Helping Hannah Home

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One of the things you have to consider when you are standing around listening to someone else's conversation is that things can get out of hand fast. I overheard the staff at Tulsa's Dillon International, Inc. (a non-profit inter-country adoption agency), talking about a baby in India that was ready for adoption. They didn't have an escort available at the present time.

I thought it would be cosmopolitan of me to announce that I had friends in India from business trips long ago, and that I would just run over there and visit my friends and bring the baby home. Several vaccinations in both arms and other more sensitive places later and with passport in hand, I was still trying to find someone to tell that I thought we were just having a theoretical discussion about international adoption. That's what I mean about "talking when you should be listening." The friends I sheepishly told about the impending trip either thought I was a Saint or had completely lost my mind (a decided supermajority for the "lost my mind" category).

After one false start due to a last minute visa failure (governmental, not my credit card), it was budget-fare commando time, and off I went to Calcutta to pick up a 10-month-old baby girl and deliver her to her new family near Washington, D.C. I hadn't changed a diaper in twenty years, but was hoping that some things, like riding a bicycle, are locked forever in memory. I decided to keep a journal of the trip and see if anything would look familiar a week later.

The views and opinions expressed in the journal are strictly mine, not those of Dillon Int'l.

28 March 1994 Tulsa

Packed a suitcase full of baby gear, left Tulsa in good spirits and arrived at Washington's Dulles Airport with no problems. Unfortunately, my luggage went to Chicago. I discovered this when I was trying to get my bag checked through to Calcutta instead of just to London. Supposedly my luggage would catch up with me in London and travel along to India. I had many serious sessions with British Airways reps in Washington and London to try to insure it would actually happen that way.

After all the luggage conversations in Washington, the agent gave me a guest pass to the "Business Class" lounge for the long wait (about four hours) for the London flight. Free food, open bar, telephones, fax machines, and comfortable chairs made me think it was just like traveling in the good old days BOPC (Before Oil Prices Collapsed). For some reason I wasn't hungry or thirsty when the food on the plane was served.

29 March 1994 London

We had an excellent 200-knot tailwind over the North Atlantic which made up for the late departure and put us over London's Heathrow Airport 45 min. ahead of schedule. Of course we circled Heathrow for 45 min. waiting for a landing slot but at least we broke even.

"Deplaned," as they say, and thought maybe I had fallen asleep on the flight and over-flown London. Uniformed Indian women and a turbaned Sikh escorted us to immigration and customs. I had forgotten that London has a very large South Asian population. No matter where they are, the huge and starchily correct Sikhs still keep things in their proper order and the tourists in line.

I went over to Heathrow's Terminal 3 to see if American Airlines could verify a bassinet seat for the return flight from Calcutta when I would be "with child" and needing all the help I could get. No luck, so I bought my "underground" ticket for a trip downtown since I had a 14-hour layover. Had to hang around an extra half-hour or so for the dogs to sniff out a bomb threat in the underground terminal. At least the IRA declined to lob mortar rounds into the airport grounds. Perhaps they were taking the week off.

30 March 1994 Calcutta, West Bengal

Arrived completely exhausted as expected, but zipped through immigration and customs which was not expected. They didn't even ask about all those needles, tubes, baby nipples, and antibiotic drugs I was delivering to the orphanage. I figured I would spend about a year in the Calcutta jail trying to explain all of that to the authorities.

It was a long, hot taxi ride to the Fairlawn Hotel as the temperature was about 95 F. and the humidity was the same. I argued strenuously about the fare with the driver, but he swore he never missed a pothole. I thought maybe he missed at least one, but paid up anyway. I couldn't be sure because my eyes were closed in total fear most of the way, and he had passed his Karma exam.

The Fairlawn Hotel is over 200 years old, but had been remodeled once in the 1800's I am sure. The proprietress, Mrs. Violet Smith (aptly described as "redoubtable" in one travel magazine), is proud of her hotel and wouldn't have it any other way. The hotel had been one of the locations for the City of Joy movie with Patrick Swayze and, besides that, it had been in the family for many years.

Pull-chain toilets, window air-conditioning units that labored fitfully, and 22 small rooms. Not a luxury hotel by any description, but with a definite charm. Each set of rooms adjoined a small lobby replete with floor men, "bellhops" and assorted functionaries. I hadn't even opened the suitcase when tea was served. The bearer was slightly offended when I refused, but I was still hot and sweaty and tea was not what I had in mind. A little of the local Black Label brew in the canopied open-air bar and patio was more like it.

31 March 1994 Calcutta

I slept pretty well until 2:00 AM, which was about right for the expected "jet lag" time effect. Helped the night clerk (who was also the day clerk) watch over things until 7:30 AM breakfast.

Ate breakfast with a wonderfully refreshing Irishman who spends most of his time in India and was full of interesting stories and information. He laughed with us when he explained, among other things, that he was a City Planner by profession in a city where there was absolutely no planning at all and slim hope of there ever being any. He also sadly explained that the administration of Calcutta was worse than ever as corruption and bribery weren't just common, they were almost total.

After responding to a question about why I was in India, I asked him how Indians felt about international adoption. He said that many Indians were strongly opposed. He told us of an "English yellow journalist" who wrote a baby-selling story about a local woman's adoption agency even though he had never been in India. The Indian powers-that-be indicted her on the basis of the story and by the time she was able to clear herself of the charges, she was broke and the agency folded. He said the local good old boys loved it. A tragedy for the children.

I met my local agency contact, Mrs. Chandana Bose, who is the Secretary and owner of the Indian Society for the Rehabilitation of Children. She takes care of the babies in her orphanage until they can be placed for adoption with an Indian couple or internationally, if an Indian family can't be found. We picked up "my" baby's airline ticket and proceeded to "Matri Sneha" where the babies stay.

There were about nine infants in the orphanage, somewhere between brand-new and one year old. They were in varying stages of health as some are in near-critical condition when they are brought to the orphanage. Almost all were low birth weight, jaundiced, some with TB and other unbelievable diseases. It takes awhile, even with good medical help, to nurse them back to reasonable health and some don't make it. Ms. Bose runs the orphanage and another home where she rooms, boards, and tutors twenty-five abandoned school-age children. She also feeds one good meal per day to about 65 other malnourished children. She does all of this on a budget that wouldn't pay the coffee service for some businesses here.

While I was looking at the new babies, a nurse brought out my new charge, Prerona (soon to be known as Hannah), dressed up and hair slicked back. Just as cute as she could be. I picked her up, took one look at those big, brown eyes, and knew I was in trouble. I was going to spoil her, of that I was sure. Maybe I should just take her on home with me. Doubt if the new mother or my wife would think that was a very good idea. I certainly knew I was going to get a lot of attention on the flights back to the USA. She looked at me rather strangely, then slowly reached up and touched my cheek. I am sure that I was the first funny-talking flat-chested nurse with a scratchy face she had been around. All of the nurses and caregivers are women as are the doctors who make the regular visits. She, in truth, would have rarely seen a man, much less been handled by one.

1 April 1994 Calcutta

The next morning I breakfasted again with my Irish friend, as we seemed to be the only ones that were consistently ready and waiting for breakfast to be served. A new British couple who thought Margaret Thatcher was politically somewhat to the right of Hitler and Attila the Hun joined us. It was a little early for me to have to watch my political phrasing, but I didn't want to get a pot of tea hurled in my direction.

Speaking of politics, I noticed on a street map that the United States Consular Office is on Ho Chi Minh Street. I wonder if Ollie North knows that?

Did my tourist shopping later in the day at one of the government-sponsored "malls." A lot of the stores were closed for the Bengali New Year, for Good Friday and for one of Calcutta's daily strikes about something-or-other. The locals don't even notice the strikes any more, except when a protest march holds up traffic (which is a little oxymoronic as traffic is at a standstill a lot of the time anyway).

I asked a vendor who had set up a display in the hotel lobby if he could find me an elephant carving. He asked if I wanted rosewood or sandalwood, so I went into great detail about how I wanted a realistic carving, not a stylized one, etc., while he nodded in agreement. Finally, he looked at me and asked, "You want carved elephant?"...So much for communication skills. When I saw him the next day neither of us brought up the subject.

2 April 1994 Calcutta

After breakfast with the usual crew, I went to the orphanage to meet with the doctor and discuss her medical diagnosis of one of the other children that had been proposed for adoption. I don't have any particular medical knowledge, but I guess the Dillon staff thought that hearing the information firsthand would be valuable. The doctor was very knowledgeable and seemed more than a little wistful that some of the more advanced diagnostic techniques were not available or were prohibitively expensive. They often have no history on the birth mother's health, the type of delivery or anything else. They just have to start from scratch and do their best. Checked in with Prerona and asked if she had started packing, but she only blew bubbles at me. . . . .

Calcutta is a city "half living in its own ruins." I think there is a lot of truth to that. Prior to dinner I did some shopping in the area around the hotel. It wasn't a very pleasant experience, though I had long been over culture shock in India. Although I am trying, you can't really describe India to someone else. As trite as it sounds, India can only be experienced.

Rain! cool and cleansing... brought a welcome relief from the heat. I wondered what the people who live in the street would do for protection from the downpour. There are several of them, you know (give or take a million souls), without any form of shelter.

3 April 1994 Calcutta

Finished my packing and basically just waited for time to depart for the airport. Idleness, you know, gives one time to notice little things. For instance, there was a worker painting the stairwell to the upstairs rooms. This stairwell has many of the owner's mementos, photographs, and posters displayed on the walls. The painter carefully painted around each picture frame without taking down a single picture. He only got a little paint on the sides of each frame. (I'm not too sure that he is that much different from some of the painters I see in my remodeling business in Tulsa.)

Checked out the coal-fired hot water heater in the rear service area. An attendant and two or three assistants who live in small enclaves nearby serviced two burners and one heat exchanger. A cloud of soot filling the air didn't look like it would help the washing hanging on a nearby line. Wonder of all, the pressure gauges on the exchanger appeared to be working! They were the only gauges I saw in operating condition anywhere. In vehicles, every instrument needle bounced limply on the peg with nary an indication of fuel, speed, heat, or anything else.

A very starved looking cat wandered in and out of the hotel grounds area. Probably starving because the rats are much bigger and tougher and have a union. Too, there would be almost no wasted or leftover food for cats. I understand there is a small island in one of the drainage canals where people feed the rats from a nearby bridge. That's probably just a rumor, though.

If I seem overly critical of India and its people it's only because I am trying to describe what I see and it is sometimes painful. I have the deepest respect for Indian people. I know that I see things through my own cultural bifocals and that people from other countries and cultures don't always think like I do, don't feel like I do, and a lot of the time have a very different perspective.

The Indians, it is said, suffer much and complain little. They are highly intelligent, motivated, and have made many, many significant contributions to the world's science, art, and literature. It is my opinion, though, that an inherited massively inefficient bureaucratic system, coupled with a socialist political philosophy, keep their wonderfully entrepreneurial business abilities from raising their standard of living any faster. And yes, Mrs. Jones, I am a Republican.

Bailout time! The car arrived and Mrs. Bose, Prerona, a helper/nurse and I set out for dum-dum airport. I was selected to ride in the front seat. Since there is no firewall insulation, all of the engine heat blew up on my legs and face. I was medium-rare by the time we got to the airport, but at least I was distracted from the realization that I was seated 36 inches closer to the point of probable impact.

Received last minute instructions for taking care of the baby. The nurse could only speak a few words of English but she let me know not to get the formula too hot and that babies put everything in their mouths. OK, I got that.

After a two-hour wait and a sad goodbye from the nurse, Prerona and I moved through the immigration and customs area. Her voluminous paperwork got a good going over, but all was in order and off we went to the next waiting area. (You thought I was going to say "off to the airplane," right?) Boarding the plane was only one-and-a-half hours later than scheduled, but no one else seemed to think that was unusual. Prerona had been busy making eyes at the other waiting passengers, who viewed us as the "odd couple." We shared the two-hour Boeing 747 flight to Delhi with only about fifty passengers. The British aircrew was charmed with Prerona's (Hannah's) large brown eyes and pixie haircut and they actually lined up to see her. I felt like the proud father. It was nice to have all that attention for two hours.

Unfortunately, in Delhi the other 400 passengers came aboard for the 9 1/2-hour flight to London and I never saw a stewardess again. Actually, that's not completely true as every once in a while one would dash by mumbling curses.

Nine and a half hours is a long time to say, "excuse me for climbing over you, but the baby is dripping" or competing in the NCAA Elbow Rights Championship Series. I could have won, but holding a baby handicapped me and by the fact that the huge man sitting next to me had deodorant failure before I did. None of us were too dainty and this man turned out to be very likeable and helpful with Hannah. Reminds me (again) not to judge too swiftly.

April 4 1994 London

Arrived at London Heathrow in the "survival" mode, but Hannah had really not been much trouble or "fussed" a lot. It's just a long haul. Went through a rather long security check at American's transfer check-in counter, which included many questions about my checked luggage. Had Hannah securely in a "Snugli" system now, so both hands were vaguely free to produce tickets and documents. I should have charged admission, as I suspect an old guy with a baby strapped on his chest and an armload of bags made a pretty funny sight. We finally got our boarding passes and waited about an hour. Caught a ride on an electric cart to the departure gate, which really helped, as the gate seemed to be somewhere in Scotland.

Checked in at the gate and was asked even more questions about my suitcase. When a burly security guard and the check-in lady pulled me out of line and we started down a long hallway, I got the feeling that all was not well. My suitcase was on a table in a small room and two more security people were standing by. I was asked to open it up. I noticed that they all flinched when I popped the latches. I always thought that old hairdryer looked suspicious on an X-ray machine. Especially when I had an extra electric razor cord and four metal pencil boxes I had purchased as gifts lying nearby. Apologies and that, entire old chap. I told them sincerely that it was OK with me as security checks were for everyone's safety.

Off on another 8-hour jaunt, but the Boeing 767 is nice and this time there was an empty seat beside us. Hannah, however, preferred the "being held" position as opposed to the "in the seat " position so the empty space was mostly used for pillows, toys, and spilled drinks. Actually the man in the next seat spilled more than Hannah and I did. Hannah kept him entertained as she ate the heavy plastic-coated emergency procedures card in record time.

Arrived at New York's JFK Airport with a "second wind" and was ready for the long lines at luggage claims and U.S. Immigration and Customs. Since my suitcase was last on in London, it was first off here and we moved right on. Dillon International's volunteer "greeter" already had everyone alerted and we went directly to a private room where Hannah's passport was stamped and in one minute we were out of there!

Hurried to the boarding gate for the connecting flight to Washington National. Marsha, the greeter, had a luggage cart for us and already had the route memorized so we easily made the close connection. I thanked her before we left and reminded her that she had an important part in getting this baby to a new life. I think she liked that thought.

Prerona (now officially Hannah, as we were on U.S. soil) and I were launched again on a turbo-prop commuter plane for the Nation's Capitol. I was getting pretty incoherent by this time, but adrenaline started pumping when we got off the plane and saw the camera flashes. The new mom, older sister, and 10 or 12 relatives and friends were anxiously waiting.

I handed over Hannah to a very excited mom and many hugs were had by all. Felt sort of like Santa with a special present. Hannah will always be special for me, of course. She had been my first small traveling companion and I hadn't minded at all being mistaken for the father during the trip. It seemed like the family and friends made almost as much of a "fuss" over me as they did the new baby. However, "Helping Hannah Home" was only a part of the process. The staff at Dillon, Mrs. Bose at the orphanage in Calcutta, and the new family had been hard at work for many months. I just delivered the package.

A couple of hours later I zombied on back to Tulsa, just barely functional. Tucked away somewhere inside was the thought that maybe I had helped someone a little bit in some way. After all, what else is there? Time for a 36-hour nap. Has my business collapsed? Would I ever do this again? I wonder what Beijing is like?

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Larry Hill is the owner and president of HILL BUILDERS INC., in Tulsa, OK. Larry's wife, Susanna, is Director of Development at Dillon International, Inc., a non-profit intercountry adoption agency in Tulsa. Larry was doing some husbandly "volunteer" picture hanging at the Dillon offices when he overheard the conversation about Hannah. The Hills are parents of an adopted son, John, age 21.

Credits: Larry Hill

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