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The unbearable lightness of being... permanently downgraded

Vijay Verghese, Editor, Smart Travel AsiaI return to the curious world of travel to uncover some strange goings on. How to catch a scooter in Delhi, deal with banks and cemeteries, and wrestle with temperamental water dispensers at the airport.

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by Vijay Verghese/ Editor

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Empty Hong Kong Airport August 2022

It's back to business for Hong Kong International Airport. Here in late August 2022 not a soul could be spied in the departure halls. The fabric-upholstered seats had been replaced by joyless grey plastic/ photoL Vijay Verghese

LEAVING Hong Kong for my first trip overseas in over two years was somewhat unusual. The airport was empty. I walked towards my departure gate. It was set at the farthest node of the terminal like some secret  gangrenous embarrassment. Upgrades were evident along the way. The colourful Covid-hugging fabric seats had been replaced with bland wipe-down hard plastic grey. Angular work spaces with charging points had sprung up. And fresh water dispensing areas were sprouting. Hurrah.

Water fountains have been seemingly installed at Hong Kong Airport to tease rather than actually work and they have long been a pet peeve. It was reassuring then to spot a few well marked water stations coming up. I walked up to one. Stretched across the washbasin was a strip with the words: "DO NOT ENTER." I have never successfully entered a washbasin or felt the need to do so, so I pootled off.

From empty airport to an empty plane bound for New Delhi where Cathay Pacific stewardesses heroically scurried about for five hours asking the few passengers to remain seated and to don masks (before the long return flight to avoid the quarantine). Then the stampede at Delhi Airport through a health declaration counter where a lone man slept at one end, brusque immigration, and the duty-free gauntlet, before passing customs and exiting into the bored throng outside. It was all deliciously quick. And it was hot.

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For the first time that I could recall I had arrived in Delhi in the daytime (thanks to Covid and rescheduled flights — only a temporary mercy, I am told). A banged up profusely dimpled Mega cab was on hand. It dutifully bounced and honked its way through the midday traffic to deposit me at a homey guesthouse in a leafy residential area. Thankfully, the washbasin there bore me no ill will.

From dealing with temperamental washbasins that denied ingress it was on to an international bank to observe the activation of my new credit card. The process dragged on for a long while and involved several people, on several floors. Finally, one very competent lady made a few calls and sorted it out. I heaved a sigh of relief and thanked her profusely. "Sir," she called out cheerily as I turned to leave, "We will be upgrading your bank account… so this card will be cancelled." "WHAT?"

{I was armed with the knowledge that this was India, a vast and ancient land where unfathomable things have been happening since 5,000BC...

I demanded an immediate downgrade. The next day I was back after an e-mail message informed me that a card transaction for lunch had been rejected. The same gracious lady took up my case and peered at her computer. "Sir, this is an erroneous message," she said with a smile. "And how do I know when a message is erroneous and when not?" I feared I was becoming an unwitting pawn in some shady global swindle. Yet, this was clearly preferable to having a new card mailed to Hong Kong. "Fine," I said, and sallied forth secure in the knowledge that this was India, a vast and ancient land where unfathomable things have been happening since 5,000BC and continue to.

The erstwhile Kingsway, later Rajpath (State Avenue) that runs arrow straight from India Gate to Raisina Hill and the imposing sandstone Rastrapathi Bhavan (the President's residence) was being renamed Kartavya Path (Duty Avenue), a rather unlovely bureaucratic construct. This avenue was the centrepiece of Edward Lutyens' New Delhi. Despite his majestic architecture that drew upon the grandeur of Rajasthani palaces, Lutyens is reviled in official circles because the city he created came to be associated with a liberal, tolerant, inclusive, educated, English-speaking elite that ran the country, with some idiosyncrasy, after Independence in 1947. These aspects are seemingly anathema to many.

Outside the bank I begged various autorickshaws (three-wheeler scooters) to take me to my next stop but they were headed elsewhere. The trick was to find one puttering along roughly in my required direction, obviating the need for any U-turn or loss of face. There were no working meters in these nor in the black-and-yellow taxis, most of them now Maruti-Suzuki vans after the demise of the Jurassic Ambassador, a beast of a car. Whenever I sneaked our car out as a kid I had to shamefacedly summon my mother later to help put it into reverse gear after some aborted expedition into a cul-de-sac.

At another small local Indian bank, other hazards lurked. I squeezed in through the partially open accordion doors with a heavy padlocked chain hung about chest high — a robbery foiling procedure, I was informed — to appreciate another crime-busting technique. Total darkness. Four depressed faces looked up from the stygian gloom as I asked for assistance with my mother's account. There was no electricity. Hands gestured helplessly skywards: "Sir, we have been offline all morning but should you like to wait an hour or so it may come back."

Sheep block the Delhi-Jaipur highway

Sheep block the Delhi-Jaipur highway bringing momentary calm to all the honking and speeding and zig-zag overtaking that gets the blood pressure screaming/ photo: Vijay Verghese .

I left to find a three-wheeler scooter and asked to be taken to the cemetery where my mother's ashes were due to be interred. The driver obliged and asked me to direct him. Delighted, I kept him for some hours — one of the great benefits of India where time is completely irrelevant — as I went through my checklist.

At the cemetery I attempted to pay for the upkeep of my grandfather's grave. This was of particular import as we'd been informed that after a certain period, any defaulting gravesite would be emptied and the plot handed out to another paying customer. Covid had ensured there were lots of customers but not enough graves. The office had no records for my grandfather but demanded we pay up. "How so without any official record, an invoice, or a specific sum?" I asked the manager, waving my cheque book. He shrugged. Could my grandfather — a respected theologian and prelate — have managed an auto-burial in 1975, to then mysteriously disappear into the heavenly ether? It was yet another instance of those unfathomable things that have been going on here for 5,000 years.

I then visited my local phone company to sort out any outstanding payments before I returned to Hong Kong. After a while a young lad motioned me to approach the counter. Then the lights went out. "Sir it will take some time for our system to reboot after the power returns. I suggest you come back later or visit another branch."

I walked out into the stifling heat and got into my waiting scooter. The young driver, who had by now assumed a deep and lasting friendship with his sweaty passenger, enquired where I was from. "Hong Kong," I responded. "Hum tho China ko dikha deynge" (We'll show China!), he muttered, in a burst of patriotic vigour as we wobbled along dodging cows and buses. I contemplated the full import of this as I tried to find an internet connection that worked.

It was good to meet a few old friends and family, all elegantly greying. We enjoyed some meals at memorable haunts like The Machan (a treat in college days and wonderfully restored), Fujiya and Aka Saka (for Indian Punjabi Chinese), Sagar Ratna (appams), Bengali Market (chholas), Kwality's (chholas again but in superior surrounds), Khan Chacha (mutton kakori kebabs), the Delhi Gymkhana (where my father cancelled my signing rights to end my teen addiction to chicken mustard sandwiches), the Habitat, and the anachronistic chandeliered United Coffee House in Connaught Place. I gave no thought to whether my card was setting lights flashing at Interpol.

Then it was back to Hong Kong Airport armed with negative PCR test results, to be poked and prodded by polite space-suited people before being whisked away for a hotel quarantine (this was later lifted on 26 September 2022), further tests, and a raft of restrictions. On my first day of freedom shortly after the Mid-Autumn festival I took a leisurely drive around the New Territories to soak in Hong Kong at its best. The police gifted me a speeding ticket (doing a little over 60kmh), and graciously offered a breathalyser test (at 10am). I wondered then which experience was the more unusual.

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