Leh was at the other end of India and my holidays were short. The itinerary I worked out was tight as the travel was to be entirely by land taking the better part of my vacation. The high point of my tour, a visit to the scenic Pangong lake, as the last engagement seemed doubtful unless I had a couple of days more. I extended my stay by booking a flight ticket from Leh to New Delhi and Pangong Lake justified the move as it turned out to be the most memorable.
On the day starting my return journey home, I reached Leh airport to board the flight scheduled to leave at 0715 hrs. The first couple of queues at the airport were a breeze through – I got my seat confirmed and was glad nobody opened my trekking bag as that would be difficult to repack. It was permitted to have handbag and camera on the person and so I had my camera on me. I didn’t want the risk of abandoning it in the trekking bag left to the care of airport staff as it had all the pictures and video of my tour. But at the next queue, a cop asked me to leave my camera at a conveyor belt for scanning and myself return for frisking. I showed my camera at the man and with his permission left it on the conveyor belt.
At the frisking desk a cop asked me to step up on a small podium that looked like a victory stand in sports stadium minus the spots for second and third winners. There were two or three frisking desks each having similar stands and individuals were seen standing on it in various posture as if they were some physical training participants. One had to step out of shoes and even remove the socks and gloves. He asked me to show the partitions of my wallet and stared at a booklet with gold coloured metallic covers. “What is that?” he asked looking suspicious as if it was a new James Bond weapon. “It is a telephone book”, I said assuringly flipping it open. I still had to do a “hands up” for frisking. He checked my shirt collar, sleeves, pockets and hem of the trousers. It was a bit embarrassing with most of the crowd in the lounge, who themselves must have gone through the tamasha earlier, watching the stands as if it is a fashion show ramp. Soon it was over and I walked away with relief to the nearest kiosk. I took a coffee and sat on a chair for a few minutes to finish it when it occurred that I hadn’t picked up my camera. I rushed to the scanner desk where I had left it and looked around but couldn’t see it. There was a lady staff was watching people picking their belongings coming out of the scanner enclosure. I said, “It is a Sony in a black pouch. I left it at the conveyor and went for frisking as advised by your staff.” She remembered a camera lying there for a while but had no idea who took it. There were a few cops all over the place and I told the one nearest about it. He asked me some questions, talked to another and said they will check up with the CCTV footage. A few minutes later he took me to the exit gate opening to to the tarmac where passengers handbags were being checked one last time. He asked the staff there to let me see all the handbags and cameras. The passengers in the queue must have been annoyed at this intrusion and I didn’t expect myself to be doing that as well. But anyway everyone’s bag and cameras were shown to me and it took me hardly a glance to say no to all. When the queue had passed on, the cop arrived looking a bit pleased and said, “Sir, we have found the person who took your camera”. They found that a women wearing blue jeans and carrying a black handbag had picked up my camera and dropped it into her friend’s handbag. The other woman had a kid with her. I was taken to the computer server room where the footage was being played by an operator on a tv monitor. The video was a bit grainy but the cops were able to make out things quite well. They said it must be a GoAir (airlines) passenger and that it seemed she had left the terminal and boarded the flight. I asked them if they could announce about the missing camera before the flight took off. They didn’t answer but went to meet with their colleagues in the lobby. People were now watching the police actions – some with curiosity and others with concern. A lady housekeeping staff felt sorry at my loss and expressed anger at the cops having a meeting and making a show instead of stopping the plane.
However, I found the cops there in general had a mild demeanor and quite sympathetic which was a lot different compared to police in other parts of India. One of them came up and told me he understood how “important” it was for me to get back the camera that had the ” very precious memories” of my tour. That was true – the adventurous trek on the mountains and the sights of the bus ride through Zojila pass were once in a lifetime experience shot and saved on that camera. He claimed such an incident had never happened before in Leh airport and they would surely recover the camera. Soon the meeting ended and I was asked which flight I was to board. They would inform GoAir at New Delhi to trace the camera and I should contact their office on reaching there. It seemed I could just forget the camera as a stroke of bad luck as it would be harder to trace it in the big New Delhi airport. The other cop at the frisking desk looked definitely disappointed and apologized. I was given GoAir’s New Delhi office phone number to call and the cell number of the cop in Leh airport to revert if there is any problem. I thanked them all and just then a pretty Jet Airways staff came running to fetch me. She rushed me out of the exit gate to the tarmac where my yellow and black trekking bag was tagged and lying on the floor. On my affirming as its owner she got it loaded on a waiting bus and asked me to be seated in the vehicle. The bus veered round across the vast tarmac towards a Boeing 737 plane parked some distance away. Its engines were roaring and I was the last person to walk up the mobile stairway into the warm and brightly lit passenger bay. In about 10 minutes the fine U.S made passenger plane’s engines revved up and the aircraft started to taxi. Intermittent thuds from its axles reminded me a similar sensation from a recent Volvo bus ride from Chennai to Puducherry. The tip of its wing visible through the window bobbed up and down like some kid’s plaything. Soon noise of wheels burning the runway tapered off as the plane tilted up and got airborne. It banked steeply to left and then to the right offering breath-stopping views of Leh town and the mountains and after climbing above a carpet of white clouds, gently leveled to cruise towards its destination. Every one got busy with snacking and trashing and flying is as good as sitting in an airconditioned cabin on land except occasionally when the plane suddenly drops a bit of speed and altitude on hitting air turbulence. That feels like getting stalled by a strong wind while riding a cycle.
A view of Leh (Summer)
In just about an hour the plane touched down at New Delhi but with a rather heavy thud that evoked a collective gasp. The flight was an incredible saving in time considering that it would have taken three days to travel from Leh to New Delhi by road. I removed my woollen pullover and trooped out of the plane. There were endless carpeted corridors and travelators to walk through to the exit gates. I recovered my trekking bag and phoned the GoAir office. The contact man came online quickly and told me that he got the camera and I could collect it from their office at Terminal 1.
There was a shuttle bus service to Terminal 1 located 7 kms away. On reaching, I rang the office again. A staff came out to the reception area with my camera and asked me if it was mine. I signed for him an acknowledgement and it was a nice to feel the weight of the familiar camera back in my hand. I asked how they found it and he said it was easy to identify the lady with the description given by the Leh cops. I thanked him and then rang the cop at Leh to inform the return of the camera. I asked for his name to write to the commissioner of police appreciating the helpfulness of Leh airport cops. He said okay and gave the name but I sensed he was just satisfied and relieved that the case got solved and wasn’t enthusiastic about the commissioner getting to know about it.
I always look for lessons when an episode like this happens. Usually there would be some forgetfulness, carelessness or lack of caution on my part that would have caused or contributed to the incident but in this case, to my quiet relief, the blame was not on me. When the cop asked me to leave the camera at the scanner and return for frisking I knew the camera could get lost but there was no way to prevent it. There was no verification at all where people were picking up their things tumbling out of the scanner conveyor. So it was a lesson for the Leh airport security people and the woman (if it was a genuine mistake by her) who took away the camera I hope they had learnt it and would prevent such incidents in future. The experience of losing one’s camera at the end of a tour must be hard for anyone and so it was so for me but instances such as those are part of life that can be an unending schooling to attain graduations in equanimity.