Kristine Stevens in Juneau, Alaska.
If Your Dream Doesn’t Scare You, It Isn’t Big Enough
In honor of her 40th birthday, Kristine K. Stevens sold her house, quit her job and traveled solo around the world.
Carrying a backpack and the naïve belief that the trip was nothing more than a six-month-long vacation, she hit the road. As her journey moved on and off the beaten tourist path, she braved a monsoon in Zanzibar, a safari in Kenya, trekking in Nepal, kayaking in Thailand, caves in Laos, red plaid fish and lava in Hawaii, and grizzly bears in Alaska.
Little did Kristine know that she was completing a pilgrimage that would change her life forever.
Told with wonder, humor and suspense, with historical facts woven into the tale, her nonfiction book, “If Your Dream Doesn’t Scare You, It Isn’t Big Enough: A Solo Journey Around the World” captures the twisted, unpredictable nature of global travel.
Excerpt from Chapter 6: Thirty-eight Snickers to a better attitude (Mumbai, India)
IT WAS NOT A GOOD SIGN when the airport security guard, rifle swinging from his shoulder, asked me to step away from the departure gate turnstile I was trying to pass through. An even worse sign was when five serious men in business suits gathered to inspect my plane tickets and passport. I had just arrived in Mumbai, India, at 2:10 a.m. and was trying to catch a 7 a.m. flight to Delhi, where I would catch another flight to Kathmandu, Nepal.
Fifteen minutes later, one man finally explained the problem. I was trying to change from an international flight to a domestic flight, but did not have the required Indian visa. Visas were not issued at the airport. They did not know what to do with me.
It was my fault. When I abandoned the plan to travel to Lebanon, I bought plane tickets to go to Nepal. It never occurred to me that I would need a visa to change planes because I did not know the domestic flight departed from another airport across town.
A petite, young woman with short black hair and another security guard escorted me to a transit holding area. As we walked, she explained that immigration had the authority to send me back to Nairobi, Kenya, but first they would see if my ticket could be altered to fly me directly out of the country. I embraced this morsel of possibility.
The transit holding area was a vast room with a bar and a duty-free shop along one wall. In the glass-enclosed room by the entrance, two guards slept on pieces of cardboard on the floor, using seat cushions from nearby chairs as pillows. The rest of the holding area’s floor space was filled with rows of white plastic chairs and blue upholstered lounge chairs where people were curled up asleep. Tiny women in colorful silk saris looked like wilted squash blossoms.
So I waited. And waited. And worried. Would I get to keep traveling forward or be sent back? If I went back to Nairobi, how long would it take to finally get to Kathmandu? Was my backpack on its way to Nepal without me? What if I never saw it again? If I was sent back, how would I contact my friend Kathi who was already in Nepal? How long would I be stuck here? To keep me from getting overwhelmed by the swirling eddy of anxiety, I triaged the situation.
Was I in any pain? No.
Was my life being threatened? No.
Did I have access to a bathroom? Yes, but it scared me. I could smell it before I saw it. At first I saw only a low privacy wall in front of a bunch of floor drains with faucets nearby. That took care of the men. I waited to see what a woman would do. When one arrived, she walked past the privacy wall and down a small hallway that led to two unmarked doors. When she disappeared through one, I eased open the other door. The tiled room contained a sink and a Western toilet. There was a faucet on the wall, a small bucket, a drain in the floor and water splashed everywhere. Had the previous woman taken a bird bath?
After using the bathroom, I paced the length of the holding area. The bar was closed. That was a good thing because this was no time to become a sloppy, giggly mess. The pay phones only accepted rupees. This was good, too. My call would have freaked out people who could do nothing to help. The duty-free shop was open, so I bought a bottle of water and a bag of 38 fun-size Snickers bars.
I searched but found no comfort in the Tibetan saying, “If the problem can be solved, there’s no use worrying about it. If the problem can’t be solved, there’s no use worrying about it.”
On the bright side, my surroundings offered a few short-lived amusements. Two men wearing white plastic gloves headed toward the bathrooms with a cart filled with chemical-smelling, sparkly white marbles. An old man arrived to sell hot tea from a large silver urn. Everyone drank from the same five china cups that he hand wiped after each use.
There was an eerie fluttering noise at one end of the holding area, like roaches in tap shoes running across linoleum. I finally figured out that the sound came from the little placards on the flight departure board, spinning and clicking into place. A security sign stated that, among other things, catapults were not allowed on any flight.
THANKFULLY, SOMEONE ARRANGED for food to be brought to me at 7 a.m. Breakfast was a delicious sandwich of hard boiled egg, chicken salad, tomato, cucumber and cheese on toast with the crusts cut off. Then bad news arrived. Northwest Airlines, issuer of my round-the-world ticket, would not honor a ticket transfer to any of the available carriers with direct flights to Nepal.
A security guard escorted me to another holding area. As we walked down the long hallway, every passing airport employee stopped to talk to the guard and look me over. I did not need to speak their language to understand that they were asking, “What did she do?”
Not long after, a Kenya Airways flight attendant in a crisp blue uniform and red scarf sat down next to me.
“The Indian authorities will allow you to buy an Air India plane ticket direct to Kathmandu that does not require a visa,” she said. Sounded simple.
“The ticket office does not open for another hour, so there is no way to tell if the next flight has any seats available,” she continued. “You are not allowed to leave this area, but I can try to buy a ticket for you if you give me your credit card and passport.”
Faced with the possibility of going back to Nairobi, I handed her my two most valuable possessions. She walked away, past the armed security guard, out of my reach and out of view. I sat down in a chair, fighting the need to panic over my desperate act of trust. I wanted someone to tell me that what I had just done was not incredibly stupid, but I was alone. I zipped and unzipped my jacket and watched the clock.
An hour and the last five Snickers bars later, the stewardess returned. She handed me my credit card, a charge slip to sign and my passport. Heavy sigh of relief. The flight was at 5 p.m. A security guard took me back to the first holding area. I settled into a lounge chair using my green North Face jacket as a blanket and felt like a weed among summer flowers.
BY THE TIME I GAVE UP TRYING to sleep and took up reading, an Indian man in a long-sleeve dress shirt and slacks came over to talk with me. He had noticed me coming and going, and shared, in clipped British English, that he was on his way to London after resolving a visa problem.
When meeting fellow travelers, there were common questions most people ask. Where are you from? Where are you going? How did you end up here? Got any travel tips? General questions. This man’s questions soon became strange, too specific, like what was my flight number out of Nairobi. I asked him to leave me alone.
“I’m not comfortable talking with you any more. Please go sit somewhere else.”
He gave me a pouty, confused look.
“I prefer to be alone now.” I had to flick a look at the nearby guard before the man would go away.
I like the idea that when I die, I will have a long sit-down chat with God and get answers to all my questions. For example, those apple cores that I threw out of car windows when I was a child—did any of them become trees? Few boys or men had ever asked me out. I told myself that it was because I was almost 6-feet tall. Was that true or was there something humbling I needed to know? I would add this moment to my list of questions. Was I paranoid or was this man up to something devious?
Scribbling in my journal, I noted the ironies that fluttered around me. I was traveling around the world, but could not leave the airport. I had left my culture to explore others, only to find that this vantage point compelled me to examine my life in America. My body was the same, but I liked it better now because I was not constantly judging it based on the curveless twigs that American media hyped as the pinnacle of the female shape. In fact, two East African men strongly suggested that I gain weight.
AFTER I FINISHED A BOX LUNCH of chicken biryani sent by my benevolent captors, the ticket-buying stewardess and an armed guard escorted me to a departure terminal. It was like Disneyland compared to the two transit holding areas. There was a full-service restaurant, newsstands and even a jewelry store with a blinding amount of gold.
Was it proper etiquette to bring your wife or girlfriend or lover jewelry when you came home from a trip? The flight attendant introduced me to the staff at the counter where my ticket had been purchased. Then she escorted me outside into the melting heat to the baggage handling area where I identified my backpack that had miraculously not gone on without me.
Starting to feel like a pinball, I was escorted back to the departure terminal again. I found my own way to the boarding area, only to be rejected by the attendant. He would not accept my ticket because there was no visa in my passport, so back to the ticket counter I went. The counter agents did not understand the problem. They called the stewardess back, who escorted me all the way to the door of the plane.
As I finally settled into my seat, I had to admit that the worst part of this experience was me—my discomfort at being out of control and my fear of the unknown. My mind hyped up far more drama than the situation deserved. If I separated these two weaknesses of mine from the real challenges, I would handle upsets better—now and for the rest of my life.
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