Aasha Mehreen Amin
(Continued from last week)
If there ever was an airport you could lose yourself in, it would be Kuala Lumpur Airport. This is one gigantic mall where one could spend years trying to figure out where the arrows actually lead to. You need to take express trains, glass lifts and all sorts of contraptions that make you think you are in yet another sequel of Back to the Future. Even the phones are touch-screen. But amidst the shiny designer shops and futuristic architecture there are signs that I have not left home too far behind.
As I trudge back to the airport hotel to say my final adieu to my luxury prison I notice long lines of haggard, familiar looking, young men in their crumpled white T shirts and black pants with ID cards hanging from their necks. Some carry water bottles or carrier bags of home-food, faces looking lost and forlorn as they gaze in bewilderment at the glossy surroundings that do not have an ounce of warmth for the likes of them. Bangladeshi migrant workers, who have sold perhaps their last bit of paternal land or mother's jewellery to go abroad, stand in long queues, waiting for some sign that their papers are ok and they can begin what they believe is a life out of hopelessness. I wonder just how many will actually get what they have been dreaming about and how many will end up in a life of uncertainty, despair and eternal homesickness. But shamefully, I look away as a few of them stare trying to guess whether I am from their beloved homeland or just another foreign stranger who has no time to stop and talk.
I find my boarding gate C 17 located, naturally, at the furthest end of the terminal. Happy to be finally getting out of the enclosure, to a paradise called the Maldives, I shrug off the sad plight of my fellow countrymen and focus on the journey ahead.
The flight, scheduled to leave at 9:30pm will leave at 2:30am. Apparently the plane on the way back from Male, would be stopping in Colombo airport which was under special alert because of a bomb scare. The airlines had been instructed to land at Colombo during daylight as the Tamil Tigers were most likely to make their attack at night when there was less visibility (they were coming in with their own fighter planes you see). All this information is glibly dumped on us by one of the airport officials. But not to worry, he says, a hotel right across the airport had been arranged to take all the passengers. Disappointed at the delay and wondering whether I would actually see that place called Male, I nevertheless brighten up at the prospect of actually seeing the outside of the airport. I noticed two short, thin men looking quite distressed and asking something of the official. “Oh, no, no Bangladeshis, you cannot get on arrival visas in Malaysia” he curtly states. I had been asked to wait with the other passengers, so when I say quite loudly, “But I am a Bangladeshi, so what am I supposed to do?” the official is visibly surprised perhaps because I am in jeans and can pass off as Sri Lankan or Indian. The two Bangladeshis jump out of their skins: “You are Bangladeshi? Apne Bangladeshi?” they seem overjoyed. The official groans and reluctantly concedes that my two compatriots will be taken along with me, to 'an airport hotel'. Oh no, not again I helplessly think. Thus it is Déjà vu for me -the same long path, the two-doored lift to the reception, checking in, getting your hotel room card key…
The Bagladeshis stick to me like glue. They are employees at a hotel in Male and are going back there after a home visit to Barisal. Carrying a small, brick-heavy suitcase and a box that I suspect has a hari of sweet curd inside, Mukles and Arif indicate that they will not move an inch without my direction. I am not very sure about my new-found responsibility as babysitter to two grown-up men; but I feel sorry for them and so go about it with utmost sincerity. This means going with them up to their room and showing them how to get in with the card key. Mukles goes in after I have opened the door and comes running back (probably assuming there are monsters in the cupboards) with a typical: Oore Babare. By then I have lost a considerable amount of my empathy and scold him like an irate headmistress for being such a fool, handing the key to his far more sensible companion. I leave them with the promise that I will call them from my room and tell them how they can call me back- and- that I would wake them at nine so that the three of us could go and have dinner at the main terminal. What joy I think, at the prospect of having a meal with two completely unknown Bangladeshis.
Thus at nine-thirty the three of us are seated at one of the restaurants and eat some sort of melange of rice, chicken, tofu and veggies. Mukhles, the vociferous of the two, relates how he has been a bit of a rebel refusing to study so his brother had decided that going abroad to work would be the best option. At the hotel in Male where the two work, most of the employees are Bangladeshis. Mukhles says that he earns about 20,000 taka a month, most of which he sends home to his family. “We don't need to spend money, food, lodging, everything is free so we can save all our earnings,” he says.
We go back to our respective rooms. I am pleasantly surprised to find that I actually do have a window that can't be opened but overlooks a courtyard of sorts with real trees. Soon however, fatigue takes over and I am lost in an exhausted slumber.
From the airport to the hotel means taking a short boat ride another to island
At 1:30 am, feeling groggier than ever, the three odd Musketeers arrive at the boarding gate. I think of ways of how to tastefully shed my two compatriots apprehending unwanted gratitude in the form of visits and invitations during my brief stay in Male, when I am whisked away to the first class cabin before I can say goodbye. Ah, the beauty of upgraded travel.
We arrive at Male airport before dawn. I cannot see my Bangladeshi buddies in the long weary queues. The humidity and heat is overwhelming, even at five in the morning. But the sight of a young man holding a placard with my name on it is so relieving, I almost hug the fellow. Of course I don't, but effusively thank Ibrahim for taking so much trouble to come at such an unearthly hour. He just smiles sweetly and takes my suitcase. I am met by another man -- Abeer, he introduces himself, appointed by the information ministry to receive all the foreign delegates. Again profuse apologies from my side. “No trouble at all” says the resilient Abeer. I later find out that he has been doing this all night as many of the other delegates had come at various hours. Dizzy with exhaustion and dying for a bed, I can barely make out what Abeer is saying. Did he actually say boat?
I come out of my semi-unconscious state with a jolt when I realise that going to the hotel means taking a speedboat to another island! It is a lovely boat ride that awakens all my senses. I can't see much because it is still dark, save glimpses of silvery waves shining against the necklace of fairy lights that line the island we are going to. I feel exhilarated and impatient for daylight. This is just the beginning, a little voice in my head tells me, as I stagger out of the boat onto the island city of Male.
To be continued
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