Saturday, May 12, 2007

I Am Back . . . and how!

Waiting to board our flight from Kolkata to Mumbai (the last one we took on our way back from Katmandu, Nepal), I remarked to my friend, "I was wrong. Completely wrong."
To which he provided his characteristic response, "Eh?"
I continued to elaborate, "I have always suspected that the patron deity of airplanes is very anti-me. This time around when we managed to catch our flight to Benares in spite of the mother of all railway megablocks, sputtering rickshaws, and lunatic taxi drivers, I thought the god of airplanes had seen the error of his ways and was now trying to make it up to me. But . . .”
"Will you shut up and let me sleep? I am tired after all that running around and I am not interested in your idiotic theories. . ."
"But as I was saying, I was wrong," I refused firmly to clam up and continued. "The dude was merely luring me into a false sense of complacency. And when I least suspected it, he socked me one in the eye."
"Good for him. He should do it more often. But not when I am with you."
I ignored and forgave my friend's grouchiness, putting it rightly down to the stress and the fatigue born of the events in the past eight hours or so.
"I mean there we were. We should have been still relaxing in Katmandu at the moment, but instead we are here waiting in this supposedly city of joy. And there's still no sign of this flight to Mumbai. If I examine all the data, I can draw only one conclusion. . ."
"Shut up."
"No, listen . . ."

But I have allowed myself to get ahead of the story. I can imagine the least patient of my readers have by now already closed their browsers and gone back to reading their newspapers and books. I am sure at least one reader somewhere has opened a Wodehouse in a marked manner and is muttering curses under her breath. Is there anyone hanging around yet? What? Eh? Ya right. I know. I should stop my meandering and get on with it. Begin from the beginning and continue slowly till the end and all that sort of thing. I intended to do that but in the excitement of telling the story I jumped . . . Yes, yes. Sorry. Enough of my rambling. Here's what happened. You sure you want the story right from the beginning? Ok, remember you asked for it.

Where to begin this story? It will have to begin with this aborted attempt of mine to get to San Francisco about a year and some back (You wanted the story from the beginning!). No I am not narrating that one here, not again. But it's important to mention that incident because that experience still haunts me and colors the way I approach any travel by airplanes. Each time I decide to take a flight, there's a part of me that keeps crossing its fingers and toes for it knows surely there's something that has to go wrong.

This time around when we decided to go to Benares and Nepal and booked our flight tickets for the various stages of the journey, I kept a wary eye out for potential trouble.

And my fears weren't misplaced. The patron god of airplanes seemed to have pulled out all stops to ensure that I didn't board the Benares flight. The Saturday we were supposed to fly to Benares from Mumbai, Central Railway announced a mega megablock for five days. Central Railway was beginning work on the 5th and 6th lines between Thane and Kalyan. Train services were operating at the rate of about a train an hour with the resultant jam-packed crowds. We had planned to reach the airport around 12.00 noon for our 13.20 flight. The railway megablock meant that we were going to be off-schedule. . . very badly off-schedule. A journey that involved a hired car, a sputtering rickshaw, and a maniac taxi driver saw us at the boarding gates 20 minutes before the flight took off. Thankfully we were allowed to take the flight. As the flight taxied down the runway, I felt with reason that the worse was behind us and things would be ok from now on. There was also a feeling that maybe the patron deity of airplanes had maybe initially tried to throw a spanner in the works but had finally rallied behind me and ensured that my friend and I boarded the plane.

But as you already know I was wrong. After the planned stops in Benares and Gorakhpur and after three bus journeys we reached Katmandu early morning on a Tuesday.

We had planned to spend the Tuesday and Wednesday in Katmandu before taking a bus to Pokhara on Thursday morning. We were taking a 13.30 flight from Pokhara to Katmandu on Saturday and a morning 7.20 Royal Nepal Airlines flight on Sunday to Delhi and from there an afternoon IndiGo flight to Mumbai.

Things went well right up to Saturday noon. Then briefly they got better. Used to Mumbai traffic and security checks, we reached the Pokhara airport at 12.00 noon. Turned out that the 12.30 flight still hadn't arrived from Katmandu. We strolled around the airport, clicked a few pictures of the runway and watched the 12.30 flight touch down and taxi from close quarters. At 12:25 the airport manager came looking for us and asked if we minded boarding the 12:30 flight as two passengers were late and the seats were available. We were more than happy to avail of the offer figuring it would allow us more shopping time in Katmandu's Durbar Square. At 14:00 we walked into our Katmandu hotel where the manager was waiting for us with news that would change our entire day.

He greeted us and then said, "Royal Nepal Airlines called today morning (we had provided the hotel numbers when we re-confirmed our tickets on reaching Katmandu). Your flight tomorrow is canceled." He then took a dramatic pause as he watched our stunned expressions. Then added, "Actually they have canceled all flights to Delhi for a week. Two of their planes developed snags and they don't have any spare planes to divert to India."

"But we have to be in Mumbai by tomorrow evening," that was my friend.

The manager suggested that we check in our luggage at the hotel and said that he would take us to the Royal Nepal Airlines office to see what can be done. It started raining heavily when we set out. Within 20 minutes we were at the Royal Nepal Airlines office where a large number of irate passengers were arguing with two hassled staff. Turned out that it was a holiday and these two had been offered as sacrificial lambs. When we finally managed to get an audience with a staffer, he first repeated the information that our hotel manager had already passed on to us. Then he added, "We are trying to adjust passengers on other flights. But that is proving difficult. You might expect a seat optimistically only on Tuesday, that's 8th of May. But realistically nothing till the 10th."

He noted our expressions and added, “I am sorry. But there's nothing we can do. If you have to reach India urgently, I suggest you cancel tickets and try to arrange alternative tickets on your own."

So we canceled the tickets and the hotel manager took us to a travel agent whose face had a perpetual "still processing" expression. It turned out that the travel agent's look was a true reflection of his processing capabilites. After we explained to him our problem and he took his time processing and understanding it (Think of Atal Behari Vajpayee's style of talking) he remarked, "Hmm (long processing pause) . . . So you want to go back to India?"
"Yes, urgently."
"Hmm (long processing pause). . . You want flight tickets?"
"Ya. We have to reach Delhi by tomorrow afternoon."
"Hmm (long processing pause). . . Royal Nepal has canceled flights? Hmm (long processing pause). . . Let me see what I can do. Hmm (long processing pause). . . Why don't you wait at your hotel and I will call if I find you tickets?"

Considering the agent's evident capabilities, that was not an option. I glanced at my friend. His thoughts too seemed on similar lines.

"We will wait here and you can tell us if tickets are available."

"Hmm (long processing pause). . . Ok. Hmm (long processing pause). . . I will have to make a few calls to the various airlines. Today is Saturday. Most of these offices will be closed. Hmm (long processing pause). . .

"He doesn't have facilities to check online?" I asked the hotel manager.
"No. Faster this way. To call and find."
"Provided he picks up the phone."

He eventually did. And proceeded to pause and talk (in the local language) and pause some more, shake his head mournfully, and talk even less. After an eternity, and after he had made about half a dozen calls, the travel agent turned to us and:
"Hmm (long processing pause). . . There are no flights available for Delhi till the 12th. Not even business class."

"Oh, shit" (That was my friend and me).

The travel agent just looked at us more mournfully. The hotel manager murmured something about us relaxing for the next week in Katmandu. I quelled his murmuring with a glare and turned back to the travel agent:
"See, we have to reach Delhi by tomorrow afternoon. We have tickets for tomorrow to fly from Delhi to Mumbai. I have to be in Mumbai by tomorrow evening. Please suggest a solution."
"Hmm (long processing pause). . . Hmm (long processing pause). . . Hmm (long processing pause). . . You can fly to Nepalganj."
"Where's that and how will that help us?"
"Hmm (long processing pause). . . From Nepalganj you hire a car or a taxi to Delhi. Hmm (long processing pause). . . Or there is a train on some days."
"How far from Nepalganj to Delhi?"
"Hmm (long processing pause). . . I think it is 32 hours."
"Hmm (long processing pause) . . ." and he nodded his head (slowly).
"That will not help. I have told you already I have to reach Mumbai by tomorrow."
"Hmm (long processing pause). . . "

Then I had a brainwave. I remembered that Kolkata was quite close from Katmandu.
"Any other destinations from Katmandu? Can we fly to somewhere else and take a flight to Mumbai?"
This time, surprisingly the response was immediate, "Yes. Bangkok."
I almost beaned the guy with the metal vase on the table next to me.

"Any other destinations in India from Katmandu?" I said it very slowly, putting much emphasis on India. "Maybe Kolkata."
"Hmm (long processing pause). . . Let me check."

A phone call later:
"Hmm (long processing pause). . . There's one Indian Airlines flight waiting at the airport to fly to Kolkata. Hmm (long processing pause). . . It is supposed to fly at 15:30."
I looked at my watch. It was 15:15. I had a strong urge to pick up the vase.
"Hmm (long processing pause). . . It is raining heavily so visibility will be bad. The plane will not leave for some time. If you leave immediately, you might just get it. Maybe in the business class. Hmm (long processing pause). . . And I think there is an Air Sahara flight to Kolkata at 16:30. So you are bound to get that one surely. If tickets are available . . ."

We thanked him and rushed to the hotel, picked up our bags, jumped into a waiting taxi, and rushed to the airport. The hotel manager accompanied us to the airport. Half way to the airport the hotel manager received a call on his cell phone. He spoke for a few minutes and then turned to us.
"It was the travel agent. He called to say there is no Air Sahara flight to Kolkata. It is only this Indian Airlines one."
"Oh, shit" (That was my friend and me).
"Can this guy drive the taxi a bit faster?"

We made it to the airport, through all that rain and the slow traffic, around 16:15. The security at Katmandu International Airport wouldn't let us in since we had no valid tickets (Remember, our Royal Nepal Airlines were canceled). It took five minutes to explain to them our circumstances at which we were allowed in without any baggage check or frisking. The hotel manager said he would wait for us outside in case we didn't get tickets.

A couple of inquiries later we were standing at the Indian Airlines counter for the Kolkata flight. That was adjacent to another Indian Airlines counter for a flight to Delhi. My friend went to the Delhi counter to ask if tickets were available.

"No sir. We have a waiting list of 25 for the business class tickets. There are no tickets for the next week. Royal Nepal flights have been canceled so . . ."

There was no other option. I asked the guy manning the Indian Airlines counter for the Kolkata flight if there were tickets available. "Even business class will do."
"There are no business class seats on this flight."
"Oh." (Panic)
"The entire flight is economy class. We have some tickets for those." (Relief)
"I will take two."
A guy who was hovering around the counter, barking into a walkie-talkie now butted in. "Please buy the tickets immediately and come to the boarding gate. The flight is already delayed by an hour and I cannot delay it further."
I nodded and turned to the other guy. "Two tickets please. How much?"
He muttered a figure close to 15000 Nepali rupees for the two tickets.
"Ok. Here's my card." And I pulled out my credit card.
"Sorry sir. Cash only. We don't accept credit cards."
"What! This is an international airport for #$%***#. . ." (Despair)
"We don't take cards. We have no facilities for card payments."
The walkie-talkie guy butted in. "Are you going to be on the plane? I have to close boarding in 5 minutes."
I turned to the other guy. "See, I have to be on the plane but I don't have that much cash. Please suggest a way out."
He looked at me appraisingly and then pointed to a duty free shop at the other end of the terminal. "You could go to the shop and convince the shopkeeper to make a bill for you for the amount and swipe your card in exchange for cash. I have heard they sometimes do it." (There's still hope)
I turned to sprint to the shop when the walkie-talkie guy butted in once again. "I will hold the boarding open for you for 5 minutes. Please get the cash in 5 minutes."

I ran to the shop and explained the situation to the shopkeeper. He nodded and said, "I would do it but I don't have that much cash today."
"Oh, shit" (Despair once again)
"But you can go to the bank there (He pointed helpfully). They might provide cash against a credit card." (Hope rekindled)
So I sprinted to the bank and breathlessly (try doing 100 meter dashes in Olympic record times with my bulk) tried to explain to the person manning the counter my problem. After sometime he said "Yes we can give you cash against a credit card swipe. But you have to fill this form first."
And proceeded to lay a long A4 size form in front of me. I glanced at the bank official in exasperation, then dragged my eyes back to that humongous form. Just to confirm I glanced at the bank official again. There was no way out of it. I pulled out a pen, handed the card to the bank official and said, "Why don't you swipe the card for 16000 Nepali rupees by the time I complete this form?"
"Sorry. I cannot swipe without the form."
"Oh, hell!" (Exasperation) And proceeded to enter the details in that complicated form (address, amount, card number, purpose of withdrawal, credit card expiry date, passport number, passport issuance date, and a hazaar other things). Out of the corner of my eye I could see the agitated walkie-talkie guy gesticulating wildly in my direction.

The form was duly completed and presented and scrutinized. After the bank official was satisfied with the form, he took my proffered card and swiped it. Then he handed me the receipts to be signed. After I had signed, he proceeded to count the cash. By this time the walkie-talkie guy seemed to be having an apoplectic fit. "Will you hurry a bit please?" I requested the bank official.
"Money matters take time."

Finally the money was in my hands and I sprinted across to the Indian Airlines counter. I avoided looking at the walkie-talkie guy who now looked as if he would like to cut me open and stomp on my entrails. The money was exchanged and the tickets made and handed over and the boarding passes readied. We handed over our luggage, when the guy at the counter remembered, "Airport tax?"
"You need to pay airport tax in Nepal. I can't give you boarding passes without the airport tax receipts."
"Where do I pay the airport tax?"
"In that bank over there." It was the same one from where I had withdrawn the money.
I turned to the walkie-talkie guy who seemed to be having fantasies of dipping me in boiling oil. "Sir, please 5 more minutes."
"I'll give you two."

I must have set a record for the 100 meter airport dash twice over on that day.

The airport tax was paid, the receipts procured, handed over, and the boarding passes collected. I heaved a sigh of relief. No way was that plane taking off without my friend and me on board.

But I hadn't reckoned with the walkie-talkie guy. "If you don't clear the immigration and security check in the next five minutes, I will have the boarding gates closed. I'll meet you two there." Well, it was time to start sprinting again.

As we dashed to the escalators, my friend suddenly stopped. "The Hotel Manager! He is still waiting for us at the entrance. And we have to pay him."

It was the time to set new records for the 200 meter airport dash. I asked my friend to proceed to the immigration and have our immigration forms ready and I ran towards the entrance of the airport. I ran past the security guards who I suspected now looked upon me as a specially provided gift by god to bring some entertainment (sort of an obese male version of Run Lola Run) into their humdrum routines . I found the hotel manager and quickly pressed some money in his palms - enough to cover our stay for the day, taxi charges and a lavish tip for his help - thanked him and then sprinted back. The laughing security guards just waved me on. The more intelligent and imaginative ones amongst them probably thought I was using every available opportunity to burn all my excess calories.

I made it to the immigration area to find my friend holding two blank immigration forms.
"Why haven't you entered our details in these?" I was peeved and it showed in my (breathless) tone.
He pointed to the immigration area. There were about five counters and all of them had long, snaking queues in front of them.
I turned to my friend, "But, how does that . . ."
"You forget I can't read without my glasses," he cut me short. "And they have been checked in with our main luggage. Besides, I don't have a pen on me."

So I entered my details in an immigration form and completed another form for my friend. Then we proceeded to the immigration and stood in the queue that looked the shortest. My friend tried explaining to the people in the queue that we were in a hurry; a walkie-talkie guy was threatening to leave us behind if we didn't make it to the plane in another 90 seconds, etc. But heartless all of them. His requests to be allowed to move forward in the line fell on deaf ears. None budged. Well, I decided the time for niceties was past and we barged ahead using my superior weight and my friend's superior height to our advantage. 10 seconds later we had elbowed and swatted our way through the queue and were at the immigration counter. My friend started explaining again, but the immigration official was not interested at all. He glanced at our passports and stamped the forms and waved us away. A short run brought us the security check line and after some more elbowing and swatting we were ahead of everyone else (I am afraid we both weren't awfully good ambassadors for India there) and had our cabin bags security checked and tagged. 20 seconds later we were at the boarding gate, a full 40 seconds before our 5 minutes over.

But hang on, what was this long line doing at the boarding gate? And why had that walkie-talkie guy (put two more heads next to his present one and you would have the airport version of Cerberus) barred the boarding gates? Was he going to disallow over a 100 passengers from boarding the plane? Another passenger enlightened us. He pointed out of a window to the heavy rain.
"It is raining so hard that they have stopped boarding the flight. Also there is no bus to take the passengers to the plane."

Some 10 minutes later a bus arrived at the gates. We managed to cram ourselves into the bus along with about 50 others and the bus trundled towards the waiting plane through the rain. When we reached the flight none of us was allowed to disembark. One person was allowed out at a time. An Indian Airlines official who had boarded the bus explained that under the Nepal law, passengers had to be frisked and their cabin baggage rechecked before actually boarding a plane. It was however raining so heavily that it was impractical to frisk the passengers and check the baggage. So boarding was halted. We waited in the bus for the heavy shower to blow away. About 10 minutes later the heavy shower had dwindled to a light drizzle. Frisking and baggage checking proceeded briskly and we were soon fastening our seatbelts. Soon all the passengers had boarded the plane. It was now around 17:00, nearly a full hour since we had reached the airport. The flight (luckily for us) had been delayed for almost two hours but we were now impatient to be on our way. We still had to get to Kolkata and then arrange for our tickets to Mumbai.

Just as when it looked that we were finally going to be off, the captain made an announcement. Air traffic control had denied permission to takeoff because of more heavy rain and poor visibility. The flight finally took off at 17.30. We landed at Kolkata an hour and 15 minutes later at around 18:15 Indian time.

We disembarked, cleared the immigration and picked up our luggage. Our checked in luggage had been thoroughly drenched in the Katmandu rain and now weighed a ton. 15 minutes later we were at Kolkata airport's domestic terminal. I asked my friend to proceed to the IndiGo counter and cancel our tickets to Mumbai from Delhi. Meanwhile I decided to see if any of the other air services had tickets for us to fly from Kolkata to Mumbai. Jet Airway's only remaining flight was full. So was Air Sahara's. Indian Airlines had two flights, one delayed and one on schedule, both leaving in under an hour and a half. None had any seats available.

"What's so special today? Why is everyone traveling from Kolkata to Mumbai?" I vented my frustration aloud.

The official behind the counter took it as an inquiry. "Sir, an IndiGo flight has been delayed. It was supposed to leave at 19.20 but still hasn't arrived. Many passengers switched over to our flights. You might get an IndiGo ticket."

I ran to the IndiGo counter where my friend had just finished canceling our Delhi-Mumbai tickets. A couple of questions later and after another swipe of the credit card (no running around for cash, thankfully) we had tickets to Mumbai in our hands. The 19:20 flight had been rescheduled to 22:00, the girl who sold us the tickets informed us. As we turned to move away, she added, "We hope it arrives by then, if it does."


"See this flight is the same one that flies from Mumbai to Nagpur. From Nagpur it comes to Kolkata and from here it flies back to Mumbai." She paused, "The flight still hasn't left Mumbai."

She noted our expressions and hastily assured us, "Sirs, we are sure that the flight will operate. We hope it is by 22.00. It might get more delayed but it will not be canceled."

We nodded. A delay was not a problem for us after what we had been through the day. We walked inside the terminal. The time was around 19:00. We found ourselves seats and made ourselves comfortable. A cup of coffee helped. Soon I had pulled out a book, crossed my legs over our bags and was lost to the world. My friend decided to exercise his muscles and went for a walk. He returned sometime later to announce that the IndiGo officials had informed him that the flight had taken off from Mumbai for Nagpur.
"We will be in Mumbai, today," my friend said.
I returned to my book.

Around 20:30, my friend came back with an update. "They have opened the check-in counters for our flight. Let us at least get our luggage screened and out of the way." And we proceeded to do just that. At 21:15, another IndiGo official came and informed the waiting passengers that the flight was on its way to Kolkata from Nagpur and was expected in about an hour or less. That cheered us immensely. Soon a security check for the passengers of the IndiGo flight was announced. 15 minutes later we were waiting in the boarding area for the flight and having the conversation that started off this longish post.

If you felt that everything after this point was smooth, you are mistaken. The gods and the fates never let me off that easy. After I had explained my theory to my friend and he had roundly cursed me for disturbing his snooze, IndiGo announced that the flight would be touching down at Kolkata only around 23:00 and will take off for Mumbai around 23:30. It finally took off at 23:45. We touched down in Mumbai at around 2:00 AM on Sunday morning. The plane taxied and parked itself in the boondocks of Mumbai airport. It took the bus nearly 15 minutes to get us passengers to the baggage claim area. Finally at 2:30 AM we were out of the airport when a new thought struck me.
"It's 2.30."
"Ya, so?"
"So we have no trains to take us home. The last train from Ghatkopar station left an hour and 15 minutes back."
"B#$%* Hell!"
"The next train is only at 4.45 AM, provided it's on time. Saturday and Sunday are maintenance days for the railway. This train might have been . . ."

A few more curses were dispersed in the warm Mumbai air. My friend remembered that he had the keys to his new flat in Mulund on him and we took a rickshaw to his flat, finally reaching around 3.30 AM. There was no point in sleeping then, though we did manage to nap a bit. On Sundays the railway megablock usually begins at 8:00 AM and we wanted to be home before that. We finally groggily made it to the railway station at 6:00 AM. By 7:30 I was home, the door opened by my very surprised sis-in-law.
"Now isn't that a first?" She welcomed me in. "You are actually before time and by 12 hours."
I muttered something under my breath.
"What happened?"
"Not now. I need a shower and some sleep."
"Please tell."
"Or better. You wait for the story till I have had the time to post it to my blog."

There that would shut her up, I thought. Besides my sis-in-law is not that net savvy.

"Alright. That's the only way you will actually find a reader for what you write."

It was time to retreat and sleep and wait for my luck to change.


Anonymous said...

How do you do it Mandy? I beginning to believe that there's some truth to that "patron deity of airplanes is anti-me" theory of yours.

I wish I'd been able to see you running around the airport. I have NEVER seen you run. Come to think of it, I've never even seen you walk briskly!


mandar talvekar said...

TBJ, you forget. I always walked at your pace.

Anonymous said...

Hey Mandy,
I finally managed to read this humungous post....must say it was worth every bit of my precious time..... ;)