The recap, part 6: The long journey back

And then it was time to leave.

Just as I was starting to enjoy the private pool and the chocolate truffles and the prescription pain meds, Tuesday rolled around, my (supposed) last day in India. I was sad to leave Amruta and Sarah – especially since a good chunk of our time together was devoted to that whole medical emergency thing – but ready to reap one big reward from my stitches: the airport wheelchair.

I’m totally not kidding. I called on Sunday night to book it, thinking that if nothing else, it would be a great way to cut the lines if I was short on time.

“They can’t leave without the girl in the wheelchair,” Sarah reasoned. Exactly.

While I had the Continental guy on the phone, I asked him what the chances were our flight would actually take off as scheduled, at 11:35 p.m.

“I haven’t had a single flight out of Delhi take off on time,” I said, with a bit of the attitude that comes from surviving Fog Hell.

“Well, the one yesterday took off seven minutes late,” he said. Making me feel like somewhat of an asshole.

It wasn’t a complete surprise – Sarah and I had heard that the international flights were often better equipped to handle fog than domestic flights. I was also banking on the fact that the flight was one leg of a daily shuttle – meaning that Continental needed that plane to do the return trip from Newark to Delhi the next day. They had just as much of an interest in getting it out as I did – as opposed to, say, those unfeeling creeps at Spice Jet.

Sarah and I were actually doing the first leg of my trip back together: a flight from Cochi to Delhi. We had originally booked a flight that would have given me about 3.5 hours to make my connecting flight from Delhi to Newark but moved it up after realizing that even though the airports I was flying into and out of in Delhi were referenced identically, they were not, in fact, the same airport. Seriously, India, could you not just distinguish them in some way, shape or form on my reservation or ticket? Or maybe, I don’t know, give them different names?

Anyway, we had paid to switch the flight to an earlier time, albeit with a layover in Bangalore, so that I would have five hours to get my bags, drive the 6 km to the international airport and check in. When we got to the Cochi airport, the board said the flight was on time, and we patted ourselves on the back for being such knowledgeable Indian travelers.

Of course, as soon as we got up to the front of the Jetlite line (oh what? did you think there was automated anything in India? please) we were informed that our flight was delayed five hours. Giving me exactly enough time to miss my flight to the States.

Thankfully I was with Sarah. The combination of California native and professional consultant makes her an ideal travel buddy. She promptly informed the woman that that wouldn’t be working for us, thank you, and asked what the next flight to Delhi was. As luck would have it, there was a flight that was supposed to take off at 11 a.m. and was now departing around 3 p.m. (India Travel Lesson #1: Book flights for hours earlier than you actually want to leave.)

And guess who was flying said plane? Spicejet! Fab.

We ran over to the Spicejet booking office and were able to secure two seats, which was surprising considering most of the flights from Cochi to Delhi had filled up fast when we were looking originally. We also decided we were going to carry on all three of my bags (despite security guidelines to the contrary) so that I could get myself to the international airport as quickly as possible when we landed.

We hung out in the Cochi airport for a while, as our estimated time of (delayed) departure came and went. I met some guy from Oklahoma who was trying to catch the same flight to Delhi and had had to rebook too. I had an anxiety attack. I took a picture inside the Cochi airport (before being informed by Sarah that taking photos in airports in India is possibly more illegil than carrying on three bags.)

And then, miracle of miracles, we boarded.

The plane was oddly empty, enabling Sarah and I to secure a row for ourselves. A few minutes later, we learned  why. The flight was originally supposed to stop in Bombay, but since the fog in Delhi  had delayed the departure time, it was no longer going to make the layover. Because the Bombay airport is closed between 6 and 7 on Tuesdays. Didn’t you know? That makes perfect sense, India!

So all of the people who had originally booked the flight to Bombay had to cancel, seeing as it was no longer going there, leaving plenty of seats for Sarah and me. It almost seemed too good to be true. Spicejet had (almost) redeemed itself. I started to breathe a bit more normally, but assured Sarah I wouldn’t believe it until we were actually on the ground.

As it happened, we circled the Delhi airport for a good 45 minutes before landing. I actually laughed out loud, convinced God had reserved a special place in travel hell for me. I was kind of right – when we did actually land, we didn’t seem to be anywhere near an actual airport. Seriously. I don’t even know if we landed in Delhi itself. We taxied for at least 20 minutes – no buildings in site – before coming to a stop.

When the plane finally stopped moving, Sarah and I bolted out of our seats (specially selected to ensure quick access to the exit.) We found Bjinder quickly too, and got to the international airport without any trouble, even though a thick cloud of fog had already begun to descend on Delhi. Sarah and I considered grabbing a bite to eat together before I went through security, but after the circling and the taxiing, I wasn’t taking any chances. I gave her a hug and thanked her for my trip and said goodbye for what I thought was the last time.

I got to the Continental desk with so much time and in such good spirits, that I decided to nix the wheelchair. And I got through security and customs flawlessly – except for the security guard who felt the need to take a picture of me with my camera.

Just to check that it wasn’t…fake? Really had that 2.7 inch vari-angle LCD screen? (For the record, it does. And it really is as cool as it sounds.)

Also, yes, I have a Coach passport holder. Don’t judge me.

Anyway, the international airport was a bit more claustrophic than the domestic airport. I was surprised by how small it was – there were only a handful of gates, and most of the flights were headed to other Asian destinations. I got a Subway sandwich and read an old issue of the New Yorker still crammed into my bag. I started chatting with the Oklahoma guy from my earlier flight. I learned he was a physician’s assistant (graduated in December, but still) and promptly pulled up my pant leg and ripped off the guaze to have him examine my stitches. Which he affirmed appeared to be…stitches.

I also started chatting with a nice woman from LA who sat down next to me. Our conversation quickly turned to fog (obviously) and she mentioned that she had barely made it here too, after her train from Calcutta was delayed 12 hours.

I sympathized with her travel travails and assured her that the Delhi-Newark flight last night was only seven minutes late, confident in my superior fog knowledge and analysis abilities.

“But there wasn’t any fog last night,” the LA woman said. “It descended this morning.”

Right. Of course. Could it really have gone any other way?

The answer, my friends, is no. By the time the inevitable airport closure came, delaying our flight until the next afternoon, I had once again entered that zen-like state reminiscent of my first attempt to leave Delhi. I was a pro at this. All around me, people were freaking out – an Indian woman yelling at a Continental representative, a chaperone of some school trip yelling at her charges and – my personal favorite – a guy named Stan Rosenbloom yelling into his cell phone.

“THIS IS STAN ROSENBLOOM! THIS IS STAN ROSENBLOOM!” he kept saying, as if calling from inside a fire. “MY FLIGHT HAS BEEN CANCELED. I NEED HELP. I AM BY GATE 4.”

Oh, Stan. First of all, the flight hasn’t been canceled. Yeah, a 16-hour delay isn’t ideal, but trust me when I tell you that you couldn’t handle “canceled” and all the shit that comes along with it. Not in a million years and five trips to Agra. Second of all, that driver or business contact you’re talking to? CAN’T COME GET YOU AT GATE 4. That’s the gate we were supposed to DEPART FROM. Like, past security. You’re going to try to have to make it out of the airport yourself.

Which, actually, was harder than you might think. Things were pretty chaotic – they had closed the whole airport, so all the evening flights were bumped until the next day. Hundreds of confused people were packed together, trying to funnel through checkpoint after checkpoint with their bags, stepping around dozens of people who had given up hope hours earlier and just made their beds on the airport floors. Those of us leaving first had to go back through security (just to make sure that the weapons that made it past security in the first place weren’t be taken out of the building? Isn’t that where you want them?) And security in India isn’t a joke – it’s a full pat-down for each person, women inside a makeshift booth with a female security guard. Everyone’s bags get searched too – generally twice before you can get on the plane.

Next, we had to go back through customs. I am now the proud owner of a crossed out passport stamp – undoubtedly one of my coolest souvenirs from India. And so representative of my trip, no? Like, I almost left! But no dice.

When we finally made our way through the windowless labyrinth that is the Delhi airport (not to be confused with the other Delhi airport), we emerged onto some sketchy back parking lot. Continental had buses parked in the fog, ready to take people to a hotel. But instead of risking it, I decided just to go back to Sarah’s. Some airport official used his cell phone to call Sarah’s driver and give him directions to exactly where I was. Needless to say, Bjinder was not so happy to see me.

Walking into Sarah’s apartment for the third time after I was supposed to have left was kind of surreal. I saw her for a few minutes (another “goodbye,” not even really believing it this time) and then headed to bed to try to get a few hours sleep. My flight was already been delayed until 2:30 p.m. (that’s nearly 15 hours for those of you keeping score at home) but I was super petrified that Continental was going to pull some shit and take off earlier without me. So I woke up pretty early and monitored the Continental Web site vigilantly. It looked like everything was a go for 2:30. I headed back to the airport.

This time, Stan Rosenbloom’s warnings of Armageddon actually seemed appropriate. The airport was a mess – everyone from last evening’s canceled flights were sandwiched alongside everyone from today’s scheduled flights. Customs took nearly two hours. By that point my leg was actually starting to throb and I began regretting ditching the brilliant wheelchair plan, or at least not going in the disabled line. After some quiet pouting and a desperate plea to an unmoved airport worker (“I can’t help you”), I turned to full-blown tears and mumbled something about stitches. Sure enough, a trio of British girls let me go ahead of them.

Security wasn’t that bad (although I was getting sick of asking the guards to please not pat my shin so hard) but the gates were even worse than customs. People were sprawled out everywhere and all the chairs had long since been taken. I plopped down on the ground, displaying an over-pronounced pout and letting a tear or two linger on my cheek. I also may or may not have strategically rolled up my pant leg to reveal my wound. Still, no one moved form their coveted perches.

That was because none of their flights were taking off. It didn’t seem like any planes were getting out at all. 2:30 came and went.

I was about ready to submit to full-blown tears when I spotted this short, flamboyent Continental worker from the previous night (the image of him screaming out the Continental phone number over and over again at the belligerent crowd will surely stay with me forever), holding a giant Continental sign.

I jumped up and ran over to him, asking breathlessly if the flight to Newark was boarding (the board still had it listed as “delayed” and at a different gate.) And lo and behold, he affirmed that it was boarding from a new gate and yes I could proceed to pre-flight security and I’m pretty sure at that point I clapped.

I went through the second security check (yes, they do a full security check – carry-on search and all – before you can enter the plane) before realizing I was the only one holding a Continental boarding pass in a sea full of Malaysian Air tickets. Everywhere I turned, there was a Malaysian air passenger. It just didn’t seem right.

I remember repeating “I don’t want to go to Malaysia. I don’t want to go to Malaysia” like a mantra. I remember finally spotting Oklahoma Guy and LA Lady further back in line. And then I was pushed into a little bus and zoomed toward a big plane that a flight attendant affirmed was bound for New Jersey.

I probably don’t even have to tell you that I was seated next to an annoying three year-old with a grandmother who immediately designated me the de facto babysitter. Kid was legitimately running up and down the aisles as we were taking off. (Flight attendant over loud speaker: “Please. Pick. Up. The. Little. Boy. NOW”)

I probably also don’t have to tell you that immediately after takeoff I went and found myself a new seat in a deserted row toward the back. (Those 16 hour delays really free up seats.)

This time, I didn’t even bother with the Ambien. I didn’t bust out my neck pillow. I don’t even think I used my ipod. Instead, I ticked down the 15 airborne hours with reruns of Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations and What Not To Wear – anything to stop myself from thinking. I wasn’t ready to rehash the trip in my head, evaluate my epiphanies, even check my wound. All I wanted, all I could think about, was getting to New Jersey.

Previously

The recap, part 1

The recap, part 2

The recap, part 3

The recap, part 4

The recap, part 5

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