Of Stone Soup and Mother of Rice


How much is the cost of a cancelled flight? To a single passenger, maybe in the hundreds. To the airline company, thousands, if not hundreds of thousands or up into the millions. A few days back, I had the opportunity to once again be denied the luxury of flight. The first one was in 2012, when an airline decided to venture into Borneo destinations, in hope that it will catch up with Air Asia’s success. It failed miserably, and now doesn’t even serve any destination outside of the Malay Peninsular. But that’s business. No, I reiterate. That’s life. Like it or not, problems will come your way, no matter how good the planning and execution and contingency planning and contingency plan execution and second backup plans are, problems will arise from time to time. That’s life. What differentiates the winners and the losers is the way they handle, or better, solve their problems. It’s understandable that a new airline or a new route will face problems like delays and reschedules and cancellations. Will this be a lost for the company? It is an instant lost, but may be a big opportunity to show resolve and ingenuity to reel in the big bucks in the future. Call it investment.

So when the airline announced the flight cancellation after a three hour delay, I just let out a sigh. Not a sigh of disgust or anger, but a sigh of relief. It’s better to have problems on the ground than in the air, or so Abah said on the phone when I told him my flight was cancelled, and I agree to his opinion (this time, he he he). Waiting was draining much of my energy, so when it ended, it lifted a whole lot off my chest. Most of the passengers weren’t mad. Of course they were disappointed, me included, but a problem is a problem, you can’t escape the fact. So now comes the big event: how will they handle the problem. Being one of the earliest to get back to the check-in counter, I opted for a refund rather than a reschedule to the next flight, which was eventually the soonest the day after that. I had bought my train ticket, and it was pretty hefty, so I would really like to get my ass to the other side of the South China Sea on the same day. After confirming that I (or technically Abah, since the ticket was on him this time) would get a full refund, I left the counter to have lunch, waiting for whoever comes first, Abah with news of my next move, Ummi who was driving the orphans back to their villages for the school holidays, or my brother who was working the morning shift that day. I wasn’t keen on how the airline handled the matter, but I have no complains for them. Having worked in the service sector before, I understand that patience on both sides is very important, and sometimes you have to give chances so that others make mistakes and learn not to do the same thing again in the future. So I gave them a chance and remain the calm one so that the ground staff will not have to face the brunt of things.

After lunch and prayers, Abah told me that he bought a new ticket for a night flight, so I have time to come back home to rest and rejuvenate (and enjoy my brother’s first attempt at making spaghetti bolognese). Waiting in the departure hall left me feeling uncomfortable, what with all the people passing through, getting on their respective flights while me grounded, literally. So I decided to wait in the arrivals on the first floor, only to pass the airline’s office on the second floor and a crowd in front of it. I knew a few of them. They were in the waiting hall with me and were supposed to board the same plane with me prior. So I casually asked a brother what’s going on. It was almost two hours after the cancellation, so I thought everything should be settled by now. But his response suggest otherwise. I don’t know what’s happening anymore. That was what came out of his mouth. After a few more questions, I found out that suddenly refund was not an option for the latter half of the passengers, and the replacement flight tomorrow is not a sure-go, since that flight uses the same plane having technical problems that we were supposed to get on that day. There’s no SOP at all by the looks of it. They didn’t anticipate the problem, from what I can see. Ah, youth, I thought at that moment. May you grow fine and strong from this experience, I whisper in my heart as I walk away from all the commotion.

A few customers were lashing out at the staff, saying that they don’t have anywhere to stay the night and how much time, energy, and money they had wasted for a flight not flying to their destination. At that moment, I felt bitter, thinking that these people were lucky enough to experience the skies at all. I don’t know how my mind works, but a thought that immediately came to mind was Abah’s words prior; better to have problems on the ground than in the air. 2014 had a great impact on commercial aviation, especially here in Malaysia, since there were three incidents linking local airline companies MAS and Air Asia, the first one was the infamous disappearance of MH370, followed by the tragic shoot down of MH17, and the plane that got stuck in the coffin corner, QZ8501. Then it came to Ummi and the kids from the orphanage. If they were very excited when I brought them to a hotel room to prepare them before the orphanage’s charity dinner back in 2014, a ride on a plane would make them cry buckets, or so I thought. Sure, the customers lost a lot when a flight is cancelled, but at least they didn’t lose their lives to some incident in the name of pleasing passengers. We are lucky to have seen the Earth from above, while many more only see steel birds vooming across the sky ever so often.

Then, today, my mind came to the story of stone soups and the mother of rice. I was over the whole incident, or so I thought, but a phone call from a friend last night made me rethink the actions of the airline’s staff and the management as a whole, and projections of their future and the supposed passengers came to mind. Will they be in business for long? Are all the passengers already over it by now? Things like that intrigues me. Yet, I still think we were lucky, for a lot of reasons. My mind flashes back to the kids at the orphanage, then to a story Abah once told us after dinner one night. The story of stone soups and the mother of rice. Back then, it was just after the Indonesian Confrontation, and Abah’s family were living near the borders. They had near to none on them. Being kids, they (my father and his younger siblings) do not understand the severity of the situation. The older siblings were well aware of the situation by then, so they didn’t say much. Returning from school, a hungry Abah will ask what’s cooking, and his father will reply ‘stone soup’. His father told him that in the pot was a stone that when cooked long enough, will become food, sometimes rice, sometimes boiled cassava, sometimes a mix of rice and grated cassava. But there’s a catch. As long as the stone rattles in the pot, they must not open the lid, or the magic won’t work. So the stone kept rattling on until Abah fell asleep, hungry and tired of waiting. That is when the older siblings will come, remove the stone, and cook rice borrowed from those who have some or cassava plucked fresh from the woods. When all’s done, his father will wake him up for dinner. It wasn’t until he was older that he knew the secret to the magic stone soup. The logic behind his father’s action was that if they did not get anything that day, the kids are asleep, so they won’t feel hungry anymore. At least not for that day. Tomorrow’s another story.

Then Abah proceeded to tell the tale of the mother of rice. It is a black stone shaped like rice grains but bigger than them. It was a superstitious belief that if you put the mother of rice inside your rice jar, your rice will double by the night. Abah believed in the magic, since the whole village does it. His father was known to be a wise man by the villagers. If his mother does it but his father doesn’t object, then it’s true, or so he thought. But in retrospect, he said of course his father wouldn’t object. It’s not just a little pebble capable of giving birth to rice grains (in fact, it’s not). It was more than that. It was giving birth to hope. Hope that they will have enough to eat for the days to come, as long as the mother of rice gives birth to more rice grains. A mother of rice is said to be ‘old’ when the rice jar becomes empty. By then, the kids would scurry upon the land, sea, and woods to find a new mother of rice. The one who manages to find a new stone will be revered by the village kids. Such are the tales Abah told us with a light-hearted laugh at the end, maybe trying to laugh off the hard times or the absurdity of it all, while we siblings were left perplexed and downed. Such is his life, and yet the people of today complain about every single little detail without giving the benefit of doubt nor believing in second chances. Oh, but that’s a story of the past, or so they say, oblivious to the fact that many still live in poverty and shambles. The orphanage my parents and a bunch of their friends open up not only cater to those without parent(s) but also to the ones desperately in need. They had the privilege to visit many of the boys’ homes, some of them a hundred kilometers away from civilization, and witnessed the sadness firsthand. I can’t fathom what it’s like to be Abah, to be living materialistically okay as of now after 50 years or so, yet have to see children living in the same circumstances he had been living in 50 years ago. 50 years ago, there was nothing. Now, we have all the help we can get, the technology and expertise modernization should bring along with independence, yet there are still people living like him 50 years ago. He must have been heartbroken, to say the least.

So here I am, reminiscing old tales bitter to the heart but needed to remind me how lucky I am, we all are, and how grateful we all ought to be. A cancelled flight may cost me money and energy and time, but with it comes a priceless reminder.

1.33 am

13th February 2016

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Of Stone Soup and Mother of Rice

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