couple who were also headed to the rainforest the following day. They were keen on frogs.

The reticent, serious-looking man had a place for everything in his bag. A pouch for air pillows. Another one for slip-ons. A webbed pocket for a small umbrella. Flaps for paper and passports and pens. He filled the immigration form with an accountant’s unwavering focus.

The woman appeared more social. She had been to a few cities in Germany, she said, listing Köln, Berlin, and Dresden. She liked the Christmas Markets there.

Husband and wife spoke in whispers before falling asleep.

Earlier still, at Munich, there was a commotion at the head of a queue near the gate. This was where our U.S visas would be checked and double-checked, a protocol followed for flights entering the country. The shouts came from a man with an East European accent, directing his frustration at an official behind the counter, a woman with Sri Lankan features. The man’s son had been chosen for a random check, and he wanted to accompany the boy.

He is only fifteen years old! the man said.

When the woman refused (He is fifteen, not a child!), he argued with her about his son’s selection. The computer chose the passenger, the woman said firmly, I cannot do anything about it. The man remained unconvinced. His wife led him away, whispering into his ear, while the chosen one was escorted to another section behind a screen.

We had a five-hour layover at Houston, but our flight was delayed by four hours. At the gate in Munich I sat reading Muriel Spark’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, tuning in and out of a conversation nearby between a boy, five or six years old, and his grandfather. They spoke English with a U.S. accent that bore hints of Spanish intonation. The boy asked about planes, where they are built and where are they taken for maintenance. The grandfather’s answers were perfunctory. My ears perked up when the boy spoke of his mother’s death.

Mama is in heaven… mama is in heaven…

What are you talking about? Grandpa asked.

When she went to the hospital, she got a shot in her arm… and she died!

Stop that, will you?

With nothing to do except pass time chatting or reading or simply idling, an equilibrium — or perhaps ennui — had set in among the passengers. The chatter subsided after a while, and the only movement came from the occasional passenger getting up to walk to the restroom. The passengers were mostly white, a large percentage probably residents of the United States. An elderly Indian man shuffled across the hall and took the seat beside me. We smiled, and the next moment he asked if I could get YouTube working on his mobile. He looked North Indian. It turned out he was from Mumbai, visiting his brothers and daughter in the United States. The brothers owned some gas stations, a business he had helped set up in the seventies, borrowing money from a friend in Pakistan, before returning to India to be with his mother. Now the brothers shared the profits. When I asked if he was Marathi, he said no, he was a “Mohameddan”. Perhaps he misheard my question, but I’d never heard anyone use that expression in casual conversation.

The Mohammedan rummaged his rucksack and offered me a Hershey’s nugget. I gave him some chips. He invited me to his home to Mumbai. Whenever you come to the city, he said. Sure, I replied, and thanked him, before inviting him to visit us in Heidelberg. No addresses were exchanged.

On the flight to Houston I watched Jim Jarmusch’s Paterson, which felt like a movie made for an audience of one: me. I made a mental note of writing a story featuring seven days of an ordinary week, and of reading the poetry of William Carlos Williams. The Old Capital, a Japanese movie, was slow-moving and beautiful in the manner of Ozu’s films, stirring in me that old desire to visit Japan. (How the country will match the image I carry of it is a recurring curiosity; unlike Ecuador, a country barely familiar to me, Japanese literature, art, and films have been colonising my mind for some years now.) Pedro Almodovar’s Julietta was engrossing, but not a very good Almodovar.

We flew over Greenland. It was a clear day, and all we could see was white. But near the coast some glaciers and lakes came into view, lakes with icebergs dotting the azure surface like diamonds: a stunning, other-worldly frame you see only in magazine photographs. In those minutes half the plane was looking out of the window.

At one point of the eleven-hour flight I got talking with the young man in a row behind me. A Colombian studying renewable energy policy near Munich, he had worked in Mannheim before. When I mentioned Paterson, he said he’d seen all of Jarmusch’s movies. We discussed Coffee and Cigarettes, Night on Earth, Stranger than Paradise, and Only lovers left alive. We talked about Marquez, and he recommended another Colombian writer, Juan Gabriel Vasquez. On One Hundred Years of Solitude, he said the massacre of banana workers was more symbolic than literal: the deaths in reality were far fewer in number. Visit Columbia, he said, it is a wonderful country. He moved out only because the subject of renewable energy had little scope in Columbia.

Why Ecuador? he asked.

Because it has most traits of a South American country, minus the hype that surrounds places in Peru or Chile: hence fewer tourists. At least this is what I expected.

At Houston we ran through the airport, requesting people at the immigration queue to let us pass as we had “a flight in forty-five minutes.” They did. At the security check queue there were passengers with flights in fifteen minutes or less. We made it to the gate on time, but not before resolving never to transit via the U.S. again.

Five hours later, at the Quito airport, a friendly immigration official welcomed us to Ecuador. Outside, the air was cool and I felt woozy. It was the altitude perhaps, or the long journey. The time was 1 am. We rode the shuttle to Wyndham Quito airport hotel in darkness, seeing nothing of the mountains all around us.

Only one suitcase sir? the hotel attendant asked.

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