Twitter Updates

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Travelling # 9: Ah, India, I Love Ya…

The waiter has just convinced me to have a second beer. Apparently they just got in a new batch of “chilled” bottles. That is enough to sway me from my requested coffee under the logic that the coffee can still be had after. Although I don’t really intend on to drink it fast enough to take advantage of its refrigerated state, a cold beer sounds nice. “Cold” is a relative term because in India, nothing is every really refrigerated to the state of cold. It really is only possible to get something mildly cool. So I drink my mildly cool beer and rapidly melting ice cream. I’m treating myself.

It has been a long day and it’s not over yet. It is 2am Sunday night (and 28 degrees outside) and I’m at the Delhi Airport 24h restaurant hanging out because it gives me something to do other than doze unsuccessfully in the transit lounge. I’ve got until 4am before I change to the domestic terminal and start to check-in with my new ticket reservation. As there was not one at the airport, it did not make sense to get and pay for a hotel room for less than 4 hours of sleep so I am stuck practicing my patience.

My flight was delayed from landing because of “weather and air traffic” at Delhi International for long enough that we had to divert to an alternate airport and refuel before rejoining the queue. So we landed 4h late and I missed my connection to Chennai. Not being another that night, here I am stuck until morning. Maybe it was because the new Airbus A380, the new Super-Jumbo, had landed touring the airport, but that would be a rather ironic. I think the airport was just behind because it gets that way.

I’m not down 5 minutes when I know unmistakeably I’m back in India. India is unlike anywhere else and it reminds you of that from the moment you land. Whether it is the pushing and hurrying to get through any line or off the plane to the colourful accents and friendly smiles whiling doing so, India immediately welcomes me back with all her charms. We get off the plane to heat a good 15 degrees hotter than when I got on. On the tram from the plane a man obliviously stands close enough to me to be a blanket despite there being a large space in front of him. I smile to myself: lack of personal space – check! Standing in line at customs a different man crams up so close behind me he could rest his chin on my shoulder: do not queue except by sheer force – check!

I track down the Air Sahara desk and start the laborious process and negotiation to get put on another flight. It is not that they are unhelpful or unwilling per se to get me a new ticket, it is more that unless I force them, their goal is to avoid the hassle and not to do anything. Indian bureaucracy is amazing at giving the air of being really, really busy and making you feel like you are asking the world when you are only asking what is normal. Sometimes you’ll get that “tisk” suffering-style air, often they’ll happily and cheerfully help you do something, anything else other than get what you want, but in either case, they through years of training and upbringing, make it as difficult as possible. Thankfully I got the cheery types.

The first guy usefully concludes after I explain my situation and showing him my ticket, “you missed your flight.” Yes. I know this. That is why I’m here. I need a new flight I explain. Hmmn, he ponders, giving the impression I’ve asked him something odd he is not qualified for (which is ridiculous, this being the “Help and Reservation” desk).

There is a short diversion where they helpfully almost get me to go to the domestic terminal (and hence become someone else’s problem) and I have to come back. They use the other classic tactic of suddenly creating a “hurry, hurry” rush where they indicate that if I get to the domestic terminal quickly, something miraculous might happen. I nearly fall for it, but come to my senses before getting a taxi there (Rs 100) when I ask if there are actually any flights tonight I should be hurrying for (No).

Eventually, and still very nicely, between 3 of them, they start to help. I’m asked to wait and my practiced, Indian-honed patience is put back to the test. I can do this. I’ve already survived 5 months and the visa process. These things happen, flights get delayed all the time everywhere, but these guys make it as painfully slow a process as possible.

3 hours later (4 since I landed), I’ve got a new reservation, but still no ticket. Apparently the computers were down for a while and they had to call Mumbai to arrange it. They can’t print a ticket, but assure me I can get one at the domestic counter when I arrive. I’m dubious, but this is the best I can do and they are closing as it is midnight. So I’ve got 4 hours to kill. Yeah for the 24h restaurant instead of the lounge.

Up in the restaurant, I pull of my shoes (the flip flops were the lighter to pack) and settle into a reasonably comfortable seat-couch with my ipod and snacks: little joys of coffee, 2 beers, lamb curry, French fries and ice cream.

4am I catch the shuttle to the domestic. I get bumped through 4 windows and 2 airlines (my original flights were on Air Sahara, but my new one is on Jet Airways, apparently now the same company) before finding myself in front of a senior man who’s name I’ve got written on my well-marked up e-ticket paper who apparently can endorse my ticket. I was getting nervous with all the passing of the buck (and hate being that buck), but despite a fair bit of travel from one side of the airport to the other, it hasn’t taken that long (they were at least efficient at passing the buck…). The man, with a long queue in front of him endorses it with a minimal of story and I apparently can now check in with this. OK. I’ll try it. But my luck holds and I don’t have much trouble at the desk and with a boarding pass in hand, I nearly run to the security before someone changes their mind. The Indian way of doing things, with a hierarchical ultimate decision-maker rather than any sort of efficient and transparent system, always leaves you uncertain, but does eventually work if you’re persistent, friendly and persistent…

One of the bizarre thing about South Asian airports is the security checks – they are both annoyingly numerous and worrying inconsistent. First you have to submit your bag through an x-ray machine to even get into the airport and an assault-rifle armed security guard sternly inspects your ticket. None of the staff appear to be monitoring the x-ray machine closely or have time to spot much before they are through, but benefit of the doubt I suppose. They then tie or wrap or sticker your luggage indicating that it has been scanned. The idea is that you now cannot open it without ruining the marking, but this only works for normal suitcases. Bags, backpacks and odd-shaped parcels with their multiple openings totally blow this measure. My trekking partner Harsh for example went the whole trek with the “security scanned” wrapping on his backpack without it doing any measurable inconvenience to him loading and unloading its contents. Oh well.

You next go through the normal security screen except they don’t seem to use the metal scanners they’ve got, rather manually wanding every passenger. At the Kathmandu airport they open and inspect everyone’s carry-on baggage manually despite having x-rayed it (now twice). So what was the point of the x-ray? He pulls everything out of my backpack and shoves it back making me thankful I didn’t bring back any fragile gifts. They stamp the sticker on your bag to say they have been scanned. This is checked several times. Then the Kathmandu airport outdoes it all when at the stairway to the plane, the airline now repeats the scanning and bag inspecting process. Where do they think we all came from? We only just got through the security into the small waiting lounge! I shudder to think the security is that lax that they need to inspect everyone again so soon. But inspect they do and again my bag, like everyone’s is dug through and emptied. At least at every checkpoint I get a compliment on my hat, racking up another 7 between Kathmandu and Chennai. Such is travel these days. Gotta smile. At least the meals were decent, so there’s one up over the Canadian carriers.

Homeward bound, albeit a little slower than hoped, but I make it. India ho!

1 comment:

Erica said...

Your blog entries continue to make me jealous, but for reasons beyond your exotic destinations. I am so envious of the easy, inspired writing and the daily events that keep churning it out. This was great stuff - keep up the good work, keep using every minute of this adventure to fuel yourself. Proud of you!