Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Notes From My India Business Trip

Notes From My India Business Trip
Martin Bodek
It’s well known that New York City is known as the Capital of the World. Some of you might even know that Brazil is called the Lungs of the World. Today, I’m declaring India the Porta-potty of the World.
I’m qualified to make this designation, as I’m a runner, and I spend approximately 3% of my running time huddled inside one of them, so I understand them well, and I can defend this comparison.
Now before I describe to you this biggest culture-shock of my life, I have to first describe what it took for me to get there:
1.       Visa: the visa application process for India is about as pleasurable as the stuff in Sayid Jarrah’s professional toolkit (two points if you can place the name). I had to produce eleven different pieces of documentation of various sorts to earn it. It’s like they really don’t want you to visit, and only accept applicants who are desperate. My company expected me to go, so I guess I qualified as desperate. Thank you, Alan B., for all your help with this.
2.       Drugs: I am now hepatitis immune for life, typhoid immune for five years, and have a travel doctor at beck and call for malaria drugs every time I intend to visit. Had I scheduled to interact with livestock in any way, I’d be pumped with so much drugs, it would concuss me.
3.       Movies: apparently, I had to watch Lion before entering India. So I did, as you’ll see below.
Now then:
Day 1, Thursday, Getaway:
Late at night, my entire family drives me to the airport to see me off. I don’t think they feel this is the last time they’ll see me, but perhaps they feel it’s the last time they’ll see me hep/typhoid/malaria free, and I’ll return a zombie. I’ll do my best to come back as dear old dad and hubby.
I get through security pretty swiftly. I’m only belittled, berated, and scolded twice, down from the 4.7 average most others experience. This is an EWR specialty.
Turns out, the actress Julianne Moore is joining me for the flight. Interesting.
I wind up seated next to a manspreader, but I have my own personal air on this Virgin Atlantic Airbus A330, and that neck thing, so it’s all good.
Day 2, Friday, Gotaway:
As the clock turns to midnight, I turn into a pumpkin as my usual inability to sleep takes hold. I love flight. Flight is the coolest thing in the world. Flight is awesome. Flight makes me sweat. I watch Logan to pass the time. It is the angriest, roughest action movie ever created. Nothing comes close.
I land at Heathrow and learn – after asking 24 people – that Uber has a very specific spot for pickup, is different for each terminal, and has no signage for you whatsoever. Because I’m such a helpful guy, I’ll cut-and-paste the details here:
T2 | Level 4: Row H | Wait for your driver at Short Stay Car Park 2
T3 | Level 3: Row A | Wait for your driver at Short Stay Car Park 3
T4 | Level 2: Central Lifts | Wait for your driver at Short Stay Car Park 4
T5 | Level 1: Row R | Wait for your driver at Short Stay Car Park 5
Now you’re ready for your London trip.
Back to me, though:
I make it to my aunt and uncle in Hendon, have a quick breakfast, and collapse for a three-hour nap. My body felt like it did after three days of color war in camp. In my middle-aged body, it now takes far less sleeplessness to produce the same amount of exhaustion.
Shabbos comes in, and we have a lovely meal at another aunt and uncle. I turn into a pumpkin again, and arrive back at my digs well past midnight for a second collapse.
Day 3, Shabbos, Chill:
I awake refreshed, acclimated to the lag of the jets, and enjoy a nice davening along with a great leining job by the Bar Mitzvah boy, a lunch at my aunt’s sister, with a good family that’s great friends with my in-laws (it’s quite the social butterfly weekend!), and tuck in for a two-hour nap. These naps are key, as I’m going to have to acclimate twice.
I have shalashudous with a cousin of mine. Then, after Shabbat, I watch “footy” with a few more rowdy cousins before hitting the sack, and grabbing a 5.5-hour nap, which is the longest Saturday morning nap of my life, considering my running lifestyle.
At least three times during the day, I’m told to watch the movie Lion on my flight into India. Check!
Day 4, Sunday, Here We Go:
I head out for an 11.2-mile run from Hendon, over the highest point above sea level in all of London, and down, down, down into Regents Park, then back from whence I came. Whew. Tough. And next time I’ll go all the way to the River Tims, er, Thames.
While in the park, I have a need for the loo, but it’s going to cost me 20p to pee. I don’t have 20p to pee. I have no p at all to pee. I’m p-less, so no pee. But I have to pee, so I get inside to pee, p or no pee. I just won’t tell you how. I’m not proud.
Back to the highest point in London and down, down, down back into Hendon. I pit-stop at Orli’s for breakfast, and have myself a massive helping of everything. I deserve every calorie.
I re-pack everything I’ve unpacked, which isn’t much. The 97% of stuff I’ve not touched is all kosher food, because there’s none of that where I’m headed.
I visit my wife’s grandmother before leaving. She’s 95, praise God, and she’s doing okay. Good to see her.
A quick lunch. A visit from another cousin (How many are there?), and I’m off to the airport.
I’ve been stressing out about where my bags will end up with all my hops, but I think I finally have it all figured out, but I have to hurry.
At Heathrow I Facetime with the kiddies, which reminds me to stock them all up on their favorite European chocolates.
Premium Economy on a British Airways 787 is nice.
Day 5, Monday, Here I Am, Kolkata, of All Places:
I watch Lion, like everybody told me to, and I am just blown completely away. You’ve got to see this movie. Got to. As I watch, I wonder if it reflects the reality of life in Kolkata (What, you’re still spelling it “Calcutta”? It hasn’t been that since 2001).
Let me not keep you in suspense. It does. Oh yes, does it. As you’ll see.
My plane left late, and this is my first connecting flight ever, and I’m entirely stressed out, but keeping cool, but the plane lands early, so we’re all even.
I land in Delhi Airport. The carpet looks like it’s from the Catskills.
The soda machines don't take credit cards. Arrrgh, I’m thirsty, and if you think I’m grabbing anything from a water fountain, then you’re out of your mind.
So an interesting thing happens, that you need to be aware of if you travel this way. I landed in an India airport, right? And I was traveling from the UK, right? So I’m an International Traveler, right? And I should follow those signs to know where to go, right?
Because I’m switching to a flight into the same country, I’m officially a Domestic Traveler.
And boy, did I just save you a headache. Believe you me.
I get a bucket-of-bolts plane for Leg 3 of my journey, a Jet Airways 737. They forgot to turn on the AC, during pre-flight, flight, and post-flight. I lose twenty pounds in sweat, but I did manage to secure water before my flight, something you should always do.
Oh, and you can’t follow that advice anymore anyway, because now they confiscate all water at the gate, after you’ve already purchased it in the terminal, because the TSA, or whatever they’re called here, has lost all sense of reality.
As I’m flying, it strikes me that it’s 9/11, and that I’m not only flying on one plane today, I’m actually flying on two. Also, I’m flying directly over Pakistan and Afghanistan, and boy, does that realization give me pause and reflection.
Kosher food is available only on international flights on Jet Airways, I learn. No worries, plenty in my bag.
When I land, I am further from home than I’ve ever been. I’m 8,000 miles away. The time difference is 10.5 hours. I am almost literally on the other side of the world from my family. Hong Kong would be the exact other side of the world for me, with a 12-hour difference. I actually might go there on business.
I exit the back of the plane. I haven’t done that in a long time.
I get my bags pretty quickly! Woohoo! 3 fights down, 3 to go!
My work contact picks me up immediately. Good man.
And now I’m in Kolkata, the place so broke, so beyond help, that Chabad’s closest office is the other side of the country. I’m not kidding about that.
As for how it looks, hooboy, Lion was right on the money, as is any popular Indian movie you may have seen. Slumdog Millionaire comes to mind.
There are cows everywhere. You have to try to imagine how bizarre this is. They’re as ubiquitous as cats or squirrels, and you cannot escape them. So, for the remainder of this narrative, please understand that any time I’m driving in a car, or heck, when I’m out of doors, there’s a cow there. No, twenty cows. Cows everywhere. Cows as far as the eye can see. Visibility: cows.
I see slums with my own eyes. These things are awful to see, and painful to look at. Houses for miles at a stretch are made of sticks and garbage bags. Every structure looks like it’s half-built before its builder gave up. What kind of life is this?
That’s the housing. The roads? Everything is piled in, and the lane markings are just suggestions. Thrown into the mix are buses, cars, rickshaws, thousands of cows, dogs, and humans. Why humans? There are no sidewalks! How does anyone ever survive? And every random interval or so, sawhorses are plunked down to slow traffic. Yikes!
So I look it up: yep, India has the highest incidents of road death in the world. Now isn’t that lovely.
There are also swastikas everywhere, especially on furniture. I totally get that the symbol was appropriated, and that it’s a symbol of good luck here, but it is nevertheless jarring.
Where, when I arrive, I’m politely asked if this is my first time in India. First time in India? This is my first time on this continent!
I pray for my life on the ride to the hotel too. Get this: at 10 PM, the traffic lights turn off, and it’s a free-for-all.
Wait, what?
Yeah, you heard me right.
Now here’s another wackadoodle thing about Kolkata:
In other major cities, you have your urban centers, and generally speaking, you have your impoverished places in the surrounding area.
Not so Kolkata. Oh no. The poor and the rich are all mixed together. It’s major business hub, slum, slum, major business hub, major business hub, slum, slum, and so on. A mish-mash of classes.
We arrive at my 5-star hotel, five feet from one of the many local slums, and our bags are x-rayed upon entry. This will be the deal every single time.
The service in this hotel is insane. The culture is poilte and obeisant enough, but pile five stars on top of that? Holy moley, it’s too much. I really don’t need my backpack plucked off me so that it can be returned to me in my hotel room, thank you very much. Also, I’m happy to exchange for rupees right here at the desk. You don’t have to deliver it to my room. Cripes, dude, stop following me, but yes, namaskar to you too, for the four-hundredth time.
Everything on TV is bizarre.
I catch up on work and life e-mail, chat with the family, shower, eat a wife-provided meal, and conk out.
I’m in Kolkata.
How did I ever manage to be here? I never woulda thought it. Seriously, of all the countries I figured I’d like to visit, this was nowhere near the top 192 of my list.
Day 6, Tuesday, I’m Still in Kolkata, of All Places:
I FaceTime with the kids, who are going to sleep the night before - or is it tonight? I can’t figure it out. This is confusing.
I head to the gym for a morning run. I thought to run outside, but there are no sidewalks! Also, I might hit a cow and cause an international incident! Also, there’s a putrid stink that’s ever-present in the morning, and I’d like to breathe while running, so the gym it is, where I crank out a 5k, and start my day.
A quick FaceTime with my wife boosts my morning, as do the Chocolate Frosted Sugar Bombs she’s packed for me.
I daven, mostly for my personal safety, and I’m off to work.
A sign on the road says this is an Accident Prone Zone. Oh really? I hadn’t noticed. This whole country must be an accident prone zone. YOU TURN YOUR TRAFFIC LIGHTS OFF AT 10 PM!!!
The buses honk in shvarum-truha.
I learn that there’s no formal organized waste management organization in this city. Every company fends for itself, as does every human. This is horrifying. No wonder it’s just an ocean of filth and trash and people with no clothes (no exaggeration) hanging out, staring into empty space. My heart breaks.
Know how every city has a dump? This city *is* a dump. I don’t mean to rag on this place, but it’s the reality. This is the 6th largest economy in the world, and they don’t take out the garbage? What the heck is up with this?
Work is in a different building today, and we drive past more galling poverty to make our way there.
Suddenly, we’re in a jungle. Mmmkay. But lo, a clearing! It’s as if we drove through the Lost City of Z, and someone built a business center in a clearing. I cover every inch of my body in Jungle Special Mosquito Spray. No really, that’s the name.
Mid-day, we switch buildings. I have to walk through open air. The mosquitos attack, but it’s like I’m in a bubble. I’m so layered with the spray that they don’t bother me, but they do bother my coworkers who weren’t as cautious. Survival of the fittest.
The ride home is more heartbreaking and painful. This is like District 9. I’m looking for an apt comparison, but it’s just piles of filth, and people hanging around on piles of flith, and houses are really just piles of filth with holes for entry. I don’t understand this.
For night activity, the team heads to a restaurant on foot, past slum, slum, business center, slum.
This restaurant is one of the three or four working establishments in a blasted, hollowed-out, Beiruted mall that looks like The Blues Brothers drove through and nobody repaired anything. How does this place function when only a few stores are open in the complex? What’s the rent for that?
The restaurant’s name?: “Oh! Calcutta!” I see what they did there.
My wife, via text, helps me figure out which beverage is kosher round these parts. One particular beer. I’ll take it.
They offer me ice. Yeah, I don’t think so. Ice is made of your water, pal. Have you seen your city’s water and sewage systems?
For the main, my co-workers have whatever they’re having. I’ve brought with me a self-cooking meal, which blows everyone’s minds. Especially mind-blown is our British Army Operation Desert Storm vet, who’s never seen anything like it in his life, which is a bit surprising to me.
Did I mention I’m sweating to death? I order the ice just so I can hold the glass under my chin to get some cooling going.
I get my answers to many of economics and politics question, but they don’t satisfy me.
At least my general cow question is answered, as to where they come from (They all have owners! And they return home every night!) and where they’re going (To find grazing land, and return home once satisfied), and if killing one is a sin (Not really, but they’d feel bad).
I should mention Indian eating habits now.
On second thought, maybe I shouldn’t. It isn’t pretty, trust me on that.
On third thought, there’s at least one I have to share with you.
You know how, in most western civilizations, we dip our breads into our spreads?
It’s different here. Mmhm. They grab their spreads and slather them onto their breads. I nearly lost my beer, self-warming meal, and ice when I saw this. Holy, uh, cow.
I should also mention how they clean up.
Now this one’s a doozy.
Suddenly, ala the scene in India Jones when they serve all the monkey brains, a million waiters appear, with bowls, with urine-called water inside them, with a sponge floating in the middle. Everyone puts their spread-caked hands on the sponges, squeezes them, shakes off their hands, and gets a towel from the waiters.
Oh, that was interesting. Gross, but interesting.
We leave the restaurant after 10 PM, which means the traffic lights are off, which means there’s absolute mayhem on the roads.
Did I mention there are no sidewalks?
I choose a path closest to safety, right behind a cow, who’s getting all the respect and space he needs.
I finally get back to my room, alive.
Day 7, Wednesday, I’m Still Among the Living:
I do a 5.3k on the treadmill. Streets are still unsafe, and the morning stink is still awful.
Whaddya know? Jungle Special Mosquito Spray stains clothing. Well that’s nice to know.
Speaking of the jungle, back to it I go.
I tell you, you can feel the heat in this country in four dimensions. It is all-encompassing and, frankly, almost debilitating. Everyone’s a sweaty mess, and depending on your choice of shirt for the day, you can appear anywhere from mostly put-together but suffering, to having an active bout with a meat grinder.
The fact that I’m still alive despite this vehicular madness makes me ponder why this is so. You’ve seen the YouTube clips of traffic in India, right? The insane dance where no one manages to get hit? It’s real, but why? How does no one die hourly?
I think there’s some sort of hive cooperation going on. Despite appearances and disparate modes, it moves like a school of fish, all bending and flexing with each other in sync. It’s like the weird cooperational movement that happens in a roundabout (I’m talking about Europeans, not Americans. Americans don’t have a clue), and there’s a dance that seems to work smoothly. There isn’t much honking, or road rage. There’s just consistent movement. I think everyone looks out for himself, and everyone else, so everyone can get to their destinations. I call it Interdependent Dependence.
Did I just overanalyze that? Maybe, but I’m just happy to continue existing.
There’s a national festival coming up, whose name I couldn’t pronounce if I tried, and all different sorts of infrastructure is being prepared.
I notice the workers paint with their hands. Interesting.
I also notice that scaffolding is made of…schach! For those that don’t recognize that word in print: bamboo! Also interesting.
Onward we drive through more of this hellish, impoverished wasteland. We’re in the Small Business District, where people sit inside of shops that are entirely empty. You can’t even tell what they’re selling. They’re literally selling nothing. Is every shack a front for something? Wait, those three huts are the bus depot? You’re joking, right? 1.3 billion people are happy living here?
Guess how much my 5-star hotel costs per evening, in American dollars? Good guess: $116.
Back I go through Povertyville to get there. I can’t look. I can’t look away.
I go for a quick tiyul in the shvitz. See, I like sweating on purpose, but hate sweating involuntarily.
I spend 1.5 hours putting my flights in order. I’m nervous about the way back, and I’ve got to control what I can control and let go of what I can’t.
Exhausted from the day, I then sort through the bizarre on TV to settle on some classic chopsocky movie (The 27 Steps or the The 42 Ladders, or something like that) where everyone overacts and acts surprised when anything happens. There is no other kind.
I then watch the opening credits of For Your Eyes Only, and I have no what happens next until I wake up in the morning.
Day 8, Thursday, I’m Still Not Used to Kolkata:
A 6.2k run on the hotel treadmill to start the day. Playing on the telly is a weird sport that looks like machanyim, but competitors are grabbing at the ankles of the guy with the ball. Only the ankles, and it’s 20-on-1, in many cases. The sport is ungooglable, but I’ll find out later.
Back at the room, I FaceTime with the kiddies, who are having lunch, or are sleeping in middle of the night. I’m so confused.
I pack, and hit the road again with my assigned driver.
I note that “Lemon” is the name of a car manufacturer in India. I’m serious.
A sign says lane changes are not allowed. Really? Can you show me these “lanes” you refer to? What lanes? Clearly, you’re joking.
Now, in my notes recording my trip, I wrote, “Exclamation point Hindu.” I have no idea what that means, but I’m leaving it here just in case I remember. I hope it wasn’t racist or offensive.
Work done. Off to the airport.
Now you thought that Lemon was a funny name for a car, right? Well guess what, there’s a restaurant here named Barfi. I kid you not.
I can’t get used to all these swastikas.
And now we come to the most incredible part of the journey, the coup de grace, the One Adventure to Rule Them All.
You may stop reading at this point, but you’d be missing something. For those who wish to continue coming along with me, here we go. We are now going to spend the next 29 hours either in an airport or on an airplane. We’re going to queue up in 83 different security lines, we’re going to haggle with people, we’re going to stress out over bags and other things, we’re going to scratch the skin off our own faces, we are going to get exhausted beyond repair. There’s going to be an actual fire. This is going to hurt. Oh yeah, let’s do this.
The first thing that happens to me is the first time this happens to me: I have arrived too early for the airport to deal with me. This has never happened to me before. This might have happened to you, but for me it was unexpected. I arrived four hours before my flight, because I’ve got questions about my bags, and nobody will talk to me.
I waste my time queueing up before I’m turned away. Defeated, at least I can get some swing tags on my bags, right?
This is how the conversation goes:
“Okay, I’ll be back once I see my flight up on screen. Can I have some of those swing tags, please?”
“No sir, we do not require them.”
“Uh, that’s fine, but I’d just like to cover my bases, just in case.”
“But we do not need them, sir.”
“But…I would like them.”
“No sir, it is not our policy.”
“But it’s my policy to do what I can to make sure my bags come home. “
“Yes, but we do not require these to track your bags.”
“Okay, I collect swing tags as souvenirs. Can I have a couple?”
“No sir, we do not require them.”
“Then why do you have them at all?”
“Okay, I’ll be back later.”
I then note that a few desks over, someone new has shown up at her desk, with no queue lined up yet. I jump over and tell her I know I’m too early, but can I have some swing tags, please. I then have a near repeat of the conversation I just had with her colleague. What in the heck is the deal with these people?
Finally, they’re ready to help me out, and I ask my million questions about where my bags (I’m going from Kolkata to New Delhi to Toronto to Newark) are ending up, to which I get conflicting responses I have no confidence about, so I just pray. Nothing else I can do.
Then the insane happens.
Resolved to never see my bags again, I queue up at security, when suddenly:
Smoke is pouring into the terminal from the area behind security, alarms are blaring, people are running, giant exhaust fans flip on. It’s chaos.
Me? I’m in disbelief at these circumstances. Forget about my bags getting home, how about me getting home?
I’m stressed out, so I FaceTime with my family, because that helps. They all share in my disbelief, and I have a nice calming chat.
Suddenly again, the all-clear is sounded, and I join the sea of humanity at the security line. Somehow, we get through in some kind of orderly fashion, and I still have ample time to spare.
I finally get to my gate, which is a glass door padlocked with a bicycle lock. High tech. Nice.
I park myself down, and plug in my laptop so I can process some e-mail.
And I short out all power on the wall I’ve plugged into. Everyone looks at me like I did something wrong.
Well isn’t this great.
I back away slowly. Forget my email. I just want to get home. Heck, I just wanna get away from this accursed airport first. One hop at a time.
A tech comes along, flips a switch, and the power returns. Three minutes later, a fellow comes along, plugs in his laptop, and boom, there goes the power again.
This is ridiculous.
Additionally, all signs disagree with everything the website says about the flight, and both disagree with everything airport personnel is telling me. Usually, two of three agree, but here no one and nothing is on the same page.
Seriously speaking, do I have to say one Tefilas Haderech for this journey, or three?
I need to get out of here.
I get out of here, on a quick 2.5-hour Air India 32B flight and land back in New Delhi. My bags, presumably, are being carried over to my next plane, but I can’t worry about that now, because I have one hour and twenty-five minutes to make it to my next flight – and if I miss it, oh man, I don’t wanna think about that.
Now I have a big problem, a very big problem: by the time I got off the plane, and ran through the long corridor to this room, a lot of time burned away. Now I have 45 minutes to my flight, and judging by the oceans of people between me and the security desk, it’s going to take me at least 46 minutes to get through this room.
I need to think fast.
I need a plan.
A plan develops before I even have a chance to figure out if it’ll work, or what the benefits and detriments might be. It just happens. This is what I do:
Step 1, Scope:
I espy a security desk for Crew Only, with one guy sitting there all lonely. Noted.
Step 2, Grab Anyone:
I find an airport employee closest to me. He’s got a badge and whatnot. He’ll do. I approach:
“Excuse me, would you know if there’s a faster way I might be able to clear this room? My connecting flight leaves in 45 minutes, and I don’t think I can get through the room – then security – in time. Then I actually have to run to the gate.”
“Hmmmm, I don’t think so. You’ll have to line up with everyone, I’m afraid.”
“But I don’t really think I can make it. I just need some help. Maybe there’s a faster way?”
“I don’t think so, sir, but I think you’ll make it. Give it a try. I think it’ll work out.”
That’s fine. Not defeated.
Step 3, Horsepucky and Gumption (note that there are crasser ways to say those phrases, but we’ll keep it clean):
I approach the lone crew-clearance guy, lonely at the desk.
“Hello sir, I know I’m not supposed to be on this line, but I flagged down an airport security fellow outside this room, and he advised that in order to make my connecting flight, I might be able to clear with you. I’m hoping he’s right. Can we do that?”
“Who said you could come here?”
“I’m not sure. I don’t see him now, but I did give him my facts, and he said I could approach you, considering my emergency.”
In reality, the guy I flagged down was just 10 feet away, but this part of the plan was to pretend I don’t see him.
“Usually, for an exception like this, a guard would escort you here.”
“I did see him get called away, but he did say I could come here. Again, I’m just asking to clear with you, please, so I can make my plane. Clearly, as you can see, I can’t make it through this room in time.”
“Okay, documents look good. Enjoy your flight.”
Woohoo! I give myself such a pat on the back, I practically bowl myself over.
Okay, now just gotta get past security, and then I have to run.
Security was interested in my phone chargers, but not so interested that they delayed me much. In India airports they make you step up on to a box so they can wand you. Interesting.
Okay, I’m now past security. I gotta fly now, so I can fly soon.
Urrrrgh, there are a million shops between me and even the first gate! Outta my way!
My flight is gate 1-15. Great, terminal probably starts at 1-1, and I have to run all the way to the end.
No! I don’t! 1-15 is the very first gate past all the shops! Woohoo! I make it to the desk with just 15 minutes to spare.
If I hadn’t concocted my plan, there is no way in the world that I would have made this plane. There would have been no chance whatsoever.
But I made it. Here I am. Me and my Air Canada 787. We’re gonna get along just fine for the next, oh my gosh, 14 hours and 25 minutes. Hooboy, that’s a long one.
I grab my window seat, and make fast friends with the fella next to me. Name’s Bill.
Boy, I tell ya, Premium Economy is heaven. I don’t know how a human could survive 14.5 hours in coach.
Day 9, Friday, Clicking My Heels Furiously:
I actually manage to grab a few naps, which is something I’m rarely able to do.
In movie news, I watch Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, and a good time was had by all. I then watched Alien, one on a short list of movies I actually have never seen, and got the wee-willickers from it. I kid you not. Good film.
Several times during the night - or is it day? I can’t tell with this snazzy Dreamliner simulation window – I need the boy’s room, so I just walk right past my seatmate, never bothering him. I got no problem with these seats whatsoever.
We land in Pearson International, in Toronto, Canada, and I have only one question on my mind: where are my bags?
Back in India, I must have asked this of at least 9 people, and gotten 6 different answers, because the permutations were so varied. All I knew for sure was that they would go from Kolkata to New Delhi, and that they’d be on my plane into Toronto. After that, nobody could tell me, so now I have to find out.
There are only two possibilities: they are following me home and I don’t have to worry about anything, or they are not, and I have to pick them up, and possibly miss my flight.
Which will it be?
I ask every person I can find along the way, until finally I’m asked to stand in a line to board the next plane. Two nice helpy helperton ladies advise me that I should rest assured, my bags are following me along to EWR. I ask if that can be right, as I’ve entered a new country with my bags, and they probably need to be picked up, and I might be on the wrong line.
Nonono, I’m certainly not, they say. In Pearson, we have a process where as you’re waiting to board your plane, you see your bags go by on a conveyor belt, and you confirm they’re yours, and you press a nice button, and on to the plane you and your bags go.
Most assuredly.
Brow-beaten, I submit. I don’t see any of my bags. Where are my bags? I’m supposed to see my bags, right? I place my boarding pass in the reader thingie, and it honks, then tells me to see the service desk.
Okay, so I see the service desk, who politely tell me I can’t board, because I have to pick up my bags.
On my way to pick up my bags, I spot the two helpy helperton ladies, and I politely tell them they gave me the wrong information. I’ll almost certainly miss my flight because my bags weren’t transferring as they told me it would, thank you very much.
They’re stunned, and they apologize, but they do say that India should have sent it all the way through – which they’re probably wrong about.
As I stand over the conveyor waiting for my bags, my flight takes off. I think this is the first plane I’ve ever missed.
Fortunately, I have plenty backups here, and once I gather my bags, I approach the desk, give them my story, and they give me a new flight to board.
Everything will work out. It was inevitable I’d miss one of the six flights I’ve experienced on this trip, and if I did have to miss one, this would be the preferred one. I’ll take it. There are many options to get home from Toronto on a Friday morning.
I grab a coffee, and relax at the gate. I FaceTime with my kids and promise them I’ll be home soon, if fate can get me there.
I board an Air Canada Embraer 175, and finally, we’re ready to go, and I’m headed home, right?
The plane, humming away as usual, shuts off.
What’s going on?
The captain’s voice comes over the loudspeakers:
“Uh, as you can see, we’ve shut down the plane. If you look out the window you can see that birds have suddenly decided to circle our engines, so we need to do this as a safety precaution.”
True enough, there’s a flock of birds flying around the starboard wing, with professional Bird Shooers on the job.
Once they do their good  work, we re-fire up that sucker and we’re on our way, finally headed for home.
For good measure, I spot my own house from the airplane. Never done that before. Finding the five-minutes-away-Meadowlands is easy. My own house? Hard.
Touchdown, and my bags followed me wee, wee, wee all the way home.
Ajesh Ubers me home, a nice Indian fellow, with whom I reminisce about the trip. I ask him about that sport I saw where they’re grabbing each other’s legs.
Turns out it’s “Kabadi.” Interesting.
Home sweet home, with hugs from everybody. I made it back alive.
I post this to Facebook:
“I'm back home from India:
16,837 miles
36.5 flight hours
29 consecutive hours in the air or airport for the way home.
8 days
7 airport visits
6 flights
5 airports
4 countries
3 continents
2 pieces of luggage that followed me all the way
1 heckuva trip
0 mosquito bites (pshew!)”
I’m headed back in a few months. Yikes, let me exhale first!