Stay connected: for surprise is the new normal
With my wife and child, I was on the way to the airport from our small suburb town Shefflield in New Zealand. This was a 60 kilometer drive, with wife and child. We are excited to go our trip to Rome: I was going to attend a conference where I would run a workshop and this trip was also a gift for my daughter for her 11th birthday she would turn in a day, when we would land in Rome.
From our neck of the woods in Sheffield, Rome is about 15,000 kilometers away. We booked our tickets through my university travel agent, and had to go for visa interview with evidence of tickets in hand, a month ahead of the trip. We would fly from Christchurch to Sydney, Australia, and would stay in the aircraft (theoretically still in transition) for about an hour, and then fly from Sydney to Dubai, roughly a fifteen hour flight. We would take the next plane from Dubai for Rome a few hours later, and after another six hours of flight, we would land in Rome. Then we would check into an apartment close to a venue; we chose the apartment hotel because we wanted to have a simple private celebration of our daughter’s birthday when we were there. In Rome, I’d conduct a workshop and participate in a few sessions for an international conference on technology assessment. As we had never visited Rome before, we were excited. This was also a first in ten years, that the three of us (our ten year old daughter, wife, and myself) would fly long distance.
So, off we hopped into our car, and drove towards the airport. Before taking the flight bound for Sydney, we would drop the car at a friend’s house. The drive from our home to the airport/friend’s house is about an hour. Wife was on the wheel, as my cell phone buzzed.
“Hi Dr. Basu, this is Siloxy, your travel agent. Suppose you are on the way to the airport?”
“Yes hi Xxxy, we are on the way, will reach in about 20 minutes, so nice of you to call”
“Well, er…, actually, you are bound for Sydney, en route to Dubai, right? I just called to say that we have made another arrangement for this flight as you are not taking this flight.”
“Wait, what? Why?”
“Sorry for this, but while you have an Australian visa, your daughter and wife do not have an Australian visa while in transit. So we had to route your trip through Auckland-Dubai route, so that you will not miss the Dubai-Rome flight”
Why did you not tell me earlier, I wondered. We had booked this ticket months in advance. Why did they not warn us then? Also, it never crossed my mind that any Government authority would ask for transit visa even if we were not to leave the aircraft (as we would not be allowed to). One of the reasons I avoided booking other flights was the hassles and expenses involved in obtaining unnecessary visas. The Indian passports we hold do not allow us visa free entry to any country in the world where we would normally travel.
I hardly had the interest and time to argue these things with the travel agent at that point. I waited as she said before hanging up that she was going to work with the Emirates people to figure out the tickets and seat allocations; we drove along. We waited at the airport for her phone call when she gave us our seat allocations and airline codes that we could get ticekts for the rest of the journey. Instead of a shorter trip by three hours, we had to go a longer route.
I marvel at the speed things get done in our age of information technology. I have a friend who leaves his digital devices at home and disconnects the moment he leaves for his travel. I, on the other hand, like to stay connected on my travel. While we were driving, someone was negotiating with the airlines authorities to arrange and re-route for a famiily of three people to fly all the way 15 thousand kilometres. As we flew rerouted Auckland and Auckland to Dubai and Dubai to Rome, we wondered but for the speed of connectivity and network, if our parents in their age would ever be able to do this. I doubt.
Thirty hours later, we landed at Leonardo Da Vinci Flumicino airport in Rome, took a bus from the airport, and then a metro line, went out of the metro tunnel. Sweating in the thirty seven degree temperature of Rome and winding through narrow footpaths, we finally reach the hotel. The hotel is a nice one, with a lobby in the front and all that. It had a tiny lift that barely fitted two adults and a child and three pieces of luggage. Then we enter the room, thirsty for a cup of coffee or a glass of water at the least. We open the room and go inside.
The room is a bare bones room: a couple of beds, a noisy air condition machine, but for an “apartment hotel”, it did not have glasses, and cups, plates, spoons, coffee/tea sachets, hot water kettle. None of these things. We call the reception: they politely inform us that they would not provide any of these things.
Suprise was the first element in this journey. I take it as a metaphor of life. We think and visualise life in one way, it turns out quite another. Yet we have to adjust no matter what comes our way. This is survival. When the travel agent broke the bad news that our flight had been reconfigured and we were not supposed to take the flightplan we originally thought we would, we were surprised. We were surprised because we expected everything should go as we planned in advance. When we entered the room imagining that it would have cups and plates, and spoons and we could celebrate a private birthday for our daughter as we were going to check into an apartment style hotel, we had assumptions. A lesson in life is that, we need to be flexible to adapt to circumstances and be prepared for twists and turns and surprises in life.
We crashed on the bed, and gave in to sleep after thirty hours of flight across four continents (Oceania: New Zealand, Australia, Asia, Africa, and Europe), and numerous time zones. It was well past wee hours in the morning where we originated on this journey. I went out and got ourselves pieces of sandwich and we downed them with plastic glasses of water. Not the most romantic birthday celebrations, but that was it.
Be Simple and Minimalist — our protection against loss
Rome is a city of contrasts — on the one hand you have the grandest Basilica and The Vatican, and on the other hand, not far from Basilica, close to the Piazza Barberini lies the quiet convent of the Capucin Friars (no they didn’t invent the capuccino, although the crema on your capuccino resembles the shape of their hoods which is why you call your coffee capuccino). The monks take the oath of chastity, poverty and humility. A walk in the church reminded me of minimalism and mindfulness in another culture. Marie Condo writes in her “Life changing magic of tidying up”,
Keep only those things that speak to your heart. Then take the plunge and discard all the rest. By doing this, you can reset your life and embark on a new lifestyle.
We came out of the Capucin monastery and walked into the Metro station. It is another matter that if you take to the public transport system of Rome, you can go practically anywhere in Rome and do everything you want to do, that too, at a fraction of the price you will pay for expensive travel alternatives. If you can withstand crowd, rush, heat, inconvenience, and pickpockets, you can travel Rome like a king with pittance.
Speaking of pickpockets. Them too. The source of my second wisdom after surprise: that of mindfulness and minimalism.
So, here we were, came out of the church and walked into the metro station and then it dawned on us that we needed tickets and we forgot to purchase metro tickets from the tobacconists or tabacchis or the small knick-knack shops that sell cigarettes, among other things, for Rome is the last bastion of smokers in this world. We reach out to the ticket machine, and we find posted on the ticket machine a notice that the machine will only accept coins and not currency notes (in Euro). I take out my wallet, fish out the coins, scrounging its interiors, and purchase three tickets. A crowd has already gathered in the train station, the train is approaching. Then a rush to get in, Romans guarding the gate of the metro train. The door of the metro carriage slams shut, and the train takes off. A couple of stations down the tunnel, I feel for my pocket, and realise to my horror — my wallet is gone.
Gone. Like there is nothing there. Shunyata. Nada. Zilch.
I am stranded in a foreign country without my driver’s licence, without money, without credit and debit cards, without anything. My identity is gone, I am no one in the streets of Rome today. A vacuous feeling, a cold sweat ran down me.
I got out of the train, rush to the opposite platform, catch a train going in the other direction, and got off at the Barberini metro station, and ran down to the platform from where I boarded the first train. I asked a couple of people inside an office (that did not sell tickets but answered people’s questions I assume) if anyone has turned in a wallet.
“A what? speak in italiano per favore, we do not understand English here”, said my amio inside the dim lit office.
I gesticulated that I lost my wallet and wanted to know if anyone would have turned in. They laughed at the idea. My wallet was stolen and it was gone. I should report to the carabinieri, they suggested.
The friendly carabinieri or the Italian police took an hour and a half to register the fact that my wallet with my driver’s licence, my currency notes, my credit and debit cards, were all stolen. They were sympathetic but they only spoke Italian. They ran the Google Translate to understand what I had to say in half Italian and half English (the smattering of italian I picked up before leaving for Rome on duolingo).
What did I have in my wallet?
What didn’t I?
Stacks of cards and debit/credit cards that I had not used in ages, it was a fat wallet that I cursed now and then. Photos, bits of scrap paper, coins, currency notes, old worn out American dollar bills. But why?
This is my second lesson of the trip: lead a more responsible minimalist mindful life. Get rid of the fluff in everything: speak less, produce more, avoid fluff, be minimalistic. For a wallet, for instance, just-in-time and context is the key. Rather than putting all cards, and scraps in the same wallet, digitize as much as possible. Keep just the bare minimum I need. Why do I need to carry a driver’s licence if I am not going to drive and I already have another identity card with me or another form of identity with me? At every stage, it is important to economise. Do I really need this thing? From Buddha to Leo Babauta, the message about minimising and economising and leading a more minimalistic mindful life is rife in our public domain. As much as I have read about them, I often wonder where do I slip and forget the essential lessons. The wallet was gone. I could not buy stuff I would otherwise crave for when I was on an overseas trip, but did it matter in the end? I could travel a lot freely, never again having to worry about losing my wallet. I could travel light; and most important of all, I realised how little I needed in my day to day life.
Morning of 18th June, I reach the site of my workshop on health technology assessment an hour earlier from the starting time. A couple of technicians hang around.
“Buongiorno Senor, how is it going?” I ask. They say they are hard at work since the wifi is not working in the room. I was surprised, I just turned on my Macbook and it connected pronto. What was the story? They didn’t know. Lo and behold, when I started, there was no connection to the web, and my entire workshop was based on a show and tell and then people to work on their projects. I had to change plans on the fly. Somewhere midway during the workshop, the techies proudly claimed that they solved the problem and gave me a new laptop on which they figured out the Internet connection. We worked along, with shared stories and the workshop was a lot of fun.
This was my third lesson from the trip. You have to be prepared for eventuality that falls on you. Nothing is predictable, nothing can go as planned and we have to be flexible and yet be productive as we move along life. Like the changed flightplan, like the pickpockets in the streets of Rome who left me stranded with nothing on me, and the techies who could not figure out how to connect to the Net when I needed that most.