My adventures in foreign travels
The number of Indian nationals traveling abroad has increased since 2000 and it has become commonplace, but back in the 1980s is was uncommon. I was, however, fortunate to visit many places in the world in connection with my work as an engineer. The following are some incidents that were memorable.
The incident at Frankfurt, Germany
A visit to Germany in 1980 was my first travel out of India. Airports in India in those days did not have aerobridges, escalators, or big shopping facilities. So, when my flight from Delhi reached Frankfurt, my jaw dropped to see that they used aerobridges for deplaning and conveyors for walking. The flight had landed early in the morning around 6 am and my next flight to Erlangen was to board at 11.15 am, so I had time to explore the airport, which was magical for me. After roaming through Frankfurt airport in amazement I dutifully reached the scheduled departure gate at 10:30 am only to find that it was deserted. I assumed that other passengers would come soon but when not a soul showed up until 10:45 I got worried. I rushed outside the departure gate to find airline staff who told me that the departure gate was changed and advised that I to go to help desk. I rushed to the help desk and was informed that it was too late for me to board my flight! Since it was the first travel abroad I didn’t know what to expect. Thankfully, they then offered to put me on the next flight departing at 12.30. I then got worried about my checked-in baggage but thankfully they informed me that it has been loaded on the flight that I had missed but would be unloaded and kept safe at Erlangen Airport. Thereafter all was normal.
The incident at Niagra Falls
In February 1981 I was on an around-the-world tourism trip with my wife. From New York we took an evening flight to Buffalo and from there the bus to Niagara Falls the next morning. The bus reached Niagara Falls at around 11.30 am. It was freezing and there was ankle deep snow all around. Initially we were enthusiastic but after about half an hour of roaming around we did not see any other tourists or admirable scenes. Across the falls, the Canada side looked more interesting, however we didn’t have Canadian Visas.
Soon we were freezing and started shivering. On looking around we saw a room with a sign that read POLICE. Strangely it was empty, but unlocked and comfortably heated. It had chairs on which we made ourselves comfortable. There also was a telephone instrument which I checked, just for heck of it, and found it in working condition. I admired USA for having thoughtfully arranged everything for any chance visitor. Soon we felt warmed and went out again to find some vantage point from where to see the falls. However, after an hour of roaming around we didn’t find any such location. Meanwhile it started snowing and we started shivering once again. We had a small bottle of Cognac from which we sipped to feel warm.
By 2 pm, we were starving so we walked to the nearby hotel Crowne Plaza in hope of getting hot coffee and something to eat. Near the hotel we saw two co-passengers who were on the bus that we took from Buffalo. They informed us that the hotel was closed but kindly shared their coffee from a flask. Upon hearing our dismay about not being able to see the falls, they suggested we to walk over to Ontario side. When we told them that we didn’t have Canadian Visas, they informed that sometimes the border control officers issue short time emergency visas so that those in distress could reach Ontario side and get help. We tried our luck, and the Border Control Officers were very kind and stamped our passports with Short-time Emergency Visas valid for 3 days with multiple entry. We thanked the officers from depth of our hearts and walked over the bridge to Ontario side. To our great pleasure the Ontario side was highly functional. We ate and had coffee and lifted a leaflet meant for guiding tourists. We walked over to the observation tower and got a wonderful view of frozen Niagara Fall and shot pictures. Overall, it was very interesting and thanks to the kindness of Canadian Border Control our trip didn’t go waste.
In our excitement we didn’t realize that it was end of the day and the time was around 8 pm and too late to take a bus back to Buffalo. Furthermore, upon reaching the NY side we found that it was all dark in the hotel Crowne Plaza, which meant that we’d have to walk back across the bridge to Ontario in freezing cold! But as if miraculously, a taxi appeared. Upon hearing our story the driver told us that the he had come from Buffalo to drop someone and was returning to Buffalo and would be glad to help us. I didn’t care to ask him the fare and jumped into comfort of the car. We reached Buffalo around 10 pm. The driver was so kind as to tell that we owed him nothing since he was driving back to Buffalo anyway! I profusely thanked him and told him that he had acted God for us in reply he smiled and simply said “Never mind”. I regret not to be able to recall the name of the man who acted God for us. But he remains in my memory.
Memories of Waikiki, Honolulu
In February 1981 we travelled the freezing mainland of USA for the warmth of Waikiki, Honolulu. We stayed in a hotel on the beach and enjoyed all touristy things except sea food (we are vegetarians).
For me the most memorable think was the “Hula Dance Academy”. It was a run by the Eastman Kodak company and offered hour long dance classes, granting a Certificate of Proficiency in Hula Dance! Entry was free if seats were available. A dance dress was available for ladies and they were supposed to be in the arena to enjoy doing the Hula dance, without inhibitions, with professional dancers.
The main attraction of was sale at attractively priced Kodak Colour Films for still and movie cameras and I recall that almost everybody bought several rolls of all types of films. Kodak also provided the service of delivering developed transparencies, negatives, colour prints, and Super-8 Movie films next morning by 10 am to the hotel room. All this was very exciting for us at the time, and I wonder what happens these days as films are no longer needed and Eastman Kodak declared bankruptcy in 2012.
Finding a friend in Dresden, Germany
In May 1985 I visited Dresden, which was part of Bundesrepublik Deutschland (East Germany) at the time. I stayed there for about 6 weeks and have quite sweet memories of Dresden. Dresden University was one of the best schools in East Germany. It had a serene atmosphere with scholastic young men and women studying there at various levels.
I visited the Dresden University campus several times, to enjoy its serenity. During one of my visits to the campus garden with a colleague, an old man came around and addressing me asked if he could share the bench with us. I welcomed him with a smile. He sat close to me and offered his hand which I shook — he said “I am Leopold”. Then has said that he guessed that we were from India. I chatted with with Mr. Leopold for about half an hour. I understood that he was 85 years old and was all alone. When he was young he had once visited India and was impressed by its unique culture and traditions. When he learned that I would be in Dresden for about a month he asked me if I would care to meet him daily in evening so that he gets someone to talk to. I said that I would love to. Thus we parted and thereafter we met long as I stayed in Dresden. On evening of the day before my scheduled departure from Dresden we exchanged addresses and Mr. Leopold with tears in his eyes asked me if I would like to indulge in correspond with him through letters. While parting we hugged and exchanged good wishes.
After returning to India I regularly received postcards from Mr. Leopold and replied to him enclosing a couple of pictures each time. This continued for several years when suddenly his postcard stopped. I then wrote to him asking why he was not writing but didn’t get any reply. I assumed that he was no more and prayed for peace to him. Even now I recall him as a very loving and nice old man.
“The Green Vault” in Dresden
In Dresden there is a museum of precious things called The Green Vault. I thought it was quite out of this world. Take a look though it at:
While enjoying the marvellous exhibits one after another and then returning to take a second look I came across an exhibit which, for me, was quite unexpected because it depicted the Durbar (Court) of Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb. It looked as follows:
In the centre the Mughal Emperor Auranzeb was depicted seated on a throne at great height. A closeup of only the portion depicting the Emperor is shown below:
In the piece you can spot Aurangzeb sitting on his throne, under a canopy, surrounded by 137 enamelled figurines of men, animals, gold and silver objects! He’s supposedly receiving at least 32 birthday gifts from Empire’s most powerful princes, and even the Chinese! This diorama originally used 5223 diamonds, 189 rubies, 175 emeralds, 53 pearls, 2 cameos, and 1 sapphire. At the time when I visited the Green Vault though, 391 precious stones and pearls were missing.
The incident at Praha (Prague) Czechoslovakia
In the summer of 1986 I visited Czechoslovakia for a business meeting with Czechoslovakian megalith SKODA in Plzen (Pilsen). After business meetings for a couple of days at Plzen, I reached Praha (Prague) Airport to board an early morning Pan Am flight to fly to New York. At check-in desk under a signboard reading Pan Am — New York, I presented my air-ticket, placed my luggage on the weighing platform, and collected my boarding card.
After 30 minutes a man came to the seating space in the waiting hall and announced that I should raise my hand. He came near me and asked where was the luggage that I had checked-in as it was to be loaded on the aircraft. I told him that I had left the luggage at the weighing scale at the check-in desk. The gentleman told me that it was not to be left there but to be brought to the waiting area and handed over to the desk there. I explained that I was a first timer to Praha and was unaware of this practice as elsewhere the luggage was taken care by the persons at check-in desk. He told me not to worry as his country was totally free from theft. I followed him and we roamed the entire airport but could not see my luggage. He then took me to trolleys loaded with luggage but it was not there either.
I got worried and told to the gentleman that someone might have taken it thinking that it was theirs because it was a Samsonite bag, which was very popular. This gave him an idea and he told me that a flight from Baghdad had arrived just as I was checking-in and someone from that flight could have taken my luggage by mistake. He used his wireless handset and talked to someone in Czech language and explained to me that a bus was there for use of the contingent from Baghdad and he had told a policemen to arrange to place all the luggage on ground and ask every one of the contingent to identify their baggage.
Soon a Baghdadi man carrying a luggage resembling mine showed up with a policeman. I checked it and it was mine. The man from the Baghdad contingent shook my hand and asked me to forgive him to which I said that there was nothing for him to apologise as such mistakes do happen. Thereafter I carried my luggage and accompanied the officer to the baggage hold where my luggage was loaded on a trolley meant for taking the luggage to the aircraft.
I thanked the officer with warmth and he arranged for me a vehicle which took me to the Pan Am aircraft. The flight had already got delayed and as I entered the aircraft and the hostess directed me to my seat, most of the passengers gave me a dirty look and I had to cut a sorry figure.
I mentioned this episode because I found it to be very impressive that at that time Czechoslovakia was free from crimes which are commonplace in other countries.
Treasures from Morocco
In April 1998 I visited Marrakesh, the fourth largest city in Morocco. It is the capital of the mid-southwestern region of Marrakesh-Safi. I enquired in the hotel I was staying in, about places of tourist interest and was advised to visit the village known as Tahanaoute where there was a very unusual building site.
I took a tour to Tahanaoute. Roaming in the lanes of Tahanaoute I observed that there were numerous shops selling traditional artifacts and medicines to tourists. I bought a couple of small artifacts and then entered a medicine shop. In the medicine shop there were hundreds of medicines. Most popular were aphrodisiacs which most of the tourists were buying. But when the seller sensed that I was not on lookout to buy those he asked me what I was interested in. I requested him if he had something unique; he then showed me a lipstick. I took the lipstick in hand opened its cap. The stick was pleasingly fragrant and cloudy translucent. I asked the shopkeeper about what was special about it and what he told was really interesting. He told me that on application on lips by a woman, it would colour her lips either light green or light pink and if colour of lips is pink it would mean that the lady is not in the period of ovulation and if her lips turn greenish it would mean that she is in ovulation period. I thought for a while and bought six of them thinking that at the most these would prove to be useless but if lip colour really changes, it would be fun for friends.
Another thing that the shop keeper showed to me looked like black sesame seeds smelling like strong turpentine. He told me that if someone has nasty headache he should take about half a tea spoon of the seeds and put in a hand kerchief making a small bundle of the sort and smell the seeds — soon headache would be gone. I bought 25 grams bottle of the black seeds also.
Upon return to India I gave both the things to my wife. My personal gift to her was the bottle of black seeds for her comfort as she used to suffer from attacks of severe migraine. Along with the black seeds I also showed to her the lipsticks explaining what I was told about them by the seller in Morocco and asked her to give a trial to one of them just to check if what the shopkeeper had told me had any substance. To our surprise the lipstick did behave like what I was told by the seller. We didn’t try to test whether or not the change in colour to greenish did mean period of ovulation. But thereafter my wife decided to show these lipsticks to her friends during evening tea party and she told me that they had fun.
The incident at Berlin Airport
In April, 2001 I visited Berlin. After finishing work in Berlin I was to take early morning flight from Berlin to Dusseldorf to London. Work at Dusseldorf was quite brief so I was at Berlin airport at 6:30 am so as to board flight leaving at 7:30am for Dusseldorf wherefrom my flight for London was to leave at 5:30pm.
At Berlin airport the queue for checking in was not very long. I had just one check-in luggage and a briefcase. The luggage was kept on a luggage trolley and the briefcase in the basket of the trolley. Since the flight from Berlin to Dusseldorf was domestic my passport was not needed so I took it out of my jacket pocket and kept it safe in my briefcase. When it was my turn to check-in I kept the luggage trolley on the side to lift my luggage from it and put it on the weighing scale and present my ticket. For a fraction of a minute my eyes were not on my briefcase. After collecting my boarding pass when looked at my luggage trolley I found that my briefcase was missing. Obviously, it was stolen. I asked the passengers behind me whether they had seen someone take my briefcase but they all gestured of ignorance.
I then rushed to a police officer and reported to him what had happened. The first words that the officer spoke were a query whether I had kept my passport and money in the briefcase. When I replied that I had kept only the passport and money was still safe in my jacket pocket he told me that the very purpose of the miscreant having stolen it was my passport which will be misused by criminals to create a fake passport in the name of some criminal who would use it to enter India.
The officer gestured at me to follow him and took me to his office where he took out a form and asked me to fill my name and other personal details and if possible, the number of my passport. Luckily I remembered the passport number and wrote it in the form. The officer then signed and stamped the form and handed over to me telling that the Form would serve as a temporary permit for me to be in Germany for a month and in the meantime I must manage to visit Indian Embassy in Bonn and get a new passport and thereafter also the embassy of UK to obtain a UK Visa if I was still interested to visit UK. I thanked the officer and proceeded to board my flight to Dusseldorf.
Upon reaching Dusseldorf Airport I was received by one Mr. Patel (a Gujarati Indian) who was the person I was supposed to discuss a business matter. While he was driving to his office, I told him about what had happened at Berlin airport. After hearing from me Mr. Patel told me that now I would require to stay in a hotel for a couple of nights and take early morning train to Bonn to obtain a new passport from Indian Embassy there whereafter I would have to visit the Embassy of UK for obtaining UK Visa. He advised me to stay at the hotel which was part of the Railway Station of Dusseldorf. Mr. Patel also told me to take out my passport pictures from one of kiosks at Bonn Railway Station. Mr. Patel also very kindly invited me to a dinner at his home.
Next morning I rushed to Indian Embassy in Bonn and reported loss of passport. The officer was helpful and guided me through the process to apply for a new passport. It was already 3 pm by the time I received a new passport. It was too late for obtaining UK Visa from UK Consulate, so I returned to Dusseldorf. Next morning I queued up at UK Consulate at Bonn and returned to Dusseldorf with UK Visa on my new passport.
My learning from the episode was that human behaviour is globally identical and robbery is not limited to Indian Airports and Railway Stations but also in supposedly advanced countries.