Monday, December 5, 2005

How I Almost Went to San Francisco

Those of you who might have read this earlier would know that I was supposed to be in San Francisco, California by now and there would have been no more blogging by me for a week and a bit more. Instead I am here, in India, posting this story rather then being jet lagged, and pleading with my readers to come back. But I get ahead of the story. "What happened? Tell it right from the beginning and then continue slowly to the end." That's a reasonable request for any discerning reader to make.

Well all I can say, before I move on to my story, is that the patron deity of bloggers probably didn't like me not posting for a week and conspired with the fates, Air India, and some people in San Francisco to arrange events in such a way that I stayed put in Mumbai. Enough of the preamble, you say? Start from the very beginning? Ok, remember you asked for it. Here's what happened over the last few days and specifically over the last 24 hours.

I and three of my colleagues (two of us from Content and Instructional Design, and one each from Graphics and Project Management) were told on Wednesday evening that we were flying out on Sunday, 4th December, to be onsite with a client in San Francisco. Not much of a notice, one would say but that often happens and we being the professionals that we are, got down to it. Basically I called my brother and told him that I am off and I need some formal clothes (here in our India office, Jeans and a crumpled Fabindia shirt is the dress code) and something warm - a sweater or a jacket. "In your size?" He asked me doubtfully. "Well, Ok. I'll try but I don't promise."

Me and my colleagues meanwhile busied ourselves with the "prework" that we needed to complete before reaching San Francisco. This roughly translated into reading more than 500 pages of material, completing two online tests, and going through two e-learning modules. Meanwhile time also had to be allocated for following up with our Travel Desk for our tickets, sweet-talking the System Admin to provide us with functional laptops, and with the Finance for our allowances.

Mid-Thursday in a meeting I suddenly sat up straight and said "Shoes!"
"What?!!?" went the others.
"I'll have to buy shoes for the trip." The others nodded. They knew I hated shoes and in all the years in this office had seen me only using sandals. So I had to make time for a quick trip to a store to pick up shoes. And just as I was walking out of the store, another thought -- "Socks!" So back in the store and more money to shell out.

Friday was spent in running around trying to get through all the reading material (no, we didn't quite finish reading it all), assignments, and meetings. Near evening my brother called to say that he had picked up a few shirts and a jacket for me. The Travel Desk meanwhile told us that the flight was an early morning one, 8.05 AM, on Sunday. Check-in begins 3 hours before which meant I had to be at the airport at 5 AM. There were no trains from Ambernath (where I stay) that would get me to the airport that early in the morning. So another call to the brother:

"We need to book a car."
"Ok. Anything else?"
"Nothing that I can think of. But I'll let you know if I remember anything."
"I was being sarcastic."
"Oh. . . Ok."

Meanwhile the hectic preparations at office continued. We finally called it a day around 11.30 in the night promising ourselves that we would finish the rest of the reading material on the plane.

Saturday morning I woke up with a nagging thought that I had missed a much needed item and couldn't put my finger on what it was. I decided to try on the shirts that my brother had picked up. They turned out to be about two sizes small. So pick up the phone and dial my brother's office to curse him a bit:

"I picked up the largest available sizes," he said defensively.
"You could have tried a few more stores."
"Nobody makes clothes in the sizes you need."

So I went out and finally managed to find a store that had some clothes approximating the sizes I needed. Bought a few. It was when I was trudging back home with my new purchases that I put my finger on what I was missing all this while. In a trice I had whipped out my cell and dialed my brother.

"I need a belt."
"Forget it! Not in your. . ."
"Please. At least look for it."
"Ok. You know you owe me big time for all this."
"Yeah. Yeah. I'll include you in my prayers."
"No belt for you. Unless you grovel a bit"


Any ways by evening everything was in place. The new shirts were ironed and neatly folded and packed. My brother had managed to get a belt from Dharavi that just about circled my girth. . . but everything was ready to go.

We loaded everything into the hired car. My brother had simmered down enough to accompany me to the Mumbai international airport. We left at around 2.45 AM and reached the airport at 4.30. I was to meet my colleagues outside terminal 2A. Neither of the three had arrived. My brother went around and came back to tell me that my flight was at terminal 2C. So I got on to the phone and called the other three to come to 2C.

One arrived at 5.15 with some bad news. A subject matter expert who was to meet us in San Francisco had broken her ankle and would not be joining us. We were on our own. By 5.30 the other two had come and we were all assembled and ready to wheel our luggage trolleys in. My brother bid me good bye asking me to call when I was about to board the plane.

We went in. Checked in our baggage, received our boarding passes and then proceeded to fill in the immigration forms. Immigration check happened in a jiffy and we moved on for a security check. I was asked to open the bag containing my laptop. Whatever the security guard saw in there satisfied him and he allowed me to proceed to the boarding lounge. Another hour to go before boarding the plane.

The four of us settled down. At about 7.45 AM we came to know that the flight would be delayed by about 10 minutes. Four passengers from Bangalore were delayed because their connecting flight was late. We shrugged our shoulders. At 8.00 AM it was announced that passengers could begin boarding the plane in a few minutes. The physically challenged and families were to board first followed by others. Another few minutes to go. We started readying ourselves. Picked up our hand luggage and stood up. Then it happened.

One of our cell phones rang. It was our office. Our Head had called. My colleague from project management took the call, listened quietly for a few minutes. He then put down his luggage and turned to us.

"The client has canceled and postponed the training. Something has come up."

And before either of us could react he disappeared. The three of us tried making sense of what was happening even as others around jostled and pushed us out of their way as they proceeded to board the plane. The project manager meanwhile came back saying that he had informed the Air India staff that we were not boarding the plane and that we had to move fast to get our luggage off the plane.

An official rushed us to the person handling the baggage.

"These are not boarding the plane. A last minute change of plans. Their luggage. . ."
"Offload their luggage now? The plane will be taking off in a few minutes."

He asked us for our boarding passes, got on to his walkie-talkie radio and asked the baggage handlers to not load our baggage on to the plane. It turned out that it was already on the plane and since we had checked in early, it was in the first two containers. The official gave us an exasperated look.

"Now the plane will be delayed further."

He got back to his radio and asked the handlers to get the two containers off the plane. The person at the other end seemed reluctant.

The official became angry. "You nut. The baggage will have to be taken off. If it goes without the passengers it'll be taken as a security breach and the plane will be detained at Frankfurt. Take the containers off now! I am coming down."

He then turned to us.

"Can one of you recognize the luggage of your colleagues?"

We looked at each other and shook our heads,

He shook his head slowly, gave us a long appraising look and said, "Ok. All of you come with me now and hurry."

He hurried us downstairs. A security guard frisked us and the next moment we were on the runway, next to the plane that was supposed to take us to USA. Two containers had to be pulled out to reach the two containing our baggage. Under the watchful eyes of a few security guards the containers were opened, our baggage identified, and pulled out. As each of the bags was pulled out, we were asked to pick our bags and stand well away from the aircraft. One container had to be unloaded virtually completely before a bag could be found. A guard with a metal detector gave the baggage a once over before tearing of the baggage tags and allowing us to take it away. The baggage handlers then got back to the task of loading the bags again and resealing the containers.

We were taken off the runway and back into the terminal. By that time it was already 8.40 AM. We had delayed the plane by at least about 20 minutes (assuming the Bangalore passengers were responsible for the other 20). Once inside we had to first pass a security check once again. The tags on our baggage were torn (ceremonially) into half. The helpful official then accompanied us to the Immigration counters. Our passports were handed over and after a few questions the immigration officials filled in a few documents, tapped a number of key on their computer keyboards and then wrote "self offload" across the immigration stamps on our passports. We were now officially not on the plane.

We were then taken to the Airport duty manager to explain why we had decided not to board the plane at such a late moment. Our project manager then asked us to stay put in the reception while he went and talked to the Airport duty manager. At the end of it, each one of us was allowed to go after being slapped a penalty of $125.

Once out of the terminal, our colleague brought us up to date. Apparently the client had canceled the training once it was clear that our subject matter expert wouldn't be able to make it to San Francisco. Onsite was postponed till we made alternative arrangements. Due to some "miscommunication" the message reached us only in the early hours of Sunday. Luckily the plane was delayed a bit or we would have been on board with our cell phones switched off and landed late night in San Francisco to find our hotel reservations had been canceled.

I called my brother then. It was around 9.30 AM.

"What? Are you boarding now? Is the plane delayed so much?"
"Actually, I am coming home."
"What? Why? What did you do?"
"Let me reach home. It's a long story."


Anonymous said...

My God, Mandy! How do you manage to get into situations like this?

You should have just boarded that flight, come this side of the world, and visited me. I'm a darn sight more interesting than all those training programs you go for. Don't you think so?

Anonymous said...

Life's like that only, and you tell it like it is. Actually, how often does one get a chance to say: "I was there..

Shruthi said...

Oh man what an experience! Though this is not the first time I have heard of such things happening, this is the first time I have heard it being told so well :)

Anonymous said...

What was the penalty of $ 125 for? for delaying the plane? We ( self, wife and two kids) went through an offloading at Kuwait once. They just took our baggage tags and extricated all our luggage. Also, there was no penalty to be paid.

mandar talvekar said...

Yup, the penalty was for delaying the plane and some, if I am right, for baggage handling. We had to pay up since we couldn't blame the delay on a late connecting flight. Actually, nothing was taken from us in cash at that moment, only an entry made into their systems and some documents. We were told that the penalty would be deducted from our tickets and that the details would be conveyed to our office or our official travel agents who would handle everything.

Anonymous said...

That was a nice experience..something u would never forget all ur life.

Gini said...

Whew...what an ordeal! Anyway made some interesting read although I have to take a test 2 hrs from now.

Supremus said...


That was quite some experience - SFO would have been a great place to visit, but not necessarily without reservations.

On the bright side, you were not stranded in the the land of the free - you wouldnt know what could have happened!!!

Jeez - so if the meetin was postponed - are u making it sometime. ?